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Wrestling with Peace

“To have peace we must tell the truth; without truth-telling there is no peacemaking.”* (Jean Zaru)

“Only by being truthful about how we got here can we imagine another way.”** (Austin Channing Brown)

The words were like salve to my weary mind. A balm in Gilead. Oil poured out and running over. 

For three weeks, I had been focused on deep listening. You see, three weeks ago, I wrote a blog in deepest sincerity, not seeking to be provocative, but needing to be honest about a book that many leaders in my church were reading. 

The response from some has been to read it again. Not to throw out the baby with the bath water. This may be an option for some. Our deep investment institutionally will make it necessary for some, and I understand that. Due to the calling that I have to amplify “the cry of the needy”, this was not personally an option for me.

That does not mean I had the answers. In truth, it had frightened me how willing I had been to swallow down what I now know to be a mixture of stories, some true and some likely not, under a veneer of heavy handed opinions on one of the most painful and ongoing conflicts in our world. Inviting people to get out of the box with a story taken from a people, many of whom quite literally cannot leave the walls that box them in. I felt deep grief that the pain of an occupied people half a world away was being coopted, not in order to end their pain but in order to end mine. Their trauma domesticated and packaged for my consumption. A placebo of peace. A lesson for better living. 

Over these three weeks, I worked hard. I continued hosting a family of asylum seekers in my home, and I listened to their insightful opinions on the topic of my study. I traveled and I spoke and I prayed.

Most of all, I read. I read voraciously. I read for my life. I read to hear all those voices that  had been stolen. While it is true that I needed to keep reading, in my case it was not the same book again. 

This is what I read:

Throughout the weeks, I both wanted and did not want to continue this conversation. I scribbled notes. I created and scrapped outlines. Many times, I thought I could escape the need to continue. Yet the words of a Palestinian Christian woman, Jean Zaru, would not let me rest, “To have peace we must tell the truth; without truth-telling there is no peacemaking.”

So, because peace must be made and not merely awaited, I’m going to try to share three things that I invite you to bear in mind with me. 

Peace is not an inherent good.

I love my church too much to say it.

I love my church too much not to say it.

Jesus was clear that the peace that we are called to pursue is different from the way that the world uses the word. In John 14:27, he says “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

I do not give to you as the world gives. 

The peace of our God is not the peace that the world gives. The peace of the world most often requires that some suffer in silence, so that others may feel comfortable. The peace of Jesus leaves no one out. The peace of Jesus makes room for everyone. A peace that even makes room for the Canaanite woman, when she disrupts worldly peace to cry out, demand, and refuse to be excluded from the table of the Lord (Matthew 15:21-28).

As Dr. Mitri Raheb, the pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, said of his occupied context in Palestine, “The peace model that has been employed to date has been a type of Pax Romana where the empire dictates peace either through endless processes or through facts on the ground (settlements, land confiscation, colonization, and so forth), thus buying time to expand the boundaries of empire. Pax Romana was rejected by the Judeans of the first century, and similar models are understandably rejected by the Palestinians of the twenty-first century. Peace dictated by the empire is not desirable, doable, or durable.”****

What we must seek is Pax Christi, not Pax Romana. The peace of Christ, not the peace of the Emperor. The peace promised in Isaiah 65:25. This is what defines us as people.

This strange and unusual peace of Christ is what would lead him to say, in Matthew 10:34, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

In Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious,” his sermon on this very text, he wrote,

I had a long talk the other day with a man about this [at the] bus situation. He discussed the peace being destroyed in the community, the destroying of good race relations. I agreed that it is more tension now. But peace is not merely to absence of this tension, but the presence of justice. And even if we didn’t have this tension, we still wouldn’t have positive peace. Yes it is true that if the Negro accept his place, accepts exploitation, and injustice, there will be peace. But it would be an obnoxious peace. It would be a peace that boiled down to stagnant complicity, deadening passivity and if peace means this, I don’t want peace:

If peace means accepting second class citizen ship I don’t want it.

If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don’t want it.

If peace means being complacently adjusted to a deadening staus quo, I don’t want peace.

If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated polically, humiliated and segregated, I don’t want peace.

In a passive non-violent manner we must revolt against this peace.

Jesus says in substance, I will not be content until justice, goodwill, brotherhood, love yes, the kingdom of God are established upon the earth. This is real peace. Peace is the presence of positive good.

As Rev. Dr. King teaches us, the peace we seek must be the peace of Christ. The peace that passes understanding. The peace that the world cannot give to us. The peace that silences no cry of the needy so that it can sleep better at night. 

The challenge for peacemakers, for those who pursue a peace that includes all, has always been to help us to clearly see the difference between the peace of the world and the peace of Christ.

On the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in 1965, the people of Selma tried to cross and many were beaten to the point of death by the police. They did this in order to reveal to the rest of the nation that the peace that existed in their community was no peace at all. It was the world’s version of peace: the silencing of the cry of the needy. It was not the peace of Christ that turns the world upside down. 

It is the work of peacemakers to reveal the difference. Therefore, it is dangerous indeed to create models, that when applied to social issues, would portray the non-violent resister as involved in a collusion to escalate their own abuse. 

Peacemakers disrupt the peace of the world to make way for the peace of Christ, just as Christ did. Just as Bonhoeffer did when he spoke out against the Nazis, while the vast majority of Christians and pastors in his nation were content to be at worldly peace with Hitler.

All anger is not equal.

I love my church too much to say it.

I love my church too much not to say it.

Anger is not equal; neither in its cause, nor in its expression.

In 1965, when armed police were beating Amelia Boynton into bloody unconsciousness on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, there was surely anger on both sides. Yet the anger was not equal in its cause or in its expression. As those of us who have born the pain can attest, there is no desire on the part of peacemakers for a beating, no desire for tear gas. 

The anger, for those that felt it as they fled for their lives back towards Selma, was a just and a righteous reaction to the injustice of their lives both in that moment and in the years preceding. The anger of those that were giving the beating was unjust and unrighteous and arising from their fear of losing the power to oppress those who were marching for their right to vote. 

There is a scene in the 1967 film, “In the Heat of the Night” that always captured this so perfectly for me. A wealthy suspect in the case crumbles into anger and tears because he realizes the world has changed and he cannot just have the Sheriff shoot Mr. Tibbs for being a Black man with confidence. 

We may all feel anger, but it is not equal. Neither in it’s cause nor in it’s expression. For some of us are angry that our humanity is being diminished, and others of us are angry that we cannot control the other’s expression of their humanity. 

Sandra Bland was a Methodist woman pulled over in Texas, who later died in custody. When she was pulled over, both she and the officer were angry, but the anger was equal neither in cause nor expression. She was angry at being unnecessarily pulled over and illegally arrested. He was angry that she did not cater to his ego. His ego cost her life.

Some of us can get away with anger, with explosions and fits. Some of us can yell and scream and curse without lasting consequence. Others live their lives suppressing that anger and it’s expression, knowing that the results can be costly and even deadly. The ability to express anger is a privilege. 

We cannot all explode in anger and get away with it.

