She was slender, in a coat too big for her and with a mop of dark hair in need of a good brushing. She might have been a small ten year old, and it was clear English was her second language as she handed me a note and asked, “Please you help?”
Paul’s eyebrow rose above the frame of his glasses as I took the folded scrap of notebook paper, soft and with a small wear-hole forming in the middle from many foldings and un-foldings. To paraphrase the contents, someone was ill, they needed a place to stay, any amount of money would help.
I hadn’t been approached by a child begging since visiting Rome in 2000, where I’d been warned to avoid getting swarmed by Roma children. So it seemed incongruous to encounter one at Firehouse Subs on Ash Wednesday, in Frisco, Texas, USA.
“Where…?” I started to ask the girl, and she gestured out the door where I could just make out the figure of a woman and two smaller children. I gave Paul the note, and he returned it unread to the girl, his eyebrow now approaching his hairline as he saw me wavering.
“Do you have any cash?”
“Some.” The eyebrow descended, he was now regarding me with wry amusement. He handed the girl the $10 in his wallet. She scampered out the door, and I watched as the woman sent her into another fast food place in the center. I didn’t recall seeing her approach anyone else in Firehouse; something has brought beggars to me since I was old enough to earn money.
“You’re a good person,” Paul told me.
“‘…without knowing, some have entertained angels….'” I paraphrased, badly. “All I did was give a little girl $10 of your cash while stuffing back a Hook & Ladder Fully Involved.” We bused our table, and made it through the door of church with two minutes to spare.
The readings were long, and I thought someone should have had a glass of water for Jan, who did a beautiful job with the Old Testament and the Psalm. But Isaiah had me repressing a giggle and it was my turn to launch an eyebrow pointedly heavenward at Paul:
…Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, cover them…. if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted then your light shall rise in the darkness….
“Ya know,” I whispered at Paul, “I cannot remember another time when God sent a specific scriptural reinforcement quiteso soon. God must really love you.”
It finally happened: I stood on a street corner for God. Three of ’em. No sandwich board declaring The End Is Nigh, but still more evangelizing than I am comfortable with generally. Fortunately, I had my camera to hide behind.
There we were: three women waving on a street corner, one fully garbed in priestly regalia, beside a folding easel with a bright purple sign announcing, Ashes to Go. Busy people with places to go whisked past us in sedans, minivans, work trucks, and SUVs, and we wondered what lives they carried with them. I said more than one silent prayer for a driver who seemed particularly preoccupied, or grumpy. And the ones eating while dialing cellphones down Coit around 11:45 a.m., Dude, you know who you are and that call can wait. Just sayin’.
Most drivers were unmindful of us, but not all. There were a lot of smiles: puzzled, amused, delighted, approving, cordial as in, look at the crazy ladies but they make me smile, and they almost all came with a friendly returning wave. They came from guys in construction hard hats or dapper driving caps; women in hijab; firefighters, cops, and people in scrubs; guys in delivery trucks who tooted their horns Hello.
Black faces, White faces, Asian faces, Brown faces. All kinds of faces and many distinct styles of wave.
Mother Leslie offered prayer and ashes to all who asked, those in fine cars and those in ones with better days in the rear view mirror.
It’s a new thing, this Ashes to Go, and I know there are those might find it…. awkward. A bit irreverent. But I say to them, not so long ago I was a working mother who just had no extra minute to carve from the hamster wheel that was my life for the full church service at the end of a work day which left me feeling like an over-cooked noodle, yet I still yearned for the connection to my faith the observance of ritual and sacraments provides. And it occurs to me that Jesus spent very little time in the Temple, and there is a kind of fruit that might be planted only by non-traditional means. Or maybe it’s a return to tradition? Hmmm….. something to ponder this Lent.
We were walking out of Central Barbecue in Memphis, Tennessee, when Paul said, “Let’s walk around the front of the motel and see what it is.”
We’d driven past the sign on the way to the barbecue place, knew we should know the name but came up bupkis. Was is some old rocker’s momma’s name? None we could think of. Bo Diddly’s guitar was Lucille, so that wasn’t it.
It was dusk, and still. We walked around the front, and chagrined knowledge brought with it an abrupt intake of air. Oh, it’s the Lorraine Motel.
