Fostering: One Year In

Next week will mark one year of fostering for our family. One year, five sweet boys. [I count the three boys we kept before our home was officially opened!]

 
Our one-year mark will be punctuated by the permanency hearing for Little J.

Our first experience in fostering was a short-term safety plan with three young boys. That means we had six children in our home—ages 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 7. Multiple churches rallied around these kids (and us!)—praying, providing clothes, shoes, toothbrushes, meals, childcare, help with doctor appointments, and lots of extra hands and advice! We still have contact with these little ones and their family.

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In early October, we picked up a 4-day-old boy from the NICU—Baby C. The hospital
debrief and first court hearing were followed by a blur of feedings, diaper changes, meetings, paperwork, and state/agency visits. Somehow, school and work and the rest of life happened as well. And, again, our foster support team held our arms up—praying, bringing meals and diapers, giving rides, loaning baby gear. That little one left after 6 weeks—to a mom who worked incredibly hard to get her baby home.0w1a0422-2

Following his departure, we were sad. Relieved, rejoicing…and sad. Our children cried for him—we all cried. We were invited to visit Baby C and his mom in their home around Christmas. What a gift for us! Then his mom stopped communicating in January. So, we pray for and think about them…. We giggle with our kids about Baby C’s little quirks. Sometimes I still hold them while they cry for him. And, in a couple weeks, we will send a birthday gift to his last known address. He will be one year old.

In early January, we received a call for Baby J—a sweet, 7-month-old boy. At almost nine months in, this has been our first long-term placement. Throughout Baby C’s time with us, our three-year-old would introduce him saying, “This is my bruvver, C—-, and he is going home to his mommy soon!” The children know our goal is to help Baby J get home as well, but that conversation is no longer a part of our daily experience. He is simply their brother.

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Yet, we continue to have regular conversations about fostering. We (and our children) struggle with the ambivalence. Our eight-year-old asked, “Is it okay to want him to go home (because his mom is sad) and to want him to stay forever…at the same time?” That is the tension every day. We are rooting for the biological parents. We send letters and pictures and try to connect them with needed resources. And we love Little J as our own—delighting in milestones (and sometimes exasperated by the tantrums!).

Delight…exasperation…colored with grief. Every day.

As we were headed to a foster/adoptive training some months ago, our six-year-old asked, “Are you going to adopt me to someone?” Surprisingly, she did not seem overly concerned about being sent to live with another family—very matter-of-fact actually. But we realized our explanations had been inadequate. We had to explain more fully the gravity of a child being removed from their parents. It’s more than a bad day or a family squabble. Yet we want to leave plenty of room for change—for grace.

“So, [J]‘s mommy isn’t safe for him?”

“…Not yet, but she is trying.”

[Big, tear-filled eyes staring at me.]

“Are you safe for me?”

 

Lord, have mercy. I am inadequate for this task—for these little souls.

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My understanding of the upcoming permanency hearing is that DFCS will announce their current plan for establishing permanent placement for J—either to start the process of terminating parental rights or to start the reunification process (or perhaps to give the parents more time?). Regardless, I don’t anticipate any major changes right away as far as we are concerned. I also understand the plan can change again at any point.

Many of you have expressed your desire that Little J would stay with us forever. We hear your hearts and see the love you have for him—the time and emotion you have invested in him and our family. And, of course, part of me wants the same thing. Of course we are more than willing to adopt J if he needs a permanent home! We made that decision before we accepted the placement in January.

But, know this: We cannot fight for the child without fighting for his parents as well.       Not enabling; but speaking truth, encouragement, and grace.

So, for today, we seek to content ourselves in the ambivalence and engage the grief. To trust in a God who is both sovereign and good. Together. All the time.

 

 

Baby January

I think I will call him Baby J—for January. I feel hesitant sharing even a first initial for this little one. Pictures and stories will be more guarded. We have not been able to establish a connection with the birth family and are not sure what this boy’s story will look like from here.

I received the call while at work—running in between patients’ rooms. (I don’t usually answer, but when it’s that number….). I scribbled on the back of my patient schedule as they passed on the information they had available:

“Boy. — months. Unsafe home situation. Needs placement now. From — county. Oh, and he’s white.”

That’s about all we got! (OK, there were a couple other details that I can’t list. But not much.) The location was a bit further than we had hoped. But that likely means there was no foster home for this child any closer to his family. So I called Parker. We prayed and made a decision in the same moment. Very un-Presbyterian.

I told Parker they are willing to keep him for a few hours till we get off work—I couldn’t leave. Parker replied, “If this is going to be our boy, then I’m going to get him. He doesn’t need to be in an unstable environment any longer.”

I do love that man.

I called the foster agency, accepted the placement, and had them direct all further calls to Parker for the day. Then I went back to my world of pain and addiction medicine. The two are grievously connected.

