Listening

I went to bed Wednesday night, having heard the news of the terrorist attack against the black church in South Carolina. I couldn’t process the news, did not want to process it. “How?” I asked my husband as I climbed into bed, “How can it be 2015 and this is still happening?” But the news did not sink into my heart yet. It wouldn’t process… I did not want to process it.

Thursday morning my husband and I drive to a nearby park to do the next installment of our couch-to-5K run. I run my first lap, and worry. Where is the black lady this morning? I wonder. THE black lady. The ONE. Because that’s the demographic of our town:  89% white. And on our early morning jog? There’s the one black woman. I don’t know her name. I’ve never talked to her. Where is she today, I wonder? Has she heard the news? On my second lap around I meet her. She’s walking with an older white lady. When we meet, she looks at me and smiles a big, beautiful smile—like she always does—and I smile back—like I always do. My heart hurts. I want to tell her I’m sorry, but where would I begin? We smile. She walks with her white friend. I keep running.

I go to my work. I’m the women’s chaplain at a county jail. The majority of our inmates are white, I tell people, and they are always surprised. The county is less than 13% black, but people are still surprised when I say that the majority of our inmates are white. My inmates get the newspaper a day late, so they don’t know about Charleston yet.

What do I do at my job? Mostly I listen. These women sit across from me and tell me their stories. Today is a particularly tough day, but then again, it’s not different than other days. These women who sit across for me today in their striped outfits were once little girls who were raped by people who should have loved them and protected them. For the “lucky” one it was a one-time occurrence; for most it was ongoing, for years. These women have grown up and they have lost babies of their own. They cry tears over their lost babies. They’ve lost babies to miscarriage—brought on by the punches, the kicks, the fury of their husbands… multiple babies beat out of their bodies. They’ve lost babies to miscarriage brought on by the damage done to their bodies when they were but babies themselves. They’ve lost babies due to birth defects not caused by any human. They’ve lost babies, had their babies taken away from them because of their addictions and incarceration. These women are addicted, broken, and scared.  They have turned to drugs because they are afraid to feel their feelings, because the pain is too consuming. They are afraid of losing the battle with their addictions. They are afraid that no one will ever truly love them. They are afraid that they are not lovable.

I can’t fix any of it, but I can listen. There is nothing I can say that will make any of it better. I believe in Jesus and I know His love and the power of His love to heal, to redeem, to transform… And I refuse to offer formulaic religious answers that mean nothing, even when they are true. I listen. I’m so sorry, I say. I’m here. I’m listening. I love you.

On the way home I listen to the radio. I learn the names of the people who were killed in Charleston, and a little bit about each one. I think of the devastation of their families. I think of their communities. I think about my black friends and I wonder what I should say to them, knowing that words, even well-meaning words, often hurt more than they help.

Last week I commented on a friend’s Facebook post about the incident at the pool party in Texas. I watched the video of the cop pushing the young black girl to the ground, grabbing her hair and pushing her head to the ground, putting his knees on her, holding her down despite her lack of struggle, despite her clear lack of threat to him. I watched a skinny young girl in a bikini, calling to her mama and being pushed to the ground… Don’t be blind to the campaign to divide this country along racial lines, my friend said to me. My friend is a good man, and I know he does not have a racist or hateful heart, but he thinks the racial divide in our country is a lie trumped up by the media. I know that I cannot convince him otherwise with my words. I watched the video again and I cried.

When I get home from work I hug my kids and eat dinner and it is good to have a family and a safe home and food. Then I read this post by my friend Osheta, and the tears roll down my face. I go to my bathroom and I sob for a little while, then I pull myself together and go for a walk around my peaceful neighborhood with my husband and our youngest daughter. I am thankful. I am ridiculously lucky. My heart still hurts.

There is so much pain and so much violence and it is 2015 and black people are being killed in their churches in my country and I can’t fix any of it.

But I am listening. I will enter in and listen to your story and let you feel your pain. I will not judge you and I will not try to say some magic formula of words in an attempt to make your pain go away, as though it is not real, as though you don’t have a right to feel it. I am listening and I am so sorry and I am listening and I know I need to listen more and I am listening and I love you.

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