We were on holy ground.
Before April 4, 1968, it was just a motel which accepted “colored” people as guests. I’m torn on the concept of the blood sacrifice but, in this case, I think something real and definitely holy happened when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s blood spilled on that balcony and his spirit flew away home to the Lord. No assassin’s bullet could stop what he had set into motion; he was doing the Lord’s work.
Standing in the hush of the courtyard, offering a prayer of thanksgiving for his life, no car disturbed us. Such a modest building, such a still, holy feeling on a late summer night.
I’ve certainly felt the holiness receiving Communion at Westminster Abbey, keenly aware of the thousand preceding years during which Christians worshiped there. The passage of time, a millennia, was no more evident to me than in the ancient glass panes of the windows in St. Peter ad Vincula within the Tower of London. I learned there that glass is a living thing, not as solid as we think, and the gravitational pull over a thousand years on ancient glass creates panes fatter at the bottom than top. What holiness has that glass absorbed over the millennia? How many prayers vibrate through each of those fat-bottomed panes?
I’ve also found holiness standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, in a Redwood forest, beside the Pacific ocean, the hush of a Civil War battlefield, and in the motherly communion exchanged purely through eye-contact with an Italian woman while I was chasing my daughter across a foot bridge on the Tiber.
We’ve joined an Episcopal church plant, now officially a Mission, in Plano. While we grow and until we secure our own building we meet in an elementary school gym. There are student athletes painted on each of the four corners of the gym, and shapes painted in primary colors on the floor. Because we’re Episcopalians and choose our seats the first time we enter a particular parish and never change seats again, I have a yellow square at my feet and every week I think it’s a dropped Post-it and fight the impulse to scrabble at the tiles trying to pick it up. When we receive Eucharist from Mother Leslie, she comes down from the stage area on which our traveling altar is set up, and stands with the Bread on one side of a bright red line, we on the other. It pleases my OCD tendencies, I know right where to go, although about fifty percent of the time I’m also stifling a giggle thinking we will transport this decorative element to the physical church we build. Incorporate it right into the tile. The Holy Red Line of Eucharist. Does it make it less holy that I giggle? Well, I don’t do it out loud, so I don’t think so. I still feel the sense of communion with the saints, those gone before, those present, those to come.
When Paul was a teenager and his family moved briefly to Maryland, his Catholic parish met temporarily in a school gym as well, but instead of student athletes painted around the walls like Resurrection has, glowering from behind the altar, keeping watchful eyes over the priests and congregation was the school mascot: the noble Gorilla. A twenty-foot-tall Gorilla. Holy Evolution, Batman!
Because we’re a church plant and mobile, there is a resolute group of faithful who load a truck and roll in carts of holy apparatus into the gym every Sunday. They reminded me of establishing the Intent of a contract when things got litigious, because seeing my brethren pushing in the Hospitality cart every single Sunday, I realize afresh that it’s not places but people who bring the Holy. It’s the Intent.
Some years ago I made this connection: the people are the church, the church is the people. Paul and I went to Convention in Fort Worth once and were lucky to hear Katharine Jefferts Schori speak, but also heard moving testimony from members in the Fort Worth diocese who had been put out of their parishes, their land, their church homes, when the former Bishop left the Episcopal Church USA, taking church property with him/them. They spoke of how demoralizing it was, at first. Several told of something else, something completely unexpected that also happened: shed of their property and holy “things”, they found they had a new flexibility. Missions previously considered untenable gained new traction. What seemed at first displacement became instead agility, and they found it worked to their advantage in rendering aid to those in need of it. What they thought lost had never been so, because the Holy hadn’t been contained exclusively within the buildings, any more than the ancient Israelites had contained it within an Ark. It isn’t something that can be contained in a building, or lost when the tenants are evicted.
We were serving hot dogs to homeless people in Columbia, South Carolina, when I overheard a scrap of conversation. I had observed that Arthur knew almost all of the homeless we served that day, but chalked it up to frequent participation in this particular ministry. But it was more than that, it was one of many reasons the death of this particular, (extra)ordinary man will be felt throughout Columbia and beyond.
On the surface, one might be forgiven thinking the only thing extraordinary about Arthur was that he was a Black man married to a White woman, and part of a largely White Episcopal congregation. One would be forgiven for being very, very wrong.