Parker biked home to brief the kids. Our baby-sitter started vacuuming and pulling out baby gear—and agreed to stay longer to help mitigate the chaos (Shout out to Margie!). Poor Gabriel was sleeping (so much for the transition plan). He got less than ten semi-conscious minutes to process before the knock came.

Two hours from the initial call, DFCS was at the door. (And the drive was at least an hour.)

I ran out to get formula after work, we had a quick visit with our case manager, and got all four fed and to bed. Then, in a dichotomous twist, Parker and I went out to enjoy a quiet dinner to celebrate our 13th wedding anniversary. (Shout out to Margie again!)

Our older three (my sister doesn’t like me calling them “the bios”…) love Baby J. He laughs and crawls and eats food (and duplos too)—and he is much harder to smash. I am, indeed, thankful for that! And so we are six.

For now.

(As a belated anniversary gift, Parker went to the WIC office with Baby J. Even though he initially protested, “I’m not a woman!” Priceless.)

Supposed to be

We received word this weekend that Baby C may be going home with his mom after this morning’s court hearing. They asked us to pack all of his belongings and bring him to court so everything would be ready if the judge decided in favor of reunification. This was a little surprising since cases like this usually don’t resolve for 6-9 months—but certainly not altogether unexpected.

This weekend was a whirl of preparation. I wanted to send his mom as many resources as we could. I used the remaining funds from Baby C’s clothing allowance to purchase clothing in larger sizes and I redeemed the WIC vouchers for this month’s formula. I also sifted through bags of donated clothes and baby items to find gear to send home with him (and some to keep here for future placements!).

After washing and sterilizing everything, I packed it all in a bag that was given to us by Chosen for Life Ministries. Many times, a foster child’s belongings are placed in garbage bags as the child moves from place to place. Among many other services to foster and adoptive families, Chosen for Life provides a monogrammed duffel bag, towel, and pillowcase to many foster children. I love this statement affirming the dignity and worth of these little ones and their families!

 

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While many have asked us if we would adopt Baby C, we have tried to make it clear that our goal is to support his mom in seeking reunification. Our children know that we are open to adoption; but, throughout this process, we have talked to them about Baby C going home. When Gabriel (3YO) introduces Baby C, he says, “This is my bruvver C— and he is going home to his mommy one day.” While this has provoked a number of puzzled glances in my direction, it has been very helpful in establishing expectations for the children!

We told the children on Friday evening that Baby C may be going home after court. They seemed to take the news reasonably—with responses ranging from, “Good! He cries too much!” to “I don’t want him to leave us! I just love him so much!” Indeed, both expressed by the same the child…. Cora had some concern over her conflicting emotions. She wasn’t sure if was okay to want him to stay here and be excited for his mom. We talked through the process further—they jumped up repeatedly during the discussion to kiss Baby C’s little head—but they seemed to understand. After they were settled, we asked, “So, would you all be interested in inviting another foster child into our home in a couple weeks?” They stared at me blankly for a time before Abigail said flatly, “Of course.” They all nodded. So there is that.

This morning, Joanna (a sweet friend and respite caregiver) showed up to accompany us to the courthouse. (Another friend was watching Joanna’s children to enable this!) We brought all four children with us so they could say goodbye when the time came. It seemed insensitive to leave our three older children home while we took their brother away—and to return home without him. Joanna was with us to watch the children while we went into the court hearing.

Upon entering the courthouse, we connected immediately with Baby C’s mom. She hugged us and thanked us again for caring for her baby. She was incredibly nervous and she had no idea Baby C was supposed to go home with her today. We prayed together. The court was very busy and the wait was long. Thankfully, her attorney took her aside and let her know the plan. She was absolutely beside herself with joy—and, at the same time, still unable to believe she would get her son back. We were all waiting for the judge to affirm the DFCS recommendation.

During the wait, we obtained court permission to take Baby C’s mom outside to see him. We sat with her outside the courthouse for some time as she cuddled her boy. We laughed about the various nicknames the children had given him. When Cora broke down in tears again, his mom passed him over for Cora to hold and feed. We went over her case plan and how she was doing and I gave her the details on his eating and sleeping patterns. We taught her how to swaddle and showed her what positions were most comforting to him. It felt strange to be the expert on someone else’s child.

 

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(Yes, I know this looks creepy with his face blurred out…)

The hearing itself took about 7 minutes. DFCS made their recommendations, the judge clarified some details—and then affirmed the recommendation for reunification. Baby C was back in his mom’s custody! Our eyes were full of genuinely happy tears as his mom came straight to us to celebrate. It is a testimony to God’s grace and presence that this woman felt so safe with us.

At the conclusion of his comments, the judge said, “This is the way it’s supposed to be.”

