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It’s been quite a while since I regularly wrote here and there is a reason for that. For many months, I have been challenged in my real life to actually live out (!) some of the things I’ve written about in my blogging life, and as usual, I’ve come up short of my own talk.

Let me begin by saying that I love my church. I believe my family is meant to be a part of this particular local body of Christians. Like any church, we have our issues. One of those issues is that while we have a diverse congregation, our church is seated in an area that is predominantly composed of people of color (African-Americans and Latinos, to be specific). I was a part of the church launch and proud to be part of a community aiming to connect with people of all backgrounds. When we launched, our core leadership consisted of several Asian-Americans, a black music director fluent in Spanish, and several white people.

Over the last few years, for reason one or another, we lost several of that initial group. Almost every person of color was [albeit unintentionally] replaced by a white person. When we lost our music director last year, I worried we were losing ground and may be putting our multi-ethnic, fledgling congregation at risk of looking like other churches that had been planted by our home church: white from the top down. Just as I thought we’d hit real trouble, God brought along a young man who was black and Puerto Rican. He was fluent in Spanish and a gifted leader. Our congregation actually got even more diverse, as members of the community saw someone they could connect with at the helm every Sunday morning.

We had some rough business happen last fall where for financial reasons, that young man was asked to leave. He was replaced by a white woman; and, while I was pleased about that to some degree (yay! a woman again!), I struggled with that age-old dichotomy of whose rights/acceptance/ascension come first: [likely white] women or people of color. These two groups are historically pitted against one another and as they say, history often repeats itself. In the days that followed that church decision, I wrote to our pastoral staff, our church elders, and maybe even to Santa Claus, to express my concern that we were backing away from an important tenet of our faith and a vital characteristic of our church in surrendering to homogeneity.

While many in leadership, especially my local pastor, took my concerns to heart, it remained an insignificant factor in finalizing their decision. At an open forum on the topic of our music minister’s dismissal, I voiced my concerns to the highest authorities in person, citing Scripture and asking them to consider the ramifications of such a decision. Several black women shared about the importance of having a role model and leader who “looks like them,” but their gentle attempts at explaining racial identity to our white pastors consistently fell on deaf ears. An Asian woman spoke up in support of our music minister, reflecting on a similar theme, but putting it in entirely different terms and drawing attention to the fact that our church leadership had, by default, whitened over the last two years. Again, a “we understand and that IS important, but…” was handed to us.

I was like a dog with a bone in that meeting. At one point, I asserted to the pastor leading the thing, “I’m just going to have to be the thorn in your side here because I find your answers unsatisfying. This is important to me, as a white person. It should be important to you, too.” Many times I was worried that I was coming off like a nut job. Even the people that wanted our music minister to stay were looking at like I was a bossy lunatic. After I spoke, one of the white pastors told us, in his defense, that he was married to an Asian woman, so he got it. They get funny looks sometimes, so he knew what I was talking about. He said, “I’m not colorblind, I know how important this is, but I won’t be color-bound in my decision.” What he didn’t realize is that he was. He is. We all are.

As the meeting ended, other issues were raised and the pastors demonstrated a stauncher commitment to the decision to let our music minister go. Several of the women of color who spoke during the proceedings came up to me afterward and thanked me for being so aggressive. One woman openly praised God while talking to me about it, thanking Him that a person like me would even know this stuff. I suppose compared to what she had just seen of white people (and perhaps what she knows of us generally), I did come off a little better. I was intensely discouraged by that meeting and despite the warm words of a few women, I felt unheard and more than a little homeless. My husband and I had many conversations about whether to stay or go in light of those events.

Following those days, in the early winter, I had lunch with another white woman in a position of leadership. She asked me about my opinion of those events and I told her what transpired in the public forum. I was careful to guard myself against gossip because she wasn’t there herself, but since it was an open meeting, I relayed some of the back and forth as close to the facts as I could recall. She was comfortable with the pastors’ decision, but what I’d said sparked a conversation on race and soon, we were in it even deeper than I had gone in that meeting.

