Category Archives: Justice

For Bruce: An Occupy Advent Mitzvah

I returned to States for Christmas to discover that my friend Bruce Fisher had passed away while I was out of the country these past couple months. I am sorry I was not able to be here to remember his legacy with you all. I am reposting this edited reflection from last year in his honor.

“You have performed a mitzvah.” At the time I had no idea what a mitzvah meant, but as I served a Christmas turkey in a tarp covered tent by the light of a menorah – no one needed to define the word for me to get a sense of the meaning.

It is now two years ago, that a group of young adults from Grace Church and I carried the turkey, and all its fixings, down to the Occupy Delaware campsite. I had been drawn there because something in me needed to understand how this movement was so effective in capturing the hearts and commitment of so many in my generation; and also because part of me sensed that there was something of the teachings of the Hebrew prophets that I loved being incarnated in that space. Yet, as we trudged down there that night, there was no way we could have known what a sacred moment we would witness as the devout Jewish couple, who lived on the site and taught at the local college, led the group in lighting the menorah candles. Now when I hear that phrase Occupy Advent, that we bandy about on social media, all I can think of is those flames lighting gentle faces at our own Occupy Advent celebration in the midst of its convergence with Occupy Chanukah.

I knew that there was something special about these people since the moment I met them. I had been drawn to the site my first week in Wilmington in the same manner that the Israelites had been drawn to the Jordan River to watch John the Baptist holler at the religious leaders that he called “a brood of vipers.” And I’ll admit the first young man who greeted me as I wandered into the campsite alone that first night responded to me in much the same manner when he discovered I was clergy, falling backwards over himself at the sight of “The Man.” Not sure why I always fess up to being clergy so quickly, but I think it has something to do with the fact that Jo Bailey Wells once told me that she was questioned by a priest in Sudan who was confused regarding our modesty about clerical identities in the United States. He did not understand why we were bashful about our identities when it caused us no danger, when for him the cross and the collar that he daily wore could easily mean death. After hearing that appeal for solidarity, I have not found a reason why I am willing to hide my vocation – not the fear of feeling awkward at a party; not the likelihood of creating a buzzkill on a date; and not even the certainty of raising the heretic alert and inducing pitying, condescending vocal tones from acquaintances who disapprove of female clergy. So I fessed up, as usual, and sent the young Occupier scurrying to mock-hide behind a friend.

Within a few minutes, however, I was deep in conversation with a kind Presbyterian man who reminded me of Forest Whitaker, in one of his more gentle roles, and was there to stay awake and sit watch all night for the safety of the vulnerable. “Welcome home,” was the first thing he said to me as he enveloped me in a big hug and made me a part of that family during my first week in a new city. Then he settled down to begin his long night of waiting and watching over his flock. “And lo, there were shepherds in the streets keeping watch over their flocks by night…”

I learned a lot about waiting and a lot about Advent from these gentle, loving people – even from the rough ones, the friends with an occasional foul mouth – “Sorry pastor!” – maybe not just occasional. I don’t think they’d appreciate it if i sanitized this description too much and made our life together look too quaint and Christmasized. Even while I did not always agree with all the methods or signs that each person took up, that was not the point, because they did not necessarily always agree with each other either. The point was that despite their different opinions and methods, they were united by a common faith that things could and would change and a willingness to sacrifice and suffer to await the advent of a new day. I found myself wishing the Christian movement contained as much determination, solidarity and willingness to live simply. There are many of us who long for that, which is what I think inspires movements like Occupy Advent, The Advent Conspiracy, and Rethink Christmas. We cannot help but long to see for ourselves the words of Mary as we celebrate the birth of her son, “God has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

What these Occupiers really taught me did not hit home until a year later, however, when I was watching a video from “The Work of the People” at a church where I preached. I was a little surprised to see good old Stanley Hauerwas from my Duke Divinity days pop up on the screen; but I was even more surprised when he explained, in his slow Texan drawl, why it was that my Advent at Occupy had been so powerful. It was because much like the many amazing Jewish leaders that populated the Occupy community, the movement contained hope that was powerfully and terribly determined. I watched them as people with graduate degrees and people with or without high school diplomas slept side by side as equals in the rain and sleet and snow – and all because they believed with fierce determination in hope and equality. All because they believed that no matter how hard things looked and no matter how heavily the deck was stacked against them – they could make a difference, things could change, and justice was possible.

Over the course of the year, as we celebrated shabbat and Passover together, Ash Wednesday and Easter, they became much more to me than “protesters” and I became much more to them than “clergy.” They even occupied my ordination, coming to Philadelphia from Delaware to stand in support of me as the Bishop laid her hands on my head and said, “take thou authority.” One of the most powerful parts of my ordination, the part that will always linger in my memory, is their presence, their support, their love and their belief in me. They were willing to come to a place where none of us imagined they would be when we first met, because of the power of community and solidarity and trust. Part of why I came down there that first night was to make sure they knew they were loved, but it was I who learned about love, about hope, about patience and about long-suffering from them.

They taught me what Advent means and how it should feel – in the end it was they who performed the mitzvah.

So when you think of Advent, when you see “Occupy Advent” stream by in your Twitter feed, do not take it lightly – reflect on the change it requires of us; think of my friends that slept out in the cold and rain and snow because they believed in a vision of justice where everyone had enough. Think of the Israelites waiting and waiting through persecution after persecution, many which Christians committed against them, because of their belief in the promised Messiah. That kind of waiting takes more faith, takes more trust, takes more endurance than I think I am capable of mustering on my best day. I don’t want to live with such a flimsy faith, I want to have a heart prepared to welcome my Messiah. I want to Occupy Advent – to live as if God’s promises are true – to live as if God was serious in all of those prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures – not just the prophecies that required something of God, but also the prophecies that required something of us… require something of us.

“Now this is the commandment that The Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and Occupy…
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, The Lord alone. You shall love The Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” -Deuteronomy 6:1-9

In other words, live like you mean it.

Bruce did, now may he rest in peace.

