Saturday, April 29, 2017

Courageous Connection: The Role of Courage in Being My Sister's Keeper

Keynote Presentation by Lelanda Lee
Province V ECW Annual Conference, April 28-30, 2017, Lansing, MI

         Good evening. Let us begin with a simple prayer this evening:  Here’s to Good Women. May we raise them. May we know them. May we be them. Amen.

         I am delighted to be with all of you this weekend to share conversations that explore the meaning of being my sister’s keeper, through prayer, storytelling, reflection, and conversational exercises. Sharing and conversations mean that we all will be participating throughout the conference, even though I have the privilege and the responsibility of providing some ideas and direction in how we approach our conversations.

Courage and Siblings

         I’ve chosen to focus on the role of courage in being my sister’s keeper, because my own reflections over the past couple of years have led me to a keener understanding of courage and its deeper meanings. Over a year ago, as 2015 ended and 2016 began, I decided, after a great deal of thought and emotion, to step off the merry-go-round of all the wonderful volunteer activities that I had been blessed to undertake for a year of sabbatical. I didn’t know how then, and I still don’t know how now, to do anything in half-measures. I did recognize the “need to be present in actuality and not just in theory.” I did recognize the “need to practice presence versus merely to embrace the ethos of presence.”

         I am the eldest child and sister of two brothers. I do not have any biological sisters. Yet, I believe in sisterhood, and I believe that sisterhood is powerful. In my life, girls and women have been present to befriend me, to teach me, to nurture me, to support me, to comfort me, to strengthen me, and to love me. I cannot imagine being successful, and I cannot imagine being happy, without sisterhood. I believe that sisterhood is lifesaving for women, that it is important that women have other women in their lives.

         In my life, I am still connected with women I met through women’s liberation groups. My longest-term friendships with women date back to 1970 in Plattsburgh, New York, as a young newlywed mother; to 1971 in Berkeley, after driving cross-country with a girlfriend and my toddler son and her two young children; and to 1975 in Honolulu, where I started over after a divorce. Those women are still the women I turn to for important conversations and mutual support through our many sisters’ marriages, children, divorces, and new loves, and through the achievement of graduate degrees, job promotions, and business start-ups and shut-downs. In Hawaii, I learned a valuable term that describes the non-blood relatives that we meet and choose as part of our families of choice. These women are my hanai sisters, the sisters that I met and chose along the way, who have joined my ever-growing and ever mutually supportive hanai family.

         In the Bible, our earliest story of siblings is of brotherhood, of Cain and Abel. In Genesis 4, we learn that Cain had slain his brother Abel, and the Lord said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?" and Cain replied, "I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?" Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is a defiant answer to the Lord’s straightforward question. It is a self-justifying and selfish answer. “Me? Why are you asking me? How do I know where he is?”

         In Luke’s Gospel, chapter 10, we meet the Bible’s most famous sisters, Martha and Mary. Mary has chosen to sit at Jesus’ feet to listen to him teach, while Martha demands to know from Jesus why he doesn’t admonish Mary to get up and help with the hospitality chores. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” Martha is frustrated. Her words to Jesus are whiny and accusatory towards both Mary and Jesus and reflect self-centeredness and self-pity. “Why me, Lord? What about her?”

         Both these stories of brothers and sisters speak to the difficulties in our relationships with our brothers and sisters. Our sibling relationships are filled with issues of equity—fairness in the division of work and its rewards, fairness in inheritance and the measure of filial duty. Our sibling relationships reflect how our human characteristic of self-centeredness pervades our perception of events and how we speak about those events. We want it both ways – “Why me?” and “Why not me?”

         Our relationship with Jesus also has the dimension of siblinghood, although we tend to think of our relationship with Jesus most frequently along the lines of the words recited in our creeds: Jesus as “Lord, Son of God, Savior, and Judge” and humankind as “subject, follower, and sinner.” Yet, if we are the Children of God and Jesus is the Son of God, then surely, we are also sisters and brothers to Jesus and Jesus is also our brother.


         Let us focus in on the idea of “Identity.” Sisterhood necessarily requires us to look at and to answer questions about our identities.

         Who am I? I am not what I did as my career. I have relationships that make me a wife and a mother; yet, I am not my role as mother or wife. I believe that all people have inherent dignity and equal rights to life and liberty, but I am not my beliefs, although my beliefs describe parts of me and how I choose to live my life.

         The fact is that we all have multiple identities, depending on the contexts in which we describe them and think about them. Each time we say, “I am . . . ,” and complete that thought, we are naming an aspect of who we are, based on the context in which we make that statement. Over time and with additional experience and introspection, how we complete the thought, “I am . . . ,” changes, because we change.

