I remember the day I was formally introduced to my white Christian privilege. It was September 4, 2015. I was standing in the middle of “the world’s largest Muslim bazaar” at the Donald E. Stevens Convention Center in Rosemont, Illinois.
Thousands of Muslims excitedly thumbed through Arabic children’s books, admired the stitching of handmade tunics and prayer rugs, and waited in the long line outside the Starbucks kiosk. Pumpkin Spice Latte season had just kicked off, after all. I stood there a little stunned in this hubbub of community and connection at the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), one of only a handful of white Christians among the 50,000 Muslims who attend the convention every Labor Day weekend.
I was there as part of an emerging leadership conference with the Shoulder to Shoulder Campaign. Shoulder to Shoulder is committed to “ending discrimination and violence against Muslims in the United States by equipping, connecting, and mobilizing faith leaders to effectively take action.” Future pastors and rabbis attend ISNA together to learn more specifically about what life is like for American Muslims. During the day, we attended seminars on race relations, economics, education, spirituality, and political activism, before processing our learnings together in the evening.
But on this day, our first day together, I stood more than a little stunned in the middle of the bustling bazaar, my bare white arms and legs blending in like a pimple on school picture day. Had I done even a little reading before coming, I would have known that most Muslims dress pretty modestly, even American Muslims, and I would have packed differently. Thankfully, no one looked at me funny; everyone I encountered there was very warm and welcoming. Besides, what a perfect excuse to spend some money on the beautiful pashminas at the bazaar.
I wrapped my arms in my new exquisite red silk scarf, grabbed a latte, and walked around the convention center a bit. Though my arms were now covered up, I still felt exposed and anxious. Then, suddenly my heart started racing. My head was throbbing. The fluorescent lights slapped my eyes. “What is wrong with you, Beth? Snap out of it.”
I lingered over the water fountain for a minute, trying to collect myself. I was dizzy from the crowds, the lively conversations around me, the cognitive dissonance of feeling so alone in the midst of so many families enjoying this huge community reunion. I had expected a number of “firsts” at this convention, but first panic attack was not one of them.
I have traveled extensively in my life, including living in Kenya as a small child where my parents were missionaries. I have a diverse group of friends, including my Mexican American husband. I live for new cultural experiences. I care deeply about racial justice and interfaith work. I have read The New Jim Crow, White Fragility, The Cross and The Lynching Tree, and Caste. Black Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior. I preach and teach regularly about how life in Christ intersects with life in the margins. I am not just a social justice warrior, I am a social justice drill sergeant.
Yet, I couldn’t keep it together at this conference. I left two days early on an Amtrak train bound for Holland, Michigan, my home. I even splurged on business class so I could have a car that was extra quiet. Three days was all I could handle. Three days.
I lied and told the organizers I had a family crisis. Well, I guess it’s not technically a lie if you consider the crisis was a middle-aged white Christian mother’s inability to accept being an outsider for more than a weekend.
Why am I sharing this embarrassing and vulnerable story with you? Because, we never ever arrive at equity work, friends. Sanctification doesn’t have an earthly finish line. Racism is not “other peoples’ issues.” Islamophobia is not unique to uneducated rural people. If we aren’t humble enough to examine our own hearts and biases, we don’t get to share in the progress.
This is my problem. This is your problem. It doesn’t matter if you’ve read the right books. It doesn’t matter if you went to one Black Lives Matter rally. It doesn’t even matter if you called out Bob VanBobman for mansplaining Sally’s presentation on a Zoom meeting, as relieved as the rest of us on that meeting might be that you did. We need also to be examining how we show up in the world, even inviting others to call us out on our own actions. That’s how community is supposed to work.
Justice work is hard, all. We will fail. At some point you too will take a midnight train to Holland. But it is the only way forward. Join me and we can fail forward together. I will be waiting for you with an extra Pumpkin Spice Latte.