We said our good-byes to the numerous case managers and other officials before heading back outside. We checked the car seat and transferred the baby gear, then began our final round of good-byes—mixed with more prayers and tears. Last pictures. Last cuddles. Last kisses on that soft head. Then everyone was loaded and buckled. And good-bye.

Then fatigue. Deep fatigue. Through lunch and more driving—heading to the Y for swim practice, bathing children, and eating dinner—there has been an unsteadiness. There is a sudden release, and the weight of responsibility lurches. And I still hear him shifting and sputtering in the back seat or crying when he would normally wake to eat. We stepped onto the boat six weeks ago and found our sea legs—and now, as we step off the boat, the land seems to heave. I feel like Gabriel, “Mommy, where is C—? I know he went with his mommy, but where is C—?”.

No, this is not the way it’s supposed to be.

Foster care….it is provision and grace. It is life. God remains sovereign—and He is our Healer. But it’s just not the way it’s supposed to be.

 

As we move on….

Baby C’s mom has asked us to remain connected—perhaps even to be his godparents. We are headed over to her house in a few weeks to deliver Christmas gifts from a local church. Knowing of our upcoming visit really helped our children say good-bye today. And we said “Thank-you” to our children with ice cream. They definitely understand ice cream. (Thanks for the idea Sarah Ward!)

We are taking a few days to a few weeks off before accepting further calls. Our agency will send a counselor later this week to check in with our children and us. And we must decide what age(s) will would like to foster next…. The holiday season is, sadly, one of the busiest times of year for foster placements. Please continue in prayer for Baby C, his mom, and our family, and the many other families who are supporting us.

Six weeks old!

Baby C is over six weeks old now! I expected the interrupted sleep, endless diaper changes, and piles of laundry that come along with a newborn. I was excited that Parker could share in the midnight feedings since I wouldn’t be nursing. And we were ready to enjoy sharing the newborn experience with our three older children.

However, I didn’t quite understand the extent of all the meetings and appointments! On top of the frequent pediatrician appointments, we sat in the WIC office multiple times (all foster children under 5 are on WIC), visited with various case managers, went to court, participated in the FTM (Family Team Meeting—to establish the case plan for the biological family), attended more foster training sessions (for continuing education hours), scheduled developmental assessments, and helped coordinate weekly visitation with Baby C’s mom.

If it weren’t for the help from Uniting Hope for Children and a number of families, I have no idea how we could have pulled off the last six weeks! They have been baby-sitting, coordinating meals, helping with housework, schoolwork, and groceries, picking up children, buying diapers and baby gear, etc. Some families are getting trained to do baby-sitting for foster children and one family has finished the full home study in order to be a respite family for us. They kept Baby C for a week while we were out of town.

I have been told that 50% of foster families stop fostering within the first year. Now I see why—and I haven’t even mentioned the deeper issues.

We love Baby C. My older children cried when we left him with our respite family. Before leaving for school, my 3YO kisses Baby C on the head and says, “Don’t worry, your bruvver will be home soon.” We would be delighted to enjoy him for many years in our home. We love Baby C—and we love his mom. And we know it is best that he goes home to a safe and stable environment with his mom. We are praying for this and encouraging his mom in her efforts.

This tension is no surprise. So many people hear our story and say, “I could never do that! I would want to keep him.” Well, we do want to keep him! But, more than that, we want to love him and love his mom. Others express concern that Baby C will be sent home to an unsafe situation or will be pulled back into the foster system. I am too! But I must trust God’s sovereignty together with His goodness. I must choose to trust, even when our family grieves. Because we will. When Baby C goes home, we will grieve—while we rejoice in the reunification. If he must be adopted, we will grieve the absence of a safe home—while we rejoice in his presence with us.

Tomorrow, we go to court. So, this could be our last night with Baby C—or he could be with us for months to come. Lord, give us rest—and grace to believe!

Open and Filled: The First 7 Days

Our home was opened by the state for foster care on Tuesday, September 29th! At 1:30pm to be exact. It was one of those moments where I, again, questioned our sanity. Yes, we spent months doing paperwork and home visits…and years discussing this moment. Yet the realization that someone could call at any moment and ask if we would like a child for an indefinite period of time is, indeed, a bit surreal. We had narrowed the field pretty sharply by limiting our availability to a 0-6 month old boy—or a sibling group in that general age range (twins, essentially)—so we weren’t sure how long it would be before we received a call.

That Friday morning, I picked up a car seat and some baby bottles at the YMCA consignment sale. Actually, I picked up bottles and then Parker sent me back for the car seat. I didn’t buy it the first time because I felt a bit silly buying gear for a baby that may not come.

