July 2020
Racial Justice and Reconciliation

Unprecedented Times

“These are unprecedented times.” I read that in the emails I get from stores explaining their new hours and policy changes. I hear that from the schools that are cancelling classes this summer and possibly not seeing students in person this fall. I hear that from the politicians explaining why this or that is happening or hasn’t happened, or is changing or isn’t changing.

These are unprecedented times. These are challenging and uncertain times. These are times with lots of moving targets, times where people are making the plane as it’s taking off. For so many of us, the disruption in our lives is difficult. We keep asking ourselves, when will things come back to normal? What is normal? What was normal? We might want to return to normal because it’s something we know, something we are familiar with, something we know how to navigate. Even when normal wasn’t working for everyone.

When a return to normal is a return to dysfunction

It’s like our society is one big, dysfunctional family. If you take someone out of their dysfunction, it is foreign and uncomfortable at first even if the new place is a healthier environment. I’m not saying our current situation is healthy. I’m saying our current situation is foreign and new and uncomfortable. And yet so many of us want to return to that old system instead of finding something new or better that is healthier for all. Why can’t we find a system, a space, a way of relating to one another that respects the dignity of every human being?

We long to return to normal, but returning to how things were would be like returning to that dysfunction. This pandemic is bringing to light how fragile our food delivery systems are, how unjust our society is to its most vulnerable, how badly we treat people of color and immigrants, as well as other oppressed folks, and just how much our society runs on the backs of those same oppressed people. This pandemic is also bringing to light just how willing some of us are to sacrifice the free speech, health and lives of others in the name of returning to normal or fixing the economy.

Let me ask you a question: When the disparities between the haves and the have-nots are greater than they have ever been anytime in recorded history, would a “return to normal” really be “fixing” the economy? To me, fixing the economy means that someone making minimum wage shouldn’t have to work two full-time jobs to get by. To me, fixing the economy means that a loss of a job shouldn’t mean a loss of healthcare. For some of us, there is an answer to how much a human life is worth, especially if that life doesn’t look like us, love like us, live near us, or have money like us. And the answer about how much that human life is worth to those folks…well, it isn’t worth much.

These are unprecedented times all right. And it is in times like these that I am so thankful that we have the gospel to turn to, and we have a Jesus who led by example and prepared us for a time such as this. The disciples were in unprecedented times, and yet Jesus still told them to follow his commandments if they loved him. Do you know which commandments he is talking about? They are to love God with everything you have, your heart, soul and mind, and to love one another as Jesus loves us.

As disciples of Jesus, we are called to follow those same commandments: Love God and love each other. And by that love, people will know we are his disciples. I want to point something out. Jesus didn’t say, by having the biggest church people will know you are my disciples, or by that great liturgy people will know you are my disciples, or by telling others how sinful they are, or by enacting laws that oppress followers of other faiths. Jesus said, by…your…love…everyone will know. Do our individual and collective actions show love to others? Do they respect the dignity of every human being? Those are the questions we need to answer.

Systemic racism and our responsibility as Christians

My relatives, the answers to those questions tell me that we have a lot of work to do. Jesus said that we can tell a good tree from a bad tree by the fruit it bears. The fruit that we are bearing leaves our Black and Brown siblings with less income, less education, higher unemployment, poor health outcomes, harsher sentences at trial and countless other disparities. The fruit we are bearing is poisonous to our Black and Brown siblings. I am sure you’ve heard of the deaths of Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks. Some names you might not have heard are Jason Pero, Zachary Bearheels, Paul Castaway, Corey Kanosh, Raymond Gassman, Loreal Tsingine and Benjamin Whiteshield. They are Native Americans who were also killed by police.

There are some who believe that if we just remove the bad apples or write new policies, things will change. Those things are important and will help, but they are not the main source of the problem. The sin of racism is systemic. Many of us, as Western thinkers, believe that racism is only an individual thing, as in someone is, or isn’t, a racist. Our entire system is racist. That is why we see the disparities and killings throughout our system. What do you expect when our country was built on land we took from indigenous people, built using the slave labor from people we forcibly took from their homeland, and so much of our system is dependent on the labor of undocumented immigrants and others who we treat as disposable.

Racism is occurring throughout our entire socio-ecological system. By that, I mean it can be found in individuals, families, larger social networks like church and school, states, nations and globally. While we might not think of ourselves as overtly racist as white people (or those with skin privilege) in a racist society, unless we are actively working to change the system, we are a part of the problem. We are a part of the problem in that we are active participants in an unjust system. At the very least, we are receiving privileges we did not earn. What is our responsibility in that as Christians, as congregations, as dioceses and as the wider Church?

As disciples of Jesus, we are called to love God and love each other. We are called to create God’s kingdom here on earth. We do that by spreading Christ’s message of compassion, love, forgiveness and reconciliation. We do that by building genuine relationships with our Black and Brown siblings. We do that not only by welcoming them fully into our spaces, but also by stepping out of our comfort zones and meeting folks where they are.

