Thoughts on the New Zealand massacre from a counselor

Obviously you know the news by now from New Zealand: 50 people killed. Muslim worshippers at two different mosques. Suspected gunman with white supremacist, anti-Muslim beliefs with 5 legally purchased weapons, two of which were semi-automatic assault rifles. Hopefully, regardless of your own religious affiliation, your heart is broken and you are outraged.

I remember how shaken I felt after the Las Vegas massacre in 2017. The death count of this new massacre is nearly as high, but this time it is on the opposite side of the world and against people of a religion most of us do not identify with. What impact does this have on our concern? Our compassion? Or the ever-timely question of what we can do to make change?

I recall to mind exchanges I used to have with a counseling client, a boy nearing adolescence who was quite small for his age but quite big for his britches. Now, typically my approach is very client-centered and client-led, and I create a lot of space for the person’s beliefs and working out issues at their own pace, not the pace I wish they would go at. I was very challenged by this with this client.

One day my client came in complaining about, and even mocking, some of the new neighbors on his street and the kids in his class. He hated their accents. He hated how they weren’t up to speed on the American things he found important. My client (who was, by the way, a quarter black and I wondered about the internalized racism he must experience) lived in a very white suburb and to the best of my knowledge, it seemed this suburb was suddenly and uncomfortably diversifying particularly with a population of immigrants who also happened to be Muslim. My client’s family did not like this.

Sounds like New Zealand. Sounds like America.

My client would sometimes tell me about the things he was learning from his stepgrandma and how he was learning to distrust all the things he was learning in his public school. She told him the textbooks he studied were wrong. She told him that Democrats were actually the party of racists. She told him that the Qu’ran was filled with commandments to kill the infidel and about jihad and that Muslims were dangerous, bad people.

I remember the first time I met a Muslim and actually got to know her. I was raised on the same rhetoric that my client was hearing, and I learned a very one-sided view of Islam. I also came of age around the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which shaped my understanding of who Muslims were. In college, I was befriended by a sweet Muslim girl, because she happened to be the dorm neighbor of my best friend. She wore a head scarf almost all the time but would sometimes take it off in the safety of the all-female dorm hall. She had a smile to melt your heart, a warm and kind spirit, and a disarming tendency that drew you in. At the age of 18, my encounters with her were my first step toward a radical change in my exclusivistic Christian views and toward interfaith thinking.

Meanwhile, these recent encounters with my client became blood pressure-raising, cheeks-flushing 45 minute sessions. As I said, I typically interfere little with belief systems of clients, but I could not stay silent while he spouted off the rhetoric – propaganda – that he was picking up from a parental figure who was probably getting her own news from extraordinarily biased sources. I tried to challenge him on his notions of Islam, explaining what else Islam stood for: peace, respecting others, loving God. I even reminded him that his own Bible held some pretty ugly passages, but we generally choose to not focus on them. I questioned him on the blatant prejudice of categorizing “all” people of a certain group because he had a negative interaction with one of them.

I couldn’t not speak. I questioned whether it was okay to insert myself in such ways, but I also recalled the values I have promised to live by as a counselor to be culturally sensitive and stand up for the oppressed.

I don’t know if what I said in our conversations made any impact on him. I don’t know if the color of his own skin or his remarkable intelligence might one day have him think twice about people he perceives as outsiders or different, or if he will adopt defense mechanisms of paranoia and projection and view the “other” as evil and dangerous. But I knew then as well as I know now that the line of thinking he was following was not just discriminatory, not just hateful, but has the potential to be incredibly dangerous.

So how will we respond to this latest tragedy? Can our country self-examine and quit deceiving ourselves that policies like an attempted “Muslim ban” and broadly referring to neighbors across the southern border as “bad hombres,” gang members, rapists, and murderers might actually be part and parcel of the very same fabric from which this mass murderer arose? Might we admit that “nationalism,” as we understand it today, is perhaps not all it’s cracked up to be? Can we understand that when a significant portion of our country thinks the Qu’ran is only filled with hate for the infidel and assumes that to be Muslim is equivalent to being a terrorist, that we are all in danger and the worse off for it? Both because of people like this recent shooter and because actual terrorist organizations thrive off of angry, skewed views of Muslims?

Can our churches respond and say “We stand with Muslims”? Can we boldly proclaim that we are all God’s children and the heart of God and our own heart breaks with the loss of life and the proliferation of hate?

We are not left with our hands tied, regardless of how many time zones away this tragedy is this time. The problem is in our own backyards as well. What are we willing to risk to send the message that love – love of the neighbor, love of the stranger, love of the immigrant, love of the Muslim – is stronger than the hate that constantly threatens to divide and even kill us?

Why I specify LGBT friendly on my counseling profile

Once I knew I would be working as a counselor in a Christian counseling center at my pastor husband’s new church, in a new town where we knew no one, I immediately started crafting an online counseling profile in my head. What identity did I want to present to others? And how would I make clear to prospective clients who I am and what I stand for?

I do play therapy; I got my degree from a seminary; I’m psychodynamically trained; I have a heart for the spiritually wounded, questioners, and leavers of the faith. These are all true. But there was something else I needed to convey.

The line that kept standing out in my mind was LGBT friendly. This was a message I felt passionate about.

Now, this may not seem very significant. I’m licensed by the state of Ohio and I follow the American Counseling Association Code of Ethics, which specifies I cannot discriminate on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc etc. I was educated in the importance of this. But a counselor being obligated to not discriminate is a far cry from a counselor being comfortable with and even welcoming diversity across the sexuality spectrum. Furthermore, I know that people too often associate Christianity across the board with a very narrow (and often judgmental) view of what is acceptable sexual practice. Many Christians still think you cannot be a Christian if you accept gay people being gay.

I know this all too well. You see, I grew up in a tradition that believes same-sex relations are an absolute sin. My evangelical / fundamentalist (I differ from Merriam-Webster in describing the jump to fundamentalism as not only interpreting your holy book in a strict, literal way, but actively denouncing and viewing with fear and suspicion the outside world. But that’s a post for another day!) upbringing taught me that the Bible (and therefore God) viewed homosexuality as an abomination. It even went so far as to believe that there is such thing as “the gay agenda” whose sole quest is to bring the world down into debauchery and moral decay. “Conversion therapy” was viewed as a legitimate and effective treatment for gay people to help guide them into a heterosexual way of life.

Of course, for people who find themselves experiencing same-sex attractions, whether in small degrees or in totality, this can lead to buckets of guilt, shame, and even self-loathing or self-hatred. That, or they have to find a way to make a quick exit from this theology, but it’s hard to leave such baggage behind. 

The path I took to get to where I am from where I was is far too long for this post (but stay tuned for another post in the future, about how to honor Christianity, the Bible, and non-heterosexual relationships at the same time). I have moved so far from that now that it might be easy to think such views are fading from society. In many ways, they are, if we look at the media and newly elected representatives as measuring sticks. But we all know those are far from genuine representations of the beliefs many people across the country hold. The Liturgists gathering that I just attended this month reminds me that there are still so many people – especially Christians – who are wrestling with the question of sexuality and God’s view on their own or others’ sexual orientations.

I was always aware that specifying “LBGT friendly” (and I could have added other letters) is a calculated risk. The pro obviously being that I am being true to myself and my practice, and communicating what may be desperately needed information to people who want a safe place to explore questions around sexuality, or who just want to be accepted for who they are already comfortable being.

The risk being that I am writing my statement on a website I am making for the whole counseling center, not just my own web page. I hope the others are comfortable with it, but I didn’t ask. I also might scare off some people who read the website and decide it’s not “Christian enough” for them (even though I am the only who specifies this). Or, perhaps a parent of a questioning, curious, or just open youth will not allow their child to see a counselor who might affirm their stance. (This, by the way, is not merely a hypothetical situation; it’s just not everyone reads our website thoroughly).