We got the call from UH4C* just a few hours later—72 hours after our home was opened. There was a baby boy, born the day before, who needed a home. He was not quite ready to be discharged, but they wanted a foster family ready to pick him up.

It sounded like a perfect fit. So, heart pounding, I checked with Parker and called them back to accept. Within a couple hours, I met our UH4C case manager by phone and the DFCS case manager e-mailed placement paperwork and let us know there would be a court hearing that Monday. (I believe an initial hearing for the biological parents must be held within 72 hours of taking the child into state custody.)

I had tons of questions: “How big is he?” “What is his name” “Does he have health problems?” “When will he be released?” They did send the name, but that was about it.

I ran to the store for diapers and a preemie size outfit—since we had no idea how big the baby was. Target had one preemie outfit for a boy and the shirt read, “Daddy loves me.” I couldn’t buy that outfit. We knew nothing about his dad…or his mom. And we had no idea why neither parent was able to care for him. Parker would love him–but it seemed insensitive to his birth mom on that first day. So I left without an outfit.

At home, I printed the paperwork and stuck it in the “blue binder” (a simple three-ring binder that has become essential to function with a foster child!), installed that car seat (yes, the one that Parker made me go back and buy…), and started pulling baby gear out of bins. I was still a bit hesitant. They said he was coming home to us. However, many times a family member will come forward or something changes so the baby does not actually come into the prepared foster home. We know a family who received seven calls in the first week, accepted all of them, and did not end up with any of those children.

Then we waited for the phone to ring. Our children were so excited! “When is he coming, mommy?” I had no idea.

Baby C (as we came to call him) was taken to the NICU that night with some complications, so the call did not come till Monday. Our UH4C case manager met us at our home and we drove an hour to the hospital. After searching for the proper entrance and figuring out how to get into the NICU, we washed up, submitted ID and CPR cards, and received a copy of Baby C’s hospital record.

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Then we got to hold a sweet, healthy six and a half pound boy! We fed and changed him and were escorted out.

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We, then, drove a few blocks to the courthouse for the biological mom’s first hearing. As we stepped into the hallway to wait, my eyes met those of another woman. She had papers in her hand that said something about a birth mom. Parker introduced himself and asked if she was there for a foster care hearing. After a moment of confusion, she blurted out her baby’s name and leapt up from her chair. “Do you have him? I thought he was still in the hospital!” I glanced at our case manager, who nodded, so I quickly unbuckled Baby C and handed him to his mother.

As this woman sobbed over her 4-day-old son and begged us to take good care of him, we began to understand more of what foster care is about. It is about sin and grace and second chances—for parents and children. It’s about moms and dads who sometimes love deeply, but not well. It is walking with these moms and dads and pointing them to the cross. Believing God for them even when you can’t believe them. And it is doing these things regardless of the anticipated outcome. Because it is God’s heart for His people. Whether the parent turns or not, we are called to love freely and selflessly.

“We are for you,” Parker said. “We are not trying to take your baby from you.” Baby C’s mom hugged us and thanked us. Perhaps this sounds like a common reaction from a woman whose child has been removed toward the family assigned to care for her child. It is not.

*UH4C: Uniting Hope 4 Children is a faith-based child-placing agency. They are amazing! Check out their website at UH4C.org.

Almost Open

We are done with the paperwork. For now. The crib is ready. The dresser drawers are empty. We’ve been through the training yet feel grossly underprepared.

How do I prepare for a child? More baffling—how do I prepare for a child of an unknown age and gender from an unknown situation arriving on an unknown date? And how do I approach caring for this child for an unknown period of time?

I suppose I don’t.

I like to think I was prepared to welcome our biological children. Yet they all had unknown issues and were born into unexpected life situations. We never met two of them. And I still struggle to parent our children well.

Currently, my eldest is in the habit of provoking her siblings, talking back, denying wrongdoing in…well…anything, and glaring at me when corrected. My middle child throws herself into screaming fits when she is not the first: first through the door, first with her shoes on, first to get buckled, first to put rice on her plate. My youngest will scream, fight, ignore, hit…or just sing very loudly for extraordinary lengths of time.

And yet my eldest has pressed through a visual disability and now works independently on schoolwork before 7am every morning. She relates beautifully to animals, makes sweet gifts for her friends, and is diligent in housework. My middle child is bright, happy, driven, patient, and has an incredible imagination. My youngest has an uncanny ear for music, a great sense of humor, a creative mind, and is sweet and affectionate.

These things are true. All at the same time.

So, yes, I am afraid. I am afraid that all those horror stories people like to share about fostering and adopting are true. I am afraid my kids will have “issues.” I’m afraid I don’t have what it takes to care well for my children—biological, foster, or adopted. I am afraid when you ask me, “Are they all yours?”—that I won’t feel the “Yes” that is the necessary response. “They are all mine. For as long as I am given to parent them.” (Is the answer not the same for foster, adoptive, and biological children?)

