Hush Little Baby

His breathing was more than labored. His bones protruding from every part of his little body except for his distended belly which heaved back and forth as his lungs rattled, attempting to breathe. The orphanage house mother walked through the small crowd of us straight to me and placed him in my arms, and it was if for one moment I was transported to a hospital bed and a nurse was handing me a child I had just birthed. I have held many babies, but have never felt quite that powerful an instantaneous affection. 

As a team leader, and with this a very short visit, my brain subliminally selected overdrive to what my heart was experiencing in the moment, yet days later I still cannot shake it. Since my teen years, I have held babies and children in distress with both my arms and heart. I have come to recognize that I am incapable of saving anyone, and that beyond my own neighborhood, my energy is often best spent encouraging and supporting the sacrificial, beautiful people at every corner of the globe who are holding little Matthews and the thousands of other babies each and every day. But sometimes… 

Little Matthew cried when nearly anyone else held him except for his big brothers. Eight boys who as young children had been kidnapped or sold into slavery in the fishing industry on Lake Votla in Ghana. Having been rescued, they were now growing young men being a part of changing the story for other children who could suffer the same fate if not for preventative, safe spaces like this orphanage on the sands of the Atlantic Ocean. 

Just a stretch down the coast, we had walked the crude ruins of one of Ghana’s dozens of slave forts from the Transatlantic slave trade. We had been reminded of the absolute horror of dehumanization that slavery was. And is. Of how the ancestors of those beautiful black bodies that danced and sang around us today were victims, perpetrators, bystanders and/or witnesses of this historic and continuing nightmare. Of how our fellow traveler, a descendent of some of those who were shackled in these chains, forced to stand in the feces of a hundred men, women raped on the regular… how the story of his people, his mother tongue, his family lineage drowned in the ocean before us. 

One of our hosts Johnny handed me a seashell collected from the shore, and I thought of the oft told parable of the starfish… for that one, it made all the difference. As we drove the coastal road towards the bustling city of Accra, the windows were crowded at every town with enterprising women, children and physically handicapped seeking to sell everything from bread to shoe polish off the baskets balanced on their heads. The man unable to stand weaving through car traffic barely in the sight line. The five year old whose eyes were separated from mine only by a pane of glass. The powerful, perseverant humanity pulsating. 

Amidst all that stirred up tears, there was far more that inspired respect. It can be so easy to travel to nations where multitudes of its people live beneath the global poverty line and see what is broken. But what about that which is beautiful? What about the men and women that have surrendered their lives to love orphaned children day in and day out? Those who chased down a lost child sold as a slave to rescue them? Who open up their homes to host students that they might have better access to education? Those who spend the hottest hours of the day staffing their shop to feed their family and provide access to goods for their community? 

Little Matthew is being held by arms that love him today not because Western money was infused into his town. His new home by the sea is the gift of a Ghanian woman to a Ghanian church that chose to prioritize loving and housing orphans, preventing and combatting trafficking and providing trauma-informed care for freed children over its own interests. I, the Westerner, simply get to bear witness to its beauty. And to be reminded that to whom much has been given, much will be expected. 

Matthew is not my starfish. He’s just one I got to be with for a moment to be reminded how freed slaves, abundantly resourced women, multinational businessmen, faith leaders, presidents and politicians, every man, woman and child have a role to play in a world full of displaced and disregarded people. Who will we hold long enough to affirm their dignity and value, and lose our sense self-/family-centeredness enough to live lives implicated and impactful to their flourishing?

Hush little baby don’t you cry. 

Mamas gonna tell your story wide.

And if that story doesn’t cause sting

Mamas gonna give up everything

And if even if that doesn’t change your song

Mamas gonna make sure you know you belong

The Golden Ticket

After a year plus of preparations, some of our Hopeprint team and teens are headed across the ocean to Ghana, West Africa. From obtaining passports, to navigating parental concerns, to raising funding and more, it has been a significant ordeal. Besides packing suitcases, I initiated the final preparatory step this week - the visa application.

