peacemaking: play as resistance {guest post Bristol}

I'm grateful today to introduce you to Bristol, one of my very favorite voices. She writes with the wisdom of a contemplative and the beauty of a poet. Be sure to check out her blog, Diligent Leaves. Welcome, Bristol!

In the gospel of Mark, Jesus tells his followers multiple times that children know something special about the Kingdom of God, something that adults seem to be missing. If you can't accept the Kingdom as children do, Jesus warns, you will never figure it out.

My first year after seminary, I worked in under-resourced public elementary schools in Oakland, a city strained by urban poverty and racial tension. The children I met there showed me what it means to be Kingdom builders, peacemakers who make peace with their bare hands and sheer tenacity.


When the Occupy movement took up residence in downtown Oakland, I was working at a large public elementary school a few blocks away. I was doing school recreation in service of building positive school climate, so I spent most of my day outside playing with the students, most of whom came from low-income immigrant families. Inner city kids have an incredible resilience; they just play on like nothing is happening. I, on the other hand, had to adjust to Occupy's impact on the city.

That learning curve of adjusting was steep.

I learned how to yell loud enough to be heard at recess over the constant sound of low-flying helicopters. Each week I would walk our after-school program to the ice rink. Our path took us right past Occupy Oakland's campsite, so I learned how to answer nine-year-olds' questions about protest and economic recession. And when armed police swarmed the neighborhood or vandalism shut down the nearest BART station, I learned how to find alternate routes home from work.

When people started getting hurt, I learned how to cry about it out of sight of my students.

I knew people who were arrested, evicted, beaten. And it wasn’t just Oakland. There were fire hoses and police raids in San Francisco. There were crackdowns and pepper spray on the University of California's Berkeley campus, a mile from where I lived, as police dismantled tents and forcibly removed students. Soon, the helicopters weren’t just downtown when I went to work, they were hovering over my neighborhood at night.

Those months, it felt to me like chaos was closing in on my students' precious, magical world of childhood, the world that I was trying to protect. As if drop-out rates and gang violence weren’t challenges enough, now these kids were shoved into the midst of a charged political battle being fought on the very sidewalks of their own neighborhoods.

It was like the whole Bay Area was constricting, tightening in on itself – whether an involuntary muscle contraction or a show of flexed strength, it was hard to say.

The first time I saw police in riot gear, I cried, for the sheer insanity of it – for the insanity of plastic shields and zip-tie handcuffs, when 15 minutes earlier I’d been playing with the six-year- old children of Chinese immigrants who lived on the next block.

Peace didn't seem accessible. We were in the precarious realms of survival and desperation.


Month's later, when I spoke to people who hadn't been through those months of violence and upheaval in the Bay Area, I realized how much it had changed me. After all, I had been telling myself, I'd been there, but only by proximity. I wasn't really participating. I thought I'd been a neutral observer.

Maybe I could have been a neutral observer, if it hadn’t been for those children. But I was there with them every day, in the midst of that chaos, holding their hands and playing four square. In that place, children played like warriors – unknowingly fighting the forces of evil that knocked on the doors of their homes and schools.

The helicopters and riot police were small compared to the sound of those children’s laughter, to the determination of their imaginations, to the precision of their talent. Racial tensions could wind tight enough to undo the power of their potential. Their play was powerful – not a folding submission but a fierce fire of resistance. To play in the face of tension and conflict isn't to ignore it or to give in: it's to fight back.

That fall, I was playing on the playground with children, but I was also bearing witness to their wisdom about what it means to bring the Kingdom into our daily lives. Pulled between the chaos of the adult world around me and the imaginative world of those kids, I learned something about making change. Certainly they were changing me.

They showed me that we – we who play, we who dream, we who hope, as children do – are doing the real work of peace making, of Kingdom building. Jesus was right when he warned his followers that when adults lost sight of that truth, they lose something very valuable indeed.

Bristol is Midwestern girl at heart but spent the last few year on the California coast studying religion and ethics. She completed an Americorps term of service creating positive school climate -- in the classroom and on the playground -- at public elementary schools. Recently, she moved to New England where she directs youth and family ministry for a Lutheran church. Bristol writes about faith at Diligent Leaves, take photos of bees on flowers, and goes for long evening runs around her neighborhood.

shared with the communities at imperfect prose and bigger picture moments

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