But I have not been given a spirit of fear.* Or so I am told.

Not fear, but power and love and self-control. I certainly feel the lack.

My kids will have issues. So will I. Yet He remains sovereign.

I must receive that reminder to “fan into flame the gift of God”—which is His Spirit.** His Spirit of power, love, and self-control. When the state of Georgia opens our home in coming days, perhaps the people in our home will be more open as well….

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” 1 John 4:18-21

*2 Tim 1:7

**2 Tim 1:6

Vision Therapy….It’s a thing.

Cora will finish second grade in four weeks(ish)! I get to say “ish” because I decide when she’s actually done. And we actually don’t stop school in the summer…it just looks different.

We have been homeschooling our children since day one—and there are so many things I love about homeschooling! I love the sibling relationships, researching curriculum and organizing our space, freedom to travel and have school outside of the schoolroom, the opportunity to let each child’s interest help direct our educational decisions, time to learn life skills and to play outside with friends, teaching as a team with my husband, etc.

There are also a number of things that are exasperating….like the sibling relationships, the constant mess, juggling different ages and life events, self-doubt, critique on our educational choice, difficulty in establishing routine, balancing work and home and school, practicing self-discipline in schedule and priority.

But there has been another element that has made this homeschooling journey particularly difficult. Our eldest daughter is bright, learns concepts easily, and is very motivated in many ways. She has picked up easily on decoding words, pours over piles of books, has excellent comprehension from read-alouds, understands the concepts behind addition/subtraction and place value, and has been begging to learn cursive for some time.

However, in the middle of second grade, she could not read with fluency and had no visual memory for words—even when they were repeated in the same paragraph. She begged to write on the first grade writing paper (wide-spaced)—and still had poor print. She struggled in tears over basic addition and subtraction, and could not line up columns of numbers. When asked to read, her entire body would be rigid and she was ready to give up before the first sentence was read. Our intended electives—piano and Spanish—were near impossible.

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I spent my mornings working through our curriculum and bouncing between the three children. Abigail finished her kindergarten work quickly—and Gabriel was allowed to finish whenever he was ready (he’s three). For Cora, simple assignments turned into all-day events. After I put the younger two to bed each evening, I spent another one to two hours teaching my eldest to read. We made (almost) no progress. I needed help!

Thankfully, Cora did not seem to feel the desperation I did. While she attended a weekly co-op and various other activities, it did not seem to cross her mind to compare her progress with that of her peers. She just knew that everything felt too hard and she was losing confidence fast.

After talking to some veteran home-schooling moms, I decided to take her to an eye doctor. I was very skeptical, as I had already taken her to an eye doctor who had no concerns about her vision. But my friends recommended a different eye doctor—a doctor that specialized in learning-related vision problems. I couldn’t imagine he would find anything that would account for our struggles. And I didn’t dare hope for fear of disappointment.

We waited two months to get in. On the day of the appointment, Cora bounced happily into the office (she bounces happily into most places), completed an evaluation on the computer, and Dr. Kimmich began presenting her with various visual challenges. He tested her visual acuity, but also started running through a number of other baffling tests. After less than five minutes, he glanced my way and said, “You are in the right place.”

I fought back the tears.

He continued playing eye games with her for a few minutes and then informed me he was not going to complete the exam. She had failed every one of the tests and could not even complete a few of them. He told me she definitely needed glasses (to correct visual acuity), but her primary issue was an eye movement disorder. Apparently her eye muscles were not working properly.

We picked up the glasses two days later and he instructed us to let her eyes relax with the glasses for a couple weeks before starting vision therapy.

Vision therapy. Apparently that’s a thing. I am a physician assistant—I order physical therapy, massage therapy, injection therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, etc. But I had never heard of vision therapy.

After one day of adjustment, Cora loved her glasses. She did not want to take them off. Two weeks later we returned for the enigmatic vision therapy. They ran through some tests again and then taught us some exercises involving reading lines of letters and numbers, visually “running the bases” around a board with blocks of letters, and holding a lens over her eyes intermittently as she read simple paragraphs.

We did it every day, documenting our efforts as we went and returning every couple weeks to check her progress and learn more exercises and games. It still seemed quite strange. But, stranger still, it was working!

When we started vision therapy, Cora was over halfway done with second grade, yet struggling through books at an early first grade level. After three months of therapy, she was reading at grade level. She was no longer tense and in tears—but relaxed and eager to learn. She could line up columns of numbers in math. Addition and subtraction (while still annoying to her) were manageable—even to the 10,000s. Her handwriting improved dramatically and we started learning cursive (at her request). We have even picked up piano and Spanish since we don’t have to fight through the core subjects. She is now able to recognize notes on a staff and track them as she plays simple tunes.

