Donald Trump. He’s on my mind a lot these days. He’s got me thinking about my skin. Thinking about my skin is something I only do after a shower because everyday I moisturize. And as I spread the lotion I am reintroduced to the tiny freckles, the hairs, the veins, the creases. But lately I am paying more attention to the color. The color of my skin is something I never think twice about unless I’m reminded. And Donald Trump and his supporters and the media that love them remind me about my skin color. I am brown.
My skin isn’t always straightforward in the way it defines me. Sometimes my skin has me mistaken for a Samoan, or an Indian, or Native American. In actuality, I’m Latino. A Latino who doesn’t speak Spanish. No hablo Español. I’m as Mexican as I can be without the language, and as American as I can be without being white.
But to some strangers my being brown must mean I speak Spanish, and I’m an immigrant, and I don’t have a college education, and I could be following you for your purse. Some peg me as being from someplace in Central America, while others, even a few of my own Jesuit brothers, think I’m from California. And there are a couple of cops in Kansas City who’ve pulled me over and described me as a Spanish n*****.
Most of the time who others say I am is all that seems to matter. To go beyond what is seen and heard would take more than a first impression. And unfortunately a first impression is all the opportunity we give. Unfortunately, all we are able to do is pack everyone into a box of assertions.
I sit in a pew waiting for the first preacher to take the podium. This is St. Sabina Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side. Every Good Friday they invite seven of the nation’s top preachers, each to give a sermon on one of the Seven Last Words of Christ. This is why I’m here. This is why I wait.
The gospel choir begins to sing and I am feeling energized and alive! The event is about to begin. The faces around me are smiling and addressing me as their bodies settle into the wine-colored cushions on the pews.
“How you do’n?!” Smiles decorating faces, hands always outstretched.
“I’m well,” I smile too, our hands cupping each others, “and yourself?”
“Blessed. I am blessed.”
We speak as if we’ve been friends for longer than this moment. Which throws me a bit. At most other churches people don’t speak regardless of how friendly I might be. But not these faces. These faces see me. These faces never give me the chance to be friendly because they’ve gone and done it before I could.
The smiles and joyful tone of voice of these black parishioners have me in awe. They understand their skin with its history of adversity. And after scarring and bruising there will always be new skin. Skin is resilient; they know skin heals. This is what being blessed looks like, my heart and my head are communicating to each other. This is what it looks like to count your blessings instead of your struggles.
While their skin doesn’t look like mine, somehow I identify with them. Somehow we share something in common, perhaps it’s our experience of being “other,” marginalized, or misunderstood. But whatever it is – feelings of familiarity, of comfort, of community – embrace me. I’m home, I think to myself. Their first impression of me is deeper than pigment. We are seeing each other right where we’re at, without pretense, in a church.
Being with the congregation at St. Sabina reminded me that the uniqueness of my skin, and all that comes with it, hardship or delight, is better understood by others when they come close enough to grasp my hand, when they lean in to see past a first impression. All it took were kind faces in pews reminding me the skin I’m in can be – like theirs – blessed, too.
There is a place in this world for me even if I have to fight for it. Even if people like Trump and his supporters work hard to make that place difficult to reach. My American dream has more than a white fence and a white face. My American dream consists of skin color and flourishing lives and people acknowledging the distinct diversities as gifts. We are not that different even if our skin may invite our minds to think that’s so. We are, in truth, blessed.