A Reading from the Coloring Book According to Chance

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This past summer, my church was a cafeteria table.

My church was a downtown café in an unfamiliar neighborhood.

My church was the Monon Trail and my Sunday best featured a pair of Mizuno Wave Inspire runners.

My preacher of sorts was a talented, refreshing rapper from Chicago.

My homilies came in the form of 7- and 8- and 9-year-olds’ life stories.

And my prayer?

Maybe this.

I love my parish back home, where I received my First Communion, graduated eighth grade, sang in the children’s choir, where I’ve walked down the carpeted aisles since I was a little nugget, where I’ve fainted (along with both of my siblings), where my faith has evolved over two decades.

However, this summer I encountered Jesus in less formal settings and heard the Word through new channels. Through my headphones as I listened to Chance the Rapper’s “All We Got” while running on the Monon; through the voice of a ten-year-old boy as he told me how he recognized his parents’ weariness; through the early morning pep talks and power stances my mom exercised as she told my sister, “Repeat after me: I am STRONG! I am SMART! I can do ANYTHING!” (10/10 would recommend starting your day this way.)

A few weeks into the summer, I started my internship with the Indiana Writers Center, working with kids at the St. Florian summer camp. Around that time, my sister introduced me to Chance the Rapper (late to the party, I know). After writing with the kids at camp, I would post up at Calvin Fletcher’s Coffee Company and transcribe their stories—sometimes chuckling to myself, sometimes swallowing a heavy lump in my throat. These children shared their deepest feelings with me and unknowingly showed me a different corner of Indianapolis.

One day, while transcribing at Calvin Fletcher’s, I listened to Chance’s newest album “Coloring Book” approximately 20 times. After a spiritually charged but Mass-absent summer, I felt a twinge of Catholic guilt. But as I continued to listen to Chance’s album, I recognized and interpreted his words as a supplemental kind of spirituality. Certain lines stood out:

“I speak to God in public. I speak to God in public.”

 Public. Speaking to God isn’t limited to His house or a spiritual little corner in front of a cross because human beings are little walking vessels of God’s light. Wherever they are—an IPS school downtown, for example—God also is. “I am happy because I can still feel my grandmother in my heart,” wrote one of our young St. Florian writers, Justin. Speaking kindly and deeply to each other—loved ones and strangers and insightful, resilient kiddos alike—must be some kind of way of praying.

“Call me Mister Mufasa, I had master stampedes.”

I think of my small but mighty St. Florian friends, telling me their stories of mastering stampedes while mastering stampedes by telling their stories. A lot of young writers actually wrote about their resemblances to lions and lionesses because of their strength. My eight-year-old buddy Jeffrey wrote, “I was sad when my mom died and it happened 3 months ago. It was from breast cancer…At the funeral I told her, ‘I’ll see you later.’” Jeffrey still wrote, still smiled, still showed up and showed me what mastering stampedes at the age of 8 looked like. More recently, I think of close friends gracefully mastering stampedes of grief, overcoming metaphorical wildebeest with beyond-human strength.

“I think we mutual fans.”

I’d like to think God has a sense of humor—that he delights in us—and if God listens to music, I have no doubt he’s a Chance fan. I also think He roots for us in our accomplishments. It’s a pretty fun thing to imagine God with a foam finger, cheering us on from the stands, as we approach the batter’s box in this crazy game of life.

“I got angels all around me, they keep me surrounded.”

I’m not sure how or when it started, but my roommates and I have fallen into the natural habit of calling each other angels. Never before in my life have I felt so aware of the angelic humans surrounding me both at school and home. My St. Florian angels still surround me with their words sitting on my dresser at school and the sweet imprint they left on my life. Sometimes when I wear my glasses at school, I chuckle and think of my little St. Florian friend Lauren: “I don’t like your glasses,” she once told me, “I can’t see your face well.”

There’s no way for me to know Chance’s intentions when he wrote these lines. I learned in one of my journalism arts reporting classes this semester that you don’t have to be an opera aficionado to have a valid opinion of a performance; if you experience the art and if it moves you, then you have the right to feel a certain way about it. I don’t mean to compartmentalize his reach or message either; his songs can land on different ears and still perform.

Chance raps real words without the pedestal, praise without the shame, with equal parts optimism and strength and humor and cool. He’s the only radio companion that could appropriately suit both a Friday night and a Sunday morning. “Coloring Book” hit me at a time when I needed God’s message through a different channel—and some new sick beats for my running playlist.

