Sparrow 18

There is a blogger I follow on Instagram who put out a book last year, Ruth Chou Simons from Gracelaced. I’ve followed her for a couple of years.

Before and during the beginning of the my depression, her words and art gave me comfort and hope. But I’ve hardly been reading any of her stuff lately. It’s full of Christian-ese, with language that I’ve come to find off putting and almost triggering. I’ve thought multiple times that maybe I should stop following her — but I haven’t.

Friday she posted that she’s in town for a women’s conference, Sparrow. I’ve seen this conference being promoted over the past month but my knee jerk reaction is “not for me”, and if I’m really honest a “hell no”.

***

One of the main partners of this conference is a local mega church. This church has just left a bad taste in my mouth. I know lots of people who go to this church, or have been members in the past. Many of them are my same age/stage/demographic. They are good people. Really. But I’ve found that my thinking and view of the world often differs from theirs, dramatically. I definitely have different theological beliefs than this church. I have found much of their teaching oppressive and lacking in grace and compassion — this is something I am very sensitive to — I know many people who would disagree with me on this point. Over the past 7 years or so, I’ve intentionally distanced myself from The Evangelical Church. In doing so, I have also ended up distancing myself from the people who identify with that culture. I have very much “othered” myself from this group. In my mind and heart, I have made them the “them” in a polarizing narrative of us versus them.

***

Back to Friday. I click on the conference’s instagram page, I can’t even tell you why, but I scroll through. They use the word reconcile. A lot. This is something that keeps coming up for me and I am passionate about racial reconciliation in America. So I keep looking. Then I see this post with a song that they’ve written about racial reconciliation. I’m trying to figure out why I am simultaneously drawn to the idea of going to this conference and also repulsed. As I’m talking though it with my husband, the word trust comes out of my mouth. He points it out to me; I hadn’t even noticed. It is so accurate. I just simply do not trust them, as they are a part of the evangelical church culture. I don’t trust them to do the “real” work of racial reconciliation. I don’t trust them because they’ve been silent in the face of racial injustice. I don’t trust them because they’ve been silent in the face of sexual abuse. I don’t trust them to show up and take a stand for anything expect the rights of the unborn. I don’t trust them because of my own wounds from the evangelical church. And because of all the damage they’ve done to others.

Flat out, I don’t trust them.

I justify it by saying look at their churches demographics. Look at the people they hire, and what leadership roles are given to whom. Where’s the fruit?

And it hits me, oh maybe THIS is the fruit. I mean, the list of speakers is racially diverse. And one of their mission statements reads “ Sparrow exists to catalyze the next generation of reconciles”. So I think, maybe…

image

***

But… it’s called “sparrow” y’all. It’s all very light pink. If I were to ever name a women’s conference, I’d choose something like “lioness”, or “badass women”, or my fav from Glennon Doyle “love warriors”. I’m just not the sparrow/light pink type that churches tend to want their women to look like. The thing is, I actually like light pink! I like so many colors. I’m just tired of being told what I ought to be in order to be the most palatable or acceptable to other people.

***

Still, I’m drawn to go. I want to see what people and especially people of God are doing in this realm of racial reconciliation. I want to see it. I want to see what it is I have to offer. How I can get involved. Where I might fit. Or even what’s missing, so I can fill a need there.

It’s now 7pm. From my couch at home, I buy a ticket right as the conference begins.

I show up more than a hour late.

***

This is something I would’ve never done in my wildest dreams just months ago. Like, just going. Alone. To a place where I know I don’t really fit. In a room full people I don’t trust, and who I’ve felt hurt by. And then on top of it, arriving late!

***

The tone of the event feels very familiar. It’s the type of religious environment I grew up in. It’s comforting and off putting to me all at the same time.

As I’m sitting there, analyzing, pinpointing differences in theology, and thinking of all the reasons I don’t fit in this room, I’m reminded of something God told me a few weeks ago when I was working in my front flower beds. I had heard God say that the work I’m being called to of racial reconciliation isn’t something for me to do alone. That all over the nation and even the world God is orchestrating this work of reconciliation. Racially back to one another, but also back to God. This work and this movement by God is big! Bigger than one people group. Bigger than denominations. God is calling people from all over into this work. And these people who I’ve been hurt by aren’t excluded from this calling.