Thanks for everything Bruce
Thanks for everything Bruce
Occupy Advent meets Occupy Chanukah at the menorah
Occupy Advent meets Occupy Chanukah at the menorah
Cherished friends, Akiva & Hadassah
Cherished friends, Akiva & Hadassah
Occupy Passover, hosted at Grace Church
Occupy Passover, hosted at Grace Church
Coming together from all walks of life
Coming together from all walks of life
Barbara Lewis comes to visit Occupy on tent raising day
Barbara Lewis comes to visit Occupy on tent raising day
Getting swung around the dance floor
Getting swung around the dance floor
Occupy the Dream on Martin Luther King Day
Occupy the Dream on Martin Luther King Day
Occupy has dinner with Occupy the Hood on Ash Wednesday
Occupy has dinner with Occupy the Hood on Ash Wednesday

Courage in a time of Trials

Silence. No one here but me. It has been like this all day. Preacher’s Cave, Tay Bay Beach, and the Devil’s Backbone – mine alone. I had come here because it was the only way I knew how to stand in solidarity with my fellow preachers back home in Pennsylvania; burdened today with the task of deciding whether to remove the credentials of the Rev. Frank Schaefer. It had not taken long. I actually knew what the answer had been before I could even make it up to the northernmost point of the island; before I even entered the cave. Rev. Frank Schaefer had been defrocked. Cast out of the Order of Elders. The Order whose members I had only a couple years ago, taken vows to support. Somehow I felt I still owed Rev. Shaefer my vow of support. But there was little left to do but pray.

When I arrived I walked first out to Tay Bay Beach, where the shipwrecked Eleutherian Adventurers had come ashore before finding refuge in the cave. I climbed up on the rocks and ate my lunch in the shadow of a deserted dingy, a shipwreck itself in miniature. Conch shells lay scattered over the volcanic rock, vulnerable as they revealed their pink interior which, along with the coral reefs, were responsible for the pink hue of the sand on this island. Some more beaten up than beautiful, their scars revealed that they had given up more of themselves than others to contribute to the beauty of this beach.

‘Careful’, I said to myself, knowing that the razor sharp rocks that I walked on cautiously would cut me to the bone if I had a single misstep. And then I did – oooooh wheeee – a little something to remember this place by.

As I looked out at the Devil’s Backbone, the dangerous reef that had taken so many ships over the years – and the Eleutherian Adventurers first of all – I marveled at the courage that kind of journey demanded. Courage.

Courage became the theme of my thoughts as I pondered and prayed, and I knew that courage was what would be demanded of us now.

Walking back up the path and into Preacher’s Cave, I did not have the words yet. So I took out my guitar and simply pleaded for God’s grace as I wandered the cave, strumming the chords of Amazing Grace to the rocks and the shadows and the shafts of light.

Finally, I put the guitar away, and climbing up into the naturally formed pulpit of Preacher’s Cave, I found a smooth place to sit.

And, here I sit, and I wonder – Where do we go from here?

A single solitary leaf floats down from the largest opening in the roof of Preacher’s Cave. The sand fleas surround me, but for the first time – almost eerily – not a single one bites me. Nearby I hear the waves crashing and the wind blowing through the large leaves of the sea grape trees. A bird calls out to another and then quietly awaits a reply. Apart from that, all is silence. All is darkness. All is light. That is the irony of Preacher’s Cave. It protects this space with an armor perforated by nature’s power to flood that which should be dark with light.

This is why the early settlers chose to keep returning to this place to worship. It is mysterious and ethereal. A place of darkness where the light rules. A place where shipwrecked freedom seekers came with sadness and left filled with hope. It is a place you come to, but not a place where you stay.

This is my tomb. My place of hope. Where death and despair and discouragement are overturned even at the moment when it seems least possible.

I believe something is changing, I believe it must. I believe the Spirit is moving and I am trying to figure out how to move and shift and sway and dance with her mysterious way.

I believe that I am changing, I believe I must. Courage is the path forward.

No one ever found freedom without courage. The Eleutherian Adventurers put their lives and futures at stake – and those of their children – to search for freedom. Mother Theresa, although she did not want it known, boldly pestered and pleaded with every church authority she could find until she was, after many years, given the church’s blessing to be released from the vows of her Order to begin her own Order. Harriet Tubman, whose feet traced the path North and South that I have traveled more times than I could count, had the kind of courage few of us can even imagine. She had the courage to risk her life not for her own freedom, but for the freedom of others. She understood that all of our freedom is bound up together, and no one is free if anyone is still in chains.

Today my Order lost another person of courage. Simple courage, not dramatic courage – the very simple act of saying and living who he really was. An act that, though simple, is rare. There are few of us who do not have a trial we avoid. Most of us know, if we are being honest, that we can no more agree with and keep every letter of the church law than we can agree with and keep every letter of the law that Jesus speaks of – the law he came not to abolish but to fulfill. The law that has been fulfilled, so that Christ might give us a new way of living.

“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Where will we find the freedom to be, say, live who we truly and fully are? We will only find it through courage. The kind that makes your knees shake and your eyes water and your voice crack – the kind of courage, in other words, that emerges not from the lack of fear. As Nelson Mandela said, “I learned that courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” Our current trial culture will either bring courage out in some, or drive it back into the shadows.

My skin has grown cold as the sun dips low. Cold like the water of Tay Bay Beach. Cold like the rocks that surround me in this nature made and human improved chancel of Preacher’s Cave. I reach up and touch the rock around my neck – my tomb, my cave in miniature – and say, as I always do, “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is shifting sand.”

Where will we go from here? I am not sure, but the only way forward is on the solid rock and not the shifting sand. Speaking only for myself, the shifting sand has been the politics of the church; the desperate search for the survival of the institution; and the corruption of our youthful optimism as we identify those with leadership potential not in order to follow them in new directions, but in order to tell them how to lead us where we have already been. I have been an accomplice in all these things.

The solid rock, I have found in unexpected places. The comraderie and loyalty of my friend’s who occupied Delaware. The accurate spiritual wisdom of the prophets of James Cistern, Pauline and Maxine. The faithful perseverance of my friends at the Isaiah House, David and Rebekah. Like I child crossing a stream, I have used my discernment to spot the solid rocks and hopped from one to another to find my way. But as we grow up, courage demands that we find the ability to stand steady on our own rock and be a haven for others.

Where does courage come from? It comes from the confidence that we have honestly searched and struggled to know who we are and what we believe. True courage can only ever come from the confidence of convictions.

So we must summon up every ounce of courage we can find, from every dark space we have hidden it in. Bring it all forward to the center of the cave, and find out how much we have when we all come together. Then we will see where God will take this ship we call the church.

One man shipwrecked on an island is Robinson Crusoe; 50 shipwrecked are the Eleutherian Adventurers. One man shipwrecked on an island seeks only to survive; 50 shipwrecked are the first settlers of a new nation.

Courage that makes your knees shake; compassion that makes your heart ache; and a community that sees the walls break. That will be our way forward.