His and his wife’s, Jennifer’s, smiling faces were probably the first two Paul and I saw when we walked through the door of St. Simon and St. Jude Episcopal Church in Irmo, South Carolina. We quickly realized if there was anything going on at SSSJ, Arthur was sure to be involved. He and Jennifer greeted one and all, making newcomers like us feel welcome, and passed out the service bulletins; Arthur passed the collection plate, ushered, and I was lucky enough to teach Sunday School with him a few times. He served our Vestry and the community tirelessly.
Above all, he doted on his girls: Jennifer, his wife, for whom he was a calm, gentle rock through cancer, their three daughters, and the baby grandson for whom he would have been the perfect model of what it means to be a man.
At every event, Arthur was there long after it ended, never leaving until the last chair was stacked, the last bag of garbage toted out. On the Vestry he headed the Outreach Committee, and feeding the homeless of Columbia was something we were privileged to do once a month or so. It was a particularly special ministry for my heart; I’ve written about it here. While I was serving, I overheard that little bit of illuminating conversation about the homeless, and it shone light for me of who Arthur really was as a human being.
Because he worked for the City of Columbia, with the Forestry Dept., Arthur was out and about Columbia every day, and my eavesdropping clarified that the reason he knew all the homeless we fed that day was because he saw them far more often than the once a month I showed up. He was helping them all the time. He knew their troubles and histories, their worries, and who was missing – he’d ask after them by name, like a tall, gentle shepherd, noting the sheep who strayed from the fold.
He was the very best kind of man: faithful to his wife and God, devoted to his daughters and grandson, a good friend, ever willing to lend a hand, hard working and honest. It wasn’t a flashy life, not (on the surface) an extraordinary one but, for me, it was an inspirational life, and cut too damn short.
When I woke this morning I rested my head on Paul’s shoulder, thinking of Jennifer who will have to adjust to the empty space beside her, and I gave thanks for my own, (extra)ordinary man. They are gifts, these good people who walk into our lives and love us, despite ourselves.
I will never understand why bad men flourish while good men, answering work’s call in the midst of a very real storm (Hurricane Irma), die. For now, I am clinging to my faith that all the ripples Arthur sent out, through all the lives he touched with his particularly graceful brand of kindness and compassion, will send his memory on, out into the Universe through their own acts of kindness, bravery, and above all, Love.
Rest in peace, Arthur. I am glad I knew you, if only briefly, and I will pray for your beloved girls. May light perpetual shine upon you.
Last night, Paul and I were dropping off a Home Depot bucket full of cleaning products at our priest’s house, and Mother Leslie was thanking us for contributing. A couple of other parishioners are driving a truck, stuffed with cleaning supplies, de-humidifiers, and fans, down to Houston today. I told her no worries, we always hope someone will be here for us if we need them. It’s a privilege to be in a position to help, if only in a small way. I mean that, even if it took me an awful long time to learn it, and it reminded me of my Percival* Moment many years ago.
I was basically an un-churched child. Baptized at Our Lady of Las Vegas (Seriously! It’s a real place) and raised nominally Roman Catholic by my divorced, and thus excommunicated, mother. After she married my wonderful, Jewish step-father, we just didn’t go to church a lot.
For me, church was a beautiful, candle-lit place, with patient-looking Madonnas and stained glass, where I got to wear my best, white, Mary Jane shoes, and a white lace doily on my head, dreaming of the day I was old enough to wear the long lace mantillas like my mother did. For me, churches were something eternal, always there, and it never occurred to me they were built, operated, and funded by actual humans. Because=God & Miracles.
Years pass, I became a mother and felt the tug at my heart, calling me to be something more than “spiritual”. I also wanted give my daughter all the things I hadn’t had and that included a proper religious education. But where to get one? As an American, I did the logical thing: went shopping.
Over a few months, I attended services at the local parish of every mainline branch of Christianity, looking for a spiritual home for Charlotte and me. I really liked the energy of the large, local Methodist parish, right until the young pastor began encouraging us to pray for our homosexual brothers and sisters to be healed. According to him we could, apparently, pray away their gay. That wasn’t the parish for me.
