Daniel Lemke biked 12,608 miles in 15 months to raise awareness about human trafficking. I interviewed him in Colorado in September of 2016, just a couple months after he completed his tour around the perimeter of the United States.
As January 11th is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day and Daniel recently published a book about his experience, called Kissing Lions, I wanted to share this interview with you. I’ll be sharing additional resources this month as well. Human trafficking is modern day slavery, and is happening right under our noses.
Me: What are some things you have learned about sex trafficking over the past 15 months?
Daniel: Most victims are runaways or from the foster care system. In fact, 1 out of 3 runaways will be trafficked. [According to heatwatch.org, two in every three kids will be approached by an exploiter within 48 hours of running away from home.]
This is some of the slang and vocabulary associated with sex trafficking I learned:
Survivors of sex trafficking are called “sparrow.”
Victims are a “commodity,” “item,” “product,” or “the bottom bitch.” From the outside we see them as a prostitute, stripper, and/or pornstar.
A pimp (male) or madam (female) are the “care providers,” “boyfriend,” “captor,” or “sugar daddy.”
The second in command, who will recruit and basically do anything for the pimp, is called “the Bottom Bitch.”
A gentlemen or “good guy pimp” is called a “Romeo Pimp.”
An aggressive or abusive pimp (like in the movie Taken) is called a “Gorilla pimp.”
A John is the client.
Me: What are some red flags to look for?
Daniel: I’ll give you an example. I had an experience during an open mic night at a café in western Colorado. The barrista knew nothing about the menu and the woman in charge, the “boss lady,” was constantly looking over her shoulder and had shifty eyes when a man would come in.
At one point, a man in a suit entered, acting like he owned the place. Pulling the boss lady aside, he kissed her and held her arm. I overheard him call the women “baby girl,” and his demeanor shifted as he chatted with the men around the room. The waitresses were flirty with the male customers, and were very good at flirting.
So all these signs made me suspicious: not knowing the menu, the manager being pulled aside, the charming gentleman addressing all the men, and the flirty women.
Nail salons and massage parlors are also often covers for sex trafficking. Usually if it has the word “lily,” it can be a code word.
Me: How does the customer find the place?
Daniel: Numbers on bathroom stalls and ads in newspapers can all be codes. Craigslist or backpages.com have entire sections dedicated to adult services.
Me: What are some signs that a child is being trafficked?
Daniel: Pay attention to who they are with and where they are they looking. Are they cowering? You should look for markings, bruising, tattoos behind the ear, on the chest, on other places you can’t see, or on the lip. They often won’t have any form of ID and will often be absent from school.
In my travels, I often used Couch Surfing to find places to stay. I once stayed with a pimp. I was able to ask him lots of questions. He told me the youngest kid he found was 16. He often found his victims by going to a mall or fair. He would walk up to a girl and compliment her and if she was confident, he didn’t even bother.
But if she was self-deprecating or seemed insecure, he would play into her emotions. He knew how to manipulate her so she would think he loved her. In fact, most victims usually refer to the pimp as their “boyfriend.”
Me: How did you know he was a pimp?
Daniel: As I entered his house, God immediately prompted me to get to the heart of things and be different. I’ve learned that if you don’t get to the heart of things within the first 30 minutes of meeting someone, you won’t.
“What is it that you do?” I asked him.
“I am an urge provider,” he said, kind of joking. “ I work in the exotic film business.”
I knew I couldn’t change his opinion, but needed to love him and show him Christ. He was extremely charming and even bought me an expensive steak dinner, and took me around town.
I learned a pimp makes an average of 200,000-400,000 dollars a year.
This guy would charge between $50 and $100 a girl per time for three to eight times a day. Most pimps will have multiple girls, or boys. That income is all untaxed.
It’s really hard to convict a pimp. The police needs hard evidence and the pimp knows how to avoid getting caught.
Me: What’s the role of pornography in sex trafficking?
Daniel: Pornography increases the demand for sex trafficking. Pimps sometimes have women do that first, then hold it over their heads.
I actually want to reach pimps. I want to convert pimps to legitimate business men and change their mentality. I want to get men on board in reaching them. I want to demolish the demand because pornography can lead to sex trafficking.
Me: How is this problem being addressed in the church and other communities?
Daniel: Not enough. I had a hard time getting churches to host me in my travels. Men’s groups need to talk more about pornography because there’s not much accountability. The pastors need to talk about what healthy love and sex is because otherwise our kids are getting it from the media. Also, many pastors don’t even address the men directly. Men like to fix things, so when they don’t see a way to fix it, they don’t even try. Of the organizations fighting sex trafficking I met with, probably 75% were headed up by women.
Me: What is the best way to see sex trafficking decrease in the U.S.?
Daniel: I fully believe that the only way to end sex trafficking is to have a firm and strong family dynamic. I think it needs to start with the man. Daughters need a strong father or she’ll go seek one out. Boys need to understand how to be a gentleman and a protector rather than a predator.
Me: How can the average person help?
Daniel: First is prayer. Second, people can help through finances and raising awareness. Restore One in North Carolina is one of the few organizations helping male victims of sex trafficking.
You need to talk and do. You could set up an awareness night at church and show a movie. One good one is a documentary called Nefarious: Merchant of Souls. There’s also a very accurate movie based on a true story called Eden. Hot Girls Wanted is a rough documentary that’s pretty poor quality about the porn industry, but it gets the idea across.
You can talk to legislators. Senators and house reps are actually really easy to get ahold of and then they’ll set you up with others. They need to figure out what laws are working and which ones aren’t. It’s different in every state.
You can go into your local police force and ask what you can help them with or partner with a local organization that is fighting sex trafficking.
Victims and pimps need counseling, a safe environment and reintegration into society.