Their process might not look like my process — and how could it really, we’re coming from such different places — but, that doesn’t make my process right and their’s wrong.

The next instant God showed me that the reconciliation work I am to do this weekend is not outward and in the realm of race — it is internal and across church culture. The work God has for me here, this weekend is to let my bitterness and resentment go. Not my anger, not the righteous anger of people being oppressed and abused and silenced. God has been showing me how to trust my anger, and use it as a compass to guide me to the hurt and broken places of the world. What I am to let go of is my own bitterness that causes me to be blind to the movement of God. God is moving through and in these people. Who are broken, like me. Who will misstep, like me. Who will cause pain, like me. Who are learning, like me. Who are stepping out in faith into their calling, like me. Who are showing up, like me.

Just as I have received so much grace and mercy along my journey, they get to receive it too.

And I need to extend it to them.

***

I was just saying to my counselor a couple weeks ago, that it’s much more glorious to do this work of reconciliation and peacemaking outwardly. Among other people, across races. But God is having me do it internally. First. I have to recognize the part I play in it. I have to acknowledge and repent of the things I have done and the things I have not done. I have to forgive. I have to extend grace to those who’ve hurt me. I have to reconcile the hurt and bitterness and unforgiveness in my own heart.

***

It’s scary to show up in spaces full of people I don’t really trust. But God tells me that it’s not them or their work that I’m supposed to put my trust in. My trust has to be in God. My trust is in the work God is doing and the movement of the Spirit.

After the session ended Friday night, I called a friend to talk through some of this and process it a bit. She encouraged me that this is a room that I am supposed to be in. That I have things to say and work to do in these spaces. That I deserve a seat at this table. And that it’s time to start forming community because I’m not supposed to do this alone.

Since I’m not very good at listening, or accepting encouragement, I just kinda rolled my eyes and shrugged it off. Didn’t she just hear me say that this weekend is about the broken places of my own spirit? That outward racial reconciliation is taking a backseat for the moment? Whatever.

I decided to trust that if this was the only thing that I’d take away from the conference, it’d be worth it. That the healing happening in this place of my heart is worth me showing up for.

I had NO IDEA what was in store for me.

Saturday morning at Sparrow, I walked in a little concerned about the two hour break for lunch. It was just a couple minutes after 9, and the lobby was mostly empty besides volunteers and vendors. I head towards the far side entrance of the theater where I was able to sit pretty secluded the night before. But before I get to the doors, I see a woman I recognize, it takes me a moment, but I realize that I know her from social media. Her name is Cessilye and she is a friend of a friend. This mutual friend connected us and had assured me that Cessilye is “my people”. Cessilye and I have had a couple of brief interactions online, but that is it. I don’t like, really know her. So what all this means for this introvert, is that I just head to my seat without outwardly acknowledging her.

I sit down, feeling disappointed that I didn’t have enough courage to just say hi. As worship continues, I feel God telling me not to be disappointed that I chickened out. This was God’s way of letting me know she was here, and thus giving me time to warm up to the idea of trying to find her during the lunch break.

I settle in to the warmth of my God who gives continual second chances. Worship is going strong. My spirit is settled. My mind and heart focused in on the goodness of God. Then I look up and my heart immediately sinks as I see this man leaning against the wall, just ahead of me. image

Let me set this scene for you friend.

This is a big venue. It has 3,420 seats. This section that I’m in is the farthest back, all the way to the right. There are maybe 10 people in this entire section, most of them seem to be conference volunteers, and they’re gathered in the first two or last two rows. So, to get as far away from people as possible, I go to the middle row and grab a seat on far side of the center aisle. (Did I mention, 1. I’m an introvert and, 2. That I don’t trust the people here? Okay. Just making sure. While I’d love to say that these are the only reasons I sat in the far back near an exit, this is just where I tend to sit in big gatherings. I know, I know. I have issues. I’m working on them.)

Anyways… This man comes in, and he is the closest person to me. In a room of THREE THOUSAND SEATS, of course THIS is where he has to stand.

I recognize him immediately. He is the husband of the blogger that I follow, Ruth, whose post started this whole thing and got me here. Now, the feeling I get when I see him is not me fanning out. It is complete and utter dread. I am currently and have been cognizant of the feelings that arise in me towards this man for quite some time.

