A Thanksgiving Cousin Cornucopia

Been thinking all week about what to write; there are so many things I am deeply thankful for. But, in the end all I wanted to  do was look at my pictures over and over again.

This week was all about cousins and family. I have been so very blessed in this department! I’m just going to leave the pictures here for future viewing pleasure. It’s been a beautiful week.

Hiking Ranch San Antonio: California cousins forced East Coast Cousin Cathy outdoors into NATURE.

Hiking Castle Rock: More forced nature-ing for Cousin Cathy.

Thanksgiving feast: So much delicious food and good people!

Social Justice and the Gospel of Jesus Christ

Last year, I participated in an identity activity with my socially-conscious, liberally-minded staff. In this activity, everyone wrote down several forms of personal identity on index cards: name, race, gender, religion etc. Then, one by one, we had to choose index cards to throw away. We discarded pieces of our identity until we were left with only two cards each; then, the facilitator instructed us to choose one of our neighbors’ identity cards and throw it away.

My neighbor – and close friend – chose my “Mormon” card and threw it away. When we debriefed as a group I realized that, given the option, other staff member also threw away their neighbors’ Christian identities. I reflected on this pattern of disregarding, disdaining, devaluing, opposing, ridiculing and even reviling Christian religion and believers – particularly in more liberal spaces. We discussed it briefly.

But, I have thought about it often.

Meanwhile, I watched and read bits and pieces of the Republican National Convention, noting the number of times something along the lines of “returning to values” and “Christian values” and just straight up “Jesus Christ” have been referenced to support the campaign of a man who has fanned flames of division, racism, sexism, xenophobia, bigotry and hatred across our nation. (Watch: The Divinity of Donald Trump).

It seems that there is a deep, fundamental misunderstanding about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. On both sides of the aisle. Between conservatives and liberals and people who don’t fit on the spectrum. Right to left. Left to right.

At best, it is a misunderstanding. At worst, it is a shameful misappropriation and propagandizing of Christ.

The Left
In circles where I work and often socialize– urban educators, social justice activists – I find that people are surprised to discover that I am Mormon. Surprised that religion is the foundation of my life.

To many friends, religion – especially Christian religion – holds connotations of imperialism, colonization, genocide, Westernization, ignorance, bigotry. There are a few who stopped speaking to me when I decided to serve a mission. I find that many are quick to recognize Islam as a religion of peace. Quick to support Muslims against rhetoric equating terrorism with Islam. Quick to embrace Eastern religions. Quick to make the distinction, I am spiritual but not religious. But slow to recognize the disconnect between those who twist the Bible to support immoral acts and the actual teachings of Christ.

Christianity seems to holds a negative connotation to many liberals. They work and sacrifice for the acceptance, love and rights for all, yet seem to frown on Christianity.

I am often asked How can someone who believes in social justice also be so religious?

The Right
As a member of a church whose members tend to lean conservative, finding fellow like-minded individuals creates an instant connection. I have been surprised to discover the number of closet liberals surrounding me at church. Surprisingly, my blog has facilitated this ongoing discovery. I’ve had people send me private messages of support and affirmation, or approach me in private moments to express their appreciation. Why do we tend to be less vocal in more public settings?

FullSizeRender-1When Andy wore his “Mormons for Obama” t-shirt the day President Obama was re-elected, he was all but booed and spat on in his classes at BYU-Idaho, a bastion of conservative thinking. Thank goodness for the two professors who stood up for him.

In conservative circles, I find many good-hearted men and women who are quick to serve others, yet slow to recognize White Savior complexes. Quick to love, yet slow to realize the ways they differentiate between “us” and “them.” Quick to give, yet slow to acknowledge the personal judgments that differentiate those deemed deserving from those deemed to be undeserving. Slow to see ways in which some people are blamed for their circumstances, while others are helped. Slow to recognize the ways their world is shaped by racism and privilege.

In more conservative religious circles, I am often baffled by the juxtaposition of genuine, pure-hearted love with privileged ignorance.

In these spaces I am not asked outright but abruptly terminated conversations and upraised eyebrows imply the question, How can someone religious be so liberal and social justice-oriented?

My question is, how can I not?


I don’t profess to be a religious expert. But everything I know about Christ shows me that He is an advocate of social justice.  Tim Kaine said that in high school, “my faith became something vital. My north star for orienting my life. And when I left high school, I knew that I wanted to battle for social justice.” It was my favorite line from his entire speech at the Democratic National Convention. I feel the same way about my faith.

I cannot be a disciple of Christ without seeking to change the injustice and inequity in the world.

