Tag Archives: Discrimination

Never Again

This unassuming grate sits over a hole in the wall open to the outside, in a very special building twenty kilometers outside Munich. It was cold the day in early January that we visited, and so it was cold inside the building as well. As we struggled to stay warm in our layers and hats and gloves, I realized this was the perfect time of year to get a tiny glimpse of the misery of this place.

Dachau was a small, early prototype of what would become the Nazi’s “final solution”. Over 200,000 prisoners were housed there over its dozen year existence; at least 40,000 didn’t survive.

We walked the prison block first, a sobering place to begin. Conditions for these special prisoners were particularly bad, with harsh and cruel punishments reserved for political opponents of the Nazi regime. Next were more typical museum exhibits in the vast maintenance building. I spent over an hour reading numbing history and facts and individual prisoner stories when I finally realized that I was less than halfway through the exhibit. Overwhelmed, we exited into the bitter January sun, its angle low enough in the sky to give the courtyard where daily roll call was held an eerie reflection.

Next was a walk through a reconstructed barrack. Each long, low building housed 104 prisoners with one toilet and two sinks. A prisoner’s quote posted there stays with me still: “By midnight, the cold had chased away all chance of sleep.” Within the walled compound were 49 more concrete outlines where exact duplicates once stood, each housing their own 104 poor souls.

We walked past the three religious memorials erected on the site–Jewish, Catholic and Protestant–and then exited through a gate over a pretty little bridge and bubbling creek into an idyllic forest. Here, in this peaceful place, is where genocide happened.

“Think about how we died here.”

The crematorium was a low, rectangular building with five side-by-side rooms. Prisoners entered into a door on one end of the building. This first room was an entryway of sorts. It opened into the second room, the disrobing room. Here the prisoners removed their clothing and jewelry in preparation for a “shower”. The “shower room” was next. A windowless room, except for that grate to the outside and its twin, it was a grim place. Dark and surprisingly small and bare, it felt like evil had happened here. The door leading to the fourth room, below, was the only way out for the prisoners.

The fifth and final room was a mystery, as it served no obvious purpose: there were no more prisoners by this end of the building. With no sign explaining its purpose, and stripped of all but the shadows of the past, it was perhaps the most haunting of all.

We talked very little during our tour and took no photos of ourselves: it didn’t seem right. If I ever hear anyone question what happened here, I will tell them I’ve seen it. I read the stories of those who were murdered. I heard the statistics. I saw a tangible monument to man’s potential for cruelty and inhumanity. It’s sobering to realize that those who participated in this atrocity were little different than us and our neighbors. In today’s climate of sowing division and hatred, we have an obligation to take a stand against evil, and to forcefully and unanimously declare “Never Again”.

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” –Elie Wiesel

“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” –Anne Frank

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Glockenspiel

I’ve only been to one Octoberfest in my life. We’d heard about New Ulm’s event since moving to Minnesota, so I hauled the family one gorgeous fall morning for the 90 minute drive for a day of fun. I’d looked up what else there was to see in New Ulm, and the glockenspiel in the town center featured prominently in their PR materials, a bonus for our day.

Hubby was a little skeptical about the need for a long drive to have some fun, but I assured him we’d create some unique memories that day. As it turned out, I was more prophetic than I knew. We found a place to park not far from the big doings on Main Street and walked over to the chain link fence set up on the main drag to mark where the sanctioned events were being held. All ten by fifteen yards of them. Basically, the chain link fence held three food booths selling the (to me) inedible foods of my heritage. The girls were equally unenticed. The most popular item being sold was the hot coffee to take the chill off of a fall morning in Minnesota. The fence was full of locals standing around, getting caught up on the latest gossip. Nothing inside the fence made us want to stay. But it wasn’t just the lack of activities that made us feel that way.

Since we adopted the girls from China a decade and a half ago, we’ve gotten used to the surprised stares of strangers who notice that we don’t “match”. Most of the stares we get are of understandable confusion. I can only remember two times when those stares felt…hateful. This was one of those days. As the community’s reaction to us sank in, I realized there were only two non-Caucasians in sight, and they were both with me. We left the hostility of the chain link fence and strolled up the picturesque Main Street. I wasn’t going to have come all this way and not see my first glockenspiel. We ducked into a quaint candy shop and made a few purchases while we waited for the top of the hour and the clock’s show. As soon as it was done, we made a beeline back to our car and hit a Burger King on the way out of town, “shaking the dust from our feet” as we left.