I tried to talk to her about some of the things I’ve learned and show her my own shortcomings in this area. I told her of incidents where my privilege had blinded me to what others were going through and how reconciliation required both repentance and humility. I got a lot of “well, I don’t see them reaching out to us. Their congregations aren’t integrated. It won’t be like that in Heaven, but maybe that’s just how it is here.” It was acceptance bordering on endorsement. As we talked, she kept eying a black couple to my left to see if they were listening. They were, at times, but that didn’t seem to inhibit her commentary. She went on to say that thankfully, racism seemed to be dying out and that our children probably wouldn’t have these problems. She told me that she often teases her daughter, who is so open-minded in her social circles, “Don’t you have any friends with normal names?”

Normal names. I couldn’t even speak. How do you even respond to that?! I had an answer for everything she had said, but this seemed to cross some invisible gall line that I couldn’t follow her over. Did anyone other than the people of color in my church, I mean any one white person, even care? Did any one of them even know they should care? At what point do you hang on and hope people will understand and at what point do you let go of the rope? I had reached that point. My hands were off. I could do no more. Me, a white person, needed some white allies if I was going to have the confidence to remain in this community.

Then I began thinking about why I felt I needed allies. Why was I looking to other white people for courage? Shouldn’t God be giving me that? Shouldn’t the rightness of my cause be giving me that? The three women of color at that meeting endured flagrant dismissal in their attempt to be a legitimate part of our church community. I thought about how many times they must have wondered, “Should we just go to an all-black church?” I considered that the homelessness and the alienation I felt as a white weirdo had to be just a drop in the bucket of what those women had borne. Sure, I was formidable at that meeting, but much of my indignation was fueled by the fact that I wasn’t getting my way. I wasn’t being heard. I was pissed that the system that always works for me wasn’t working for me. And in my pride and privilege, I was surprised by my ineffectiveness. Here I was doing that white person, “But, I’m a good white person! Where’s my cookie!?!” thing.

It was during this short season of contemplation that one of those women (the Praise lady) and I had a talk that empowered me to stay. She and I were talking about how my husband and I are preparing to become foster parents and the subject of race, etc. came up again. She told me that she and her husband came from an all-black church and intentionally left to pursue an integrated community. She said that they weren’t turning back, even in the face of the great disappointments our leadership was handing down. She reminded me that change is slow and it takes people of goodwill staying and insisting (or in my case, agitating and irritating) for things to get better.

I was, what we evangelical-types call “convicted.” I was told to be patient and endure by a woman who exuded patience and graciousness. I have such a low tolerance for personal injustice. Thanks, again white privilege. And who was I kidding, it wasn’t even fully personal for me. I wasn’t being dismissed and ignored. The people of color involved were being dismissed and ignored. Sure, I got a taste of it for standing in solidarity with them, and I’m proud of that. But that was little league stuff, and in light of the greater struggle against prejudice, racism, and privilege, any injury I sustained was even smaller. I was in a huff and ready to leave before the thing even really got started.

About a month ago, a white woman I’m just getting to know had a conversation with me about fostering. She’d been raised by white parents (her birth parents) and was part of a large family of fostered and adopted children. Her parents had moved into a low-income, predominantly black community when she was a child. Everyone at their church balked at the move (and initially, their ever-growing family), cautioning her parents that their children would be imperiled by that decision. They didn’t care. They trusted God. Over time, the church folks came around. The church became multicultural, with interracial couples and various blends of families from different backgrounds. Families of color joining and becoming leaders in the church. One family’s decision to be different and pursue God’s direction made a difference in their intimidated, ignorant, white church community. But the change was slow. She told me that “these things have a tendency to catch on.” I’m still skeptical that any of this can happen for my church, but still there’s a glint of hope.