If you've ever travelled out of the United States as a U.S. Citizen, you have experienced the passport control of various nations. Many times, the worst one is when you try to re-enter right here at home, standing for multiple hours in a winding line to get asked a few questions and passed on your way. In most cases, as a U.S. citizen, obtaining a tourist visa for another nation is a rather painless process that can be done at the border. Some countries, such as Turkey and the U.A.E. even intentionally make your lay over in their country on your flights, promoting inexpensive to free visas, tours and hotels. 

Yet all it takes is knowing one person who has tried to enter our country from any non-European nation in the world, and you quickly realize, the Unites States does not return the favor. We live in a nation that a good deal of the rest of the world pines to live in. Of course, their perception of the land of sea to shining seas is predominately formed by Hollywood and the fairy tale stories that remain perpetuated by those who have immigrated. I have met multiple families who work themselves to the bone, hover on the poverty line, and still maintain a narrative of the golden streets to those they left behind. Those who live in both urban and rural communities in the United States have born witness to our nation's own poverty problem - an often ignored or downplayed poverty problem, which the NY Times recently reported impacts 5.3 million Americans who are absolutely poor by global standards, about the same as or more than Senegal, Sierra Leone and Nepal. 

And yes, there are some elements afforded in this nation that are indeed extraordinary or unusual in contrast to the nations from whence they are coming. For example, my friend from Iran is able to work, drive, choose if she wants to wear hijab and access higher education. My friend from Iraq who endures significant symptoms of PTSD has supports that allow his family not to starve, and his children able to remain in school. When our neighbor family has only oil and eggs left in their cupboards, and not a dime in their pockets, there are systems and supports to ensure the children do not starve.

These and the stories of rags to riches are key factors in magnetizing a world full of people to get in the visa line to enter this country. The "if only, then" mentality causes people to leave their families behind and suffer great costs towards a dream. It's surrounding this visa process that a phenomenal amount of our national attention has been exploding lately. It is the place where the question of "Who will we let in?" resides most powerfully. The granted and unexpired visa is the document that makes the difference between "documented" and "undocumented," and because of its legal ramifications, those who are here with the blessing of the law or outside of the law.

Getting one of these seemingly golden papers is a different process depending on a myriad of factors. When my friend Munu wished to stay, she had to search for a job who was willing to pay thousands of dollars for a special work visa. When my friend Monu sought to bring her husband to join her from Nepal, she had to wait for over a year to get an answer. For my acquaintances  from Nigeria, they applied, received notice that they won the highly competitive lottery, and had to make arrangements to leave weeks later. For my friend Johnny from Ghana, he has repeatedly been denied entry as they fear if he comes, he will not leave. For my friend Rose from Congo, she has been waiting on temporary asylum status for five years, having no idea if she is now safe to build a new life, or if she will be deported to her nation where great persecution would await her. 

I know in a very personal way how hard it is to enter and stay in the United States if it is not the nation of your birth. I have experienced the ease with which my passport affords me the exact opposite experience in other nations. I know that the navy blue, U.S.A. emblemized document that I have with my name on it is a powerful privilege. 

Yet, as I went to complete these visa applications for Ghana, the experience changed. The instructions were contradictory and challenging. They wanted to see documentation of personal financials, notarized forms and more. They expected me to work for entry to their country. After seven hours of laboring over forms, pictures, releases, and more, I was frustrated, and found myself exclaiming, "Don't you want me to come to your country? I'm coming to help you!"

As soon as it crossed my lips, guilt flooded over me. Who in the world do I think I am to think I have anything to offer Ghana, West Africa? Why do I think that it should be easy for me to enter Johnny's country when my country refuses to allow Johnny to enter ours? Ashamedly, I know the why of my guttural response. It's this incredibly embedded thing called privilege. I think somehow I deserve extraordinary treatment than my fellow human race, in a nation that is not my own. I think somehow I have something to give, when I know full well there is far more for me to learn. 

