(CW: discussion of white supremacy)
Shortly after I started seminary in August 2016, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. For the past 4 years, as I’ve studied theology and clinical social work in a dual MDiv/MSW program, my formation — and that of my classmates — has been inevitably, indelibly marked by the unique cultural challenges of the Trump era.
The day after the election, November 9, 2016, I’ll be honest, I walked the halls of Duke Divinity School feeling rather like a zombie, shocked, confused, and tired from staying up until midnight EST to confirm election results. Chapel that day was a holding space for myriad emotions to say the least.
At lunchtime, I went with a classmate to a McDonald’s on campus, and something happened that I may never forget. When my classmate and I approached the counter to order, a middle-aged white man wearing a Make America Great Again shirt slipped in front of us in line and told the cashier, “Hey, I ordered a milkshake and haven’t gotten it yet. Been waiting a little while.”
The cashier, who was a young black woman clearly busy with the lunch rush, told the man, “Yes, sir, we’ll get that to you as soon as we can.”
“C’mon, sweetie,” the man said, fist on the counter, “You gotta serve me, whether you like it or not. We won.”
The young woman, in an act of incredible fortitude, turned around and dispensed the man’s milkshake into a cup, handing it to him politely. After he walked away, she looked at me and my classmate, shaking her head, clearly and justifiably livid, and said to us what she had felt like saying to the milkshake man, “Why do people do that?! Jesus, help me. No. No milkshake for you, sir! Nooo, sir. Jesus.“
“I’m so sorry people do that,” I said quietly. I hope I tipped her well that day. More so, I hope I’ve grown in my resolve to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” (as the baptismal covenant of my denomination calls for) ever since that day, including resistance to white supremacy in whatever form(s) it may appear.
A few weeks later, it was Advent. It was a time when the Church collectively says Jesus, help us (to use the words of my resilient cashier).
A time when we sing songs like O Come, O Come, Emmanuel with verses like this, which I remember posting on Facebook following the 2016 election:
O come, O king of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind
Bid all our sad divisions cease
and be yourself our king of peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
I did not necessarily feel like rejoicing that year, and I don’t necessarily this year either. Maybe you don’t too.
Advent in recent years, for me and maybe for many of us, has been a time of lament. A time of recognizing unjust systems and personal complicity in those systems, then reacting in part by crying out: “No. No! This isn’t right. Jesus, help us.”
I certainly realize not everyone celebrates Advent and Christmas, and not everyone’s lamentation cry includes the words, “Jesus, help us.” I happen to be a Christian, so that’s how lament sounds for me and for quite a few people I know. Regardless of how lament sounds, looks, tastes, smells, and feels for you, I’m convinced we as humans need sources of hope and strength beyond ourselves to hear us and to help us.
Maybe you’re going to vigils or protests, support groups or Blue Christmas services. Maybe you’re lighting candles in your living room, sharing meals around a table. Whatever you’re doing, I hope you’re finding little lights in the dark of winter to say, “Things aren’t right. Things need to change. Somehow, somehow, hard as it is to believe, things will change.”
Jesus, help us. Immanuel, God be with us.