Austin Channing Brown writes, “Because I am a Black person, my anger is considered dangerous, explosive, and unwarranted. Because I am a woman, my anger supposedly reveals an emotional problem or gets dismissed as a temporary state that will go away once I choose to be rational. Because I am a Christian, my anger is dismissed as a character flaw, showing just how far I have turned from Jesus. Real Christians are nice, kind, forgiving – and anger is none of these things.”*** She continues to write of finding freedom from this social positioning in the writings of Audre Lorde, “A sense of freedom fell over me as I read her words. Anger is not inherently destructive. My anger can be a force for good. My anger can be creative and imaginative, seeing a better world that doesn’t yet exist. It can fuel a righteous movement toward justice and freedom. I don’t need to fear my own anger. I don’t have to be afraid of myself. “^

Reading her book and Dr. Cleveland’s book made me aware that we value storytelling that leads to self-introspection, but that as a communal body we are more comfortable with the lens of our journey being that of a white man, as was the case in the initial book. The powerful storytelling of Dr. Christena Cleveland and Austin Channing Brown made me wonder could we go on that journey together if it were the lens of a Black woman? Certain ones of us have always had to go on these communal journeys through the lens of another, but others of us have not. Some of us do not see the need to read a book from such a different perspective than our own, how would it be relevant? Yet, others of us have been expected to read from another person’s perspective all their lives.

As Dr. Brittney Cooper writes, “Before we fully learn to love ourselves, all people of color in the United States learn that we are supporting characters and spectators in the collective story of white people’s lives. The stories we watch and read ask us to put aside their whiteness and relate to their very universal human struggles around conflict with the world, the self, and others. The problem is that only the experiences of white people are treated as universal. Meanwhile, Black movies, shows and books are typically seen as limited and particular.”^^

If after centuries of taking a man born in Palestine, like Jesus Christ, and clothing him throughout centuries with whiteness, seeing and hearing him through a lens whiteness, portraying God the the Father as a white man with a white beard on a cloud, is it then any wonder that we could so easily accept other thefts of the voices of Palestine. What have we lost by not seeing the world through the eyes of a God born in Palestine? What have we lost by failing to look at our faith through the eyes of Palestinian Christians, those that call themselves the Living Stones, the descendants of the earliest Christians? Has our discomfort with the turmoil of the region left us so divided from them that we would not recognize their voice if we heard it? This is a point where I feel personally convicted, which has grieved me deeply.

Peace requires change from all of us.

I love my church too much to say it.

I love my church too much not to say it.

The book that challenged me the most was Dr. Christena Cleveland’s Disunity in Christ. She pushed me to see the ways that I could change, without committing the error of oversimplifying. 

That we all must change may seem like a simple and easy thing that we can all agree upon, yet historically this has not been true. In fact, all too often the change has mostly been expected on one side – the side of the one who is most moveable, with the least power, because they have always had to be the ones to move. We have even created elaborate reconciliation paradigms where we bring people together to have the impression that we have all moved; yet, when we go home, we find that often nothing has changed and that it has been an exercise in catharsis if nothing else. 

History has always cast some in the position of being the ones who must move, and offered others the illusion of moving. In this paradigm, we have sought peace without the world having to change, without the church having to change. A peace in which systems of injustice remain in place is not the peace of Christ. 

For example, what if, for one person, peace meant the dismantling of patriarchal systems that oppressed women. And for another person, peace meant people no longer talking about dismantling patriarchal systems that oppress women. A semblance of peace may be achieved if one person would be quiet, and the other would be content because their definition of peace would have been achieved. This is the kind of peace that we experience the most of in our lifetimes. This would not be the peace of Christ, however, because it would be the silencing of the cry, rather than the opening of the table. 

A model where people become suspect if they criticize or make demands, where the oppressed must always consider where they have failed to support their oppressor, is a model that coddles the one with power who is reticent to relinquish or share it. This is a model that may create personal progress for all individuals, but when applied on a communal level works much better for the powerful than the powerless.

In her 2016 sermon on ‘Faith, Justice, and Race,’ Austin Channing Brown reminds us of how dangerous it is to allow those with power and privilege to paint the picture of how things are, without the true and authentic input of others. She reminds us that Pharaoh set out to slaughter the children of Abraham because he assumed that he knew how the Hebrews would act in a conflict without including them in the conversation. He decided that he knew their hearts and minds, and that they would turn against him. He controlled their narrative, stole their voices, and punished them for what he assumed they would do in the future. 

Instead of saying, ‘There were some very fine people on both sides,’ perhaps we would do well to heed Austin Channing Brown’s advice when she writes, “Dialogue is productive toward reconciliation only when it leads to action – when it inverts power and pursues justice for those who are most marginalized.”^^^

Instead of permitting our views of the situations of Palestinian Christians to be shaped without their input, perhaps we would do well to heed Mitri Raheb’s words, “Christians in Palestine are forced to ask themselves what God’s justice means to a people whose members suffer under systematic political, social, and economic injustice. What does “freedom in Christ” mean to people living under occupation and denied basic rights? What does the cross mean to a people constantly crucified and marked by suffering? And what does love for even an enemy mean to a people facing a heavily armed enemy?”^^^^

The Bible is the only book that has the answers to these questions for me, the book which I have committed my life to teaching. And trust me, I get enough of a workout wrestling with it.

“When I hope for peace, I have to work for peace.” -Jean Zaru

 

 

 

*Occupied with Nonviolence: A Palestinian Woman Speaks, Jean Zaru, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008, Kindle loc 1076.

**I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Austin Channing Brown, New York: Convergent Books, p. 118.

***Ibid, p. 122

****Faith in the Face of Empire: the Bible Through Palestinian Eyes, Mitri Raheb, Marynoll: Orbis Books, 2014, Kindle loc 1962.

^I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Austin Channing Brown, New York: Convergent Books, p. 125.

^^Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, Brittney Cooper, p. 53.

^^^I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Austin Channing Brown, New York: Convergent Books, p. 169

^^^^I am a Palestinian Christian, Mitri Raheb, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995, p. 230.

Identity

“Juanita, you know I was so wiped out, I left my purse hanging on the back of the chair in that restaurant and did not even realize it for hours.” As we were leaving the fifth church service and the fifth “Love. Period.” book-signing that weekend, I saw Juanita’s head cock with more of a reaction than I had anticipated from the comment.

“Remind me to tell you what that’s about,” she said.

When we got to our cars, I did remind her and she did tell me. Losing my purse, leaving something so personal, meant that I was having trouble with my identity in this place, and needed to spend time with God listening and seeking what my identity ought to be in this phase of my ministry.

Damn. That woman has an uncanny ability to read my spirit that I am still getting accustomed to experiencing. When I first met her, I felt certain that she could read every thought in my head – which must be a difficult gift to have when you think about it.

I was, in fact, having difficulty figuring out how to inhabit my identity in this new phase of my life.

