Chicago Rooftops and Being Free

Today is her birthday.

I don’t remember the first time I met her. It was my freshman year of college, and at first, she was just another junior living on my floor. I do remember asking her if I could be her roommate. The college I attended over-booked freshman girls that fall, so we had three girls living in a two-person room. At the end of the semester, there was space for me to move out and in with Kandice. Her roommate was moving out, and she seemed genuinely excited to share our space together.

chicagoSo I went home for Christmas break, ready to come back in January and move in with Kandice. Over that break, this happened. Suffice it to say that I was… in a weird place when we first started living together.

Kandice and I were roommates that spring semester as well as the following fall, before I decided to leave the school. Often after a bad day, I would come back to my room, knowing where I had hidden chocolate. Kandice was present and in the moment in every way imaginable – unfortunately, her zeal for life often led her to my own hidden candy, which she would somehow find and eat. Frustration over stolen candy aside, I always knew she loved me for who I was as a person, and she challenged my thinking in ways that no one else at that college did.

The last week we lived together, before Christmas break in 2002, I got off the elevator on the seventh floor of our dorm. The school was in downtown Chicago, situated halfway between Cabrini Green and Michigan Avenue – between two worlds. When I got off the elevator, Kandice was standing there with the most intense look on her face I have ever seen anyone have. She yelled – no words in particular, just yelled – and shoved me up against the wall in an outburst of frustration. I could tell she wasn’t angry at me, and even as she got up in my face, it wasn’t violent. She had that much emotion.

I can’t remember whose idea it was to go to the roof of the building, but that’s what we did. It was late at night, but the sky was lit by the city lights. The rain was so heavy I could feel every drop; this was no light spring shower. On the roof of a 10-story building, the rain seemed just a bit closer. There was no shelter, no hiding ourselves from its heavy drops.

We stood on the roof and yelled. I can’t remember what exactly we yelled about – for her it was a lost relationship, for me it was the uncertainty of my future. I don’t know the words but I know we yelled. In the pouring rain. On the roof.

I am certain that the next part was Kandice’s idea, because it wasn’t allowed. If I followed every rule, she seemed to view each one as a new challenge. We snuck past the unlocked gate that led to the maintenance tower on top of the building. We climbed up the metal ladder and onto the very top of the tower. There was no railing. No ledge. We were now 11 stories up, and though the maintenance tower was probably 15′ square and was in the middle of the building (so if we fell it would only be one story), I felt on top of the world. And I was terrified.

We yelled for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, exhausted, drenched, and freezing, we made our way back down the maintenance tower. We peered in the door from the roof to make sure no one saw us, then rode down the elevator in silence. Comfortable, understood silence.

I have never felt as alive as I did on that roof that night. I was the most free to be myself, most free to express emotion I so often concealed. Kandice was my friend, my confidante, and I admired her.

We lost touch after college. We were Facebook friends, but that was many years ago, before I shifted my theology and started the path I’m on now. I wish I could still talk to her, because I really think she would LOVE who I am today.

Last week, I was telling my friend Alissa about Kandice, about how spunky and feisty and full-of-life she was. I told Alissa stories about being Kandice’s roommate, and suddenly I stopped short. My breath caught – I don’t think Alissa even realized that I stopped myself, because I forced myself to trail off. I couldn’t bring myself to say the end of the story: Kandice died almost six years ago, from Inflammatory Breast Cancer. Her death was tragic in so many ways. She was preparing for the mission field. She was young. She shouldn’t have died.

I couldn’t say the words because somehow saying them would make it a little more true. I hadn’t seen Kandice since early 2003, so somehow I can convince myself that she’s not on Facebook because she’s hanging out with deaf kids on dirt paths in Africa, listening to what they couldn’t say and learning from them. She’s there, in my mind, sharing about the love of God with these kids who are abandoned and unwanted. In my mind, Kandice is fulfilled and happy. And yet, though I know that she isn’t on the streets of Africa with deaf children, I know that Kandice really is fulfilled and happy now. Whatever happens after death has to be better than the hell that cancer and suffering deliver on earth, and I am confident that Kandice is there. Free. Fully herself.