Preacher's Cave as seen from the pulpit
Preacher’s Cave as seen from the pulpit
The approach to Preacher's Cave
The approach to Preacher’s Cave
Spreading some Amazing Grace around the cave
Spreading some Amazing Grace around the cave
Conch shells on Tay Bay Beach, some more battered than others
Conch shells on Tay Bay Beach, some more battered than others
The guardian of Tay Bay Beach
The guardian of Tay Bay Beach
Shafts of light pierce the darkness in Preacher's Cave
Shafts of light pierce the darkness in Preacher’s Cave
A life preserver is one of many objects washed ashore at Tay Bay Beach
A life preserver is one of many objects washed ashore at Tay Bay Beach

Freedom in a time of Trials

“Watcha doin’ tomorrow?” Leroy asked as we postponed my stick-shift driving lessons after his niece Courtney demanded my attention. The child had jumped out of the bathtub and come running straight out the house yelling “Hannah! Hannah!” when I drove by on my way to work that morning, and by the afternoon she was tired of waiting for her promised adventure. It would have been impossible to escape; she had an ear attuned after much practice to recognize the sounds of Brenda’s car and intercept her on her way from Rainbow to Camp Symonette. And now, driving Brenda’s car, I was to reap the benefits of all that practice.

“I’m going to Preacher’s Cave tomorrow,” I answered. Preacher’s Cave had captured my fascination from the first time I heard the words about eleven months ago. On a trip with some amazing clergywomen from my home Conference, Eastern Pennsylvania, I had come across a tea named after Preacher’s Cave. A tea which I, of course, had to purchase and spend the next few months drinking. I have to admit that I did not even realize that Preacher’s Cave was a real place when I bought the tea. I simply thought it was an elegant Bahamian metaphor for the secluded state that is necessary for many when giving birth to a sermon. Don’t ask me why I thought that the marketers believed that might appeal to the general populace.

Imagine my shock and delight then when during my first week on the island, somebody told me that I needed to go to Preacher’s Cave. Whip lash – “Wait, Preacher’s Cave is a real place?? And I am close to it right now?”

Apparently Preacher’s Cave was a real place, but not many people came across it because it was on a secluded island. Yet, wonder of wonders, I too was on that secluded island.

God had already blown my mind with this spiritually tantalizing serendipity, but there was more!

First, Preacher’s Cave was amazingly beautiful and the aesthetics – light filtering in through holes in the roof of the cave – were equally delightful to my eye and to my heart. For someone who chose to name their blog after the Cohen lyrics “there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” it felt that this place was the visible representation of the contours of my heart. It revealed the reality that holes and cracks and imperfections are not the things that destroys us, but rather the things that make us beautiful. And yeah, the rain pours in the holes when it is storming, but on most days the sun streams through those same holes; I accept that you have to take a bit of rain on your head, in order to experience the sunlight on your face.

Second, Preacher’s Cave had a powerful story to go along with it’s imposing form. In 1647 a group of adventurers set out from Bermuda on a journey seeking a space to worship and practice their religion in the way they felt led. They called themselves the Eleutherian Adventurers (for those rusty on their Greek, eleuthera means “freedom”). As they passed by a long strip of land, 100 miles long by 2 miles wide, they found themselves face to face with the Devil’s Backbone – a tremendous reef that winds along the Atlantic side of the island. The survivors of the shipwreck made it to shore and found shelter in a large cathedral-like cave. It was there in that perfectly contoured space, that they gave thanks to God for their lives and celebrated their first worship service.

They found the beautiful island to be uninhabited; not because it had gone undiscovered, but because it had been discovered. This island was one of many whose population had been drained and decimated by Spanish explorers.  The original Arawak inhabitants, the Lucayans, had been taken from the island to work the mines in Cuba and Hispaniola, in an era before the attention of the “explorers” had turned away from native populations and towards the continent of Africa to satiate their thirst for slaves.

The shipwrecked adventurers decided that God had brought them to this perilous and beautiful snake of an island, and so they decided to stay. They spread out and became the first to settle the Bahamas, still returning for over 100 years to worship at the cave. They carved a rough pulpit into the rock, seats for the ministers, and even a choir loft. They named it Preacher’s Cave, and they named the island Eleuthera – the place where freedom is found.

In those days, that was indeed how one found freedom. There was plenty of “empty” places in the world to go and set up shop; and if they were not empty you could simply convert, enslave or decimate the populace – usually a combination of all three was employed. Ironically, the way that the European world found freedom, was the same way that the rest of the world lost it.

Thankfully that is not the accepted method to find freedom anymore. Yet, there is still a draw towards freedom, a hunger for freedom. People are still wrestling today about worship; but these days the struggle has shifted from not only how you worship, but also with whom do you worship.

Back home in Eastern Pennsylvania, where my Preacher’s Cave Tea sipping friends are laboring through the final week of Advent, it feels like everything is in question. The United Methodist Church wants to affirm the dignity and sacred worth of people of all genders and orientations; while simultaneously withholding certain positions and ceremonies from those who diverge from the traditional norm. We simply cannot have it both ways. The longing for freedom that has run its course through every phase of the church bears the fruit of its ancient DNA right in front of us today. The pot of discontent boils over, and the voices heavy with the guilt of many years of silence hold their tongue no more.

My Bishop stands in the center, and God be with her, is finding the words and the courage to lead us through it. My friends stand upon ground they would never choose – judge, jury and credential-executioner for one of their own. Today the Rev. Frank Schaefer goes before the Board of Ordained Ministry, having refused to voluntarily surrender his credentials after performing a marriage ceremony for his son and his partner. He stands today firm in his integrity, having satisfied the demands of his convictions. He confronts the church with the question, is there not another way?

I cannot be with them on this painful day, a day that cannot be easy for anyone regardless of their stance, and so I will travel up this snake of an island and stand in Preacher’s Cave and I too will ask God, is there not another way? I will plant my feet on solid Eleutherian soil, and ask what freedom means and how we are to find it.

While, thankfully, exploration, conquest and colonization are no longer the methods employed to find religious freedom, it does leave us all with a little less air to breathe. We cannot escape one another, we have to fight it out living side by side.

Unfortunately, we still do find it necessary to employ the other ancient tool of struggle within the church – the trial. The trial is a method that reached its low point during the Inquisition, while throughout the ages never seeming to bring out the best in us regardless of the time or space. In the United States, we usually consider the Salem witch trials to be the low point of church trials, and looking back it is hard to believe that really happened; hard to believe we really did that to one another. The recent genealogy craze revealed the loss of an ancestor on my mother’s side to the Salem witch trials, and it is certainly not difficult these days to feel a sense of sardonic affinity with that virtuous woman.

