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Stories from the Wilderness: building a prophetic (and proactive) LGBTQ+ Church

This summer I spent 8 weeks building queer community in a Christian village in the Wilderness of Washington state.

I departed one Wilderness, thrust into another: the Christian church confronting its jarring denial of full inclusion to LGBTQ+ people.

The recently released Nashville Statement, drawn up by conservative Evangelical “Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood,” hijacks biblical language towards excluding the LGBTQ+ community from full humanity in the Church. It was released 12 days after I left my Wilderness.

This summer I volunteered and lived at Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat center in Washington’s North Cascades, in the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area. I had visited Holden with my family for decades, lived there for a few years after college, served as teaching faculty, and last July, Holden was the place where I (finally, finally) came out as queer.

After having just spent a blissful week this May in my first ever queer-normative space (meaning built/led/populated by and designed for LGBTQ+ people) at A-Camp, a summer camp for queer women & nonbinary folks, I knew I needed to build some queer community of my own this summer. I also knew that as the teen coordinator, it was my responsibility to make that space available to youth as well. So I got to work.

ROUND TABLES AND SIMPLE QUESTIONS

On Mondays after dinner in the mountains, I hosted an LGBTQ+ “digestion walk” (okay, AKA “queer fart walk”) open to all LGBTQ+ villagers. It was simple. Before setting off on one trail or another, we went around the circle and shared our names, our pronouns, and our response to a brief queer question I’d come up with on the spot. “Who is a queer person you look up to?” or “What media was important to you as you were growing up?” or “What have you been pondering these days related to your queer identity?” Then we simply walked together. It was a revolution.

On Wednesdays I’d host an LGBTQ+ luncheon with the same opening ritual, sharing pronouns and stories, talking and laughing while eating salad or chili. We picked a round table in the giant, bustling dining hall, displaying a hand-painted cardboard sign “LGBTQ+ Lunch. Welcome!” and often had to squeeze in extra chairs.

This walking group and the round table were subtle and powerful ways to continue to claim space, come out to other villagers, and build a small, loving sanctuary for ourselves in a community that, just by nature of being a Christian space, however progressive it was, could feel hostile and alienating. It was also a way for me to come out to my youth and their families, and often some of my teens would join us at the table. Though I had private dialogues with villagers every day about LGBTQ+ identity and other justice issues (#BlackLivesMatter t-shirt day always spurred interesting convos from the crowd) it is essential to regularly and publicly claim space to bravely affirm the presence & inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the Church.

FAITHFUL WORLDMAKING

One morning a twelve year old in my youth group walked up to me tearfully, pulling me aside asking if I could talk. She wanted to join the Queer Lunch, but her family was in the village and she was not out to them yet. So later that day another queer staff member and I took her on a special walk just for her, eating ice cream together while walking through the village vegetable garden, discussing queer stuff: “Are there safe people you can be out to?” and other stuff: “What kind of music are you listening to now?”

Sometimes the weekly digestion walks boasted 5-10 people, breaking off into small chatting clusters, kicking up dust. Sometimes it would be one-one-one, me hearing about what it was like for another villager to be queer in the military, the trouble of finding a queer-friendly therapist, the joy of finding a comic book with queer characters. One time we hosted a Queer Media night, listening to Cameron Esposito, guffawing on the floor. Another weekend we did a “Queer Qamping” overnight hike with other queer women, communing with the open Wilderness as a queer space, laughing in the freedom of a rugged Nature that doesn’t care who we love, that doles out the same beautiful and unforgiving elements to everyone who trespasses, wind whipping our queer hair and rain hitting our queer faces and bears tromping through our queer pathways.

And it was beautifully intergenerational. One of my youth who is trans bravely shared a piece they had been working on that week, “10 Things I’ve Learned About Coming Out,” with our multi-age lunch table. Another trans teenager tried out their name first the first time in public for the week they were in the Village. On our weekly walk, this teen was then able to hear a 65-year-old gay man recount stories of being outed at his blue collar job thirty years ago, and how he made it his life’s work to be out in every church where he is a member. Later in the summer, a nonbinary church worker in his thirties was able to exercise the pronouns he never gets to use on the job, and recounted his fears and troubles working in a conservative state with few public allies. He smiled and teared up as a 60 year old lesbian woman across the table talked about how her partner felt it was too late to come out as nonbinary and stop “wearing the costume of gender” that didn’t fit who they truly were. We listened. We held the space.

We were building queer community within Christian community, and every meeting felt like a small victory, a small healing, making our own way in the literal physical Wilderness and also the spiritual wilderness of a faith community that has not always loved us back.

This is what we in the realm of identity studies call “worldmaking.” That is, creatively acknowledging with lament that the systems we live in, the world as it is, has not been built for the good, the welcome, the thriving of particular marginalized communities. So we come together to make our own way in the Wilderness of the mountains and the wilderness of the Church, to center our own voices, to build the communities that are missing, to heal ourselves, to love ourselves.

BOLD, PROPHETIC, PROACTIVE

I tell these prophetic stories to share how sacred space can be built and ought to be built within the Church, and to emphasize how it must be done proactively and intentionally. I reiterate to heterosexual Christians and pastors grappling with what to do next that because of historic trauma and present very vocal rejection, the Church must acknowledge that it always begins at a place of hostility in relationship to queer people. Because the Christian norm has been exclusion, denial, harm, and violence towards the LGBTQ+ community, sustained, vocal, visible, proactive action is required to even arrive at a point of neutral relationship, let alone positive and centered in trust & welcome. As queer people, the unfortunate truth is that we can basically assume, until proven otherwise, that any Christian church and its members will hold a hostile stance towards who we are. This is sad. I feel sad writing it. This is not God’s vision of community, welcoming all as beloved.

Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum describes a helpful metaphor for proactive action towards unlearning and working against existing systems of domination. Here she applies it to working against racism, and it is also useful in understanding full LGBTQ+ inclusion:

“I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behavior has identified with the ideology of our White supremacist system and is moving with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt – unless they are actively anti-racist – they will find themselves carried along with the others.” (Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together at the Cafeteria, 1997)

Understanding Tatum’s paradigm, that means that Churches must be swift and active, openly and emphatically affirming, and show it in myriad ways:

-Certification vocal and visible membership & affiliation with a pro-LGBTQ+ faith organization or certification like Reconciling in Christ

Organizational Statement blatant, clear, and clickable inclusion statement on the first page of the church website

-Visible Symbols rainbow symbols on church bulletins, doors, signs, and flags

-Public Declarations immediate and clear public confirmations of support after anti-LGBTQ+ statements like The Nashville Statement

-Affiliation Groups Specific resources particularly for LGBTQ+ members, with public support from the pastor, like Bible studies, youth groups, coffee hours, counseling resources and spiritual direction, or service trips

For further reading on why the above affirmative stances matter, see this helpful resource: www.reconcilingworks.org/resources/ric/whysayso/

TO WHOM SHALL I TURN?

Rest assured, the people who are anti-LGBTQ+ within these churches have literally hundreds of thousands of congregations around the world they can turn to, who will gladly welcome them if they choose to leave because their old church has taken a prophetic stance on love and inclusion. Conversely, there are very few churches I know I can safely turn to as a queer Christian. As an ELCA Lutheran from Wisconsin, there are zero churches in my home synod (which is like a region or diocese) that are designated as open & affirming of LGBTQ+ people. Zero as in none.

I understand and affirm that for their own safety and in solidarity or protest, many of my queer friends and colleagues, many of my allied social justice comrades, have chosen to leave the Church altogether. We must acknowledge that this is because of the Church’s failures, not the failures of those who must leave it.

As for me: I defiantly claim Christ’s common table as my own, like that round table at Queer Lunch at Holden Village, always room to squeeze in more chairs. I will not leave the faith and the denomination I love or let it deteriorate further into a limited vision of God’s abundant love. I won’t let it. I’m going to keep worldmaking. Join me. “Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.”

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Photo: Wilderness of Holden Village.

FOR INSPIRATION:

-#DenverStatement: www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2017/08/the-denver-statement/

-Christians United Statement: www.christiansunitedstatement.org

-Liturgists Statement: www.theliturgists.com/statement

-“Why I Applaud and Fervently Deny the Nashville Statement: http://auburnseminary.org/applaud-fervently-deny-nashville-statement/

MEDIA COVERAGE (curated by Christians United):

NOTE: Pride@Church. I first came out in a loving, welcoming Christian community. Now it’s my call to help other communities to be more equipped for this ministry with LGBTQ+ people. God calls us to be our full selves. Please consider sharing & donating: www.gofundme.com/prideatchurch

HELP ME SAY YES: Does my work speak to you? Consider adding to the “tip jar” so I can continue to consult & write and work for justice, and say YES to new projects: paypal.me/annaczarnikneimeyer

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Coming out Christian, Coming out Queer: I want to be like Jesus

 

“He spent His life in doing good;
I want to be like Jesus.
In lowly paths of service trod;
I want to be like Jesus.
He sympathized with hearts distressed,
He spoke the words that cheered and blessed,
He welcomed sinners to His breast.
I want to be like Jesus.
A holy, harmless life He led;
I want to be like Jesus.
The Father’s will, His drink and bread;
I want to be like Jesus.
And when at last He comes to die,
“Forgive them, Father,” hear Him cry
for those who taunt and crucify.
I want to be like Jesus.”

YOU HAVE TO THINK ABOUT IT, DOING WHAT I DO

In the past year, I’ve thought a lot about Jesus. And I’ve thought a fair amount about dying, too.

We have seen people die before, die for justice. Get hurt or slammed to the ground at lunch counters and on busses, had acid dumped on their bodies, set on fire. Crucified.

Three years ago I had just started my job helping to found an inclusion and diversity center in Northeastern Wisconsin.

I sat at my computer in the morning that first month on the job, surveying the news for the day.

An image of hung bodies flashed against my screen. Nailed bodies. Crucified. Contemporary rebels in some distant land who were punished for thinking what they thought, believing what they believed, being who they are.

I stared at the screen in my glass office.

I cried.

I cried loud in that clear glass room, exposed.

I had begun public work that I realized could expose me. Expose me to danger.

At that point, not “real” danger, maybe. But what is real?

Maybe danger of being scoffed at.

