Rev. Lee Yates is pastor of Covina Community Church and Managing Editor of InsideOut Camp Curriculum. He also serves as a communication consultant for the Southern California Nevada Conference and does consulting with www.FaithShaping.com. Lee is the founder of the VBSCoOp, and one of the authors of Faith Formation With a New Generation. Creativity and authenticity are part of Lee’s ministry as he blends trauma-informed care, social justice advocacy, and faith formation into traditional ministry tools. Lee is the father of two teenagers and married to an ordained pastor in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He credits them for most of his good ideas.
Unraveling the tangled knot of ideals, fears, and motivations that guide our world is exhausting. There are many strands that contribute to this knot and leave us with frayed nerves. A wise counselor once told me, “You can’t figure everything out at once, so just follow the string you are aware of and see where it takes you.”
At this moment, I am most aware of a string that starts out as a ribbon. My Church has invited people to hang ribbons on the fence as an expression of grief for all that has been lost in this pandemic. One of the names on the fence is Cecil Yates, my father, who died of cancer. We still imagine a memorial service in the near future but can’t even begin to plan what that will look like or when it might occur. As I follow my own grief and struggle with existential questions of life and meaning, I’m also wrestling with questions like, “If people wore their masks in the Spring could we be holding Dad’s service now?” and “How can people think this is a hoax when there are so many ribbons on our fence?” My string twists and turns from grief to anger at a society that doesn’t seem to take the loss of life seriously.
Following my anger, I find that I am not alone. My friends of color are justifiably angry and wonder why it took me so long to identify the contradictions – so long to hear the callousness is society’s denials of obvious pain. They have their own questions such as, “How can we trust the vaccine in the face of the Tuskegee Experiment and other racist experiments?” They wonder, “If no one cared then, what evidence do we have that they care now?” or “If they lied then, what suggests they won’t lie now?” This pain makes sense to me. This anger seems logical to me. But that is not the string I am tracing. I’m holding onto my string, as a white, male, pastor – trying to make sense of what I’ve started tugging on. So, I keep in mind the pain my Black friends share, give thanks for their naming of history as evidence, as I keep pulling on my string.
As I tug, the question becomes, “What in our history leads us to deny the loss of lives in front of us?” I started thinking about the ways I’ve witnessed national leaders respond to tragedy and suffering. In my lifetime, President George W. Bush’s response to terrorism stands as a tangible example. “Dead or alive!” I remember the cowboy vibrato in his voice. I also remember him calling the nation to “get back to normal” so the terrorists wouldn’t win. I look back further and remember President Ronald Reagan’s cold-war speeches. We were encouraged to stand firm and visit the mall, showing that American’s keep on going, no matter what. This mentality is visible in other places throughout our culture and my grief reminds me how often I’ve heard it at funerals. “Be strong for your family and wipe away those tears.” The way we approach cancer is framed as a fight. The way we respond to mass shootings or violence: #BostonStrong, #VegasStrong, etc. There is a tradition – a national narrative of stubbornly refusing to give in to the threats before us. We have a national tradition of fighting back against challenges that is more focused on how we feel about ourselves than healing ourselves.
History suddenly makes me feel like I’ve got a good hold on this string. I start pulling harder, imagining what would have happened if voices off faith responded instead of militaristic bravado. My self-righteous pastor voice encourages me to believe we would have framed it better, but as the string loosens more, I realize the Church’s messages on grief have often been unhealthy and much of the historic bravado is borne of “Manifest Destiny” and traces back to a theology of colonialism. The Church perpetuates a belief that we could overcome the heathenism of the world through political alliances and conquest. We allowed corrupted theology to justify slavery, the cultural annihilation of native peoples, and have demonstrated that some lives are more important than others. Suddenly my string is tangled with the ones people of color have been tugging on as they try to make sense of the world.
I’m starting to hear a new narrator in my head, as I listen to pandemic denials. “We can do this! We can win,” and “Don’t let the virus win. Keep on living so it doesn’t change us!” I wonder how many generations of Americans have found strength in such phrases. From the depression to World War 2, I imagine such encouragements were common. We can look back at historical marketing campaigns for the “war effort” in the 1940s and see how everyone was asked to be strong and sacrifice for the common good. Since then, I’m not sure how much we have been asked to sacrifice. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out in Where do We Go From Here? that most of what the Civil Rights Movement achieved did not cost the majority culture anything. While we might have lost a sense of security, we have not had to sacrifice in the same way. Still, I hear messages of sacrifice and hard work as core American values. I keep tugging on the string as I seek to make sense of the narrative.
Realizing my string has become a theological thread, I keep pulling and become uncomfortable with the ways colonial theology still permeates our modern language and attitudes. Christians talk about Jesus’ sacrifice and put value in the sacrifice of Jesus’ followers, but we act like the majority are exempt from needing to do so. Jesus sacrificed – our ancestors sacrificed – our grandparents sacrificed – yet the modern manifestation sounds like they did it so we would not have to. It leaves us in a self-justified mindset, protected by historical narratives of conquest, and leads us out to defeat any enemy with a steady diet of sameness and stubbornness in the name of Jesus.
Yet, we know this doesn’t work in the face of every challenge. It’s a mindset that has left countless scars on American and global society. It is also a far cry from the Gospel of Jesus. Yet, as I find myself being strong for my family in the midst of a pandemic – as I find myself putting on a calm face for my congregation as they seek reassurance – as I put my “nose to the grindstone” and try to work my way out of stress and fear, the string I’ve been tugging on is connected somewhere deep in my gut. As I get close to a presumptive end, each tug hurts a little more. I discover the answer to my questions are found in the privilege prone faith of my Childhood and the false historical narratives forged by the generations before me. The opportunity I have to complain and the sense of entitlement I hold for answers are perspectives of privilege, and as much as I’d like to cut the string – as much as I’d like to abdicate my authority or the spoils of whiteness, I know that is not real. I can not cut the string, so I must do my best to keep tugging, reminding myself how I got here, and keep following it as my head, heart, and gut continue to do some hard work.
- How do our Church voices, celebrations, and structures reflect colonization theology?
- How do we unravel the many complicating factors that make up the pastoral care needs of our members?
- How does vulnerability replace “rugged determination” in a way that allows personal and communal healing?