It happened to be Easter Sunday when I visited the local Episcopal Church, where I saw a woman celebrate the Eucharist for the first time in my life. Here was the place to raise a daughter as a first class citizen. I was home.
We attended faithfully and I dropped my check in the collection plate every week, saw Charlotte to the door of her Sunday school class, then beat feet for Starbuck’s on Main Street, and a mercifully quiet cup of coffee, confident I was doing my bit by tossing in that check each week.
(Wo)man plans, God laughs. One day, just as I was making my escape, the Junior Warden caught me, asking where I was going. Oh, just grabbing a cup of coffee while the kiddo learns about Jesus.
“We have coffee in the Parish Hall! Let me buy you a cup!” He was holding the door open, and bearing a wide grin. It was a trap, I knew it was a trap, but my momma didn’t raise me to be rude, and so I walked right in to the Ministry Faire. (I always add the ‘e’ to make it seem more like a Renaissance Faire, and less like we’re asking people to you know, work. I prefer conjuring images of turkey legs rather than empty wallets or blisters.)
Oh God there was a whole Parish Hall full of smiling people beckoning me come join them in their noble pursuits. I had no idea what they were talking about; apparently, besides the check each week there was some expectation that I, personally, like myself, Do Things. Having no idea what to do with this, but with cultural politeness literally beaten into me as a child, I found the one thing (I thought) which would consume the least amount of my time: Lay Reader. I liked to read, was there anyway, it would cost me nothing. Ha! I showed them.
And God laughed and laughed.
Reading the lesson required standing up in front of People, and even though I am a good reader the Bible is full of weird people and place names. St. Paul especially writes in circles, so I found it far less personally embarrassing if I prepared during the week prior to my assigned readings. It also required me to be there a wee bit early, to check in with the Verger, and here I made remarkable discoveries: there was an entire room behind the wall on one side of the Altar, into which I had seen people disappear each week. Within the room were Vestments, and people who tend them; votive candles and their glasses, and Miss Pauline who could give you a thorough education on their proper cleaning; a Vestry person and an Usher, sealing up collection envelopes; Acolytes shedding their hot albs and storing their candles; and much, much more. Who knew?
Then I learned they took the show on the road, painting maps on playgrounds, literally feeding the hungry – they dished food on a plate and handed it to hungry people at a Homeless shelter! Delivered water, cleaning supplies and fans in the wake of hurricane Katrina, Vacation Bible School to the Navajos, and cooked meals for one another when someone was ill or had a new baby. Clearly, I had a lot to learn about the way of Christians.
One day, perhaps a year or two later because I can be a slow learner when it’s made too obvious, I had the Percival Moment: the Church is the People/the People are the Church.
So…. it isn’t God doing things, of course it is, but not in a woo-woo, parting-of-the-clouds way, it is through us – kind of like an Agency Agreement, which is something I do understand. God grants us agency to do the nuts and bolts of The Work for Him (Her). Having bigger fish to fry, when cookies need baking for a bake sale, God delegates the baking of cookies to me, or teaching a Sunday school class, or filling a Home Depot bucket with cleaning supplies. He relies on others to swing hammers, cut grass, and right now, drive those cleaning supplies to Houston.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t times when I am confronted with some task, or person, clearly set before me by God – God waiving that Agency Agreement between The Supreme Diety and this Christian – and I think, Really? I can’t get a pass this time? Sometimes I shirk, maybe less often now than once but surely not as less often as I should. But I know now that the church, churches, do not spring forth whole and entire, like Aphrodite from the head of Zeus; the Church is the People/the People are the Church, to the glory of God. And maybe one day, if I need a bucket of cleaning supplies, God will invoke His Agency Agreement with another Christian, or maybe a Muslim, a Jew, someone, and she will have a Percival Moment of her own, and fill a bucket for me.
*Spoiler Alert! Percival, in Arthurian legend, is the Knight who discovers it’s not only the Holy Grail he needs to cure King Arthur of his deadly malaise, but also the knowledge which comes with it: the King and the Land are one, neither can thrive while the other ails..
