Meet Dottie: My Friend Who “chose” to Live Homelessly
Representative Roger Marshall is facing criticism about comments he made about health care and the poor. (photo: John Hanna/AP)
Rep. Roger Marshall, (R-Kan.), a member of the GOP Doctors Caucus, said comments he made to STAT were not meant to suggest that poor people take health care for granted. The comments were published in a story last week about his burgeoning role in the fight to replace the Affordable Care Act.
“Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us,’ ” Marshall said in response to a question about Medicaid, which expanded under Obamacare to more than 30 states. “There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves.”
He added that “morally, spiritually, socially,” the poor, including the homeless, “just don’t want health care.” – From the Washington Post, yesterday, by Kristine Phillips.
Ah, yes. I wonder if Representative Marshall knows any poor people beyond being a doctor to some? Sounds like the lies I’ve heard all of my adult life: “the homeless just don’t want to be housed. Black people just want to live in ghettos. Latino people just don’t want to play by US rules. Prisoners re-commit crimes because they want to be back in prison. Muslims are secretly plotting to destroy all of us non-Muslims. Women actually want to be raped when they put on a slinky red dress.…”.
In addition, the AARP might have a new one to offer: “Older persons living on small fixed incomes just want to give 30-60% of that income to healthcare.”
Let me tell you about Dottie. Dottie lived in her van for the final 9 years of her life. Dottie was part of our DOOR Los Angeles program, educating people about the realities of living on the streets in Hollywood. Once, a visiting mission trip leader asked, “Dottie, why don’t you just get help and check into a shelter?” Her reply was, “At this point, I’d rather live on the streets.”
[Pause. I saw the man nodding his head because he had satisfied his assumption that “some people just aren’t going to take care of themselves.” He was able to sit comfortably “knowing” that Dottie’s situation is all her fault, that some people just don’t want to deal with responsibility, etc.]
So, I exercised my moderator privileges and asked her, “Dottie, can you explain what you mean by ‘at this point?'”
Dottie did, I’ll summarize. Dottie is a small woman who worked every day of her adult life. Dottie was a managing waitress at Denny’s in Woodland Hills, and in her late 50s, collided with another waitress in the restaurant’s walk-in refrigerator, falling and breaking her hip. Dottie applied for worker’s compensation, received it, was able to get some health care for her hip but never fully healed. After 9 months of recovery, she found that Denny’s would not hire her back. She looked for work elsewhere, and learned that her worker’s comp record followed her, and that employers were “leery to hire her for fear she might pull a stunt like that again.” She said, “if I knew then what I know now, I would never have exercised that privilege, it’s ruined me.” She never fully healed, still walked with a limp, and was never able to find stable work again as a 60 year old woman. This led her into homelessness.
[Pause, again: I can attest to this reality too, mildly. We are on the verge of buying a home in Detroit and have to apply for homeowner’s insurance. Because we had luggage stolen in LA in 2016 and I had called our renter’s insurance to inquire about coverage (but did not even file a claim), that note was on our insurance record. I was told by two companies that they were unwilling to cover our home because of that theft blip. I heard that if I’m the type of person who is susceptible to theft in one residence, I’m more likely to be stolen from again. I wish I had never called to ask.]
Dottie started living in her van with her large dog Trixie. Trixie was her only true friend for years, and kept her safe when she had to panhandle at the end of the months. If she fell asleep, she felt safe by Trixie’s side. If a man came up to take advantage of her (and her stories of sexual advances are beyond the pale), Trixie growled. Trixie was her shelter. And it is important to know, then, that shelters were not accepting pets at that time. So, in Dottie’s estimation, going to a shelter meant risking separation from Trixie and in LA, with 50,000-80,000 homeless folks but only 13,000-15,000 shelter beds, there was no guarantee she was going to be taken in, and then no guarantee that if she was taken in, there would be an apartment waiting for her at the other end. What was certain, to her, was that the chance of losing Trixie was too much to bear.
And, she added, she had tried shelters for a time. She was abused by shelter staff, beat up by another woman, and was not interested in re-living anything like this.
I asked her, “if you could have a home or even your own apartment, would you prefer that to sleeping on the streets.”
Her response: “absolutely. But the hoops you have to jump through are confusing and dangerous too. I’ve come to make a life for myself. I care for the other homeless folks who live around me and that’s okay for now. I just hope, and for those of you who pray ask that you pray for me, that I don’t die alone, as I’ve seen too many of us go that way.”
Dottie did not die alone. Many of us visited her in hospice care at the end of her life. Dottie had also found a trusted partner in a man named Brian who was by her side every last moment.
Dottie was a complicated and wonderful woman. I came to learn she had also struggled with heroine throughout her life, and of course, that has bearing on this story. But should we assume that she wanted to be homeless? Should we assume that she didn’t want to be well? Should we assume that, if the path was cleared and looked safe, she would rather live the hard life she was living? Should we wonder if heroine was one of the ways she chose to cope? Should we listen to her story?
When Charlotte, our first daughter was born, Dottie bought her a piggy bank.
Do the lawmakers in charge of writing these new rules into legislation understand how hard it is to get out of the cycle of poverty once you’ve been, either, born there, or suddenly found yourself there? There are always exceptions, but there are still many more Dottie’s than the one’s who manage to eke through.
We have a national leader now who has made a career out of lying to turn business deals in his favor. He slanders people left and right to make himself look better. All the time. He lives, braggadociously I might add, by the phrase, “there’s no right or wrong in business, just good and bad business.” I am in deep despair over how many Christians idolize 45, and I pray they wake up soon before America is made very less great again.
One way: get to know some retired persons facing skyrocketing costs and pay attention to what part of town they live in. Get to know some fathers and mothers who’ve spent years in prison away from their kids for having made the “good business” decision to sell anything they could to put food on the table when factories shipped jobs overseas. Get to know some people who’ve crossed the border to do the same for their kids when American companies decimated farmland they, or their families, used to and make a living from. Get to know a Japanese person who spent years growing up in Manzanar. Get some food in Dearborn at a family owned restaurant and ask the owner if he’s secretly trying to kill you with his grandmother’s hummus recipe. Get to know an actual, living, breathing woman who has to deal with sexism on a daily basis.