The first factor was that I had spent the better part of the last eight months alone with God cultivating an attitude of listening and a raw openness. The most peaceful part had been my time of quietude working in the garden and writing on the island of Eleuthera; and probably the most intense part had been the five weeks at the end that I traveled alone in Guatemala – trying to learn the language, living without a hot shower or mirror, and only ever understanding part of the noise that surrounded me. When I had returned to the States, I felt like one of those characters in a movie where a cacophony of voices rushes in and they can hear everybody’s thoughts; the fact that I could understand everything being said around me was overwhelming. And that extreme openness and raw vulnerability that I had practiced in order to hear best from God became a huge liability as I landed at a national church event in Florida – where I was a speaker – and immediately was surrounded by voices trying to tell me who I was. In those few days, I received some of the most uplifting and some of the most condemnatory words of my life – and all without my usual walls, tough skin, or filters. It all rushed in past my barriers, and I had to sort through it.

Thankfully, that is when the second factor came into play. All that focused listening and soul searching had strengthened a gift that I had been unaware of before: the ability to recognize when someone’s reactions to you are reflections of you, and when they are merely reflections of themselves – their own assumptions, prejudices, and baggage. No one is ever free from their own filters, but I realized that there is certainly a spectrum within which those biases affect the way that we respond to one another. The fact that the woman I was staying with in Guatemala – without knowing much about me and with very little shared vocabulary – was able to identify within two weeks that I was, as she put it, “something like a priest”, had filled me with awe. Consequently, returning to the States, and knowing myself more fully after several months with God; and realizing that this gave me a heightened ability to identify whether the reactions and interactions of friends or strangers were reflections of myself or merely reflections of their own issues; I began to put excessive confidence in the process of increasing the impact of the prior and decreasing the impact of the latter. In other words, I tried to be discerning about who I allowed to have an impact on my identity – shielding myself from those who tried to tell me I was someone I was not, because they could not see past any number of the barriers that blind us to the internal beauty of one another.

Complicating my ability to engage my identity in a new space, I found myself stripped of all the things that I had leaned on in the past to help me communicate my role, calling and identity to others. I do not wear “the uniform” – neither the button up shirts and slacks, nor the clergy collar; leaving the majority of people who have not been introduced to me properly to assume I am an intern – which on the upside knocks about a decade off my age; and on the downside also knocks off my years in college, seminary and the pulpit. No one knows I am a Reverend, and wouldn’t care if they did. My stoles are in a box, my robe is in a garment bag behind my winter jackets. I serve a church, but I don’t exactly have a flock yet, and I don’t exactly have a pulpit that I preach from each week, as I did for years. I have ceased my geographic journey, but will never quite finish my internal journey. I’m trying to reimagine church, and in the process having to reimagine the role of a pastor without being able to rely on any of the usual cues to communicate that – neither the ones I have personally relied on – nor that one that church culture often relies on to identify pastors… namely being a man.

So when Juanita told me that I was in a space of needing to be still and listen to God to discern how to live out my identity in this phase of my life – she could not have struck the bull’s eye any more dead center.

And somehow in doing so, she answered the question I had been struggling with for months; revealed why I had written so many blogs that rung incomplete and remained un-posted; relieved the pressure in my mind and the pang in my heart.

Life is not about figuring out which people are reliable mirrors and which people are not able to see you past their issues (although that can help you be more healthy). Because life is not about figuring out who you are in the eyes of others, life is about figuring out who you are in the eyes of God.

Identity does not come from outside of a person; it comes from within; it comes from a conversation between the Creator and the Created about exactly who and what they were created to be. And as helpful as the input, feedback, reactions, guidance, accountability and teaching of others can be, it should never – I repeat NEVER – be permitted to interrupt, contradict or distract from that conversation between the Creator and the Created.

As I reflected on Juanita’s words, her encouragement to talk to God about how to express my identity in this phase of my life, I thought back over all the phases that had come and gone. I thought of the “damn yankee” that arrived in South Carolina for college in 2001 to discover that Southern culture was an awful lot more than hush puppies and Steel Magnolias. I thought of the bubbly and optimistic young woman who arrived in North Carolina for seminary in 2005, only to discover that it was not the oasis from racism and politics that she had imagined it to be.

But of all the me’s that I have been and of all the places that I have lived, the one who bangs loudest on the door of my consciousness and demands to be heard is the 26 year old pastor who was sent down to the isolated marshes of Maryland for her first pulpit assignment. Her presence is insistent. Her courage is bewildering. Her optimism is contagious. And her determination demands a response.

She stands over my life and declares – we have not come this far for nothing, we have not learned this much to squander it, we have not survived this much to ever doubt what we can do.

We owe it to Donnie and Buster and Jack and Jim and Bipp and all the men who called me Rev. Bonner; and all the men who tipped their hat; and all the men who caught me oysters fresh from the bay; and believed that I could do anything I set my mind to do. And we owe it to Libby and Debbie and Betsy and Mary Lou and Judy and all the women taught me to be a pastor; and all the women who brought laughter to my life; and all the women who tried to love me hard enough to keep me from ever leaving.

None of us knew at the time that in the years and churches that lay ahead, there would be men who would refuse to call me Pastor, or leave the church altogether because – as I woman – I was THE Pastor. We did not fully understand the pressure that was falling on young clergy, in the world outside our little Chesapeake village; the pressure to “save” the church – the pressure that would soon fall on me – and that I would accept and place on myself. We could never have imagined the toll it would take on me, and the time I would need with God to rejuvenate.

Yet still, of all the me’s that I have been, the one that cries out loudest to me is exactly she – that newly minted pastor who drove alone, at 26 years old, into that isolated community; and stepped alone into the pulpits of St. Peter’s and Somerset; and who despite her diminutive size filled those pulpits with the power of her voice, the strength of her convictions, the consistency of her integrity, and the gentleness of her love. That young woman who rode her bike through the marshes to visit elderly parishioners, all the while throwing her face up at the sun and her arms up in the air, and worshipping in the rushing wind of her solitude the God who had never and would never leave her… alone.

She bangs at the door of my consciousness and demands an answer. And so I open the door. Because she is someone I admire; she is someone who I want to be… and so I am her… and I am also so much more.

At the dock where I prayed each day as the pastor of the Oriole charge.
In 2009, at the dock where I prayed each day as the pastor of the Oriole charge.
Chatting after Easter Sunday with some of my favorite ladies.
Chatting after Easter Sunday with some of my favorite ladies.
Teaching my niece how to stand in the pulpit.
Teaching my niece how to stand in the pulpit.
Visiting the foundation of the local economy.
Visiting the foundation of the local economy.
St. Peter's United Methodist Church
St. Peter’s United Methodist Church

 

Life these days in Texas with Pastor Juanita
Life these days in Texas with Pastor Juanita

Talking to Beloved

“Can you get me some food?” the woman said, interrupting my friend Krystal and my last few bites as we sat outside, finishing our tacos in the Houston heat. Turning towards her, we saw an extremely thin figure with no teeth and no hair and a hat pulled over most of her small head.

“Can you get me some food? They raped me, yesterday at the courthouse. You’ve got to tell Obama. Some sausage and cheese with tomatoes on a tortilla. They raped me, you’ve got to help me. I want just some sausage with tomatoes on a tortilla and lots of cheese.”

“Would you like a taco?” I asked, addressing what seemed to be her most urgent need first.