***

Through the years of following this blogger, she has spoken of her husband Troy as kind, and gentle, and steadfast. She says he leads her well, serves her and their family, and supports her. But I have attached to this random man, all the blame and pain that white evangelical men have inflicted on me. I have perceived him as this cold, dogmatic, unkind, ruthless, always talking never listening, leader of his family. On this man, I have placed all of my own bad experiences of evangelical pastors and father figures. Cold. Unloving. Abusive.

***

His presence makes me uncomfortable.

His proximity makes me squirm.

But it’s obvious, painfully obvious that this is another way God is trying to reconcile my heart. So I sit there. And cry. I can’t quite identify all of my feelings or even why it is that I’m crying. There’s deep rooted pain surfacing. I feel vulnerable. Unsafe.

I can’t articulate exactly why I am feeling so scared, or what is at the root of this pain. But it is REAL. I just sit in it, trusting this as part of the process of healing. Worship comes to an end. He takes a seat, two rows in front of me. He is still the closest person to me in the entire theater.

I realize that he isn’t leaving. And that I’m not leaving. My heart races.

I have to sit next to this man, and do my best to listen and hear from God.

His wife Ruth preaches a beautiful message. My big takeaway? “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness.” (insert girl raising hand emoji) Thanks a lot God for that slap upside the head.

But my hatred is justified! I am sure he is “one of those people” who have hurt me. Even if he himself is not, those people in my life are real. Holding on to unforgiveness is much safer than actually forgiving them. But that unforgiveness has sprouted bitterness. And again if I’m being really honest, frequently it does look a lot like hate.

If this particular man wasn’t sitting right by me, I can’t say that I’d be able to recognize any of this. I’ve been pretty good at keeping my distance from white male evangelical authority figures for many years now. So coming to see this place in my heart was absolutely divine. It can take real effort and intentionality to look inward and face deep places of pain, unforgiveness, and hatred. In this case God made it crystal clear and unavoidable.

Thankfully, recognizing is the first step towards healing and reconciliation.

His wife finished preaching, and he left the theater. I got to breathe a sigh of relief and relax into hearing from the next few speakers.

All of a sudden, it was lunch time. I didn’t hurry out of my seat. While I don’t mind eating lunch alone, the thing I was really avoiding is the opportunity to introduce myself, in real life, to my social media friend. I know God told me I’d get another chance to meet her, but I was waffling back and forth between wanting someone to talk to during this two hour lunch break and hoping my chance to meet her would come another day. With the thousands of people attending this conference, I doubted that I’d actually run into her a second time.

I gather my things and walk out of the theater. And standing there right outside the doors in the lobby is Cessilye. Now I HAVE to introduce myself.

She is standing with a group of about eight women, but is turned slightly away from them as she keeps seeing people she knows and greeting them warmly. It’s clear that she knows everyone! It’s also clear that she is warm and inviting. So I stop hesitating and go to introduce myself.

We chit chat about our mutual friend, and how she is good people who also has good taste in people, and how we trust her judgment when she says that we are each others’ type of people. After our introductions, Cessilye intentionally welcomes me into the group. The funny thing is, she doesn’t actually know all these women she’s standing with! She goes around the group confirming everyone’s names. This makes it an incredibly easy in for me. Praise the Lord! I introduce myself to everyone else. We all come to learn that the majority of us are a part of Be The Bridge, a racial reconciliation group that I recently joined. Cessilye looks at me and says “you found our people”. It was yet again another divine confirmation that I am supposed to be here.

As we discuss what to do for lunch, Cessilye disappears briefly. She comes back to say that someone is checking to see if there is room for our group at a lunch gathering. No one pays much attention or even knows what gathering she’s referring to. But moments later, we are all led backstage to a special banquet. There are about 10 tables set up behind the stage with pretty place settings, a catered meal, dessert, and a gift bag on the table.

This is not what any of us were expecting!

There are murmurings of “are we supposed to be here”, “I don’t think this is for us”, “are you sure there is enough food/seats for us”, and “I don’t think we were invited”. We all find our way in and head to the one empty table. There’s enough food and seats for all of us, and even some left over.

