I was warmly greeted even before I walked through the front doors of Vida Church. Everyone was speaking Spanish until they saw me.
“Hello. Good morning!” they said kindly in English, while nodding and smiling at me.
“Am I that obvious?” I thought. Yes, gringa, you’re that obvious.
The soft edges of Spanish words were just as welcoming when spoken with the hard edges of English. A woman, who stood at the door to the sanctuary, grabbed my hand and squeezed it.
“Ah, hello! Pastor Liz told us you would be coming.”
I hadn’t even had a chance to introduce myself. The usher knew who I was, of course. The tall, awkward white woman wasn’t going to be hard to miss. She held my arm and guided me to the front row so I could sit next to the pastors.
Before I arrived I had imagined myself slipping quietly into a back row of the darkened church, listening in on the service, saying a quick hello to my friends who pastored this church, and then heading home.
I laugh at myself now when I think about it.
If you happen to be Latino or have spent even a brief amount of time in the company of Latinos, you know this was never how it was going to happen.
Days prior, I had asked Liz and Alex if I could come to their church as a simple act of solidarity with their community following the election. Liz and Alex are Mexican-American and evangelical pastors, who come from a long line of pastors, and have been serving the Latino and immigrant community in California for many years.
We shared many conversations leading up to, and following, the election. These conversations had been raw and painful. There was a sense of betrayal that so many white Christians and leaders had turned their backs on Latino and immigrant communities and chosen to disregard their voices, leadership, and the well being of their families.
I knew of the economic hardships that drove Latin American families to immigrate, including the devastating effects of U.S. trade and foreign policy in Latin America. Not to mention, the insurmountable obstacles many face trying to obtain residency or citizenship in the United States. The various paths immigrants take are not necessarily what they would have chosen for themselves, but they do what they have to for their families and their children’s future.
The night of the 2016 presidential election I joined friends and acquaintances at the offices of a local community-organizing network. These were people with whom I had phone-banked, canvassed neighborhoods, fought for police and immigration reform, shared meals, and exchanged life stories. We were a diverse group – economically, racially, and religiously – some citizens, others undocumented. All of us were working to create a more just and equitable society.
As the night wore on and results from each state were announced, reality began to sink in. I sat hunched over on the linoleum floor in the dark hallway holding my phone. A steady stream of texts and calls were coming in. My friends and I were processing our shock, fear, and anger. We knew this could happen. But, was this really happening? A mother’s deepened fears for her young black son. A formerly undocumented friend worrying about a family member who was gravely ill, but didn’t have papers.
I didn’t want anyone to see me crying. I’m always self-conscious about how easily I cry, but especially when with people of color. Too often I have seen the tears of white women used to manipulate and distract from dealing with our complicity in interpersonal and systemic racism.
As I listened to the intense fear, anger, and uncertainty of my friends, especially those from communities already marginalized in our nation, I had to sit with the weight that my people, white evangelicals, had voted in overwhelming numbers for this new president.
I have been steeped in white evangelicalism most of my life. I was born and raised in white, conservative, evangelical churches and educated in their schools, up through my graduate education. I worked for over a decade as a professor at an evangelical Christian university.
And here we were. It was all over the news – how white evangelicals had played such a pivotal role in the election of Donald Trump. Eighty-one percent was the number that was repeated over and over again. Eighty-one percent of white evangelicals had voted for Donald Trump.
Sitting there in that hallway, I tried not to cry. The tears came anyway.
I had assumed the service would be in Spanish. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to fully participate or follow closely since I don’t speak Spanish. But still, I wanted to show up. My ability – or inability – to understand the language should never be a prerequisite for solidarity.
To my surprise it was a bilingual service – Spanish and English, translated simultaneously. Vida had transitioned to bilingual services out of their commitment to support younger Latinos, many of whom are more comfortable with English even if they are bilingual. Furthermore, Vida wanted to create an open and inclusive space for as many people as possible.
Alex and Liz spoke in tandem, almost speaking over each other, but not quite, as they moved quickly between two languages. They flowed back and forth so seamlessly it didn’t feel like one language or the other was being translated. At one point, I realized my eyes were darting back and forth between the two speakers. I can only imagine how frenzied I must have looked before I realized I could simply focus on the lead speaker, regardless of what language they were speaking. I was intrigued how quickly my mind adapted and that I was able to enter into the experience more fully than I would have anticipated.
