Where Grace Reigns



She had big round eyes and soft plump cheeks that beckoned to be pinched. She skipped around, swaying her long brown hair that reached the middle of her back in tangles. Her laughter was a roar and her voice was so powerful, it echoed. She was a wildflower. Because this story is not just my own, I’ll call her Emma.

Emma and I were at a cousin’s birthday piñata. A group of girls chased each other underneath the trellis of my aunt’s small courtyard. I stayed by my mother, sipping on juice while quietly taking in all the adult gossip. I was about eight years old. I watched from afar as the girls danced to Spice Girl’s Wannabe. All of them were schoolmates, except for Emma and I. We were related to the birthday girl. I would have stayed by my mother’s lap, but Emma caught my eye.

I watched as she pleaded to join in the games and the other girls kept coming up with reasons to reject her. Sometimes they’d let her participate but grudgingly, and they made the game impossible for her.

When they approached me for hide and seek, my mom pushed me forward and I followed them, reluctantly. Some girls pulled me aside before we started. “We’ll let Emma hide, and then we won’t look for her,” they whispered. So, I volunteered to seek and then I went to find her. I found Emma in the bathroom, crying. I can’t remember what Emma and I ended up doing for the rest of the birthday party, but I do remember that we became friends. Injustice knows how to break me out of my shyness.

Emma was pushed to the sidelines because she painted her world in rainbow colours, and some people don’t know how to deal with that kind of beauty. I watched as Emma grew up, dimming her light to fit into a world that told her she wasn’t poised enough. And I discovered my own ways of coping with alienation.

I was in third grade when I decided that the best way to prevent rejection is to avoid relationships.

I learned to hide in the shadows of other people – my mother, my friend, my brother. In elementary school I was a lot of things to my fellow classmates:

I was the new girl,

A teacher’s pet,

Overconfidently bilingual,

A stickler for rules,

Clumsy in the face of any physical activity.

These things made me appear snobby and arrogant, because I refused to participate in a lot of things, but I was mostly just masking how terrified and insecure I was.

How do you explain that to a fellow third-grader? You don’t. Instead you find the most solitary hallway during recess hours, to hide and avoid confrontation. I remember the day this separation became real to me. I found all my classmates clustered around a boy who was holding a tape recorder. He approached me with a grin on his face. “Do you want to hear who we all dislike in this classroom?” he said, replaying the tape. I didn’t want to hear it because I already knew, but there was no escape. I stood there and I took each person’s confession like a blow to the face. I should have asked why and maybe we would have understood each other a bit better. Instead, when the teacher walked in we all rushed to our desks, and I sat at mine letting the tears fall. Sure, it was only third grade and most of us experience bullying at some point in our lives, but that was a defining moment for me.

That’s when I started putting up walls and growing wings.

Most of us know what it feels like to be alienated. Most of us don’t go through life always fitting in. That was one of the many times in my life where I felt like the odd one out.

I felt othered in a classroom in Montreal where we studied women in Christianity and people tore our religion apart and I never said a word to defend it.

I’ve felt alienated many times here in Uganda when people make a lot of assumptions because of my skin colour without ever asking me about my story.

Experiencing alienation can dim your light and silence you, but it can also make you sensitive to others who are in the margins. It helps you see them.

But it can also turn your pain into anger. If we are not careful, out of our hurt, we can become the ones who “other.” I know that I’ve been on both sides. I’ve been the bully who leaves the new girl out. Many times I was the one who caused separation because:

I assumed things of others.

I didn’t give people a chance.

I didn’t create an environment where people could speak to me, without fear of judgement.

I didn’t see the strength in our differences.

I let fear win.

Here in Uganda, I work with an organisation that empowers HIV-positive single or widowed mothers.

I’ve learned that one of the critical aspects of empowerment is connection.

This program connects women who have been abused and rejected, women who were hiding in shame and silence, to each other. It’s a safe place where they can be heard, comforted and embraced. It’s helped me see how dialogue leads to understanding. How connection can heal wounds. How these safe places are necessary.

And it makes me wonder: what would happen if we created more of these judgement-free zones? Places like SheLoves where each opinion is welcome and our differences are celebrated. A place where we can all participate; a place where our voice counts and we are heard; a place where grace reigns.

I think many walls would crumble.


Image credit: Stephanie Motz Skinner