William Wilberforce, an abolitionist, once said, “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.”
You can buy Daniel’s book about this experience, called Kissing Lions , (in paperback, but also on Amazon kindle for just $4.99!) Listen to him talk about it on Youtube here.
Check back for more posts about sex trafficking awareness and raising strong girls during the month of January.
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Christmas has started to feel icky to me. The more I read, watch and learn, the more the Christmas spirit is eclipsed by guilt over the amount of money we spend on junk that often comes at the cost of exploiting those in poverty or negatively impacting our planet. But what if our gifts had the dual purpose of celebrating one another AND providing opportunities to empower vulnerable men, women and children to get out of poverty? This seems like a better reflection of a sacred and joyful holiday.
I curated this list by asking my online friends for recommendations of sites they know to have high standards for quality as well as a commitment to maintaining ethical business standards. In addition to these key requirements, I also wanted to list companies that are in my price range, which tends to be closer to the $50 or below range for Christmas gifts.
For each site, I’ve picked at least one item either I or a father, husband, friend, family member, teacher or child might like to receive (each is less than $50 unless noted otherwise). I noticed many of the sites offer either free shipping or 10 or 15 percent off of your first order if you sign up for their newsletter. I am not receiving any kind of payment for sharing this, though I hope you all buy from here so that your gifts will empower others and promote a prettier planet. Feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments section!
Here are the amazing companies I found. I confess some made me cry as I read the “My Story” section of their websites. Beautiful things are happening in this world in spite of it all–lives are being transformed and people are creating. And we get to be a part of it!
EMPOWERS: Survivors of human trafficking in the U.S.
From their site: “We exist to empower survivors of human trafficking through meaningful employment and economic independence.” You can also find their jewelry in shops around the U.S.–check here to see if there are any near you. This company has a really cool story: “Each BRANDED item is stamped with an initial and a number. The initial belongs to the survivor who made your cuff. You can read her story on our website. The number is your unique number in the Collective. You can register this number and send a Message of Hope to our survivors.” Love the redemption in this. These earrings are really beautiful:
PROMOTES: Buying handmade items from small businesses
This company is run by my sister-in-law out of Marietta, GA. She creates jewelry, trays for display, and home décor. From her site: “Her mission is to preserve beautiful specimens from lace, botanicals and papers in glass as an archive of the past in a clean, minimal and modern way using traditional stained glass processes.” I love these little vases/terrariums:
I can certainly help a sister out through eating more chocolate. From their site: “Divine Chocolate is co-owned by the 85,000 farmer members of Kuapa Kokoo, the cooperative in Ghana that supplies the cocoa for each bar of Divine. As owners, they get a share in the profits, a say in the company, and a voice in the global marketplace.” AND they sell chocolate–and the site has some fun chocolate recipes, too! You can buy a variety of bars of chocolate for stockings (or anytime, really) or order bars in a 10-pack. This is what I’m eyeing…
In addition to jewelry, accessories and clothing for women, this site actually has many gifts for men! From their site: “Do Good Shop runs like a business, but is actually a nonprofit organization. This means that not only does each purchase create jobs for vulnerable artisans, but also ALL of our net proceeds go directly back into supporting the artisans and their communities, and educating others about this great need.” My hubby would really dig this journal (as would I):
This company was recommended to me by a friend from when I lived in China. From their site: “Evergreen Cards is a rural economic development project that was founded by Evergreen team members to provide women with a source of supplemental income and to touch their lives in a tangible way with the love of God.” These would make a great hostess gift or gift for a teacher:
PROMOTES: Local manufacturing using recycled materials
This site has a wide range of toys for children. Though they are plastic, they are much sturdier than your typical plastic toy and they use recycled materials. From their site: “From our 100% recycled materials to our US-based manufacturing, we’re raising awareness about sustainability while delivering unquestionably safe products.” This would be a winner in our house:
EMPOWERS: Trafficking survivors in Cambodia, disadvantaged in Haiti, and those coming out of homelessness in Pennsylvania
This site includes a ton of information about the artisans involved and each product has a symbol indicating who made it. From their site: “We are creating products that care for the human race—giving opportunity for individuals to care for their children, families, and health. . . so that a new generation has a fighting chance to break the cycle of poverty.” They also lead trips abroad for people to learn about poverty and the garment industry.This company has some gorgeous clothing, men and women’s aprons, bags, and even dress shirts and neckties for men! (It is very difficult to find reasonably-priced, ethical clothing for men.)
They sell very classy leather bags, skin products, journals, scarves, jewelry and bags. From their site: “Karama alleviates poverty by restoring dignity through creative, purposeful work for artisans, beginning in Africa.”
EMPOWERS: Women in Peru, Uganda and other countries
This site sells men’s and women’s clothing, bags, headware and accessories and some kid items as well. I liked a lot of the kids’ and men’s knit hats. From this site: “Our products, our partners, and our community work in unison to help people break the cycle of poverty, forever. We provide life-changing job opportunities to women in need. With each purchase you make we introduce you to the woman who made your product and invite you to visit her online profile to learn more about her.” Love that.
It’s so hard to find gifts for men! This site has a great scarf for guys:
EMPOWERS: Artisans in Africa and refugees in the U.S.
From the site: “The artisans who make the lovely items in our shop are some of the most oppressed and impoverished in the world, from Kenya to Ethiopia to refugees relocated to the United States. They are paid more than a fair wage and empowered by your purchase.” They also have a “charitable gift catalogue” where you can donate to practical needs of real women such as: “provide a mosquito net, food for one mom and child, an academic scholarship, fund literacy classes for women, provide a sewing machine, or rescue a pregnant girl.” Wow.
