cops, community, culture & doughnuts

“Can I be straight honest with you?”

With blue-rimmed Oakley sunglasses, a Denver Police Officer glances at me as the sun scales the sky. I’ve been sitting with this man for 45 minutes, eating a Voo-Doo doughnut, and watching Afghani women learn how to ride bicycles at community celebrations for World Refugee Day. We sit together at a white folding table and continue chatting – most particularly about the needs for every refugee child and family to access quality education, a safe place, and an opportunity for employment.

Sarcastically, with a sweet smile, I mutter, “I mean, yeah. I’m not wearing a device or anything.” I grasp my loose t-shirt to prove the validity of my claims.

“These communities…frankly, they have to assimilate. They move here. They have to assimilate. They – “

“Hold on. I understand where you are coming from, but be careful with your words. “They” is too much. There are far too many stories to fit under one narrative of ‘they.’”

I can’t believe I’ve interrupted a cop to correct him. Oops? I shrug and continue.

“Assimilation fits within the much larger process of acculturation. Ideally, new community members embrace the culture of their new country and begin the journey of becoming bi-cultural. It doesn’t happen overnight. Integration and identity are tricky – and they take a long time. These aren’t simply semantics; these are the parts of the process of entering and becoming part of a new community.”

“Oh…okay, that makes sense. I just know there is a lot of fear that groups of foreign communities will settle here and remain insular and extraordinarily tight-knit. We have reason to believe there is a plethora of extremism.”

I am the first to acknowledge that I do not have any kind of secret intelligence. I don’t know what the cops or government officials do – honestly, I’m not sure I would want to. What I do know, however, is that extremism, as it’s aptly named – is just that. Extreme. You can’t lump groups of people into boxes simply because of fear.

“If you are afraid of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ than you may want to push your own self to enter into communities that you wouldn’t necessarily try before. Most importantly, you have to follow the lead of the communities themselves.”

As I’m talking the zing of a “light bulb” idea hits my head. I swallow the rest of my doughnut – washing it down with a slug of coffee. It might be 98 degrees outside – in the middle of June – but coffee holds no time stamp.

What if the Peace Corps model applied to immigrant, refugee, and multicultural communities in the Unites States? What if a year or two of service meant an individual lived within a group of people and was responsible for showing them the ropes? This volunteer would humbly lead a family through the process of becoming a part of America – and yet still holding onto their culture of origin. Isn’t this what “makes America great” – the beautiful blend of so many different cultures simultaneously pursuing values of freedom, equality, and liberty?

Unable to articulate all of the ideas bopping around in my head, I do the thing that comes the most natural. I invite this 17-year veteran police officer to a Rwandan wedding. Obviously.

“Listen. You’ve expressed a desire to restore positive relationships in these communities that are unfamiliar for you. What if you came to a Rwandan wedding with me? An event put on by the community itself? There’s one happening in two weeks – just over off Colfax.”

I think I surprised him as much as I surprised myself.

“You know, actually….yes. I think I might be able to do that. Will you email me the details? I will definitely see what I can do.”

I pass him one of my business cards. He gives me a Denver Police brochure – complete with all of the services that community resource officers provide: mediation, protection, check-ins, support. A broad range of services are listed, I can’t help but think that this could be the most under-utilized resource at the disposal for communities all over Denver.

He thanks me for the conversation and wisdom. I echo the same sentiments, particularly in gratitude for the number of years he has served the Denver area.

The conversation stuck with me the rest of the weekend.

It stuck with me as I took a Burmese friend of mine back to her apartment in North Denver. I carried some of her food back into her apartment. As we opened her small, rickety door, she explained in broken English that the landlord had ordered a twice monthly bug-spray prevention. That means, she elaborated, that she can’t keep her apartment organized. It’s always in disarray. Things are never put away. She’s never quite settled. She chuckles though and assures me, “don’t worry. My room is next to the office – at least I am safe.”

What if individuals and community members crossed boundaries and entered these homes? How, exactly, could they be transformed?

It stuck with me as I marched with the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Colorado along the Pride route from Cheesman to Civic Center. My sunglasses hid my tear-stained eyes. I was in awe of the encouragement, positivity, and palpable sense of unity around me. It was one of the most tangible experiences with community that I have had. With thousands lined the street, shouting, cheering, and clapping – I also prayed silently.

Enough. Enough marginalization. Enough hate. Enough. Enough. Enough. Let us live into the joy prepared for us. Let us proclaim the righteousness of life itself. Let us give thanks for the greatest gift we have received. Life. Life. Life. Always life.

I lost my voice from cheering so loudly. I was proud to proclaim that loving people – really, sacrificially, and honestly – could perhaps be the most powerful thing we ever do to make the world better. God loves His people. I hold unswervingly dear to this. Just because we are broken doesn’t mean we can’t keep going. The gospel is a working, active acknowledgement that yes! We are free.

This isn’t a “bleeding heart” speaking – this is me. A woman totally smitten by Jesus – and by the people He has continually brought into my life at just the right time. Whether it be cops, Rwandans, family, refugees, or friends at the Pride March, I accept and embrace it all. This, my friends, is life.

Honor World Refugee Day.

May we support, honor, strengthen, encourage, and most importantly, be-friend individuals and groups seeking a new home and community.Multiculturalism, built with genuine hearts, can be a very beautiful thing.

You never know what someone has been through. My friends have seen the horrors of war; have felt the pangs of famine; and have been victims of the most unimaginable social injustices, from oppression, to rape, to persecution. No narrative is the same – listen, and you will see. Listen, and perhaps your world will be changed permanently.

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