In all my readings of the Bible, I believe this is close to the heart of what Jesus means.
“Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’” – Matthew 25:37-40 MSG
And the verse Marshall mentioned in this article, that the poor will always be with us, it was meant to reflect the brokenness of humanity and also to still need to still carve time to spend with Jesus! Read the actual verse here. It was not meant to justify sitting on a higher class horse and making up lies, or bearing false witness, about those with less. Later in the article, he does start to note this, but he has already done so much intentional damage in spreading a political lie.
The actual reasons people fail to get healthcare, recommit crimes, desperately seek physical attention, and stay in the cycle they are in is because our society is designed to favor people who look like me and people who have most of the money. We justify: “well, they’ve earned it, (without ever wondering if they might have mis-earned it), or “this country was built by hard working European immigrants” (casually forgetting that this land was stolen and most of our most iconic national buildings were built by stolen and cheap labor).
Let’s tell the whole truth. This law would give great tax relief to people who don’t really need it, and puts the burden back on people who do, and even suggesting the blame lies on our poorer and older citizens hides the deeply problematic system designed to benefit only some of us.
White Christians Need to Remember Table Manners -@matthewjschmitt #DismantlingWhiteousness
Last year, at Fuller Theological Seminary, I got into a bit of a debate with Professor Love Sechrest, one of the three African-American female educators on campus. Debate might be a generous term; it was more like this: in our close study of the letter of Paul to the Romans, Professor Sechrest’s lecture was poised to leap right over Romans 14, saying it was mostly an insignificant chapter about old food customs and issues between early cultures in the initial spread of Christianity. And that was that. I actually gasped, sound popped out of my mouth, because I had been looking forward to our discussion on Romans specifically to talk about chapter 14. It’s always been my favorite.
Professor Sechrest heard me, raised her eyebrows and asked, “do you have something to add, Matthew?”
I stammered, started, hesitated, and managed to eke out, “uh, can I just see you after class?”
“Yes, moving on to chapters 15 and 16….”
Afterwards, I laid out why I love the chapter, why I think it’s a great foundation for modern work in reconciliation and interfaith dialogue, and I walked away satisfied with her brief response, “well, I think I might have to give it another look.”
For instance, a person who has been around for a while might well be convinced that he can eat anything on the table, while another, with a different background, might assume he should only be a vegetarian and eat accordingly. But since both are guests at Christ’s table, wouldn’t it be terribly rude if they fell to criticizing what the other ate or didn’t eat? God, after all, invited them both to the table. Do you have any business crossing people off the guest list or interfering with God’s welcome?
If there are corrections to be made or manners to be learned, God can handle that without your help. Or, say, one person thinks that some days should be set aside as holy and another thinks that each day is pretty much like any other. There are good reasons either way. So, each person is free to follow the convictions of conscience.
What’s important in all this is that if you keep a holy day, keep it for God’s sake; if you eat meat, eat it to the glory of God and thank God for prime rib; if you’re a vegetarian, eat vegetables to the glory of God and thank God for broccoli. None of us are permitted to insist on our own way in these matters. It’s God we are answerable to—all the way from life to death and everything in between—not each other. That’s why Jesus lived and died and then lived again: so that he could be our Master across the entire range of life and death, and free us from the petty tyrannies of each other. (Romans 14:2-9, MSG)
The setting is a dinner table. The context is diversity within the early Jesus-following community. We’ll come back to this.
Thinking back to my college days as a vegetarian, I can think on many meals where the guidance of Romans 14 was not followed.
“So, all you’re going to eat is vegetables? Are you going to need me to cook all of the ones I’ve got?”
“Oh, it’s just that liberal college life phase thing again.”
“Are you into free love, too?”
These were common “blessings” dropped on me in the late 90’s before we dug in, and after bristling and having to posture some sort of quippy response, I was less interested in investing in the remainder of those conversations. If knocking vegetarianism was topic number one, I wasn’t chomping at any bits to start talking about the lessons I was learning from doing improvisational theater work in Detroit area prisons.
The truth: I was a vegetarian to impress a young woman. And it worked, so I stuck to it for a while, probably in defiant pride.
Paul was writing to a people that had been brought up with strict food guidelines for generations, partially for health reasons but mostly to adhere to what Scripture commanded. It was for maintaining cultural clarity. In this, it’s not hard to imagine the consternation and confusion that this new influx of members, for lack of a better term, was causing the culturally Jewish folks. Imagine something like a Thanksgiving meal in the United States, with the pumpkin pies, the sweet potatoes, and of course, the turkeys, both the natural and the tofu ones. In walks a family member’s new spouse with, say, pepperoni pizza and starts passing it around. Everyone likes pizza, yes? People might even take a slice or two, but would most likely be murmuring about how odd it was for Thanksgiving. If those murmurs were overheard by the new family member, it would most certainly cause a feeling of less-than-fully-welcomed awkwardness.
The Jewish people were being asked to consider that in the increasingly diversifying community of following Jesus, they ought to expect this new kind of dynamic at gatherings. So much so that Paul felt compelled to lay down a new paradigm of table manners. In other words, this isn’t just for your family anymore, it was always meant to win the whole world back to God’s table in God’s Kingdom. Don’t pick on each other and definitely do not kill the spirit of welcome extended to everyone by Christ.
Remember, the human based impetus to crucify Jesus came, in part, as a reaction to his radical teachings. He was talking about decentralizing human power and reorienting everyone towards God’s ultimate sovereignty. Quite often, his stories centered the righteous actions not in the religious leaders of the day but in the outsiders, even the hated Samaritans. Jesus’ sermons on the mount and plain lay out a mission to go from town to town with good news and invitation (once the sick and afflicted amidst them are tended to), meaning there will be even more new people at the tables. Finally, directly before he ascends to God, after being asked if the kingdom will be restored to Israel, Jesus shifts the conversation into letting them know they are to be his witnesses, or storytellers, in “Judea, Samaria, even to the ends of the world.” (Acts 1:8, MSG)
I believe Paul included the lessons contained in chapter 14 because he understood that Christianity, the practice of following Jesus, would be increasingly more complicated as new cultures, with all their food rules and customs, were brought to the same tables alongside the original witnesses with their well-worn traditions. In other words: expect to sit at diverse tables, forevermore. But by 1960, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out that “11:00 on Sunday morning is one of the most, if not the most, segregated hours in Christian America.”