         Intersectionality is a concept used to discuss critical theories of race, sex, and class, and institutionalized systems that center oppressively on minority groups of people based on race, sex, and class. The idea behind intersectionality is that it’s really not possible to talk about, for example, sexism, without also talking about how classism and racism interact with sexism. You can’t isolate the effects of different kinds of oppression. For example: a foreign-born, single mother with a good resume can’t get a full-time job in a major city. Is it because she is foreign born and maybe speaks with an accent, or because she is a woman? Or is it because she is dressed in thrift-shop clothing, or all of the above, that she can’t get an interview?

         Identity politics is a term we hear widely these days, primarily as a critical comment in the current political environment of our country. Identity politics refers to how some people have the appearance of coming from a particular place that is centered on their identification with a certain group of people representing a race, or gender, or class, or, in other words, a particular “identity.” Even people who claim that they aren’t part of identity politics actually are part of identity politics. It’s just that we attribute the term, “identity politics,” as a pejorative only to those whose identities fall into the minority or marginalized groups, while those whose identities fall into the majority or dominant groups are considered the norm and therefore, not part of “identity politics.”

         The point I want to make is that we must look critically at how we think about who our sisters are, and how we came to our particular way of thinking about sisterhood. Chances are, as Christians, you have spent time thinking about who your neighbor is, and you probably have a familiar and straightforward way to state that to anyone who asks, “Who is your neighbor?” You’ve probably been taught to associate the parable of “The Good Samaritan” with your notions of being a good neighbor. Good neighbors help their neighbors, even if their neighbors are strangers and different from how they identify themselves.

         I like the insight of 30-year old Alynda Lee Segarra, the frontwoman of the modern folk band, Hurray for Riff Raff, who says, “We are all living in the middle of a lot of identities.” It is important that we also look critically at how we think about our own identities, and how we came to name them and own them. I’d like at this time to share a story of finding my then new identity at age 60, almost ten years ago, and then I would like to invite you to consider your own stories of recognizing and claiming new understandings of identity for yourselves, as we proceed through this weekend together, in this community of ECW sisters.

            Bishop Nedi Rivera said to me in 2008 as we traveled on a bus to Sunday Mass in the high country of Taiwan, “Lelanda, you’re an elder.” Those words have stuck with me, and I’ve pondered them often. Those words resonate with the transition I had been experiencing for the previous nine years that my mother had lived with us and since my first grandchild was born.

            In the prior decade I had transitioned to being the matriarch of my generation, the one who is acknowledged as the keeper of the family’s metaphorical gates. The defining moment occurred a decade earlier when I learned that my mother and the women of her generation were categorizing my widowed sister-in-law as not an equal member of the Lee family. Her husband, my youngest brother, had died some years earlier.

            The triggering event was a traditional Chinese one-year birthday party that my husband and I hosted in California for the entire family to meet and celebrate our grandson. While the live-in paramours of my cousins were welcomed by my mother’s generation, the same courtesy was not extended to my sister-in-law, because she was a daughter-in-law and not a daughter. In a traditional Chinese family, those distinctions matter in word and in deed. There are words to name each of the in-law relationships including distinguishing “on the mother’s side or the father’s side” and “married to the child of such-and-such birth order.”

            That was the first time I spoke with the authority of a newly minted matriarch, standing up for justice and equal treatment for the mother of my mother’s youngest grandson and of my only nephew, for my sister-in-law who was and is also my sister in the sisterhood of all women. There was push-back from the grandmothers, who objected vociferously with rationales that didn’t make any sense to me or to my remaining brother, Jon, to whom I turned for advice and support. I finally said to the grandmothers that I would be very sad if they chose not to attend the one-year birthday party, because my sister-in-law and her partner would be attending.

            The confirmation of my new matriarch role came when everyone in the family showed up for the party. The passing of the baton from one generation to the next happens not with trumpets blaring and tympanis clashing, but with the quiet acquiescence of old ladies who murmur approval upon tasting the family’s favorite dish cooked by a daughter from her own new recipe. I had both grown into and asserted my claim to the new identity of generational matriarch.

         [ Insert exercise: Please reflect quietly for a couple of minutes on an awareness of a new identity that you recognized and claimed for yourself. Then group yourself with two other people, and describe your reflection to your partners. ]

Imago Dei

         In our Christian tradition, we talk about Imago Dei, of how we as humans are created in our Maker’s image, in God’s image. Sometimes we express that as there being a divine spark within us. Namaste from the Hindu tradition is a greeting that means “the divine spark within me greets the divine spark within you.”

         I would like to suggest that we all need to go beyond Namaste, beyond merely an initial recognition of the divine spark within each other, beyond merely greeting each other in a friendly manner. Empathy is a form of connection in which we try to understand and share what another person is feeling. The roots of the word “empathy” are in the Greek en, which means “in,” and the Greek pathos, which means “suffering.” When we practice empathy, we essentially allow ourselves to fall into the suffering of another person. That doesn’t sound very safe, does it? To voluntarily allow our selves to fall into the suffering of someone else?