I’ve watched in dismay over this last year as racism has been implicitly sanctioned in our country. I recognize that I can’t possibly understand what being on the receiving end must be like. But I can remember the couple of times I was indirectly swept into it, and I can remember the tears of my precious girls who have been on the receiving end. It sucks. And it’s wrong. Period.

“Racism is man’s gravest threat to man – the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.” –Abraham Joshua Heschel


Race


There’s a lot of discussion these days about race. Some say things are getting better, some say worse. I honestly don’t know which, because I’m white in America. But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel racism very personally, as it affects my family…our daughters aren’t white.

Born in China, my girls are what one GOP politician recently called “yellows”. They’ve been teased and called names and had kids pull on the corners of their eyes. It’s hard as a parent to see your child bullied. It somehow seems worse when the taunts are racist. My girls are innocent; they didn’t choose to be brought to the other side of the world and expected to make their way in a community that sometimes treats them differently. I’ve occasionally wondered if our choice was fair to them, but it no longer matters. It’s done, and they’re here, and I’m beyond grateful that they are. But they have to live with that choice, along with our nation’s long struggle with racism.

I don’t know what the answer is or how we heal our country. I don’t know how to fulfill the dream of judging others based on the content of their character, and not on the color of their skin or the shape of their eyes. I only know that when we don’t, it makes me angry. I get angry that my daughters and millions like them are judged on the most superficial of traits. I get afraid that we allow our politicians to stoke our fears of “the other”. And I mourn for the hurt that it causes us all. But I also believe that most people are good. I believe that our nation was founded on the idea that we can become better, as we have on many fronts over our history. I believe fear of those different from us breaks down when we get to know those others. I haven’t given up. All we need is to build bridges on a personal basis. Please pledge with me to build those bridges. Get to know people like my daughters. We’re all children of God.

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality…I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”  —Martin Luther King, Jr.


Offensive


I’ve been in exactly one play in my life. I was in the eighth grade, and I no longer have any idea why I tried out. In retrospect, it’s pretty surprising:  I was an awkward, introverted teenager…being in a play wasn’t remotely who I was. I vaguely remember being encouraged to try out by a teacher. I did, and I got a part. It wasn’t a lead part, but at least I got to participate.

After weeks of practice, we gave three performances…one during the day for the school, one in the evening for our parents, and one at a regional competition. I learned a few things from the experience. The main thing I learned was that I could pretend to be someone else. That was hard for me, not just because I was shy, but because I’m pretty logical and fact-based. I’m not creative, and taking on a role really stretched me. I learned to put myself out there in public. I can’t exactly say it changed my life, but it was a step on the journey I underwent during high school to come out of my shell. And I enjoyed being part of the troupe, included at an age where exclusion is often the rule. I’ve always looked back fondly on the experience.

Except. I’ve long forgotten the name of the play, its plot, or any of the other roles. What I do remember is my character. You see, I played the comic relief, pretty ironic for me. My character had the best lines, generating laughs in all of our performances. I  also had the best costume and was the most memorable. It was an awkward role to learn, but once I did, I knew I’d done it justice by the audience’s reaction. It was a blast. Except that now, with the wisdom of adulthood, I realize that my character was offensive…highly offensive. You see, I was the black maid, Mammy.

I wore an old dress, an apron, a kerchief over my pinned up hair…and blackface. Just walking out onstage in my small Kansas farm town got laughs. I got even more laughs when I delivered my well-rehearsed lines in a high-pitched shriek. Let’s just say that my character was not the brightest bulb in the box. Looking back now, I’m mortified. I was a naive 13-year-old, in an all-white, rural community. We had one black student in my entire school career, and she stayed only a semester. Obviously, the play was an overt indicator of an uninclusive culture in the late ’70’s. I had no idea that I was being offensive.

I’ve been thinking about this experience over these last couple of months. No matter whether or not you’re happy with the outcome of this ugliest election, it’s held at least one undeniable lesson for our country:  that any belief that we’d evolved to some post-racial America was a delusion. The signs were there all along that prejudice is still very much alive. But fifty years after women’s liberation, the first black president, and the increasing heterogenization of our country’s demographics, some of us had been lulled into a false complacency that we’d moved past all of that. That illusion has been shattered; the ugliness is still very much among us. 

“Injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.”  –Martin Luther King Jr.