I’m in the market for Christmas decorations, so I loved this set:
But I also loved this because it is the tagline for my blog (and also Micah 6:8…):
A friend of mine recommended this Scandinavian company that has beautiful gifts. From their site: “We believe in responsible and sustainable consumption and production. We have selected brands and designers who believe in those same values. We choose products that are made of natural materials; produced with minimal impact on the environment, and that are safe and healthy for the consumers and to those who are part of the manufacturing process.” They sell jewelry, dish towels, blankets, napkins, glassware, and mugs. Though the dish towels are a bit pricier than I would usually pay at the $20 range for one, there are some really cute ones if you don’t mind the price.
These mugs and towels would make a good gift for a teacher, family member or friend:
And this (because we live in Colorado and actually have moose;-) )
This company partners with 29 artisan businesses in 12 countries around the world to create beautiful jewelry, bags, scarves, and ornaments. From their site: “We develop these artisan businesses through fair trade, connecting them to a global market and empowering them to grow sustainably.”
This company empowers Haitians who create the bags, jewelry, home décor, toys and T-shirts for sale on the site. From the site: “Our mission is orphan prevention and we do that through job creation. Papillon is providing hope to Haitian Artisans with the dignity of a job, training, and the ability to create something new out of something discarded and seemingly unusable. We use metal, cardboard, aluminum, dirt, and paper to make jewelry and other beautiful things.” As soon as I get out of the baby stage and start wearing jewelry again, I would love a necklace like this (and it comes in many different colors!):
I met the CEO and founder of this organization two summers ago at a conference. This is an incredible organization, and this site is just one small part of what they are doing. In addition to soap and candles, you can buy chickens for a displaced family, medical treatment for a war survivor or water for families in conflict zones in Iraq. This is their mission: “We’re a coalition stretching across Iraq, Syria, the United States, and beyond, working together to unmake violence and create the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.” These candles are really pretty:
From their site: “We engage, equip and employ refugee women in the Chicagoland area. It is our greatest desire to provide a space for refugee women to thrive as they rebuild their hopes and dreams in the United States.” They sell purses, wallets, eyeglass cases and journals from upcycled materials.
This company came highly recommended from a friend. They sell accessories, apparel, bags, wallets, and cosmetic bags at a really reasonable price. From their site: “Located in Phnom Penh and the Saang District of Cambodia, Sak Saum is a ministry dedicated to the rescue, restoration, transformation and rehabilitation of vulnberable and exploited women and men.”
This is a great bag for a mom with more than one kid because it has a backpack option (and it’s only $35)!
“Each time you shop at soaphope.com, 100% of the profits – yes, every dollar – goes to empower women to lift their lives, families, and communities from extreme poverty.” You can find gifts from $25 to $50 here. They also have collections for men, like this one for the man with a beard in your life:
From the site: “Sseko Designs uses fashion to create opportunity for women globally. We provide employment and scholarship opportunities to women in Uganda who are working to pursue their dreams and overcome poverty. To date, we’ve enabled 87 women to continue on to University! We also provide employment (along with access to a comprehensive social impact program) to our team of 50 women in Uganda.” They have really cute sandals, so I’ll need to bookmark this site for next summer;-) Most of the items were a bit out of our price range, but these earrings were cute and very reasonably priced:
This company provides shelter, counseling, employment and education to women coming out of trafficking in Asia. From their site: “We provide life-changing opportunities through our Holistic Care Programs and our social enterprise where women create beautiful jewelry and become managers, accountants, graphic designers, and photographers.” They have some very affordable, classic pieces of jewelry like this one:
I would be remiss to not include coffee on this list. Travel with my husband always includes visits to multiple used bookstores accompanied by drinking coffee in local coffee shops that offer freshly roasted coffee and pour overs. So the Oregon-based Stumptown is “Adam Verner Approved” in addition to practicing ethical business. A great gift for a coffee lover would be to buy a coffee subscription and have a 12 oz. bag of coffee delievered every two weeks. But since this gets pricey if you want to drink more coffee, just a nice gift of a bag or two would make a nice gift. Ethiopian roasts are always good, so I’d probably pick this one on their site. Last year I bought my hubby his first coffee roaster from Sweet Maria’s and we eventually upgraded to this one and we now buy green beans and my husband roasts our coffee (only $6 a pound verses $20 a pound for good, freshly roasted beans!)
This is a company that partners with women in India to end sex trafficking. From their site: “Donations made during checkout at sudara.org go towards Sudara Freedom Fund and have helped fund safe housing for women escaping trafficking, equipment for new or growing sewing centers, microloans and back-to-school programs. One of our most recent opportunities, the Sunetha Home, is supporting long-term, systemic change by directly addressing issues that lead to generational sex work.”
These”punjammies” are a bit pricier than I would normally pay for loungewear at $54.00 each, but perhaps for a gift–and a worthy cause–they might be worth it. I liked these:
Although there are several actual brick and mortar shops, you can also find gifts online. This company works together with over 20,000 makers in 30 developing countries to give them an opportunity to sell their work in the global marketplace. From their site: “We are a non-profit social enterprise that partners with independent small-scale artisan groups, co-ops and workshops to bring their wares to our markets.” They sell jewelry, home décor, stationary, baskets, candles, cosmetics, kitchenware and more. They have so many cool nativity sets–we have this small one made of olive wood and really love it:
EMPOWERS: Women survivors of trafficking and addiction in the U.S.