So much for just sitting back and taking it all in from a comfortable distance.
I was reeling after the election. A lot of us were. In order to get my bearings I started reading a book I’d had on my shelf about the life and politics of Jesus.
Jesus was from Nazareth of Galilee. He was from the “bad part” of town – the lowliest part of an already lowly region, occupied by the Roman Empire. If you grew up in Nazareth you spoke with a distinct accent, one that people would easily recognize and automatically assume you were uneducated and unintelligent, no matter how bright, educated, or accomplished you might be.
Like speaking with a Spanish accent in the United States.
Growing up, I was part of a generation that was taught to be “colorblind” and consequently ignore racism. So, even though I’m a typical good-hearted, well-intentioned white person, I can be woefully ignorant when it comes to racism in America.
Over the years, I’ve tried to educate myself on matters of race. As a white person it is neither easy nor comfortable to face squarely the realities of racism, past and present. Beyond that, there are ever-present reminders of the insidious and prevalent nature of racism. Sometimes those reminders still knock the wind out of me.
This was one of those times.
I had contemplated skipping Donald Trump’s pre-election speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention. I didn’t want to hear the bigoted things he would say, even when couched in clever-enough phrasing to avoid owning up to what he was clearly communicating. All political speechwriters do this to some degree, but the veil had worn thin and dog-whistle politics were much too subtle for his style of communication. On the campaign trail he had already cast Mexican immigrants as criminals, rapists, and drug dealers.
Which is exactly what he did once again. Early in his speech, people I knew and loved were portrayed as savages waiting to prey upon innocent people – “roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens,” and American children being sacrificed on the “altar of open borders.” His direct appeal to the racism embedded in the collective (un)conscious of our nation triggered a primitive emotional response in me, one of horror, rage, and lament.
I knew that listening to Donald Trump’s speech would be hard, but honestly I hadn’t expected this intense of a reaction. Leaning over my bathroom sink, I had difficulty breathing. I sobbed into the phone with my friend, herself an immigrant from South America.
I felt split in two.
On one hand, I was engulfed in the warmth and welcome of this community gathered together to worship. On the other hand, I carried a sense of shame and separateness. I knew the looming threats for many of these families under this new presidency. Ramping up deportations. Families in danger of being torn apart. Loss of employment. Building a wall. Latino children already being taunted at school with Trump-inspired slogans and chants.
My people had voted for this new president. Eighty-one percent. I was in turmoil as Pastor Alex prayed for the fear and uncertainty of his congregation while also pressing into the hope and goodness offered to us in Christ.
And then I heard Pastor Alex say my name.
I was standing in the front row alone. Liz and Alex were on stage with their teenage son, who was leading worship, as the worship band played in the background. The moment Pastor Alex said he would like to pray for me tears started streaming down my face.
Maybe it was my anger at the eighty-one percent.
Maybe it was the grief I felt personally as a white evangelical.
Maybe it was a sense of gratitude to be able to worship with this community, despite who I was and who I represented.
Maybe it was my own embarrassment that I came to this church to support people “in need,” but was reminded, once again, I am the one in need.
I stood there weeping as the people of Vida Church surrounded me and prayed. They prayed over me in Spanish as I gripped the hand of a teenage boy on one side of me and the hand of a woman on the other. I was holding on to them as if my life depended on it.
As a community, they extended grace, generosity, and spiritual leadership to a white woman they did not know, who had done nothing to truly deserve it. I was not absolved of racism. I was not made to feel better about myself as a “good white person.” Rather, and more importantly, I was offered guidance and clarity in the midst of so much chaos and uncertainty.
After the service, I was trying to process what I had just experienced. I was struggling to find the right words when Alex said, “I think our church just commissioned you for the work of anti-racism and racial justice, specifically the work white people need to do.”
This was not what I was expecting when I came to church that Sunday, but I left knowing that I had been released and sent forth by the people of Vida Church. It was only fitting that this white woman was commissioned by a multi-cultural, Latino, Spanish-speaking community of faith, many of whom were immigrants.
• • •
The religious leaders of the time were astonished when Jesus spoke on the Temple steps with such authority. Who was this man? And who did he think he was?
Just a humble man from Galilee.
Who spoke with an accent.