Tuesday, July 7, 2015

An Appeal to Bereans Publicly Displaying the Confederate Flag

I'm not here to argue the historical relevance, symbolism, and your personal sense of pride and loyalty to the flag.  I'm not here to argue your rights under the First Amendment.  I support our individual rights to freedom of speech and expression.  I get it.  You have the right to display that flag.  I promise you, I'm not here to argue that.  My purpose here today is rather three-fold.  Please bear with me.

1.)  I want to let you know that I value you as a citizen of this town, a neighbor, a Berean.  Our kids probably go to school together. You have probably extended a kind act towards me at some point during the last two decades - perhaps wished me a blessed day when I was out jogging, or let me in front of you at the grocery store line?  I hope I've done the same for you.

2.)  I want to challenge you to join me in asking this question of yourself:  Is it more important for me to be compassionate or to be right?  I used the word "join" with great intention, because this is an ongoing personal struggle for me, one that I've most recently re-committed myself to.  I promise to always ask myself this question when our paths cross and when we disagree.  I promise to listen to your side, reserve judgement, and see you first as a human being with inherent goodness. 

3.)  I want to share with you how real people who live in our town feel when they see you.  I'm certain that you are not aware of the real-life impact the display of the flag has on your neighbors, your children's teachers, your high school classmates.  I wanted you to know because I believe that you would never want to inflict pain and fear on anyone, regardless of your pride, regardless of your true intentions, and not even in the name of being "right".

Yesterday, my friend made the decision to drive right by the Speedway although she needed gas - because you were parked there.  Her four African-American sons were in the car with her.

This week an African-American staff member at one of our local schools happened to walk by your teen children who had confederate flags draped around their shoulders.   Can you imagine what may have been going through her mind?

When you and your friends were parked in Walgreen's parking lot revving up your engines and honking your horns at passerbys, an elderly African-American woman decided that maybe she could go one day without picking up her prescriptions.

An African-American mother discreetly put her cell phone in her hand "just in case" when exiting her car with her young children.   She needed groceries and had to walk right by you and your friends in Walmart's parking lot.

An African-American man was called racial slurs when someone driving around with the flag passed him on the street.  This has happened many, many times to many, many others over the last 20 years.  While your intentions may be to express pride and not hate, others - so many others - are using that very same symbol to inflict hate. 

I know in my heart that it can't be your intention to make your neighbors feel threatened and intimidated in their own hometowns, to force parents to have gut-wrenching conversations with their children at a very young age, to make anyone feel like they are not welcome, safe, and included in our community.  Because while our town is big enough for us to disagree and to express our beliefs, it's too small for us to forget that we are an interconnected community made up of real people with real feelings. 

Still Striving to Love My Neighbors - All of Them,

Mae Suramek
20 Year Berea Resident

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

How I Almost Embraced Christianity….if it weren’t for Christians

I’m not sure when it started but I always talked to God – ever since I was a little girl. While this may sound like the norm for many, prayer and commune with a higher power was not something that was ever taught to me.  I grew up in an interfaith family - my mother, a Muslim, and my father a Buddhist.  Their worship rituals were drastically different, ranging from Muslim Koran readings, to Buddhist meditations, the lighting of incense for the departed, paying respect to ancestors, fasting, and regular charity towards all living beings like freeing fish and birds during Buddhist holidays, and coming together to pay for funerals for underprivileged Muslims.  You’d think this would be confusing for an 8 year old when God had so many glorious faces and was called by so many different names - Allah, Buddha, Yahweh, Jesus.  Oh, I forgot to mention - to complicate things even more, throughout my elementary and middle school years I also attended a private Christian school where I studied scripture daily for 7 years.  But really, it wasn’t confusing at all.  In fact, when I think back to those years, I recall feeling a clear sense of certainty and faith in God, something that I haven’t felt as powerfully since. 

While I never called my God by a specific name, he was undoubtedly present in my life at a very early age.  He protected me from the Salem’s Lot nightmares I used to have when I was 6.  He helped me feel safe as a 14 year old traveling alone on a plane across the Pacific ocean.  He helped me navigate loss, heartache, and gave me strength to face a miscarriage and a divorce later on in life.  In my world, God was ever present, always embracing, and it didn’t really matter what he looked like or what I called him.  He just was.  Life’s only certainty.  As I entered my teen years, I became deeply devout to the Christian faith.  I wore a tiny golden cross around my neck.  I read the Good News Bible every night before I went to bed and quite honestly I “felt” the spirit often in my daily routine.  Slowly I began seeing myself as a Christian and I eventually decided to get baptized when I was 15.  My relationship with God and Jesus was tight.  I had no qualms, no questions, it was natural. 
I went on to College and “church hopped” quite a bit but had difficulty finding my place.  I didn’t look like any of the kids at the Baptist Student Union and my life experiences were so drastically different that I had trouble relating to the upbeat music and small group experiences.  Plus, while self-identifying as a Christian, I related much more to the international students of various faith backgrounds – and none of them ever preached to me.  I dabbled with the Catholic Church and probably because of my background, found peace in the ritualistic aspects of the service, but because I wasn’t able to take communion, I always felt like a perpetual visitor.  I went on to church hop all through my adult life, seeking, yearning for a place -but no matter where I went, the message was sometimes subtle, sometimes loud and clear:  You, Mae are on the right track, but your parents will not have a place in the Kingdom of God.  And it wasn’t just my parents who were lost, but it was my entire family, my international friends, and probably most of my country of origin (Thailand) too.  And it was my sole purpose to save them.  But what exactly was I saving them from?  These were GOOD people who not only believed in God but who also strived to live their lives as Christ did.  In fact many were living their lives in a more Christ-like manner than my Christian friends who were engaging in premarital sex, bullying, gossiping, and oh, the judgement was brutal.  If the God that I knew didn’t see this, then maybe I didn’t belong in the Christian faith after all?