“No, my teeth can’t handle it. I want some sausage and cheese and tomatoes in a tortilla. And tell them to put cheese on it,” she responded.

I went to get what sounded very much like a chorizo taco, although the woman refused to call it that, while Krystal invited her to sit down where I had been sitting and chat.

Returning with a glass of ice water for our visitor, I found that Krystal had gotten her much more calm. Her story started to focus away from her need for food and back to her experience at the courthouse and her need for Obama to intervene.

We asked her if she would go to the Houston Women’s Center, but she insisted that the judge would not let her go there.

I don’t know how much of what she was saying was factual, but at the same time I believed her. I believed her because I did not know whether a police man had raped her in the courthouse the day before, but living on the streets the way she did, I could be pretty sure that this woman had been raped, probably many times.

I did not know what I could do for Beloved,* but with Krystal as a compassionate companion in this conversation, I was going to listen.

I knew that I was not going to ignore Beloved, or patronize her, or push her away. I was not going to laugh at her and tell her she needed to get over it. I was not going to ask her if she had forgiven herself yet. I was not going to tell her that I could not afford to hear what she had to say because I needed to protect my own relationship with the police. I was not going to tell her she better keep quiet or she’d make all women look bad. I was – above all – not going to tell her that it was her own fault.

There was not much we could do, but we could listen and we could care.

Her ramblings about the courthouse and the judge were intermixed with another story she started telling as she repeated herself over and over again. A story of a motel. A story of waking up and not knowing what had happened to her. A story of the hotel manager telling her that the police had raped her and left her there.

Something told me that while her story about the courthouse was questionable – although it is within the realm of possibility that everything she said was true – this story about the motel was very likely the true one. Perhaps it was the first one. The root story. The one she may have been telling for decades, with no one believing her. The story that happened back when she had hair on her head and teeth in her mouth and a figure of any kind. When you could tell that she was a woman by more than the fact that she told you she was. This story about the motel may have been the one that started it all, the one that launched her out onto her journey on the streets.

Hearing the word “motel”, it was impossible not to think of my own home here in Houston. A community reclaimed from such a use. Resurrected from dealing death-blows to people’s consciousness, to become instead a place of love and healing.

The story of this building is well known, since the time that Pastor Rudy Rasmus wrote about it in his groundbreaking book, Touch. Here, once upon a time, powerful men from throughout the Houston area would bring a woman for an hour or two. A house of ill-repute. Now it seeks to be a community for artists, promoting love, and healing, and fellowship. Next door to me is a couple from Sierra Leone, taking a sabbatical from their work with Word Made Flesh. Above me is a young couple that commutes around Houston on bikes, and works long into the night on projects in our art studio.

It’s hard to imagine that in this same room where I live – the room that I have filled to the brim with green and red and flowers and light – women, like Beloved, may have stared at colorless walls; may have felt nothing or, worse yet, may have felt something – may have felt fear.

I know what that fear tastes like on the back of your tongue. Bitter and paralyzing. Only when I tasted it for a third time, as I contemplated how to escape the back seat of a careening tuk tuk taxi, was I able to identify the two other times when I had tasted it in my life for what they were. The danger of hate masquerading as love; the danger of violence masquerading as tenderness; the danger of the conqueror circling the prey.

What responsibility do I have to Beloved? I have no more, and no less, than any woman has. The responsibility to listen and the responsibility to care. The responsibility to do something, if there is something that can be done. The responsibility to let her know she is not alone. Above all, the responsibility to be aware of the fact that so many pieces of our over-sexualized culture are complicit accomplices in human trafficking and victimization through normalizing violence, normalizing explicit imagery, and normalizing aggressive behavior as “passion” – and that we become unwitting accomplices ourselves when we promote them.

What could Krystal and I do for Beloved? Not much. We could listen and we could care. We could believe her story, as muddled as it was, for the pieces of truth that we knew lay within it.

“Beloved listen,” I said as she stuffed her lunch into her bag and prepared to make her escape to the safety of an alley, to begin her task of consuming her food without the aid of teeth. “Beloved listen. I am one of the pastors at St. John’s Downtown, do you know where that is? That’s where you can find me.”

“Oh I can’t come there,” she said, “the judge, he’ll make an end of everything if I come there. That will be the end of everything.”

“Okay Beloved, well that is where we are if it ever feels safe enough to come.”

And with that, she was gone.

After finishing our own lunches, Krystal and I began to take a walk, still processing our encounter. Partway through our journey, Beloved intercepted us on the path, rambled for a few minutes, and then dashed back into an alley. We did not know where she was, but she seemed to be keeping track of where we were.

I’ll make it easy for you Beloved – you know where to find us: at St. John’s Downtown.

*Name changed to protect the innocent. Replaced with the name God gives to her.

Back Where I Started

“I thought we were losing you,” Rudy said to me from my iPad screen about six months ago. I was sitting in the red corner chair in the office of Bahamas Methodist Habitat on Eleuthera, on the second floor above the camp showers. It was one of the few places on the island where I could connect to the internet and – incidentally – to the rest of the world. Thanks to the gift of modern technology, I was able to take a break from my work in the garden – a bit sunburnt, dirty and bug-eaten – and share some time of prayer and conversation with both Pastor Rudy and Pastor Juanita Rasmus across the thousands of miles that separated us.

The thing that may be surprising is that when Rudy said he had been worried about losing me, he was not referring to that time, recently, when I had resigned from my job and gone to a distant island with the intention of listening to God and God alone. Nor was he referring to the fact that I had given myself permission on that distant island to do whatever it was that God led me to do, up to and including not returning to ministry or to the United States. Nor was he referring to the six months that followed, of intense spiritual listening, in which I quickly concluded that God neither wanted me to leave the church nor ministry nor the United States.

What he was referring to instead was all that came before that – the years that had been slowly but steadily eroding my ability to be fully myself and live out what many had seen as my “prophetic” calling. For those that knew me well, my resignation was not a surprise; but for those who knew me the best, my resignation was a profound relief.

Five years ago, I was living in a space of unconditional love called the Isaiah House. I was living in one bedroom in a house of six bedrooms, the other bedrooms of which were filled with either community members or women and children transitioning out of homelessness. One big happy family. Sharing meals and dish duties and waiting on our turns in the bathroom; pulling weeds and picking strawberries; getting woken up by crying babies down the hall, or the occasional gunshot in the neighborhood that was constantly resisting the encroachment of gangs. I was not the “best” community member by far; but if I had been a better one, then I might not have realized that the love and grace I was receiving was something I had neither earned nor deserved. I did not have much, and I did not need much. I had a community that loved me, and a calling I believed in, and that was enough.

When I had graduated from Duke Divinity, the Isaiah House had drawn me irresistibly into its family and enfolded me in love, striving to support my physical, and spiritual needs so that I could be free to pursue the ministry of creating spaces of safety and empowerment for young people in our community.