I’ve been hearing the term Radical Hospitality in Christian circles for some years now. It seems to vaguely mean Inclusion, Tolerance, and Support for the individual on his or her faith journey, as well as a method of bringing newcomers to the faith. It has meant different things to the various different people and congregations I’ve known who espouse it, or at least espouse the concept of it. I’ve heard it used as a reason to host a local ecumenical event, include Gay people in all aspects of congregational life, and as something the Welcoming Committee needs to take Very Seriously. It’s meaning for me has changed many times, but as ever: recent experience + old memory = lesson learned. One of the rewards of living long enough is that even ancient artifacts of memory can have lessons, given the right ignition.
My ex-husband’s late father left my late mother-in-law for another woman. It was as cliche as could be: she was his secretary. All his adult children and we spouses disapproved, vocally so, and then sat back in our disapproval and waited for the affair to end.
But the affair didn’t end, and a couple years later it occurred to all of us that if his children and grandchildren wanted a relationship with him, we were gonna have to get over our disapproval and hurt and bring them both back into the fold. As the family Golden Child, it fell to my ex-husband, and by extension me, to make that happen.
We invited them to dinner and, because my father-in-law didn’t like me and I knew it, I went about my pre-party cleaning with a double dose of OCD; my neighbor, finding me sponge-mopping the ceiling, gently told me I might be taking things just a tad far. They were likely happy to be invited and wouldn’t be judging my housekeeping too harshly.
They arrived fifteen minutes early and found me, mop in hand, finishing the powder room. Wanting to kill them, I smiled through gritted teeth. We all ate. Both Agnes and I drank way too much. After they left, concluding that “the other woman” had neither horns nor claws and that my father-in-law was not being held against his will, we counted the evening a success.
My ex and I felt quite proud of ourselves. What grown-ups we’d been! We’d nobly cracked the door open a little bit, so they could get back in. Over time, I think all of the kids eventually found their way to forgiving him enough to include them in their lives somewhat, and maybe they’d have done that without my dinner party but, weren’t we Good? Weren’t we hospitable to the woman who had broken up their family? We congratulated ourselves that we’d given more than they deserved, and were the bigger people for it.
Never once did it occur to me how much courage it took for Agnes, whatever her sins, to walk through my front door.
Never once did I think how nervous she must have been.
Never once did I even try to imagine what she must be feeling.
Never once in all the years that followed did I open my heart to her, to who she was, what she felt or thought. I don’t recall ever asking her a question about herself, her life, her interests. But I was always polite.
They eventually married and remained so until her shocking, sudden death some years later. She lay down for a nap and never woke up. There were no second chances at offering Radical Hospitality to Agnes.
According to Dictionary.com:
Radical: Adjective 1. of or going to the root or origin; fundamental: a radical difference; 2. thoroughgoing or extreme, especially as regards change from accepted or traditional forms: a radical change in the policy of a company. 3. favoring drastic political, economic, or social reforms: radical ideas; radical and anarchistic ideologues.
Hospitality: noun 1. the friendly reception and treatment of guests or strangers. 2. the quality or disposition of receiving and treating guests and strangers in a warm, friendly, generous way.
Just reading the definitions calls up Jesus for me, dining with tax collectors and prostitutes. It points out my giant failings were Agnes was concerned: I took the standard societal attitude about a woman who has an affair with a married man – that she was a heartless homewrecker and not worthy. If I’d been more radical, I might have accepted her as a fellow human being, full of errors and mistakes, just like me. And if I’d been truly hospitable and received her in a generous fashion, I might have saw in her whatever it was my father-in-law saw and loved. I might have offered radical hospitality as well as food and drink.
It is difficult to step away from our convenient labels for people, especially those we consider “other”, be they other woman/other man, or other color, other creed, other point-of-origin, but the loss is greatest to ourselves when we won’t. I say won’t, rather than don’t or can’t, because the latter two might denote a lack of choice, and our freedom to choose how we think is the best, and potentially perilous, gift of freewill.
In a dangerously angry world we need not walls but truly radical hospitality. From being radical enough to suppose the lady with 47 items in the express lane ahead of you at the grocery store didn’t do it to piss you off, to being generous and hospitable enough to listen to fact-based ideas and concerns from the opposing political party.
If we were having coffee, I might ask if you follow any sort of Lenten practice? I do, and generally find it a helpful, healthy time of year to clean up, clean out, recenter.
In years past, I’ve given up chocolate, red meat, etc., or taken up some reading, some form of self-improvement. Last year, we chose Star Words on Epiphany and I worked on that, though I never really did understand what Authority was trying to tell me.
