The Russians Are Coming…To Tea!
Posted on August 23, 2014
When I was a kid in Texas, we used to take our Bowie knives and dogs and our dads’ old Army canteens out into the woods to run along deer paths and defend the middle of nowhere against the Russians. Because, Wolverines! (If you’re too young or cultured to know what I’m talking about, watch this Youtube trailer of 1984’s Red Dawn. In case you can’t tell, Midwestern high school kids defeat a Russian invasion. Set in the Midwest because Russia wanted more territories with harsh winters, apparently, or because the South was too armed for no reason already.)
I was struck the other day at how differently my children think of Russia and Russians. We have met almost all of our Russian friends through the church, and the rest through music. The children have a vague awareness that Mama sings with Russians sometimes, and they love their Russian friends at church. In fact, on any Sunday morning, one or both of the twins spends a lot of time with our dear friend Elena, who sings to them in Russian. We’re pretty sure they’ll learn to say [good] things from her that we won’t understand.
When we became Orthodox, we were sponsored by a family with Russian roots. We were drawn in through iconography and music. The iconographer who leads the school in which my husband practices is Russian. Our lives are richer, fuller, warmer, and more beautiful because of the kindness of our Russian friends.
The first time it occurred to me, some months ago, that peace had replaced our once pathological Cold War ideas about Russians, I laughed to my husband in the kitchen. “Hey, Andrew,” I said. I quirked a brow ominously and made claws. “The Russians are Coming! To tea.” We both laughed. We love that our children don’t have crazy ideas about a whole people based on propaganda.
On one hand, times have changed. On the other, there’s still plenty of bad stuff committed by any large, armed nation to make fodder for stereotypes. More than the times, we have changed. Long disciplines of learning to love have sunk in. Praying alongside people of every nationality has taught the hard and tiny parts of our brains that grace comes with every accent and dress and skin tone and language.
The past two weeks have revealed to a lot of us the deep pain of racial divisions in the U.S. in ways we cannot ignore. One of my sons is Michael. I have been haunted by the horror of seeing another mother’s Michael shot down unarmed in the street just because a white cop had been taught to fear black men. I wish times had changed. I wish long habits of prayer and humility had reformed white hearts to love black faces. But that is not always the case. In the United States, Sunday mornings are still the most segregated hours of the week.
But what if you and I start by applying our religious truths to unfamiliar persons? I don’t mean forced conversions or assuming that our way is universal. I mean, what do you practice religiously? Do you work out? Wash your face? Floss? Drink coffee? Have tea? Love mustard? Make the best chili? Garden? Find something you do every day that you consider sacred, whether that is prayer or a ritual of daily life. Then remind yourself that the persons you fear or the persons with whom you are least familiar, share those same loves or ones very like.
There’s a truism in ministry circles that you have to eat together in order to form connections. That’s because it’s hard to dehumanize a man who likes your Grandma’s sweet iced tea or who makes the best biscuits. It’s hard to view black women as exotic and sassy embodiments of white women’s sexual insecurities if you as a white woman remember,”Hey, black women also have to put on lotion. They are also glad, at the end of the day, to take off their uncomfortable shoes [and maybe bras].” When you bathe your little white son’s hair, remember the black boys getting scrubbed in their own tubs, and pray for their safety when you pray for the safety of your children. Remember these things, not to be trite or oversimplistic or Polyana – because just remembering is not going to stop the racial violence – but because these simple patterns in our lives are where we meet God.
As my preaching professor once said, “We are all washed in the same tub.” In the church, we are all washed in the same tub. We are all fed at the same table. We are all dressed from the same set of immaculate hand-me-downs.
But even beyond the life of faith, we have life in common. I had the privilege of speaking over dinner one evening with Bishop Ochola, who works for peace in Northern Uganda where there are child soldiers and devastating war. I asked him if the peace process there had any insights for American religious and racial discords, and how he spoke to people of different or no faiths. He answered simply, “I start by talking about water. We all drink the same water. There is only one water.”
At the time, I wondered if the message was too simple to catch on here. But I had forgotten that I live in the most tolerant city in the United States. I had forgotten that my network of highly educated and gifted friends of all skin tones and nationalities had dulled me to the stark racial divides in most of our country. I had forgotten that my children are strange, not in being color blind, but because they are being taught to believe a story contrary to racism.
So, here we are. There is only one water. If that’s the start of a good thought in you, I’m glad to share it. And if you come into my life, I hope I’ll use a little to make tea.