Some of you who come from traditions like mine understand the tension of such an action. I am sure there is at least one church in our small town alone that is being actively divided over the issue of sexuality and what is “acceptable” in Christian doctrine. I love our church’s website and how it describes doctrinal stances, but I am also keenly aware there is nothing on there about sexual orientation. It’s a big, divisive issue to take on, especially in a public setting. It’s easier to not talk about. Many Christians who would be affirming are quiet about it. I think this is even more the case in small towns, though I am still trying to figure this whole small town culture thing out. 🙂

So, I have decided to not be a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” but rather to be out of the closet about what I stand for. This is especially important in the context of a Christian counseling practice, where others might easily assume things about my beliefs. I have decided if I have the welcoming light of love, acceptance, grace, and affirmation to share, then I should not hide it under any bushels, but let it shine so all can see. One little way I can do this, in my little role as one of the counselors at a Christian counseling center, is to specify “LGBT friendly.” Because I want everyone to know there is more than one way to be a Christian. And that God’s love is already for everyone and God loves us exactly the way we were made.

Just to be clear: All are welcome. 
https://goo.gl/images/G658Fd

ebbing and flowing

(from 1-27-16)
We are asked in class to introduce ourselves and share about our career path. I have been writing my way through my twenties and this writing helps me to orient myself to where I am and where I have been. The story I share comes with ease, though it is a deep reflection on what kind of person I was and am becoming. I speak about how I once based my identity on being a “do-gooder,” aware that many others in this room may consciously or unconsciously consider themselves that way. But when I share my truth, I am not asking others to do what I have done or think the way I do. I speak from my heart, about how my well-laid plans were cast aside when I had an interior crisis, how I focused so much on my inner work that year (so young, just 23), journaling and working something like a personal 12-step program – I say this and suddenly wonder how many people just started wondering what addiction I had, but no mind, this is my life and their curiosity is their issue. I become impassioned as I exult that it is inner change, the changing of the heart, that matters the most. I crescendo to how I love my clients and love the work I do and want to help other people change the depths of their life. I finish my little speech exuberantly, throwing my arms wide, The possibilities are open! and quiet back down, having said my piece, spoken my heart, said my truth. It feels good.

(from 2-1-16)
Little guilt tendrils crawl up my body as I sit in my client sessions, wishing they were over and I could go home and melt, exist, crawl into my lover’s arms, read a book, eat a salad, something… It’s only Monday, why so much exhaustion as I start out my week after a pleasant weekend? Is it the warmth of the therapy rooms, inducing sleepiness in mind and body? Is it four months to graduation, ready and itching to finish this up but not sure how ready I am to jump into something new, to sell my life to a full time job, to give myself up to a profession? Am I on the wrong track, in the wrong career? I have to believe no, that the joys I have at other times during this work outweigh this moment’s sense of tiredness and impatience. I have to believe no, because I have invested three years and staked my identity on this work. It could be that trying to balance all the things I am balancing at this moment would make anyone exhausted. My friends tell me this is the case, even as I look around at others who somehow manage to balance full time work, full time school, and family… but no need to compare to others. At this moment, I need a little nurturance for myself. Today is this kind of day. Next time might be another. My love and energy will be restored, and I have to keep my faith that my trajectory is going in the right direction, even if I sometimes feel shaky.

(from 2-2-16)
I notice that I slip behind in my writings and make up one, two, even three days when I’ve missed too many writing days in a row. I write things that feel like they will end up on the cutting room floor, but I allow myself the grace to do so. Too many days of this makes me feel a little discouraged, wondering when something good will be written again and when I might get my groove back. Maybe it’s just the mid-winter blues, even though Indy has hardly experienced a winter this year. Maybe it’s hibernation of the soul, quieting down to emerge in the sunlight later. Maybe it’s the things I don’t understand now but will later. Maybe I can just relax into the ebb and flow of life and life in today’s moment, embracing it for all it is.

ebb and flow

a whole different world: stereotypes and not judging

I’ve recently had the opportunity to facilitate small groups at a local college and meet some people I probably wouldn’t have ever met otherwise. Because I am working on my degree in counseling, I have been vested with the authority of “counselor” there and, even for just 20 minutes, I am entrusted with people’s lives and stories. They have shared with me some experiences that feel worlds apart from my own.