Love is an action word

As westerners, when we talk about love we tend to think of it as a feeling, but love is a verb, an action word. Loving others is something that should call us to action. I remember my grandma giving some advice to a relative who was struggling in an abusive relationship. She said, “whether or not someone says they love you isn’t what matters. What matters is that they show you that they love you through their actions.” She said, “if someone loves you, you shouldn’t just hear it but you should experience it.” Her advice reminds me that if “they will know we are Christians by our love” then they, whoever they are, must be able to experience that love…because love is an action word.

In Lakota there is almost no direct translation for “I love you.” Instead, many say, “techihila.” “Thehi” means to suffer or endure. “Chi” means me to you. Adding “la” to the end makes it endearing. So techihila means, “I’ll suffer, or endure, for you.” Anytime we say the phrase for “I love you,” we are reminded of the action we are called to because of it. Jesus is a perfect example of that love. He loved us so much that he was willing to suffer and die for all of us. I imagine he might have been afraid and he might have felt alone, alone enough to cry out “my God why have you forsaken me.” Well, that is a fear none of us have to have.

We are not alone

Even when we suffer, even when we die, we never have to fear being alone. We are never alone. Jesus says, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” On top of that we have the Holy Spirit with us, beside us, walking with us and sometimes, yes, even carrying us. In these unprecedented times, with COVID and restrictions on visitation, a lot of people have concerns because they can’t be with their loved ones in the hospital rooms. I know that is very hard. As a Lakota person, I can’t imagine it, because we are the ones that have, like, twenty people in the room with people all the time. There are a lot of people dying, but I know they are not alone. Our God of love would not allow for that. As a former hospital chaplain, I have been with many people as they die and begin their spirit journey. Every single time, they had relatives or loved ones, gone before, who came back to greet them and help them on their journey. Sometimes they would talk to them and other times they would point and smile. They were never alone.

I remember once I came with my grandpa to the hospital to visit an elder who was dying. We said prayers and he did his priestly thing. When we finished, he asked her if there was a song she wanted us to sing. The Lakota hymn number she asked for wasn’t familiar to us, and we didn’t know it. Grandpa asked if there was another song we could sing instead. She interrupted while he was talking and said, “it’s okay Father, the angels are singing it for me now.” She died about ten minutes later. She was not alone. Aside from us, she also had angels and relatives to help her on her journey. Death isn’t something to fear. After my grandparents died I no longer feared death, because I knew they would come to help me on my journey. As a Lakota person, we see death as a natural part of life, so traditionally it was never something to be feared or a taboo topic to talk about.

Just as Jesus reassured his disciples then, Jesus reassures us today. He says, “because I live, you also will live.” We know that eternal life is waiting for us after our temporary stay here on earth. We don’t have to wait until then to be with all our relatives, however. When we have communion we believe that Christ is present; and not only Christ but all the saints. In our belief system we have something called “the communion of saints.” Anytime you have communion, even if it is a spiritual communion, know that you are taking communion with all the members of this Church, all your relatives and all your ancestors that have gone before. Part of the reason it is called commun-ion is because we are a commun-ity and we maintain a relationship through this sacred meal. That relationship doesn't end just because our loved ones aren't physically here; they are always with us in some way. I think Lakota people have always known this. That's why there is no word for goodbye in our language, only "see you later." Because we know that no matter what, we will see all our relatives again.

Called to be Christ’s hands and feet in a challenging, uncomfortable time

Our church buildings are shut. We have to navigate a constantly changing landscape. We cannot see our friends and relatives in person. Our Black and Brown siblings are not allowed to thrive in this system that is poison to them. Our leaders are teargassing our Church for photo opportunities. With all that is going on, these unprecedented times may seem apocalyptic. If we are to grow, change, heal and move out of our dysfunction, things will be uncomfortable. We will be challenged and it will be hard. But know that it is to this unprecedented time that we are called.

Remember, it was during an unprecedented time that God liberated the Israelites from bondage and brought them to a place of promise. It was an unprecedented experience that brought Ruth, a foreigner in a strange land, into the family of Israel and put her in the lineage of King David and Jesus. It was during an unprecedented time that Jesus was brought into this world to transform it, helping us to get acquainted with a God of love rather than a God of fury.

It is to this unprecedented time now that we have been called, brought into the world, to be the hands and feet of Christ, transforming this world, healing this world and reconciling this world – this world that is sick, this world that is hungry for justice, hungry for compassion and hungry to meet a tangible God who is made present every time we show love to one another. Mitakuye Oyasin (we are all related).

Isaiah “Shaneequa” Brokenleg is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe (Sicangu Nation). She is the Staff Officer for Racial Reconciliation for the Episcopal Church. She is a priest in the Diocese of South Dakota, where she grew up and the place she calls home. From a cultural/spiritual perspective Shaneequa believes that we are all related (“mitakuye oyasin”), and that the gospel calls us to be “good relatives” to one another. Having grown up on the Rosebud reservation she has experienced and witnessed the devastating effects of historical/generational trauma, colonization and racism. As a winktè (Lakota two-spirit), she is called to be a healer and to move our communities in the direction of positive change, in the direction of reconciliation, toward living in right-relationship with one another.

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This article is part of the July 2020 Vestry Papers issue on Racial Justice and Reconciliation