This is their mission: “Thistle Farms’ mission is to HEAL, EMPOWER, AND EMPLOY women survivors of trafficking, prostitution, and addiction. We do this by providing safe and supportive housing, the opportunity for economic independence, and a strong community of advocates and partners.” An online friend recommended their non-toxic bug spray, lip balm, lotions, and pretty much everything else. They have some bath sets and smaller items for stocking stuffers that would make great gifts. Someone please buy me this bath soak set for Christmas…;-)
This site has a variety of beautiful jewelry, bags, journals and scarves for a really reasonable price. From their site: “We work with the artisans themselves and organizations that are helping women in difficult circumstances. Some women have been rescued from sex slavery. Others are raising handicapped children alone. Some are in war torn countries and others have HIV/AIDS and leprosy.”
Jewelry, bags, journalsThey have some very pretty, affordable jewelry–you can find all their gifts under $50 here. I liked this piece, called the Golden Kenyan Necklace:
I feel like kids of every age love blocks. From their site: “Uncle Goose makes wooden blocks. We handcraft every set in Grand Rapids, Michigan, using choice materials from around the Great Lakes. And yes, we are 100% made in the USA.” In addition to letters and numbers, you can also find these kinds of blocks: constellations, sight words, birds, planets and famous women! We have an older version of this set of blocks with Chinese characters, but I love these, too:
PROMOTES: Reusing materials and leaving a smaller footprint
This is a great site if you have a hipster-type family member, teenager or college student you need to buy a gift for. I love their bags made from old seatbelts and a friend of mine says she’s had hers for 7 years and it’s not even ragged around the edges! These products are all handmade in Canada, though they ship worldwide. They sell bags, men’s wallets and even dog collars. I think my 15 year old niece might like this one…
A friend of mine who lives in Australia recommended this site. Want to skip buying more “stuff” altogether? At this site you can provide for basic needs of those in need such as: preschool classes, a veggie garden, a goat, well, and even a toilet! From their site: “Every item in TEAR’s Gift Catalogue represents a contribution to a long-term poverty-fighting project run by one of TEAR Australia’s Christian partners. Each project is tailored to that community’s needs, helping people gain the skills and resources they need to address local problems and come up with sustainable solutions.”
Other sites related to ethical shopping:
The Good Trade–a gorgeous site offering lots of articles and resources related to minimalism and being an ethical consumer.
Slavery Footprint–you can take a quick quiz to find out how where you live and what you buy impacts the world.
Please leave links to other ethical sites you love. There were so many more that I couldn’t include. And share this post to spread the word on these amazing companies.
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(This post first appeared on Tasha’s site Coffee and Kimchi in July of 2016, but is still very relevant now. She shared it with me recently and agreed to republish it in this series. Be sure you head over and check out her site!)
My Existence: Formerly Against the Law
50 years ago, the country I was born in had laws in place to prevent my birth. With a righteous-sounding title like “The Racial Integrity Act,” racism was formalized and normalized in the United States of America, and up until 1967 there were still 15 states that had anti-miscegenation laws.
Miscegenation means, “the interbreeding of people considered to be of different racial types.” Does that make anyone else want to cringe? So, it was illegal for a white person to marry a non-white person.
The first time I read about The Racial Integrity Act of 1924, I cried. Evil, oppressive and dark, the laws were similar to the Nuremberg Laws in Germany, “laws to protect German blood and honor,” that led to the Holocaust itself. Some of the very same ideology and blatant racism was written into the American laws to “protect whiteness.”
I find it ironic that some of America’s beloved Hollywood films throughout history have made a point to further vilify some villains on screen with thick German accents (and this still happens today). Yet, America had Nazi-like laws in place long after the Holocaust.
It wasn’t until June of 1967, because of Loving vs. Virginia, that the Supreme Court decided to remove all existing laws that prohibit interracial marriage. My parents were married in 1971 in California. While it had been legal in California since 1948, it’s hard for me to comprehend that in many states, just 4 years prior, my parents’ marriage would have been illegal.
Can you imagine for a second what it feels like to know that there were laws in your own country to prohibit someone like you from existing?
As a mixed person, I am not one or the other; I am both. 100% both. I have spent time wishing I was one or the other. I have spent years ashamed of one or the other, or the fact that I was both.
Today, I refuse to linger in that division. No matter what laws have been removed or put into place, and though progress has been made, reconciliation is the only thing that I believe will bring true, lasting change. In the simplest terms, reconciliation starts with moving towards different in honesty and humility.
As a mixed person, my own personal reconciliation has had to begin with moving towards the different inside of me.
This takes on even more significance when I consider that mixed race individuals are the fastest growing demographic in the U.S. How will we model reconciliation for future biracial generations? What example will they give an even more mixed generation that follows them?
After the horrific events that took place in our country last week, I realize that I am no expert on racism. I can’t speak to the black experience as if I know what my African American brothers and sisters have long endured because of institutional racism. However, I can speak-up for the value of life and the fact that black lives have been under attack and oppressed by systemic racism for as long as our country has had a history.
I can’t speak to what it must feel like to be a white police officer in our country, working under the weight of reverse racism. However, I can speak-up against reverse racism and the fact that it has attacked our nation by taking the lives of those who serve Americans in one of the most courageous ways. What I have personally experienced as a biracial Asian American pales in comparison to these recent heart-breaking tragedies and the people connected to them.
But here’s the thing. What took place this past week isn’t a new thing. The evil of racism has been here, laying right under the surface of everyday life, kept alive in part, because so many of us avoid moving towards different and the responsibility of reconciliation.
I have been told that I should just let little things go when it comes to racist remarks or incidents. People have said “most aren’t that way,” or, “they didn’t really mean it like that,” as a way to brush off seemingly little offenses. I have tried those responses and I wish they worked. They don’t work. Brushing things off in order to avoid the hard work of reconciliation feeds and waters the thick, growing weed of racism.
