I do not want to write this.
I do not want to open myself to criticism, my church to criticism; I am, thankfully, not worried about my God – He can take care of himself. I do not want to write this because I am always so scared of having imagined it, of being too sensitive, of being hysterical, of having ‘issues’. I do not want to write this because I am so much more than the words a white man said to me and I am not a victim. I do not want to write this because there is no way to write this without acknowledging, super publicly, that this hurt me. I do not want to write this because I know that race and gender played a part in it and my Church does not talk about these things because ‘we are one’ ,because privilege does not travel across oceans along with your idealism and your desire to help. Because you are not subject to a strange new privilege here in Nairobi. Because my time as an immigrant was not supposed to make me aware of the privilege of being an expatriate.
I do not want to write this because intersectionality does not appear once in the Bible, I checked.
I do not want to write this because I want to stay friends. I do not want to write this because I love Jesus and I like church most of the time and I do not want to hate on either of those things. I do not want to write this because I chose to attend a multicultural church in the city I grew up in when there are plenty of other options for the university abroad returnee Kenyan all within easy driving distance of my home. I do not want to write this because it is a story about Karen people and their rich people problems. I do not want to write this because ‘to be fair’. I start the sentence ‘to be fair’ and I have no idea what comes after. His rage was evident, as was his hurt; I do not know his history. I do not know what a demanding young black woman triggered in him. I have no idea what was behind those words so I really cannot be fair to him.
It had been a tough year for our leadership team. Our church is transient. I have loved serving in the post- childhood pre middle age adulthood ministry but I have needed help and it has not been easy to get. I have been pretty vocal asking, insisting even demanding that help from members of our team. My mum joked that I have been dragging reluctant white men to the podium to make announcements with me all year. The pastor insists that our announcements be ‘representative’ that means a man and a woman. He never called the men to tell them this. He never called at all. His assistant passed on the message laughing apologetically as she did. I tried to insist on answered emails, on stupid representative announcements, on joint prayer, on communication, on commitment. I insisted, especially, that we made our events accessible (meaning: maybe not 2000 bob sushi). I may have insisted too hard.
But we put together some great events and here we are, sitting around a table for our end of year meeting. As we sit to eat, I decide that the knot I felt in my stomach driving over was silly. Then the conversation moves to Zwarte Piet and people’s overreaction to perceived racism. Most of the people at the table agree that it is ridiculous. The implication is that ‘real’ racism no longer exists. I challenge this idea highlighting why I think Zwarte Piet is offensive and why blackface is not just an American problem, stopping just short of explaining why racism still exists and what forms it exists in. One of our hosts (one of the reluctant white men) expresses that he does not feel connected to the ministry anymore and is called in a different direction. I am pleased for him; not only because he sounds so passionate about his calling but because it is so much easier to work with a smaller but more committed team. I have been conflicted about further involvement all year but sitting around the table it feels like we may turn a corner and I decide that I am in and commit to another year. The dinner is finished and we are setting a date for a January meeting. Someone proposes a date- it is not convenient for the host who just quit.
‘Will you still be attending meetings?’ I ask to clarify.
This is what sets him off.
I do not want to embellish so I will just write down the most memorable sections of his rant.
….’Watch your mouth in other people’s houses’…..
…’You are so critical and it has made me feel so bad this year’….
….. ‘You have been so horrible to me’…..
…..’You have the privilege and the curse of being a Kenyan working in Kenya’….
….’You do not know what I have been going through. I am very busy. Sometimes I can’t reply to an email because I am waiting for a work email.’…
….’You ask us about the future and we do not know where we will be next year’…
….’You need to extend Grace’…. (This little bit of Christianese ENRAGED me)
There was more stuff but I do not remember it specifically.
I am stunned during this outburst but I do look up long enough to see his wife nodding. I look back down at the table immediately but it registers to me as agreement by the whole table. Suddenly I am completely surrounded. I am the only Kenyan on the table but my friend sitting next to me is Ugandan. I cannot look at her. If she is nodding I will fall apart. I continue to look at the table.
He finishes and I am faced with a choice- angry or dignified. I could react the way I want to react which is to point out that I have a full time job, that waiting for emails is not like waiting for a phone call you can answer an email while a new one comes in, that the inherent bigotry of his ‘privilege and curse’ comment is blowing my mind, that I wish he would just call me a bitch (which is what the hate, anger and hurt in his eyes are communicating) rather than disguise his ugly thoughts in Christianese, that this is no way to treat a guest and my privileged and cursed ass knows this at least. I would finish by flipping them all the bird, storming out and slamming the door behind me as hard as I could. I would deal with the consequences later.
I could play the dignified black woman. Stoic and proud. Above offence and pain. Focused on the greater good. I could apologize for unintended hurt and pain and clarify my intentions.
I choose option 2 because I know how quickly a room turns when a woman, a black woman, gets angry. I apologize. I make it through the closing prayer as best as I can. Then I get the fuck out of there.
The one option I never had around that table was hurt. I couldn’t express my pain. Once in the car I extend myself some grace and I cry. I cry all the way home. I cry because I was invisible and because, not for the first time in my life, I chose the feelings of someone who hurt me over the truth. I cry because it didn’t even feel like a choice. I am up all night praying and pleading. Asking God if there is any truth to what was said. If I am wrong. I ask his forgiveness for reacting so dishonestly. I ask if he sees me when so many people cannot. I ask if I am all wrong in his eyes. I know the answers but he is happy to tell me as many times as I need; that he knows me, that he loves me, that every hair on my head is known to him, that I am precious. I finally fall asleep at 3am. I am up 3 hours later and already late for work. I compose an email saying that I will be stepping back from leadership in the New Year. The voice in my head saying that I am weak and small for quitting and that I should hold on to this thing that I love so much is silenced. I send the email. I take a deep breath and head off to work hoping that I won’t be late for court.
The fallout from this is still unclear but I am at peace. I hope that my church will learn to talk about class, race, culture and gender. I hope that white people coming to ‘Africa’ will take some time to contend with their whiteness and think about their privilege before they leave home. I hope the black people who attend my Church will stop seeing ‘not like the others’ as a compliment. I know that I will be honest the next time something happens- that I do not know what was going on with him but I know how I felt and that shit hurt. I will learn that pain is nothing to be ashamed of. I will not douse my anger in shame but let it educate me. I will allow my anger to tell me where I was violated, I will let it draw a map of my boundaries, I will let my anger point a way out, I will let my anger spur me to defend myself and my values.
Aisha doesn’t attend church regularly anymore, she is more interested in imagining a more shareable here and now than waiting on the sweet hereafter.