by Allison Ruari
Allison shared the following story with the Constructive Theologies Group in a theological narrative exercise aiming to connect theology and our lived experiences.
I was in a group of clergy. We were talking about race. In my mind, when I hear race in America, I basically assume that there really isn’t any room for me, a mixed Polynesian that often “passes.” And I get it and for the most part, I’m good with it. There is a lot of pain that needs to be voiced and reconciliation is hard work. So I went to listen, not to push my own agenda, knowing that I was probably not even going to be seen or put into a category in which I don’t identify. I was not surprised to find that I was the only person under 30 and the only one who didn’t identify as white or black.
After some brief announcements on what this community action group was doing (good, good stuff), we got into it—the exercises. We started with some Swahili that roughly translated to “I am here,” “I see you” and “I am because we are.” Then came the part I was dreading.
“Stand up if…” The leaders started with denominations. They went through several and finally said, “If your denomination wasn’t called, stand up…” There were four of us, all Stone-Campbell folks and none of us were surprised. Then the leaders talked some more. They said “Stand up if you identify as Black.” I didn’t stand because, well, I’m not black. “Stand up if you identify as white.” Again, I didn’t stand because, well, I don’t identify as white. I could feel the tears coming. Tears of anger. Tears of disappointment. Tears of hurt. I was surprised that I my emotions were as raw as they were because, really, I wasn’t surprised. I kept telling myself, “Keep it together. They will see you and remember you’re there.”
And then the leaders said, “Stand up if you went to school where 95 percent of your classmates looked like you.” And I didn’t stand up, because when you and your two brothers are the only half Samoans in town, no one really looks like you. And the leaders continued, “Keep standing if you went to a church where 95 percent of the other congregants looked like you.” And again, I didn’t stand up because when you sit in a pew with your brown dad and your tan brothers in a sea of white, you guys stand out.
After that, I don’t remember what the leaders said. I stood up and left the room. I knew going in that it wasn’t going to be a super safe place for me. At that point, I didn’t feel safe in that space or in that conversation at all. I felt invisible and unimportant, voiceless and without agency. Again.
People started to notice and I was embarrassed that I couldn’t advocate for myself without becoming completely hysterical. It was two Lutheran pastors who, after asking my permission, went up to the two leaders to let them know that they had not, in fact “seen me.” After lunch, while I was still in tears, one of the leaders made this big to do about how “mixed” was a new thing, apologized for making feel forgotten, and how everyone does, in fact, “see me.” Then there was laying on of hands and a prayer just for me (none of which I really wanted because I was already a hot mess) and then group was reminded that everyone was mixed, so really, I wasn’t alone. At which point folks shared that they were part this and part that. It was supposed to make me feel better, but in reality it made me feel more invisible. Literally everyone else in the room had already stood up because they identified as something else because they could and do. It made me feel unsafe and unseen. Again.
Allison Ruari is Associate Minister at Vine Street Christian Church in Nashville, TN.