Yet, even last week, I got another glimpse at the possibilities. We go to dinner with an assigned group of people once a month over a three-month stint. It’s an activity designed to acquaint every family in our particular church group. Saturday, we had dinner with a young white couple and an Ethiopian family. As it seems to do these days, the topic of race, missions, and ministry, came up. The white couple were educated at a Christian college in Ohio where they learned about white privilege and how Christians can be involved in racial justice. I was kind of shocked, to be honest, at what they had learned at their relatively conservative evangelical school. The couple is planning to lead a team of missionaries to Haiti where they will be establishing a relationship between our church and a local church there. They wanted counsel on how to do missions in light of all they understood about colonialism, imperialism, white savior-ism and the lot. The Ethiopian couple talked at length about what their perceptions were of missionaries back home: how it had been done badly, how it had been done well. They spoke of how trust is cultivated, how one can learn from the other, and how open, strong, healthy partnerships and peer relationships can develop.

The husband talked a bit about his experience with racial profiling, being light-skinned and mistaken for an Arabic person and searched at security stations in airports. He said he always made sure to go to the bathroom before the flight because he knew just standing up during the flight might frighten the passengers. I was appalled and said he shouldn’t do that, nor should he feel he has to do that. He agreed that it was a sacrifice, but said in those situations he still aims to make [white] people comfortable. I knew that many people in our church would not be bothered by such a situation. They may be uncomfortable knowing someone it had actually happened to, but in theory, they have no qualms with profiling, etc. Again, I was reminded that any loneliness I feel in my church because of my convictions is a small offering compared to what is happening right now to my Christian brothers and sisters of color.

When we left dinner, I had a renewed sense of passion for racial justice and reconciliation. The injustices against my new Ethiopian friends, the righteous indignation and humility of my new white friends. It was a lot to take in over one meal. I’m not sure where all of this is leading, but I know there is a great and difficult conversation emerging in our church about race. More than anything else, I am thankful that God is faithful to keep putting me in it. Even when I look crazy or devolve into a total whiner over it.

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Last fall, I bought Dr. Tony Evans’ new book, Oneness Embraced: Through the Eyes of Tony Evans.  Personally, I’m a fan of this pastor and his radio show, The Alternative.  A few years ago, I also had the privilege of sitting under the teaching of his daughter, Priscilla Shirer, at a women’s conference held by my church.  Seeing Dr. Evans was taking up the topic of race and racism in the evangelical church, I immediately got a copy.  Unfortunately, it took me several months to get around to reading it.  I can say that this book, written primarily to white and black audiences in particular, is a confident yet diplomatic invitation to those interested in building unity amid diversity and division in the church.

Dr. Evans begins by identifying white evangelical culture’s call to return to the good old days for what it is: an intensely problematic romanticism that overlooks the theological error and human cruelty committed by revered historical figures.  Evans is gentle, generous and gracious in explaining this to his likely resistant and privileged audience:

For far too long Anglo Christians have wrapped the Christian faith in the American flag, often creating a civil religion that is foreign to the way God intended His church to function.  Our nation’s founding fathers are frequently elevated to the level of church fathers in the arguments for the U.S. being founded as a Christian nation…Our founding fathers’ failure to apply the principles of freedom that they were espousing to the area of race is a prominent reason why many minority individuals are less than enthusiastic to join in with those in our nation who want to exalt or restore America’s history and heritage…what is often missing in our appeal to the return of the heritage and faith of our founding fathers is an acknowledgment and reversal of a major theological contradiction that many held–that of proclaiming justice for all while denying it for many…[We] have often appealed to that heritage while simultaneously ignoring the moral inconsistencies that were prevalent in its application. (19-20)

Evans dedicates a large section of his book to educate his audiences about the evolution of the black church in America.  This is perhaps the most valuable component.  While this abridged history may seem like an oversimplification for students of the subject, Evans’ presentation of the material piques one’s interest and would be engaging to any relatively uneducated audience (like me).  Unlike many of his white peers, Evans, himself a mainline evangelical, acknowledges the contributions of black liberation theologian James Cone, while making clear his own points of contention with that dogma.  He encourages his readers to engage in a discerning exploration of Cone’s theology:

While evangelicals would do well to listen to James Cone in the areas where he has argued correctly, we must also recognize the areas of disagreement.  Primarily, Cone’s black theology greatly overemphasized the black situation of oppression to the point of compromising biblical truth.  It also focused heavily on racism to such an extent that no real basis for reconciliation was afforded.  Likewise, Cone’s interpretation of the relationship of Jesus Christ to liberation failed to integrate it into the whole of God’s salvific purposes for mankind. (193)

Evans goes on to address how Cone’s theology affected earlier emphases of the black church and how those shifts interacted with the social and political realm.  Evans’ discussion of these historical topics is scholarly and thoughtful, inviting conversation and accepting that there are differing opinions on these topics within the black church.