Over time, I realized that people in the community saw me as a pastor, and even called me pastor, but I was not technically a pastor. I knew I needed to be able to serve wholly as a pastor – to be able to offer them the sacraments of communion and baptism – and that I needed to return to Philadelphia to pursue ordination. The reality that I was entering the “institutional hierarchy” caused concern for some as they watched my departure. One mentor, who later would ironically end up writing an impassioned reference for my ordination, articulated her concern to me in this way, “Isn’t there another way? Don’t you know what will happen to you in the institutional hierarchy? Don’t you know what they do with prophets? They kill them.”

The concern did not end when I got back to Pennsylvania; and I was certainly not exempt from feeling that concern myself. As I was asked to lead workshops at almost every Conference event, I could feel the occasional twinge of intimidation or jealousy from others that leads to isolation for many leaders. I may have been new on the block, after spending almost a decade away from home receiving my education in the South, but I was articulate and well-educated and “shiny,” and so people seemed to enjoy putting me up on stages. I confided to a mentor in Philadelphia that I was worried about the path that I seemed to be headed, or pushed, down.

I had come home with a sense of passionate calling to be a part of justice, healing and reconciliation in a region of our country – and church – that had experienced division after division since Richard Allen walked out of our doors in the 1800’s. I was even willing to give up my beautiful life at the Isaiah House to pursue that calling, but those opportunities did not seem to be the doors that opened to me within our itinerant system. I told my mentor in Philadelphia that I was worried I would give in to the pressure to move up the ladder and forsake my life of ministry on the margins. I asked her to watch me and to hold me accountable to the calling I had articulated to her.

When I resigned from my job within the denominational institution a few years later, and decided to spend time re-evaluating my role in ministry, few words needed to be exchanged between my mentor and I. We both knew that this was exactly what we had worried about. I was being highly effective in ministry; I was still technically living out my calling, or struggling to do so. I was building multi-ethnic community. I was empowering young leaders. I was working to build justice and reconciliation. But all of that work was carried out as if by a bird in a cage, and I could only fly so far. It had gotten intertwined with the expectations of my job, the requirements of my institution, the pressures of power and reputation – and it was breaking my spirit. I could not speak truth to power when I sat in the seat of power and represented the General Church.

Over the months that followed my resignation, and then later my conversation with Rudy and Juanita, I spent a lot of time listening. Traveling. Listening. Unwilling to say yes to anyone until I felt confident that I was saying yes to God. Some asked if I won the lottery or if someone was funding me. Absolutely not, I told them, I was just trusting God to guide my path, and was willing to lose everything I had before I would end the Journey prematurely.

It took me many conversations, and journeys within the Journey, before I had exhausted every doubt in my mind, and submitted every bit of my will, and come to terms with who and what I could really count on in life, and where and how I was to live.

Once I had finally accepted where God wanted me to be, there was nothing left to do but pack up my car, spend whatever time I had left with my family, and finally go home to the place that God had prepared for me.

In the end, I found myself driving down to Houston, Texas, excited to join a thriving community and be a part of promoting justice and peace in this city. Excited to work at St. John’s with the pastors who knew my heart better than most people. The people who knew with relief that watching everything I had built gradually slip away day after day – while my trust in God was built stronger day after day – was the very best thing that had ever happened to me.

I learned that spending time with people who thought they knew who I was, or who I ought to be, had not helped me become my truest self.

So I saved every last minute I had left in the Journey for those who truly did know me and love me best. Those who know the very worst and the very best of what I am capable of doing. I went to West Chester, Pennsylvania and had dinner and watched movies with my aunts. I was engulfed in bear hugs by my cousins Jeff and Katie, Buddy and Annie and Erin. I went for a long walk in the woods with my mother and had breakfast with my dad.

I stopped in Baltimore to spend time with my friend Nadiera, and in Washington, D.C. to spend time with my sisters. I cherished taking my niece and nephew on the last one-on-one outings that we would have for a while to come.

Then I continued on a journey that I had driven many times before. I drove to North Carolina and spent time with my family at the Isaiah House and with the amazing young leaders that I had tutored and mentored – now all thriving college students who are – incidentally – my biggest inspirations.

I drove to South Carolina and stayed at the Vista House community where I had lived in college and allowed myself to soak in its beauty, and meditate on my gratitude for the people I had loved in that place.

I continued on to Florida to my oldest sister’s house, to take my niece and nephew swimming and biking. To hug them and talk to them about their troubles and read them more bedtime stories than any child could expect.

Then I did something that I have never done before. I kept going. I drove all the way to Texas.

At the end of my journey, I have ended up back where I started. Living in one room as I did at the Isaiah House, in a community that offers transitional housing and engenders a sense of family. I do not have much, and I do not need much. I have a community that loves me, and a calling I believe in, and that is enough.

In the end, those who know me the best know that I was never really lost; I was just finding my way home.

Time with cousins
Time with cousins
Time with niece & nephew
Time with niece & nephew
Time with mom & dad
Time with mom & dad
Time at the Isaiah House
Time at the Isaiah House
Time with family in Florida
Time with family in Florida
Home in Texas
Home in Texas

A Love Letter to Eastern Pennsylvania

Silence.
That is what lay between my aunt and I for years after I answered the call to ministry. I knew that it was because the idea had been planted in her mind that I condemned her, because she was a lesbian and I was a pastor in the United Methodist Church. The distance hurt both of us, but I did not know how to fix it. The pain of potential rejection blinded this pioneer of women in the film industry to the fact that I too was in a career that was difficult for women. Meanwhile, the pain of what felt like her rejection likewise incapacitated me from communicating to her how I really felt.

That is until she lay dying of cancer.

When the cancer attacked her body, it was not the first time that it had come knocking, but it would be the last. I found myself driving across the state of Pennsylvania as often as I could to visit her. My congregation in Lancaster was incredibly supportive and prayed persistently for her and for me. The loving families of the church made sure I knew that I was not alone.

The ice began to break when I visited her in July, before I went to spend a few weeks in South Africa. I remember sitting in her garden while she still had strength; taking a walk at night to look out over Mount Washington as she told me her story; and getting scolded by her partner Ana for letting her exert too much energy – but really there was no stopping her, there never was.

On my last visit, after returning from South Africa, I visited her in the hospital daily, bringing her a different gift each day. A large blue beaded bracelet that hung loosely from what had once been her muscular forearm. A lamb made out of beads – like her name, Amy K. Lamb. On the last day, I brought her a rainbow pin, made of beads at a hospice near Durban, South Africa. I had purchased three, and began handing them around. One for my aunt, one for her partner, and one more for them to give to a friend. “No,” she said, handing it back to me. “This one is yours.”

Of course it was.

And that’s when I knew- that she understood. That she knew that I did love her and did accept her and did support her.

That was the last time I saw her.

She insisted that I be the only one to lead her funeral. Not everyone understood why, but I did. It did not have anything to do with family politics or favoritism. Suddenly there was so much to say to me, but no time left to say it. It was the only way she had left of communicating something huge that we no longer had the luxury of time to tell one another.

She wanted me to know that she understood how hard what I am doing is. That she supported me. That she trusted me to do the right thing.

So I climbed up in the pulpit of my friend Sue Hutchin’s church in Pittsburgh, and I addressed the largest crowd I had ever stood in front of, there to honor their beloved Amy. And I told her story, every beautiful bit of it.