The funny thing is, the man in whose name we carry out these trials, fell victim to a very similar trial himself. The witnesses were brought in, the rigged questions were asked, and Jesus Christ was declared a religious heretic. His sentence was not the loss of his credentials, but the loss of his life. There was no appeal, and no mercy. And at the will of the jury, we put God made flesh to death. It is just so hard to imagine that same man wanting trials to be carried out in his name.

So today, I will stand in Preacher’s Cave, and I will pray – for a miracle if the Board can find one; and for a new way forward if they cannot. We do not need more trials, we do not need more executions of calling. That is why I wear an Eleutherian rock around my neck rather than a cross these days. It represents for me the cave of refuge, the solid rock on which I stand, and the tomb that gave birth to resurrection. Because it was not a trial, an execution and a cross that changed my life; it was the tomb in which death was defeated, a verdict was overruled, and life burst forth with freedom.

Trial, execution, death – that is only half the story. Shipwrecks have survivors. Tombs have escapees. Trials have pardons. Death has resurrection.

The pulpit at Preacher's Cave
The pulpit at Preacher’s Cave
Holes add to the beauty in Preacher's Cave
Holes add to the beauty in Preacher’s Cave
The entry to Preacher's Cave
The entry to Preacher’s Cave
Plaque at the entry of Preacher's Cave
Plaque at the entry of Preacher’s Cave
Watching the sunset with Leroy's niece
Watching the sunset with Leroy’s niece

Uncomfortable at Christmas

“Take it easy today,” Pauline said, as I dropped off a box of raisins. Then reaching into my pockets I emptied them of the ten eggs I had stuffed in there on my way over from the chicken coop. “We’ve got to do something with all these eggs,” I told Pauline, “I can’t keep up with them.” Thankfully, Pauline had a lot of cakes she was cooking for her daughter in Nassau so I knew some of them would get put to good use. “She’s got her spoiled,” Maxine had teased her sister a couple days before. That was the night that my post-Haiti illness had gotten really bad; the night before I had gone to Nassau to get tests. After that sleepless night, a day in Nassau, and another restful night back here on Eleuthera, I finally had a minute to ponder what I had seen on the televisions in the Nassau airport.

It had been my first television in almost two months, and what I saw made me feel worse than my physical discomfort. The only thing worse than being sick in bed today on Eleuthera was being reminded that back in the States there was sickness in people’s hearts and heads. Ignorance, racism, privilege, sin, pride – that was all I could think of as I watched Megyn Kelly and her predominantly, if not entirely, white panel of commentators insist upon the whiteness of both Santa Claus and Jesus Christ.

Oh Megyn Kelly, I mourned, you picked the wrong week for this. For this is the third week in Advent. This is Mary’s week. This is the week that we are reminded, if we have ears to hear, of what the real purpose of all of this season is. And this defense of the whiteness of Santa Claus and Jesus could not possible be more out of place.

People have been celebrating Jon Stewart’s “take-down” of the debate, as he pointed out that Megyn’s statement “just because it makes you uncomfortable, doesn’t mean it needs to change” was a pretty good definition for oppression.

While Jon Stewart and Jessica William’s commentary, including the video of what Vatican researchers have proposed Saint Nicolas actually looked like, did help me to cope through humor and fact with the confusing and harmful fiction I had seen on my screen – I think there is someone else who can give us a better explanation.

There is another historical figure, a young woman, part of an oppressed minority group within a large empire. She lived in a part of the country that people mocked, saying “what good can come from Galilee.” She was at risk of execution by stoning when she became pregnant without being married, until her boyfriend stepped up and volunteered to be the baby daddy.

So, go ahead, Mary, have at it. What is the whole point of this Christmas thing?
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.”

For anyone who thinks that Christmas is something that the powerful, the rich, the dominant, the privileged, or dare I say, the white, should struggle to maintain control of – then you can have that celebration of power and consumerism – and you can keep it. You can purchase and consume all the gifts you want while God “fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty.” You can continue to think you have a right to be offended if someone says Happy Holidays to you instead of Merry Christmas, rather than celebrating that they were kind enough to wish you well. You can focus your celebration on your own ability to control – to control what others say, what others think, how others celebrate.

You can continue to fight to maintain your own power and dominance in a nation where the rapid decline in the Caucasian majority population in comparison to persons of color is making you uncomfortable and even a tad bit frightened. Perhaps you will even decide to try to protect the majority status of “white” by extending the definition graciously to include people of middle eastern descent, like Jesus and Saint Nickolaus (you know the way you eventually did with the poor Irish immigrants that I descended from in order to maintain “white” as the majority population by including our hordes of people). Because no matter what you say, the reality that “just because it makes you uncomfortable, does not mean it needs to change” – is a myth that people of privilege are trying to opt out of while imposing on others. So when not only the numbers of persons of color rise, but when their voices also rise to speak a truth that makes the dominant, the privileged, the ones in control uncomfortable – we people of privilege try to flip the script, and by raising our voices louder than theirs think that we can drown out the truth that we do not want to hear.

Whatever you decide to do, and however you decide to celebrate, that is your freedom and your choice and I leave it up to you. All I ask is that you give the rest of the world the freedom to celebrate as they want rather than trying to bully people in the time when we celebrate the birth of the anti-bully God. Some may choose not to celebrate at all. Some may choose to make up their own holidays to celebrate. Some may have other religious celebrations that you have no reasons to disrespect.

Perhaps, most of all, I would ask that you allow those who want to celebrate the birth of their savior as their liberation from slavery to sin and death to do so, rather than imposing upon millions of Christians your own dominant view of Christmas. Step back, please, from making this time of the year a time of oppression by insisting that “just because it makes you uncomfortable, doesn’t mean it needs to change.”

Well, I will tell you what makes me uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable when people pretend that Jesus looked like me. I want my Jesus to be Jewish, because I can only understand who Jesus is through the story of the people of Israel – both the suffering that came before him and the suffering that came after. I like that my Jesus is from Galilee, because it gives Archbishop Elias Chacour – the Palestinian, Christian, citizen of the nation of Israel and the leader of the church in Galilee – it gives Elias Chacour the right to joke about Jesus as a kid from this Palestinian leader’s hometown who was always making trouble.

