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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.


Beth Carroll

Beth Carroll is pastor of discipleship at Hope Church in Holland, Michigan.

10 Comments

  • Beth Jammal says:

    Beth, you talk about what you did, but you don’t mention what you were thinking. We’re you telling yourself you are better than these people?
    It is common to humankind to be uncomfortable in situations where we stick out. I dare say any one of the people attending, might be uncomfortable in the reverse situation, so I don’t understand how you connect this with “white, Christian privilege” or racism. Unless it was your thoughts that made you feel guilty.!
    Racism begins in the heart, and we would all do well to question ourselves on it, repeatedly.. I like the fact that you are working with trying to end the misunderstandings and violence towards Muslims. May God bless your efforts!
    By the way, Jesus was Jewish, so His skin color could have been anything from white to brown, maybe dark brown. Who cares?

    • Beth Carroll says:

      Beth, the difference is as a white Christian I can leave and return to my “regular” life. I was uncomfortable for three days and decided to escape. The 50,000 folks in that space, not to mention the millions of minorities in our country, can never leave the feeling of sticking out. If that isn’t a privilege, I don’t know what is.

      • Beth Jammal says:

        I can only speak from personal experience. My husband, who is an Arab Muslim, feels completely part of, and comfortable in west Michigan unless someone points out that he is unique. Then he assumes it is only because he is so good looking.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

    Thanks for your honest confession. We are all pilgrims on a journey. I also liked the very American title of “the world’s largest Muslim bazar” just because it is the biggest in the USA. Like the World Series of Baseball (which doesn’t even include Cuba or Japan). By the way, the one in Istanbul is much bigger: “The Grand Bazaar (Turkish: Kapalıçarşı, meaning ‘Covered Market’; also Büyük Çarşı, meaning ‘Grand Market’) in Istanbul is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 4,000 shops on a total area of 30,700 m2, attracting between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily” (from Wikipedia). There may even be other bigger ones, but this is one of the oldest.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Rev. Carroll,

    I realize I have culpable blindness (currently taking medication), but, in all sincerity, I fail to see how you displayed “Christian Privilege”. That’s a nebulous phrase, like “Christian Nationalism” or “Public Television” or “Tax-Advantaged Asset”. The definition is in the eye of the beholder.

    Anyway, did you think all those Muslims were distasteful with their rather medieval attitudes towards women? Were you unsettled being in a crowd of people where virtually no one looked like your typical Ottawa County Aryan Ubermensch? (Living and working in Chicago, and given my visage, I must admit I feel unsettled when I go to Western Michigan and everyone is 6’3”, blond, and happy. It makes me feel almost ethnic). Or perhaps it was the exclusionary aspect of Islam (No God but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet).

    Regardless of the cause of your panic attack, you attribute it to Christian Privilege. It could be a soft bigotry (although Muslims don’t seem to be the group you would show bigotry toward). It could be you had some bad shawarma, or the ventilation in the building. Personally, I would have tried a dietary remedy before going home. There’s a Gibson’s right across the street. And a Hofbrauhaus a block away, which looks kind of like Dutch Village in Holland.

    The most remarkable aspect of your story, however, was your journey home. I assume you walked to the Rosemont CTA Blue Line, then walked to Union Station, then sat in the train for hours. It must have taken a full day! Pardon my Internal-Combustion Privilege, but it’s only a 3 hour drive to Holland from where you were. Your trip would have given me a panic attack that no pumpkin spiced latte could fix.

    • Beth Carroll says:

      Hi Marty! Thanks for engaging this a bit. I actually have deep respect for Muslims. I’ve done some reading about their faith, as well as had some great conversation with some Muslim friends of mine. Personally, I would struggle to be a Muslim woman, but I do have a fuller understanding of the gifts many women experience in their faith. I have heard women describe the immense respect Muslim men give them. They also describe great freedom in reducing unwanted leering from other men, a benefit their manner of dress affords them. My panic attack is still a bit confounding to me, but I know that three solid days and nights of trying to understand what life in America is like for one of the most marginalized groups was exhausting. What a privilege it was for me to decide to walk away and go home. I can escape that discomfort, others cannot.

  • David E Stravers says:

    Thanks for your determination to pursue the “hard work” of justice. I wonder if your experience was a spiritual crisis or if it requires confession, or if it was something over which you had no control? Cultural anthropologists tell us that only a minority of us white Westerners have the cross-cultural gift necessary to thrive in radically different environments. I know of travelers who cut short their visits in Asian countries after they experienced symptoms similar to the ones you experienced. Perhaps extreme culture shock is not a spiritual weakness but a human reaction comparable to catching a virus? Pushing through such experiences for the sake of the Gospel, as you are determined to do, is an admirable response.

  • Rev. Shannon Jammal-Hollemans says:

    Thank you for sharing so honestly and vulnerably about your experience. I pray that more Christians will follow your example and commit to to self-reflection and repentance regarding their fear of Muslims. Thank you!

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Beth, for this article expressing what you feel is Christian privilege. You mention in a comment having done some reading about the Muslim faith. As I see the differences of religion (faith), they hinge on Jesus, and not clothing. Christians see Jesus as God, one of the three persons of the Trinity. Muslims esteem Jesus too, but as a great prophet, not God. Therein lies the offense to Muslims, Christians claiming a person, even an exalted person, as God. That would be the equivalent of Jews or Christians claiming that Moses is God because he performed miracles, For Christians to claim Moses as God would be an affront not only to Christians, but to God himself. That is the Christian affront to Muslims, making Jesus, who to the Muslim is merely a human (although great and ordained by God) into God himself. To the Islamic, there is but one God, Allah. And Christians defame God by making Jesus into someone who he isn’t, even an equal to Allah. The distance between Christianity and the Islamic religion is unfathomable. And certainly that contributes to the prejudice between these two religions and their adherents.

  • Jessica A Groen says:

    Thanks for describing this event and your response, Beth. I interpreted your day at Rosemont as one of those events that connects us with our subconscious, but intense core fear, of existing without much access to the huge bank account of “social capital” that we can count on when we are in our familiar surroundings and home-base communities. We get a glimpse of a future that we can barely imagine, and (if we’re honest) may even dread, a future when we stop being the target demographic,, the insider, or the default narrative voice in a social setting.

    I read this essay right after the March 10 essay by Tom Boogaart, so your phrases “felt exposed and anxious” and “the cognitive dissonance of feeling so alone in the midst of so many” jumped out as a connection what Jesus must have often felt himself in varying intensity throughout his ministry and up til last breaths. Followers of Jesus’s words and deeds often confront this challenge . . . acknowledging the ways we’d rather fawn into assimilation and complicity with those who are the social capital scribes and bankers of our specific times and places.

    Who of us eagerly chooses to plant our feet in the humus/terra (humiliation/terror) of passage through life as any place’s defined Stranger? Why heighten our vulnerability to becoming a target of social isolation or rejection? Jesus was willing to enter into that core terror, in solidarity with so many who are forced into outsider/rejected/despised/abject existence for months, years, lifetimes, generations. So much solidarity. Jesus moves from heights of privilege . . . to narrow and isolating path . . . to the broad resting place of restored belonging and authentic esteem that Paul describes in the Philippians 2 hymn.

    That hymn and its surrounding reflections in Philippians energizes us to keep taking our risks and increasing our discomfort threshold as we hike this humus-y path. Thank you so much for your willingness to take this kind of risk through Shoulder to Shoulder work, and for being honest about the very real roots and rocks that trip us up while taking these risks

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