We’re greeted by some of the conference organizers and speakers. They thank us for the important work we’re doing in our communities. I begin to wonder who this this banquet is intended for, and briefly consider if I should feel guilty for crashing it. It was obviously for special guests and attendees. A few of the conference speakers gave some quick talks, focusing on the value of community, the power of women working together, and the work God is calling us all to do. In the gift bag is a specially designed necklace, just for the 80-100 of us gathered for this meal, and it has a triangle pendant with a mustard seed suspended inside.

Y’all I fought back tears through this whole meal. It meant so much to me.

I can’t even begin to tell you about all the tables (literally and figuratively) that I’ve walked away from, being absolutely certain that the seats there were not for me. Certain that I couldn’t sit down because I didn’t have anything to contribute, and that I didn’t earn it. Or just that those seats were meant for someone more. It can be a real struggle to sit down at a banquet, when you’ve come to believe all you deserve is crumbs.

It was so healing to be able to walk behind that stage, knowing that I did nothing to earn a place there, but knowing that I am invited and welcomed, and that a seat had been prepared just for me. All I had to do was sit down and receive the love, kindness, and favor that was waiting for me. I hope that every time I wear this necklace, it reminds me of this. I hope it reminds me to have just the tiniest bit of faith in the dreams that God is beginning to reveal to me, these ones that have been specifically placed in my heart. I hope this necklace will encourage me to sow these seeds in the faith of a loving benevolent God, and to trust that God will grow them into a full and beautiful harvest. I hope this necklace always reminds me that God is orchestrating it all, and that all I need to do is just show up.

***

The week of the conference, I randomly saw the Gracelaced book in Hobby Lobby. I hadn’t paid much attention to it when it was released in the fall, so I was curious to pick it up. As I flipped through it, a wave of hope came over me. For a couple of weeks now, God has been asking me to be courageous and start dreaming some pretty big dreams. At least they seem huge to me! I have no idea how, or in what capacity, but one of these dreams involves my writing. Picking up this Gracelaced book felt like permission to dream about maybe someday writing something that could sit next to this one on the shelf. That just maybe, my voice, words, and the way I process the world and experience God through writing and art could be something I could put all together, to be a monument to God’s goodness. I’ve learned to hold on to things that bring me hope, so I buy the book.

***

So after the banquet, I head to the vendor tables. I grab my book and stand in line to get it signed. I get to tell Ruth about how her words and art gave me comfort and hope in the early days of my depression years ago; and how her book has given me hope just this week.

This was right after my emotional lunch experience, so there was absolutely no way that I was going to be able to get through this little meet and greet without crying. And let me tell you friends, I ugly cried! I’m also fairly certain I made absolutely no sense, and even managed to be insulting. At some point during this very brief interaction, I found myself saying that I don’t really read her stuff anymore and that the chirstian language she uses is off putting…sigh.

This is why I don’t talk to people. Oh well. She signed my book.

I also got a picture with her. Ya know her husband who made me incredibly uncomfortable just hours before? Yeah. He took the picture.

***

I knew I had reason not to like him. HE HELD THE CAMERA DOWN LOW. This man is an Instagram husband! HOW DOES HE NOT KNOW ABOUT FLATTERING ANGLES?!?!? FROM ABOVE! FROM ABOVE!!! Some of us have a little extra flesh on our second chins and don’t need the world to see it all the time.

Meeting Ruth Chou Simons wasn’t my finest moment from the conference. While getting to meet the author of Gracelaced, I don’t think I portrayed even a single iota of grace or poise. I ugly cried while trying to thank her but somehow ended up insulting her work, and then I got a picture of all my chins. Ya win some, ya lose some.

***

Finally, the last third of the conference rolled around. I was worn out but excited because this part was the whole reason I showed up — the topic of racial reconciliation.

The most powerful part for me was hearing the heartfelt public confessions of racial bias. Two women confessed to a crow of thousands of women how the effects of racism against them and their ancestors, turned into their own prejudice and bias. They confessed their difficulting being able to enter into trusting relationships with white people and especially white women. It is all completely understandable and completely justifiable to me. But here they stand. Fighting against the mistrust. They are actively taking steps towards those people groups who have very tangibly hurt them. Trusting that God will make something of this mess we’re in. Trusting that there is beauty for ashes. Trusting that God does make all things new.