Silence between us had returned in her physical absence, but it was a comforting silence rather than the silence of distance. It was a silence that spoke everything that needed to be said.

A few weeks ago, sitting in an Internet cafe in Guatemala, I saw with Methogeeky excitement that the Resolutions for Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference had been posted online.

I downloaded the Resolutions to my iPad, and took them back home to pore over them word by word, next to the smoke-billowing chimney of the roof where I lived. I learned about cross-racial appointments, about the persecuted church, and a lot about the proper kitchen and bathroom amenities for parsonages (and I mean a lot… thank you Jim).

But I also read some resolutions that I knew were the kinds of things that had made my aunt feel apprehensive of me. That made her eye me warily for so many years of my early twenties, fearing she was being judged. What I read there in Guatemala gave me fair warning of the day of painful discourse that lay ahead of us in a couple of weeks.

That day has come.
And I can’t be there at the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference.
And I hate that I can’t walk this path with you all today, and I hate that I cannot explain why right now; but please believe that my reasons are compelling and that I love you and I am praying for you.

These conversations that we will be having at Annual Conferences all over the country concern me greatly. They concern me because this does not really have to do with faithfulness to the Discipline. I grew up immersed in “church talk” and picked up an awareness of what the Discipline said at an early age without even reading it yet. Even then, growing up in a church that did not allow women in the pulpit, I knew that there were people and congregations that disrespected the Discipline. There are ways that people flaunt Methodist rules or expectations on a weekly basis with few repercussions: from chargeable offenses (like those that support rebaptisms, either leading them themselves or having others do so in order to technically protect themselves); to disregard for process and authority (like those who take on the stole of an elder before having been given the authority to do so); to major Disciplinary infractions (like those congregations who refuse to accept a female minister despite the United Methodist Church’s stance).

We do not have global trauma over any of those acts of disobedience.

This is not really about the Discipline. What this really has to do with is not the passion to enforce church law, but the fear of the real inclusivity of LGBTQ persons that our Book of Discipline claims we prioritize in ¶140.

What this is really about is whether a person is LGBTQ when they seek the blessing of the church on their commitment to being in a monogamous covenant relationship.

But shouldn’t that be what we are all about? I am frankly exhausted, completely exhausted, by the prevalence of other forms of sexuality in our culture – by the constant depictions or rape, adultery, and casual sexuality on television that fills my newsfeed with exuberant commentary from friends, and draws some into addiction to it and even violent acts.

In light of all that, the fact that there are still people – of any gender or orientation – that choose to go against that culture of jumping from person to person and commit themselves to a monogamous, God-oriented covenant offers me so much encouragement and helps me feel less alone in my own lifestyle choice to be celibate in singleness and faithful in marriage.

During school, I felt more comforted and inspired in that lifestyle choice by the presence of integrity-filled, monogamy-seeking gay and lesbian leaders, than I felt by the presence of confused heterosexuals “spreading their wild oats” without any shame about when and where.

I understand that the Book of Discipline is not in full agreement with me, but I think that it could be some day. And I know that the people who are pointing to the Book of Discipline as the final word in their argument, are the same ones who would also have the courage to disobey it if they disagreed strongly enough. I trust their integrity that far. The churches that rebaptize adults and reject female pastors already do disobey the Discipline for their conscience’s sake.

Just as with the scriptures, we have learned to appeal to the things we agree with and ignore those that we do not.

That has never been an option for me, and is not now; I struggle with scripture, and wrestle with the Spirit until I find the blessing in it. Yet, I do believe there are different ways of seeing and understanding scripture. Until the day when those who oppose women in the pulpit also refuse to eat shrimp cocktails and insist women cover their heads, I am going to assume that we are probably on the same page about the authority of scripture more than they realize. Until the day when those who oppose two men standing together at the altar also insist on stoning their teenage victims of rape, then I am going to conclude that our method of reading scripture is similar. We may just have different opinions about which passages to read in context.

There are many of us. Bible-believing, Orthodox Christians. People who proclaim the actual, physical life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God made flesh in human form. Begotten not made. Of the Virgin born. In whom all things were created, things on heaven and on earth.

And who BECAUSE of that – not IN SPITE of that – are encouraged that in this time of confusion and division, there are people who still want to enter into monogamous covenants in pursuit of the glory of God. People. Not gay people. Not straight people. Just people. We are all, in the end, just people. Children of God. Called to love one another. So, let’s act like it.

I do not believe that I have to speak the script of any particular group. I know I’m not Progressive enough for some, and certainly not Conservative enough for others. But what I do know is that I am honest and I am not alone.

If we rip this body called the Church apart, and pull it to two opposing extremes, I may not fit completely comfortably into either (although I do know where I will land); and I am not alone.

Why? Because my faith has nuance and depth, along with orthodoxy; and I am not alone.

Because I can look to Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz and Howard Thurman as my teachers, as well as Dietrich Bonhoeffer; and I am not alone.

I have served rural congregations and urban congregations; and every single place where I have gone, in every single country, the families of those “Family Churches” knew and loved people who were LGBTQ and were looking for the space to love them and support them. And they are not alone.

My aunt may have left me long before her time, but she left me with a silence full of her love and support; and I know that I am by no means alone.

Who are your kin? – (Shared at UM Clergywomen Leadership Seminar)

The following was shared at the UM Clergywomen Leadership Seminar on May 7, 2014.

Mountains. They are one of God’s favorite places to speak to us. The bible is chock full of them. Mount Ararat, where God made a promise to Noah. Mount Sinai, where God gave Moses the 10 Commandments. The sermon on the Mount and the Transfiguration. The Mount of Olives where Jesus gave his final teaching, and later ascended into heaven.

Mount Tabor, where Deborah and Barak assembled their troops.

“How beautiful,” Isaiah 52:7 tells us ” How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

That is what all of you are, the ones who announce peace, good news, and salvation. The ones who trod the mountains of the earth with a step so joyful and so firm that it makes the earth shake.

The cheerful splendor of that verse, however, hides, as we so often do, the real difficult, painful work that climbing mountains can be. Those feet may be beautiful, but they are tired and they are dirty and they are sore as well.

And that may be exactly the point.

About a month ago, I woke up at 2:30 am, and slipped out of a house on the shore of Lake Atitlan, in Guatemala. I met up with a guide and I began to hike in utter darkness a five mile ascent so unrelentingly steep that it made me seriously question my lack of prior research into the endeavor.

I did not yet know much spanish, and my guide did not know any English; consequently leaving me with plenty of time to think in between his repetitions of “consado?” and my repetitions of “aqui o alli?”

The brutal difficulty of the task led me pretty quickly to feelings of intense gratitude for whoever it was that had quite literally blazed the trail. I knew I could not have made it up if there had not been many feet that had trod the path before me; driving its imprint deep into the dirt so that I could find my way even in the darkness; placing logs and sticks and stones to prevent the path from being washed away.

And then, of course, I thought of many of you. The ones who have made this possible, and the ones who came before you.

I thought about how hard it has been to blaze these trails, and to climb these mountains. And then I thought about how hard it still is to get up them.