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Colorblind

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“Why does your skin have red spots?”

My insides tightened a little on the first day of my internship.

“I don’t really know. I guess I got sunburnt the other day,” I explained to the sweet little girl sitting in front of me.

Her curiosity persisted the next day that I saw her.

“It’s all red. Does it hurt?”

“Not anymore,” I reassured her, a little confused. My sunburn wasn’t extraordinarily prominent.

She poked my arm and it turned white momentarily, then back to red. She poked it again. And again. She was fascinated with my skin, shades different than hers. “Why does it do that?” she asked me.

I admitted that I didn’t really know; a scientific explanation of pale skin evaded me. I took her dark brown arm in my hand and gently pressed on her arm, to see if her skin changed pigment with the pressure. “See,” I began, but realized there was nothing to see. Her dark skin didn’t react like my fair skin.

I tried again. “See, my skin is pale and blotchy. And yours,” I told her, looking at her smooth, dark arm, “Yours is a lot more beautiful.”

Before starting this internship, I was initially wary of one thing:

How were these kids going to react to this white, 21-year-old girl urging them to write from the most sacred corners of their hearts?

The kids at St. Florian are primarily African American and some are considered “at-risk,” an unfair and obtuse generalization. They know a different Indianapolis than I do. Some hear fireworks on the Fourth of July and confuse them momentarily for gunshots.

So who am I—a complete stranger—to saddle up next to them in tiny classroom chairs and ask them about a time they weren’t heard? Or a time when they felt that being black mattered? Or worse, didn’t matter?

I deeply believe in the power and value of storytelling not only for readers, but for writers as well–especially these young writers. One of our fearless leaders and director of the Indiana Writers Center, Barb, helped approach the Black Lives Matter topic with the younger campers. She explained that sometimes people make us feel bad about who we are, how that hurts, how we don’t want to drudge up those feelings again. However, she gently explained that sometimes it’s good to write about these not-so-good feelings and experiences. She said it takes the heavy stuff out of heart and makes us feel a little better.

In just a few minutes, she explained the root of writing.

This entire experience has complicated and transformed the way I view writing. I knew that writers need to focus on the audience, yet I had been seeing what my personal calling to writing looked like with tunnel vision:

Aspiring author. Possible journalist. Part-time freelancer. Occasional PR stuff.

I realize now that I enjoy helping others write, helping others tell their stories, almost as much as I like to write myself. Amplifying usually-hushed voices, asking young minds about how they felt when ________ happened, watching their brows furrow with concentration and little hands move across the paper in a creative flurry. Opening these conversations with kids, asking Lauren how long it takes to braid her hair, earning a bit of cool cred with a group of middle school boys when I knew that Dwayne Allen was a tight end for the Colts, being invested in what they have to say, watching Roderick come out of his shell as the trust began to build, watching Jeremiah dance to Sevan’s beat boxing, giving high-fives after Author’s Chair readings, Da’Vion asking if he’d see me next year at camp.

After one of my first days of the internship, I went to the optometrist. Usually eye appointments consist of a routine colorblind test, something that my right eye struggles with immensely. The colors blur together and the number is indistinguishable, but with both eyes open I can see well enough and go about life with functional vision. The individual division of the colors, not being able to distinguish and separate the colors, divide the colors, doesn’t have a huge impact on my vision as a whole. On the bigger picture.

My friends Sevan and Lauren, who were fascinated by the physical quirks of my different skin, seemed to be colorblind to the “social implications” and historical pre-existing ideas surrounding those physical differences. The other younger campers didn’t quite grasp the concept of writing about their experience being black. They’re at that blissfully accepting yet insightfully observant age, right at the cusp of beginning to profoundly understand the world around them, while still being extremely impressionable. A tender, crucial stage. They don’t see me as “other” or “different.”

Probably because I’m not.

Probably because they’re not.

These children have been so welcoming, vulnerable, resilient, hard-working, intelligent, and hilarious. They have embraced this stranger walking into their life, handing them a pencil, asking questions. They have entrusted me with their stories, a gift that I don’t deserve yet cherish so profoundly.

 

If you’d like to support these young writers–the future movers and shakers of this world– and read their stories, the anthology of their work from this summer will be available for purchase July 30th through INwords as well as Amazon.com.

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