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Some of my favorite images of the Savior; an award I won two years ago for “embodying the spirit of Dr. King”.

Love

Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another. – 1 John 4:7-8, 11

Jesus Christ is pure love. He loves every single person who lives, has lived, and will live on the Earth. We cannot comprehend the infinite depth of His love and nothing can separate us from it. Christ doesn’t just teach tolerance. He teaches love. His gospel teaches us to love our neighbors, our enemies, the Lord. Love everyone. We are to love each other as Christ loves us, and this means seeing each other as brothers and sisters. We are sons and daughters of God and part of a human family.

Generosity

For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?

And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another.

And now, for the sake of these things which I have spoken unto you—that is, for the sake of retaining a remission of your sins from day to day, that ye may walk guiltless before God—I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants.  -Mosiah 4: 19, 21,26

Basically, we are all beggars. Everything we have is from God. He gives us every blessing. Even when we work hard, we don’t deserve any of it. We are nothing without him. The rich are not more righteous; the poor are not less deserving. God showers blessings in different ways.

If God gives so freely to us, then we should give freely – spiritually, temporally – to others. Without judgment (and Wo! To those that judge, it does not sound pretty). We should give what we have to the poor, hungry, naked, sick. Time, talents, gifts, resources…give give give.

Advocacy

And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.

And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.  – Alma 7:11-12

Christ took upon himself the pains and afflictions, the weakness and sins, of every person on Earth. He has tread the path before us and knows every hair on our heads, every fiber of our souls. He knows the thoughts and intents of our hearts. He knows each one of us perfectly.

With this perfect knowledge, Christ is our Advocate with God. Through Christ, we receive mercy. His Atonement accomplished what we could not, and still He walks with us and works with us in everything else. He teaches us to follow His example – understanding, empathy, compassion, mercy. We are to be advocates for others as He is for us.

Equity

And not many days hence the Son of God shall come in his glory; and his glory shall be the glory of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace, equity, and truth, full of patience, mercy, and long-suffering, quick to hear the cries of his people and to answer their prayers.  – Alma 9:26

Christ sees each of us for who we are. He understands our identities, our stories, our circumstances. He sees color; He sees gender; He sees all. He knows the realities of our lives in today’s world. And He invites us to come to Him. Christ knows exactly how to succor and strengthen us. He doesn’t give everyone the exactly the same things; He gives each of us what we need. This is equity.

Truth

Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life  – John 14:6

Behold, he is the life and the light of the world. Behold, he is the word of truth and righteousness.  – Alma 38:9

Jesus Christ is truth. He is the way and the light. This is how I see the work of social justice. It is a discovery and unveiling of truth and an increasing of light in the world. It is not some politically correct way of changing vocabulary preferred by dominant groups. It is helping people to embrace truth, and empowering them to create change.

Christ’s gospel is about love and truth and change. He teaches us that we can change, become better, more light, more kind, more honest, more generous, more understanding, more loving. We can become more like Him.

Which means we can change the world.

 

The Angels in Our Lives

Last Friday afternoon, I was wandering around Union Square when I saw a homeless man approach a group of holiday shoppers in an attempt to sell his copies of Street Sheet, a street newspaper published by the Coalition on Homelessness. Street Sheet vendors are given copies of the paper free and keep all their earnings. They are trying to build better lives for themselves. The women who acknowledged this man looked at him with deep suspicion while the others turned their backs and walked away. I approached him as the last woman, arms laden with shopping bags, made her excuses and began to turn around. I told him I wanted to purchase five copies.

After pulling out my wallet, I realized that I needed to make change for my $20, but the nearest retail store wouldn’t do it. When I emerged from the store and explained I needed to look elsewhere for change, he asked if he could walk with me. We walked a few blocks together and I learned about his family, his hopes, his current living conditions and the training programs he has joined. I bought him a meal at Burger King and five copies of Street Sheet. I told him I wished I could do more. In my heart, I felt like one meal and $10 of newspapers would not make any significant impact in his life and I felt overwhelmed with sadness.

But, he thanked me over and over. He couldn’t believe I would buy him a meal and purchase a few copies of the paper. He told me multiple times I was a blessing. I was a gift from God. An angel.

IMG_3187I didn’t feel worthy of the gratitude or the generous descriptions. There is so much more to be done; what is fifteen minutes of time, a fast food meal and $10 of newspapers? But, as I pondered this experience, I realized that I often get so focused on the big picture, on working toward systemic change that I don’t stop enough to acknowledge the power in these small human interactions. Perhaps a conversation, a meal and a sale were what he needed that day.