When we go to the library, I no longer have to direct Cora to the “orange and dark blue dots” on the early reader books—she can read any of them! Now I just have to limit her stack of books to something we can physically carry back up the hill to our house….

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We still do vision therapy—and will probably have to continue for some time. Dr. Kimmich recommends that all children do it—even if they don’t have a specific disorder. Cora doesn’t love our sessions, but she is faithful to do it because she knows it works. Abigail and Gabriel will be doing some of these exercises over the years as well.

I love the confidence that she is re-gaining. As we were driving a few weeks ago, she was reading The Gruffalo to her siblings in the back seat. When she finished, she sighed happily and said, “Mommy, those eye exercises and these glasses really work. Without them, I would still be struggling on the first page!”

If you want some more information on learning-related vision problems including ADHD/dyslexia, go to Dr. Kimmich’s website: http://www.rkcrt.com    (And, even better, he’s a UGA grad.)  

Reparations and The Church

I was recently asked to speak at a forum for racial diversity in the church in Athens, GA. I was given the following topic to address within a strict 15-min timeframe: “What is your opinion concerning reparations for African Americans as a starting point to reconciliation between the races?” Following the forum, a number of people have asked for my presentation notes. I have been hesitant to make them public due to the sensitive nature of the topic–and because my notes are not fleshed out or cited properly. I also know that I can barely outline the topic in 15 minutes…. I have made an effort to go back and cite some of the sources from which I quoted more directly and I apologize if I have missed anything.  nj

[Definition]

Let us start by reminding ourselves what reparations are in various contexts. Two classic definitions preside:

  1. The making of amends for wrong or injury done: reparation for an injustice.
  1. Usually, reparations. Compensation in money, material, labor, etc., payable by a defeated country to another country or to an individual for loss suffered during or as a result of war. (dictionary.com)

Reparations are typically made by a political entity–not just individuals. Specific individual situation is not taken into account so much as that individual’s being a part of the offending political entity.

[Reparations in society/history]

As we enter into the conversation in the church, it is helpful to gather context from the society at large—(and, if we had time, we could explore some global circumstances in which reparations have been requested/made.)

I encourage you to read Ta-Nehisi Coates recent essay, “The Case for Reparations,” published in The Atlantic this past summer (and it’s successor “The Case for American History”). One of the key points that many will miss in this discussion is that the African-American population has suffered much more than the 250 years of chattel slavery. Many forget the “Ninety years of Jim Crow, sixty years of separate but equal, [and] thirty-five years of racist housing policy.”

Coates describes a racism that is not just directed at those who are most impoverished or uneducated—but a racism that actually targets those who, by hard work and intelligence, were best poised to succeed in post-civil war America. He presents a solid case that ending poverty and ending white supremacy are not the same thing.

A year ago, I sat with my 6 year old on the couch, reading our history textbook. She pointed out a picture of an African-American infant being torn from the arms of his sobbing mother as she stood on the block for sale. As I explained the context of the illustration, she wept. And rightly so.

Do you still weep?

To my white brothers and sisters—Have you ever wept?

And, to all of us, I ask: For what do we weep? For Whom do we fight? To what end do we labor?

Do you weep for the Native Americans as they were forced west and decimated by disease? Or for the Palestinian Christians who are being persecuted? Have you wept for the lives ravaged by Boko Haram? To my African-American brothers and sisters—Do you weep because that child and that mother have dark skin like yours? Or do you weep because that child and that mother are made in the image of the living God?

Few argue with the condemnation of such racist practices, but those of us who most resemble the oppressive party are quick to dispute any involvement, benefit, or responsibility. After all, I didn’t buy or sell slaves. I wasn’t there when Charlayne Hunter Gault and Hamilton Holmes stepped onto the UGA campus. My family had no connection at all to Georgia at that time (My mom is from Chicago and my dad is South African. Wait—that’s a whole new discussion isn’t it? Chicago being notorious for its model racist housing policies and South Africa for the apartheid regime). But don’t associate me with those practices just because I was born with light skin.

Right?

I ran across an Old Testament passage (2 Sam 21) in which a famine had come upon Israel in the days of David for three years. As David was seeking God’s face, he was told that there was bloodguilt on “Saul and on his house” because he had put a group of people to death that Israel had sworn to spare. David went to this people group (who were not Israelites) and asked, “What shall I do for you? And how shall I make atonement, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?” After some conversation, it was decided that 7 of Saul’s sons should be hanged. It was done—and the famine was lifted.

The Lord seems to hold a future generation responsible for the sins of their fathers. He curses the land until reparations have been made. Then he blesses the land again. I am not sure what, exactly, to do with this. I do know that Christ has died—and risen—to atone for the sins of all generations. Is this a principle He wants us to learn from?