Danger of being misunderstood.

Risk of being labeled, judged.

The next year our office welcomed a controversial speaker to campus and I encountered something that helped me do this thinking about risk and danger:

Hatred directed my way. Personally, my way. Individually.

I did not answer my office phone for months because of hate calls. A student recorded the messages for me.

Each day we would get some voicemail from someplace from someone telling us we were going to hell. That God would damn us. I got a postcard that said “shame on you.”

Sometimes I got a phone call on my cell from a number I did not recognize.

Did they know where I lived? Could they find me?

Shame, on me.

That year, I had people scream at me. I sat calmly behind a desk as students raised their voices and their faces twisted in anger. I listened. Sat still. Blinked more often, the force of their rage me hitting me in the eyes. But I took it, I let it land on my body.

Then I had a loved one scream at me. Shout at me about my work. Standing, pacing violently. I sat peacefully. I was not at peace, but I could be still and take it. I had encountered this before.

It hurt me, though.

It made me think- could I be hurt more? Could someone who hated me enough decide to do something about it? Would they attack? Because hateful words and screamed obscenities and dominating someone by standing over them: these are violences I felt. I was 24.

Flash forward to a few weeks ago, on the road in the American south for work. I felt the crushing weight of division heavy in my heart. Division in my extended family, division in my broken state of Wisconsin, division in our country, our world. I thought maybe I could heal this division my running for public office.

I did a thought exercise to chronicle my worst fears about being a public figure in politics. My top two:

  1. Failure
  2. Physical Harm or Death

I strategized, frenzied, for days. Slogans, fundraisers, campaign team. Because over time I’ve needed to come to terms with the fact that engaging in this justice work, this work of bridging divisions, of bringing dangerous truths to light, is a process and the process is the work. There is no end result that gives me an A or an F. There is really no one to tell me that I have done any good, either. Many people who hear my words or go to my programs or attend something I coordinated or read my work will never tell me anything about how it moved them or not. Sometimes they fill the comments section with obscenities and insults to my thinking and my writing.

But once in a while. Once in a while they come to my office, in quiet moments. Once in a while a student will walk up to me and he will tell me I am the 5th person he has come out to, and he’s about to make someone in his family the sixth. Once in a while I will hear of a white person in Alabama who read my piece and had a conversation about racism with their next door neighbor because of it.

These have happened, too.

So if there is one person free-er. One person more wide awake. One person more loving than before, there can be no failure. Says black Catholic theologian Rev. Bryan Massingale, “When one is doing the work of justice, one cannot fail, for one is doing the work of God.”

BUT I COULD DIE

You know I have to think about it a bit, being what I am.

The central narrative in my life- the central story, the overarching myth that has captured my mind and heart and work ethic and family—is that of loving sacrifice.

As a Christian, what I know is that people hated Jesus because he loved so hard.

They hated him for saying a clear, firm NO to structures of domination.

They hated him for changing the rules, for turning the tables, for casting money changers out of the temple, healing on Sabbath, welcoming the stranger, dining with women and lepers.

They hated him.

And I have seen videos of lunch counters.

I have seen burnt out busses from freedom riders.

I have seen footage of the shot bodies of King, Kennedy.

I have seen exhaustion– too many activists and writers meeting early death and deteriorated health.

And all of these things, over all of these years, has called me to question:

Could I do it? Would I do it?

That meme that went around—”ever wondered what you would have done during civil rights? Well what you are doing now is what you would have done.” It weighs heavy on my heart, my hands each day as I type, as I teach, as I march.

I have never been so scared of myself as when I have been powerful enough to transcend the fear of death because, like Jesus, I believe in God’s justice, which loves and welcomes all.

And I have never been so liberated.

And I have never been such a channel.

I CAME OUT

On president’s day I stood at the foot of Trump Tower in New York City.

I held a sign: “Christians in solidarity with Muslim neighbors.”

I always had folks ask me about that, at the varied marches I’ve been to.

I held it high, always.

I opened my body up, my Black Lives Matter shirt over my coat, a human billboard, a corporeal message printed on white skin:

Black. Lives. Matter.

After the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., a group of red-hatted white men told me “all lives matter” in the dusk of the evening and I was prepared to love them into knowing better and learning better and I quietly and calmly responded: “Yes, all lives WILL matter when black lives matter.”

Because the march was always only part of the activism. On the bus or at the gas station or in the subway or sidewalk to each event, I wore the shirt, held the sign, smiled my big white, my tall blonde smile, and talked and answered questions with people who wondered what I could mean. Who challenged what I would mean. Whatever could I mean by that. However could I:

say have a blessed day and

smile and ask them about their hunting knife selection in rural Illinois and

wear a Black Lives Matter shirt and

hiking boots

and lipstick

and be white and have

blond hair

and mean all of it.

And have all of it be true.

On those streets, marching for justice, it occurred to me more than once that I could be beaten on my way to activism. I often went alone- I always met comrades at the march but I needed to go alone. Sometimes the march would end after dark, and I would make my way through the city with my sign and my shirt and my heightened awareness and I thought:

This is something I can do.

I can use my body as a tool for justice.

I read work about white allyship and activism.

How white bodies can serve as barriers against guns and billy clubs.

How white bodies can shield bodies of color if requested, stand in solidarity with those we see routinely beaten and killed on the news. I answered a call on facebook that asked that white people, white feminists pledge to put their bodies on the line for people of color and other marginalized communities.

I thought about if I could do it.

I decided I could.

I would.

And that cold March day, I was ushered up to the front steps of Trump Tower by my fellow marchers.

I grew up in summer camps and choir rooms.

I know how to lead a crowd of hundreds in a chant or a song.

I have been doing that since I was 8.

I led the calls on those steps. I invited women of color to stand at the front with me, if they wanted. We stood together.

One wore leather gloves.

I wore my shirt.

A counter-protester blocked us with their giant sign in front of our faces.

Screamed at me.

Oh, but I have been screamed at before.

I have been hated before.

My body was wide and open.

It did occur to me that I could be the target of a shot.

The target of an arrest, certainly.

A clear ringleader, later I found out I was the first story on Snapchat that day- throughout the globe, the first click was this white woman screaming, more angry than I had ever been. More desperate, more sad.

Screaming and chanting. Drums joined me. The crowd offered additional chants and I knew what to do, incorporated their calls:

“Native Lives Matter”

“Queer Lives Matter”

We cycled through them/

“Show me what democracy looks like: this is what democracy looks like!”

“If we don’t get it? Shut it down. If we don’t get it? Shut it down. If we don’t get it Shut. It. Down.”

I stomped and snarled and thought of all the things I had not consented to that year. Had not said OK:

To see my family cracked down the line of partisanship.

To watch Hillary get jeered at, dominated, effigied, dragged through the mud.

To know that my country was shutting out lives. Was repeating old patterns of thinly veiled exclusion and religiously fueled blockades, under the thin, weak guise of self-protection.

To read story after story of children shot down, of black and brown bodies shot down. Of trans bodies murdered and lost again and again.

I did not cosign on this.

But I can work against it.

I screamed because I knew there were parts of me that were part of this. My body is and was and always will be stamped with whiteness, and marked by the Christianity of my childhood.

But I did not agree for those things, those parts of myself, to be hijacked and used for violence and hatred.

After the shooting at Pulse Night Club in Orlando last summer, I felt such deep despair that I missed class, wrote for hours, sobbed in the pew at a Catholic church and knew it would never be enough. I wrote hard, sat still and let the words flow out of me for eight hours in a coffee shop in small town Wisconsin. I crafted a service that summer, wrote a sermon, used all I had: every ounce of every gift and trait I possess to help people see that the shootings at the Church in Charleston at the prayer circle and the murders at Pulse Night Club were connected, strung through by a common chord of domination, violating sacred space, safe space.

To help people feel something, anything. To help us change together.

And I’ve never been black. I can’t know what it is like to kneel before my child and give them instructions for what to do in order to not be shot walking down the street with hood up. In order to not be pushed to the ground.

And I’ve never been trans. I can’t know what it is like to enter a bathroom wondering if I’ll be violated, harassed. I’ll never know what it is to have a body that is up for debate quite like that.

But after I gave that sermon about the nightclub murders in Orlando, the Church violence in Charleston, the hatred that spurred gunshots.

I came out.

In Christian community, I came out as queer. I wasn’t strong enough yet to say it in my sermon. I hinted. I preached my pain and sorrow and my fear. Perhaps the congregation could tell, as my voice cracked at the pulpit when I said I would pray for the nightclub shooting victims and their families.

Because I knew that I could die, too.

I knew that now I belonged to that group. In fact I had always belonged to that group. It could be me shot at that club that night. I knew that I could be hated, scorned, beaten or shot or rejected or cast out of my family or my community because of who I am.

And that’s perhaps too much to include in my first ever sermon. Well the first of many really. But also really not the first, because preaching is talking with truth, with fearlessness, with vigor and salt and everything I have.

And I’ve done that before.

But not like this. That week last July, I preached on a Tuesday, came out to myself on a Wednesday, and on Friday, as a visiting faculty I was slated to give an LGBTQ Ally training, one I had given many times before, across the country, all in Christian settings.

I did not sleep at all before the training. I quietly watched the sun rise over mountains as I gathered my supplies: stickers and charts and comics and mnemonic devices and claymation video clips that could help people feel and see.

Ready or not.

I have watched trainers skillfully slip it in: mentioning their partner. Talking about their first pride parade.

But for me it was new. I had none of this.

So I just told the group- they didn’t know it was the first time I had uttered my queerness aloud in public.

In my training that day, the tools that I had built over decades for teaching—the patient listening, the gentle reframing, the ability to shape a dialogue and offer reflection- all were still there.

But my walls of protection were not.

And someone said the word “abnormal” about queerness, and I was cracked open.

I finished the training. It was a good one.

Maybe my best.

Turns out it is freeing to be free. Better to be honest.

And I walked upstairs and broke down with a few strangers, other queer women of faith who would hold me. Who told me to eat familiar things and wear comfortable clothes and surround myself with goodness because yes this is hard and yes this is painful and yes it is worth it.

I’ll write more about coming out later. I’ll craft stories of the people I told, beautiful embraces, tearful explanations, stories of relief and anguish, secrets and judgements, vocabulary and disbelief.