And I like that my Jesus was born to an unwed teenager girl who was an ethnic minority in an underestimated town; because my savior chose to enter the world in one of the riskiest ways possible, when his mother could easily have been stoned for being pregnant out of wedlock; when the king of the region could have slain him as he did hundreds of other young boys at that time. I love that my Jesus chose that because it showed exactly Mary’s point – that Jesus came to lift up the humble, the oppressed, and the underestimated.

Jesus chose to enter the world as an “at-risk” child so that he could bring love and deliverance and hope to all the world calls “at-risk” and puts “at-risk.” As the boot of the world’s powerful came down on the downtrodden, my savior was born to put himself in the way. To join those whose lives hang in the balance below the boot, and to say “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Oh the risk, the suffering and the death that my Jesus endured to bring that message of hope. He went through so much. He gave up so much. And now you want to distort his message and turn it into something else? Another attempt to promote oppression, to remind the downtrodden that you have the power, and to once again say “white is right” even in the very face of the one who came to tear down that kind of oppression.

O Lord, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Manex plays the part of Saint Nick for James Cistern
Manex plays the part of Saint Nick for James Cistern
Ladies night out this week with Maxine, Pauline, Vonnia, and Brenda
Ladies night out this week with Maxine, Pauline, Vonnia, and Brenda
A newspaper cover from before I was "white" illustrating that African Americans in the South and Irish in the North were both an equivalent threat to the nation.
A newspaper cover from before I was “white” illustrating that African Americans in the South and Irish in the North were both an equivalent threat to the nation.
How my foremothers were portrayed before I was "white"
How my foremothers were portrayed before I was “white”
How my foremothers were portrayed before I was "white"
How my foremothers were portrayed before I was “white”

Just Listen (Haiti, Part 3)

Willio shares his heart with us over lunch at the Plezirs Gourmand
Willio shares his heart with us over lunch at the Plezirs Gourmand

“What we need is unity. Unity between nations. Unity between people. We need to be unified,” Willio was sharing his vision with us as I attempted to gnaw the meat off a goat joint at the Plezirs Gourmand in Oanaminthe. (I looked very undignified and Jared made sure to capture that on film). Gene, Jared, Elissa and I were taking a break from the activity at the Sur le Rocher orphanage to have lunch with Willio and listen to what he envisioned.

Gene knew that it was important for us to see Haiti not through our own lenses, but through the eyes of Willio. Earlier I had told Gene that what made Haiti feel different to me than other places I had been was all the trash. In Haiti, they do not throw trash away; they drop it where it is. But Gene gently corrected me that that is my problem, not Haiti’s problem. In other words, I was the one who was troubled by it, but that did not make it a problem to solve if they were not troubled by it. It was not right to try to impose our normal on another person. To do so was to step out of learning and befriending, and step into fixing and changing. The only things that needed to change about Haiti were what the Haitians wanted to change.

Lots of people have come to Haiti and tried to impose their own perspectives, values and answers. From the unfriendly looks that we received walking through the marketplace, I got the sense that the appearance of Americans in Oanaminthe did not summon positive associations for most. Both NGO’s and churches, it seemed, had given solutions that people in Haiti tried to wear like an ill fitting shirt, until it got in the way of their work and the only way forward was to take it off. In Willio’s case, one group of church folks tried to send him packaged meals for his children – ziplock bags of rice and protein flakes in portion size for the children. When the children refused to eat the protein flakes and complained they made them sick, the women in the kitchen began to painstakingly go through the bags separating the protein flakes from the rice and cooking the rice all together in one large pot.

Another church group delivered guinea pigs to Sur Le Rocher, telling Willio that they should raise them and then feed them to the children. Culturally this was almost equivalent to dropping off a box of puppies to a hungry family in New York City and telling them to eat them. Willio did not know how to get rid of them and was not willing to feed the guinea pigs the children’s food, nor the guinea pigs to the children as food. It created quite a quandary for him.

For all these reasons and more, Gene had taken us to the Plezirs Gourmand, to sit down with Willio, apart from all the noise and activity of the orphanage, and hear his vision.

And boy did he ever have one. Willio’s hunger to make a different world to live in, for the 40 children he cared for, was insatiable. I realized that I had been feeling overwhelmed by how little I could do, but I had been asking the wrong question. The question was not what could I do – the question was what could Willio do. And I was starting to believe Willio could do pretty much anything he set his mind to; it seemed that time was his only obstacle.

Willio’s dream was not only to make conditions better in Oanaminthe or in Haiti, his dream was to make a better world. His dream was for Haiti to be a part of helping that happen. His dream was for other people to come to Haiti from around the world, not because they were there to “help” Haiti, but because Haiti would some day have such good surgeons that people would come to receive help from them. He saw a day when people would travel to Haiti not to give economic training and oversight, but to seek advice from the economists that Haiti had raised up themselves. Willio envisioned a world that needed Haiti, not one that saw Haiti as needy.

Willio knew that the path to this future would be forged by the children of Haiti, and among them the 40 children he was investing his life to form. His children had painful pasts, but they could have bright futures. It would be immensely difficult, but it was possible.

Softening his tone, Willio said, “When the children tell me their stories, I am quiet and I listen. They catch our children in the Dominican Republic, working in the street. They arrest them and treat them like criminals. Then they bring them back here.” Expressing the emotion that drove him, and subtly revealing the experiences that he himself had suffered, he said, “I do not want them to treat our children like trash. I want them to grow up to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and for people to come from all around the world to receive their services. I do not want them to treat our children like trash.”

All his big plans, all his creative solutions, all of the ideas in his head – it really all boiled down to that. “I want my children to grow up to be treated like real humans, not trash. To be treated with dignity and with respect.”

Then, struggling to find the English words for the concept he could have communicated so easily in Creole, he said, “I do not want my people not to know themselves. I do not want them to go on not knowing who they are in God. They are not trash.”

Right there was where I teared up, as Willio’s persistent attempts to remain cheerful finally revealed the strong emotions and painful struggles that drove him. I couldn’t listen then, and I can’t write it now, without getting overwhelmed with emotion.

This is the reason why Willio’s home is not in the business of facilitating adoptions. He does not want his children to receive the message that the way to a better life is to leave Haiti. He believes that they can together create a better life right here in Haiti. These children are the most valuable resources that the nation has, why would he want to give them away?

“The more people, the more hope,” is the simple way Willio summarizes his philosophy. What he means is that the more people he can help to get educated, to have better lives, to join a movement of helping their community — the more others would be inspired and the better chance they would have. Hope, he knew, would be the most essential ingredient. It was more important than money or resources, all of those other things were just a means to an end, and that end was hope.

