This used to happen when I attended a local Garifuna congregation. Sometimes I would be absorbed in greeting a friend or singing along when, suddenly, I'd notice someone staring or feel a child rubbing my arm and be reminded of my foreigner status. Other times I felt so much like a fish out of water I felt like all eyes were on me when, in reality, people around me were going about a usual Sunday morning as if I looked just like them.
Having children has added a new element to my understanding and experience of "us" and "them," "white" and "black," "same" and "different." Likewise, living in a neighborhood that is fairly representative of the ethnolinguistic mosaic of this region has broadened my perspective of these concepts, leading me to four conclusions:
1) We live in an excellent location for raising a biracial/bicultural family.
La Ceiba, a port city, is home to several ethnolinguistic groups:
- Spanish-speaking Latinos form the majority.
- Garifuna people are the largest minority.
- English creole speakers from the nearby Bay Islands ("Islanders" or "English) move to the mainland in search of jobs; their ancestory is African often mixed with British.
- Miskito people hail from remote eastern Honduras and western Nicaragua and speak an Amerindian language with influence from English.
- Quite a few North American retirees, missionaries, aid workers, and tourism entrepreneurs live in the city and surrounding areas.
Discipleship group I led a few years ago with Garifunas, a Misquito girl, and a North American girl
As for Garifuna speakers, many have excelled in a variety of fields, from politics to law, education and medicine. Their food, music, and dance is popular among the general population. Garifunas have the reputation of being more peaceful and less violent than other groups and are known to take care of each other and even outsiders who live in their communities. For example, it is unheard of for Garifuna children to be abandoned to the streets, while several families in Fernando's home community have raised non-Garifuna children who were given to them by desperate families. For these reasons and more, I am grateful to be included in this group.
Friends in some good times and some bad times in the past six years
In general, we live in a location characterized by diversity and an easy-going acceptance of differenes, from pronunciation to style of dress, from music preference to religious affiliation. Consequently, we can go about our daily lives as a mixed family with a lot of freedom. At the same time, this kind of environment can create the illusion that racism does not exist, which leads me to the second conclusion:
2) A multicultural environment does not create immunity to stereotypes, negative attitudes, and racial tension.
I've mentioned before that if you were to take a walk with me and the kids just along our block, we would greet neighbors in Garifuna, Spanish (Latinos), and English (Islanders); a small space is called home by three distinct groups, four if my ex-pat status is included. Furthermore, we have Garifuna neighbors from distinct regions of the country; some are from the rural area where Fernando grew up, while others are from communities near urban centers, and still others grew up speaking Spanish in the city. Some of our Latino neighbors are proudly from La Ceiba, while others moved from other regions.
OneStory workshop with Latinos in Costa Rica in 2011
It is common to see kids of different races playing together and overcoming language barriers to have fun together. However, some of the adults don't always associate with each other apart from a brief greeting, and others even use what I consider derogatory terms to relate to people of other races. Sometimes nothing is explicit, but one can perceive a general sense of distance and the drawing of lines between "us" and "them," between obvious ethnic differences and the more subtle distinctions within a larger group. And before you know it, suddenly one has thoughts like, "___ are loud. ___ are superstitious. ___ are generous. ___ are hard-working. ___ are unfriendly."
In this apparently peaceful and friendly environment with less obvious fissures, how does our family respond?
3) Being a mixed family gives us unique vantage points into racial and cultural dynamics.
Mixed families are not uncommon in La Ceiba, and I have enjoyed meeting more than a few North American women married to (Latino) Hondurans. Our particular combination tends to bring out curiosity by friendly strangers when we go out. Being a mixed family allows us to interact with a variety of people. Our main social circle is Garifuna, but Fernando and I speak Spanish and have had significant interaction with Latinos, and we both speak English, which is a bridge with our Islander neighbors. We have gotten to know other missionaries and ex-pats, and Fernando has interacted with Misquito believers in various projects. Our kids look "Latin American" and wouldn't draw attention to themselves by themselves (fascination with their appearance is a topic for another blog post...).
One of Fernando's cousins ready to dance Wanaragua, a masked dance reenacting a battle technique Garifunas used against British who took over their land on St. Vincent island; men would dress as women and dance for the colonists, and when the drum music reached peak intensity and volume, they would stab them so their cries would not be audible.
As a result, it's been fairly natural for me to get to know our neighbors of different backgrounds, crossing over the unspoken lines, hearing bits and pieces of what they think of each other. While interesting from an anthropological perspective, it can be challenging as a believer. As a Christ follower, mother, and ex-pat, how do I respond to these dynamics? This has led me to the fourth conclusion:
4) We (I) must be vigilant, humble, and intentional as we interact with others in a way that honors God and those He sent His Son to die for (the world).
As I mentioned, we live in a context that, at first glance, is quite friendly to a variety of races and cultures but, upon greater examination, has less obvious divisions, stereotypes, and distrust. In the same way, it could be tempting to think that, as a mixed family, we are one step ahead and just a bit better than others at showing the love of Christ without discrimation. But, suddenly, the realization comes that this kind of mentality is yet another nuance of the "us versus them" phenomenon. Do I consider myself superior to others because I claim to be more open-minded and fair? Do I think I am superior because my kids and I step over those invisible lines? If so, I am back to square one and sorely missing the entire point of the gospel of Christ.
Earlier this year, reading through the gospel of Matthew, I was struck by the wide variety of people Jesus interacted with. Regardless of race, age, gender, social status, and other affiliations, Jesus addressed sin, spoke truth, showed compassion, and maintained His singular focus on the Father's will -- something truly un-human. In Ephesians, Paul describes God's purpose of revealing His salvation to all people and uniting believers in Jesus Christ. While I eagerly anticipate the fulfillment of God's kingdom, in the meantime I must be vigilant, humble, and intentional.
I must be vigilant to guard against negative attitudes toward "others" and prideful attitudes about myself or those I affiliate with. This includes responding to gossip and comments; am I honoring Christ and loving my neighbor in conversations? Do I think of myself more highly than I should? Am I open to what God wants to teach me and how He might want to alter my understanding of someone and the group they represent? Am I being intentional about treating all people with kindness and respect? This really isn't easy or natural! Yet I can't afford to coast along trusting in my own understanding because I have two small people following behind me. What example do I set for them and the other kids on our street who like to observe me, neighborhood "gringa"?
Miss A and our beloved baby-sitter, Miss K
May the Lord, the Creator of all people, who sent His Son for whoever would believe in Him, grant us wisdom and genuine love in our daily lives as we interact with the people and groups around us. May we look beyond the lines of "us versus them," be that between different races or even subgroups in our social circles. May He give us hearts to quickly repent when we are tempted to consider ourselves better than others and believe we have all the answers, but instead may the Holy Spirit lead us to follow Jesus' footsteps of seeking the Father's will, standing up against sin, and showing compassion to all He has sovereignly placed in our lives. And may He give us grace to help those who are watching us and looking for an example to follow.
"14For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord." Ephesians 2:14-21