Stories of

“Are you sure?”

and

“Why?”

and

“How long have you known?”

and

“Anna you told me this six years ago.”

And also, from my wonderful, loving grandmother:

“Anna, do you feel more free?”

And I said yes.

LOVE FOR NEIGHBOR

Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves.

But what happens if, for a long time, I have not loved myself as I have loved my neighbor?

And then, what happens if I give myself up for something?

What happens if I have given everything I possessed to a movement I believe in so fully, guided by my vivid image of Jesus on the cross, killed for doing the work that had to be done.

And I know I’m not a savior.

But I might be like a prophet.

Because prophets tell the truth.

They speak it to power.

Even when they know they could be harmed.

And right now- the people I love have a kind of power over me because they could reject me- hurt me because I am speaking the truth. Trying to be like a prophet. Trying to be like Jesus. I’m trying.

And I’ve chosen that as my life’s work.

Not work- my call.

And actually, with a call, we don’t always choose it.

So yeah, I haven’t really consented to this.

But it’s something I must do. I am compelled by everything, everything in me.

I have been whipped around, bowled over by the holy spirit:

In the form of waves off the coast of Ghana, that cauterized my wounds and made me cough salt water and baptized me to better understand that I can be moved or carried or pelted and will not always be in control, but I will live.

In the form of relationships that have pushed me, sometimes too quickly, towards truth, not always in control, but I will live.

In the form of finding myself in the role of a writer now, telling my own stories and swearing an oath to tell and to protect and honor stories of other people of faith, whatever faith, who are also doing this hard work.

I have seen bodies tied to fences, cracked mosques, baptisms in glacier water, temple walls filled with prayers, faces of my marching comrades wrapped in sparkling hijabs. I have seen truth tellers pushed to the ground, and a body crucified, beaten without fighting back.

I did not ask for this, but I do say yes to it.

I say yes to living fully who I am, which is a queer woman.

I say yes to prophesying, looking death and power and hatred in the eye and not letting it destroy me for good and then still telling what I came to tell.

And I say yes to being fully Christian, arms spread wide, hands open in prayer and surrender that I’m shaped and molded by an ancient story of someone who loved so hard, cared so deeply, that death did not matter to him. Death could not win the day. And he rose.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise. -Maya Angelou

AT THE DEVIL’S LAKE

A month ago I went on a hike to Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin.

Many times before I have walked these trails that snake up sheer cliffs and veer towards edges.

I went with strangers I met that day who had become quick friends.

As we trudged the dirt pathways, I found myself saying aloud: “People have died here.”

I knew it was true—fallen and broken by sandstone and granite.

My new friend said: “But not today.”

We breathed through elevation and slipping mud and got to the top and I walked out to the edge. I have been scared of heights forever. Today I was not afraid of falling.

I told my friends: I am going to climb out onto this ledge to see the view.

My footing was sure and careful. I went slow.

My hands grated against the sandstone, legs clad in spandex, feet enshrouded by boots with good grip.

I placed my hands on the stone and settled onto my belly, looking over the edge, a drop many hundreds of feet that could kill me, a view that was spectacular.

I called out to my friend:

“I used to be afraid of this”

He responded

“What changed?”

I said:

“I have come to learn that death is not the worst thing that can happen to me.”

I was safe and came back from the gorgeous view I got because I was no longer afraid.

RECOVERY

Easter has come and gone and I saw and felt what death can do. How it can clear out a sanctuary. How it can cause quiet and bring up other pains we had long buried. Bring them out.

And on Easter morning my body woke me at 4am.

It brought me to a service at a church in Nashville where I was a stranger, visiting.

I sat in the chair as the sermon surprised me, a meditation instead of a lecture. We were invited to imagine a garden, imagine a healing, friendly presence beside us, to then come to imagine it was Jesus. I decided that Easter weekend, finally decided after many years, that I will someday be a pastor.

Afterwards, I looked at the program as I ate breakfast sandwiches and blueberry compote with new friends that welcomed me to this church.

The program said: “A service for recovery.”

It made sense: A serenity prayer as part of the liturgy. A clear announcement about non-alcoholic wine.

And what was I recovering from?

Pain of being stymied by untruths- to myself and others- about who I am. Pain of divisions.

Queer. Christian. By some standards, yes: abnormal.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

I have let myself go to the brink trying to change things that will take time- our country’s fissures and my own- screaming and self denial and self hatred and not enough sleep and not enough food and not enough quiet and not enough time, never enough. When I feel the fabric of our country being torn, I am torn too. Frayed and afraid.

I have not loved myself as I have loved my neighbor. Not quite yet.

I am working on that.

God, grant me serenity to accept myself. God, grant me serenity to change systems that hurt your dream of love for our world.

God, I’m not afraid of dying, but let me live long enough, free and open enough, to do your work, and to do my own.

Amen.

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Me praising the opening act at A-Camp through Autostraddle.com: a social justice camp for queer women. Photo credit: Robin Roemer


NOTE: Pride@Church. I first came out in a loving, welcoming Christian community. Now it’s my call to help other communities to be more equipped for this ministry with LGBTQ+ people. God calls us to be our full selves. Please consider sharing & donating: www.gofundme.com/prideatchurch

HELP ME SAY YES: Does my work speak to you? Consider adding to the “tip jar” so I can continue to consult & write and work for justice, and say YES to new projects: paypal.me/annaczarnikneimeyer

 

Covfefe (or What Donald Gave Me)

Covfefe (or, What Donald Gave Me)

I saw him fly.

I saw him fly by the seat

of his pants

And no one thought

he would do it

Then he did it.

He proved that literally nothing

nothing

nothing

nothing is impossible.

And he has no idea what

he is doing.

He keeps messing up

He is an amateur

He is ridiculous.

He is ridiculous.

But he gave me something no one

else has ever given me.

No one has really ever told me

that I can do something if I am

bad at it.

If I know I’ll screw it up

but do it anyway.

Because I just want to, need to do it.

And he is protected, I know that.

By money

By hatred

By whiteness

By gender

He is protected which is why

maybe it works

But is it “working?”

He breaks every rule and

does whatever the hell he wants even if it hurts

people.

He lies.

Tears apart regulations.

Simply does not follow the rules.

He has no rules, feels

nothing and listens to no one.

He breaks them.

He has broken me before.

He breaks them.

But what if I could do the same?

Well, kind of the same.

What if I could do whatever

the hell I wanted.

And be belligerent about it?

Sheryl Sandberg says

(via research)

that very qualified women do not

apply for leadership because they feel they are not qualified enough.

That men are hired based on potential and not past experience.

Someone told me that I don’t know what I’m doing.

Well, many people.

In small, doubter ways.

You don’t know what you are doing.

And that may be true.

But neither does our president

And he is out to hurt people

to get money and fame.

And I am out to help people.

I am out to love.

And I could fail.

I could accidentally

break the law

Or knowingly break the law

Like Jesus.

or Angela Davis.

or Rosa.

I could hurt people with

what I do not know.

But if I sit

by myself

dressing my wounds

wringing my hands

telling myself I should know more

before I do this

Then I will not do it.

And if Donald Trump

(I don’t even like writing his name)

can be the President

Then I can be a CEO.

I can start a business

I can travel the world

I can fall in love

I can teach

I can write

I can do whatever I want

And I will make mistakes.

I’m sorry if I hurt you with them.

All I have is my mind

And my heart and my body

And my comrades.

Well all I have is a lot.

And I swear to you I will try my best.

Thank you Donald.

You have given me a gift

I am watching you closely.

But I will win.

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Me being a CEO of Bridgebuilder Consulting and starting a project called Pride at Church, offering free LGBTQ+ ally resources to churches for Pride Month (June). www.gofundme.com/prideatchurch


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I asked Margaret Atwood about religion, and this is what she said.

By Anna Czarnik-Neimeyer 

Yesterday I talked with Margaret Atwood. We asked each other questions. We smiled at one another. Her eyes are sharp. Her mind is sharper. I asked her about religion. I’ll tell you a story, then I’ll tell you what Atwood said.

This is the Story

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale a decade ago in a Feminist Theology class. Studying liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez and hardcore social justice nuns and professors like Joan Chittister and Mary Daly, we small crew of midwestern twentysomethings paged through the entirety of Atwood’s beloved and infamous work in the comfort of discussion circles. I talked about it with conservative Catholic friends and Evangelicals, with atheists, with my roommates back in the dorm. Hell, I talked to myself about it. Each of us had scenes burnt into our minds. I’m sure you do too, if you are one of millions who read it over the last thirty years. Or if you’re seeing it for the first time through your computer screens via Hulu. It is brilliant. It is haunting.

In my class, at a politically moderate Christian college, Handmaid’s Tale was the first book of the course: we cut our teeth on this dystopian fiction, and compared & contrasted it to actual biblical texts. This was, for me at the time, a strange and pure bliss. I’m what they call “Very Lutheran,” so I like the Bible, and I know it relatively well, and I love analyzing it in justice-centered settings. I knew the texts that lawmakers in Gilead (Handmaid’s fictional theocracy, set in an overthrown USA) interpreted to build the totalitarian social structure. Axioms that popped up in the book as rationale for the horrors held in its pages… I could recite the actual scripture verses they referred to. I grew up in “Very Christian” circles, Bible camps, religious intentional communities. Both my parents studied theology and ministry from pacifist, anti-racist, pro-worker perspectives. I was baptized in an Episcopal church when my family were practicing Quakers, by a Lutheran pastor who used to be a Catholic nun. Like the handmaids in the book, I have lived, not just worshipped, but lived in camps and once even an entire village shaped by the Bible. I have been molded by scriptural axioms, too– religious ritual folded, baked into almost every aspect of daily life in my Christian communities: the way we did the dishes together, when we met for worship, how we mashed the compost, how we were to civilly address conflict. I know at least fifty ways to sing a table prayer. I have acted out skits as Mary, Joseph, a sheep, the good Samaritan, Gabriel, Moses, Jesus, God… I have posed, costumed, as a cup of communion wine, an offering plate, the ten commandments, a dancing holy mime, and even the Giving Tree. I have been leading worships since I was five.

