Custom-Made Angels

An African-American patient’s daughter gestured to the angel topping a diminutive Christmas tree in the hospital room and said, “I hope you aren’t offended, but could we have a black angel?” While I as her chaplain hastened to assure her I was not offended, I first drew a blank on what she meant. Her mother was virtually on her way out of this existence, so my first thought, which I fortunately did not say out loud, is that she wanted black to represent grief or death. Then I understood: first I thought about my own stereotype about the color black, and then I realized the actual decoration was as white as you can get. She wanted an angel that was the same race as she.

I was so taken with this, because I have never thought about angels having race or gender. I never thought about their whiteness representing Caucasians. In the Jewish tradition, the idea of an angel is perhaps even more abstract than not having race or gender because we don’t think of them as a class of celestial beings. Rather, we think of them as humans who wittingly or unwittingly have a mission to deliver spiritual messages to others.  Such messengers impart an insight or prediction or warning of spiritual import to the person intended to receive that message. Many of you may be familiar with the story in Genesis where three mysterious strangers tell Sarah and Abraham that they will have a child despite Sarah being waaaay past menopause. And perhaps you have met someone who had a transformative effect upon you that has changed your view of things ever since or who has influenced you to make a life-altering decision.

A scholarly friend of mine named David Schwartz pointed out, however, that if angels can superficially assume race and other attributes similar to the person the message is intended for, the one getting the message might be more receptive to receiving it and letting it “penetrate the heart and spirit”.  I could see where an angel of color would comfort an African-American family and give them a celestial being or messenger they could identify with. (Just a curious note, another friend of mine informed me that until very recently, “angels were always portrayed as male, because the Bible consistently uses masculine names, male pronouns and male attributes.” Okay, one Black female angel for that daughter coming up!)

When the Black angel arrived at the tree I wondered what message it conveyed to that family.  Perhaps it was, “God is not a stranger, but the One who speaks your language, discerns your needs and accompanies you at every step of the way. Especially when your loved one is embarking on a path no longer intertwined with your own.”

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4 thoughts on “Custom-Made Angels

  1. sanderamage says:

    Connection par excellence!

    *Sande Ramage: **exploring spirituality one word at a time* http://www.sanderamage.nz 64 27 4788184

    Like

  2. Where on earth did you find a black angel for them? love it!

    Like

  3. Adaeze says:

    Thank you so much for writing about this Karen.
    Race can be taken for granted by majority individuals because they see themselves in barbies, dolls, angels, and every important cultural representation. For many others who are nonwhite, this is not the case for them. So when you’re Black in America, you have to actively seek the barbie with brown skin for your daughter, children’s books with images your kids can relate to, the Papyrus card that has a brown-skinned woman represented for your girlfriend’s birthday, and so on. To not have this is an existence where all images and representations that matter to someone reflect images that are not of them.
    Thank you for writing about this.

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    • What you say is so very important, and having to consciously search for images that reflect one’s identity must be anything from a nuisance to deep alienation. Thanks for your consciousness-raising for me and my readers about finding dolls, etc. that minorities can relate to.

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