A “good” kid made slanted eye faces at me when I was little, and an entire generation later, my 2nd grader tells me that this has happened on his elementary school playground. I am not sure what hurts me more: my personal memories of a classmate pulling the corners of his eyelids back and laughing, or hearing that my son has experienced the same thing.
I have heard careless comments about the foods I grew up eating, foods that come with the stories of my mother’s upbringing and culture. I’ve watched people turn their noses up in disgust at particular Asian foods until it became trendy; those same people later ended up in watered-down “ethnic” restaurants taking selfies, while remaining blind to and unapologetic for their duplicity.
I have tried to understand how white (and Christian) friends can laugh while watching A Christmas Story and claim it to be their favorite Christmas movie, when it has a deliberately racist scene in it. I was introduced to this movie at a church youth group gathering of all places. Did you know that the Asian actors in the Chinese restaurant scene didn’t even know they would be singing mispronounced Christmas carols? Asian Americans are not a comedic prop for the larger majority of Americans.
It wouldn’t be right if I just listed the racism I have experienced from the majority white culture. Other Asian Americans have told me that I’m not a real Asian. I’ve been uninvited by a group of Korean Americans because I couldn’t speak Korean. And beyond our country’s borders, I have seen racism between a lot of different colors. In Asia, I have been told that I am too dark-skinned to be Asian. And when I was 7 years old, my sister and I were spit on by a group of teenage boys on a sidewalk in Seoul, because we were mixed.
Facing Racism and Choosing Reconciliation
Racism is everywhere. Even in me. I have seen it in my own thoughts, in my silence, in my reasons and in my own words. Until you and I are willing to face and admit our part in keeping racism alive, it will continue to linger and lay under the surface in our hearts, families, communities, churches and future. Do not believe the lie that racism can be covered up or contained. Do not believe that by segregating ourselves, we will stay safe and keep our hearts sanitized from the sin of racism.
As a Christ-follower, ignoring and avoiding the broken place of racism isn’t an option. As an American mother, I refuse to model silence, fear and separation. I intend to make it a priority to teach my sons what it means to stand up against racism and move towards reconciliation.
As an adoptive mother, I refuse to raise my Korean daughter with the marching orders to assimilate and keep the majority or minority boat from rocking. I intend to teach her to celebrate and move towards the different in her own identity and in the world.
As the daughter of a white man and wife of another white man, I will not encourage reverse racism as an acceptable or better form of racism. As a follower of Jesus, I am committed to move towards the different because Jesus modeled this. Not only did Jesus choose a minority and oppressed people to be born into and live among, He consistently moved towards different in his day. He has promised that he is preparing a place for His people: a global and colorful people of every nation, tribe, and language.
If God wanted us to be colorblind, he wouldn’t have created the visible beauty and diversity of color among us.
He made us to notice our racial differences, celebrate our racial differences, see and worship Him TOGETHER in those differences.
Tasha is a wife, a mama, a hapa and a french fries connoisseur. She’s a writer and a dreamer, a coffee-drinker and a kimchi-eater. She was made to walk where cultures collide on both dirt roads and carefully placed cobblestone streets. Jesus is her heartbeat. Follow her on: Her Blog | Twitter | Facebook
New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).
During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.
Last year, at the age of 37, in spite of living and working among other races for my entire life, I finally noticed the racial divide.
As a child of the 80s, I was taught that talking about race was impolite; it meant you noticed differences. We say, “We’re all the same, after all—on the inside. Isn’t it better to be ‘colorblind’?”
But ignoring race is like sidestepping the gigantic crack in the sidewalk of society and history. We try and tiptoe over it, or worse, we pretend it doesn’t even exist.
Of all whites, I should have known better, because I can’t think of a time when I didn’t have a person of color in my life.
The first boy I ever liked in kindergarten was black. I nearly followed him into the boys’ restroom one day. When I described him to my mom as having dark skin, she asked, “Is he black?”
“Of course not,” I said. “No one has black skin. He’s brown.”
In middle school, I rode the bus for an hour, either way, to attend school in the projects because our county in Tampa, Florida, was one of the last to integrate schools.
My midwest Christian college was majority white. Some black students were browsing in the bookstore once and the cops showed up. Someone assumed they were there to shoplift.
In college, I spent six months in Uganda and lived with an African family in a village. I often confounded their assumptions. “I didn’t think you people did things that way,” they’d say. To them, I was America. More than once, I was asked if I knew President Bush.
After college, my first teaching job was in the inner city of Chicago, in North Lawndale, at a 100% African-American school. I asked my students if any white kids ever attended there. “I think once … maybe,” they replied. I got so used to seeing black faces that I was shocked by my whiteness when I saw myself in the mirror during bathroom breaks.
I lived in China for five years. For the first three, I was one of three white faces in a city of 60,000. Many people wanted to be my friend. I understood it was because I was white. I humored them, telling myself I’d be more accepted if I learned Chinese. So I spent hours studying until I was fluent. But even then I wondered about my friends’ motives in spending time with me. I wished I could look Chinese.
After China, I taught at a small private Christian school in Chinatown in Chicago. Six out of eleven students were boys. Only one of those boys was black, the rest were Asian and white. One day all the other boys showed up at school with their backpacks full of clothes for a sleepover at one of the boy’s houses for his birthday. Guess which boy wasn’t invited …
To not notice race is to not notice the way clouds affect the shifting of light in the sky. It is to pretend you don’t feel the rain pelting the hood of your coat or soaking into the hole in your boots. It is to ignore reality.
And yet somehow I still believed we were living in a post-racial, inclusive, equal society.
Wounded, the Body of Christ walks with a limp. In the United States, our black and brown brothers and sisters are suffering, so the evangelical church–the whole church–should ache with pain. Five generations of so-called freedom have not erased fifteen generations of slavery.