***

And I thought I was courageous for showing up — as a christian woman to a christian womens’ conference — even though I don’t identify as an evangelical. Their courage makes my courage seem TINY. Women of color are always leading the way; I will gladly follow.

***

The next thing they did is to ask us to identify our own biases, to identify who it is we’re unwilling to trust, who we’re unwilling to forgive. They asked us to write it down. And hand it over to God.

It was so powerful.

Now, I know that this part of the event was focused on race. But what was on my heart was still Troy Simons and all of the white evangelical males he represents to me. So that’s how I responded. The act of confession, and writing down “the evangelical church” “white evangelical males” and even the name “Troy Simons” was truly liberating. I physically felt lighter. Up until that exact point of laying it down, I couldn’t recognize how heavily it had been weighing on me. Or how often my thoughts of the church are soured by bitterness and hatred towards this one group. It left me blind and cut off from being able to see the work and movement of the Spirit because I was so focused on all of their wrongs. I know that this is deeply rooted in me, and it’s something I am going to have to be intentional about cutting back with each new thought and in new interactions. But now I know how heavy it feels, and that I get to choose to lay it down and walk in freedom.

***

Disclaimer: Please don’t read into this as me thinking that I don’t have racial biases, or that I think I’m so woke that I don’t have any inner work to do towards racial reconciliation. Trust me, I do. God has been and will continue to reveal the ugliness of my own heart. The one God keeps showing me lately is which neighborhoods I am in when I intentionally lock my car doors. I am ashamed to say, it has nothing to do with actual crime and everything to do with the color of skin of the people who live there. By the grace of God there is much I’m doing to work on my own heart.

***

The other thing that stands out to me from the racial reconciliation part of Sparrow was the grief and lamenting from white women of just how much they did and do not know. Grief and lament aren’t something I shy away from — in fact I have found myself sitting fairly comfortably in those postures in recent years — I long for so much more of it in church and spiritual settings. I appreciate the acknowledgement of their grief. I loved that they showed what that lamenting looks like when we open our eyes and hearts to really see the suffering of others. They showed how seeing these injustices shifts our thinking and conversations and then changes our actions.

I believe that the Sparrow conference is proof of this concept. It started out changing the lives of the individuals, and now those individuals are working to change the culture. God is working on changing the world.

***

Ok. So here is where I get super vulnerable. I am probably about to show some my ignorance of the process of racial reconciliation. I have been actively listening for a couple of years now, but I am just now starting to take these first wobbly steps. Please bear with me as I work this out. Also, please understand that this is just me working this out. It is not me saying I have the answers. It is not me saying that everyone has to have the same process; this is just mine.

***

I did feel like there were a couple things that didn’t sit right for me during this part of Sparrow.

I hated that the only people who got up on stage and actually admitted to having racial bias were women of color. In America, all of our racial troubles and tensions stem from White Supremacy. It is absolutely the singular underlying cause. Our systems and structures and culture is absolutely still wrapped up with the ideology of White Supremacy. If and when women of color have biases against white women, it is the consequence of living in the oppressive systems we continue to uphold. Leaving out the confessions from white women implies that we do not have racial bias. This is absolutely untrue. The women of color who confessed stated that their biases stemmed from real life experiences of oppression and racism towards them and their ancestors. Leaving out confessions from white women also insinuates that the responsibility of racism lies solely on the women of color. It felt like white women completely got off the hook. White women absolutely need to start taking accountability for the ways our actions, or lack there of, actually contribute to the oppression of people of color.

The thing that was addressed and lamented from white women was their ignorance. But it wasn’t even going as far as calling it ignorance — it was this feeling of “well how could I have known what I didn’t know?” — completely lacking any sort of personal responsibility or accountability. We can’t know what we don’t know. But we can refuse to know. Not wanting to know or understand is an active choice. Turning a blind eye is a choice. Hardening our hearts to the suffering of others is a choice. Not seeking God’s heart in racial reconciliation is a choice. I appreciate the lament over the things we as white women did not know, but confession and repentance over the choices we have actively made is also incredibly important. Repentance is absolutely an internal posture/process. But when our actions (or lack thereof) have hurt the people around us, shouldn’t we repent not only to God but also to those individuals?

