"How can you love someone that's not even the same colour as you?"
c. Rachel E. MacDonald, July 31, 2010. (names changed for privacy's sake)
I subdued the thought almost as soon as it came into my consciousness. It was as shocking and disturbing to me then as it is today. My cousins were over, and my parents and brother were somewhere else in the house with my oldest cousin and my uncle. I came around the corner, and was witness to the sweetest scene. My Auntie Sharla, beaming from ear to ear, was bent over her two year old son, tickling and swinging him in her arms. Her brilliant blonde hair brushed Billy's dark brown curls, and her light eyes sparkled into his browny green ones. And that's when I thought it, or rather, it boiled up from somewhere inside, disgusted, vehement: " How can you love someone that's not even the same colour as you?"
By then I was all of ten years old, the beloved daughter of brown and white parents, although that went far from describing the complexity and beauty of character and culture within each of them. I had friends of many different colours, had heard them maligned for their difference, and had even felt the sting of racism myself. Most importantly, my extended family's colours ranged from a pale white to deep, chocolatey brown - and I loved all of them! If I could only love people the same colour as me, I later mused, I would be hard pressed to find them!
Where did that come from anyway? In some ways, I've spent my life finding out. I decided at that moment that I didn't believe it. I didn't agree with that thought, even though it was my own.
As was my custom since I was a toddler in daycare, I kept on befriending people, of all colours, walks of life, nations, abilities. I think that homeopathic dose of red-neck mentality put me on a good road. As I grew, my mind was opened to people of different sexualities as well, and different moral structures, and new ideas of right and wrong emerged, based around personal integrity rather than rules. In high school, I started the International Awareness Club, after attending an international seminar on youth and development, for 200 17 year olds from around the world. I joined the Student Christian Movement, a somewhat radical organization that works for global justice and spiritual understanding, and met people of even more diversity.
The SCM blew my world wide open with its understanding of being faithful in terms of the Gospel, and its challenge to accept and love all people, and seek equality and fairness for all, no matter what. Jesus, if he were incarnate today, we figure(d), would hang out with gay people, indigenous people, poor people, all the people our society puts down, and let them know that God loves us all, and so we embodied and included all these groups and more - even engaging in interreligious praxis (practice of our faith together).
At the same time, I joined the World University Service of Canada, an international development group that sponsors refugees and does development education on campuses across Canada. Although I had had a lot of international friends, it was the first time I'd had friends who were refugees. Again, a life-altering experience. Meeting these former refugees from around the world, I realised how limited my experience of the world had been, and how fortunate. I had already travelled to India, Trinidad, Bermuda, parts of Europe, the US and many parts of Canada. I had seen poverty near its worst - from a distance, thank God. The stories of these friends showed me another reality, one in which whole peoples are systematically attacked because of their religion or culture, where a brother and sister, fleeing oppression from ruling forces, can be captured by rebel groups, one kept as a sex slave and the other tied and thrown into a bottomless pit with nothing to drink for weeks but the urine of the man above him.
Their dignity and vibrancy of life after this kind of experience was nothing short of amazing to me, as I gradually realised how much these people had gone through, and how they had used their gifts within that context. One of them, who's still a friend of mine, never went to school until he was an adult. Then he thought maybe he would learn to write his name and be done with it. He learned to write his name, finished high school, entered the Catholic seminary for awhile, fled to a neighbouring country when a soldier told him he hoped all Christians would be dead by the next year. In the refugee camp, he realised most of the women, as in his home village, were illiterate, so he started a literacy program for them. After a few years, he was sponsored through WUSC to come to Canada to study and be a landed immigrant, which is when I met him. Another woman worked with the UN in the camps, delivering training in conflict resolution and peace work. She touched so many people that way. Now she is in Ottawa, working as a Social Worker. Another was involved in the struggle for democracy in a military dictatorship, and kept us abreast of the political situation in his home country.