His vision reminded me of John Perkins of Mississippi and the Christian Community Development movement. Like many leaders before him – like Perkins, like Mandela, like King – Willio knew that the solution was not to find a way to help his children leave. The solution was to get them to stay and to fight. To fight not through violence but through education, and responsibility, and compassion. To create the kind of world that they wanted to live in right there at home, rather than seeking wistfully after another one.

Willio wants a lot of things. He wants the political parties in his country to stop fighting, and for the president to be able to reform the education system. He wants a city where Christ’s love is shown, where voodoo human sacrifices are not practiced as a way of “dealing with” society’s most vulnerable. He wants a home someday for his wife and daughters to live in, so that they do not have to live in the orphanage. He wants those who reach 18 years of age to continue on in school, rather than being sent to the streets. He wants to see a day when there is not even a single child who is alone in the world, a day when every child has someone. He wants a world where no child thinks that they are trash, where no children are treated like trash. But first, he wants people to trust him, to believe in him and his passion and ability to find answers.

There are lots of people who want to come in and change Haiti, but they won’t change Haiti. Haiti will be what Haiti feels called to be, not what anyone wants to make it. It will live into its future through the vision and work of people like Willio and the gifts and callings of his dozens of children. Haiti will decide what Haiti will become. Willio just wants his children to have a chance to be part of that conversation.

Willio gets a laugh out of his 40-some children at dinner
Willio gets a laugh out of his 40-some children at dinner
Willio introduces us to the grandmother who raised him.  She does not know how old she is, but somewhere in her mid-80's, which is very rare in Haiti.
Willio introduces us to the grandmother who raised him. She does not know how old she is, but somewhere in her mid-80’s, which is very rare in Haiti.
The room Willio lived in until he got married.
The room Willio lived in until he got married.
Following Willio through the marketplace.
Following Willio through the marketplace.

Landing (Haiti, Part 1)

“Out the window to your left is Inagua,” Gene’s voice came in over my headset. Our pilot and guide for the journey was sharing bits of history and geography with us as we dropped in elevation on our slow descent through the clouds towards Haiti. “Inagua’s only got one settlement, and only about 150 people live there. Most of them work for the salt companies. Collecting salt. Mostly for road salt. You know, for the roads up north in the US.”

I couldn’t help but smile at that. I hoped that the good Inagua salt was keeping my friends and family back home safe this week as snow pounded the northeast.

I sat in the six seater Beechcraft plane behind our pilots, Gene and Jared. Across from me sat Elissa. The seats’ arrangement reminded me of the rows that face one another on the New Jersey transit – with almost enough room to be comfortable if there is someone across from you, but not quite. Luckily for Elissa and I, there are only 4 people on the plane, so we don’t have to spend the flight trying politely not to bump knees. Instead we’ll spend the flight craning our necks to the other person’s side of the plane as Gene points out landmarks and tells us trivia and history. A large ship goes by underneath us; waves break on a reef in the middle of nowhere. Then we pass over Tortuga Island, as Gene narrates my favorite bit of trivia, telling us that this is where the Caribbean pirates based their operations, including the real Captain Morgan.

Studying Creole across from me, Elissa hoped that the fact that she had been born in Haiti would help the language to sound familiar when we arrived. My only hopes of finding familiarity were in the tiny mothering phrases that my mother had used with me when I was small. A brilliant art historian, who had studied in Italy, Germany and France, and all of the sudden the mother of five, she continued to speak the language of academia long after leaving it. “Porta la boca,” she would say to me gently, as I opened my mouth for her to brush my teeth.

I was taking a break from studying the Creole flashcards that our co-pilot, Jared, had tossed back to me. As I read Mountains Beyond Mountains, a recommendation from Brenda, Kidder’s words began to make me aware of the intensity that the next few days would hold. Sadly, while Brenda had gotten me a seat on Gene’s plane, Brenda’s own seat was empty as she worked back on Eleuthera. It was the first adventure I had gone on in about a month without the bold Baptist minister who had such a powerful ministry among the children in James Cistern, and I knew her friends in Haiti would be sad not to see her.

As the plane got lower and lower, closer and closer to the shores of Haiti, I realized how completely unprepared I was for what lay ahead. I had brought with me a tiny bag, that had made Gene laugh at me and say that I was welcome any time, if that was how I packed. Hey, I had a change of clothes, a toothbrush and my iPad. What else does a girl need?

My inexperience with this kind of travel made me grateful to be with someone who was prepared and knowledgeable. Neither Elissa nor I had much advance notice that we would be headed to Haiti to assist in delivering supplies and offering support and accountability. Yet, I could tell within five minutes of being with Gene that the journey would be one that was not only safe, but also honoring of the people of Haiti. He had a preference for the Haitians that reminded me of seminary conversations about God’s preference for the poor.

More important than Gene’s leadership, however, was the peaceful confidence that God had a plan and purpose for steering my journey this way even if I did not know what it was yet.

The mountains rose up as we soared down over the Haitian island of Tortuga towards the main island of Hispaniola. As we flew low in Gene’s little plane, we could view in amazing detail the life going on below us in the communities along the northern coast of Hispaniola. Churches, fishing boats, soccer fields and banana trees. After a month on the relatively flat island of Eleuthera, the mountains were quite a change. It brought to my mind the beautiful, verdant mountains of South Africa that I had flown over before coasting down into the Eastern cape in 2011 to spend a month in Durban with my friend Anna and her husband Simon.

Truth be told, it would be hard not to think about South Africa today. One of the last bits of news I had gotten on Eleuthera before leaving for Haiti was that Mandela went to his eternal rest the day before, after a life spent struggling for justice and inspiring hope. I thought of the time I spent in the townships of Umlazi and Sowetto. I thought about my friends in Durban, not only those who were of the Xhosa family like Mandela, but also those who were from Zulu, Afrikaner and British backgrounds; Mandela had knit them all into his family through his courageous ability to forgive. I prayed that his legacy of reconciliation from all those past pains would live on in a country that still faces many challenges; where the continuing struggle of the townships bears witness to how far they have to go. Sitting in my little seat on my little plane, I wore a little South African flag on my shirt as we flew over an island that had also fought for and won its freedom two centuries ago.

I knew this 200 foot arial tour of Haiti was an experience few have, and with few commercial flights coming into Cap Haitien, Haiti’s second largest city after Port-au-Prince, I was traveling to a part of Haiti that fewer Americans enter. There would not be tourist trinkets in the market, hot water in the showers, or consistent internet.