Even for those who agree there have been lasting effects for which we are at least partly responsible—and desire to improve upon the current state—there are vast differences in the suggested approaches. NDB Connely (AA history professor at Johns Hopkins) applauds Coates articulation of the injustices, but seems to disagree with the final conclusion. He advocates more for political action.

Some of the common arguments against financial reparations:

–too many groups have suffered (native americans, Mexicans, women, etc)

–improper distribution of reparation funds

–reparations perpetuate poverty

–logistics—how much? To whom? By whom?

–too much time has passed—slaves have passed away

(these are just a few)

Many of the objections seem to see poverty as the primary issue. But I would agree with Coates that ending poverty and ending white supremacy are different issues.

Regardless, this isn’t just a “black problem.” Even if you don’t see yourself as having “white privilege” and feel you shouldn’t have to address the wrongs of your nation, we must realize that we have together become impoverished—both perpetrators and recipients. (Life at the Bottom; Dalrymple)

This is more than just a financial poverty. And it is not just African-Americans who are in need. It is a poverty of relationship, culture, dignity, character, and (yes) economic opportunity and circumstance as well.

By addressing injustices from dominant to sub-dominant culture, we will all become richer.

[Reparations and the Church]

What does that look like in the church? “Reparation is, quite literally, the act of repairing what has been broken. It is restoring a loss, healing wounds, righting wrongs. And this is precisely the business of the Church. Or at least is should be.” (bytheirstrangefruit.blogspot.com)  

In Christ, we have been reconciled unto the Father. And, in Him, we are compelled to reconcile with one another.

1.  I believe the first step is education.

We need to acknowledge the truths:

-we are affected by the actions of our fathers

-we are responsible for our response

-we are connected

-we are actually incapable of “repairing” the damage. (humility)

Education is key, but I have worked long enough in addiction medicine to know that education alone does not change behavior. We need more than just education to address this issue.

2.  We need relationship.

I have been taught that we don’t like people because we don’t know their stories. We need to hear one another’s stories. Not just the larger racial/cultural history—but the world seen through another unique lens.

We argue that we don’t “fit in” with one another. Yet we too often use this phrase as a mask for the more truthful version: “I don’t want to fit in.” or “I am afraid I won’t fit it.” Are you willing to know and be known?

We often move on a spectrum from “I don’t want to know you” to “I want to know you, but I don’t want to admit that I don’t know you” and hopefully land closer to “I want to know you and I am willing to learn.” (ref?)

Yet we need more than relationship—relationship is hard and we mess up.

3.  We need grace—the unmerited favor of God. (and one another)

We need to ask God to show us the beauty in culture, in race, in gender. He delights in these differences—and in the unity of His people.

David Anderson is an African-American who leads a vibrant multi-cultural church in Columbia, Maryland. In his book Gracism, he draws our attention to I Corinthians 12:12-26. After speaking of spiritual gifting in the early verse of chapter 12, Paul turns the discussion in verse 13. It reads: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” Verse 13 addresses unity across race, culture, and class. Anderson leads us to interpret verses 14-26 (where he describes the parts of the body) in light of verse 13. In these latter verses, we are taught not only that we need one another, but that (1) the weaker parts are indispensable, (2) we are to bestow greater honor on those parts we think less honorable, and (3) we are to give greater modesty to those parts which are more unpresentable—the more presentable parts do not need special treatment.

Anderson calls it gracism. He says: “Gracism, unlike racism, doesn’t focus on race for negative purposes such as discrimination. Gracism focuses on race for the purpose of positive ministry and service. When the grace of God is communicated through the beauty of race, then you have gracism.”

We are to use our cultural privilege to lift up those who do not share it. This certainly applies to white privilege in the US, but doesn’t stop there. Almost everyone has a sphere in which you are part of a dominant culture. How can you use your privilege on behalf of others?  

[To what end?]

In our discussion of reparations, we must keep in mind our goal—reconciliation.

When Israel signed the reparation agreement with Germany in 1952, the Jewish prime minister stated: “If I could take German property without sitting down with them for even a minute but go in with jeeps and machine guns, I would do that.” (Coates)

Can you, my African-American brothers and sisters, echo the sentiment of this Jewish leader? Then perhaps your goal is punishment and retribution. And your anger, while in need of grace, is not unwarranted.

Are we, white brothers and sisters, so intoxicated with our own culture, possessions, and prestige, that we will not entertain the thought of using our privilege on behalf of others? How can we—if we refuse to acknowledge its existence?

Perhaps our goal is self-protection.

Our goal must remain reconciliation in Christ.

[What do I really think?]

I think overt financial reparation made within the church would not accomplish or aid the said purpose of reconciliation.