Never have I been foolish enough to give up coffee, and a grateful world rejoices. Settle in for another cup; I have a confession.
This year I’ve given up nothing. I’m trying to eat better, get more exercise. Tackle a couple things around the house I’ve been avoiding. But I couldn’t settle my mind on a serious Lenten discipline until a sermon on the first week of Lent on Sin. Fr. Greg did a great job of bringing the concept of Sin out of the Big Hairy Sin area, and down into the little, niggling, just-as-dangerous personal level. The kinds of sin that eats away, slowly but surely, at people. The kind of sin that destroys from inside, and it has me thinking about the things left undone in my life (in the Episcopal confessional, we atone for both the sins we commit in action, as well as our sins of omission). It’s just one thing, an ending, and it is fair to say I have allowed it a lot of space in my head to the detriment of better, nobler pursuits.
I neither desired nor initiated this ending, and it’s only me that hasn’t acknowledged it, but if there is a time for rigorous self-honesty, Lent is it.
There have been letters written and wisely left unsent; a good, long talk with Paul during which he let me ramble on until I finished with, I don’t really know what I expect to get out of it, or even what I want. Maybe that’s not it – maybe I just want to force the issue, hear the words ‘I’ve decided you are not necessary to my life anymore, please go away.’ And ultimately, what’s the point? When I find myself questioning if I care enough to want that, truth be told.
For a smart person, I can be a bit slow on the uptake, particularly with regards to rejection, but I do eventually get there.
A good Lent provides clarity but also time, time to sit with the clarity, time to accept it. Acceptance: the final stage of grief. Admitting to myself that what I have been doing, not terribly well, is grieving, and that the grief is consuming energy better deployed elsewhere.
Earlier this week I saw a video clip of Prince Harry reading Ecclesiastes 3. What a beautiful deep voice he has, and as a two-tour veteran of Afghanistan, I imagine he understands the wisdom of this passage better than most of us. All that being said, I think there was something more kept it circling my head this week. There was a message in it for me: It is time. Time to stop looking for answers or reasons to this particularly unanswerable question. Time to consign it to the Mysteries of the Universe, and People. Time to Accept. Time to put away the grief, confusion, and sadness. Time to acknowledge the season that was, and passed time to let it go.
Time to face forward, walk through the hurt and heal. Time to evict this particular squatter from my head. Time to move on.
If we were having coffee, I would wonder aloud if you have ever clung stubbornly to people or situations beyond what was healthy? Do you struggle with accepting an ending because it hurts? Who or what helps you? How do you evict the squatters in your head?
It’s Valentine’s Day and I am grateful my valentine loves going to the movies as much as I do. We have a system worked out that grants me any kind of gooey, sentimental chick-flick or weird art house film in exchange for tolerating any of his peculiarities in the form of, oh let’s say, the Resident Evil franchise.
Hidden Figures is a remarkable film in every way I can think of: great (and long overdue) story, fantastic performances, excellent direction and storytelling, and for me, the gift of a revelation. It came in the form of that damn coffee pot.
Bear with me while I take a little detour. It’s weeks later, just this past Sunday and Paul and I got up, sipped our coffee and read the morning news. As the news lately has a tendency to do, it engendered lively discussion until I just couldn’t anymore and said I can’t talk about politics anymore. It wasn’t like we were disagreeing – we weren’t but I just couldn’t.
Before we headed out to church I apologized and explained that since the depression of the election lifted slightly, what I feel a terrible lot of the time since the inauguration is anxious, sincerely scared, and on the verge of tears. While I’m trying to keep my head out of the sand and stay informed and active where it is helpful, sometimes I have to call calf-rope on it and give myself a rest. For the first time in my life, I am truly afraid for both my country and personal freedom.
Later, while driving to church I wondered out loud to Paul, Do you think this weird anxious feeling I have so often now is what Black people feel like, oh, every time someone follows them through Walmart? Or pulls them over? Like, all the time. This is their reality, a low-level, sort of baseline anxiety? A need to always have one’s guard up, almost everywhere, lest one get slapped in the face with it again? Paul agreed this was entirely possible; I’m thinking my Black friends will let me know if I am right or wrong, or somewhere in between.
