We were both minority women in ministry attending seminary together – one Indian and the other African American. She had a calming presence of God that gave off a big sister in vibe that I came to rely upon as I continued to try and find my way as an artist and theologian in a field that thought more highly of church-based ministers led by men. As a pastor, wife and mother, she was confident and was not intimated by my strong black woman ways. She even embraced my eccentric artistic ways and was not put off by my constant theological questioning of God. She became one of my greatest cheerleaders, a prayer partner, and a spiritual director. But, it was our friendship of equals, of two women standing on behalf of God, that created a bond between us.
We shared a strong belief in Jesus Christ. Her faith was rooted in a conservative evangelicalism that caused people at our radically liberal seminary to whisper behind her back while smiling in her face in a way that only church people can do. My faith was borne out of a Christian upbringing in a family led by the pastor of our small rural African Methodist Episcopal Church. The AME church was founded by Richard Allen who along with his colleagues were pulled up from their praying knees and thrown out of a white Methodist Church for daring to come down from their balcony position to kneel at God’s altar. This legacy of radical liberation theology permeated my being and belief in a way that would later create tension between us.
When we originally met, we bonded over hair matters. Her crown of glory consisted of blown-out curly and wavy, deep brown, almost black, strands interspersed with blond streaks. Her tresses cascaded around the light brown face of a petite Indian woman. My African American medium brown face with was framed by black curls that wrapped around itself and was filled with kinks and bends that didn’t behave without coaxing through a gentle touch or some strong chemicals. Without chemicals or coaxing, most of my strands stood up to praise God defiantly for giving me DNA that manifested in a body that represented a people known best for their oppression.
Our hair dialogues eventually led to conversations about US race relations. Our conversations were often heated as she shared her assessment of why Black people couldn’t live their best lives in this country. Her major thesis was that African Americans needed to heal from the past and just embrace the present and the opportunities that that were available to them in America.
While offended many times, because I valued our friendship, I continued to challenge her optimism and to help her see that our oppression was not just something that we could get over by pulling ourselves up by bootstraps by embracing the American Dream. I wanted her to see that it was not just something we could heal from by just forgiving the white folks. She really thought it just as easy as being like Jesus.
We had many heated discussions and many times I felt frustrated, but I continued to have hope, partly because we always agreed that Jesus held the answer and partly because I believed that brown people really need to stick together in this country. Try as I might, it all that would come to a head after George Floyd’s death. Our friendly banter turned into deep hurt when I shared a a piece that I’d written on my birthday for my blog, titled, “God What I Want for My Birthday Is…” The piece was a lament about our latest experience in a legacy of violent racism acted out upon black bodies and an appeal to God to give me a birthday present in the form of letting black people live instead of constantly letting them die at the hands of white people.
When I shared the link to my blog post, I surely thought she would finally get it, that she would see that our oppression was not in the distant past but a very real and ever present experience in America. I thought that she would connect our oppression to the oppression that Indians faced in her country thereby creating a unity of brown bodies. I thought that as a fellow Christian, she would see our dilemma the way Jesus did and would soften the hard edge of her religious and political conservatism. I thought that she would remember our common bond of hair problems. I thought that the tragedy of these recent deaths would help her get it, finally get it.
I was not ready for her strong faith in the Good News to create bad news for me and my people. The more I tried to explain to her that racism is the reason why we can’t pull ourselves up with bootstraps, that George Floyd’s death was proof that the bootstraps never existed for us.
My heart broke the moment she said that slavery exists and has existed all over the world; so, that should not stop Black people from healing and flourishing in America. She broke my heart full of hope of brown and black unity by her refusal to see the systemic nature of George Floyd’s death, of Breonna Taylor’s death and of Ahmaud Arbery’s death and the recent death of Rayshard Brooks. Her insistence on defending the leadership of this country broke the back of my optimism, and I could no longer be a bridge. So, I told her that we could no longer talk about this, that I could no longer talk about the things that broke my heart.
In the following days, I asked myself, my family, my friends and anyone who would listen, how could this woman, whose skin was only two shades lighter than mine, who came from a country where oppression was just as real not get it? How could she not how the dreams deferred of so many black and brown bodies and those that exploded, cut short by senseless death?
The more I pondered, the more I realized that those two shades of skin color mattered. Those two shades created a world of difference between us that was as wide as the distance between the two countries of our origins. Those two shades gave her a privilege that I didn’t have and would never have. Those two shades afforded her the opportunity to see Black Lives Matter has a movement of angry black bodies that should not be looting, that should just heal, that should just get over it to focus on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Those two shades taught me a valuable lesson. I learned a new form of oppression, the oppression that comes from truly being at the bottom of society, even as a citizen. I learned that America as so throughly created a negative image of black bodies that brown bodies, even those who love Jesus, can see you as just making noise instead of trying to breathe while a boot is on your neck.
Even after all of this, I still have hope. The hope is not she will change her mind and see things my way. My hope lies in what I see beyond her. My hope lies in what is going on in this country right now. I see people marching, speaking up, crying out, and standing up in ways like never before.
Maybe all of the social distancing and isolation created more space and time for everyone to see America for what she truly is right now – a broken body in need of a divine healing touch. It’s a touch that can only come from all of us in unity. It’s a touch that says if one part of the body hurts, we all hurt. It is a body that says we need all shades in order to make this right. While it is all still too premature to determine if lasting change is coming, I still remain hopeful and I choose to see a future where two women in ministry – one brown and one black – build bridges instead of walls.