As I entered adulthood, I encountered many incredibly loving Christians who modeled grace and compassion as I continued my journey of spiritual seeking.  Maybe there still was a place for me in the Christian faith?  I took on Meals on Wheels routes with Christian friends delivering food to the sick and elderly.  I prayed with them in my office when the second plane went down on 9/11.  But you know what?  My Muslim, Buddhist, and atheist friends were engaged in the same types of community outreach.  Caring about your fellow human wasn't something patented by Christians.  And then something began to happen.   ALL THE TIME.  I began encountering more and more self-proclaimed Christians who began talking “at” me rather than with me.  In the name of Jesus, I was told that my gay friends were an abomination, that my pre-marital co-habitation with my husband was a disgrace – that I was a disgrace.  That I needed to only be around other Christians or I would be too “tempted”.  A dear friend recently explained to me that Christians are called to profess their truth and preach the gospel and that while it may come across as judgement, it is not intended as such.  I can respect that, really I can.  But what I really couldn’t come to terms with until this day is how little and unworthy I was always made to feel.  I was never good enough, strong enough, disciplined enough to be loved by God.  My family, my friends from other faith backgrounds, my gay friends, the rest of the world’s population were not worthy enough to be loved by God.  I thought back to my early childhood years when I didn’t really choose to have a relationship with God.  I just did.  He spoke to me and I opened my heart to him and it didn’t matter what his name was.  He was just always there.  But this new Christianity that I seemed to be encountering more and more was ironically coming between my relationship with my God.  Would God really want someone to pen a sign that said “All homosexuals will burn in hell”, like the one I saw at a rally in college?  Would God really want Christians looking down on the rest of the world as sinners rather than walking alongside fellow journeyers in pursuit of a meaningful relationship with God? That “us” versus “them” mentality just didn’t sit well in my soul and definitely wasn’t what I felt in my heart that my God was calling me to do.
And so slowly I began to find my own path towards God, and away from Christianity.  While I have extraordinarily kind and inclusive Christian friends, I just haven’t been able to find my place in a faith that continues to have such a wide range of interpretations, and so much internal dissent on what it means to lead a Christ-like life.  And so in the meantime I seek and I journey and I live my life in a way that nurtures and grows my relationship with that God I knew as a child.  The one who was ever present.  The one who loved my parents and loved the world.  The one who inspired me to go out and become a part of the world and to walk alongside fellow travelers with no agenda other than to love.  The one whose light shines brighter than any name or title that any human being could assign.   I think back to my Christian friends during my early adulthood – the ones that made me want to know Jesus – and it occurred to me that they never once verbally professed their faith to me.  They just lived it.  Loud and clear – bringing food to inmates on the weekends, singing to the elderly at nursing homes, always having a warm bed for anyone who came through town.   There was no talk about loving the sinner but not the sin, there was just simple, pure love by example.     

I haven’t given up on God, I don’t think I ever will.   But I’m coming to a place where I may be giving up on religion, perhaps?  You know, cut out the middle man and go straight to the source like I did when I was a little girl?   The funny thing is that I never taught my own son (who is now 7) to pray, and he has been talking to God on his own since he was 2.  We don't even attend church so I have little choice but to believe in divine intervention.  Sometimes he prays on his hands and knees with his hands clasped like his Kentucky grandma does.  Sometimes he kneels down and faces the sun and talks to God like his Thai grandma does.  I can't help but think that we grown-ups get in the way of that direct line to the Universe, that we were all gifted with at birth.  I hope Christian friends reading this do not take my comments as an assault on all Christians and Christianity.  Cliché as it may sound, some of my best friends are Christian and I frequently find immense joy when journeying alongside them.  And to all of you who are tempted right this very moment to send me a private message to invite me to your home to share the gospel with me, please don’t.  But I do invite you to walk alongside me, journey with me, maybe even come break fast with my mother during this month of Ramadan.  Show me that you are as human as I am.  Because no matter how eloquent and compelling you are, nothing that you say will ever be as powerful as the manner in which you live out your faith. 
Join me in my journey and I’ll join you in yours?