While we have all run into the the cynical types of folks who say things like “things were so much harder in our day” – I hope I can take your presence in this room as an indication that you understand that while the trail may have been blazed for us, young women today are still climbing the same mountains. And we are still chasing the same dawn.

One of our panelists a couple days ago said that the thing that amazed them was that they had been coming to these gatherings for decades, and they felt like when we say what our needs and struggles and problems are – the list never changes.

It can feel as though the dawn never comes.

That can feel discouraging. It can feel like we are sitting in the dark with no way out. But that is not who we are, is it? We are empowered and we are strong and we are taking action and standing for each other’s greatness – right?

We aren’t the kind of women who sit around, as the song says, “just wishing and hoping and dreaming and praying.” We are the kind of women who make things happen.

We don’t wait for the dawn to come. We wake up at 2:30 and we chase the dawn down.

I think that is one of the reasons why Isaiah 58 is the passage that guides my life. Because it does not speak of a dawn that we wait for, it speaks of a dawn that we have a role in creating. It speaks of a dawn that we can chase with our beautiful, tired, dirty, god-glorifying feet.

verses 6-7
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn

Isaiah 58 gives us an endless list of things we can do to see the dawn come. But I have come to see that it starts with recognizing three things.

First, we need to recognize who God really is. Isaiah 58 starts off with a bit of a rant. “Shout out! Do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!”

Why? Because God is so frustrated with people acting publicly religious, putting their faith on display and flaunting their relationship with God, while privately oppressing and abusing others and doing the things that hurt God heart. God is tired of people creating God in their own image, to support who they are and condemn others. So God says, listen here, this is who I truly am, and this is what I truly want from you.

Second step, learn to recognize who you truly are. The kind of recognition that goes much deeper than your face reflected in a mirror.

For the past five weeks that I lived in Guatemala, I had no mirror. No hot showers. No blow dryer, make up, nice clothes. And I learned to see myself more clearly than I ever have. I learned to recognize myself in the eyes of others. I learned to see my beauty not through my face in a mirror, but through the love and respect that others gave me. I learned to recognize that who I am was not what I looked like, but what I said and what I did.

I did not tell many people I was a pastor, because the Roman Catholic culture there is not super keen on women pastors. But one night I sat in the kitchen with the mother of the family I was living with, Gloria, as the rain poured down, and she finally asked me what she had been wondering after watching my behavior for a couple weeks. “Eres tu algunes como un sacerdote?” she asked me – “Are you something like a priest?”

I did not need a mirror to know what and who I was. She reflected it back to me.

When I arrived here from Guatemala on Sunday, I had a package waiting for me – with all the things I had not seen in weeks – nice clothes, make up, blower dryer, brush. I put it on Monday and Tuesday, but seeing my face in the mirror again, and putting on the trappings of my old life did not make it easier to recognize myself. So this morning, I dug out my old smokey, dried over a cooking fire clothes from my backpack and put them on – because I am not defined by the face you see and the clothes you see but by the actions you see, the honesty you hear, and the integrity I fight for as I chase the dawn.

So chase the dawn with me and learn to recognize who you truly are, at your deepest, purest, strongest, bravest place.

The third step you take when you are chasing the dawn is the one where you really start to see the light burst forth.

Isaiah finishes the stanza with the statement that when you do “not hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn.”

Friends, this is where it gets real. Recognizing who God is and recognizing who you are is the spiritual prep work for recognizing who your kin are, your family.

If we ever want to see anything change in this church, we have to start recognizing our kin. Why is that important? Because we act differently towards our kin. We feel responsible for our family. We are protective of our family. We protect our own.

When we hide ourselves from our family, we refuse to see them, refuse to claim them, refuse to let their lives impact us, refuse to let their troubles become our troubles, refuse to let their struggles become our struggles, we say that is sad, but that is not my problem – I have boundaries and that is for their kin, their people, to deal with.

I may not have experienced the injustices you have experienced – and you may not have experienced the injustices I have experienced – the world’s not a fair place. But I am your kin, and you are my kin. And I will bleed for you, and I will suffer with you. I will not step out of the way and let you take the blows alone. Those who are close to me know that already.

If you have read Womanist theology or Mujerista theology then you should know already – we won’t ever get anywhere unless we all get there together. The ways of the past, of pushing ahead of one another, of one person or people group succeeding by beating another – that does not get us anywhere. That does not change the church. That does not make us any more like God. The dawn will not break forth until it breaks forth on all of us.

We may be chasing the dawn, but this is not a race.

I may not look like you. I am a millenial to start with (there’s only a few of us in the room), blonde, blue eyed, pale skinned. But I am not defined by my face in a mirror but by my actions in this world. And I am your kin. And I will do what kin do. I will laugh when you are joyful and I will cry when you are sad. I will spill my blood, sweat and tears for you. And never stay silent when I see you being harmed.

We are the people of God, we are not the person of God. We are kin.

When we start to act like it, that is when things will change. It is the only time it ever has. If women had not organized and fought together and worked together and bled together, none of us would be here today. We would not have the vote, we would not have COSROW, we would not have Ordination.

When we feel like nothing will ever change, look back at what has.

Things do change. They change when we start acting like family. Not when we strategize and scheme about how to get ahead of one another. Not when we accept this competitive system that we are trapped in and think our only option is to compromise to protect what we have.

The only way things will change is if we free ourselves. If we refuse to watch a sister slandered, harassed, abused, and stay silent because that is for her kin to deal with.

If enough of us get free. Things will change. Women got free of the expectations of society and marched in the street for the vote. Students and pastors of all races got free of the fear of death and marched in the streets of Birmingham for justice.

We too must get free of the fears and competitions and prejudices and complacencies that hold us back, so that we can recognize who God really is, recognize who we really are, and recognize who our kin really are. Set free together, we can chase the dawn down.

I almost missed the dawn from the summit of Vulkan San Pedro. The climb was steep and hard and dirty and I was tired. But I went faster and faster and faster to catch it – so that I could bring it back here to you and tell you – it is possible to see the dawn of a new day. Next time, let’s watch it rise together.

An Education in Grace

“Pero el pueblo de los Estados Unidos no sabían, era que el gobierno (But the people of the United States did not know, it was the government),” Cesár said quizzically, in what I can only describe as one of the most natural acts of grace I have ever experienced. It was as if absolution of national inequities was something that the jefe of Cafe R.E.D. offered on a daily basis. In a way, he did; at least insofar as he worked each day to create opportunities that would restore hope, humanity, and dignity to those who had felt stripped of those things through deportation.

It was not deportation we were discussing, however. I need to start a little further back in the story for you to understand.

The day before, Miercoles (Wednesday), I had taken two different chicken buses, weaving their tortuous way up and down the mountains of Guatemala, in order to get to Xela for the Board Meeting of DESGUA at Cafe R.E.D. I had met Cesár, the Manager of Cafe R.E.D., and the other board members and then shared lunch with them.

After the meeting dispersed, Cesár and I sat in red chairs at the back of Cafe R.E.D. while I peppered him with questions. I tried hard to be understood in my still developing Español, and he tried equally hard to get me to understand his quite eloquent Español.