It’s time for the white evangelical church to notice.
I was stunned by these tweets from people of color in the wake of the election in November:
Yolanda Pierce @YNPierce Nov 8: White evangelicals: you’ve decisively proven that you love your whiteness more than you love your black & brown brothers & sisters in Christ.
Soong-Chan Rah @profrahNov 9White evangelicals, you could have stood up and said that following Christ and the body of Christ is greater, but you chose to pursue power.
Jemar Tisby, president of the Reformed African American Network told The Atlantic: “The vast majority of white evangelicals with whom I interact are on board and want to see a more racially diversified and unified church. However, when that same constituency overwhelmingly supports Donald Trump, I feel like they haven’t understood any of my concerns as a racial minority and an African American.”
Over the past year, God has taken a tiny fissure in my awareness and cracked it open into a growing knowledge of the pain experienced by people of color today. I’ve immersed myself in stories via podcasts, books and articles. I’ve intentionally followed as many people of color on social media as I can and sought out friends who are people of color.
Because of this newfound sight, I dreaded attending church the Sunday after the election. Instead, I downloaded sermons. Of the four sermons from white pastors, each spent two minutes talking about the election, only to carry on with their regularly scheduled programming.
But the sermons by black pastors I downloaded? Most scrapped their plans and devoted the entire service to preaching on the sovereignty of God in these uneasy times.
The fact that white pastors did not have to talk about race following the election is an indicator of the privilege inherent in white evangelical churches.
Ignoring the Ache
The western church loves to compartmentalize. We talk about “our ministry” and excuse ourselves from the table of other ministries we may not feel passionate about. But listening to a wounded brother or a sister in Christ and trying to love them better is not a ministry, it is a call for every Christ follower.
The Bible says if one member suffers, all suffer together and if one member is honored, all rejoice together (1 Corinthians 12:26 ESV). We are all connected, but as the white church continues to ignore the cries of our brothers and sisters, we become numb to their pain until we no longer feel the ache.
Advocating for the security, equality and respect of our brothers and sisters in Christ is not an option; it is a mandate from Jesus Himself.
In Mark 12:28-31 “one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’
The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
If we do not love our black and brown brothers and sisters–treating them with the same respect, attention and admiration as we expect to be treated–we cannot call ourselves lovers of Jesus.
I’ll be honest. I’m still grappling with my own latent and blatant racism. When I see several black men loitering around a gas station, without even thinking, I say, “This is a bad neighborhood.” I feel uncomfortable watching the TV show The Man in the High Castle where the Japanese have taken over the U.S. and white people are subservient to them. I expect I will be treated fairly if pulled over by police. I can live in a white bubble if I choose to. But the more I listen and learn, the more I realize we are far from living in a post-racial society.
I believe Jesus wants racial justice and radical change to begin with the church. The church is for healing, reconciliation, listening, learning, lament, growth and transformation. Yes, it is a place for studying the Bible, but many churches worship the letter of the law instead of worshipping Jesus. We dole out the minimum amount of love in order to achieve the maximum amount of comfort.
“No. By condemning envy, hatred, and anger God wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves,1 to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly toward them,2to protect them from harm as much as we can, and to do good even to our enemies.3
Are we protecting our brothers and sisters of color from harm as much as we can?
The church should be the place where people of color feel the absolute safest. It should be a place where we can delight over our differences because we each reflect a facet of the Imago Dei. It should be a stunning picture of heaven on earth.
Many young people are walking away from the church, longing to shed the baggage the term “evangelical” now carries. The white American church is in danger of becoming so irrelevant, self-absorbed and legalistic it will continue to lose members of the congregation who recognize society as doing more to help people than the church is. It’s time for the church to wake up.
So what do we do?
Mostly, we shut up and listen. At first, at least. Michelle Higgins says, “Without humility, there is no solidarity.” We first take the posture of a learner.
We can seek further education individually or as groups. We form book clubs, start prayer groups or attend conferences. We find friends who look different from us. We partner with black churches to meet for meals, holidays or special services. Church leaders can prioritize having people of color on staff and on stage, regularly listening to their heart and voice.
I believe a movement is stirring.
African American sister Latasha Morrison is the founder of Be the Bridge to Racial Unity, a group that focuses on bridging racial divides. It grew from 900 members in July of 2016 to 10,000 members in February of 2017. After the election, Latasha tweeted:
Tasha @LatashaMorrisonNov 16 many POC have been disheartened at the looking away of many White evangelicals. I’m encouraged by those choosing to stand. #bethebridge
White people are beginning to “get woke.”
Nothing New for POC
Our country is spinning wildly and church itself is a dizzying experience. It’s tempting to walk away. But ironically, the greatest solace I’ve found is from my sisters and brothers who are people of color. Why? Because this is not the first time many of them have felt out of control, afraid or had their voices suppressed. These tweets testify to this:
Broderick Greer @BroderickGreer Nov 16 For some of us, the terror began long before Trump’s rise.
Broderick Greer @BroderickGreerNov 16 And so, this feeling of insecurity isn’t new, it’s just more pronounced.
The Sunday after election day, African American Pastor Eric Mason of Epiphany Fellowship shared a sermon entitled “In God We Trust.” In it, he acknowledged that “there wasn’t a divide made, there was a divide that existed prior to this election. It just exposed this divide.” He said, “Sometimes you need for something to happen on earth so that you can look up to heaven.” And “There is nothing that sneaks past the fingers of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.”
He described November 9th like this: “The clouds were still there. I still had mobility in my limbs. I was able to breathe. I blinked my eyes and I looked … and I said, ‘Hold on, you mean to tell me that this election didn’t stop the universe from being held in its place?’”
He continued, “This election did not move anything.”