I hope we get these visas. I pray the process goes smoothly so that I can see the beautiful waterfalls my friend Jes loves, travel Johnny's home countryside with him, walk the forts that bore witness to the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade alongside of Ronnie Matthew, land on African soil with our students who have not been to their home continent since preschool, play soccer with children who are living declarations of freedom after being trafficked, and learn from the nation that has written a narrative the world is starting to watch. But as they make me wait, and I am forced not to know, I get the chance to recognize my privilege and remember my kindred connectedness to the human race. To remember I am both nothing but by and everything because of the Creator, Redeeming God. We all are. 

I do not deserve a visa any more than any human being deserves one to my own country. We all ought to affirm dignity in the process, for borders and passports do not define our humanity. May we practice for others what we long for ourselves. 

Equal is a Noun, Verb and Adjective (but equity changes the conversation)

We stood on the front porch on one of those unusual winter days where the temperature was warm enough not to wear a coat. With a home WiFi network that all the neighborhood youth know the password for, the front porch served its typical role as the local hot spot. 

As I lingered for a moment, I found myself almost instantaneously surrounded with multiple voices asking for something. One asked when I was going to take them on a venture out of the neighborhood. For another it was for a dollar to go get chips from the corner store. Another asked whether or not I would give them a ride somewhere. The requests were pouring out of little mouths in every direction.

When the answers were not immediate, we moved right into the whining and begging, a skill nearly every human being has established at about the same time as we start to speak. It had its familiar gnawing affect causing me to want to shout, "Stop whining and be grateful!" Fortunately, I held my tongue and made myself look in their eyes and lean into their requests instead. 

These are children, which I was once also. These are boys and girls, created in the Imago Dei, just I am. In their very being and value, these are my equals, and I theirs. 

While their requests are mostly the same to those I had as a child, there is an important nuance to them. They want adventure because they haven't ever had the chance to leave this zip code. They want chips because there was no dinner to eat at home. They want a ride because their household doesn't have a car. There is absolutely nothing that they are longing for, that I don't also long for myself. The difference is that I have the chance to access it all by myself. 

Like many of my thirty something peers, one of the key words our social culture spouted off often in terms of these economic and other disparities was that of "equality," While our grandmothers' generation had few women who had pursued a college education, our mothers were far more apt to dream of and access such things. Society in general rebuffed around concepts such as there being jobs for women and jobs for men, from the military to the corner executive office. We watched more seats of political and economic power be accessed by women. Though there was keen awareness of the dwarfed percentages and inequality of pay, there was a sense of progress. Part and parcel to this cultural movement was a declaration of sorts that went something like, "Men and women are equal in every way, and therefore ought to be seen and treated as the same."

The "equality" word was used regularly in terms of race as well. Those born in the seventies and early eighties were a stone's throw from the Civil Rights Movement, which embodied a tremendously deep and prophetic message, but the concepts we latched onto were often simplified to this word - "equality." Schools, buses, restrooms, theaters and more were no longer legally allowed to be segregated, declaring that all places were open to all people. Part and parcel with this push for racial equality was a narrative that went something like, "We need to be colorblind, and just see each other as human." 

Somewhat fascinatingly linked to both the gender and racial equality movements was this idea of diversity. Schools, social spaces, workplaces and more were seen as most truly addressing the injustices of inequality when they were diverse in as many ways as possible. However, while the door may have been open to such places, the culture rarely changed. Workplaces were more apt to hire a woman than before, but there were no allowances to deal with her pumping for the nursing baby while she was at work. Universities were more apt to enroll a student of color, but the entire institutional system, established in a European cultural context, required adaptation on nearly every front of their lives. Meanwhile, the social points gleaned from demonstrating diversity, left these new additions to these environments feeling tokenized, not to mention the far higher numbers of those who couldn't get to the "open" door in the first place. 

In English, the word equal is a noun, a verb and an adjective. As a noun, it denotes being the same in perception, such as status. As a verb, it denotes being the same in fact, such as a mathematical equation. As an adjective, it denotes being the same, such as value.

