I am so grateful for the conversations I have had with my white friends lately.
Growing up in the Southern Baptist Church, being someone who is of both Potawatomi and European descent, I'm aware of the tension I constantly walk in every space I inhabit. I'm never quite here or there, but decolonizing is always the goal, reclaiming the parts of me that have been lost to assimilation and oppression.
Along with the conversations I have had with white friends, I have also been talking with my friends who are indigenous and people of color. And we talk a lot about trauma, about what it feels like inhabiting spaces that are meant for the white American church. We talk a lot about self-care and what it means to continue the work of healing from systems of oppression, colonization, and white supremacy.
We also talk about why we are so tired after leaving speaking events or conferences. It's beyond the regular work of decompression after an eventful trip. Our souls are weary. We feel like we have wounds that we can't quite get to. It takes time to recover, and I recently realized it's because of the things we carry.
Whether we like to admit it or not, these conversations about justice and race are traumatizing for people of color and indigenous peoples.
We carry history and stories in our bones. We carry the trauma of our ancestors with us, and when we are asked to open up those wounds, it's not only uncomfortable, but painful. So we stop to ask white people to do the work — read the books, research the truth, make changes in their lives to honor those who walk with generational trauma in their bones.
When I attend Christian conferences as an indigenous woman, I'm sitting with the reality of our invisibility in American society.
But putting us on a panel for a day to poke and prod at us with well-intentioned questions afterward isn't the answer. The generations of genocide and oppression that brought us here cannot be taken back in a conference weekend. The work will be long and hard, but we will do it together.
While I'm grateful for my white friends, who, like I am, are learning and working to pursue justice against systemic oppression, we've got to recognize the cost of these conversations. We need to learn to ask questions that are more helpful than “How native are you? “or “How do I get my church to work with Native Americans?”
While these questions are coming from a desire to learn, they put the work of educating on indigenous peoples. The reality is, there are books and resources by indigenous writers, artists, theologians and academics that can help assist with these answers, or explain why they are not appropriate to ask. The answers go along with the work of unpacking racism and white supremacy.
As infuriating as it may be, my answer is often, “Just listen. Just listen to the marginalized. Just start listening.” While this is not an answer people want to carry home with them, it is the best advice I can generate in spaces made for whiteness.
If the church creates conference spaces for white audiences while saying, "We invite others, they just don't come," we need to ask why. We need to consider, as the church, that we may be creating spaces that are not safe or comfortable for people of color or indigenous peoples.
While I'm asking the church to listen to the oppressed, I'm not asking the church to volunteer the traumatic stories of the oppressed for tokenism or as an example for a white crowd.
This leaves people of color and indigenous peoples trying to decide if it's worth it to participate, if we can handle another conference, if we can possibly share our stories to a room willing to listen first and do the work later. It is an honor to share our stories, but there is a weight along with it. There is energy expelled from our hearts and bodies when we say this is my story, this is what my ancestors endured to give you America.
It is important to note that our trauma is not about cancelling out the trauma of others. However, it is worth noting that the trauma we have endured has been at the hands of the church for generations, and our trauma must be recognized by the institutional church to forge a path to communal healing.
So as the church, we need to ask some questions.
Is it worth re-traumatizing people of color and indigenous peoples for the sake of a diverse event?
What is the responsibility of the white church to listen?
How should we be learning from people of color who want to share their stories in a healthy way?
If we believe that the good of one or oppression of one connects to everyone else, how should we gather? How should we pursue justice work?
If my trauma is real, how is the trauma of my brothers and sisters real. We've got to transform the way we gather.
We've got to create spaces that truly infuse diversity without tokenizing some for the sake of the many.
We’ve got to be willing to give leadership roles to people of color and indigenous people who can lead the way forward.
If we don't ask these questions in our church settings, before we plan conferences in which we want to talk about race and history and oppression, we are going to further perpetuate those cycles of oppression.
These challenges will not be solved in a weekend. The problems that have been buried for generations under veils of patriarchy and white supremacy will remain with us for a while, but the point is that we are listening. The point is that the church is willing to listen. The point is that the table of Jesus is bigger than the tables we have been building, and the future of the church depends on it if we dare to say that everyone belongs.