I had thought that refugees were people that needed to be pitied and helped. I had grown up with images on TV of emaciated Somalis and Ethiopians, too young to respond to the messages pleading for help. I thought we were the big westerners with the good hearts and generous pocketbook, saving the needy. It's true, refugees have all gone through horrible injustice and cruelty, and need the help and compassion of the world. But everyone uses his or her own resources in life, to meet whatever situation they encounter, and pity is not necessary.
In the late 90s, I travelled with the SCM to the Philippines, on a solidarity tour, and met activists, urban poor, indigenous people and peasants, all facing the destruction of their homes and military intimidation due to their attempts to keep their families and communities together. They were a provocative mix of power, community strength, solidarity, and despair. Another step for me along the open road.
Starting in my early 20s I was a volunteer ESL tutor at our local library, and somehow, after years of a visual art degree, and training to become a Fine Arts teacher, I have ended up teaching English to illiterate adult refugees from around the world. My first year teaching ESL, I taught the lowest level at our agency, of people literate in their first language. They had just come to Canada, and I was their first teacher here. They were my first class of students. It was a special group and I'll never forget them. Similar to my experience with my friends through WUSC and the SCM, they showed me the resiliance and community power that exists in the human heart. It wasn't until a couple of years later, when many of them came back to me in a higher class, that I found out the true horror of what they had gone through. From a lesson on writing job applications, I learned that at least one had been "forced labour" for the government forces, carrying heavy supplies on his back, at the age of 10. In a Halloween session of story-telling, complete with glowing jack-o-lanterns we had made, one student (a pastor) told how they had been in the forest, and had to stay there for the night. In the night they heard babies crying and felt someone poking them, and people wailing! On returning to the camp, they found out that was the place where government soldiers had massacred a group of families - they had slept on the site of a massacre! From an art project for World Refugee Day, this time with illiterate students of the same ethnic groups, I found out that many of them had left their villages because the government had come in and set their houses on fire! Painting after painting showed the homes burning, the people running away, the men with guns shooting, the dead with red marks on their chest or legs, laid out on the ground. There was once peace, between the ethnic groups, but then a crazy man took power by force, and this is what resulted.
They were not the same as them. So, they decided they could not love them. I certainly love them.
Along the way I have loved - as friends, lovers, family, students, colleagues, comrades - people of so many different colours I cannot count them. Maybe I have answered the question for myself.
I may also have discovered where it comes from.
Last month I had a reading with a humble, caring and honest man with the gift to see into the spirit world. He saw a woman come forth, who I had been in another life. She was small, and darker than me, but otherwise very much like me in appearance. She was in Peru, around the 1400s and she was being beaten, mercilessly. "Those dogs!" she swore, in description of those who did this to her. She was holding her baby, close to her chest, as the lashes hit her over and over. She told him the health problems that had kept me off work for the past year had been related to this lifetime she was showing him.
Although her own people had been cruel to her for religious and cultural purposes, the perpetrators of this pain, she said, were "strangers." Foreigners. The Spanish. She said at that time, my spirit made a vow never to trust strangers. And that I needed to release this vow so I could do the healing work I would be doing. And then angels came in and gave me the words to disavow the mistrust of "strangers". With great healing wings, an angel blew away the emotional effects that vow had had on me, in this life and all others.
All of my life, I have tried to find out where I belong. Is it our family that makes us belong? our ideas? our culture, the neighbourhood we grew up in, our social class, temperament, interests, abilities, political and spiritual worldview? Do we belong with those who approve of us? Do we belong with those who need us in some way? Is it our ethnic group? Surely it's not just the colour of our skin.
My whole life, I have had a physical, sensational fear of being beaten, by those who do not accept me as belonging with them. I have striven to find out where I belong - striven to belong sometimes at great cost - so that I can know that I am with my people, and therefore I am safe.
By showing me that piece of that lifetime, my past self, and her helper, my psychic friend, the angels and God, gave me my freedom. The patterns are dropping off. The fear is dwindling. It's getting easier to know that I belong because I am.
"How can you love someone who isn't even the same colour as you?!"
It was her question. Not mine. And I don't need it, anymore.