Yes, God is in control, but the white evangelical church still has work to do. We need to open our eyes and acknowledge that all is not as it should be. In an age where truth is seen as “alternative fact,” we must advance toward, not away from each other. We are not whole until we suffer together.
Be sure to sign up for email updates, because you don’t want to miss this:
Beginning March 1st, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.
Many people in the United States are experiencing a second sight, sometimes defined as being “woke.” In The Calling podcast, social justice activist Michelle Higgins says, “Woke-ness is a journey. It is saying ‘I’m done being blind’ or done saying ‘I’m sleeping on the whole truth about my community.'”
Maybe you read, watched and listened through the previous list of resources to educate yourself about race issues. Or maybe (hopefully) you sat down over a cup of coffee with a friend who is a person of color and listened–really listened–to their story. Your heart is cracking open and you want to learn more.
Here are some additional resources I’ve come across in the last six months since publishing the first list. I listened to the podcasts and read the articles, but am still working my way through the books, though they all come highly recommended. This list is far from exhaustive (and mainly based on recent events, not historical documents), so I hope you will add your own ideas to the comments section of this post. Be sure to scroll all the way to the bottom to find new people to follow on Twitter and Facebook.
“… the invitation to the ally is always to follow the leadership of those who are at the center of the pain. Understanding the situation is not the same as owning the story.
The story matters. And choosing to work toward liberation of any kind requires a commitment to support the narrative of the ones who own the story. The role of the ally is not to lead or to fix. The ally holds the story and amplifies the voice of the story teller.
Shows up to listen, not lead.
Follows the directions of those at the center.
Uses privilege to point the spotlight in the direction of the pain.
Uses power to disrupt oppression.
Does not expect to be tutored on what is easily learned.
Knows that the moment is not for them, yet the Movement is about us all.”
There is more to learn. Our responsibility is to listen, educate ourselves, dive into the pain and speak when our voices can amplify the narrative of our hurting brothers and sisters. Peace to you on your journey to #staywoke.
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson This is the true tale of an African American lawyer in the south fighting for the rights of death row inmates who were unjustly incarcerated. Stevenson illuminates the racial injustices that are happening not during slavery or the Civil Rights era, but RIGHT NOW. It proves that we are not in post-racial times, but still living in the midst of rash injustice. This is the best book I read in 2016 andshould be on your list of must-read books.
(This is a very flexible guide for a book club to use as a spring board for discussing the book Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson. They can be skipped and discussed in any order). 1. How did you feel before you read this book? How did you feel afterward? 2. Describe the author’s style. Was it effective? 3. What was most shocking/sickening/saddening/surprising for you in this book? Why? 4. What did you want to know more about? 5. Discuss some of the most memorable stories from each of the groups mentioned throughout the book: African American men, women, children, mentally ill, disabled, drug convicts.
6. What stood out to you most about Walter’s story?
7. In what ways did Mr. Stevenson himself experience prejudice?
8. What are some of our state laws about incarceration? How can we find these out? 9. What can we do personally to make a difference? 10. How does Mr. Stevenson’s race impact your reading (and his writing) of this book? How would it have been different if it had been written by a white man or woman? 11. Would you recommend this book to others? Why or why not?
(You are welcome to use these for group discussion, as long as you attribute Leslie Verner.)
If you have read the book, I would love to hear some of your thoughts in the comments section!
Imagine you live on an island. Your island is small, but secure, and you have everything you need to survive. You have as much contact with the mainland as you want, but can switch off communication at will. You also have the freedom to leave the island to travel to the mainland if you wish. Your island is comfortable and for the most part it is safe.
Let’s call it “White Island.”
White Island is my home right now. My city is 93% white, the ten churches we have visited since moving here over a year ago have been 99% white and all of my neighbors are white. I am a stay-at-home mom of three children, four and under and never truly need to leave a five mile radius from my home unless I choose to. My portal to the outside world—the mainland–is a Smartphone with apps to read the news, listen to podcasts and stay in the social media stream. But that device also has an “off” button.
I can ignore the fact that there is a mainland if I choose to do so.
This is where many white people like me live. And when the news of the happenings “out there” on the mainland begin to disturb us, we simply shut down our portals for a little while so we can move on in peace with our quiet lives on White Island. We have the luxury of an “off” button.
But those who do not dwell on White Island do not have that privilege. They cannot tune out or turn off the news because they are living it.
I never realized I lived on White Island until a friend brought a black baby from the mainland to live on the island with us. It was only then that I realized her non-white son was treated differently than my white children. Soon, I began to stop tuning out and start tuning in to the pleas of those on the mainland. They had been calling out for a long time, but the stations I had frequented weren’t picking up their cries. It wasn’t until I began dialing in to different sources that didn’t originate with White Island that I began to hear a broader range of messages.
I cannot get off of this island right now. But that doesn’t mean I am powerless. And it doesn’t mean I must live in ignorance of the mainland. So what can those of us who feel stuck on White Island do?
1. Listen and learn.
Before we speak or act, those on the mainland have asked that we research the problem—with humility. Michelle Higgins said in a recent podcast that “Solidarity looks a lot like humility.” Our black sisters and brothers want us to get buried in their history, pain and struggle before we emerge. They will respect our silence at the beginning as we step down from our leading, teaching, and lecturing and take a seat in the row of desks for a while. So sit down, listen, take notes and do your homework.
2. Find friends who are different from you and visit the mainland.
We will live in greater solidarity with others as we notice that those who are different from us are also mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters. Tears, rage and joy are part of humanity. We will see this as we enter life with someone who is different from us and perhaps begin to empathize. Do you attend a gym, take your kids to a park or work with someone different from you? Don’t be weird, but do be intentional about pursuing a friendship with someone who doesn’t live on your island.