Brene Brown says that we should “lean in to moments of joy.” So today, in Kandice’s honor, that’s what I will do. In the midst of the meetings and the deadlines I have today, I will light a candle and remember Kandice. I will say her name out loud. And who knows… maybe I’ll even find a piece of hidden chocolate in the back of my drawer.

In fear, but also in hope: On Ash Wednesday and going to war

There’s something powerful about Ash Wednesday being the week you send your husband off to war. Again.

He was supposed to have been gone already – I thought the service would be my first time at church without him. Instead, it was our last time at churIMG_3154ch together before he left. As I faced the bowl of ashes, I was filled with dread.

It’s an odd thing, being someone who longs for peace, who views all war as tragedy, who chafes at the American Exceptionalism and Colonialism that so often infiltrate our foreign policy… to stand proudly and sing along during The Army Song (even if I must change a couple words to be able to sing it authentically). To have my house decorated with the signs of a family established during war on one wall… and mandalas drawn by Buddhist monks on another. To have an award that includes the motto “Strike Fear”… hanging on my office wall at church.

In fear, but also in hope…

I live in a tension of being so, so proud of the uniform my husband wears, while being ever aware of the blood spilled at the hands of Soldiers of war throughout history. I am proud of his work as a chaplain – of his commitment to bring about wholeness in a broken world – as he advocates for those on the margins in the military because of their religion, gender, orientation, and beliefs. He provides care for the wounded – those wounded physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. But our lives are marked by death and destruction. War is always tragic. 

In fear, but also in hope…

Last Wednesday, our foreheads bearing the marks of crosses of ashes, I couldn’t escape that tension. War is death. There’s no other purpose for it. People die. Soldiers die. Civilians die. Children die. The land is marred with blood and bullets. As people of faith we confidently proclaim the good news of life and redemption… and war destroys the hope of that life at every turn.

As an Army family, our marriage deals in death. On our first night as a married couple, we discussed what I would do if I I heard that knock on the door to inform me he had been killed in combat. I kissed him goodbye a week later – and he came home after our first anniversary. Our son attended a Soldier’s memorial ceremony when he was 5 days old. Our wills are updated. And yet, we live life in the present, knowing that none of us, really, is guaranteed another day.

In fear, but also in hope… 

And that’s the point of all this, I suppose. We long, we wait. There’s no way to get to Easter but to go through Lent. There’s no way to get to the final resurrection but to go through the brokenness that is life on earth, even while we plant seeds of hope and healing. Ashes on our foreheads reminds us of our own mortality, but we know that this is not the end, that there is a hope yet to come…

In fear, but also in hope, we come together with ashes on our heads.
The planet is dying in our hands;
people turn to each other for food and strength
only to be shoved away.

Each day we deal in death,
yet pretend that we are good.
Let us take forty days to look hard at our so-called goodness
and see what it covers up.
Then, we will join together in taking up the cross
of living in the world as it is,
for there is only one earth, and, as far as we know, only one human race.
~ Chalice Worship

In fear, but also in hope, we recognize that, though these 40 days reminds us of our own humanity, we now see through a glass darkly. And, even in the face of war, even with ashes on our heads, we confidently proclaim that someday, somehow, as a mystery we don’t yet understand…

Easter is coming.

And We Have a Wall: refugees at our borders

I’m sure by now we have all seen the heartbreaking story of the little boy on the beach in Turkey. I read a piece by poet Warsan Shire – an immigrant herself – which read,

You have to understand,

No one puts their child in a boat

Unless the water is safer than the land.

I cannot fathom the emotions of a parent who ultimately makes that choice. I cannot imagine a world in which risking death was a better option than certain death.