Maybe you’ve seen communities or families like this in the media: in documentaries like “Jesus Camp,” or paraded across our screens through the reality-TV Duggar Family, producing baby after baby. I always knew that my experiences were very different from those, but I also knew how easily my own progressive faith communities could be mistaken for something else. One summer evening as a camp counselor, leading a candlelit vigil to close the week, I realized that if some random person walked off the street and into our camp community, they’d find a scene that looked almost cultish: I grasped a mirror, held it up to each individual kid in my group, reflecting their young faces and the flame that surrounded them. We each carried candles, real fire. We quietly chanted a song by memory, some kids were hugging, many had tears streaming.

Go ahead. Picture it. Freaked out?

How about if I explain?

I was holding up a mirror as a symbol to reflect my campers’ goodness, their wholeness, their worth– to show them that each of them is made in the image and likeness of our Creator, no matter who they were, and that there is something powerful in each of them, beloved. We were singing a song about fire- that our hearts might come alive and have an eternal flame to care for other people. They were crying because I had gathered affirmations throughout the week, specific gifts I saw in them and good things they had done, so they could know that they were seen; they mattered, and could go into the world and use those good gifts. This is all scripturally based ritual and, of course, a very different scene than the abusive religious rituals we read about in Handmaid’s Tale. The scary thing is, the basis for these drastically different rituals stems from the same source: the Bible.

The deep dissonance for me when I was in college, reading Atwood in my dorm room, was that I saw how easily my beloved, life-giving, Very Christian, Very Justice-Oriented, communities could pivot, hijacked, to become something like the terrifyingly possible world Atwood had cooked up. Indeed, Atwood has said there is nothing in her text that does not have some real historic precedence, or that we don’t already have the technology to make possible.

But, encouraged and informed by Christian communities, I grew up to be a feminist writer and scholar. The handmaids? Not so much.

So what’s the difference?

The difference lies in the people who get to interpret what religion means in our everyday lives.

And make no mistake: religion does mean something in our everyday lives. Whether or not we practice it.

They key is: who get to be the meaning-makers?

Religion is not the tincture that poisons our social systems. It is we- we who interpret it (or let others interpret it for us) that can deliver goodness or harm in how we manage and apply religion.

I have so many beloved friends in my social justice circles- activists, academics, nonprofit leaders- who describe themselves as recovering from religion. I get it. I hear their stories and I know why they left. I support them.

And I couldn’t do anything to prevent what happened to them to bring about such pain.

But I can do something now.

I tell my students, I write it, I speak it clearly for groups: Remember. Jesus was an activist. He turned tables and even broke unjust laws so that the poorest, the most vulnerable, the most marginalized groups would have a spot at the feast and in the conversation. He told stories of how we are to live together in beloved community. He was gentle and surprising and a wicked good storyteller. And he was a prophet, like Margaret Atwood, speaking truth to power.

The Bible is not perfect, but I’ve been raised on the best of it. Sadly, when the Bible is mapped onto a culture of domination, that’s how we get the horrors of Atwood’s Gilead. And we’re not there yet, as Atwood has said, but we could get there if we’re not careful.

I won’t let that happen. You won’t let that happen.

As for me: I refuse to let greed, domination, hatred, or fear hijack the verses that informed who I am, or take my God from me. I claim God as mine, in my image, in the image of Jordan Edwards who was shot dead by the police this weekend. In the image of my powerful Latina friend who marched today for workers’ & prisoners’ rights in Milwaukee. That is the mirror, the image I hold up for all to see.

I say no to Gilead and yes to the Bible. And I pledge to do all I can to build a better Village. Because I’ve seen it.

And this is what Atwood told me:

“People have sometimes said to me, ‘Oh this book [The Handmaid’s Tale] is really anti-religion.’

And I’ve said, ‘No, that’s not the point.’

Religion has been- and is in other parts of the world today- used as a hammer to whack people on the heads with.

But it also has been- and is today- a sustaining set of beliefs and community that gets people through those things.

So, in my book, I have the regime doing what totalitarian regimes do, which is eliminating the competition. They get rid of all the other religions as much as they can, and some of them go underground. Noteworthily, of course, the Quakers take the role that they have before, setting up underground escape routes for people. So [religion] has always had those two kinds of functions. And that is why the handmaid, in the book, she has her version of the Lord’s Prayer, which a lot of people don’t spot, but careful readers do.

That’s how it goes, and I don’t think that cultures in which the totalitarianism happens to be religious, I don’t think that’s a comment on religion, I think it’s a comment on totalitarianism. And there have been some perfectly respectable totalitarianisms that have been atheist. So that is not the factor.

My dad, who is a scientist, had a joke that he used to tell about the scientific method. There was a scientist who decided he was going to do a study to see what made people drunk. So he mixed up some rye and ginger ale, and then he mixed up rum and ginger ale, and mixed up some scotch and ginger ale, and each one made people drunk. So [the scientist] said, “Must be the ginger ale!” Sometimes we’re just looking at the wrong set of factors and drawing the wrong set of conclusions.

It’s the desire for power (which is a common human desire!). People get hold of something and think: this is going to deliver it. But that doesn’t mean that the original thing that they’ve distorted is necessarily the cause.” -Margaret Atwood. Green Bay, WI 4.30.17

Margaret Atwood and Me.

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This is Not an Ice Cream Shop: stories on stealing and free stuff and migraines and money

Migraine Weather and Shitty Brunch

There were no cabs to meet us at the train station at 9pm

We took that to be a good sign.

Walking a mile to our Air BnB above a little sewing shop awarded us the opportunity to tromp by boarded old houses and reclaimed storefronts. We smiled and passed a very bearded millenial helping his girlfriend out of their truck, and weren’t quite sure if the beard was irony or utility: maybe both.Throw a blue cable turtleneck and some steel-toed boots on the guy and we could have been watching a fisherman return home, tired and briny.

Hudson, New York is an old whaling town. In the city center, a chipped wooden case frames a giant whale puzzle made up of quilt square- like plaques depicting some part of the city’s history. One puzzle piece has fallen to the bottom of the frame.

“It’s changed even since five years ago,” rasps Meri, who has a migraine.

It’s migraine weather in Hudson, all shiny cracked cement sidewalks, drizzle on our travel coats and hiking packs, steamed windows of tiny downtown shops. Meri owns Sideshow Vintage, and has for several years: she has seen the town change, seen it become more touristy.

A Black Lives Matter Hudson sign sits in the corner of her shop window. I ask her if anyone has given her any shit for it.

“Mmm,” she thinks through the migraine. “One time. An older man (who, in my own mind, I immediately named Warren) and his wife came in and said the sign ruined their day. I told them if they wanted to have a conversation about it, we could.”

The sly smile on her face told me she really just wanted them to get the fuck out of her store.

I can already tell that Meri does not suffer fools gladly. We stopped in her shop twice. The first time I walked in all smiles and purple hiking pack, asking for a good place to have brunch. I always trust the locals more than yelp, or at least cross check yelp with locals.

“Brunch? All the food is shitty.”

To me, this meant not that the food was shitty but that Meri might be just a liiiittle tired of smiley white people coming into her shop, buying nothing, and asking for her free tourist advice.

“Well what if we brought you something?” I chirped. A little grin.

I’ve found that the best way to crack through the wall that store owners, food service folks, and other noble shop warriors must construct to deal with people like Warren or whiny customers that don’t recognize their humanity….

Is to recognize their humanity.

This is not an ice cream shop. You are not here for the food.

I spent a summer running an ice cream shop that should not have been there, should have been impossible.

In the middle of a remote mountain valley surrounded by Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness area, you can either spend 4 hours to take a boat up a glacial lake and a nearly broken school bus up switchbacks, or you can hike 10 miles off the Pacific Crest trail. It is in all the guidebooks.

And you can come visit the Snack Bar Queen, which was me.

I had a crown.

Are you surprised?

Every day I wore colorful costumes and capes and dipped my developing forearm muscles into buckets of sweet sugary dairy, for loggers and mine workers, exhausted hikers, my housemates, and guests of the Village.

I was 22 and felt such power: It was my realm and I curated every aspect of that shop: the flavors, the decor, the signs, the music, the volunteers and which apron they could wear.

But I couldn’t curate the customers.

Mostly they were pleasant (after all, they were on retreat). But sometimes they would hand me a sticky, crumpled dollar as they peered through me. Just right through me: a transaction machine that simply got them what they thought they had come there for.

They thought it was an ice cream shop.

They missed the community and focused too much on the dairy.

This is not an ice cream shop. You are not here for the food.

I would help them see what the shop really was.

Sometimes they would whine that the ice cream had melted a little.

Perhaps they forgot we were in the remote Cascade mountains. Maybe they were too tightly wound to remember that partially melted summer ice cream in the sunshine is what you dream of on cold February mornings. Maybe they had even missed my hand lightly resting on their arm, asking about their day of and walks and weaving rugs. Yes, this was a place where people wove rugs.

But, nope. Too melty, they said, looking away from my grin and into their bowl.

I would then pleasantly gesture to where we were, gesture up to the mountains. “All part of the experience,” I smiled.

Outside the snack bar windows I had once watched a mother deer give birth to twin fawns, not wasting a single speck of nutrient, eating their birth casing. I watched this beautiful, base, natural snack, a mother licking her offspring to life, with friends and customers looking at each other, eyes wide in awe and shared joy while we licked our own chocolate espresso swirls (my favorite flavor) or sweet strawberry sorbet.

So back in Hudson, NY when migraine Meri responded with some cynicism, saying nothing was good for brunch, I understood.

A shopkeep needs a wall sometimes.

Maybe I could remind her that this was not just a clothes shop.

For brunch, she finally recommended either a bakery across the way or a French cafe a few doors down.

Thanks to Meri, we walked five shops down and sat down in a corner booth, bathed in pretend sunlight peering through the raindrops. Remember, it was migraine weather. I pleasantly noticed the rainbow flag in the coffee cup pen case on the bar. I noticed the young, plaid-clad waiters, one with sharp, perfectly pastel petals etched onto his tricep as he served our coffee.

“Nice ink,” I admired.

“Thanks, everyone thinks I just got it recently because it’s so clear, but it was just a really good tattoo.”

“Wow,” I said.