Following this section, Evans lays out a proposal for establishing a multi-cultural church that addresses the reality of the racialized context of black-white relationships.  Evans’ hope for unity and reconciliation in the church is not a naïve one.  He confronts the situation honestly saying, “Both sides must be willing to experience the potential rejection of friends and relatives, whether Christians or non-Christians, who are not willing to accept that spiritual family relationships transcend physical, cultural, and racial relationships.  He even cites Ephesians 4 and one of our favorite verses here on the blog.  Evans describes the “kingdom-minded church” both metaphorically and practically (each paired with Scripture references that I’m omitting for the sake of brevity):

Someday a big show is coming to town and it’s called the kingdom of God…God has left His church here to provide clips of the major production that is to come.  Unfortunately, most of our clips have been so weak in demonstrating the power and wonder of a feature film that few people show interest in picking up a ticket.  Instead of previewing an epic, we often merely reflect the sitcoms and soap operas around us…While there is war in the world, there ought to be the existence of peace in the church, and prayer for peace by the church.  While there is oppression in society, there ought to be liberation and justice in the church.  While there is poverty in the world, there ought to be voluntary sharing with the goal of meeting existing needs in the church.  While there is racism, classism, and sexism in the world, there ought to be authentic oneness in the church.  Thus the world is presented with the option of Christ by being what the church is supposed to be in the world–an alternative model for the world–a community functioning under the rule of God in the mediatory kingdom on earth. (247-248)

While much of what Evans presents in the book is done so in reduced, dualistic terms (black v. white, social action v. personal transformation, etc.), there are times when this works in his favor, adding weight to his arguments in favor of a deeper commitment to social justice (something white evangelicals often eschew as a priority for “liberal” churches).  The dualism also gives his point-of-view poignancy, as in his conversation with famed evangelist Billy Graham (who himself struggled for years to integrate his crusades and rectify his the mistakes he made early in his career when he kowtowed to segregationists):

While we spent the afternoon together, [Graham] expressed the concern weighing heavy on his heart.  He told me how individuals would work together across racial lines to both plan and implement his crusades; however, after the event was over, these same individuals had no relationship with each other at all…In response, I told him that this happened because the event was only tied to evangelism and not to community transformation as well.  When invited, black pastors joined with white pastors to put together an evangelistic outreach.  But the heart of African-American Christianity hinged on a broader perspective of the scope of the gospel rather than solely on the gospel’s content.  When asked to participate in the community-impact initiatives by their fellow African-American pastors, the Anglo church has, as a general rule, often not shown the same enthusiasm of partnership that they receive in their outreach requests.  Without a comprehensive understanding of the gospel, we lack the common goal necessary to bring us together to evoke real and lasting change in our nation. (270-271)

Evans ends his book with a short description of how his church has integrated some of these principles in an effort to reflect the wider kingdom of God.  This section is short, but offers a practical template for conducting ministry in light of and with an aim toward unity and diversity.

I’m glad to see such popular preachers taking up these issues and I’m hopeful that my next read, John Piper’s Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian, will also prove edifying.

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From June 18, 2011, through January 1, 2012, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, will be hosting an exhibit called “Race: Are We So Different?

The exhibition RACE: Are we so different? brings together the everyday experience of living with race, its history as an idea, the role of science in that history, and the findings of contemporary science that are challenging its foundations.

Interactive exhibit components, historical artifacts, iconic objects, compelling photographs, multimedia presentations, and attractive graphic displays offer visitors to RACE an eye-opening look at its important subject matter.

Developed by the American Anthropological Association in collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota, RACE is the first nationally traveling exhibition to tell the stories of race from the biological, cultural, and historical points of view. Combining these perspectives offers an unprecedented look at race and racism in the United States.

