More than just names

Rafael Barahona knows how outsiders feel. His pursuit of inclusion and equality led to a project that honors lives taken unjustly.

Rafael Barahona of Goshen, Ind., designed T-shirts inspired by the “say their names” cry for racial justice. — Mary-Laura Krabill Rafael Barahona of Goshen, Ind., designed T-shirts inspired by the “say their names” cry for racial justice. — Mary-Laura Krabill

George Floyd. #Natosha Mcdade. #Ahmaud Arbery. The names of African Americans killed during encounters with law enforcement officers cover the front of T-shirts Rafael Barahona designed last summer. Seen from a distance, the names form the word “Beloved.”

Barahona, of Goshen, Ind., designed the shirts after George Floyd died under a police officer’s knee in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. As a lament of the injustice, which drew national attention, Barahona read the names of African Americans killed at the hands of law enforcement and reflected on how each name represented a person whose life had meaning beyond how they died.

“In each case they’re a mother, father, sister, brother, friend,” Barahona said. “I made this graphic because when I was thinking about our core identity, what holds us in common, I kept coming back to the fact that we are all beloved children of God.”

Barahona posted on Facebook the graphic he had designed, and someone suggested he make it into a T-shirt. He realized he could sell the shirts and give the proceeds to the local Black Lives Matter chapter in South Bend.

“I thought maybe I’d sell 10 or 20 shirts,” he said. But “once people got their shirts and started sharing, more orders came in.”

Barahona got the shirts printed at a shop in Elkhart and packaged and mailed them with the help of friends and family members. He sent the shirts to addresses across the United States, Canada and even Europe.

By the time he had sold 250 shirts, the project was bigger than he could manage on his own. He contacted the Black Lives Matter chapter in South Bend and gave them the design so they could take over production.

Barahona didn’t keep up with the project once he handed it over to BLM, so he wasn’t aware in September when a group from South Bend took 35 “Beloved” T-shirts to Louisville, Ky., and gave them to the family of Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police officers in her home on March 13, 2020.

The shirts were “a token of appreciation and support for the [Taylor] family,” said Jorden Giger, one of the leaders of the South Bend BLM chapter who was part of the group that met with Taylor’s mother and other relatives in Louisville.

Besides the shirts given to the Taylor family, the BLM chapter has printed and given shirts away on a couple of other occasions. They have plans to set up an online store where the shirts can be sold as a fundraiser.

Landon Carter poses in front of the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, Va. Landon’s mother, Aimee Carter, is a former coworker of Rafael Barahona from the University of Virginia and ordered the shirt from him. Aimee said: “I took [the photo] at the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, Va., in the days following protests in Richmond after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor — among hundreds of others.” — Aimee Carter
Landon Carter poses in front of the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, Va. Landon’s mother, Aimee Carter, is a former coworker of Rafael Barahona from the University of Virginia and ordered the shirt from him. Aimee said: “I took [the photo] at the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, Va., in the days following protests in Richmond after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor — among hundreds of others.” — Aimee Carter

Jordan Kauffman, co-founder of Barahona’s graphic design company, LightBox, isn’t surprised Barahona’s shirts resonated with people.

“One of his innate skills,” Kauffman said, “is he can see opportunities [to address social justice] where other people don’t. It’s a pattern of when Raf believes in something, he pulls on the skill sets that he has to make it a reality.”

After handing the T-shirt project over to BLM, Barahona turned his attention back to his work at LightBox and his other commitments, including serving on the board for MennoMedia, serving on the mission commission at his church, Berkey Avenue Mennonite in Goshen, and parenting his three children.  

A self-described jack-of-all-trades, Barahona has been involved in many community functions, from serving on the Mayor’s Arts Council (now the Goshen Arts Council) and Latino Advisory committee to playing soccer in a Sunday-afternoon league. Even at LightBox, a branding company that works primarily with faith-based and nonprofit organizations and businesses, Barahona makes use of a variety of skills, including artistic creation, collaboration, relationship-building and leadership.  

Barahona didn’t always see the value in his wide variety of interests. After graduating from Goshen College in 2001, he spent a decade trying out different pursuits. He worked at a food bank in Montreal with Mennonite Voluntary Service; traveled the U.S. and Canada with his bands Raices, Radiant and Bridge­land; was an English as a New Language collaborator in a high school; worked at a print shop; and worked in communication and marketing at the University of Virginia.