It's no surprise that we in Western culture like the word equal. Equal is very formulaic, which brings a sense of certainty. For things that are certain and unchangeable, such as the truth that all humanity is created equal with unalienable rights, it's a good word choice.  It forms an imperative foundation to all relationship and action pertaining to other human beings, and our own selves. 

While I don't love every aspect of the mathematical language when speaking to profoundly complex human realities, let's stick with it for just a minute longer. We'll say X stands for a flourishing life for a human being. P stand for the absolute value of a person. Let N stand for the energy and effort one puts in towards obtaining X, their life to the fullest. Some others would also include faith as a part of this equation, which we will denote as F.

For most of our lives, the American Dream was held up as the ultimate X, life to the fullest. We were taught that X = P + N (+ F); the American Dream, or a flourishing life, could be achieved by any person investing enough energy and effort towards obtaining this end goal, with (for people of faith) the provision and grace of God. If one didn't achieve it, the part of the formula that needed adjusting was N, their energy and effort. We collected a number of superstar stories to demonstrate the equation, and raised a generation of self-confident, independent dreamers who believed life's achievements rested on their shoulders.

Of course, this version of the story wasn't taught in every elementary school I've learned. In fact, for many children raised in a low-to-moderate income neighborhoods, the idea of X is not painted as a realistic opportunity. The only place X really shows up as a dream is in professional athletics or the music industry. After all, where have they seen people who look like them living out X for generation after generation...? We don't tend to dream for ourselves what we do not see. 

Rather than X as a pursuit, far more energy is put into warning, preventing or prophesying -X over youth in low-to-moderate income neighborhoods. Negative X denotes a life in prison, interspersed with bouts of gang activity, drug dealing or working two jobs at minimum wage. Part and parcel with this is messaging that tells kids they are -P, not as worthy and valuable as other kids. When they try to invest N (energy and effort) into the equation, they often find themselves discouraged on so many fronts that it quickly becomes a battle not worth fighting. 

When those who were raised in schools and households that pounded the X = P + N (+F) formula into our minds, it is only natural that there is a belief that a lacking in N (energy and effort) is preventing achievement of X, or a flourishing life. But what if the formula isn't complete? What if there is a missing factor? Let's call it E, which will stand for the assistance and/or barriers to opportunity. 

New Formula: X = P + N + E (+ F) [Life to the Fullest = Value of the Human Person + Energy and Effort Invested + Assistance or Barriers to Opportunity (+ Goodness and Grace of God)]

(I know, life is not a formula, and I don't like math either. We're almost there.)

The conversations and steps taken in the Civil Rights Movement, Women's Rights movements and more have been crucial in the foundational fact of P = P, all people are equal. However, once we embrace this crucial fact, we still have a task ahead of us. When we allow ourselves to believe that that equally valuable human beings' road to a flourishing life is X = P + N (+ F), society as a whole is left with only one corresponding responsibility - make sure there is not anything we are doing to barricade the door to X. This has been the primary steps we have taken as a society from Emancipation Proclamation to the Women's Right to Vote to Native American sovereignty to making Jim Crow Laws unconstitutional. (Note: We have most certainly not done all or any of them perfectly, completely or excellently.) However, when we recognize we have been operating with an incomplete equation, suddenly we have a new challenge. We move from this idea of equality to something else - equity.

(Good News: We are done with math.)

When pursuing equality, the person or place of power says,  "The door is open, come on in." 

When pursuing equity, the person or place of power says, "Is your door open? May I come in?" It sits with, listens and learns. It asks, "What door do you want to walk through?" It continues with, "What is keeping you from walking through that door?" It lends itself towards celebration of gender-based, racial and cultural uniqueness, absolutely removing barriers to access or questions of value.

While the Civil Rights Movement and various threads of feminism absolutely held the importance of equity in their movements, the equality language took priority. This was likely both because it was foundational, and probably, if we are honest, because it required less of us. We get the concept of equality from 18 months old, but equity is complex.  