I thought of how it would hurt to have hundreds of color-specked needles plunging into one’s 22 year old arm (he looked about that old) as he set our dishes. What made him get that tattoo?

Remember, we weren’t really there just for the crepes. I then asked our waitress what I always ask.

Sure, because I want a good meal.

Mostly, because I want the server to know that I see them. I am not looking through them, sticky dollar bill in hand.

“If it were your last day on the job, and you knew that you were about to walk out the door and get hit by a car and die, what would you order?”

I love to watch a smile creep across a server’s face as I ask them to reflect. If I ask it right, not too rushed, I can help them forget that I’m there, waiting to hear their answer, and let them consider the emotion of their imagined last work day (sometimes a welcome thought, sometimes poignant).

They often laugh because the question is absurd. I know they think I’m weird, and that makes them a good judge of character and it makes me laugh too. That means that we have begun this interaction by laughing together. Sometimes we talk about the type of car that would hit them. Once a server requested that it be a motorcycle instead of a car. I obliged. This is an imaginary world we were creating together as I ordered. We can do anything we want. Sometimes we talk about death a little. This time we laughed that there would be chips of car paint as an extra ingredient in whatever dish we ordered that morning.

Often I call them by their name on the nametag. This time there was no nametag, so I’ll call her Monica.

“I know. I would get the crepes,” Monica said.

Oh?

“Yeah– the best is the caramel with orange. It sounds like a weird combo, and usually caramel is just too sweet, but this version is perfect.”

And how about the savory?

“The salmon and leek. That’s what you want.”

I trust you completely, I said.

I Trust You Completely

That’s what I always say: I trust you completely.

After all, don’t forget that that is already what we’re doing. I’m trusting someone to deliver something base to me, really into me- sustenance that goes inside my body, fuels me.

In the United States we have necessary but sterilizing food service laws that help us forget there are people and animals who are part of the process of eating. And we trust them.

When I was living in Ghana, “I trust you completely” was very real, daily, though unspoken. You could not forget that you were trusting the other person to feed and nourish you well, because you often met the store owner, saw the cook. One time I sat up for hours in a hotel room incredibly ill, having gotten food poisoning at a resort from some fish that appeared well cooked, tasted good.

Two days later I sat in the community international school I worked at, where a local woman cooks Ghanaian lunches for the teachers as they order it. I had ordered chicken because I couldn’t really stomach more seafood after the hotel-fish-pocalypse a few days before.

Fish came on my plate.

Along with beautiful red rice and beans, green and red dipping sauces, yams.

I looked at the fish. I was hungry. My new Australian friend Damon had explained to me the day before that in many cases, street food and home cooked meals are safer because you can see the water boiling, you can see the meat roasting. You know the cook is proud. There is no pretending that refrigeration consistently works, so careful natural methods of storing foods (or eating them quickly) are practiced. He said in hotels, sometimes when there is “lights out” (which is Ghana local speech for– the power is intermittently interrupted in this country whose postcolonial infrastructure is still young) meat in a freezer will thaw and freeze several times before it comes to your plate.

I thought of my hotel food poisoning.

I thought of the local woman who cooked for teachers everyday.

I trust you completely.

The fish was divine.

Back in the whaling town, Monica put in the order and then rushed back with a smile, one more thing.

“Do you like goat cheese?”

Absolutely.

She looked excited, sharing a secret with us.

“My boss, the owner, once had me add goat cheese to the savory one you ordered, and it was great. Want to try it?”

Oh, totally.

The owner was gliding around her restaurant, as owners do. Not walking, gliding. Tanned, grey curly hair, a cutoff shirt that revealed her able arms that I knew could carry a tray, wash a dish, punch a tab, or flip the ‘closed’ sign swiftly and skilfully.

I told Monica and the owner that Meri at the vintage shop had recommended the place, and we wanted to bring Meri something with a coffee. The three of us schemed together, brainstorming.

“Oh! How about a croissant,” suggested the owner.

Perfect.

We smiled together at the thought of bringing treats to strangers.

Remember- this wasn’t just a coffee shop, and we weren’t there just for the food.

Make Haste

As we walked back to Meri, treats in hand, I told my travel partner how my family would sneakily pay double at the tolls near Chicago, giggling and looking back, scheming together and smiling at the thought of giving a treat to a stranger.

A poetry board hangs in the entrance to my childhood home. On the board:

“Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are traveling the dark journey with us. Oh be swift to love, make haste to be kind.”

-Henri-Frederic Amiel

Oh, be swift to love, make haste to be kind.

Let me be clear:: The Black Lives Matter sign in Meri’s window and the rainbow flag in the French bakery are reminders that all the individual nicenesses in the world, all the beautiful coffee shop exchanges and laughs over crepes- these are still individual interactions. Important and real though they are, all of our shops and exchanges and food and how much money goes into a downtown and who is trusted to stash their bags and who can afford to live where– all of those things exist within a system of power: a structure of and laws and institutions that are often unjust if left unchecked, unquestioned. That’s why I have to write about beauty and kindness and goat cheese on Saturday then continue my activism on Monday. That’s why I eat a crepe with Monica for breakfast and then call congress about the Affordable Care Act at lunch. I cannot tell you the joy and power I have found in these individual interactions with people like Monica or Meri. They are fuel, fuel for the joy and power I feel when I march, when I scream chants in front of Trump Tower, when I step in front of 50 straight Wisconsinites to facilitate an LGBTQ ally training, or when I meet with corporations to discuss just policies and retention for people of color.

Make haste. It is urgent, now. Go, act.

We went through the rest of the day, drinking in a cast of characters in Hudson, NY and they told us stories. Rob owns the best instrument shop in town. He made a hirdy girdy in Scotland. I wondered if he would fetch it from his apartment so we could see, and he played it. His daughter Chloe writes books, hangs out with Lena Dunham. He signed Chloe’s book “Chloe’s Dad.” “She’s bashful about me selling these here, he said, but I buy them from the book shop across the way so it is recorded as an industry sale, then I bring them here.” He loves Chloe, I could see. He toured us around his store, showing us his treasures. He hesitated when I went to buy Chloe’s book, “Oh, I wasn’t telling you about it because I was trying to make you buy it,” I know, I said. I want to buy it.

We talked about genuine exchanges: exchange of story and also of goods and services. We swapped tales of international salespeople who were so good at their jobs and so personable that you didn’t care that you’d been been convinced to buy a rug in Turkey or a shoeshine in Myanmar.

I told Rob that in Ghana, it was beautiful to meet the actual people who owned shops, made things, cared about what they were giving you.

Dash it. I hope you come back.

I thought of Elizabeth the dressmaker in Accra, who gently measured me and sat with me on a Sunday.

I thought of Joyce the cloth peddler in Makola Market, who opened hidden bags to show me local batik. Oh Joyce, I said.

I thought of John, who took an hour to describe his acrylic paintings to me on the beach at the Gulf of Guinea where I surfed, let me record him as he described the weathered stone Ghanaian beads I was winding around my arms to bring home. After I made my purchase, he put his finger to his lips and looked over all the shop beads, carefully. He selected an thin orange strand and slowly placed it over my head.

I will dash you these, he said. Share our art. I hope you come back.

In Ghana, to dash means to give a small something for free, to indicate thanks for a purchase, to note pleasure in the interaction. Sometimes it meant that it wasn’t all about the money. On the beach on the Gulf of Guinea, after spending an hour with John and two teenagers, Ben and Jacko, I didn’t really care about the bag of beads I had in my pouch. That wasn’t my reward, that day. My time with them, that was everything.

We returned to Meri at her vintage shop, with the steaming cup of coffee and croissant.

This is for you.

She placed both of her hands around the hot paper cup, looked in the bag, looked up at us and said “I can’t believe it.”

Then we spent an hour talking with migraine Meri. I told her how the French bakery had let us stash our backpacks in their storage room while we walked the town. She told us about how she recently had to humbly beg for money in Cuba after she lost her wallet either to a pickpocket or to her own forgetfulness.

Meri remembered: “I told them, hey- I promise I’m good for it! I own a store! You give me $100, I’ll give you $200 back.”

I asked her about owning a business, since she had mentioned the possibility of going online. A simple, quiet life alone selling beautiful things. She said she couldn’t go totally online.

“So what do you like about brick and mortars?” I inquired.

I was proud that I knew phrases like “brick and mortars,” which I had learned from a friend who worked at a food justice organization in Minneapolis, helping women start food businesses with storefronts, buildings: brick and mortars.

Meri knew the phrase, too.

“Well I like the community of it,” she admitted with a smile.

The wall we’ve all constructed to protect ourselves, it cracked then.

Meri laughed about the town’s local message board, both maddening in its smallness and gossip but beautiful too:

“Once someone lost their cat. Put it on the message board. Cat was found in hours.”

I walked through the aisles of Meri’s shop, touching the skirts of rough wool and old silk. Her dog, Arrow, slept on a springy couch in the back. Meri told me she slept there sometimes. She told me she wants to sell her shop and move to Mexico.

Do I believe her?

As she confidently walked to the end of an aisle and cupped her metal clothes rack with one hand and grasped her migraine tincture- that “I can’t believe it” coffee- with another, I wasn’t so sure she really wanted to leave. Maybe.

As we checked out at Meri’s store, I bought red leather shoes. She told me a story of who used to own them, then she gave my travel partner two bowties for free.

You know, in Ghana, they call that ‘dashing,’ I said.

“Well then I will dash you these,” she laughed.

I hugged Meri and kissed her on both cheeks. We made pretend plans to go to Cuba together. We might, though. Maybe.

Back in the music shop, I squeezed Rob’s hand and smiled into his face as I bought his daughter’s book.

I squeezed his hand and he said to me:

“I hope you come back.”

—————

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CAST OF CHARACTERS (in order of appearance):

Meri Wanna, owner, Sideshow Vintage in Hudson, NY

The yummy caramel crepe, to be found at wonderful Le Gamin Country, Hudson, NY.

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Rob Caldwell, owner, Musica store in Hudson, NY.

Chloe Caldwell’s new book I’ll Tell you in Person, signed for me by Chloe’s dad Rob.

