An Excerpt from
The Power of Revolutionary Relationships to Heal the World
Rozella Haydée White
Paperback: Fortress Press, 2019
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I met Michael when I was twenty years old, when my denomination sponsored events that invited congregations to think about global and local issues and their intersections. The leadership of the group was comprised of many young adults—artists, speakers, writers, and musicians—representing countries all over the world. This group was created and led by our mentor and role model, a woman named Sunitha, who is divinity embodied. She has a way of knowing how to curate space and relationships that lead to liberation, growth, and peace.
Michael and I met through these events, but we became closer a few years later after I was tapped to research the effectiveness of short-term Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) mission trips. My first order of business was to gather partners from around the world who had hosted US travelers in their home countries. Michael was one of the first people I invited, and he showed up ready to share a variety of thoughts and stories. This is something that I love about Michael—he is always thinking. He is a philosopher, a sociologist, a businessman, a man of faith, and a comedian rolled into one person. He can make me think one moment and burst into laughter the next. He’s awesome.
Leaders from all over Africa, Asia, the Middle East, South America, and the Caribbean were invited to join me for a multiday consultation in Chicago. My goal was to listen to their stories and ask their perspectives on Americans coming into their countries to serve. To say it was an enlightening experience is an understatement. To this day, I know that I was standing on holy ground listening to holy people share stories of frustration and anger at the ways in which people took advantage of their suffering. We created a space where people could honestly share their hurt and ask some really hard questions about intentions. I told them that while I couldn’t speak for all Americans who traveled to their countries, I could listen to their stories. I could take what they shared and create best practices and training tools that groups could use so that these things wouldn’t happen again.
During a particularly heated moment in our conversation, Michael began to speak, and I still remember his impassioned words to this day. “Tell me this Rozella. Your people spend billions of dollars on travel to our countries every year to ‘help’ us. They see the people. They hear the stories. They work on some projects and take some pictures. Then they go home. We are left behind, and nothing changes for us and our lives. We have heard people talk about being changed when they come back to America, but our lives go on as if nothing happened. You live in a country where your people have the power to advocate on behalf of people around the world. With the money and time spent traveling to us, why haven’t laws in your country changed that impact our livelihood? Why haven’t more people become politically engaged and spoken up about harmful practices and policies of the United States that negatively impact people all over the globe? If this happened, there wouldn’t be a need for so-called service trips.”
I was stunned and speechless. As others around the table nodded in agreement, I felt ill-equipped to respond to the rightly deserved anger that Michael was expressing. Because we were friends, I knew he wasn’t mad at me, and it wasn’t a personal attack. I knew that he felt comfortable airing his very valid frustration, and I recognized that my role was not to have all the answers or defend anyone’s actions. It was simply to listen and to be present.
As others spoke up and shared their thoughts, I began to wonder if we should even do these types of trips. Were they more harmful than helpful? I asked this question, and again it was Michael who spoke up. He said, “No. Come. Bring your people. We know that getting out of one’s comfort zone and experiencing another’s life is necessary for transformation. But don’t come to do anything. Just come and be.”
This lesson has proven to be foundational for how I understand revolutionary relationships. It’s never about what you do for another. It’s always about how you are with another. After all, we are human beings, not human doings. Michael modeled a way of being that was not the norm for me. He challenged me to simply show up, without an agenda, and listen and learn.
For many of us, relationships are transactional. We are in relationships that help us do something, get something, or learn something. So many relationships have an agenda. Even Christianity has been guilty of encouraging people to be in relationships with others in order to get them to believe something. This way of viewing relationships has done a great disservice to our faith and our communities. Neither my faith nor my lived experiences lead me to embrace this understanding. Christianity isn’t about coercion. It’s about love. If I believe that God is the ultimate Lover and became human simply to show us that we were loved and model for us how to love ourselves and others, then the purpose of any relationship I’m in is to love.
By simply being who he was—by loving himself and being clear about who he was and what he was called to—Michael modeled loving me despite any shortcomings. Michael taught me that I was asleep and that there was a better way. He made me open my eyes. I will forever be indebted to him.