We were both minority women in ministry attending seminary together — one Indian and the other African American. She had a calming spiritual presence that gave off a big sister vibe. As a pastor, wife, and mother, she was confident and was not intimidated by my strong, Black woman ways. She even embraced my eccentric, artistic nature and was not put off by my constant theological treatises and questions. She became one of my greatest cheerleaders, a prayer partner, and a spiritual director. Yet, 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 born 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, was pulled up from his 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 Christian liberation permeated my being and my beliefs in a way that would later create tension between us.
When we originally met, we bonded over hair matters. Her crown of glory was curly and wavy. Its deep brown, almost black, strands were interspersed with blond streaks. She kept it blown-out for easy management. Her hair cascaded around the light brown face of a petite Indian woman.
My African American medium brown face was framed by black curls that wrapped around themselves. My hair was filled with kinks and bends that didn’t behave without coaxing from a gentle touch or some strong chemicals. Without chemicals or coaxing, most of my strands stood up to praise God 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 were available to them in America. She really thought it was just as easy as being like Jesus.
While offended many times, because I valued our friendship, I continued to challenge her unrealistic optimism and to help her see that our oppression was not just something that we could get over. I wanted her to understand that our problem was not easily solved by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps or by embracing the American Dream. I wanted her to see that it was not just something we could heal from by forgiving the white folks.
Through our many heated discussions, I continued to have hope, partly because we always agreed that Jesus held the answer and partly because I believed that brown people really needed to stick together in this country. Try as I might, our disagreements would come to a head after the death of George Floyd. His death, the sound in those 8 minutes and 46 seconds, broke my resolve. In the midst of Covid-19, and on the heels of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, and Breona Taylor, I could no longer keep my emotions and my tears in check. I let them flow onto the page in a blog post that I wrote on my birthday. It was titled, “God What I Want for My Birthday Is: A Black Lives Matter Lament.” It was 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, a new BIPOC bond. 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.
However, our intense but friendly banter turned into deep hurt when she simply and calmy responded to the deaths and protests with her strong faith in the Gospel that didn’t require oppressors to repent, truly repent, of the sin of racism. Her version of the Good News signaled 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 by our bootstraps – that George Floyd’s death was proof that the bootstraps never existed for us – the more she dug into her position.
She said that slavery and oppression have existed all over the world for a long time and that everyone has to deal with it. She still didn’t believe that should not stop Black people from healing and flourishing in America. She broke my heart full of hope for brown and black unity. She just didn’t see the systemic nature of George Floyd’s death, Breonna Taylor’s death, Ahmaud Arbery’s death, Rayshard Brooks’ death and all of the deaths to come.
Her insistence on defending the leadership of this country was the last straw that broke the back of my optimism. I could no longer be a bridge. In the days following that conversation, I asked myself, my family, my friends and anyone who would listen, how this woman could not get it. Didn’t she feel our pain, especially since her skin was only two shades lighter than mine and since she came from a country where oppression was just as real? How could she not see that the dreams of so many black and brown bodies were deferred indefinitely or had exploded, having been cut short by senseless deaths?
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 births.
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 as a movement of angry black bodies that looted instead of healing, that lashed out instead of focusing 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 has so thoroughly created a negative image of black bodies that brown bodies – even those who love Jesus – can see us as just making noise instead of trying to breathe while a boot is on your neck. Eventually, those two shades came between us, creating a silence that lasted for quite some time.
It quite a while, but our friendship did outlast the silence. A couple of months after graduation, after Covid-19 settled into the land and after protests became the norm, God spoke to us both through a mutual friend.
The three of us were in a group that I’d formed for women in ministry. After not hearing from my Indian friend for a while, I assumed that she didn’t want to be in touch. I sent a message to the group that I was removing her from the notifications. Our mutual friend protested, saying that God brought us together and that only God could remove a person from the group. She reminded me of the one rule we had that said people could leave but no one could force them to leave.
She was right and I was being petty because I was still hurt that my Indian friend had not reached out to apologize. I was waiting and that waiting turned my hope into hopelessness. I lashed out by trying to dismiss her.
As it turned out, my Indian sister had changed her phone number. She had a new assignment as a senior pastor. She called me when she heard that I was still angry. She called and just like that, we were back to our heated yet friendly debates. She hadn’t changed and I hadn’t changed, but I had a new vision. When she shared details about her new assignment in Nebraska, I smiled. Something about an Indian woman serving in an all-white church in Nebraska gave me hope. While she is still as conservative and evangelical as they come, I still remain hopeful. I now have a radical hope that chooses to see a future where two women in ministry — one brown and one black — break down walls and build bridges across the many divides in our nation and in our world.