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Elizabeth Chibale, master seamstress + designer, Kakoara Clothing in Accra, Ghana.17358552_3261370745570_2263706394104369932_o.jpg

Joyce, whose shop is nestled in a corner of Makola Market, James Town, Accra, Ghana.17264470_3261374385661_7279809298517181840_n.jpg

John Eduafo (and Ben, 15, on the left) who makes pro-woman, antiracist art sold at Paradise Shop on Kokrobite beach, and with Ghanaian NGO Africa Sunrise Foundation.17388902_3263872328108_6537960961297490559_o.jpg

 

 

Announcing: Anna CN bell hooks Institute Residency + 2017 Tour d’Justice

I have big news to share.

Wow. It’s been. Full. It’s been…exciting. It’s been a nutty, surprising, wonderful, work/joy-filled last several weeks in Manhattan and Ghana: full of activism, scholarship, NGO visits, writing, and teaching + consulting as International Visiting Faculty in Residence at Lincoln Community School, an International Baccalaureate school in Accra, Ghana.

For more on my NYC experience: “What I’m Doing for Lent in order to Not Die”

Fore more on Ghana my experience: “How to Fight A Mountain Lion” & “On Ghanaian Independence Day: Whiteness, Freedom, Face Paint + see instagram photos: @ACNjustice.

And… I’m excited to share what I’ll be doing next:

It’s Happening: I’m thrilled to announce that I will be 2017 Visiting Scholar in Residence at the bell hooks Institute in Berea, Kentucky!

After months of planning and conversations, I can finally share that I’ll be in Kentucky this coming April: writing, speaking, and consulting with noted social justice scholar & writer bell hooks at her Institute. And on Monday, April 10, I will give a public talk titled “Our Sacred Ground,” on bridging the gap between faith and justice while doing intersectional justice work in identity & inclusion.

This Residency is of course a joy and an honor, especially because as a founding board member of the bell hooks Institute, I’ve been humbled and privileged to be part of the Institute for the last couple years, through several visits and much planning, and now will be there in this new capacity.

So. I invite you to follow this winding social justice consultant-scholar-writer path with me as I write, post, tweet, and instagram as @ACNjustice, and on my public facebook page: Anna Czarnik-Neimeyer. It’s big, it’s new, it’s exciting and well… it’s just one of many ways I’m working to move the dial towards justice and dialogue these crazy days. Below is what I’ve mentally been calling my “Tour d’Justice,” (so why not just call it that?) and it includes my upcoming consulting, talks, jobs, and workshops.

Won’t you join me? Want me to come to you or work remotely with your org? Contact me through annaczarnikneimeyer.wordpress.com. Onward.

ACN Tour d’Justice 2017: Where I’ll be & What I’m Working on

January

Identity Studies & Experiential Education Research, St. Norbert College (Wisconsin)

February

Activism & Consulting, United Nations/ For Impact Productions/ NY Indivisible +Katie Holten (New York City)

Writing & Consulting, Ms. Magazine Blog/ Center for Courage & Renewal

March

7-10 Visiting International Faculty in Residence, Lincoln Community School (Accra, Ghana)

Development Consulting, Holden Village

Commission on the Status of Women, United Nations

April

1-2 Facilitator, Association for Experiential Education Midwest (Wisconsin)

9-14 Visiting Scholar in Residence, bell hooks Institute (Berea, Kentucky)

*4.10.17 “Our Sacred Ground” public talk on faith + justice

May

**Alert, alert! This is the month I submit my thesis and graduate with my Master’s degree!**

June

8 Instructor, international Association for Experiential Education Webinar (2pm CST)

25-30 Speaker & Consultant, Feminist Camp: Seattle

July/August

Holden Village (Washington State)

September/October: TBA

November

9-11 National Women’s Studies Association (Baltimore)

16-19 Association for Experiential Education (Montreal)

December: TBA

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SNC_bell hooks_SacredHour
bell hooks & Anna Czarnik-Neimeyer, ca 2014.

How to Fight a Mountain Lion: on shitting pants, scraping knees, living with risk, and surfing with sharks

When you Shit Your Pants and Tell the Truth About It

Well. There’s just no way around it. I shit my pants in my sleep last night.

The last time I shit my pants I was 14. It was summer. I was playing basketball at camp with my little sister and was having too much fun to go back to our house. I stopped at a random cabin on my rush home, but long story short (and poop story public): I shit my pants. I didn’t weigh time and fun and risk. This is what my parents called, “a natural consequence.” I misjudged, made a bad decision, and then I shit my pants. Live and learn.

But this time, this time around I shit my pants because of a good decision. I had carefully weighed it.

I’ve been living and working in Ghana for a month, and it is a priority for me to engage here in multiple ways, including eating local foods. My friends brought me to a beautiful beach for the night. Modest, but clean and well-loved accommodations. Gorgeous, delicious local fish on the hotel menu. They had snapper and I had another variety. Eight hours later I woke by sharp, intense pains in my stomach and, well I’ll just say it, a little surprise in my pajamas. Though not a total surprise- after all, my travel doc proactively prescribed me meds for traveler’s diarrhea, which Ghanaians delightfully call “runny tummy,” and most everyone gets it at some point, like the flu in Wisconsin. Nevertheless, I will cut the shit (hah!) and avoid hyperbole and just say… I felt profoundly unwell. But not scared.

I was prepared for this. And my recent mindfulness training has taught me to simply notice. To observe the conditions at hand.

Notice: It is the dead of night. It is 95 degrees. I am sweating profusely. I feel weak. This is my body.

Ask: What is my body doing? How is it helping me? What is this sickness doing to serve me?

Also: Remember to laugh. This is actually already funny.

The toilet was not a flush toilet: not enough water pressure. So I used buckets.

I sat for hours in the twilight, pouring over and over to push contents down the drain while my friends slept.

Methodically dipping in, filling the bucket, grateful that water was flowing from the spigot on this particular evening. It wasn’t always. Then, methodically, rhythmically, bucket-by-bucket, I dealt with my own shit. Dumping and flowing and more. Again, and again. For hours. I handled it.

I handled it because there was no other choice and because my body was speaking to me and telling me it was getting rid of something bad. And speaking again. And again. Speaking at 1am for two hours, then at 4am for another two. Sweet, listless rest in between, the local megaphones from Saturday all-night church in the nearby Village blaring through our barred, screened windows.

Even in that moment of intense physical suffering, of literal shit and stink and endless bucketfulls of redemptive, flowing, flushing water, it did occur to me that my repetitive pouring was a type of prayer, or at least a practice: of sitting with and acknowledging what was, this deep physicality. Sharp pain and bodily discomfort. Suffering while sitting, waiting for my body to speak to me again and again. I sat there and read a book of buddhist advice for the heartbroken, which I had purchased (and felt) the month before. What better time to read about emotional suffering than when my body was physically suffering in a way I have never quite experienced. I was noticing.

But I was not afraid.

If You Ask Me Honestly About Fear and Sharks

My fourth day in Ghana on my way to a surf lesson in the Gulf of Guinea, a 14-year-old boy spoke of his fear of sharks. We then talked about fears in the car. He asked me, “What is your biggest fear, Anna?”

“Do you really want to know?”

“Yes.”

“Well. Aside from my family dying, my greatest fear is being raped.”

Sweet, kind, and naive, he replied with real innocence. Not malice, not challenge, just innocence:

“Rape?!” He laughed softly, incredulous. “Oh but that would never happen though.”

He wasn’t saying it to discredit me, I knew. Maybe to try to comfort me. To retreat me into his safer world instead of the sharp reality of my own.

Patiently, I responded. “I think you’ll find that very often women fear this, and that it does happen. It has happened to some of my friends. And, unfortunately, to many women. Also some men.”

“Oh,” he said.

Oh.

“Yes- it is a concern for lots of women I know, and especially for women travelers like me.”

I made a decision long ago that I would constantly weigh and manage risk (like trying local food, or surfing with sharks) to work through fears and manage the reality of risks accompanying those fears, and to keep traveling and to use my life well.

My Mom’s Lesson on Knee Scrapes and Playing Well

My foster sister is eight. Sometimes (okay always) she returns from the park with a stain on her shirt, sporting bruised, scraped knees. When she was five, she would come home in this state and say “uh oh” or “oh no.” Repeatedly, my mother assured her with a refrain I knew well:

“It’s okay, honey. Good job. Scraped knees means you used your body well. Dirty clothes means you played hard. Let’s go get you a bandaid and throw your clothes in the wash and go play some more.”

Mom took a photo of me when I was eight, too. Among my favorites. I am in in a loose, brown cotton dress she sewed just for me. I am smiling, dirty, triumphantly holding up a giant mud clod: face streaked and sweaty and filled, just filled with delight. I remember: I had been wearing a brand new, not even hand-me-down powder blue ruffle shirt and pink velvet jumper and mom said: go play in the mud! but let’s get you some different clothes.

I see now that I was being trained: to prepare for messiness. Well, for joy plus messiness. To use my body well and to play hard. Not recklessly. Don’t needlessly stain the new powder blue. But mindfully. Explore. Wear the brown flower dress just for you and go get very messy indeed, Anna. Do not be afraid to play well in the messiness. Understand and anticipate the consequences. Skinned knees and stains and maybe sometimes also you shit your pants. Go, Anna. My parents read me my favorite book, Wild, Wild, Sunflower Child, Anna, featuring a strong and beautiful brown girl in a yellow dress who pretended to steer pirate ships and make flower crowns to be fairy queen:

“Anna climbs the hill/ and keeps on climbing.

Up up up a tree/ that turns into a ship/ Captain Anna stands on deck/ sailing to a new world.

Brave, bold Anna./ High in the air,/ tall please don’t fall Anna.

Running and jumping, silly and wild/ is Anna in the morning.

Wild, Wild, sunflower child Anna.”

Of course we know, though, that tree climbing sometimes means tree-falling. And that’s okay, even expected. My foster sister now returns from the park with happy stains and sweaty brow and doesn’t say “oh no” anymore. She says, “Can we go again tomorrow?” And she is free, adventuring, captaining, voyaging.

How to Fight A Mountain Lion

I deeply enjoy solo voyages, my travel friends know. We arrive together at a destination and I either plan an extra overnight or have taken a day to wander alone, through Atlanta and Amsterdam; San Juan and Dublin; Seattle and Montreal; Boston, Berlin and Brooklyn. At least in those moments, those bold and select moments, I can manage whatever comes my way. Captain of my day, navigating exchanges and connections and sweaty wandering on strong long legs, wild. I have handled it. Any joy or silliness. Any meanness or predator I’ve encountered. I have handled it.

