November 29, 2016

A playlist of mercy and hope

Photo by Wendy McFadden

I remember the day I become a citizen. I am 9 or 10, and all my classmates make a trip to the courthouse for this civics lesson. At the ceremony, I receive a commemorative flag and a welcome letter from the President of the United States. My brother and I, adopted from Korea as babies, show up on the front page of the local newspaper as “The Littlest Citizens.”

I don’t remember another day a few months before, when the Supreme Court decides that states may not keep people of different races from marrying. I do remember decades later when a woman tells me that interracial marriage is wrong. She knows it because that’s what she has been taught in church all her life.

My fourth-grade friend Dee Dee has long blonde hair the color of butter. We look like yin and yang. One day we argue about whether wine is sinful. Of course it is, I say. No, it’s not, she says: Jesus drank wine; it says so in the Bible. So begins interchurch dialogue and biblical interpretation.

I’m filling out a form, and it asks for my race. The choices are white, black, Hispanic, and “other.”

The first time I’m eligible to vote, I’m working for a newspaper with offices two blocks from Pennsylvania Avenue. We run downstairs to see the inaugural parade, and through the crowd I catch a glimpse of the person I voted for. Democracy feels exhilarating and tangible.

This year I learn that my right to become naturalized and to vote became law only six years before my birth, with protections finally secured with the 1965 Voting Rights Act. I ponder whether it’s my life that is fast or the world that is slow.

There is a man who visits my church occasionally. One day he asks me a question that is startlingly racial and sexual. My mind knows he’s mentally impaired, but my body feels groped by his words. I find it hard to be the welcoming church member that I should be, and I give him wide berth. I am grateful for the men at church who, without even knowing what he has said, work at keeping him in line. They are being Christ’s presence when I can’t.

On Nov. 9 I begin building a music playlist called “Hope.” I notice that, without any planning on my part, it represents almost every group of people currently being hated by someone in America.

Out of curiosity, I take an online quiz to find out whether I live in a bubble. I score a pretty low number, which means that I don’t understand “ordinary” people. I know I live in a bubble (don’t we all?), but I wonder how it knows so much about me when none of the 25 questions ask about sex, race, or place of origin. Then I understand: The white man who has created the quiz lives in a bubble.

A swastika is found at the college next to the place I am staying. Two days later, as I walk down the street I wonder which drivers passing by might be similarly emboldened. I pick up the pace and hope my sunglasses make me look . . . ordinary.

I make sure to see Hacksaw Ridge, grateful for Hollywood’s willingness to tell the story of a conscientious objector. The gentle medic survives the savagery of the battle in Okinawa and then spends all night saving soldiers who have mocked him earlier for refusing to carry a gun. That’s a countercultural story the world needs. But there’s more: In the midst of his heroic efforts, he stops to treat a wounded Japanese soldier. Loving your enemies is not for the faint-hearted or the unpracticed.

At the congregation where I am visiting, they are singing a hymn I love: “For everyone born, a place at the table.” I need that.

One more for the playlist. The one that washes over me with tender music and prophetic poetry. The one with words like these: “Every single one of us could use a little mercy now.”

Wendy McFadden is publisher of Brethren Press and Communications for the Church of the Brethren.