I am so thankful to all of the women at Sparrow who are showing up. Truely. I just think that something as simple as an apology would go a really long way. It doesn’t have to be dramatic or long and drawn out — it just has to be genuine — something like, “I’m sorry it has taken me so long to show up, I am here now’. Giving a real apology isn’t easy. I’m not even sure many people know the proper way to do it. This is where the church should be showing, teaching, and leading by example. That way when we do get to the point in our private relationships where an apology is warranted, especially in the work of racial bridge building, we would have clear beautiful examples to pull from. We need to see our churches and leaders offer up apologies to others publically. I think the words I’m sorry and I forgive you are some of the most liberating, life giving words that we can say to one another. And I believe the church should be the ones the most practiced at it and leading us all into it.

***

And while I’m on the topic, let’s go ahead and note some things that DO and DO NOT count as an apology.

“I’m sorry your feelings were hurt”

“I’m sorry you were offended”

“I’m sorry they did that to you”

These can sound like an apology, but they include taking any personal responsibility. A real apology NEEDS to contain WHAT YOU DID or DID NOT DO that lands you in the wrong. We need to recognize and repent for the part that we play.

I am sorry I have not used my voice and the ears that listen to it, to elevate the value of your life.

I am sorry I have failed to act in a way that values your life as much as mine.

I am sorry I valued your life less than my own and those with my same skin tone.

I am sorry my actions have oppressed you.

I am sorry my lack of action has kept you oppressed.

I am sorry for supporting structures and powers that keep you oppressed.

I am sorry that I have sought my own freedom and liberation, without seeking the same for you.

I am sorry I have blamed you for your own oppression when you have been unable to engage with me.

I am sorry I have manipulated situations with my tears in order to deflect my own accountability and responsibility.

I am sorry.

For what I have done.

For what I have not done.

These are my confessions and apologies.

One good example of an apology came from Jen Hatmaker this week. She shared a meme/infographic and some of her friends who are women of color told her it was offensive. She listened. She reflected. She took it down. She amplified the voices of the women who were hurt by sharing and laying out the main points of their critique. She apologized. She encouraged everyone whose knee jerk reaction is to disagree, to hold that in, and to actually listen.

She said:

I am so sorry to my readers of color and really to all of you. I am supposed to be an ally here, and as someone who has been the butt of so many “christian satire sites” and their jokes, their laughter at my expense connected to some of the deepest sorrow of our lives, I know better. Pain is not funny, even if it makes everyone else laugh. I learned something here, and I will do better. This is the work.” (emphasis added)

This is what we need to see more of! Especially in the realm of racial reconciliation. Listening, putting down our defenses, reflecting, apologizing,and working to do better. I am so thankful for the examples that God has been putting in front of me. And here’s the deal. Our God is a God of unlimited chances. One of limitless grace. We always get the chance to try again, to do better. We all are human, we make mistakes. There are blind spots in our processes. We need one another to come along and point them out. This is heavy, hard work. We also need breaks. If your woman of color friend/acquaintance is unable to assist you, do not hold that against her. Women of color have worked tirelessly. Don’t stop seeking, listening, studying when others pause for a rest. And when you get worn down, I believe that the goodness and mercy of God will carry you through, for this work of reconciliation is from God’s own heart after all. He wants this more than any of us.

He will prevail.

***

The Sparrow conference was the first time I have ever seen racial reconciliation address in such a large forum, and I am so grateful for it. I’ve had many talks in private with small groups of my friends or with individuals, and a few in a more structured small group setting like at a church with a hand out of questions and prompts to discuss, but this was a whole new experience. I have never been to an event that was so intentionally diverse. It wasn’t diverse just for the sake of diversity alone; you can always tell when that’s the case, it just lacks a level of depth and authenticity. At Sparrow, the diversity comes from a basis of love, respect, and friendship. Each woman had their own part to play in this conference — they got to use their own voice, their specific talents and giftings were recognized and valued — then they were give the time and space to utilize those talents and present them to a diverse audience. This is what was really unique about Sparrow. It depicts such a vast image of God and the work He is doing all around us. It is so big. So beautiful.

Many years ago, I read somewhere this phrase “the glory of God is man fully alive”. I’ve clung to that idea for a long time, but more recently it’s started to evolve at bit for me. Now, I like to think that the glory of God is woman fully alive and ennobling other women. This is what the Sparrow conference was to me — and let me tell you– the glory of God shone brightly in that place.

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