One such time was last week, meeting with a young black man who lives in what is known as a dangerous neighborhood near where I facilitate the groups. We are so different. Yet he somehow felt comfortable sharing his experiences and some of his feelings with me. That fact alone amazed me. I was worried he wouldn’t trust me or would think it ridiculous that his program director suggested he talk to me. But he opened up right away. Given what he shared with me, it would be so easy for a person from my background to judge him. I did my best to just hear him in his story and see him as the person he is.

While we spoke, I had to focus so hard to understand him, as our dialects are so different. Sometimes it felt like he was speaking a language I only partially knew. I wonder if he ever feels the same about me, or if he had to learn “my” language at some point? He also used vocabulary I wasn’t altogether comfortable with, including the “n” word. I wonder what that means to him?

He spoke of baby mamas and the kids he already has and another on the way, different women for these kids, spoke of wanting more kids but especially a boy. Spoke of his intense desire to stay in these kids’ lives, of his efforts to continue to communicate with the mom. I thought of how easy it would be for me to judge him for impregnating all these girls and not staying with them. Of what this looks like to me, an outsider. But if I’m really trying to understand him, I can’t at the same time be judging him. If I’m really trying to hear him, I can’t have my mind be distracted by thoughts of criticism, of how he should change, of how he should become more like me and hold my values. I don’t know how the moms feel, how their families feel, how the kids feel. I don’t really understand why this is a source of pride for him, to have these kids scattered about, because that’s not really part of my culture. But he wants these kids. He wants to be in their lives. That’s something worth encouraging.

He spoke of a “package” he had to pick up after this. I wondered if that was simple code for drugs. I wondered if it was naive to not simply assume that. I am naive. I’ve never used drugs; I don’t think I’ve even seen drugs of the illegal variety [well, illegal except in Colorado]. (yep, all street cred I ever possibly had just flew out the window). But that’s my background. I don’t know for sure what the package was. If it was drugs, I don’t know if he’s a user or just a dealer. I am aware, however, of how much more lucrative it can be for people to make a living selling drugs like that than working a “normal” job. I’m also aware of racism and school-to-prison pipelines and how crack (a “black person” drug) is punished so much more harshly than the more expensive cocaine (a “white person” drug). I’m aware of the generational effect of poverty, of assuming that this is what life has in store for you because it’s what is in store for everyone around you, of the difficulties of getting ahead for people in such poor urban areas. I wonder, regardless of what’s in the package, if he’s doing the best he can, or at least what he knows to do, given his circumstances.

And through it all, I was aware of being in the presence of just another person. This young man, speaking in ways I had a hard time understanding and about topics so unfamiliar to me: he’s just a person. I felt warmly toward him, knowing that at our roots we share in basic human emotions like fear, anger, sadness, happiness. That we want to love and be loved. That we have dreams of what we might do in our future, which might be realistic and might not be. I was grateful for our 20-minute exchange, for getting a glimpse into a life so very different from mine.

And at the same time, I’m all too aware that it’s only 20 minutes, that it’s far easier to try and assume the best about someone you don’t know very well, than to try and engage in dialogue and really understand each other. My glimpse was just that: a brief and momentary glimpse. Is there a way that our cultures might collide again?

It’s become clear recently that all too many times, when these cultures collide, violence and death can result. We do not know the other. We do not understand the other. We mistrust the other. Apparently, we sometimes think that it is best if the other were to die. Maybe we feel unsafe, maybe we can find a way to “justify” it, but the end result is the same: the Other is dead and we remain. Our feelings of righteousness and and wanting to feel safe have won out over the other person’s right to their own safety and life.

This man does not deserve to die because someone else feels unsafe around him. He has feelings. Kids. A girlfriend. People who care about him. He has a right to life as much as you or I. 

So short, our time together, yet I still think about him. I wonder what it will take for us to accept that others have different ways of life, for us to listen in non-judgment for just a minute, or step over the boundary that separates us and actually engage with someone so different from us. I confess, without this opportunity, I probably wouldn’t have. But I’m grateful I had the chance to meet him. And I pray for myself, and all of us, that we have chances to encounter other worlds and people who are different from us, and take a moment to try and see.