Our wheels hit the ground in Cap Haitien and the sensory overload of Haiti began. Customs officers taking our money; baggage inspectors going through our belongings; and a crowd of aggressive luggage porters clamoring to be the ones to carry our bags to Willio’s car. I took Brenda’s advice – stay quiet, remember you are a woman, and follow Gene’s lead. Before I knew it, Willio had ushered Elissa and I into the back seat of his car and we sat in dark cool silence as the men finished the negotiations outside. There are moments in life when I feel not the slightest urge to be a feminist; this was one of them. I’ll stay in the car, mesi.

From the airport Willio took us to check in on the apartment where four of the orphanage graduates were staying. In Haiti, the government does not allow you to stay in the orphanage past the age of eighteen. So, much like the foster system in the United States, after you hit that age you are out on your own. Just as further education can be an alternative for those emerging the foster system, Willio was trying to create opportunities for these exceptional young people. Having come to the orphanage late in childhood, they could not complete high school before they aged out. So, Willio had found sponsors who would support them having an apartment in Cap Haitien while they finished their classical studies and went to trade school at the same time. Willio does not give up easy and he was not giving up on them. It was not hard to see why. Talented, gregarious and kind, it would have been hard to see them back on the street after all he had invested in them. With a bit more education, maybe they would have a chance.

Without room in the car, these high school young adults would have to catch a tap tap to follow us to Oanaminthe. So we said “Babay, N’we” and headed out across the northern coast of Haiti to Oanaminthe, a city that sits directly on the border with the Dominican Republic. Being a Friday, it was a busy day to drive in that direction. Friday is the one day that the border to the Dominican Republic is open and trucks, buses, motorcycles, and donkeys piled high with food barreled past us. The amount of supplies that they had managed to affix to the vehicles with rope was mind-boggling. Slowing traffic further was the fact that the police had periodic traffic stops set up to offer the vehicles an opportunity to show them financial gratitude. We had already learned at the airport that the way to tell the difference between a bribe and a tax was whether you got a receipt. The police were clearly extracting bribes simply for the pleasure of allowing the drivers to admire their guns and uniforms. We stopped a few times and Willio made friendly conversation with the men with large guns slung over their shoulders before we continued on our way.

Driving through the beauty of Haiti, with the grandeur of the mountains rising all around us, it was hard to imagine how, with land so fertile, so many could be malnourished and struggling. That is not my question to answer, however; and it seems the more people try to answer it, the more money is pumped in, the more discouraging it becomes for leaders like Willio. The people of Haiti don’t need people to give them the answers, they need people who are willing to give them their hand in partnership and trust them that they can find the answers that will work for them.

“20 cars and not one plaintain,” Willio remarks as we drive past the headquarters of a German NGO that boldly proclaims its goal to end world hunger. Willio continued, “Why do they need so many new cars? And why do they spend the money on cars for themselves instead of food for the people?”

Willio had a tireless mind, always pondering the complicated problems he saw around him and dreaming of solutions.

“Jesus wore a dress,” he said, “why can’t women today wear pants? The girls in my orphanage wear pants, no problem.” Willio was telling us about the impediment that uniforms were to children attending school. Uniforms were mandatory to school attendance, even at schools like Willio’s that did not charge tuition. Public schools, on the other hand, were even harder to attend because the principals ran them like a business, charging whatever tuition the market could handle in that area. Willio bemoaned the process of uniforming a student, taking them to the city to get measured and to get a uniform made; add in black school shoes and it came to around $165… and that is in American currency. He would love for his students to have more cost effective uniforms, maybe polo shirts and jeans; which would not be a problem for the man who had decided that girls could wear pants if Jesus wore a dress.

As we parked beside the small compound in Oanaminthe and prepared to meet the forty orphans who lived with Willio and his family, we could already hear the excited chatter from the children inside.

“Brace yourself,” said Jared.

The view of Haiti approaching Cap Haitien
The view of Haiti approaching Cap Haitien
The arial tour is not great for Elissa's stomach
The arial tour is not great for Elissa’s stomach
The mountains of Haiti
The mountains of Haiti
Our pilots, Jared and Gene
Our pilots, Jared and Gene
Unloading supplies in Cap Haitien
Unloading supplies in Cap Haitien
Elissa practices Creole with Youdeline at the students' apartment in Cap Haitien before we head to Oanaminthe
Elissa practices Creole with Youdeline at the students’ apartment in Cap Haitien before we head to Oanaminthe

Sojourner

“You speak English twò vit,” the man in the back seat looked at me with a puzzled grin. “Yes, I am a Yankee, I speak English very fast,” I said, attempting to speak more slowly. Obviously having no idea what I was saying, he responded, “You speak English. We speak Creole.” “Are you Haitian?,” I asked, knowing the answer. Recognizing the word Haitian, “Yes, yes,” the two hitchhikers in my back seat nodded. I continued to make conversation in English while the young couple continued to laugh and chatter in Creole. “I’m flying to Haiti in the morning,” I said, “It’s the first time, I’ve been there.” Blank stares. Oh well. “Oh, I know one thing!” I said enthusiastically as we approached the hitchhikers’ house, “Sa k’pase?” “M ap boule,” they giggled as they got out of the car and waved.

Someone up there clearly had a sense of humor. I had picked up hitchhikers both on my way to Hatchet Bay and on my way back to James Cistern – and all of them were Haitian. Apparently I was getting a chance to practice my Creole before I got on the plane in the morning. Unfortunately, I did not have much to practice beyond “Sa k’pase?” and the phrases that were essential to me, “Dite?” (tea?) and “Walèt fi?” (Women’s bathroom). The night before I had realized that alternating between my Spanish language learning program and my Creole language learning program would leave my Spanish peppered not only with my high school German phrases, but also now with French as well.

Smiling, I turned on my favorite music. Maybe Rupa & the April Fish could get some Creole in my head by osmosis. Truly if Rupa can sing in French, Spanish, English & Hindi all on one CD, then I should be able to keep my languages straight.

[Sidenote: I love Rupa. In addition to being an amazing musician and social activist she is a physician and professor of Internal Medicine. Their second CD, Este Monde, describes the plight of migrants crossing borders. Buy her music.]

As I listened to the soothing sounds of Maintenant, I remembered what I had been hearing a few days earlier, as I drove with a Bahamian hitchhiker in my car. The staticky radio feed reported on the “Haitian problem.” Another boatload of Haitians had been found; the boat had capsized and so far 30 had been found dead, 110 rescued alive. The radio reporters discussed the toll it was taking on the Bahamas and the cost it was incurring on the Bahamian government to repatriate all of the Haitians rescued in failed attempts to reach the United States.