Other museums have been and will be hosting this exhibit as well. Current and upcoming locations include Boston, Charlotte, Santa Barbara, New Orleans, Houston, and Durham. Please visit the official website for a virtual tour and the tour schedule.

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An interview with Nancy DiTomaso:

What inspired your study of white attitudes towards race and racial inequality?

In order for me to understand the issues of race in the U.S. –particularly racial inequality– I decided that I needed to understand a puzzling phenomenon: Why is it that the issues of race and racial inequality are so prevalent in public discussion, in news media, in scholarly work, yet when you talk to people about race, no one seems to think there’s a problem? This is particularly true among whites….

In general, whites in the U.S. articulate a value system that says that color blindness is a good thing– that noticing race, mentioning race, calling attention to race is a bad thing. And so people would like to think of themselves as colorblind. Most people claim that it doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, green, purple or blue. What really matters is the best person for the job, the best student for the school, etc. Now, they don’t necessarily act that way in their own lives. They in fact do notice race– we have lots of studies that indicate that that is one of the first things that you notice about someone. But the etiology is that it isn’t something one should notice, and therefore we aren’t going to mention it, we aren’t going to talk about it. In fact, whites get very uncomfortable if people call attention to it….

Whites may talk about race, racism and race relations in terms of a collective process, or a community will, but they never applied it to themselves. When people do think about issues of racial inequality, they attribute it to “those racists over there.” It never applies to them. They hold onto the notion that racial inequality is created primarily by racism, and if they don’t feel that they’re racist, then they don’t have to participate in a solution.

I learned some unexpected things from these interviews– namely that inequality gets reproduced through advantages to whites, as much or more so than it does through discrimination against minorities. While some people make the argument that these are just different sides of the same coin, I will argue that there are very important differences. While discrimination against blacks or other minorities is illegal, favoritism or advantage towards white is not….

How are whites advantaged in the job market when discriminatory policies have been banned?

Essentially I found that everybody got every job, throughout their entire lives, because somebody helped them. They know someone or they know someone who knows someone, etc. This is so pervasive that I came to understand that almost every job is wired– meaning that there isn’t an equal opportunity for people to go out there and compete for a job. Almost every job, in one way or another, is reserved for someone’s friend, or someone’s colleague, or someone who knows someone, or someone like me.

Most of the people that I talked to are subject to what psychologists call “attribution error.” Attribution error has to do with how you attribute the outcomes of certain things. Most people understand what happened in their lives as the result of their own individual efforts, their own personal characteristics, because they were honest, hardworking, tried hard, motivated, able to change, etc. And the situational context– the help they got, the resources available to them, the advantages that they had– are not particularly noticeable to them. In fact, in most cases they didn’t offer that information. If they did offer it upon further probing, they would usually minimize it or discount it.

The extra help and advantages were essentially invisible. These advantages would not immediately come to mind when I asked them, “How did you get that job?” Many times in the interviews I would have to say, “Did you know anyone there? Did anyone help you? How did this come about?” Then people would say, “Yes, as a matter of fact, I just happened to run into this fellow that I used to go to high school with that worked there. He came over and put his arm around my shoulder and said, ‘You should hire this guy. He’s a good guy.’”

When I asked people what the most important factor was in getting to where they are in life, they would say things like hard work, honesty, motivation, ability to change, persistence. These were all things that they identified as their personal characteristics. It wasn’t attributed to someone helping me, my family having resources, someone helping with school tuition or the down payment on a house or car. These facts would be revealed when I asked specific questions, but they didn’t see those as important factors.

Furthermore, having this kind of help or advantage in terms of getting jobs was not just true of the people in fact who had tried hard, worked hard and persisted. It was also true of the people who had screwed up, who had flunked out of school, who had gotten fired from jobs, who had gotten in trouble with the law, who had gotten into drugs and alcohol. Even those people knew someone who could get them back on track, find them a job or at least get them in the door. When I asked them about their particular circumstances, people defined said, “You know, I got myself together.” Or they would say “Yes, that just got me in the door, but then I had to prove myself.” So even people who objectively didn’t necessarily have the qualifications or the capabilities were still able to attain those jobs because somebody helped them.