You see, I was thinking about that damn coffee pot, as I have repeatedly since seeing Hidden Figures. While we were watching the film I knew the bathroom issue would be a plot device and it was. But the bathrooms and drinking fountains were big, ugly, institutionalized racism; the coffee pot…. that coffee pot was small, petty, and deeply personal. There was Katherine, her mathematical genius’ brain feasting on complex calculations towards a first ever goal, shoulder to shoulder and day after day and hour after hour with everyone in that room. One day, she needs a cup of coffee to fuel her efforts and all eyes are upon her, silently saying, oh no you don’t.
(At this point in the film, I involuntarily scolded them with an audible, Really?)
The next day she comes in to find a crappy old peculator one of them probably pulled out of a junk box and labeled, “colored” and they all turned again and smugly stared at her, to see her reaction as they showed her her place. Here, I literally flinched and Paul squeezed my hand and whispered, “Why are you surprised?” and I wasn’t surprised, per se, I was disgusted more than anything at how pathetic and small a thing it was to do. What did a cup of coffee cost them? Was it that she touched it? They didn’t eat at diners where black hands cooked their food? And Katherine, who I envisioned had maybe let her guard down just a little, if only because they were all working so hard on such ambitious, never-before-done stuff…. only to be reminded in the most classless way possible, if there is even a classy way to do such, that she was not and never would be quite accepted by them. She was tolerated, so long as she didn’t step outside their conception of her “place”.
When I worked at a High School with a large African American population, there would occasionally be a kid in trouble who’s parent took the tack it was solely because the student was Black, and was deaf to all evidence of behavioral issues in the classroom, even when the teacher who’d written them up was themselves, Black. It’s hard to work with them, because they arrive with a preconceived set of notions and expectations, and I imagine that it is hard to do otherwise when one’s own life has been one of repeated racist experiences. As the SRO on one campus explained, “I never look for racism, it’s more I’m just not surprised when it happens”.
How hard would your heart be if over your life you were subject to an avalanche of coffee pot situations? It’s death by a million tiny cuts.
The gift I got from that damn coffee pot is the gift of making it personal. Invested as I was in Katherine, the filmmakers gave me the gift of seeing through her eyes and heart, as clear as if she’d broken the fourth wall and said directly to me, “This is what racism looks like, up close and personal. This is the tiny, niggling detail of racism rather than the flash and size of a burning cross, or a “Colored” bathroom. This is the day-to-day, soul-killing stuff.”
My gift to you on this Valentine’s Day is to suggest we’re in a time when attentive listening, careful watching, and unreserved loving is necessary. Listen to hear rather than to answer, watch for the truth especially in unexpected places, love unconditionally, and pray without ceasing. We’ve never needed it so much.
The year I don’t know, but in the early days of the 20th Century a young man from a small village outside Kiev boarded a ship in Frankfort, Germany, crossed the Atlantic and, passing through Ellis Island, an anonymous agent recorded him under the Anglicized name, Bernard Gross. He married a fellow immigrant, a girl from the old country named Rachel. They became American citizens, owned and operated a laundry, and raised four children: Betty, Mildred, Harry, and finally, surprise! the baby upon whom everyone doted, Jack, “Jacky” to the family.
Jack played High school football and after WWII he followed his older brother west, tending bar and managing restaurants, eventually settling down with a pretty cocktail waitress, a single mother with a little girl. He didn’t live an extraordinary life, but worked hard for his living, bought houses, paid taxes, and raised another man’s child through fevers, stitches, accolades, accidents, and late-night ER visits, adopting her as his own and teaching her what is meant by unconditional love. His own father, Bernard, adopted her, too, with the less formal but equally binding ties of grandfatherly love.
That little girl was me. Only one degree of separation, a straight line linking a little girl growing up with a loving father and America opening it’s arms to a Russian Jew fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe.
There is no way to estimate what my closest associations with immigrants have meant to my life. Surely, I wouldn’t be me if I hadn’t sat in a doting Papa’s lap during holidays and family gatherings.
