“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”
When we hear of rumors of civil unrest, when we see images of angry and often unfamiliar looking people, we may begin to feel the weight of worry and anxiety over our daily lives and how society may or may not affect us. Sadly, we often feel helpless in our ability to filter out these images. My colleague and good friend Terrence Freeman often talks about the theater of the mind. It is in this space of our thoughts that we can begin to build nightmarish narratives. In this age of social media, images and words are often charged with unfiltered opinion like never before. It is in this climate that old stereotypes may become infused with new and often uncontested power. One that is particularly damaging and incredibly poisonous is the image of the Black Welfare Queen. Poisonous because it is insidious in its ability to set a tone that can often permeate a person’s perceptions and potential interactions with a whole cross section of people; namely, African American women. Furthermore, it is damaging in so far as it can provide the fuel for micro aggressions, or flat out hostility, that is played out against an unknowing other, i.e. the woman who is trying to juggle her tired and fussy kids at the grocery store.
The interesting thing about the narratives that we often invest ourselves into, is that they tend to come from a place that is easily accessible, comfortable and unchallenged. What if we were to step back from the lens of our worldview and to try and see the world from a different perspective? Perhaps then, we might begin to see that the experiences of others are not only different from our own, but the way these individuals have processed their experiences are radically different too. In other words, we may assume we know what someone else is going through, or why they have made the decisions they have made, but the simple truth of the matter is that we don’t know!
Some of the most powerful interactions I have had at Reconciliation Services have been with these “welfare queens” and make no mistake, what made the interactions powerful was the ability of these women to not necessarily shatter, but rather to turn the stereotype on its head. What the stereotype tries to present are women who are undisciplined, immoral, materialistic and gross. However, what I have experienced are women that are surprisingly resourceful, dedicated to their children, deeply spiritual in their time of need and wonderfully creative!
The idea of revealing the strengths of the community we serve isn’t just a slogan at RS, it is something that we experience daily. To be clear, it was in the engagement and willingness to see these women for who they are, and not exclusively their circumstances, that began to correct the negative narratives that have played in the theater of my own mind.
Often, we forget that stereotypes are caricatures, shadows of something real. In opposition to the caricature stands a reality that can only be experienced by actually seeing these women for who and what they are: Icons of Christ. This reality of bearing the image of God is so much more than lofty theological ruminations, or sentimental ponderings. It is often visceral, unavoidable and illuminating. For many of these women, the trauma they have experienced should simply have crushed them. Yet, something inside them pushes them forward. Something inside them chooses to love and to hope.
In the dining room of RS there is a large picture of the Black Madonna of Czestochowska, the Queen of Heaven. In this icon her face is soft, but troubled. She bares two scars on her cheek, all the while never wavering in the supportive embrace of her son Jesus. This icon does so much more than passively sit as a decoration in a dining room; it silently teaches, inspires and reveals what is hidden, but still very much there. It speaks of the resilient strength, hope and faith of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and it reveals the same qualities in the community we serve here on 31st and Troost. Even if someone isn’t religious per say, I believe the narrative of the young Mary of Nazareth, who in spite of incredible obstacles chose to never give in and to push forward in hope, can be seen as inspiring. Accordingly, it is the ability of so many of the mothers we serve at RS to push forward in spite of incredible social obstacles, and personal mistakes, to be selfless in their devotion and love for their child, that forms a different kind of impression on the theater of my mind. This indelible impression is that of a woman who is worthy of honor and respect, because she hasn’t allowed any obstacle (including asking for help) to keep her from the devotion and care of her children. A woman who like the icon of Mary, bares scars! When I remember that scars are the reminders of battles survived, not lost, it leaves me with a vision that is actually heroic. The fact that these women are in front of me, looking for a path forward, resilient and refusing to surrender in the great battle of their lives for the sake of their children, makes them nothing less than heroic.
Article by Turbo Qualls, Case Manager - Reconciliation Services