Contributor: Heather Lear
As I look back on my formative years, I realize I was raised in a bubble…a good bubble in many ways...but a bubble. Over the past few days, I’ve spent quite a bit of time reflecting on our nation and my personal journey over the past two decades. My heart aches over the division and pain that is currently felt and being expressed by friends and neighbors and those who live in fear for themselves and their children. My heart also aches for the groups of people who feel so disenfranchised and hopeless that their best option was to try to ignore and rationalize things said by a candidate whose campaign began and ended with countless irresponsible and unacceptable labels and statements about entire sections of our population. There is tremendous uncertainty about the coming days and much healing and reconciliation to do. Despite all this, I also find myself feeling tremendous gratitude to God.
One of the hallmarks of our Wesleyan theology is that we are called to ongoing discipleship and the pursuit of holiness. The Holy Spirit will continue to guide and challenge us on our understanding of God, what God is doing in the world, and our role in God’s kingdom. But we are not forced to accept these challenges. We have to be open. For me, I had to be open to having my bubble punctured and eventually deflated.
My bubble was formed growing up as a military kid, living and going to school on military bases, having friends from all different backgrounds, and residing in communities across the country. Of course, moving and starting over every few years was hard, but it also helped me to be flexible and aware of the outsider. I remember my parents, teachers, scout leaders, and pastors being extremely encouraging, telling me that I could do or be anything I wanted to be. As a kid, I fully believed that to be the reality for me or for anybody else who just worked hard. And for the most part, this has proved to be true in my life. Yes, I did face mild discrimination and obstacles as a young female in ministry, but I’ve been able to watch God work in mighty ways despite the doors that seemed to be closed over the years. I also understand that my current state in life is largely due to a very supportive family, connections, and educational opportunities that may not be the reality for others. This understanding, though, could only come through my bubble being punctured.
Looking back on my young-adult years, I am grateful to the United Methodist itinerancy system that sent me to communities that I might not have chosen for myself, but learned to love. These communities challenged me to evaluate my assumptions and hear the stories of neighbors who had very different life experiences. I am grateful for the teachers, administrators, and families in the schools of those communities who taught me about tremendous inequalities in our public schools. These dedicated educators and hard-working families did the best they could with limited resources and overcrowded classrooms, as they didn’t have other options for their kids. At the same time, my husband and I had the resources to explore myriad educational choices for our own young son, and we were forced to reflect on the very different opportunities afforded to our family over our neighbors.
In recent years, I am also grateful to the World Council of Churches and our global UMC connection who reminded me that while we are Americans (and should feel extremely grateful to be), God is Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer and lover of the entire world. Remember, I grew up extremely patriotic as a military kid, so this was a further depletion of my bubble. Because we have the privilege of being born and raised in this great country, we also have a responsibility. Last summer when I was in Cape Town, South Africa, I was blown away when person after person (taxi drivers, wait staff, shopkeepers) stopped and asked me in concern about our election. They looked to our country as a beacon of hope and opportunity and were confused by the rhetoric and division they were seeing on the news.
On other trips over the past few years, my eyes were also opened at a deeper level to our country’s painful history and treatment of entire groups of people as I learned about the residential schools for the children of First Nations’ people in Canada and the huge numbers of Aboriginal children who were taken from their families in Australia as part of the Stolen Generation. And my heart is still heavy from a recent gathering with ecumenical friends from around the world, where a Syrian Orthodox Bishop looked me in the eye and pleaded, “Please don’t forget about my people when you go home.”
I also acknowledge that I do understand to some degree what has led to the huge support for Trump. My dad grew up in southeastern Ohio and was the son of a limestone worker. My grandfather still lives in the same 900-square-foot house that my dad grew up in the small town of 300 people. Now there are few jobs and little opportunity; whereas, in the 50s and 60s, high school graduates could count on having good jobs and providing for their families. There are many hard-working people who have been left behind and feel forgotten. I understand the desire to turn the clock back to “better days.”
But it was in that same community that I was first exposed to racism and discrimination. I was eight-years-old, and we were visiting my grandparents over the summer. I loved visiting during the summer because that meant the community lake was open, complete with swimming, fishing, miniature golf, and bingo on Saturday nights. (I still remember being so excited when I won a toaster.) The lake was privately owned, and my grandfather served on the board of directors. Over the next week there would be a vote about letting “the blacks” obtain membership. At the time it was prohibited–in the 80s–the 1980s. I couldn’t wrap my eight-year-old mind around a policy that reinforced that an entire group of people was somehow inferior.
I guess that’s part of our sinful, fallen nature. We make ourselves feel better and more important by putting or keeping others down. Isn’t that why kids (and adults) bully or pick on the weakest and most vulnerable? Jesus understood this about us, and I think that’s why he spent so much time fellowshipping with and including those whom society and religion left out. I sincerely hope Melania Trump does focus on reducing the amount of cyberbullying that is running rampant and helps us to be kinder to one another in the virtual world.
While it was painful and difficult at times, I am so grateful to God for placing me in spaces that deflated my bubble (and I know there is still more deflating to do). I am also grateful for the idealism that was the foundation of my bubble in the first place: people are people no matter what they look like or where they are from, and opportunities should be available to all if you are willing to work hard. I think, at least in part, that these are also Kingdom values. Our task, though, is to also be aware of the current realities. Where are the places in your community where hope is fleeting or gone? Where can Jesus bring healing and wholeness? What is my role is bridging the current gaps of what is and what should be? As Christians, we are called to engage in this reflective work. How do I understand what it means to be Christian and what God is doing in the world? As leaders, how are we challenging our people to consider if and what bubbles they might currently enjoy? Again, this is difficult, sometimes painful work, but I think it’s part of the cost of discipleship.
Heather Lear is the Director of Evangelism at Discipleship Ministries.