How would MLK reflect on the level of integration within Christian churches of 2017? How would you? How would Jesus?
The table is central to sharing the Gospel because it is central to being a human being. A meal with others, when the intentional decency of Romans 14 is followed, allows us to share in our vulnerability (we need to eat!), for us to share our hospitality (we can share of our resources and our gifts!), and a place to tell and listen to stories. It is a prime place to be understood and to understand. It is level ground, there’s no such thing as a sloped table with some sitting higher than others. Sure, there is often a human host who may assume a form of leadership, but Romans 14 urges that we humbly recall that the true host is actually Christ, guarding against any person-to-person hierarchies that may develop. Romans 14 sets the perfect table.
In our highly divided nation, in which the furors of 2016 were not the instigator of the division but rather, the boiling over of the reality that MLK called into question: the American church has failed to set ideal tables, tables that honor and reflect the diversity of God’s kingdom, for centuries. And so we don’t know one another, and, I would argue, we are unfortunately only able to understand God through the limits of our own cultural practices.
Let’s step back into that pizza moment at Thanksgiving: while I admit if that were to happen at my table, my initial response would be to quietly find it odd and, well, out of place. But what if someone had the courage to ask the new family member, without sarcasm, “why did you bring pizza today?” And suppose that person answered with a story about a Thanksgiving from her youth in which her grandmother became gravely ill in the morning, and her entire family spent the day in the hospital in prayer and grief. And what if she said that the only thing the hospital cafeteria had on hand was cold pepperoni pizza? And what if she said that her grandmother’s last words to her gave her such hope that at the end of one’s life a person could have such faith in Christ? And what if she said that, from that day forth, she always has one piece of pizza on Thanksgiving to remind her of how thankful she is for her grandmother’s witness?
I’m guessing that you wouldn’t scoff at her decision to bring pizza anymore, and I’m guessing you would share in some sense of gratitude over the one piece that you took (unless you’re that guy who took two and are now sheepishly trying to slip one piece back to the box without anyone noticing.) You needed to hear the story first, and you had to set your judgment aside to really let it touch you.
Of course, she might also say that she doesn’t like turkey, and pizza is simply her favorite food. But even then, we would have learned something about her, something about her humanity, and would have been given the opportunity to appreciate her honesty.
|Dwayne holding my daughter in 2010|
When I first moved to New Orleans, I was a sixth grade teacher through the Teach For America movement. Also, I was hell-bent on saving all these “poor” Black and Vietnamese kids in the Ninth Ward. As a person who passes for white in this modern day, I was deeply indoctrinated as a perfectionist. (Am I being glib mentioning that I pass for white? Of course you do, you might say, you’re a white guy! But it’s important to remember that my German and Irish Catholic ancestors were not considered white upon immediately landing on this continent. They were the problematic “others” until it became politically prudent to draw new boundary lines around whiteness, of which my new neighbors in New Orleans are still not within, no matter how “high-yellow” their skin is. Whiteness was invented, and the heart behind it is sinful and idolatrous.) In 1999, I wanted to use my status as a self-righteous White person to bless these kids who I knew were given the shortest ends of the shortest sticks. I am locating my own whiteousness.
But, like I said, I am a perfectionist. Which is, to say, that I have bought into a lie that my performance will set me above my fellow brothers and sisters. I believe this stems from the same idolatrous spirit that invented whiteness. After all, what was the white status created for, what was it intending to accomplish? It was to self-select a sense of chosen-ness, a sense of privilege that set some people apart and more deserving than others. And, it worked. “White” is the normative and dominant standard in our cultural practices today. To value whiteness, though, requires that we imagine ourselves sitting at higher tables, that we believe we are somehow entitled to more. And within the communities that pass as white, we must then strive to be a more perfect example of white values. There is nothing wrong with working hard to present the best example of your skills and talents. But whiteness sells us the lie that some people are more esteemed, more perfect, than other. If you are not feeling blessed enough, you can fall into the trap of believing that you’re not meeting the standard quite well enough. Perfection-ism.
Is this not what legalism amidst the Pharisees was all about during Jesus’ time walking the earth? I could earn my right standing with God and be seen as blameless? Is this not an echo of the clamor around the golden calf, a symbol of choosing to live by our own rules and standards, no matter how much Moses was glowing when he came down from the mountain to tell us God’s will? Have we white people, and those who aspire to live like the white elite, thrown out the gift of our shared humanity for a chance to feel closer to God by believing we are the most special? That we can earn perfection by subscribing to a certain standard of culture and behavior? Was the social climbing that is the American Dream prophetically warned against in the tale of Babylon?
Romans 14 became a lived reality for me in New Orleans, when, feeling sorry for myself because I felt like an epic failure as a teacher, I was invited over to dinner by families of my students. Cedric’s family, Deja’s, Dwayne’s, Roy’s, Mai’s, Isiah’s, Leland’s and others reached out to me. In stark contrast to the jeers I experienced in suburban Detroit over my vegetarian diet, I was taken aback to learn that not only had my students picked up on this detail, but often at dinners I found that a special pot of gumbo was made. Just for me. No jeering, only hospitality. And then, I would learn that in New Orleans East in the late 90’s, vegetarianism meant that you didn’t eat red meat. My special pot was filled with chicken and shrimp. I had a choice: I could point out the technicalities of their misunderstanding and educate this community on true vegetarianism. Or, I could just eat it. I chose the latter. And I chose to be taken care of by this new community. I relaxed, listened, told stories, and allowed them to see my imperfections.
|Deja and Charlotte in 2010|
If you asked me what I might describe salvation tastes like, I would say celery, bell peppers, and onions. It’s what Louisianan cooks refer to as the Holy Trinity.
You see, I had to receive at the tables of families whom I thought I was there to save. I had to willingly allow my whiteousness to be dismantled. I had to start a process of allowing the fallacies of my perfectionism to be critiqued, laughed at, and exposed for the aggressive and destructive lie that it is. Perfectionism in this country is an insidious indicator of someone who subscribes, even subconsciously, to white supremacy. Not necessarily someone who would attend KKK rallies, but the very notion that one race is perfect and all others are substandard is the byproduct of a supremacist philosophy.
This was just the beginning of learning that diversity brings gifts, especially when bridges of new perspectives are allowed space to be told, space to be heard, and space to be pondered.
So I celebrate the gift of remembering that we are all invited to God’s table. In fact, those discussions over gumbo were so filled with the Holy Spirit, so filled with prayer and hopes and laments, I am so grateful I did not choose to educate when I was a guest at their tables. In turn, they did not expect me to be a perfect teacher, they just expected me to love their kids and do my best for them. What a relief it was to just be myself! And what an honor it was to be asked to help to teach their kids. Not to save them, but to love them and give them only my humanly limited best.
This is the heartbeat, for me, behind my calling to urge my brothers and sisters of European descent to regularly sit down at tables with people who look different to first listen, and also to share honestly. This is why I boldly, but humbly, ask my friends of African, Asian, and Native North and South American descents to be patient with me, as I am still in recovery, and with others who seek to understand but are still bound to the chains of this supremacist perfectionism that has informed every day of our lives. This is not easy. This is not Kumbayah. But I believe it is what is expected of us as Christians.
“One of the greatest tasks afforded to humanity is to stretch our theology, to expand our ideologies concerning God, and bring that experience to bear on and in those who need him most.” – Dr. William Byron Reese Jr.
When we sit a table together and break bread, we remember that Jesus did this with and for us before he was murdered, and we can never outshine the supremacy of that personal sacrifice. When we share stories around a table, enjoying each other’s foods, we open ourselves to learning about God from the Samaritan’s point of view; from the poor white veteran who spent years in prison; from the Syrian refugee who stepped forward into the unknown with hope against hope; from the black woman who gets requests to empty an over-filled garbage receptacle while she is on rounds visiting her patients; from the father from El Salvador who is not as worried about his citizenship status as he is about feeding his children. Do we, as privileged white people have the only thing to offer when it comes to ideas about who God is? Absolutely, and thankfully, not. We have so much more to learn, and we ought to take that on as the gift that it is.
|Cedric meeting Ruby in 2013|
Because the alternative, for me, is to recognize that my privilege blinds me to my worldly riches. Furthermore, being oblivious to my advantages while lacking empathy for those without them marks me as the type of person Jesus was referring to in Matthew 19:24 who would have to somehow pass through the eye of a needle to enter God’s Kingdom.
So here is where the real work begins. Pastor Alex Cornell, currently serving in Houston, recently challenged me: “Matthew, you preach a good word reminding us that Jesus aims to teach us through the Samaritans in our lives. Who would you say are your Samaritans?” Now he knew that, for me, it is not the black people on the other side of 8 mile from my suburban Detroit upbringing. He knew that for me, I have already found great encouragement from sharing life with my undocumented neighbors in Los Angeles. He was leading me to ponder these questions:
Can I, Matthew, sit at a table with someone who voted for Donald Trump specifically because of his racist rhetoric, and can I learn anything about God from that person? Could I have the courage to share my stories and pray that they, in turn, learn something about God from my perspective? Certainly, there is always risk of being shunned and shut out, but the heart of our work at the Table Setters is to take very seriously the work that we believe Jesus lays out for us, the missions and promises that Paul reiterates in Romans 14 for the early Church.
The Kingdom of God is not bubbled into red-lined safe havens, marked and divided by zip codes. There are the believers and the non-believers, sure, but amidst the believers, not one of us is more special or more beautiful than our sister or brother. (And, Jesus died for the unbelievers too, we must not forget!) Not one of us is more worthy because of our perspectives. Even if we figured out how to scientifically rearrange our atoms so that we actually could pass through the eye of a sewing needle. No, God created us as diverse in skin, body, and perspective for a purpose, and it’s time to throw out the idol of Whiteousness so we can experience a fuller picture of love, mercy, grace, and celebration.
My co-founding partner and I have started the Table Setters because our long friendship has taught us so much more about who God is than either of us ever knew before. Why should that matter? Because the odds of us becoming friends, having been born on two different sides of the country twenty years apart, him being an adopted black man to two black parents in the urban sprawl of the Bay Area, me being born to two white parents in the suburbs, it wasn’t going to just happen. Our country is not currently arranged for these kinds of friendships to organically occur. We had to make choices to move in a direction towards one another, and that movement, we believe, has important implications for us as Christians and for those of us who live in increasingly diversifying communities.
So let’s agree to use all our energy in getting along with each other. Help others with encouraging words; don’t drag them down by finding fault. You’re certainly not going to permit an argument over what is served or not served at supper to wreck God’s work among you, are you? I said it before and I’ll say it again: All food is good, but it can turn bad if you use it badly, if you use it to trip others up and send them sprawling. When you sit down to a meal, your primary concern should not be to feed your own face but to share the life of Jesus. So be sensitive and courteous to the others who are eating. Don’t eat or say or do things that might interfere with the free exchange of love. Romans 14:19-21 MSG
Dammit, I thought I was White! – Marvin #TheTableSetters
Until the age of seven, I didn’t realize I was a dark brown skin little boy amongst a sea of white people in elementary school in San Jose, California in the mid 1960’s. Because my non-profit speaking partner (Matthew John Schmitt) and I are retracing our history of how we got to this point of forming a non-profit called The Table Setters regarding the subject of social injustices, race relations in the United States; and why we could possibly agree on anything in this day and age of the country more divided than ever. With that, we are both constantly trying to recall our past. For me, it’s remembering what it was like as a so called “Black Boy” making the journey to discover what others thought about me as I didn’t really know that I was black. This is a retrace of significant feelings and events that lead to this discovery. More so from observation of not realizing I was different without a mirror in front of me. Not because I wasn’t looking into mirrors, but because I was just going about my day. The mirror our racists society holds up was not self inflicted, nor did it really carry a reflection, it was more of a daily diatribe of horrible language and commentary used towards me in a derogatory racial fashion from the second grade on. Obviously, my white classmates were getting great lessons in all forms at home and, all of a sudden, the same kids I had been in K through 1st grade decided to practice on me, the “Black Boy”. It became painfully obvious, from teachers to students, that I was not like them. And I’m not just talking in the amount of God given melanin (thank God for it). And including myself, there was only one other black student from K through fifth grade who was very fair skin and frankly, he was likable. In a true warrior sense as Bob Marley says in his Buffalo Soldier Song, “Stolen from Africa, brought to America”. I fought against it physically and verbally, it was exhausting.
Myfather never talked disparagingly about white people, never! I’m sure that had a lot to do with my lack of recognition of my skin tone. I didn’t have that passed on generational biased based on systematic racism experienced by people of color — yet! Because my parents had multiple businesses that were created by them, I had been exposed to lawyers, insurance brokers, bankers, contractors, fireman, police, EMT, doctors, the milkman, the mailman, teachers, etc. But, the hero of my story that I’m telling you, and it wasn’t my father, even though I thought the world of him; it was that second black child in my school, the fairest child if you will. And, he actually experienced one black teacher that I didn’t have in the 1st grade. I knew one black teacher in high school during my four years. In community college I had no black teachers. In undergrad I had no black teachers. In grad film school in Los Angeles I had one black teacher. So, I think that’s two in twenty years, but only one of which I actually was taught by! My mother had different experiences than my father, and some emotions for her just “slipped out” in regards to the lack of black folks in authority in education.
Virginia Lee Wadlow, my mother, had many stories of major injustices and every once in a while would let an epitaph like “those crackers” slip out. But going through elementary school, I really thought she was talking about saltine crackers. And the way I grew up living in a house, actually multiple houses right next to each other that we actually owned; I had no idea that the majority of other minorities didn’t have multiple houses, nor did their families actually own businesses like my parents did. So there was this clash of observations. No talk of bias on my father’s side. And yet, feelings that my mother didn’t quite see it that way, but not knowing the “code” words like I do now I had no idea of what she was talking about! That wasn’t until the world (white folks) slowly showed a mirror to me without me standing in front of one. The second grade was to be that racial baggage claim area. There were no other bags on this carousel, just mine going round and round waiting for me to claim the first racial luggage bag of many to come from age seven to this day. Seven, I was lucky. Some kids get to racial baggage claim at age two. This was about the time I met my hero, the fair skinned one, at my elementary school. To make thing worse, he was extremely well liked, and handsome. And thank God, at the time of the mirror being held up to my darker complexion, he was (and still is) my best friend, more brother. I have a saying, “were not blood, but were family”. I am sure he suffered in some of the ways I did, but he handled it differently.
Meanwhile, I went on a Nat Turner (without a gun) rampage defending myself at all times. Bell rings, I’m on a mission to get to the next class without a fight which rarely happened. One thing though, I was no Ali or Mike Tyson. I routinely was underneath a “white boy” being pummeled as I watched this light skin black boy, yet again, pull another white boy off of me. I got up with verbal insults and quick quips ready to go at it again. That scenario happened at least six to ten times a week. All based on my complexion and several key words that would set me off!
Black Sambo was interesting as it was an actual book that was read to me in front of a room full of white children by the school librarian, yes, she was white. I actually trusted her until that day! The librarian at the end of the wonderful reading of Little Black Sambo used me as a example and pointed out that the character in the book, as she walked around the room pointing her finger at different students, but landed on me and said, “looked just like Marvin Wadlow Jr!” As I could feel my little seven year old bodies blood pressure begin to rise, the Nat Turner was building up. The room let out a roar of laughter that could have filled a Kevin Hart concert in a stadium, it seemed to never stop. Beyond frustrated, and enough “black boy” sense not to hit a teacher, I ran out of the library and all the way home, 2.5 blocks to my house and burst through the door crying. Surprise, your black and outed, and there really never was a closet to come out of!
The story goes, as told by my father to others, as I listened at a house poker game party we had, as black folks laugh the way we laugh when someone else’s story causes racial tension. They use it as a great comedic self-deprecating humor. Even if your in the room and it happened to you, even better. According to him, Virginia Lee Wadlow, better known as Harriet Tubman, went to the school. “Let me put it to you this way”, my father said. “the librarian had to be locked in the principals office”. Also, as he explains it, he was called at one of his work sites as a free-lance janitor, and asked if he could come to the school to get his wife who was out of control and trying to assault the librarian by slapping one poor white office lady (even now, that feels good to say) and pushing aside several others as eventually the principal stood in front of the door and took verbal assault after verbal assault and a few fingers in his chest. Angry! I think that’s how they represent most black women in movies. Angry and black. That’s the complete stereotype at it’s best. Never any reason or cause, just anger! Reportedly my father told them they should call the police. Needless to say, Mrs. Wadlow was my defender of injustices against, systematic racism and all racial injustices against me. I never saw the Librarian again, my mother, as far as I know, was not arrested, and there lied my conflict when it came to race because up until then, I really did not think about being black. Therefore I thought of myself as being a part of Hillsdale Elementary School in San Jose, California, from 1963 to 1969. A student like everyone else.
That was my first set of luggage. What I like to call my racial travel bags, they come in a variety of models, but only one color. Your color, black! The one travel bag turned into a suitcase, then two, three, and four suit cases and eventually fifty-eight suitcases. One for each year of my life that you must learn to travel with, check into the airport with, and manage throughout your entire life every day! And if you didn’t the consequences would be brutal to you, your children, and maybe your children’s children. And then, it finally hit me in the 8th grade after fighting it for years. Shit, I’m not like other white kids cause…well, your not white! Isn’t it “strange fruit” to say the following.
