I gritted my teeth as she said it. A colleague I deeply respect was speaking at a luncheon, and she, with the full force of her Memphis charm, put forward this statement: “When I was twenty, I wanted to change the world.” She paused for dramatic effect. “When I was thirty, I wanted to change my community.”
I could see the punchline coming, and I knew it would win over the baby boomer-plus crowd in ways that left the young folks on the fringes again. “I just turned forty—and forty looks GOOD on me”—she flashed a smile that could melt butter as I balled up my little fists—“and now I just want to change me.”
Boom. Yup. Heads nodding vociferously all over the room, knowing that she had finally arrived at the REAL path to enlightenment, while my table sat silent and polite, the kids still in church who also wanted to change the world.
And then (you saw this coming), she leaned into the mic and said, “And that’s why I need to stay in relationship with the 20-year-olds and 30-year-olds. It’s why the church needs the 20-year-olds and the 30-year-olds. They need to recognize the power of inner spirit transformation, but we need to be kept from getting too complacent about what is broken in the world and in our communities and how much power we have to effect change, to build up the beloved community.”
I find myself thinking about a young and powerful colleague of mine. She jokingly refers to me as “guru,” which makes me INCREDIBLY uncomfortable as someone who hasn’t done the work I need to in order to really accept what it means to be a mentor who is also an equal partner and colleague. Recently she posed a question to me about the order of speakers at a national event and how she, as a young queer woman of color, should raise the issues of tokenism and of reinforcing patriarchy by speaking after a straight white middle aged man.
I talked about it with my best friend, who had a lot to do with introducing me to liberation theology, and who is a great teacher as well as thinker, because he loves working with young people. I asked him how he responds to issues like this. We had a spirited debate about whether addressing microaggressions helps or hurts the movement and about how to honor the issues that people bring to us even when they are not necessarily our issues.
I shared with my younger colleague what my friend thought (that a lot of energy gets spent on this kind of thing instead of being spent on issues that we need to engage across generation, gender and race, such as immigration or racism in the criminal justice system or the role of patriarchy in church hiring processes). I shared with her what I thought (that it was good to have noticed the unconscious decisions that reinforced patriarchal roles, and that were it me, I would be careful to speak with the leaders in a way that conveyed this wasn’t about me and the current program but was a strong request that more consciousness be brought to this decision at the next conference). And then I borrowed from my friend’s wisdom and said, regardless of our opinions, what is your desired outcome, and what’s the best way to get at that issue?
She thanked me and said she saw both points but leaned more towards mine, but she really did think it mattered and it mattered at THIS conference, so she raised the issue with the leadership and got the speaking order changed.
Now, there were a lot of factors at play: my best friend is an African American man born and raised in occupied Mexico (that’s the new term I learned for Texas, which I think is AWESOME largely because it wil tick off most of my Texan friends). He’s also older than me. I mean old. And cranky. I give him three years before he’s standing on his porch waving his cane at people and telling them to “get off my property!” (He’s actually about 7 years older than me. But someone needs to keep him humble.) I can’t speculate exactly how coming up in Houston in the 70s would shape a Black child, but I know it does. I’m a mixed race woman raised in Akron with light skin privilege and simultaneous “not quite one of us” status if I ever talked about my Indian heritage, and also a deep strain of Asian accomodationism that I have to intentionally overcome on the regular. My younger friend has a strong sense of her identity in every sense of the word and was shaped by coming out in the Midwest and also being a first generation immigrant. Our contexts shape our reactions to situations, and this moment really illustrated this for me. More importantly, though, I became aware of something the 40-year-old speaker reinforced for me:
I need my young friend in my life. I’m still grateful when I’m invited to speak, even if it’s scripted. I don’t think about the order of speakers. I just think, “Whew! We’ve arrived!” I am sometimes under the illusion that I’m dwelling on the big stuff, but all of it matters, and I can forget how much it meant the first time I was in church and heard someone praying about a justice issue—that little act made me feel so much less alone in the world. Or when a Sikh appeared in a comic strip. (I know, I’m not Sikh…but the comics do not always represent the world I inhabit.) Or when I met a woman preacher. If I stay in my generational bubble, I can get a lot of reinforcement for having chosen to focus fiercely on systemic justice issues in the community. And increasingly, I get great reinforcement of the deep spiritual work I’m doing to address my inner brokenness.
At the same time, my younger colleague might be getting something from me every so often. My own spiritual work around non-attachment and committing to deeper vulnerability as a contribution to movement building that isn’t just about politics but is about relationship shows up a lot in how I look at issues these days. When people misunderstand each other so often and it is easy to feel misunderstood and alienated, perhaps it is good to remember that good can come from staying in relationship while claiming strongly one’s own position. Good can also come from hearing that if another person is so opposed to you that they can’t stay in relationship, it’s okay to give them permission to go and to not hold onto anger. So I bring something.
And my best friend often reminds me to always hold the big picture in mind and to always work at connecting my communities to one another and to really listen to his experience when it is different from mine and sometimes feels threatening to my community’s needs (although that fear isn’t true when I risk really listening).
I remain grateful to my colleague who spoke at that lunch. We do evolve. I’m less of a socialist and more of a Christian anarchist these days, wanting to build a community where we know each other and are accountable to each other. And more and more I am aware of the ways I get in my own way if I’m not doing my own spiritual homework, so that takes far more time than it did when I was 20 or 30. And like my colleague said, I need the other voices keeping me in better balance and keeping me connected to what ELSE really matters. And I hope I look as good at 40 as she does, but even more than that, I hope I retain those relationships with world changers and community changers as I reach 40 and 50 and 60 and beyond.