My country was built by immigrants, but as a country we have a habit of being pretty ugly to the most recent wave of them. Recent events conjure shameful memories from High School in Southern California, when Vietnamese refugees were settled in our area. Then, I witnessed a subtler, nonetheless savage, form of welcome by my fellow students in the form of whispers and snickers in the hallways and a pointed distancing. When the locker rooms became infested with scabies, the blame was laid firmly at the feet of the Vietnamese students, and the rampant but previously quiet racism of the school’s corridors turned vocally and disgustingly scurrilous towards them. It all sounds so petty and small, but it was relentless. I was never savage, oh no, I was worse: I saw it all and remained silent. Which is why I can’t this time, I can’t be silent and honor those immigrants who, in six degrees of separation or less, have shaped, loved, guided, educated, delighted, and enriched my life beyond measure.
It bears remembering that most people don’t want to leave their home countries, their relatives, their places of worship, their familiar foods and surroundings. When one’s choice is leave or die, it’s an easy choice to make, and there in New York harbor stands a statue inviting “the poor, the tired, the huddled masses” to our shores. America has long been the beacon of safety, of hope, the promise of God’s grace for whoever named God and even those who don’t. How do I wrap my head around even the consideration of not living into that promise? If we aspire to being the “shining city upon a hill”, deserving that honorific demands no less than offering shelter and succor to all people seeking refuge, the least, the last, and the lost.
We cannot be both Christian and Isolationist. God’s grace flows first not to particular borders but rather, into the human heart open and ready to receive it. Then we hold it but a little while, passing it on to the next in need while being ourselves replenished in the giving. In this way we are constantly renewed while repaying the debt owed to our immigrant ancestors, who paved the way for us.
In this way we live into the promise of being the “shining city upon the hill”.
The RevGals may not know what they’ve unleashed in asking for any old five things that have been on our minds.
Sometimes it’s my bladder, other times it’s Blanca’s, but 3:00 a.m. is an old friend of mine. Three a.m. has taught me how quick, agile, and completely random a brain can be, how full of unbidden thoughts; at 3:00 a.m., I’d be happy if there were only five. But I’ll pick five that came and stuck a little with me while I was padding around in the wee-wee hours, letting out animals and doling out treats when they came back in.
When one moves states and has to get a new driver’s license, one should automatically be granted enough time in the new state to drop however many pounds are required to produce a relatively decent photo. In my case this would have been six months.
Exactly how expensive are heated toilet seats? Because the one at the ophthalmologist’s office yesterday was the absolute bomb.The Election has really had me in a funk, but I realized something this week when folks started boycotting the Inauguration: I think they are wrong, not in their ideals but in their absence, because I think this new Administration needs to know we’re watching, and that we will act upon what we see. I know I’ve spent too long with my head under metaphorical covers, not looking at what I don’t want to see.
You only realize how brilliant an invention the Doggy Door was, and how much you miss having one, when you’re up at 3:00 a.m. trying to herd the dog into the house, praying none of the neighbors are up to witness the spectacle of one’s wild-haired, 3:00 a.m. self running through the backyard.
“With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s a quote I associate with Uncle Ben in Spiderman, even while knowing he was simply riffing on Jesus. It’s a quote that pokes at me, in my life of relative ease and comfort, a life that can contemplate things like heated toilet seats fat-faced driver’s license pictures.
Many years ago I learned at 3:00 a.m. it’s impossible to lie to oneself, and the more serious of the 3:00 a.m. thoughts bear further, wakeful consideration. While crowds and noise and strangers are all things I avoid, tomorrow I march in support of the Women’s March on Washington, “In the spirit of democracy and honoring the champions of human rights, dignity, and justice who have come before us, we join in diversity to show our presence in numbers too great to ignore. The Women’s March on Washington will send a bold message to our new administration on their first day in office, and to the world that women’s rights are human rights. We stand together, recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us.”
Jesus tells us that however we treat the “least of these,” we treat him. While I have no great power, only a modest facility with language and the ability to communicate, I do have an active conscience and a sense of responsibility. Tomorrow, I will march and take pictures, pay attention and communicate. It is what I can do, and as the mother of a daughter, as the friend and ally of LGBTQ folk, as a Christian human being, I would rather my lack of a doggy door have me up at 3:00 a.m., than the prickly conscience that comes of choosing the path of least resistance.
If you’re near North Central Texas, consider joining us tomorrow (January 21st) on the Square in Denton.