         Yet, most of us would voluntarily fall into the suffering of our own family members, and even of our hanai family members. We would pray with, and sit with, and bring meals to, and visit a family member who is hospitalized or who is declining physically and mentally from a disease like cancer or kidney failure or Alzheimer’s or dementia. We would probably also voluntarily fall into the suffering of folks we know or even don’t know well from our workplaces and from our churches, because we acknowledge our identification with those communities. Our workplaces and our churches form part of our larger identities of who we are and how we want others to see us.

         Now, let me ask, how would we behave differently if we practiced connection with our sisters who are not so well known to us personally and who are not part of the communities with which we share an identity—if we practiced connection by showing the kind of empathy that means sharing in our not-so-close sisters’ suffering? How would the world be different if the focus for being interconnected were based on the empathy of sharing in each other’s suffering, as compared to sharing in each other’s resources—in each other’s material goods and in each other’s connections to other people?

         I suspect that we all regularly participate in charitable giving of money and material things and that we all also give our time in service to helping others. That is, indeed, a sharing of resources. I once heard a story of a seminarian who said that he and his family were motivated to change the way that they eat in order to free up more of his family’s income to give to a stewardship campaign. That is sacrificial giving. That goes beyond giving from that which we can “afford” to give—that which we can spare to give.

         I am wondering: could it be that the sharing of resources would naturally follow as a consequence of sharing in each other’s suffering, of showing a profound level of empathy to our sisters? Perhaps it is our fallenness—our sinfulness—that interferes with the sharing of resources as the natural consequence of our empathetical sharing of our sister’s and our neighbor’s suffering.

         Perhaps we are too passive, taking too much for granted and waiting for invitations and waiting to be solicited to participate in another’s suffering. Think about the way that we talk about the cross—a central image to our Christian identity. We tend to talk about sitting at the foot of the cross, looking up at Christ upon the cross and weeping for our brother’s suffering and also weeping tears of thanksgiving for his bearing of our sins. Speaking for myself, I prefer a more active theology of the cross that calls for us to be pulled into the center, that causes us to fall into the intersection of the cross, that brings us into contact with Jesus’ suffering and with the suffering of our sisters and brothers everywhere.

         Part of the divine spark, the Imago Dei, within us is a generous spirit, which is a reflection of God’s Grace and the fruit of Jesus’ suffering on the cross. That generous spirit gets triggered in two ways: (1) when we feel grateful—when we respond to the joys given to us in our lives, and (2) when we feel empathy—when we feel the suffering of others.

         We are practiced at noticing the gifts in our lives. We call it counting our blessings. Admittedly, we often have to be reminded to count our blessings, and we sometimes have to be shown how to see the gifts in the midst of disappointment and loss. But we are less accomplished at noticing the suffering of others, other than as a fleeting superficial or intellectual awareness—like when we pass by a homeless person or when we read a news story about war or natural disaster or when we look at the faces of today’s Syrian refugees. That makes sense, because we don’t like to feel badly. It doesn’t feel good. It hurts. We don’t like pain. And in some cases, we suffer from compassion fatigue, feeling overwhelmed by all the suffering in the world, in our world.

          My contention—my central thesis for the weekend—is that courage—personal courage—is required to engage in the practice of empathy that shares in the suffering of others. Empathy triggers the generous spirit, the Imago Dei, that leans in the direction of a generous sharing of all kinds of resources. That is the essence of being my sister’s keeper. Courage is the actualization of Love, and it follows then, as is often said, “Justice is the public face of Love.” We will explore this in our workshops tomorrow. 

Fear is the mindkiller

         A major barrier to our capacity to actualize our Love is fear. We can be frozen by fear that takes many forms, from the fear of not having enough leftover for ourselves that makes us hold back on our giving, to the fear of being physically harmed if we intervened in helping someone being assaulted, to the fear of loss of our reputations if we helped someone that others view as unworthy of being helped.

         Fear is the mindkiller,” is the phrase from the 1965 science fiction book Dune by Frank Herbert. In that story, freedom-fighting desert dwellers use the phrase “Fear is the mindkiller” to remind themselves to reach for their personal courage in the face of huge odds against their oppressors from the federation of planets. “Fear is the mindkiller” are the words that my millennial daughter has tattooed across her belly to remind her that she has personal courage as a young woman who identifies as biracial and bisexual and that she has personal courage when fear is the enemy within that she must overcome to engage the world to achieve her goals.

