the three Simones in my news feed this morning

One Simone we’ve been talking about for weeks. One Simone just caught our national attention last night. And one Simone might be not be on your radar yet.

All three are amazing black women. All three have powerful stories. All three warrant our attention.

Let’s start with Simone Biles. She is a joy to watch, and I’m glad she’s become a household name, with her team gold and all-around medal just the start to the medals I expect she’ll bring home.

She’s creating amazing conversations too. Discussions of her adoption, including some uneducated remarks, have forced our language about adoptees and family into the news. As for her legacy, I love this quote from her: "I'm not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I'm the first Simone Biles." 

Source:  CNN

Source: CNN

But Simone Biles isn’t the only American Simone making a splash (pun intended) at the Olympics this year. By now, I expect you’ve seen the footage of Simone Manuel winning gold in the 100 freestyle in Rio. If you haven’t, please find it and watch. On the NBC broadcast, the commentators referred to her as the “other American” swimmer, as they focused back on the favorites for the race. It isn’t until the final 25 meters that they took note of Simone. And then? The look on her face when she realizes she’s won gives me goosebumps.  

Source:  USA Today

Source: USA Today

Simone’s blackness isn’t just a side note here. It isn’t like saying the first blue-haired swimmer won gold as part of a relay a few nights ago. (Bless your heart, Ryan.) Race matters here. In 1964, shown in the picture below, a white motel owner poured acid in his pool in an effort to scare black swimmers out of it. Before that, black actors Dorothy Dandridge and Sammy Davis Jr., in separate incidents in the 1950s, found hotel pools drained, simply because they had used them, with Dandridge merely sticking her toe in the water according to some stories. After Brown v. the Board of Education ruled that segregation in schools are unconstitutional, a federal judge decided that pools could stay separate because they "were more sensitive than schools."  

Given that context, I found Simone Manuel’s words to be powerful.

This medal is not just for me. It is for some of the African-Americans who have come before me, like Maritza, Cullen. This medal is for the people who come behind me and get into the sport and hopefully find love and drive to get to this point... Coming into this race tonight I tried to take the weight of the black community off my shoulders, which is something I carry with me...

I’m super-glad I can be an inspiration to others and hopefully diversify the sport, but at the same time I’d like there to be a day when there will be more of us and it’s not ‘Simone – the black swimmer’. The title ‘black swimmer’ makes it seem like I’m not supposed to be able to win a gold medal or break records. That’s not true. I work just as hard as everybody else and I love the sport.

That brings me to the third Simone in my newsfeed this morning, Simone Butler-Thomas. She lives here in Raleigh. Her son, Kouren-Rodney Bernard Thomas, died this past weekend at the hands of a man who her family’s lawyer has called “Zimmerman 2.0.” You might have missed it because, sadly, an innocent black man dying has become an all too frequent story.

Source:  ABC News

Source: ABC News

In Thomas's death, an officer didn’t pull the trigger. Thomas was walking home from a party. A neighbor shot from his garage, telling a 911 operator “We're going to secure our neighborhood. If I were you I would send PD.” Thomas died at the scene. Unlike many incidents in recent news, though, Thomas’s killer is in jail right now, largely I suspect because he was shot by a civilian rather than an officer.

(Let’s all remember that the movement against police brutality isn’t simply about the deaths of black people at the hands of officers but rather the lack of justice in the aftermath. When officers are killed, the act is wrong too - of course - but their killers will be charged with their crimes, found guilty, and sentenced to punishment, something which is usually not the case for black men and women when their lives are taken in incidents of police aggression. And just as I'm not criticizing all parents when I call for action against abusive ones or blasting all teachers when I demand accountability for bad ones, I - as a parent and a former teacher and the daughter of a retired police officer - am not attacking all police officers when I point out the violence by some.)

After her victory, Simone Manuel took a moment to address these hard realities.

It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality. This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. My color just comes with the territory.

She wasn’t “playing the race card” – a phrase which is regularly used in attempts to silence minority voices – but rather pointing out a reality that white America is finally seeing with the spread of social media and camera phones. Police more readily use force on black Americans [1] - at a rate of 3.5 times more than whites and 2.5 more than the general population according to one study[2] and at a rate of more than twice as likely as whites according to the DOJ [3]. A detailed study from UC-Davis last year showed, from 2011-2014, that unarmed black Americans were 3.49 times more likely to be shot by police than unarmed white Americans [4].

Well, maybe black people are being more violent to warrant such a response, some suggest. But, no. A Washington Post data analysis found that "when factoring in threat level, black Americans who are fatally shot by police are, in fact, less likely to be posing an imminent lethal threat to officers at the moment they are killed than white Americans fatally shot by police." [5]. Again and again, investigations into specific areas - like Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago, Greensboro, and San Francisco - uncover blatant racism and gross bias in policing practices. (Here's a post that examines some of these studies as well as others.)

Simply put, according to this research, my black son is more likely than my white son to be stopped, searched, met with force, arrested, charged, convicted, and sentenced harshly in the same circumstances. This reality isn't okay. 

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Don't get me wrong: As I see our nation celebrate Simone Biles and Simon Manuel, I cheer too. Their athletic feats and historic victories are inspiring. I’m amazed, too, by their poise and care in using their voices for others. Americans of all races and religions and backgrounds are rooting for these two Simones.

As I see Simone Butler-Thomas weep, though, I don’t see the same diversity in those who are mourning with her. When she says, “I'm going to bury my child. He was a good kid and I don’t have him no more and there’s nothing I can do,” are we hearing her? When she cries "I just want justice for my son," are we joining her in that? I’m not hearing my white friends talk about this Simone and her grief for her dead son. Why are we comfortable empathizing with Simone Biles and Simone Manuel but not Simone Butler-Thomas?  

If we want to celebrate blackness in sports but turn our backs to the disparities blacks face in ordinary life, then we’re not saying they matter. We aren't. Our humanity isn’t based in our contributions, but when we wear their jerseys and celebrate their accomplishments but refuse to share in their grief, we’re saying we value their performance but not their personhood. Our language betrays us, as we claim our black brothers and sisters in victories – “we won!” as if I helped by holding my breath in suspense as I watched from my couch – but separate ourselves in sorrow – “they need to wait until all the facts are available” or, again, "they are playing the race card."

Simone Biles matters. Simone Manuel matters. They do.

But Simone Butler-Thomas matters too, and so does her son Kouren-Rodney Bernard Thomas.

Black lives matter. They do.

And I’ll keep saying it until they do to all of us, as much when they’re walking home from a neighborhood party as when they’re representing our country on an Olympic podium. 

a big change for our family

I have loved my church for a decade. I still love it. 

But we’ve been visiting another church for a few weeks. We’re not sure it’s home, but it’s feeling right for now. We’re being loved well by the people there and being fed God’s word.

You might be wondering, weren’t you being loved and taught well at your other church? Yes. We wouldn’t have been there for 11 years if that weren’t true. 

This shift happened fast, much faster than we expected. Church friends, we genuinely wish we could have told everyone ourselves, as we know hearing about this on social media instead of from me will sting if we’re close.

I’m truly sorry for that.

As we just officially communicated to all the Access Ministry families and volunteers about our transition yesterday, we know this sort of news will spread quickly. I’d rather put the news out there from me in this impersonal way rather than have you hear it from someone else.  

Why? That’s a valid question, and the answer is complex. (Again, let me say that we love our church. If you’re hoping for juicy gossip behind this change, you won’t find it.) The three basic reasons are racial representation, sensory issues, and adoption transitions:

  • Racial representation: When we joined our church, we were newly married white couple. Now we’re a multiracial family by transracial adoption, with half our family made up of people of color. A few of our non-white children are struggling with feeling like church isn’t a place for them because they don’t see people in leadership who look like them. With racial tensions in this country at an all time high in our lifetimes, we’ve decided it isn’t healthy to raise our children - two white, three black, and one Asian - in a church whose leadership and membership is more white than their school, their city, or the faces that influence them from their favorite TV shows. Lee and I both consider our faith to be more central to our identity than education or politics or entertainment, so it hasn’t sat well with us to know that they see people like them front and center in those arenas but not the one that matters most to us.
  • Sensory issues: One of our children is being evaluated right now for what we expect to be labeled as high functioning autism. One way this shows up is sensory overload. For the past year, we’ve been realizing that church literally hurts for him. The sounds, lights, and chaos of a larger church environment are experienced as pain by this child. Our church has accommodated us the best they can (I even wrote about it here), but we’ve seen this kiddo grow to hate church. All the accommodations we can offer simply haven't been enough. In three visits to a smaller church, though, we’ve seen a huge change in this kid’s attitude on Sundays, both before and after church. Even Saturday night was easier last weekend. Meanwhile, I pulled into our long-time church’s parking lot for a quick stop a week or so ago, and he started rocking back and forth, covering his ears, and crying, whimpering that he “didn’t want to go into the big loud church.” That was the moment for us that made us decided to have a faster transition that we planned. We’d hoped to alternate between churches for a while as we sought discernment from God. That’s clearly not going to be wise. Furthermore, our son's reaction offered the confirmation we needed to keep moving forward with this change.
  • Adoption transition: Honestly, we didn’t even see this need until we talked to one of our children after the first time visiting the church we’re currently attending. One of our kids who was adopted at an older age feels like everyone in the old Sunday school class knows their adoption story and remembers when they weren’t in our family. That’s mostly true. Our church friends and their kids - our kids’ future classmates - were excited for us through the adoption process. We were loved. All our kids were celebrated. This was good and right and wonderful (in other words, you did nothing wrong, my friends!), but it created a consequence we didn't expect for some of our darlings' tender hearts. After one visit at this new church, one child told me, “Mommy, I like that no one at this new church knew our family before I was in it.” Wow. We talked about that a little more as a family. I realized that this was a big deal not only to her but another one of our kiddos. Because of adoption and race and disability and other factors, a lot of our kids will experience being othered: treated as different or as if they don’t belong somewhere. If we can minimize a small bit of that, we think that’s worthwhile.

What about families affected by disability at the church we’re leaving? First, let me be direct: we’re confident that Access Ministry wasn’t about us. It wasn’t led by us. It wasn’t centered in us. It is and has always been God’s. As we have seen this coming, albeit more slowly, we have been intentional to raise up leaders to step up in our absence. We are sure this area of ministry will continue, and if you are at that church, the family discipleship team there can answer any questions you have about the transition. But second, we want to share here that leaving Access Ministry is the most heartbreaking part of this transition for us. I love the children and families we serve, as well as the sweet servants who serve alongside Zoe to include her well in her classes. As I said in emails to those groups last night, each of you is one of the reasons we’ve wrestled long with God over this, in hopes of finding a way to stay. While we know this ministry will outlast us, we are grieving over leaving it. 

Why are we sharing this publicly? To be clear, we are not trying to malign our church or create dissent. Also, none of this is brand-new news to our leadership, as we’ve worked with the family discipleship team at our first church to make for a smooth transition. (And we have been so loved by them in that process!) But simply put, we’re a public family. I’m a public speaker at ministry conferences. Before making this move, I had to communicate with a few organizers who have scheduled me to speak at upcoming events in case a change in churches would lead them to change those plans. (If so, we would have respected those changes but not changed what our family is choosing.) 

And? There’s always a chance God could lead us back to the church where two newlyweds found a home eleven years ago. I do see an increased willingness there lately to wrestle with issues around race in a way we didn’t used to. For that, I am thankful. Perhaps the racial make-up of leadership will change in time too. Additionally, the new building plan will result in different acoustics and a different flow that might be received differently by our child with sensory struggles. Perhaps God is leading us away for a season, only to bring us back again someday in the future. We don't know. We don't have to know. Honestly, I don’t really think that’s how this will play out, but we’re open to whatever God’s plan is for our family. We can say for sure that we won’t church-shop for long as we don’t believe that to be biblical or wise. Church membership matters to us.

For now, please pray for us. 

Please don’t worry that our relationships will end when our church membership does. We continue to love the church we’re leaving, and we know our friendships aren’t so fickle that a change in churches will end them.

Please ask any questions you might have. I’d prefer to do so privately. We don’t have any secrets, but I feel like I’ve probably said all I’m going to say publicly here. That said, I don’t want anyone making false assumptions, so ask away. We’ll do our best to offer answers or explain why we’re not comfortable doing so (for example, if it would be sharing too much of a child’s story than we consider fair).

Please trust us when we say this is good and right and positive, even as it is sad and hard and challenging too. 

Please pray for our kids, for whom this change is beneficial but who have already experienced more change in their short lives than anyone should have to.

And please join us in being excited. As hard as this is, we believe God is writing a new chapter in our family’s story. How cool is that?!