“Jesus, why couldn’t I have grown up in Harlem?, then I would have known from the start!”-Marvin Wadlow Jr, 2017
Igot introduced to Harlem and being black during the next five to seven years through my actual real life epiphany that I had melanin in my skin that was different then 99.9999 percent of the rest of the kids in school who didn’t have as much; except my friend of fair skin who watched my back constantly. And movies quickly showed me the error of my ways. And my fair skinned black classmate who helped me maneuver through the world. Without him, I actually believe I would have been dead from any of the following words you can find in a psychology book or from war veterans:
Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD)
or the other Big 3
Pick either one. I know it was cinema that also saved my life. The ability to tell a story. Or, the ability to tell a story through photography which became my 1st love along with movies. But photography was more tangible for me, even as a kid who thought he was white up until the Little Black Sambo table reading, what a great movie that was. I had no access to really make movies, nor someone to teach me. But photography turned into that as I took more risks with stills, then insisted that I tell stories that way as I won awards for my street photographs around the San Francisco bay area. Capturing people on the street in a multicolored world that didn’t look like the movies. Conflict again. But, it was my envisioning my photos coming to life in stories that catapulted me to where I am now. Through black exploitation films I could learn that I was in fact black, and this is how they treat us! I could at least go, “Ohhhh, why didn’t someone show me “Super Fly” before. Or, “In The Heat of The Night”, or some form of cinema that could have explained my circumstances better? This would have been a lot easier than me thinking, “hey, why are they treating me this way, I’m just like them”, when in fact, I wasn’t! But instead it was a constant barrage of those three words in one form or another, less Sambo for sure, more of the first two below. Film freed me to actually start being an activists who had my own thoughts about my own experience, which of course back then, you couldn’t find. And if you did, it was marked by major media outlets as being revolutionary because it was coming from The Black Panthers, Dr. King, or Angela Davis. But in my own mind, some of these films, and my own maturing process about being black taught me one thing, how to survive being called:
Yes, comic relief was my own personal monologue of soundtracks used to sooth my wounds. Sarcastic comments that I actually said, but people were puzzled as to what I was talking about. This gave me relief through laughter from those horrible comments. White people would look at me inquisitively like, “did he just make fun of me being white, or himself being a:
They had no idea! And then it was pleasing to have a high dosage of melanin. Was it easier to be black. No! That shit got harder and harder every year. But my internal coping mechanisms became more sophisticated as my vocabulary expanded and I dug deeper and deeper to learn about my true history which was not taught in any of my classes, ever at any level! This meant I was a survivalists in the most tiring of ways. Constantly staying ahead of white people with true facts about my heritage or all situations. In some ways my theme song was The O’Jays, Back Stabbers. At least I liked the beat and could remember some of the lyrics that pertained to portions of my situation. Even though it was a song about people closer to you trying to take your woman, of which I didn’t have one. I used it anyway as I could turn it on in my head as if I had a walkman, an iPod, or an Iphone. And then there was Soul Train. That was like a Phd level class in being Young, Gifted, and Black that made Peace, Love, and Soul amazingly creditable, and black life maintainable. 🙂
Ojay’s: Back Stabbers. “All the time they wanna take yo place, the back stabbers”
Then, in the middle of my Afro phase and black panther jacket phase a movie came out that messed up everything, Shaft. A dark skinned black man with an actual legal job. And, he carried a gun, legally. And, “honkey’s”, forgive me, “crackers” didn’t bother him. He actually had a license to carry a gun like James Bond, the white dude. He roughed up everybody (black and white), got the girl, a black woman, and here’s the real crazy part. Shaft actually went to the local police station on purpose to talk to detectives about a case he was working on. In other words, he was helping the police, solving the case, and getting paid. He actually investigated crimes. What! That was his actual legitimate job, like my dad! He had a real job. Shit! Messed up everything. All this time I thought I could just talk jive, walk with a limp, eat watermelon and rely on my favorite derogatory words:
Shaft had the baddest theme song ever. Then another thing happened that blew my mind. The dark skinned black man who created that created the theme song for Shaft, Issac Hayes, better known to black folks as Black Moses, won this gold statue called, an Oscar for best original score for a movie.
“Shaft, Hotter Than Bond, Cooler than Bullet. If you Wanna See Shaft, ask ya mama” -Trailer Voice Over (not making it up)
And I lost my mind and said to myself, “Hey self, you “Jig”(a derogatory black name), your going to write movies someday…when your 58’”. And thats the bedtime story of how I thought I was white until Richard Roundtree (actor who played Shaft) messed it all up and created this smart as “Nigga” called Marvin Wadlow Jr. I love him and his melanin, I really do. I know you just can’t wait to meet him either. That jig is coming to a town near you just full of antidotes about growing up on the South/East side of San Jose, Ca, The Bay Area!
A Must Watch-90K at LA Coliseum for The Watt Staxx Concert (1973, the year he won the Oscar!)
“Can you dig it”
“Make sure to put your name on all your luggage so it doesn’t get lost!”
A must watch for the dedication he makes, and to see the look on that black usher’s face as he comes from the back of the bus during the Oscar celebration cause he won the damn thing!
dam·mit, ˈdamət/ exclamation informal used to express anger and frustration
The End – Marvin
The Forgiveness Table – Marvin
(from Marvin’s blog, Paid In Full, December 7, 2016)
Matthew John Schmitt, my co-founder in The Table Setters, shared this post on Facebook already about the apology to Dakota Native Americans from a host of retired US military soldiers in regards to the oil pipeline recently temporarily halted. It’s awesome in it’s written form. God has gifted me with the ability of stories in film. This is a powerful 2.30 second visual of what real forgiveness looks like. Straight, no chaser!
Not yelling and pontificating on CNN, Fox, or MSNBC, or even Facebook. Real Forgiveness means a real apology. It also requires both parties to come to The Table of Forgiveness and to be specific of the injustices perpetrated on each other. Or, by one to another. For this country, that’s broad brushes of paint filled with blood! The blood of Native Americans, the Blood of Mexican-Americans, the blood of African-Americans, and yes, blood of my Asian-Americans (including Pacific Islanders) brothters and sisters ancestors. Ancestory from my good friends in the Asian community like Diane Ujiiye, and Jason Chu! I mention my Asian brothers and sisters because they need some upfront acknowledgement to their ancestral sacrifices. The history books overlook horrible injustices to them, me, and all previouly mentioned groups above.
Let’s not bullshit, where does that leave all my pink (white) brothers and sisters of a different hue in terms of forgiveness, apologies, and real listening? Real listening means not playing chess with people of color that have deep wounds. No, “Yeah but’s”. It means just taking the time to hear our seemingly drawn out historically convoluted stories of our history in the context of being a person of color in America! It means, actually listening at a few Table Settings before you point-counter-point. If you haven’t been told, I’m telling you now, it pisses us off so much. Just simply listen. Listening requires no response. And, when and if you feel the need to apologize, be real. See this video, that’s a real f’ing apology. And for the record, my father served in a racist, seperatist WWII military with honor for his country and him regardless of the injustices he experienced (watch the movie Solder’s Story). Members of my family serve and honorably served in in all wars, other members of my family serve and have served as police (that’s black and white officers in my family), fire, and EMT; doctors, nurses, etc. So any unconstructive (no other form of protest for him to use) critique of Kaepernick (NFL) excuses of what he’s doing by taking a knee is redundent and hypocritical! The exact reason you’re fighting against what he’s doing is the reason all soliders fight for his ability to protest in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Look at King, Ali, Tommy Smith and John Carlos (68′ Olympics); look at The Woolworth lunch counter participants, look at water hose victims in 64′, watch Bloody Sunday participants on the bridge in Selma, read the bios of Don Cornelious of Soul Train, watch Michael Jackson who stood his ground with MTV, or I personally might not have had a career, and ask countless others in Dakota. The list could go on and on.
This apology was beyond, “heart felt”. My pink brother laid it on the line, spoke clearly, specifically, and succinctly about what the wrongs were. Paused. Bowed.
And then lowered his head in asking for full forgiveness in front of a tribal leader.
Interviews about the forgiveness event: Real Journalism, Not Opinion!
You can hear it in his voice as the speaker wears the uniform of still the most brutal war in our US history, our own civil war; and in that uniform, he apologizes. You can see it on the faces of other soldiers who kneel with him and ask for forgiveness under his representation. And, you can hear it in the accepting of his apology by the tribal leader saying wisely, “ this is a 1st step” in that forgiveness process. Most, not all Americans, so let me be clear: my brothers and sisters of European Anglo descent want this quick fix. 400 years is not a quick fix, the land we took is not a quick fix. The pain exhibited by most people of color from 400 years of mental, physical, and emotional harm will not be fixed overnight as we did not take this land peacefully overnight. And the fruit enjoyed by many came at the cost of people with skin that looks like mine or a derivative of: Asians, African, Native, Pacific Islanders, and Latinos who paid a heavy cost for “this land is your land, this land is my land” song, but did not reap that fruit. Instead they picked the fruit and reaped no rewards except systematic ghettos strategically placed in cities, reservations, and some rural areas all over the nation! So, even though that song is a folk song as a protest song with an ironic twist that we know that’s not qute true!
History tells us that certain lands are my land, certain areas are my areas, and certain schools are my schools, but not all! So this is a heavy price that we are baring the fruit of after years of ignorance in regards to how we avoid and ignore the injustices. And now, that price is upon us as a nation to be Paid in Full. So, what will we do? Will we continue to scream and shout. Or, will we follow the lead of the Dakota tribe and stand strong? And, will we follow the lead of this amazing group of people who came to ask forgiveness? Or, will we continue to teach generation after generation on what it means to be separate in church under God, in school under tax dollars, and in zip codes under city codes? I say, we are collectively better.I say I have hope in all Tables set regardless if I’m sitting with a Klan member, black lives matter activist, or whomever comes humbly to the table, ready to listen. Just like this video sets the example…..
The people who came to build the railroads, yes, my Asian brothers and sisters, ancestors of Jason Garreth Loke and Diane Ujiiye, is not a quick fix! In my humble opinion, I learned from this Native American wiseman that it’s the 1st steps that count! Now at Table Setters, we wanna come take 1st steps with you. As Thelonious Monk said in his famous jazz piece: This is Straight, No Chaser! It’s a hard pill to swallow, but this is the fruit of our good old country. We truly earned the Red, the white, and the blue stripes as if they were on our backs for (all) of our our past injustices whether brown, pink, and shades there in-between as people of color, and pink people. 🙂 There has been a sacrifice made in this country. And not all those sacrifices have been acknowledged!
My Table has many cups that runeth over for many pieces of bread to be broken. Here, take this in remembrance of what we all participated in. Drink this in solidarity with me as to not repeat those actions and to take responsibility for the injustices of the past. Write with me the New history books so it reflects the real colors of our flag from the truth! Not one man’s truth. But the whole truth, nothing but the truth, so help me God. Please, Please Help us God.
- Son of Marvin Wadlow Sr a WWII Honored Vet
- Son of Virginia Lee Wadlow who built fuselages for WWII bombers after suffering through racial injustices in the workplace that she built them.
- I am Father to Marvin Pulefaasaasina Wadlow III, Morgan Malosi Wadlow, and Malcolm Alofa Wadlow.
- My father, probably is a descendant of Ghanaian or Nigerian slaves stolen from Africa and brought through the middle passage to America.
- My sons are descendants of African and Polynesian Blood from my brothers and sisters of Pacific Islander Asians who’s land was also taken from them! I’m so proud of my sons’ Asian blood!
Why Our Anglo Kids are Not “Too Young” to Learn About #BlackLivesMatter
(from Matthew’s Dismantling Whiteousness blog on March 16, 2016)
At Fuller Seminary in 2015, Moderated by Dr. Love Sechrest
Last year, about this time, Darcie and I took our daughters, aged 5 and 3 at the time, to a panel discussion at Fuller Seminary that pondered if Black Lives Really Mattered in our country, and particularly in dominant American Evangelical Christendom. It was moderated by one of my all-time favorite professors, Dr. Love Sechrest, and on the panel were some friends like PJ Johnson, Toby Castle, and Dei Thompson (mentioned in an earlier post here). In a gathering of about 200 people, we were not the only ones who brought children, but ours were the only children of European descent that I remember seeing.
At a break in the evening, Darcie, the woman who agreed to marry me and continues to believe that was a good idea, was approached by another white woman:
“How do you bring your kids to something like this?” And the question was not judgmental, as I misunderstood when Darcie started describing the story moments later. Perhaps I was still bothered by the flak we received earlier that year for taking our kids to an MLK Day Parade in Leimert Park. This woman’s question, however, was more along the lines of “how do you explain this to them?”