And yet, I am so, so torn by what I’ve been reading about the Syrian refugees. I am glad it’s gaining attention, because it can be so easy to turn away from events happening on the other side of the world. I have been reading calls for peaceful countries in Europe to open their doors, to let in the stranger and the immigrant. Indeed. And I’ve hesitated mentioning this because I’m very bothered by “Tragedy Olympics” – you know, if you are sad about something, but I have a tragedy that’s even sadder, I dismiss your tragedy because mine is worse. As though empathy is a zero-sum game, and if we’re heartbroken about one thing it automatically means we aren’t about another. It’s the cries of “If you care about that thing, you really should care about this thing!” Because I hate that so much, I’ve remained silent thus far.

And yet.

This is a close-up of the wall. Though here it is bars - some say as a fence, some say as a prison - in other places the wall is solid.

This is a close-up of the wall. Though here it is bars – some say as a fence, some say as a prison – in other places the wall is solid.

And yet.

We have a wall.

Let me repeat that.

WE HAVE A WALL.

Thousands of people seek refuge in the United States of America each year. And we have a wall.

There is a sort of “conventional wisdom” which paints these folks as manipulative, drug-using, violent criminals.

But I’ve seen their faces. Last winter, on a trip with my seminary through an organization called Borderlinks, I met countless people who sought refuge in the U.S. and were turned away. And not just turned away. Arrested. Placed in unsafe detention facilities. Chained. Processed. Placed on a bus and dropped off on the other side of the wall, only to be met with violence, trafficking, and drug smugglers ready to force them to walk the desert.

I heard so many stories, but one in particular stands out.* When he was young – about 9 – he witnessed a murder in a parking lot. He and his mother were getting in their car, and suddenly gunfire started. They crouched down, the gunfire quickly subsided, and the shooters raced away immediately. The boy then looked up to see the man in the car next to him, shot dead.

His mom started having an attack – he thought it was a heart attack, so he was able to get her to the hospital. Tests revealed it was a panic attack – understandable given what they just experienced. When she was about to be released from the hospital, the doctor told her that the police were on their way to question her about what she saw, so she needed to stay. This made her uneasy. She had a gut feeling – thankfully so – and she and her son left the hospital before the police arrived.

Fast forward several months. The police were actually involved in the shooting – not a surprise, in the heavily violent and corrupt city in which they lived – and they began stalking her. She received death threats. Her son was followed to and from school. The police would park outside her house. Shootings in her neighborhood increased. The police began knocking at her door and intimidating her. She wasn’t safe – violence was all around her, and she needed to protect her son. So she chose the risk of death over the certainty of death. There was no boat in which to put her son – but there was a dangerous desert to cross. So they did. 

There is a physical barrier for several hundred miles of the U.S. – Mexico border. This forces those who wish to seek refuge in the United States to cross the desert on foot. The desert is filled with those who rob, rape, and kidnap. But the risk of death is a better choice than certain death. I cannot fathom being a parent and being faced with that choice. 

There is a physical barrier for several hundred miles of the U.S. - Mexico border.

There is a physical barrier for several hundred miles of the U.S. – Mexico border.

“But why don’t they just do it the ‘legal’ way?” you might be asking. This is much easier said than done. There are immigration limits, quotas, misinformation, constantly-changing laws. Put another way, if that’s the question you have about our own border, would you be asking that of the crisis in Syria as well? “Why didn’t those Syrians just do it the legal way? Plenty of European countries have paths to legal immigration – they should just fill out the paperwork and wait!” When you are fleeing violence – as they are fleeing in Syria just as they are fleeing in Central America and Mexico – that is not always an option. The United States refuses to call them “refugees” (because of our own complicity in the region), but that’s what they are. Sure, the violence in Syria looks different, but when people are killing and kidnapping your kids, it doesn’t matter why or under what organization they fall. 

My point here is that there is no difference between the Syrians fleeing violence and the Central Americans and Mexicans fleeing violence. And yet, we label one “refugees” and the other “illegals.” I believe that our call as people of God is to welcome and love the immigrant and the stranger – especially when they’re at our own door. 

*I’ll change some details to generalities for the sake of the young man whose story this is.