One of my favorite things about living in the remote wilderness of the Cascade mountains in my early twenties was that human risks were replaced by natural ones. Human predators were mostly replaced by animal ones. We lived in a very safe, small, secluded village community, the most remote year-round populated site in the lower 48 states. It took me two days to get there, by train, boat, and switchback. There I was instructed how to manage natural risks: I know what to do if I get caught in an avalanche, how to respond to a fire, how to purify stream water, interact with a mother bear, or fight a mountain lion.

When I was 14, my grandfather taught me to kill a person with my hands. We talked about how and when I might use this (or not use it) as a woman. Usually, almost always the “or not.” Still, we practiced in the living room. I was prepared.

As a woman, after years of both formal and informal training on how to manage human, gendered risk (keys in knuckles, arrival texts, emergency words, whistles, sprays, stances, body language gauges) managing the natural risk of the Cascade mountains felt cleaner, less personal. Not more predictable. But much less terrifying and malicious.

On one occasion back in the city, a new man I was seeing invited me to his apartment to make a meal together. We had met up twice before and as I considered his texted dinner invite I closed my eyes and pictured him. This was not a romantic Julia Roberts Rom Com Moment queuing a montage of our imagined future together romping through daisies. I closed my eyes to remember his stature, his musculature, his heft. I did this not to objectify him, but to realistically gauge if I could physically overpower him or even kill him if he attacked me while we were alone in his house, cooking.

Let me be clear: this thought exercise AKA “what would I do if I were attacked and could I win or escape” is one that women around the world must conduct daily when navigating streets and schools and relationships and work. And sometimes they don’t win. All too often, they don’t escape.

But I decided that in this situation, I could if I had to, so I texted back, “Sounds great! Please don’t hurt me. :P”

Joking to make it clear: I was taking a risk and I needed him to know it. He did.

In a very open and honest conversation later that evening I revealed the thought progression that allowed me over to his house for dinner. Together we were sad about it, understood how real it was. Tried to promise never to hurt each other, tried to promise safety though we can never really promise that to anybody, even ourselves. There is always risk.

One evening, back in the mountains, I had snowshoed a mile out from the wintry village, into the valley of the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area, to meet friends at a yurt for warm drinks and a fire. We had planned to stay overnight all together, but I was managing a big project in the morning and decided I needed to sleep in my own cabin back in the village to get good rest.

It was 1am in the mountains. Very different than that 1am bathroom scene in Ghana. These Cascadian peaks were sharp, the air clear, cold, 10 feet of snow on the ground, packed high and stomped by skis and snowshoe paths we had carved into the woods. I knew I could find my way in the dark, tracing that mile almost daily when it was light. I knew the stars and moon would adjust my eyes. I knew my friends would stay and sleep in the smoky canvas yurt a mile out, would keep the emergency radio, would drink the purified mountain water we had lugged along with us. I knew they would rest sound, heads on cots in a circle, safe, together.

From my wilderness training, I knew something else, too.

It echoed in my mind as I weighed my decision to trek the mile: our large predator expert, Gus, counseled us:

“If you’ve been outside of the village hiking at just about any distance, chances are about 90% of you have been stalked by a mountain lion at some point.”

I knew this was true. We were trained to spot carefully camouflaged animals in photo after photo of barely visible predatory hiding tricks. I knew well the story of two village kids who were stalked by this giant cat and hid in an abandoned vehicle until help arrived. And many times I had seen fresh tracks, eye flashes, had heard twig snaps, even. Many times.

I closed my eyes, and did the thought exercise I knew well:

I want to go home and sleep soundly, rest well for tomorrow. And I know the way.

On my journey, I may very likely be stalked by a mountain lion. In fact, I might even be attacked. What would I do? Would I escape? Would I win?

I breathed and noticed my surroundings. I went over what I had learned: If encountered, get big. Make noise. Do not turn your back to run: it will catch you. Do not climb a tree: it will follow you there and you’ll be cornered. Stand ground. As a stalking predator, look it in the eyes to remove the element of surprise. If it pounces, fight back, or it could play with you and maul you to death like a kitten with a mouse.

I reviewed tools I knew to fight a mountain lion, and I realized that the way to maim an animal in self defense is very similar to how I’ve been taught by my grandfather to maim a human in self defense.

I thought again:

This animal does not wish me harm like those humans, unfortunately usually men, I’ve been taught to watch out for. This animal is not malicious. It does not wish to use or overpower me because of gendered norms or rape culture. This mountain lion may simply be wondering. Might just be hungry. Might only be questioning why there is a random woman in this vast expanse of wilderness it roams: curious.

And that to me- all that- was far less scary than all the twenty years of human situations I’d been trained to navigate, and thankfully so, for I’ve had to use that training to protect myself from men multiple times: to manage violent gestures, touches by strangers, grabbed at, taunted, propositioned, barked at, sworn at, followed, pinched, cornered, jeered, interrupted, threatened.

But this? This was just a mountain lion. And I’m tired. And I have work to do. And I can’t control if I meet one on my hike, but if I do, I will handle it. Or, well. Maybe I’ll die fighting it. I have to weigh that risk. But I’m not going to live my life afraid and protected and always free from danger.

I will shit my pants.

Scrape my knees.

Play with mud.

Eat new foods.

Cook with lovers.

Surf with sharks.

And learn to fight.

I will use my body well, mom. And my mind.

I will play hard, mom. And work.

After that night in the woods with my snowshoes, I would later go back into the built, human world of cities, remembering how to fight a mountain lion, and it would help me walk more roads, wander more paths, hold a higher head and a fiercer gaze and stand my ground.

But in that one moment in the mountains, I simply strapped on my snowshoes.

And, guided by moonlight, I crunched home.

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Wild Anna, mud in hand. 8 years old.

Here’s What Happens When You Save Yourself Through Community (#WriteHereWriteNow40 Milestone 1 Reflection)

TODAY is WriteHereWriteNow Community Milestone 1 of 4. It’s already Day 7, comrades! Join me by posting a photo & answering a few/ all of the below for Milestone 1 Reflection:

-This week for #writehereWriteNow40 I was inspired by (tag person, event, reading)________

-I’d like to share this piece I’ve been working on, and get your support__________

-It’s day 7. I feel _______ because ________

-I’m excited to reward myself by_______

-Here are 2-5 people I think would love #WriteHereWriteNow Community_______

Here’s my #WriteHereWriteNow Milestone 1 Reflection:

This week for #WriteHereWriteNow40 I was inspired by Dizzy Lizzie’s social entrepreneurship restaurant/NGO/New fav writing space Va-Bene Elikem Fiatsi‘s bravery and truth for marginalized communities through art with CrazinisT artis.T Studio. Jennifer Harvey‘s prophetic Reparations Paradigm. Yadira Garcia‘s healthy balance of meaningful travel + work hustle in Cuba. Andy Richardson‘s organization of teams & community in Ghana, Lisa Maren Thompson‘s commitment to local artists. Kai Richardson investment in good friends wherever he lives.

I’d like to share this piece I’ve been working on, and get your support https://annaczarnikneimeyer.wordpress.com/2017/03/07/on-ghanaian-independence-day-whiteness-freedom-face-paint/

It’s day 7. I feel energized and hopeful and driven

because I feel like I’m on the cusp of something, and I’m working on building a community of comrades to bring along for the write/ride 🙂 I feel supported, generative, and hopeful.

I’m excited to reward myself by enjoying this new desk in my room (!!) and by reading on love & mindfulness in Lodro Rinzler‘s Love Hurts: Buddhuist Advice for the Heartbroken.

Here are 2-5 people I think would love #WriteHereWriteNow & will invite to like it Community Peter N. McLellan Jenny McLellan Jennifer Harvey Christian Scharen

**FRIENDLY REMINDER. HERE’S HOW #WriteHereWriteNow40 Works. Join Anytime. Write Here. Write Now. Welcome. https://annaczarnikneimeyer.wordpress.com/2017/03/01/what-im-doing-for-lent-in-order-to-not-die-or-that-one-time-my-spirit-almost-decayed-writeherewritenow40/

Basic premise:  I’m going to spend 30 minutes per day (for 40 days, because Lent) writing about what I’m experiencing and thinking, and being honest about how I’m doing. Scholarly, creative, letters, op-eds, reflections, free writes. All that.

Maybe my writing will tell me that I need to sleep.

Maybe my writing will tell me that I need to interrogate my own participation in White Supremacy. (Duh. I need to do that Every. Dang. Day)

Maybe my writing will tell me that, actually, today my 30 minutes will be spent on a letter home to my family.

Maybe— well maybe anything. That’s the point.

I’m going to do it.

30 minutes a day for 40 days. Writing for my life, right here, right now. #WriteHereWriteNow40 (see what I did there)

(And- Psssst. That is 20 solid hours of writing OMG. We can do it!!)

Will you join me? Doesn’t have to be Lent-related. It’s You-related. And you can start anytime. Let’s stick together. Share yours with me and I will share some of mine with you. If you like what you wrote, send it to me at annaczarnikneimeyer@gmail.com, subject “#WriteHereWriteNow40” and I’ll consider it for posting & sharing on my blog: annaczarnikneimeyer.wordpress.com

Even if I do it all alone (but you won’t let that happen!), I know I need it, so I’m going to do it.

I’m even gonna make a little punch card reward system for myself and all of us (like I got at the meditation studio) then post about it.

Because who doesn’t love to check off a box for the day, and then get external incentives? Heck yes extrinsic motivation. It’s a real thing:

At #WriteHereWriteNowDay7: Go to a movie/show you’ve wanted to see, no matter how cheesy. Solo or with others.

At #WriteHereWriteNowDay14: Get favorite dessert and eat with a loved one. That loved one can be Y-O-U.

At #WriteHereWriteNowDay21: Unlimited hugs (take this for what you want it to mean. Hug yourself, ask for hugs, provide hugs. Look at a picture of hugs. Figure it out. But do it.)

At #WriteHereWriteNowDay28 Buy something worth at least $28 that you’ve wanted for a while. Don’t order it until you’ve hit this day.