The final question that I had asked was what in the history of his nation had given him hope and joy. He had answered that it was what had happened in 1945. He told me that before that women had no rights and after that, women had rights.

Ah, yes, I had agreed. It was the same in the United States. Before the World Wars, we had not worked in factories etc., but after that we had jobs and some women desired to stay in them. I explained to him that I understood how war can change culture and open the way for women.

He tried again. Again I failed to understand.

Finally he raised a finger to indicate that he would be right back and returned with a 300 page, dense historical piece called Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, a piece written by Americans and published through Harvard University Center on Latin American Studies. He smiled warmly, confident that now I would understand what he was talking about.

…all I had to do was read a 300 page historical investigation…

*Ahem* – 30 hours later, after I had read the book, written and posted 2 blogs on other topics, and engaged in some delicate vocational communications – our conversation could continue.

I understood now why he had given me the book. He had given me the book because I had asked him what had given him hope for his country, and I had not been able to understand his answer.

I had not been able to understand because I knew about the war in Guatemala, but I was not schooled in the reforms that had preceded the instigation of the war. I was not familiar with the reforms that had been inspired by the United States’ Franklin D. Roosevelt; the reforms that had given the people hope, but that had given American businesses operating in Guatemala fear that they would have less profits. I was not familiar with the fact that they had decided that their right to profit was greater than the Guatemalans right to independence, self determination, and – in the end – life. It was worth a few deaths, or what turned out in the end to be a few hundred thousand deaths, in order to protect the ability of American businesses to profit on foreign soil.

To be clear, United Fruit lobbied, propagandized and finally offered the initial funding, in order to get the United States military to help plan and stage a coup that destabilized the fledgling Guatemalan democracy and led to a 30 year civil war; which led to the massacres of indigenous people in the Mayan communities around Lake Atitlan, where I have been living, as well as the assassination of priests and Bishops that supported the indigenous guerrillas.

This action on the part of the United States took a great deal from the Guatemalan people; as I knew from hearing about the people that had been killed or “disappeared” from the community where I had been living for the past month.

But in that moment as I told Cesár that I had finished the book and handed it back to him, what was really affecting me was the fact that we had taken something from him. I had asked Cesár what gave him the most pride and joy about his country’s history, and his answer – which I now understood to be the Constitution of 1945 – had been something that my country had taken away from the people of Guatemala.

The Constitution, lost in the negotiations of the US instigated coup, had given the people of Guatemala term limits for elected officials, guaranteed freedom of the speech and of the press, equal pay for men and women, and the criminalization of racial discrimination. The part that had caused US intervention was land reforms that would allow unused, fallow land to be farmed by the people of Guatemala, thereby interrupting the United Fruit banana monopoly.

It was like the parable that the prophet Nathaniel told to King David; the story of the rich man who has many flocks of his own, but who instead takes the one small lamb that is the most precious and beloved thing that the poor man has. That is how I felt in that moment; like we had taken Cesár’s lamb.

Why? Because the businesses of the United States believe they have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And our big businesses are willing to pursue happiness at the cost of the life, liberty and happiness of others. We feel we have the need, and sometimes the divine right, to enter other countries and take what we want, and leave them with nothing. But if people from other countries come into our country and try to take home a few hundred dollars through hard labor, we arrest them and send them home in poverty.

Why? Because what we do to them is legal, and what they do to us is not legal. Why? Because we wrote the laws. We wrote the laws both in their countries and in our country. We bought the law.

With all that feeling welling up in me, and filling me with shame, all Cesár could do was look at me with confusion and say – “But the people of the United States did not know, it was the government.”

Oh. So that is what grace is. I am not sure if I ever really understood before.

It was not the first time, nor I am sure will it be the last, that I have been absolutely brought to my knees by the amazing capacity of the Guatemalan people to forgive. To forgive one another. To forgive us. To return greed with generosity, and to offer compassion when they have experienced cruelty.  I am simply not familiar with what it is like to live in a nation that does not feel the need to avenge every wrong or perceived wrong committed against it.

When I was in seminary they taught me something called exegesis. An exegetical method of learning, and then preaching, that tries to listen to the spirit and to the scriptures and to hear what the text is trying to say, rather than approaching it with an agenda and telling it what to say. Dr. Ellen Davis, in particular, changed my approach when she taught me first to pray, then to read the scriptures, then to read them again, and again, before finally going to the text books and the interpretations.

Here in Guatemala, I have received an exegesis from the people of this country. I have learned their history backwards. I have come in with little knowledge, and loved the people. I have heard their stories, and their experiences. I have cried with them until we laughed, and laughed with them until we cried. I have heard what it was like for one to flee for their life, for another to fight for his. Then, finally, I have heard the more academic version; I have read the history, searching for where the people I love fit in it; letting them be a part of my learning and partners in the conversation.

I learned a long time ago that you cannot listen if you already have all the answers.

Well, for a student of history, I had even less answers than I thought I did before Cesár took up the task of educating me.

And for a woman of the cloth, I had less understanding of the grace that my church is built upon than I realized; because I had not been offered enough grace by the church, I needed to encounter Cesár to know what it felt like.

Something in me almost wanted Cesár to harbor anger against me, as if that would lessen the pain of my own internal conviction.

But it just was not in him. He just wanted me to understand. He just wanted me to know.

“…el pueblo de los Estados Unidos no sabían…” he had said to me.

Well, now we do know. What are we going to do about it?

Will we have more compassion towards people from Central America who are living in the United States, when we take the time to think about the political and financial reasons that may have brought them there – and what our nation has done to contribute to those situations. Will we have the courage and the motivation to take action to speak to our nation and communities about how we treat others, and push our government to give Central Americans the justice and mercy in immigration that we have failed to show them in foreign policy?

Or perhaps you are interested in what is being done on this side of the border? Well Cesár has a dream. He has heard that some Guatemalans who have been deported are trapped in Mexico because they became disabled during their immigration or deportation and have no way to support themselves if they come home. He wants there to be a place in Guatemala where disabled deportees can work and live in dignity; he wants to be able to tell them there is a place for them and that they should come home. Maybe there is some way you can help him. Maybe your business can buy whatever products this crazy dream of his produces.

Or maybe when you hear of a person who is being deported – even though they were brought to the United States when they were only two, have lived there for more than twenty years, and know no other life – you can say with the same grace that Cesár said to us – but they did not even know.

As we meditate on these questions, here are some of the faces of those who have forgiven us.

Women in ropa typica sing behind the Semana Santa processionals around Lake Atitlan
Women in ropa typica sing behind the Semana Santa processionals around Lake Atitlan
Watching the Semana Santa processions at Lake Atitlan with my friends Esther and Faustina
Watching the Semana Santa processions at Lake Atitlan with my friends Esther and Faustina
An elderly Mayan woman is helped down the street by her grandson
An elderly Mayan woman is helped down the street by her grandson

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A woman walks alone through the Semana Santa celebrations around Lake Atitlan
A woman walks alone through the Semana Santa celebrations around Lake Atitlan
A Mayan man leads the Semana Santa procession as he has for many years
A Mayan man leads the Semana Santa procession as he has for many years