Grandma loves all of her grandchildren equally, finding each of them wonderfully precious and valuable. So if grandma buys you shoes, she has to buy all the grandchildren shoes. It's equality. But don't all the grandchildren wear different sizes? And do they all need shoes? Do they want shoes? It's not grandma's problem that the shoes don't fit; that's your feet's fault. Right? 

Of course, we know that's not true. In fact, the question isn't really about fault. It's about acknowledging what is. Grandma's grandchildren are equal in worth and value, and they are different in their needs to access the opportunity of new shoes. Even with their greatest energy and effort invested, they need different sizes. Lack of access to their sizes creates a barrier to them experiencing new shoes. [P + N + E (+ F)= X]

When I came home from school as a child, I would almost always find my mother in the kitchen preparing dinner. If I was hungry, I was either given a snack or a time that dinner was to be served in the imminent future. When looking to achieve equality for low-to-moderate income families, we might ask, "How do we ensure that that family has food?" But if we are looking to achieve equity, we might ask, "Is there a parent home to prepare dinner? Do they have access to a grocery store with healthy and desirable food? Did that parent(s) have access to environments, home or elsewhere, that gave them the skills needed to prepare dinner?" 

When I dreamed of what I wanted to do with my life as a child, I travelled the world and nearly every occupation in my imagination. I was in Ethiopia running orphanages, China as a major corporate executive, married to the President of the United States, a actress shooting films in Europe..." There is one thing I never even dreamed of being: Anything I had never seen a woman be. My dreams also came to a screeching halt when children and a husband were introduced into the picture. When looking to create equality for me as a young woman, one might declare, "You could be the President someday!" While I heard that sentence rather often, it seemed like one of those things people say that we all theoretically agree with, but somehow don't actually believe. Ever increasingly, I hear the voice of women who declare, "We are fierce and gentle, passionate and strong. It is not, but we must make it be. What must we do?" (Equity.)

Equity acknowledges that we have not arrived. While affirming the equality of person, it does not aim for equality of circumstance because it understands the equality of circumstance is not only not possible, its not desirable. I do not want to be you, and you do not want to be me. I want to be me, and I want you to be you. Furthermore, I want you to truly know me, and I want to truly know you. I do not want you to see me as the labels of white or woman, but I want you to know and understand my culture and my femininity. You do not want me to see you as the labels of black or brown, citizen or foreigner, teenager or adult... But I believe you do want me to know your culture, what and who you love, your masculinity, femininity, heritage and more. For these are that which makes you uniquely and beautifully you.

And somehow in that space, I find myself in a far more powerful place. I no longer want to (or am able to) relieve my conscience with wrestling an equal sign between our circumstances. Rather, I wrestle to form an equation together, which equals the greatest possible sum of our parts. I understand that I cannot actually achieve my X if you do not also achieve yours. Or as Martin Luther King Jr so eloquently put it: 

 "Many of our white brothers... have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom." 

Or as my friend challenged me last night: What if you could not have anything that the poorest in your nation could not access? How might that change the conversation? 

What if your children could not access excellent education unless if the poorest in our nation, or even the neighboring towns and cities, could not authentically access excellent education? What if funding was a primary barrier to that, and the only solution that could be found was county school funding instead of hyper-localized funding for education? What if none of us had access to cars anymore, and we all had to use public transportation? How might we respond to the vote to put a bus stop down the street in our suburb, or the concerns vocalized around the tripling of commutes to work due to an inefficient system? What if our nation (that has no national language) determined that it is a requirement to speak a minimum of two languages to maintain citizenship as an adult?

Equality lends us towards the equation of an equal sign between us, which is an important start. However, equity leads us towards a product of maximum collective potential, putting me on the same side of the the equation, believing that our "product" will be higher, better and more beautiful when you are greater. 

May equality be our surname, but equity be our song.

"We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity in this nation. So we have come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism..." (Martin Luther King, I Have A Dream Speech)

"The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." (Jesus, Matthew 23:11-12)