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by Elizabeth Vander Haagen
I did a lot of things wrong the week after Charlottesville.
The way I told my kids about it on Sunday morning scared and confused them – one left the breakfast table in tears. A few days later I lost my temper in a meeting with the leadership of the black church that rents space from us, and the meeting ended abruptly and painfully. I’ve been heart sick, ashamed, and embarrassed.
And I’ve realized again that sometimes I’m more concerned about being perceived as a ‘good white person’ than I am about the horror of racism.
But there’s one thing from that week that I’m holding on to as good. I prayed with my daughters for the boys who had upset them at the pool.
On Wednesday afternoon it was hot, and my husband took my kids to one of the city pools in town. It’s a great pool – big, clean, cool, and well-supervised, with fountains for the little kids in the shallow end and a water slide and diving boards for the big kids in the deep end. They’ve been there before and they’ve had a wonderful time – they love the water slide and diving boards. Often, for whatever reason, they are only white people there.
On this particular afternoon there was a line for the diving board and my husband was in the shallow end with our four year old son. My girls, 8 and 10, are good swimmers who love the water, and they also take turns. They stood patiently in line, waiting for their turn on the board, and just before my oldest got to the diving board, a boy behind her said to some other boys, “You think I can’t cut in front of her? Watch!” And he cut in front of her to climb onto the diving board. She spoke up and said, “Please get down, it’s my turn.” But he laughed and ran off the board anyway.
A small thing. But at supper and bedtime that night, something was clearly bothering the girls. Slowly the story came out. My younger daughter, with her passion for justice, was particularly upset that someone had cut in front of her big sister. And as they told it, my girls described the boys as black. I wasn’t sure what to say. Part of me wanted to jump on it – to ask why they were telling me the boys were black, part of me thought maybe I should clarify that they know other boys who are black who don’t cut in front of them in line.
I wasn’t sure what to say, so I asked them how they were feeling about what happened. We talked about how it’s hard when someone does something that seems unfair and how rotten it feels when you speak up about it and they ignore you and do it anyway. We talked about how we didn’t know why the boy did what he did, or how he felt about it.
When we were done talking, I asked if I could pray about what happened. They said yes, and sitting together in their bedroom, I prayed: “God, you know what happened at the pool today, you know more about it than we do. You know we are feeling troubled. We pray for the boys from the pool. We pray for us. And we ask for your help. Amen.”
When I asked my daughters if I could write about this, one of them didn’t remember that we had prayed about it, so it made a bigger impression on me than it did on them. A small thing, but it in a week when so much was wrong, it felt right. To pray with the girls about what upset them and to pray with them for the other people involved.
I’ve been thinking about that impulse, to pray about what troubles us and to pray for the people who trouble us. I don’t always do it well, or gently. I replay situations over in my mind, justifying myself. I fret, wondering what I could have done differently. Sometimes I pray that God would strike people down. Sometimes I pray that folks would change their minds or be converted. Sometimes I pray to want to pray for whoever it is.
But somehow the prayers, even the angry ones, eventually, shift something inside me and by God’s grace move me toward greater compassion for myself and for those who trouble me. And in all that is wrong, I am grateful.
Elizabeth Vander Haagen co-pastors and co-parents with her husband, Jay Blankespoor, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.