I have heard it said that visitors from the United States sometimes complain about how the Haitians are spoken about and treated in the Bahamas. Abraham challenges them to think about how we treat people from other countries who come into the United States. Do people have the same righteous indignation when they are at home listening to their family members complain about “those Mexicans taking our jobs”? It is true that the people of Haiti have been through a lot, but they are not unique in seeking a different life in a different country because of the suffering in their own.

Many times that suffering that we are blind to, the “cry of the needy” that we fail to hear, is coming from people whose harm our own nation has a hand in creating. Although there are many prophetic voices trying to make us more aware, we do not often think about where the materials come from to create our electronic toys, where the trash and pollution ends up from their production, and who creates the products that we consume so cheaply.

Last week I was standing in the Bahamas Methodist Habitat driveway with Abraham when a woman came by carrying a bucket and walking down a path I had never noticed. Abraham greeted her and I asked him who she was. He told me she was a Haitian woman who kept her pigs back there in the woods and used the path to carry food to them. A realization dawned on me with deep sadness. Looking down the path, I realized that it must run by on the other side of the tree line from our chicken coop. Which meant that all of the trees and weeds that I had been cutting down and piling past the tree line must have been flowing into her path.

Later, in a moment by myself, I walked down the long trail and discovered that I was right. Not even aware of the fact that other people might be affected, I had been dumping my yard waste in her path. Just as businesses from my nation dump so much of their production waste into other nations; just as we dump pollutants in our oceans and streams without even thinking about how it will affect the fishing waters of some other community.

I continued on the path and turned off onto a well worn footpath into the woods, following it until I found a well fed pig. His rotund nature let me know that though I may have been careless and insensitive with my yard waste, I had not prevented her from getting there with hers.

I know I am one of those people, though, that has taken up more than my fair share of the planet, and I want to do better. I believe that though I may benefit from them financially (but not spiritually) borders are not put in place by God but by humans. I believe that I am a citizen of the Kingdom of God, and that that identity is the core of who I am. While that does not negate my citizenship in the United States – and thus my privileged ability to do things like jump on a plane to Haiti tomorrow with little notice – it does mean that at the point where the demands that my nation makes on me contradict with the demands that my faith makes of me, I have to draw lines of my own.

I have been a pretty good citizen of the United States; I vote, pay my taxes on time and fulfill my obligation to watch exploding bursts of light on the 4th of July. I am not sure how good of a citizen I have been to the borderless, warless Kingdom of God. I think that we have far too many people that are very good at talking about being people of faith, but better at acting like people of a nation. Which is how we end up with wars and divisions and oppressions and massacres being associated with faith, when really they are between nations, and powers, and egos and profit seeking companies. Because for some reason we do not say we are going to war for oil, or for political stability, or for our own security – it sounds better to say it is for god – whatever god you’re claiming.

But there is a certain way that God calls us to live and act when it comes to nations (“there is no longer Jew no Greek”), conflicts, (“Prince of Peace”), and sojourners, (“you shall love him as yourself”).

The way that we build relationships across borders and with those who have crossed borders is immensely important to serving a God who neither creates nor respects borders. Nations have laws and they have an obligation to enforce those laws. But it is not the responsibility of private citizens to reject, abuse, shame, belittle, profile or blame other human beings they encounter  on the journey. The fact that someone originates on the other side of a man made border, usually put in place by war and colonization, does not somehow remove our calling to embrace them as brother and sister and treat them with radical hospitality and love.

This is really important to me. Because I believe it is really important to God.

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Lev. 19:33-34)

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25:35)

I say again. This is really important to me. Because I believe it is really important to God.

When I offer the ministry of hospitality, when I speak up for the rights of sojourners, I feel God’s presence. When I spent three years helping a family of Liberian immigrants learn their math, while they helped me to learn about love, and life, and cooking plantains – then I felt God’s delight. When I allowed myself to receive the hospitality of the people of Durban, the people of Chincha, and now the amazing people of James Cistern – it was then that I found my place in the world. I do not deserve the welcome that I have received. Thankfully in the communities I have entered, people have not been quite so concerned about whether you belong or deserve to be there. You are there – that is enough. The responsibility of the host is not to decide whether you deserve the hospitality God calls us to offer, the responsibility of the host is to give it. God did not put conditions on it, so neither should we.

My grandfather struggled to get started, the young son of an immigrant family from Yorkshire, England, growing up near the Victoria plush mills in Pennsylvania where his relatives labored. But there was a man, so the story goes, named Adair Montgomery, who offered him kindness and hospitality and made a huge impact on his life. My grandfather fell in love with a woman who had come from Belfast, Ireland as a child and worked with her mother as servants in a large house. They had a son, and my grandfather named him William Adair in honor of Adair Montgomery. His son, perhaps giving up on having a son after three daughters, gave his fourth daughter his name – Hannah Adair.

Hannah has a powerful meaning; it means the grace of God. Adair may not have much of a meaning in and of itself, but to me it has a powerful meaning; to me it means kindness to the stranger, hospitality to the sojourner, love for the immigrant. Neither God’s grace nor the hospitality of strangers are something that I deserve, but both are something I have received. I remember that every time I see my name.

When my nephew was born, whose own father had come to the United States from Cuba as a child, he too received the blessing. To carry on the name given to honor the kindness that was received. William Adair. Hannah Adair. Dylan Adair. One man’s kindness felt for three generations.

Fear of “the other” is learned, but love of others can also be taught. Perhaps today, as Madiba finds his final resting place, it is fitting to end with his words:

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” – Nelson Mandela, The Long Walk to Freedom

Here in James Cistern, Maxine believes in treating all our children with love, those from Haiti as well as those from Eleuthera.
Here in James Cistern, Maxine believes in treating all our children with love, those from Haiti as well as those from Eleuthera.
The path to the pig, where I tossed my yard waste.
The path to the pig, where I tossed my yard waste.
Finding the pig in the woods.
Finding the pig in the woods.

Bonus photo: back in NYC with my dear friend Rev. Rosanna Panizo at an Immigrants Rights March across the Broklyn Bridge

With the Rev. Rosanna Panizo in NYC
With the Rev. Rosanna Panizo in NYC

Bonus photo: washing my friend Soledad’s pig in Chincha, Peru in 2008

Washing my friend Soledad's pig in Peru in 2008
Washing my friend Soledad’s pig in Peru in 2008