EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was originally shared by Korean American writer and speaker Kathy Khang on her personal blog last year following her experience speaking at a Baylor University chapel service. Last week, Patawatomi writer and speaker Kaitlin Curtice guest-spoke at Baylor’s chapel service where she, like Khang before her, was publicly heckled by a disagreeing student—something that senior social-work-major Meg Peck says has never before happened when a white male was speaking. We share Kathy’s piece today and assert that we at Red Letter Christians stand with Kaitlin, Kathy, and all BIWOC (Black/Indigenous/Women of Color) who deserve to feel respected and safe wherever and whenever they share.
Last year, I was speaking on a Christian campus at the morning chapel services. I was preaching/speaking/talking using Mark 5: 21-33 as my text. I love this passage about Jairus, his 12-year-old daughter, and the bleeding woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. I have part of the passage tattooed on my right forearm as a reminder of what Jesus does for this woman.
I used the words menstruation and menstrual blood because this is why the woman was bleeding. As a woman who was taught to be ashamed of her body and the things it did in order to one day bring forth life just like Mary did for Jesus, I believe it’s important to be beautifully explicit. I joked that it was probably the first time a chapel speaker talked about periods. I didn’t get much of a laugh.
As I was wrapping up, I talked about a few things that are broken in this country, things that break my heart and make me desperate for Jesus. I mentioned the mass shooting that had just occurred in Aurora, IL and the arrest of an 11-year-old boy in FL who had refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance.
That’s when things got tense.
I believe my wording was along the lines of: “An 11-year-old was arrested for refusing to stand for the pledge of allegiance. I don’t know what you thought about Colin Kaepernick, but an 11-year-old being arrested breaks my heart.”
And then a male voice from the audience yelled back: “That’s a lie. He made terrorist threats!”
I have never felt so unsafe as I did in that moment.
In a split second I had to decide if I would respond to the man (I did not, rather I paused, caught myself and went on) and decide if I felt safe enough to stay on stage or trust the school would remove me from stage if someone else felt like I was in danger. I stayed but learned someone had moved quickly to get to me just in case.
And then I went back up and did that same talk two more times. But I did it differently because, after the first talk, I was pressed about the Florida boy’s arrest by faculty. I was asked how I was feeling and if I was ok, but the conversation quickly shifted to the news story with one response being to point out that, technically, the boy was not arrested for refusing to stand for the pledge. No, technically, no one can be arrested for that because it isn’t illegal to sit during the pledge. The point was indirectly made clear that the particular example was now in question.
READ: #RAISEYOURVOICE MOVING BEYOND THE ‘IMPOSTER SYNDROME WILDERNESS’
I wrote a book about raising your voice and speaking up about the things we are most passionate about, and I am writing this as an example of when I chose to back off. I decided that for the next two talks I would not use the example of the 11-year-old being arrested, in part because his refusal to stand for the pledge angered the substitute teacher. I decided that I could not count on the school supporting me, a paid outside speaker, if and when concerned students, parents of students, and alumni emailed the school.
I decided that even though the man yelling at me was lying (the boy in Florida did not make terrorist threats) I didn’t want or need to put myself in that situation.
I’m not sure what I said the next two times I got up to preach/speak/talk. I did not feel great or even good about what I said and how I said it. I was unnerved, shaken, and scared. I did not know where the voice was coming from or if that young man was going to approach the stage. It didn’t matter which school it was, which state I was in, what the laws are. I didn’t know.
As a woman of color who talks publicly about things that are considered political (Jesus should get under everyone’s law-and-order skin because he didn’t care that the woman broke the law by being in public while she was bleeding and unclean), I am not new to controversy. For all of the public speaking events I have done, I have never once asked about crisis protocol, but this experience got me thinking about what I now needed to be asking event planners in the future.
It also got me thinking about imposter syndrome because, in that moment of fear, there was also the fear that I had failed and couldn’t do the whole speaking in public thing even though that was exactly what I was doing. I told a friend of mine later that I felt like a failure, that as a WOC I can’t just be good enough or average. I have to be better than my best because so few of us get invited to preach/speak/talk that I feel like if I mess up, event planners will be less likely to invite me again and less likely to take a chance inviting another WOC they do not know or are less familiar with than, say, a white man or woman who has more platform than I. Does that sound absurd? This is what imposter syndrome operating in white supremacy sounds like. It tells me and other WOC that we have to actually be better than the average white woman or man to have a chance because we don’t get the same chances to build platform and audience.
It also made me angry. I have been asking for the past 10 years for an additional plane ticket to public speaking events so that I do not have to travel alone. I would’ve loved having a friend or my husband with me to pray with and cry with after this was all over. There were good people on campus with whom I could talk, but no one with whom I could just be completely honest and vulnerable. I held it together like a professional Christian and waited until my husband greeted me at the curb. Then I cried.
For all the conservative values around women, ministry, and marriage, you’d think I would’ve gotten at least one additional plane ticket in 10 years; but maybe it’s because I’m a woman or a WOC with a smaller platform and less pull? Whatever. I’m still mad.
The man was removed from the auditorium. I was told that it was swift, and I didn’t hear or see a commotion. I’m grateful. Rumor has it, he was told that he should know better than to use the words “terrorist threats” these days in an auditorium, but the young man most likely would never be considered a terrorist, maybe a lone wolf at worst.
I’m grateful I’m safe and that he was removed without incident. I’m grateful he didn’t have a gun. I’m angry that I have to worry about this. I’m angry that I felt like my choice of words were in question and would not be supported. I’m angry that people may think this happened because of the specific campus or state. Nope. It’s all broken, it’s heart breaking, and it makes me desperate for Jesus.
It took two months for the university to officially respond, an entire month after the student responsible for the interruption posted a YouTube video defaming me, while my Twitter and Blog comments became inundated with students and parents calling me a racist, coward, and false prophet. Just because an organization or institution is lead by Christians or calls itself Christian doesn’t mean the systems and structures reflect and act with those values. Many of us have seen this in our churches, and close friends of mine have brought to light similar institutional and leadership failures in Christian publishing and conferencing.
Sometimes the failures are blatantly racist and other times they are “racially charged” which is a longer way of saying racist. Sometimes the apology and “fix” don’t ever come, not in a way that actually brings about learning and restoration. Sometimes an apology comes a decade later, but it can’t undo the damage nor are tangible steps taken to ensure those same mistakes won’t happen again. Kaitlin Curtice’s very recent experience shows the perpetuation that happens when an institution or culture mistakes having conversations and listening for repentance and change.
I’m not sure what’s next. I do know there aren’t any chapel talks or public events for a while. There is time to cry some more, rest some more, pray some more.
That man doesn’t represent the whole of the community, but he does represent a part of the community. His part of the community patted him on the back and will use it as an example. What will we do with that knowledge now and when it happens again as it has happened again? How will we love and correct siblings like that? And for that matter, this man isn’t just on a college campus. He’s in our churches and communities, and there are more like him. Readers, how will we be love and correction, how will we leverage our power and platforms when some of us are put in risky situations? How will thoughts and prayers cover us unless we are working to become the answer to those prayers?