Darcie offered that we didn’t really have a formula or a method, just a mindset that we must train our kids to walk in this world, and that kids who do not have the same skin tone as ours never get the choice of whether they have to “deal with this” or not. In fact, some of our daughter’s young male friends are already getting “the talk.” No, that’s not about sex, it’s about what to do around police officers. And there’s no formula there either, our friends explain: do you tell your kids to just be quiet and not talk back to the police officer? But what if the police officer reads that as rude and becomes angry? Do you tell them to do everything the police officer says? But what then? What if they get in the car for a crime they did not commit? It seems clear, given all we’ve seen lately, that one message is consistent: don’t run.
For another response to this, click here.
With all the confusion of how to best respond when police confront you, because they definitely will if you are a brown-skinned person at some point in your life, and most likely at multiple points regardless of if you are “following the law” or not, can you blame young men who freak out and run anyway? Because in the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with African-American and Latino families, it is a survival discussion that must be had. And it is far more complicated than just “YOU OBEY,” as Franklin Graham trumpeted on Facebook exactly a year ago. “The Police Talk” is not one I ever remember as a child, but one that every non-white parent must confront. My friend Marvin fears for his three sons, literally every single day, as they navigate the Los Angeles Metro in their late teens and early twenties. Fruitvale Station is a good representation of why he is afraid.
You see, these 6 and 7 year old boys are already having to ponder this with their parents. Why shouldn’t our girls understand that reality to the best of their abilities now? True, they don’t fully understand everything discussed at this Graduate/PhD level panel, but they certainly understood some of it. “Why are people with brown skin afraid of the police?” our oldest asked at dinner. And we explained, careful to share that all police are not out to hurt people who don’t look like us, but why the fear is legitimate. Of course, the girls also remember that night as the time we finally let them try “real” Sushi. And of course, our girls loved it more than we expected and more than our single income can afford very often. Parental fail.
With DeRay Mckesson at the Teach For America 25th Anniversary
But seriously, as teachers in the public school system, both my wife and I know that textbooks are presenting a limited representation of American History. It is from the vantage point of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants being the heroes of “founding” America. It does a poor job telling a balanced perspective of how African-Americans built this country, like the Hebrews built the Egyptian Pyramids, and how African-Americans in wealthy white homes were often more of the parental figures for both their children and the master’s/employer’s children. It fails to frame the founding of America from the point of view of the natives, who were conveniently branded as savages so that their conquer and slaughter could be morally justifiable.
So we teach our children what we already know they will not automatically learn as white youth. And, for me, I’m realizing how my own parents did this for me. While neighbors in our suburb warned against ever going to Detroit and some spoke with unhinged racism during every local news story, my parents did not follow suit. We went downtown about once a month, for Tiger’s games and for Mexican food; for parades and concerts; to work in food service kitchens at Thanksgiving. Now, it wasn’t necessarily actively anti-racist, but it certainly was a household that allowed us to grow up with an alternative frame of reference. The worst year of my father’s life was 1968: his mother died along with RFK and MLK. I’ll never forget him telling me about that despair and how it profoundly changed him. Darcie and I were grateful in the truth of Jesus when our oldest came home from school to say how a friend with brown-skin at school was getting in trouble with the teacher for talking too much, and our daughter said that it wasn’t true. It was actually our daughter who had been talking, and she confessed that to the teacher publicly. Justice doesn’t magically happen in our world, it has to be taught and practiced.
So when our oldest walked out dressed like this (see above) for school yesterday, I told her she looked a little like DeRay Mckesson. She asked who that is and we told her. (If you don’t know who that is, he is a leading voice in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, a candidate for mayor in Baltimore, and a community organizer who quickly gained respect by listening and lifting up the stories of others primarily through Twitter.) At the TFA event in DC, he explained why he always wears his signature blue vest, and he said it makes him feel safe, as it also helps him remember that there is always danger for people who look like him. My favorite image of him in this blue vest was at his recent meeting at the White House with Barack Obama and other civil rights leaders last month. He wore a shirt and tie under the vest!
Brittany Packnett, on Obama’s right, is the co-founder, with Deray, of Campaign Zero.Click here for her reflections on the above meeting.
Now: this is not saying that we are better parents because of our choices. It is meant to lift up a piece of what I trust God has been teaching me through the many voices of our friends whose American experiences are not congruent with mine. When Jesus explains to his followers to visit those who are sick, in prison, homeless, etc. in Matthew 25:31–46, I believe part of the story is that we are supposed to care for those who are often overlooked and ignored. But, and this is a big Biblical butt, I believe it also means that if you are really looking to learn more about Jesus, start by coming alongside the actual, real-life struggles of those whose lives do not match yours in privilege or status or experiences. I know that is consistently where I’ve learned the most about Jesus, and I believe it’s the heart of what Jesus speaks about days before he dies for reconciliation amongst neighbors, reconciliation with humanity and God, and the forgiveness of all sins. I believe All Sins Matter to Jesus, as all of them are a misunderstanding and a deviation from the will of God. Racism, and ignoring racial injustice, is a sin.
So, white Christians? Are you threatened by #BlackLivesMatter and the recent wave of protests over racial discord? Have you ever met someone involved in that movement, or been impacted by the injustices of our legal system? If not, please try to do so, it’s actually not that difficult and I’m more than happy to help point you in the right direction. After you meet a few people, then let’s sit down and talk, maybe even agreeing to disagree.
I stake my entire faith on this: God intended us to learn from one another. God created us with differences as part of the good, good plan. Who are we to edit God’s design by pretending that some of us matter more than others?
And never forget this: the grandparents of my children grew up with access to reading materials like the ones shown below. These were Little and Big Golden Books.
This was only half a century ago. If you think that lingering effects of elementary school education are not still alive and well today, just turn on your television during these political campaigns. We must actively teach different stories and we must tell the truth. The full truth. I believe it is the only hope of ever achieving social freedom, and ultimately, freedom in Christ eternal.
Thanks for reading: @MatthewJSchmitt