At #WriteHereWriteNowDay40 Free-write (no editing, no critique) a letter to yourself about how you feel at the end of this. Seal it in an envelope and give to trusted human to send to you in another 40 days. Then plan to have a day where you get to do whatever you like. Plan a way to sleep in, talk to your best friend, go on a walk, order takeout, and breathe deeply. You did it.

Oh, and like anything good: you get cheater days. But just 4. Choose wisely and be kind to yourself about it.

Because this movement needs us alive. Let’s stay alive for each other. It starts now.

#WriteHereWriteNow40

On Ghanaian Independence Day: Whiteness, Freedom, Face Paint

When I was 16, a teacher led me up to the front of the room, and told the rest of the class to look at me. We were studying the Holocaust and the teacher wanted to show the other students what Hitler meant by “Aryan race.” I’ll never forget that moment. What should I have felt? What should I have said? I’m not pleased to share it, but at the time I wasn’t sure whether to be proud or ashamed.

I must have taken it to heart, because I remember a week later in Math class, drawing a small crude comic of myself with a caption scrawled above it: “I survived the Holocaust” and passing it to my friends, laughing nervously.

Why would I share this instance publicly? I’ve hated myself for that moment. Here’s what was happening: I was navigating my own White identity formation (see Tatum’s White Racial Identity Development), literally held up as a specimen.

Why do I share this? I’m embarrassed about who I was and the mistakes I’ve made and of course I’d rather forget. But It’s an important practice to interrogate our whiteness and recognize how it was built. Critical race philosopher Dr. George Yancy calls this “White Self-Criticality.” Do we have the courage to pause and remember- remember the moments we would rather forget, then get to work?

Two weeks ago I was in a task force meeting with Rev. Dr. Jennifer Harvey, author of Dear White Christians. I joined clergy and lay-leaders working on examining whiteness and how it functions in the Church. Harvey’s remarkable model, the Reparations Paradigm, shows that in order to do true cross-racial work, we must recognize our common scarred history of racism and racial violence in the US and worldwide. This is the shared history that, whether visible or not, mediates our relationships. Harvey advocates not for a reconciliation model (which prioritizes general concepts like “inclusion” or “diversity”) but rather a reparative model, which is inherently relational and necessitates common work together, towards repairing a broken, painful (and in her religious context, sinful) racial history.

It’s like this: one model (reconciliation) says hey, we all belong, and the other (reparations) acknowledges hey, something has been broken for a long time and is the grounding for all our social systems and relationships. Let’s work to repair this evil, together.

I left the meeting with Harvey and not long after I flew to Ghana to live for the month. Just three hours away from where I sit are the ruins of castles, fortresses that launched slave ships stealing, breaking, shattering families and shipping them like so much cargo to unjustly build the economic structure we depend on today. The same year I was shuffled to the front of my class as an Aryan specimen, a different teacher showed us Amistad, a film graphically chronicling the condition of slave ships. I watched black bodies, caged and cramped, dying on ships on their way to the US, to me. My desk was in the back corner of the classroom, next to a box labeled “The Souls of Black Folk.” At 16, I laughed, tickled at the joke that souls could be boxed up, shipped.

But they were. Millions of souls. Shipped. Not many miles away from where I sit today on the Gulf of Guinea, listening to waves as beautiful, free, happy black and brown bodies swim by, surfing, embracing. There is more time to be free, today. It’s Ghanaian Independence Day, a long weekend for the whole country.

It’s been just 60 years of freedom. Only 60 years since the legal end of British colonization in Ghana, the first black African nation to gain such independence. And we know it takes many many more generations to decolonize hearts, minds. To repair an evil history of ownership, of occupation.

Honored, I joined their celebration. I cheered when their president rode in via motorcade, protected black leader, even as I continue to mourn the departure of my own beloved black president. On our way to the venue, Independence Square, with 30,000 other Ghanaians, I stopped by a street vendor to ask for a face painting. He dipped the brush in water and dabbed thick pigment, pressed the brush against my white skin to paint the Ghanaian flag in a streak across my cheek. My Ghanaian friend snapped a photo of the exchange: Beautiful paint-flecked brown skin marking my white face: reds, yellows, greens, dripping. Still, a recent history of white colonization hanging in the air. A geographic scar of slavery just three hours away. He painted my face as children walking by called out my name: “Abroni!”

It’s part of who I am, at the front of the room in high school, on the streets of Accra, Ghana, in my church, in my world. And I’m committed to this work of repair for what I’ve broken or the shards I’ve lived off of. I am hopeful. Abroni: white person.

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Don’t Get Mad. Get Paid. (Or, How I encountered sexism for the hundredth time and this time said ‘LOL no’)

Scholar and consultant Dr. Karsonya Whitehead tells a compelling tale of making lemonade. And lemonade that someone then pays you for.

When Whitehead’s son encountered painful elementary school racism on the playground, she decided: Don’t get mad. Get paid. She turned around and facilitated diversity training for her son’s school and was paid to do it. You can read more in her remarkable and poignant book Letter for My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America. Inspired and indebted to her example, I’ve written a letter to an airline. Here goes:

“Yesterday I arrived in Ghana via transatlantic flight. I wish I could say it was an excellent flight. But unfortunately, due to your staff, it was not at all pleasant. On the second leg of the journey, Brussels to Accra, there was a baby crying for hours. Not the baby’s fault. Flying is stressful and the air pressure is sometimes painful. Unfortunately, one of your staff member’s behavior was just as childish.

I was on my way to the back of the plane to help comfort the stressed out mother. The crying was disrupting all the passengers, but no one was helping her. The flight attendants were not worried about supporting this mother- they were worried about delivering unnecessary biscuits to us, blocking the aisles. As I maneuvered to help the mother, a loud, irritated voice shot my way from your male flight attendant:

“Where is your seat? You’re always up!! If it’s not here, it’s there, and if it’s not there, it’s here! Find your seat.” Frustratedly, he raised his voice at me, when all I was trying to do was get out of the way and also help this mother.

And what did he mean, aggressively chiding “You’re always up?” Perhaps he was referring to the fact that I am on a medication involving frequent peeing for women. Too bad for you, Mr. Pee Police. I’m not going to sit in pain because you want to deliver biscuits free of having to navigate around women. Perhaps he was referring to the fact that I’m on the end of my period, and I’m frankly just plain unwilling to sit for 6 hours without changing my “feminine supplies.” I don’t want that- no one wants that, probably not even Mr. Pee Police. No amount of biscuits is worth that. Seriously.

But after I was yelled at like a child, I sat down with shame, scolded for being a woman with a body that was “in the way” trying to help another woman who no one else saw.

Listen, I am a diversity and inclusion scholar and consultant. I work with diplomats, media figures, and traveling business people from around the globe. If this is the behavior I can expect from X Air, it is not an airline I can recommend to any of my clients or connections. But, from running organizations I know that one individual employee’s mistake need not reflect on the integrity of the entire organization. I expect you will confirm this, and do all you can to earn back my business. I expect it will not be an issue, and you will not take more of my time. And I expect a reply within a week, issuing a full refund to my flight.

I do not need a man telling me to sit down and become small and get out of his way, especially when I am paying for that man to be of service to me in my travel, not the other way around. I have a photo of the attendant, but I have not released it publicly because I am not a bully like he is.

This is the point of the letter where people may accuse me of hating men. Nice try.

This flight brought me to Ghana to present to faculty at an International School in the capital. I speak and consult around the world on issues of inclusion and diversity. Lately my work has centered on healthy masculinity. I have seen plenty of examples, in fact I’m surrounded by men who are kind, thoughtful, gracious, and would never dream of shouting a woman into submission. In fact, the man sitting next to me in the aisle graciously got up several times, no complaints, no heavy sighs, no demeaning finger shake. No- I got that bad behavior from the flight attendant. Perhaps X Air needs some help with trainings about gender, communication, and customer service. I know some people who can help. Call me.

And this male flight attendant’s behavior towards me is not isolated. It was clear that in the aisles, he was laughing with his other male counterpart, focused on chatting with each other while the female attendants were working double time to manage the flow of traffic calmly and graciously WITHOUT YELLING AT ME. Contrary to stereotype, the women were not “chattering away” or “gossiping,” it was the men ignoring passengers, while the women were on point, handling flow.

To be sure, there are many men on the flight, so why focus on women? Let me tell you, it’s a good business practice to ensure an airline is inclusive and accommodating of women. I was just at the United Nations for a meeting with Yann Borgstedt, titled “Why Men should Invest in Women” and he says there’s no reason gender equality can’t be lucrative! Of course that’s true for an airline as well. Put simply: What would travel be like if women got to choose airlines? Surprise: they already do.

Because there is often still an uneven division of labor in many heterosexual households, with the “kinkeeping” falling to women, you can expect that many of those planning travel, family trips, and outings will be women. Their names may not be on the credit cards, but they get to choose the airline. 

And because of an uneven division of power in business, you can expect, as I have often observed, that the higher-paid traveling businesspeople may be men. What can also expect, for better or for worse? Their executive assistants, with buying and choosing power, are likely women.

So even if you can’t see and serve the women on these flights and meet their needs, I hope you can see the women that control the transit economy: booking flights for businesses around the world. Booking (or not) for X Airlines. These are the women also reading this letter, which I have publicly posted online, awaiting your response.

Ultimately, as a global organization, you get to decide how you leverage not only your shareholders, but your stakeholders. You can start by refunding me in full for a ruined, uncomfortable, shaming flight. I’m your stakeholder, and so is the public audience reading this letter, waiting for an update on your reply. And you can go on to take a look at how you treat women who are flying or booking. Take note that many major companies like Nordstrom, Target, and Lyft have all benefitted from taking progressive stances. Why not make money doing the right thing?

We women, we of frequent pee trips (sorry not sorry Mr. Pee Police), we your stakeholders, are watching.

I have now taken three hours of my time to write this letter, find the customer service email, process the event, and send this your way. Typically I am well paid by the hour to offer my expertise on organizational communication, information flow, and diversity. But I will not be sending you an invoice. I have offered it here to you for free. And I expect to see a full refund within a week. So do my readers. Thank you.”

I’ll keep you posted with their response!

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