In July 2015, the world’s population was 7.3 billion, and India became the second most populous country in the world with 1.3 billion, while the population of the United States was three million more than the 320 million Twitter users globally. The smiley emoji with tears became Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year, while the new word merkeling, named after the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Time’s Person of the Year, has become synonymous with patience. From Baghdad, Beirut, Chennai, Lebanon, and Paris to Baltimore, Cleveland, Ferguson, and San Bernardino, there has been a lot to fear, but the top hashtags for 2015 on Twitter proclaim otherwise: #LoveWins #BlackLivesMatter #RefugeesWelcome #IStandWithAhmed #JeSuisCharlie #PrayForTheWorld #ChennaiRains. The Voice of America headlined it aptly: Justice and Joy Dominate 2015 Twitter Hashtags.
In 2015, I swung from frustration after the racist Charleston Emanuel AME Church killings to rage about the destitute. The repeal of the living wage by my city council had me signing petitions to reinstate it. I visited my congresswoman’s office to lend my support to new bi-partisan legislation against mass incarceration. I learned about the detainees from all over the world housed in our local jails. I was saddened by the continuing gun violence. The California drought strengthened my family’s resolve to pursue simplicity. Faith, passion, and career coalesced in a magnificently fulfilling Spirit–led initiative, the Anti-racism Digital Library and International Anti-racism Thesaurus about which I’ll share more in the year to come. But the struggles of friends with cancer, illnesses, and other challenges, along with the shifting war fronts and the refugee crisis, brought me close to despair.
My friends shared similar feelings and stories of growing intolerance, partisanship, tribalism, unhealthy obsessions about body image, and narcissistic, indulgent behaviors. After the San Bernardino shootings, the intolerance expressed toward devout Muslims and the desecration of a local Sikh place of worship especially bothered us. What should the faithful do?
Led by the Newport-Mesa-Irvine Interfaith Alliance (my church St. Mark Presbyterian is a member), my pastor, other faith leaders, and more than 200 supporters showed up at the local Islamic mosque one Friday during Advent. The following Friday we visited a local Sikh Gurdwara and after worship shared in the langar (vegetarian meal). But I wanted to do more, and I wanted something that everyone could join. Besides prayer and parley, presence and purse, how else could I be expressing solidarity? The surprising answer came in a series of diverse verses from Scripture (Christian): Prov. 31:25; 1 Tim. 4:8; 1 Cor. 6: 19–20; Gen. 1:26a; John 1:14; Eph. 1:11–12.
A tentative plan coalesced into action when I received a head-wrap as a surprise Christmas gift. Impetuously, courageously a young college student Bailey Super and I consecrated Epiphany Sunday; Bailey wore an Indian sari (from my tradition), and I put on the head wrap (from her tradition) for worship. Later, we took pictures and posted them on Facebook with the hashtags: #NotCulturalAppropriation #TheWorldIsMyOyster #SolidarityWithHumanity. If you, like me, are looking for simple solidarity, I invite you to join our fun little fashion game.
- Team up with someone from a different cultural heritage than your own; each of you should choose an authentic costume or piece of clothing from the other’s heritage (e.g. for men, Pakistani stole, sherwani, for women, the Indian sari, African headwrap). Learn about the clothing.
- Make a commitment to wear it to church and one other public place (work, school, grocery). Wear it once a month or bi-monthly.
- When you wear it, engage someone in conversation about it. Ask the other person about the traditions and meaning of the clothing. Share your experiences wearing it with one another.
- Take pictures and post them on social media or email it to me and the Presbyterians Today blog. If you post it on social media, please use any or all of these tags: #FashionistasActivistas #SolidarityWithHumanity #APraiseForGodsGlory #WeAreAllFromAfrica.
The point here is not simply the clothing. The world’s not going to change by holding up a sign for a photo, donning a hoodie on social media, or wearing a hijab for a day. If done in isolation, this risks not only cultural appropriation but also smug self-satisfaction.
The point is what this kind of clothing leads to. When done in partnership with another person, this reciprocity of clothing leads to an interchange of ideas and experiences. We get to know somebody different on a more personal level. It invites others to join in by making it public. Solidarity and interconnectedness become tangible. After all you didn’t just toss anything on that you thought “represented” another culture; rather, you submitted to the leading of another person from that culture and you trusted them to help you look good. And that kind of public, power-shifting, interdependence could very well change the world.
Note: This article is an elaboration and adaptation of my blog post: How I turned my body into a canvas for solidarity: An interfaith exchange promises profound transformation, made public on social media, posted on my blog A Mote in Minerva’s Eye: Seeing without categorizing, for Presbyterians Today, One Church, Many Voices blog. You can read that version here.