Each of us can have eyes to see clearly and ears to hear distinctly the tender mercies of the Lord as they strengthen and assist us in these latter days. May our hearts always be filled with gratitude for His abundant and tender mercies.  – Elder David A. Bednar

The Lord has been particularly generous in His tender mercies to me in the last few weeks. It has been a challenging period of time professionally; I’ve felt myself destroyed in ways that have left me questioning my abilities and even my identity as an educator. I’ve been praying to be reminded who I am and what I am capable of and my prayers have been answered in abundance. Heavenly Father has been sending me angels of my own.

  • Andy and Carter: They have been my haven of love and joy. Our home and family feels like a ship, “tight like unto a dish,” that is tossed by mighty winds and waves, yet remains full of laughter and light.
  • Mom, Harv and Dave: After an extremely difficult period of work, I was able to spend almost a week with my family in Kauai. We don’t always talk about personal things and we are all quite different in personality and perspective. But, there’s nothing like the healing power of the love my family, in their own quirky ways, can enfold around me.
  • Katie and Lea – Hadn’t seen either of these two dear friends and former co-workers in several months, but was able to have an impromptu lunch with Katie and then see both at Lea’s birthday party soon after my tough week. They remind me of who I am as an educator and person and they do it with great love.
  • Marlena – One of my bestestestestest friends for almost ten years now. I call her 姐妹 or “sister” in Chinese. We’ve been able to take the train to work together multiple times in the past few weeks. I can’t think of a better way to start the day than being with someone with whom you can talk to about anything and who understands everything that is unspoken too.
  • Melissa – Another close friend and my former coach, she has always been a source of wisdom and support. Though she lives in a different state, connecting with her frequently over the past few weeks has helped me to see things with brighter hope and a fuller perspective.
  • Suzy: Our neighbor who recently sent Andy and me this email, “I’m unexpectedly home this evening and would be happy to come over and take care of Carter if you two would like to get out for a date.” Who does that? Oh, yeah. Angel people. Once in a while, she also brings us soup and cookies. She probably doesn’t have any idea how much we appreciate her gestures of kindness and love. Andy and I often feel like tiny satellites floating off in space in the solar system of our ward; Suzy helps us feel cared for and connected.
  • Alice: A new friend from the ward who has been inviting us on some awesome adventures. In addition to being an incredibly fun and thoughtful person, she is also an insane baker (Heavenly Father knows what we need in our lives!). Last week she dropped off some homemade chocolate toffee amazingness – and I immediately devoured it…grinch-style without sharing. Our budding friendship is like a ray of light that has come at a perfect time.
  • Mrs Paugh – I’m supposed to call her Kaye now, but I’ve been calling her Mrs. Paugh since my sophomore year of high school and the transition has not happened in my brain. She was one of my favorite teachers and my high school advisor. She’s known me for a long long time. Last Sunday, she passed me in the hall at church and paused to tell someone how amazing and wonderful she thought I was. It was a small thing, but it lifted my spirits. Sometimes you just need to hear it from someone you know really means it.
  • Mr. Mac – He taught me English my freshman year of high school and is one of my all-time favorite teachers. I still have the notes he wrote me at the end of my essays. He’s one of those teachers that makes every student feel like she or he is his favorite. Last week he messaged me on Facebook for last minute advice on WordPress and we met over hot chocolate a few days later. I don’t think I was much help to him, considering my technological ineptitude, but as always, he was an uplifting force to me.

I don’t get to see these beloved people nearly as often as I’d like, and God, in His miraculous and tender way, arranged it so that I’d see or speak with all of them in the last few weeks. Some people might call it coincidence, but I know it is much more than that.

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I believe in angels. Both the ones we see and the ones we don’t. Heavenly Father has been sending an army of angels – only a few of whom are mentioned here – to watch over me and they are filling me with love. They are reminding me who I really am. They show me that He hears and answers my prayers. He is always aware of me and He blesses me more than I deserve. I am so incredibly grateful.

Sometimes it is the small things that make a big difference. A conversation. A meal. An invitation. Sometimes these things are an answer to prayer, a reminder that God is still watching over us. He sends us angels and allows us to be angels in the lives of others. I need to be better about remembering this.

I will go before your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up.
– Doctrine and Covenants 84:88

Recharged with Gratitude

I hate getting dressed up. No, actually, that’s not entirely true. I enjoy getting dressed up once in a while, if I’m with friends and we’re playing fun dance music or if I’m being fancy-pants with Andy, which is rare. I like getting dressed up, looking in the mirror like, whoa, what happened to you??! And then I spend the entire time fantasizing about sweatpants and flip flops.