Inclusion


One of the faith questions I’ve struggled with the most is the belief of so many that there is only one true religion. I was born into a Christian family in a Christian country, and so that is my faith. I believe in it strongly, particularly in its messages of love, inclusion, and redemption which resonate with me. But in spite of my own deep belief, I struggle with the notion of Christianity as the only path to God. I have friends of many faiths from all over the world and have adopted two girls from Buddhist China. When Megan was critically ill, prayers for her were sent up to heaven by Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus. I simply cannot accept that the God of Love that I believe in so strongly would doom my friends and billions more to separation from Him, simply because they were born in a non-Christian country…a choice that was His, and not theirs.

However, John 14:6 seems to definitively state that Jesus is the only path to God, that “No one comes to the Father except through me.” That seems pretty clear. Yet I recently read a perspective pointing out that this passage says only that Jesus is the gatekeeper to God. What the passage does not say is what filter Jesus will use to decide who will pass through to God. It’s a critical point. Neither that passage, nor the rest of the chapter, says that Jesus will only pass Christians through. Jesus as gatekeeper to God is probably a strange notion to non-Christians, but to me it reassuringly aligns to a possibility that we’re all worshipping one God after all.

I’ll never understand why human nature inherently creates ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Why must we be right and everyone else wrong? Science has proven that there are no genetic differences between races. I also see no evidence that a different God created my Jewish or Hindu or Buddhist friends…it seems to me that we all come from the same place. The Bible consistently depicts a God of Love; I believe simply that He loves all of His wonderful people from a wide variety of faith backgrounds. Including me, a Christian from America.

“I love you when you bow in your mosque, kneel in your temple, pray in your church. For you and I are sons of one religion, and it is the spirit.”  –Khalil Gibran


Pause


I’m not entirely sure why it was important to me to visit this spot where 49 innocent people died. I haven’t been able to read any of the stories of the massacre, especially of the calls made to mothers by loving sons who were about to die. I knew I would cry, and hard. The whole thing is utterly horrific. But still I had to come.

My Mennonite ancestors were persecuted and driven from their homeland more than once. In America, they became champions of social justice, facing danger to march in America’s civil rights movement. Until this last year, I would have said that LGBT rights was the last major civil rights battle left in this country. But the recent upswing in xenophobia and discrimination against entire races and an entire religion…one whose billion plus adherents share a common father with Christianity…proves that the war rages on.

And so I came, to honor 49 souls whose lives were cut violently short. I wept at the rainbow-themed artwork, the teddy bear and lit candles, the photo ID badge, the childrens’ crayon drawings. I came for them, but I also came for me. I came to make a tiny personal stand against hate and discrimination. I came, for my own humanity.

“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”  –Martin Luther King Jr.


Unsettling

   
I once spent a lovely weekend in York, England with a colleague. We were working on a two week project and had the middle weekend free. A consultant working with us chose to go to Scotland. I preferred to go there, but my colleague was a young woman barely out of college from a small town in Minnesota. As the leader of the project, I didn’t feel comfortable letting her travel alone. The seasoned consultant would be fine on her own.

York was lovely:  picturesque and quaint, like a postcard picture brought to life. We walked the length of the city wall, window shopped frilly ladies hats, and ate sweets at Betty’s, the famous tea shoppe. The finicky British weather behaved perfectly for us on that spring Saturday in March. We chose a local pub for dinner, only a block from our hotel, and looked forward to sampling the local food and culture.

The pub was busy by the time we arrived as the sun was setting, full of locals. We found our table and ordered our meals from the harried waitress. As we chatted and observed, it quickly became apparent that the gentlemen at the table next to us had had too much to drink. They were loud and paid us a little attention…any from them was too much. But after awhile, they turned their attention elsewhere, to two men sitting next to us at the bar. Unlike the drunks, these men were well-mannered and bothering no one. It took me a few minutes to realize what was going on…the comment made by the loudest drunk referring to the two men as “ladies” finally tipped me off. After a few minutes of harassment, the polite gentlemen quietly left. The loud table next to us stayed loud. Luckily, we’d finished our meal by then. We quickly paid and left, walking briskly in the dark back to the hotel. It was an unsettling ending to an otherwise perfect day.

I’ve not forgotten that meal, now over five years ago. Hate and discrimination are frightening and memorable. Members of other races and LGBT face the potential every time they leave home. Laws like those passed this week in North Carolina and proposed in Georgia are about discrimination, period. Though there is no epidemic of trans persons molesting women and children in bathrooms, 70% of trans people say they have faced harassment in restrooms themselves. These laws are as spiteful as they are unnecessary. Our Constitution was constructed specifically to protect minorities from the will of the majority…it’s the reason that America has been the symbol of freedom in the world for over 200 years. We are not this.
#WeAreNotThis

“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”  –Martin Luther King Jr.