         The noun “courage” derives from the French word “coeur,” which means heart. A way to think about courage is that courage requires confidence to overcome fear in order to act, and that encouragement strengthens a person’s courage. Courage is different from being brave. “Brave” is an adjective, derived from the Italian “bravo,” and is about the split second decision that makes a person do something wild or bold in the face of real danger. Bravery does not happen in safe places. Courage is a deeper, more sustained attitude or posture, that emanates from a person’s heart, from the divine spark within, that is connected to our Maker and that seeks to connect to the divine spark within others. Encouragement is the gift that we as sisters can give to our sisters, when they need extra confidence to overcome fear in order to act. Encouragement is one of the ways in which we participate in our sisters’ courage.

         [ Insert exercise: “Adding to the silence when you speak.” Take a minute or two to reflect on how you have experienced encouragement as either a giver of encouragement or a recipient of encouragement. Please group yourself again with a couple of others, and share that experience with them and what that felt like to you and what you learned from it. ]

         Let me repeat: Encouragement is the gift that we as sisters give to our sisters, when they need extra confidence to overcome fear in order to act. Encouragement is one of the ways in which we participate in our sisters’ courage.

         Another way to look at, or to talk about, personal courage is to talk about God’s Grace and Grace’s presence in our relationships and in our lives. I’ve already pointed out that I think of the generous spirit component of Imago Dei as a reflection of God’s Grace. I would also argue that personal courage could be described as an expression of our awareness—of our being in touch with—God’s Grace present in our lives. Personal courage is an expression of how we are strengthened by God’s Grace present in our lives and how we are compelled by our baptismal call to share that Grace with others, to share it forward.

         In my poem titled “Courage is,” I end with “Courage is the secret self reaching for its family.” Brené Brown wrote in her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead: Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” 

         My perspective is that courage is an orientation of the spirit that points towards hope, that points towards a possible future for humanity, for community, for family, for sisterhood. “Courageous Connection,” that is, courage in connection with community, with sisterhood, is the courage to name a thing, to dispute a thing, and to speak truth not just to power, but truth to well-meaning people who don’t see the world through the lenses of the “other”—of our sisters. Courageous Connection is the secret self living into its authenticity to speak from an open, vulnerable place and risk being rejected.
“Courage is”

         In the 1950s, when I was a child younger than five years old, speaking only Cantonese in a Chinatown tenement in Detroit, I asked my mother about what happened when the Communists took over in mainland China. My mother married at age 19 to my father, who had been raised in Chinatown New York and taken to China with his older brother by my grandmother to find brides. After my parents married and came to New York and then Detroit, the Communists took over in China and confiscated my mother’s family's property and sources of livelihood, the farms and shops that supported a family clan the size of a small village. The Communists forced the men to flee the country first, beat her no. 2 sister to death, and imprisoned her mother with an infant son in arms. My mother's comment to me was, "At least now, everyone is eating." In the face of an enemy’s takeover of her native country and the refugee status forced on her family, my mother had responded, “At least now, everyone is eating.” That is my emotional motto and touchstone. That is my earliest acquaintance with personal courage—the secret self, that spark of divinity within each of us, reaching for its family—even as the swirling human family of my mother’s parents and siblings and her uncles and aunts and cousins were angry and hurt, suffering and broken, from their forced refugee status. 

         My mother is a very courageous woman. She lived through decades when a letter from her family back in Hong Kong would cause her to weep and when no letters arriving would cause her to weep. Brené Brown says in her book, “What we know matters but who we are matters more.” My mother has always known that she is the eldest daughter of an eldest daughter and the mother of an eldest daughter and that she is connected in ways that hearken to a soul-deep sisterhood as a beloved daughter of a Creator who is the definition of Love and of Courageous Connection.

         My dear siblings, we are called to dig deep to find our store of personal courage, to let our secret selves that hold the divine spark within us be brave and reach out to our human family, for Jesus taught, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

         I’d like to close with the poem I wrote earlier this year, titled “Courage is.” It is available as a handout at the close of this evening.

Courage is

Courage is an invisible thread
that twists through
my hidden soul
my secret self

courage lies buried
in daily life’s debris
where acquiescence
smoothes the way

The daily decisions
this bread
or that apple
in the end
make no difference
in my life
to my dreams
Earth’s destiny
its disagreement

Who am I
to argue with Nature
I am a member
of a tribe
too large to contain
too diverse to control
too selfish to share
I pray hope
all else fails

Courage is a bitter brew
more frightening
than addictive
I am a member
of a tribe
that judges the price
too large
when I am the one
chosen to pay

This tribe
has devised
creating heroes
to mask
the flight of courage
from the everyday

If it’s posted
If it’s spoken
and shared
Surely that is
and true
that courage
still lives on

Courage is
most sacred
When open
to all
naked of
most powerful
Courage is
the communion
that lifts
the hidden thread
in the body politic
to be warp
and woof
of a people
of a community
of a nation
of the world
Courage is
the secret self
reaching for
its family

No comments: