Friday, September 28, 2007

Church Flyer

I got a flyer in the mail last week from a new church in town. I've met the pastor and his wife. They seem normal.

The thing that struck me about their flyer is that you almost couldn't tell it was for a church. Sure it did say "Join us for the grand opening at Coralville's Newest church", but the front of the flyer had a guy in an Iowa Hawkeyes sweatshirt holding a football, next to the question, "Who is this champion coach?"

On the flip side was a little bio of the pastor, next to his grinning mug shot: "Meet a guy who will bring out the 'champion' in you. Someone who has proven not all champions eat their wheaties. Rather there is a Champion in us all! Joe Smith* is a 9 time coach of the year with over 700 career wins and 35 championshis. This former principal is a 23 year school veteran who has coached football, basketball, and baseball. He is a Disney educator of the year finalist, and a 3 time Who's Who Among American Teachers. Joe Smith is considered by many to be a master communicator and motivator who helps deal with real life issues and questions head-on. He is encouraging, funny, and passionate about providing inspiration for daily living."

Beneath Joe Smith's bio was a picture of the worship pastors, next to the heading, "What to expect at NEW CHURCH*:" with the following bulleted answers:

*CASUAL, laid back atmosphere;
*WORSHIP/MUSIC by popular artist Bill Brown*;
*EXCITING ADVENTURES for KIDS at Iowa Children's Museum, nursery-6th grade;
*A RELEVANT message that makes sense and applies to YOUR life;
*People who are ACTUALLY HAVING FUN--Bordedom Factor Zero!"

There is too much to say about this ad. I will just jump in on a small point and come back later. Here's the thing: I think people will come. People love the Iowa Hawkeyes around here. I bet people will go to church if they think it has something to do with football. Also, the Children's Museum is a huge and expensive experience that many families (if they don't already have a membership) would love to do for free. The "artist Bill Brown" leading worship is sure to be a draw as well, seeing that he's "popular."

Joe Smith has a great bio. It's the kind of thing people in Iowa City flock to--resumes, achievements. He's got instant respect, and lucky for him since he's starting a church and wants people to come (and lots of people dont' go to church). But I can't help hating the fact that this all feels so gimmicky and false. I dont' doubt for a second the sincerity of the hearts of these people, but their strategies sadden me.

Red flags go up when you have to work this hard for people to get to church. Red flags when you have to say in your flyer that people "ACTUALLY HAVE FUN" at your church. And if anyone tells me straight up, "Boredom Factor Zero," I'm willing to bet 100$ the Boredom Factor is off the charts.

The whole thing sounds club-ish, scouts-ish, as well as corporate. I hate clubs, and I hate companies that try to sell themselves on their "authentic," "fun," and "personal" streaks. If you have to sell yourself, then that doesn't make it authentic, fun, or personal.

I understand church growth issues. I'm sure this pastor has some limited funding from the mothership (his church's denominational headquarters). The funding will last so many months. When it stops, he better have a congregation of some sort so he can feed his kids, as well as feed the other hungry people in the community, pay rent the theater and the children's museum, pay for advertisements, sound equipment, etc, etc, etc. And how one gets warm bodies in the door of your new church when you dont' know anyone else in town is you advertise. You get a couple shots through the USPS with your limited budget and you have to take your best--say what you need in order to get those people through the door. And then, after you tell them about Jesus, maybe some of them will stick around.

This doesn't make it any easier.

*not his real name

When I Say It's "Always the Boys",

(see previous post), I am merely reporting fact. The boys in Una's class have, so far, been the violent ones. I sure hope nobody takes this as evidence of an innate difference between girls and boys. That would be unfair, especially since girls are taught to coo at plastic baby dolls and do the cradle-hold while boys are handed water guns and light sabers and video games that are won through physical prowess.

Sometimes I think we're just plain stupid. We turn around after handing out light sabers and say, "Golly, gee, boys are so aggressive"

There's a boy in Una's class, M. The only way he knows how to interact is physical. Give him a car, he'll pound it on a kid's forehead. Smile at him, he'll start running after you, clobber on the shoulder if he can catch up. For no apparent reason, M smashed Una's face into the drinking fountain while she was getting a drink--the first day of school.

The worst part about his behavior is that it causes people not to like him. Even grown ups who should know better. Every other parent dropping their kindergartener off seems annoyed at M's behavior, and therefore annoyed at M. And there are few kind words spoken in his direction. I was one of those parents the first couple weeks, and then I wondered who was going to love this kid? Who was goign to love him out of his crazy, mixed-up, ways of relating. If he kept it up, he'd get more ostracized, and even less capable of connecting with the rest of the world.

I decided to be nice when he walked up to the line the other morning. And not just nice--but engaged. "Hey James," I said, as if he were my favorite kid. "How are you?" All the other parents stared at me.

M stared at me. Then he stopped walking and smiled. He turned around so I could see his backpack imprinted with the image of Lightening McQueen. "Cars," he told me and smiled.

"Cars. Very cool," I said back.

He went to stand in the end of the line, and that day, I don't think he punched or grabbed anyone while waiting for the bell.

More on Kindergarten Relationships (and meditations on Grown Up Relationships)

I told J's parents about the conversation (see previous post) at the school carnival. I was in line behind them with the kids, who were waiting for five minutes on a big bouncer the school rented for the event. J's parents are both educators in our community, at different schools. His dad laughs when I tell the story, though underneath the laugh I think I hear a mild groan.

My first encounter with J is at school the following week. I join Una and her class at lunch time in the cafeteria and J sits across the table from us, with his carton of chocolate milk and hot lunch tray. He makes funny faces and funny noises and Una laughs like crazy. When J finishes his milk, he pounds the container with his fists and yells, "DIE! DIE! DIE!" Una, of course, thinks this is hilarious and cannot stop laughing.

That night at the school's open house, I tell J's mother about his words to the milk carton. "Sometimes I wish I could be a fly on the wall," she confesses. "Other times, I'm glad I'm not."

It concerns me that the boys in Una's class are so aggressive. She's been hit a number of times. Always the boys are the perpetrators of these crimes, and usually the same handful of boys, who aren't singling Una out for any special bullying. They hit all the kids.

K hit her the other day for not playing a game with him at the playground. "I told him, 'I dont' play games with people who hit me. So I'm not going to play with you.'"

I am dumbfounded when she tells me her declaration to K. Really, my child has boundaries? If it were me, well, when it was me, some 20 years ago, all I wanted was for someone to like me. Of course I was going to play dodge ball if a boy asked me to play, even if I had to drag my feet, even if I ended up getting slammed in the face with the ball and a bloody nose and the boy never stopped to see if I was okay. Of course I would play.

Who is my child and where did she get this self-esteem?

In my early twenties even, when the "cool" friends were having an unhealthy effect on me, I could not disengage from them. I wanted them to like me. It took me getting real unhealthy before I was able to change my ways.

Jesus said to pray for those who persecute us. To love our enemies. I used to think that the final word on an unhealthy relationship was to avoid the unhealthy person at all costs. I've learned that may be necessary when I'm in self-preservation mode, i.e., when I lack the strength to deal with an emotionally unstable person. But once I get some strength, fill up on what God has for me, I am beginning to see he's calling me to a more active form of love. Not just theoretical love from a distance. Which is why I tell Una it's okay not to play with kids if their gonna be mean, but we can still be kind to them in other ways. Like, she can offer them the place in front of her in the line to the drinking fountain. She can help them carry their library books.

As I'm dishing out this advice, my anxiety rises. I'm calling myself to a higher standard by telling her this. I know pro-active loving of my enemies sure doesn't come naturally or easy for me.

I was encouraged by my daughter though. At the open house last week, her teacher said, "Una was real sweet when K. apologized. She said, 'I forgive you.' " In all her years of teaching, Mrs. C. said she'd never heard a kindergartener forgive before.

Conversation about Love with the Five-Year-Old Over Dinner

Una, the five year old, announces her new best friend is J.: "I want to marry him!"

"You want to marry him? What about Titus?"

"Well, I love titus too. I love both of them. But you know who I love the best? J.!!!!

"Really, we'll what's he like?"

"Well, he likes to play crazy games like bat girl and bat boy."

"Oh yeah, what's that?"

"It's superheros."

"Do you play with him?"

"Sometimes. He's my best friend. I love him best of all."

"And does he feel that way too. Does he like you a whole lot?"

"Well, I told him he's my best friend and he doesn't care." She shrugs.

"He said that? Wait--what did he say when you told him you liked him?"

"He just said he doesn't care." She shrugs and waves her arm as if annoyed with my question.

"Oh really? Well, honey, maybe you should find a different best friend? Usually best friends BOTH care about each other."

"But I LOVE HIM!" She begins to cry, indignant at the idea of withdrawing her love from J.

"Well, you can love him." I backtrack. "You can totally love him."

"I can?"

"In fact, Jesus says we should love people even if they don't love us, and you know, sometimes, it's true, that if we show love to people then they might love us back." This is not goign how I hoped. It sounds as if I'm proponing manipulation, when in fact I only mean that sometimes love changes people, though there aren't any guarantees.

"They do?" She hops down from the table, wipes her hands on a dishtowel and looks at me.

"Yeah, sometimes."

"Well, I"m gonna be like that." She walks out of the kitchen.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A Small-Town Girl's Perspective

I told my friend Michelle about dance class last night and she nodded her head knowingly. She grew up in a small Iowa town about thirty miles from West Liberty.

"I wasn't sure if she was serious," I told Michelle, about the mother I overheard saying she would beat her daughter.

"Of course not," Michelle shook her head. According to her, it's all just talk with those sorts of moms. She said she knows them, grew up with those kinds of moms. That's how they know to parent. She herself is very kind to her children, chuckling with her son in a non-judgmental way when he comes looking for a third or fourth piece of gum after swallowing the others at the school carnival last week.

Michelle says she can probably guess how the hard-talking dance Mom looked. I described her: "She had permed, frosted hair that was short on top and came out in a triangle shape around her face."

"There you go. There you go," said Michelle, as if this explained everything. She added, "And I bet she had white canvas shoes."

Apparently, this sort of parenting occurs in a particular subculture of the Midwest. In the rural, less literate parts of Iowa, for sure. Of course there are exceptions to the stereotype, but the mean-talking seems to go along with particular mannerisms, fashion, educational achievement, and economic status.

Dance Class and Parents Who Beat Their Kids

Una (the five year old) just started dance classes in West Liberty last week. West Liberty is a town of about 3500 in southeastern Iowa. It is a huge Latino immigrant hotspot, with about 40% of the community having Mexican roots. The town boasts a single main street with two or three Mexican restaurants, a drug store, and an old movie theater that smells inside like musty gym socks. The New Strand plays one movie per week Friday through Sunday nights for about $2.50 and kids five and up crowd the front rows of the theater and giggle and throw popcorn while their parents sit further back, on some sort of date.

The dance classes are offered by a local pastor's wife who happens to be a good friend of my friend Kate, who went to the dance instructor's church many years ago. The dance classes are low-key for five year olds, without a lot of emphasis on image like there is in the Iowa City dance studios (pink ballet shoes, black leotard, white tights, hair in a bun), and it's cheap, making the 20 minute drive down interstate 80 worth it.

Liberty Dance Studio is downtown, a block north of the main street, in an old storefront. It, too, smells like musty gym socks, but is painted brightly yellow to distract one's senses. Last week we got to the studio a few minutes after Una's class had started. She ran through the door in the yellow lobby to the dance floor, where Cindy (the dance instructor) was sitting cross-legged in a circle with the other 4 and 5 year olds. I plopped myself down in a white plastic lawn chair next to Kate in the lobby, which I could do only because she gave up her chair and sat on the floor next to her three month old, Claire, who sat curled up in a carseat. The lobby was packed with chattering mothers and siblings of the dancers. The children ranged in age from newborn to eight years old and they created their own kind of chatter.

I was almost instantly distracted by a young caucasion mother, early twenties, who grabbed her two year old by the shoulders, picked him up and plunked him in a chair while saying "YOU SIT HERE AND DON'T MOVE." Her tone sounded affected, liek I wasn't sure if she was really angry or just acting like it to get results with her toddler. I raised my eyebrows and looked at Kate, who raised hers back.

"Wow," I said quietly.

"Yeah. It was like this last week. The mothers here, they all talk the same way. Did you hear that?--" she paused so I could pick something out of the din of the parents and children.


"'Turd'. They call their kids 'little turd'. I sat through half an hour of turd name-calling last week." She laughed the way you do at something absurd.

We decided to leave to take Claire on a walk through the neighborhood, but this week I determined to come prepared to document conversations between parents and kids, if I could hear them in all that racket. I packed a pen and notepad in my purse.

Yesterday was part of "observation" week, where Cindy leaves the blinds up in the windows separating the lobby from the dance studio. So most of the parents were crowded around the windows watchign their kids. I found an empty chair next to two older mothers, maybe mid thirties or early forties, furthest from the windows. Before I could even get out my notepad I vaguely picked up that a girl, who looked about 8 years old, was standing in front of me, askign one of the older mothers for something.

"TAKE YOUR SISTER AND GIT ONE." The mother glared at the little girl and said this in an almost-yell. "I am gonna beat you when we get home."

I had the same feelign as the week before, of not being sure the mother was really angry. How could she be? The 8 year old hadn't misbehaved as far as I could tell. A few minutes later the girl and her little sister returned with long fuzzy thigns that looked like pipe cleaners with feathery ends.

"What are those?" I asked her.

"They'are pens--that can bend." And with that she began wrapping pens-that-bend around her wrists and her ankles and wandered off to sit with some kids.

A few minutes later she was back asking her mother if she could go somewhere.

"Okay. Go outside. Buzz off....[quietly] I dont' wanna beat you in front of everyone."

The woman the mother was talking to chimed in,"just like her father," with a cluck of her tongue, about the girl, I presumed.

"Ornery," the mother agreed.

The little girl looked from one woman to another and quipped in perhaps the only suitable and sane response an 8 year old girl could give her mother who was threatening to beat her over pipe cleaner pens: "How rude." She sighed and left.

I had reflected to Kate on our walk the week before, "What's the difference between them and us? Is it education? That's the way they were raised and so that's how they raise their kids and they don't know any better?"

She thought this was so. But it's stunning to me, that only ten miles away from Iowa City, where parents wouldn't think twice about taking their toddlers to therapy, there are parents who not only threaten to beat their kids, but are almost jocular about it, as if it is something so sewn into the fabric of their family life and parenting practices that their jocularity simply reveals what they believe to be inevitable and the natural order of things.