3. Move off the island.
Most places in our country have the coloring skills of a five-year-old who is content to keep solid colors in the lines of the coloring book. It’s time to develop our skills as an artist and dabble in the magnificence of a mixed pallet. This may require that we make plans to move off White Island all together. Find a diverse school for your children to attend, visit a new park, or look for a new church. Research the demographics of a neighborhood before buying a house and be intentional about seeking out diversity.
4. Use your platform.
How many lives do you, your spouse or your kids touch in a day? Who is in your square you interact with on a daily or weekly basis? What do you talk about? How can you cast light on topics some prefer to keep hidden in darkness for fear of offending? How can you use your voice in your particular slice of life to speak out and speak up for those who don’t have a voice?
5. Drench your everyday world in color.
How many people of color do you come across right there in your home? If you are a parent, do your children have books, dolls, decorations or games with people that look different from them? What about you? How diverse is your social media feed? What steps can you take to diversify your Facebook, Instagram or Twitter feeds? Who can you follow who will give you a fresh perspective from the mainland? If you are a reader, how many books have you read by people of color this year? Do you watch T.V. shows or movies or read magazines featuring people of color? The mainland is always reading about and watching stories of White Island, maybe it’s time for us to branch out.
6. Don’t tune out or turn off.
We on White Island must resist the urge to close our portals and pretend the problems on the mainland don’t exist. Yes, sometimes we need to step back, catch our breath and live small. But sometimes we need to gather courage and make space for the pain of other mommies, daddies, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters to hurt our hearts. Sometimes we must open our eyes even when we may prefer blindness.
The crowd leapt to their feet as Mr. Stevenson took the stage. He hadn’t even opened his mouth, and had already received a standing ovation. Why? Because this man’s story opens blind eyes. In his book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson shares about his experience working with men, women and children on death row. I have met more than one person who, after reading the book, looked down at their feet and, with tears in their eyes, whispered, “I didn’t know that African Americans are still treated this way. Until I read this, I didn’t realize. But now what do I do?” I had a similar response after reading Just Mercy this spring. In fact, I was so moved by Mr. Stevenson’s story that I hauled my 12-day-old newborn across town to hear him speak a few weeks ago, frantically taking notes with one hand while nursing with the other. The audience was made up of mainly white people over 50, though college students and a few people of color were present as well. Across the aisle sat a man in his late 20’s with long hair, loose-fitting clothing and bare feet. Beneath his chair was a cardboard box that was forced closed, leaving me wondering what was inside, though I forgot my curiosity as Mr. Stevenson began speaking. He was as powerful a speaker as he is an author and he seamlessly wove stories, statistics and inspiration into a flag of justice that we almost felt strong enough to help wave as we exited the building at the end of the night.
He shared four things we could do to improve our capacity to change the world right where we are: 1. Get closer.
“Get proximate to the problems instead of trying to solve them from a distance.” He expressed that we are too comfortable and do not see injustice because we are not close enough to see it. 2. Change the narratives that sustain inequality and injustice.
“Fear and anger are the essential ingredients of oppression.” He gave the example of calling drug addicts “criminals” and alcoholics people with a “disease.” He said that these narratives are what imprison the downtrodden and empower the privileged. 3. Stay hopeful. “Hopelessness is the enemy of justice.” In spite of all the dire examples of vast injustice in the world, Mr. Stevenson also shared many inspiring stories of hope as he has worked toward change. 4. Be willing to do uncomfortable things. “We have to judge ourselves by how we care for the poor.” He said that this action point requires intentionality because our default is that we choose to be comfortable, but perhaps we need to move more into discomfort. He also spoke about how he has come to the realization that as we acknowledge that we ourselves are broken people, we will find that we have much more in common with the poor than we once thought.
After his talk, Mr. Stevenson took questions from the crowd. I was surprised when the man across the aisle from me padded up to the front with his cardboard box, setting it down by his bare feet as he waited patiently for his turn at the microphone. When Mr. Stevenson turned to him, the man announced that he had gotten out of jail a week prior and that he wanted Mr. Stevenson’s help in going to the Supreme Court to fight for laws that would allow him to sleep outdoors. He talked for a long time and I could tell that the crowd was getting fidgety. He was taking up precious time for other more relevant questions. I half expected an usher to quietly stand next to him and give him the signal that he was talking too long. But instead of ridiculing him or rushing through his answer, Mr. Stevenson responded with humility, grace and respect. He listened to this man’s story and said that he was absolutely willing to represent him. While the rest of us were inwardly scoffing, Mr. Stevenson practiced what he had just preached and offered the man something the rest of us weren’t willing to give: dignity. I was humbled and convicted.
In myself, I saw the Pharisees of Bible times, urging Jesus to move on and not stop for the lepers calling out His name, the woman kneeling to touch his cloak or the children hugging his knees. I saw myself looking for the high profile poor instead of noticing the needy right in front of me. It is easy to say that we want justice for the poor as long as it is convenient and comfortable for us. But when we become aware of our own powerlessness, judgment and prejudice, we want to hide away in our safe suburbs and write a check from a distance. How far do you live from the poor, homeless, sick or oppressed? What would it take for you to move out of your comfort zone into proximity of those you say you would like to help?
As a person who feels very insignificant in this season of life as far as world-changing goes, I walked out of that auditorium with a greater desire to not just notice injustice, but make practical moves towards the oppressed. When we make decisions over the next few years about where we will buy a house and which schools we will choose to send our children to, I hope that we will not continue to hide away under the umbrella of “safety” or “good schools.” Instead, I hope for the courage to live in such proximity to my suffering neighbor that I cannot ignore their cry any longer, because they will be right in my backyard.