On Ash Wednesday, 2008, my family received a phone call that would turn our lives upside down. There was a 3-day-old African-American boy at the hospital. His mom had left him there, hooked on drugs. The adoption agency was calling from the list of approved parents and asked if we wanted to come receive this baby. We said “yes” and the following Monday, we brought our son home.
For seven years now, I have listened to Mary’s song, the Magnificat, differently than before. I realize now that she tells a true story of what happens when you say “yes” to Jesus. Jesus comes and turns the world upside down…and in the process, really turns it right-side up.
Being Elijah’s mom has done for me almost everything that Mary sings about. My lowly, grieving, barren spirit was filled, quite literally, with the joy of this child. But this child also knocked me off my throne in painful and transforming ways.
I’ve learned things that I didn’t ever want to know about people I love as they reacted to him. There have been intentionally and unintentionally hurtful, off-the-cuff comments by folks who would swear they weren’t racist. My pride was shattered when I realized that I had no idea how to take care of my child’s hair. His arrival made me aware, quite suddenly, of how white my world was.
We had to work hard to find doctors, teachers, barbers, neighborhoods, and schools where Elijah would not be the only brown face and where he would have good role models. I began to realize how much I had been protected in my life; what things I have been privileged not to experience. I began to listen to the stories told by parents of other black children.
I have cried myself to sleep many nights wondering how I could ever do this little boy justice, heartbroken for the world in which he would be raised, and for the systemic injustices that exist and to which I was so naïve. I found myself becoming an advocate in ways that I never imagined…and in ways that, sometimes, catch my white family and friends off guard.
In the same way that I, as a young woman in a predominantly-male career, know that I have to be extra sharp to prove to folks my right to stand in pulpits, I find that I often hold Elijah to a higher standard behaviorally and academically. I catch myself living out fears that he will be judged by assumptions that are too easily made about young black boys who act up, and those are not the fears that I have for my white son with similar little-boy antics.
I have wrestled with sin in my own life, once catching myself crossing the street when approached by a group of black teenagers walking home from school. I panicked when I realized that I had internally made assumptions about these teens based on how they looked. I recoiled in horror to realize that I could have just crossed the street on my own son—the sweet child who insists on buying me flowers at the grocery story, who loves to read, and who, at seven years old, insists on wearing baggy pants because they’re “comfy.”
I said “yes” to Jesus when I was 17 years old and that yes led me down a path that brought me Elijah. How could I have ever known how that yes would knock me off my throne, confront my sins, my fears, my prejudices, and place me in solidarity with the real struggles of folks whose history is to be marginalized and oppressed? How could I have ever known that the one who would fill my life with the greatest joy and deepest blessing, with abundant laughter, love, and life would challenge me in so many ways? I preach a lot of nice words about how Jesus’ mission in the world is to make broken places whole. What I never realized was that I would be one of those broken places. Best beware of what might happen when you say “yes” to Jesus.