Last night, I got a little fancypants – with some Reset homies and the requisite dance music – for our Reset Benefit, our organization’s annual fundraising event. And, the night was so special that I did not once take off my heels or even think about sweats.

It was a big night for Reset. Our Benefit happened at the same time as the event where Google announced the award winners of the Google Impact Challenge. We were one of 10 finalists in the running for $500,000 to be determined by public vote. At the end of the evening, the announcement that we were one of the top four winners brought forth a standing cheer from the entire room – there may or may not have been some jumping around and screaming. Inasmuch as jumping around is possible in heels, anyways.

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I am overwhelmed with tremendous gratitude. I am amazed that people are willing to so publically and generously support an organization that is little more than a visionary idea and a small team of passionate individuals. It tells me that our vision and work is needed now. We need to reimagine justice, education, and the systems and mindsets that maintain an inhumane and oppressive status quo. I’m humbled by the faith others have placed in us. Hidden in this overwhelming gratitude is anger at a system that forces schools and organizations working to improve the human condition to depend on the charity of others to function and survive, while more often than not, wealth and resources go to the individuals and institutions that perpetuate or oppress. But that is a matter for another time.

I am grateful for friends and family who took up the torch over the last few weeks, whether they understood our work or not, and posted, tweeted, shared and voted. I’m still pleasantly shocked by the woman who approached me and my co-worker and said, “Hi, I wanted to introduce myself to you…I recognize you two from your pictures on your website.” I wanted to call my mom and yell, “Hey mom! I’m someone!”

I am blessed to work with the people on my team. We have been traveling through a dense fog on an unpaved, muddy road littered with potholes big enough to swallow hippopotamus. There have been obstacles and uncertainty enough for the team to have a batch of matching ulcers, white hairs and bald spots. And yet, we continue to grow stronger, inspire, support, forgive, love and challenge each other. I am awed by the compassion, vulnerability, sheer talent, thoughtfulness and dedication of my co-workers and feel lucky to be able to learn from such incredible people.

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Also, we clean up pretty good too.

I’m grateful I have the opportunity to work with amazing students and cannot wait to meet the students who will come to us in early January. Darrell, a young man of inspiring perseverance and insight and last night’s student speaker, said:

I’d like to thank Reset for forcing me to be a leader when I rather not speak, helping me fill so many holes in my cisterns and giving me the chance to use the potential that would have otherwise been pouring out my side.

Most importantly , I’d like to thank Reset for helping me live when I felt I was only being kept alive.

And, I want him to know that I feel exactly the same way about him.

Full of gratitude and love, I feel reinvigorated to head back to the trenches again.

It is OK to Celebrate the Fourth of July

I had something of an epiphany yesterday. We were changing the baby into a little baseball onsie after he peed on his pajamas and Andy was like, “that’s a perfect July 4th outfit!” and my first thought was a jumble of “I don’t want the baby to think that being an American means baseball and apple pie and all those things from the white dominant narrative of this country and he needs to learn the true history of all the peoples of this nation and I need to teach him because he probably won’t learn it in school and there is so much injustice and oppression in our country how can I embrace a celebration of this day with a clear conscience…” You get the point.

Yikes.

And I realized he is a baby, and July 4th can be fun. And I like baseball and apple pie. And the idea, value and cause of freedom, unadulterated by political agendas, is a beautiful, noble thing. Sometimes, I spend so much time trying to live with a critical consciousness of our history and fighting against the oppressive, dehumanizing and racist systems and structures that perpetuate injustice that I forget to be grateful for the good things.

As my husband reminded me, “There is still a lot to be grateful for and a lot to celebrate.” And he is right.

While the Declaration of Independence may not have been written with the intention of defending the freedoms, rights, liberties and happiness of all people (women and people of color to name a few) and the execution of these ideals continues to be more than a little flawed, the values themselves are powerful and worth standing for. It must be possible to have have a critical consciousness and a sense of gratitude. I am going work on this.

So, for the first time in recent memory, I embraced July 4th celebrations. I wore red, white and blue. I went to a pancake breakfast and a church party. Andy, baby and I rollerbladed and biked around our neighborhood. Andy wore some booty-tight pants with birds on them. We ate shrimp cocktail and chicken salad on tostadas while the baby danced to Mariachi music. We went to a bbq and drove home through a corridor of illegal fireworks exploding by the highway.

It was a really beautiful, liberating day.