It was difficult, Barahona said, to watch his peers settling into careers while he struggled to choose between his many interests.

He also wrestled with his identity in terms of nationality.

Barahona is a naturalized U.S. citizen. But before he was an American, he was Canadian, and before moving to Canada, his family was Chilean.

Barahona was born in Edmonton, Alberta, to parents who immigrated from Chile before he was born. 

Barahona’s parents didn’t speak much English when they arrived in Canada. But they learned it and insisted their two children learn Spanish too.

The family’s ties to Chile didn’t stop with the language. Barahona grew up eating Chilean food, listening to Chilean music, playing soccer and attending a Spanish-speaking church, where many of his friends had roots in Latin America.

Rafael Barahona designed T-shirts inspired by the “say their names” cry for racial justice. — Rafael Barahona
Rafael Barahona designed T-shirts inspired by the “say their names” cry for racial justice. — Rafael Barahona

Canadian culture influenced Barahona as well. He played street hockey with his friends every day after school. “You can’t be Canadian and not obsess over hockey,” he said.

It was in Edmonton that Barahona’s parents, nominal Catholics in Chile, were introduced to Anabaptism. Around the time he was born, the Latino evangelical group they worshiped with was approached by Holyrood Mennonite Church and invited to join Mennonite Church Canada.

Rafael Barahona Sr., who at the time was working as a mechanic and handyman, became the church’s youth pastor. From there he went on to plant a church in Winnipeg, Man., and serve as a pastor at a church in Calgary, Alberta.

When Barahona’s older sister enrolled at Goshen College, his parents decided to pursue higher education as well. Rafael Sr. enrolled in Goshen College’s Hispanic Ministries program, which he went on to direct. His mother, Pilar, who later worked as an English as a New Language collaborator at Goshen High School for 20 years, pursued a major in social work.

Barahona was in ninth grade when his family moved to Goshen.

At Bethany Christian High School, where Barahona was enrolled, he was introduced to the card game Dutch Blitz, potlucks and the “Mennonite game” — talking about who’s related to whom.

It seemed that “everybody knew each other and was related somehow,” he said. He felt “instantly excluded and different and weird.”

In Bible class, Barahona learned about Mennonite theology and values and began to adopt them as his own.

“I love the emphasis on peace and justice and community,” he said.

Dale Shenk, his Bible teacher, said Barahona “was always a guy who cared about faith and cared about church. [Even in high school] he was ready to have direct conversations about things that mattered.”

Over a decade later, Barahona has found his place in the Mennonite world: “I married into a Mennonite family and I attended Mennonite institutions, so now I can play the [Mennonite] game; you know, ‘I went to school with so and so.’ ”

Barahona’s colleague Jordan Kauffman observes a special quality in Barahona: Because he’s been part of many communities and cultures, he is able to look at those cultures from an outsider’s view and think critically about where people derive their identity.

“If you ask me, ‘Do you feel American or Canadian?’, those feel like small categories,” Barahona said.

“My parents being immigrants, I have a worldview that is informed by their experience and also by my experience coming from Canada to the U.S. and actually going through a green-card process and a citizenship process. My notions of citizenship are going to be a little bit more fluid than the average person.”

His notions of identity are broad as well. Not fitting into society’s boxes based on nationality, profession and race has given Barahona the ability to see other people outside those boxes.

That’s why, when Barahona “reflected on life, what life means and who our creator made us to be,” as he told his Facebook followers a couple of months after launching the T-shirt project, he concluded that “each life lost, each life mourned, is a beloved child of God.”

Not just a name.

Not just a race.

Not just an American or Canadian or musician or designer.

Looking back on the T-shirt project, half a year later, Barahona said, “Racism has again become an increasingly hot, highly political and extremely divisive issue. But the T-shirts felt like something that was just about humanity, about seeing people.”

To acquire a “Beloved” T-shirt, email the BLM chapter in South Bend at blm.southbend@gmail.com.

Sierra Ross Richer is a Goshen College student from Goshen, Ind., and an intern with Anabaptist World.

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