I believe there is a place for reparations on a national level. The specifics of that bill would be important—and difficult.

I am in favor of churches stepping more fully into the political discussion and participating in peaceful activism for civil rights.

I am in support of legislative changes to better protect the rights of the citizens. Though I believe that, as President Johnson stated in 1965, “No law that we now have on the books…can ensure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it.”

We cannot change our own hearts—how can we legislate changes in the hearts of others?

More than anything, I believe in integrating our churches. Half of us may be clapping on 1 and 3, and half on 2 and 4—but that’s all right. And we may have to learn to worship in some other languages (because there are more than black and white in Athens).

It should not be an anomaly to have a church with more than one race or culture represented any more than it is an anomaly to have men and women worshipping together.

If we want to see change—if we want to be changed—we must practice gracism in the context of true relationship. We must be willing to know and be known.

Ameniona

One year ago last month we announced our intent to pursue church planting. And one year ago last week our friend and brother Tobias Smith was hit and killed in a bicycle/auto accident. I found myself overwhelmed with the apparent need and our glaring inability to meet the need…the brokenness. As we remember Tobias, I thought I would share a reflection I wrote at the time:

Ameniona*

So far behind—and we’ve not yet started.

So aware of my weakness.

Edgy thoughts behind tired eyes and inertia of mindless limbs.

Ameniona.

My children. Sleeping.

Liquid weight of boy on my chest—warm and round. And the mind rests.

Small girl tucked in her own world, mouth turned up at the corners. Sweet dreams.

And longer limbs across the room, burdened with change and death.

Our friend is gone. “When are you going to build that church, mommy?”

Ameniona.

Weight of boy, weight of girl, weight of girl. Weight of three.

And I crumple and I stand. You will build Your church.

Soft slap of metal and silence. As least she stopped to call the police.

Soul windows opened and head lifted—now laid to rest in Your arms.

Ameniona.

Fear overwhelms when the gaze is fixed elsewhere. The Enemy is real.

But the eye turned to You sees through You and finally I see.

I see them. Because You see them. Help my unbelief.

Ameniona.

*kiSwahili for ”He has seen me.”

Obedience and humility

“But, Mommy, I really don’t have a hard heart! I helped today! I read to my brother and did my chores…..”

I had the audacity to pray for vision recently. Vision into my own sin and how that affects my home and family. And, not surprisingly, that prayer has been answered—often to a depth I would rather avoid.

The tongue really is a fire! (Lord, spare my children from its flame.) And grumbling was not left in the wilderness when the Israelites entered the promised land. It is alive and well in my spirit. In fact, we may as well go back to Genesis—because the rift that was born in chapter 3 does not cease to divide man and woman. My desire is too often for my husband even as sin’s desire was for Cain.

The surprise has not, however, come in the uncovering of my sin—but in my response. I am angry. And, unfortunately, I am not primarily angry for the sake of the sin itself or its effects on those around me. I am angry because I want so desperately to be right. Isn’t that what Christianity is all about? Being right? Doing right? Marrying right? Dressing right? Well, that is certainly how I act much of the time. But, thankfully—beautifully—that is not the gospel. The gospel is about delighting in “being wrong.” Or, more accurately, delighting in the revelation of wrong.

Here’s the thing. We can tell a humble heart from a proud heart, not by how perfectly one obeys, but by how one responds to correction. A proud heart resists correction and is more concerned with denial of any offense than in learning to live and love well. A humble heart rejoices in Godly correction. Because the receiving of the “wrong” necessarily implies an understanding of the “right” and the grace given so we may walk in freedom.

Is this not the gospel? That we are wrong? Deeply, grievously wrong? And that, in the midst of that wrong, He loves and brings life? Life to such height as the wrong is deep? And is this not the stumbling block of the Gospel? That we are to call that depth blessed because of the height of the redemption?

What kindness He has shown in revealing our sin. And so gentle! For He has already answered the despair. He has not opened my eyes to my sin in order to bring shame, but to bring redemption! And, not only that, but He is the One who works the change in me (oftentimes despite me I am sure).

So I can say to my child:

“I don’t mean that you have done bad things all day. You have actually had a very good day—and you have been helpful in caring for your brother and kind to your sister. You focused so well in doing your schoolwork and even cleaned up without my asking! There have only been a few times you have even needed correction and I am thankful for your efforts in obedience. But I will tell you what I have been learning: Each time you have required correction, you have denied the wrongdoing and, in anger, have fought discipline. That shows me you have a hard heart. I have had a hard heart too. Let’s pray together and ask God to soften our hearts and be free!”

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
 my eyes are not raised too high;
 I do not occupy myself with things
 too great and too marvelous for me.  But I have calmed and quieted my soul, 
like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. Psalm 131: 1-2