Read more.

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Larry Adelman writes:

Many middle-class white people, especially those of us who grew up in the suburbs, like to think that we got to where we are today by virtue of our merit– hard work, intelligence, pluck, and maybe a little luck. And while we may be sympathetic to the plight of others, we close down when we hear the words “affirmative action” or “racial preferences.” We worked hard, we made it on our own, the thinking goes, why don’t “they”? After all, it’s been almost 40 years now since the Civil Rights Act was passed.

What we don’t readily acknowledge is that racial preferences have a long, institutional history in this country– a white history.

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Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of ‘‘Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”: And Other Conversations about Race, responds:

Many people say “But I’m not racist. I don’t have prejudiced beliefs. As a white person, am I racist, simply because I live in a society in which I’m systematically advantaged?”

For me the relevant issue is not, “Are you racist?” but are you actively working against that system of advantage? Active racism is what I think many people would stereotypically think of as “racist behavior”: name-calling, acts of racial violence, intentional discrimination, cross burning, etc.

But there is a lot of behavior that also supports a system of advantage that we might describe as passively racist. For example, in education – if I am teaching a course in which I exclude the contributions of people of color, only talk about white people’s contributions and only talk about white literature. And I never introduce my students to the work of African Americans, Latinos or Native Americans. I may not be doing that with the intention of promoting a sense of cultural superiority, but in fact the outcome of leaving those contributions out is to reinforce the idea that only white people have made positive cultural contributions.

I know a young woman who went to her English professor and asked, “Why is it that there are only white writers on our list? This is a 20th Century American Literature course. How come there aren’t any writers of color?” Her professor, to his credit, was quite honest and said “I’m teaching the authors I studied in graduate school.” It wasn’t malice on his part. He didn’t wake up one day and say, “Over my dead body will there be writers of color on my syllabus.” He was simply teaching the authors with whom he was most familiar.

Another example of individuals supporting racist systems can be found in our lending institutions. I might be an individual loan officer who considers herself to be quite progressive, very open minded; a person with limited, if any, prejudice. And yet I might work for a bank that has the practice of charging higher percentage rates to people who live in particular neighborhoods — specifically neighborhoods that have been redlined. So when a person of color from that neighborhood comes to see me, my own inclination might be to give that person a favorable loan. But if the policy of the bank is to give loans at a particular rate in a particular neighborhood, I might enact that policy, apart from my individual attitude, and in my decision-making reinforce the institutional racism embedded in that practice.

If we want to interrupt these cycles, we have to be quite intentional about it. Even without any malicious intents, such passive acts of giving into certain institutions or traditions will perpetuate systems of advantage based on race.

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Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
-Luke 2:14 KJV

Last week on Facebook, Dr. Cornel West shared a book recommendation for people hastily trying to finish their Christmas shopping. The book was Strength to Love, a collection of sermons by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I picked it up a few days ago at a bookstore clearance sale.

On this Christmas day, I’ve been thinking about how the simply profound birth of Jesus ushered in God’s plan for peace with and among humanity. The angels announcing Christ’s birth to the shepherds praised God and proclaimed peace and goodwill toward men.

Elsewhere, in Isaiah 9 we’re told of Jesus’ birth:

For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Unto us was given a prince of peace.

When we started this blog, we wanted it to be a place where each of us, in her own way, was working out that peace through explorations of faith, justice, and reconciliation. We focused even then on the person of Christ, who “himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility…”

As I’ve been reading Dr. King’s book this week, I’ve been struck by the idea that while we have been given the Prince of Peace Himself, we have also been given by Him the charge of being peacemakers.

King emphasizes this in one particular concept: mutuality. King writes,

In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.

In breaking down the wall of hostility between God and man, Jesus was also breaking down the walls people have erected between one another. It’s my fervent hope that we, the adopted daughters of Peace, will seek to proclaim the truth, make peace, restore justice, and serve as reconcilers on this blog, in our communities, and as we move through this world.

It’s a tall order, but we’ve seen it done. We’re celebrating it even now in the humble birth of Christ.

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. -Phillipians 2:4-7

Merry Christmas, y’all.

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