Last Glance

“Agua! Agua, por favor. Para mi bebé,” the young mother boarding the bus pleaded, catching my arm. Not knowing if I would have time, I sprinted across the bus terminal to the vending machines. My friend Jasminne explained that this woman had been unable to obtain water for her infant because she did not have the right bills. Having traveled internationally, I knew well the struggle of figuring out how to use unfamiliar currency. Hurriedly, we dug through our pockets and wallets. “I have it. I have it,” I exclaimed as I slid two crumpled one dollar bills into the hungry mouth of the Aquafina machine. “What button do I push?,” I asked Jasminne in a panic. “Any button! The whole machine is water,” she responded.

Grabbing the bottle that dropped smoothly down the slot, I rushed back across the terminal, and thrust the water into the woman’s hand just before the bus doors slid closed. Our eyes met. My lips formed the words, “Vaya con Dios.” Her lips formed the word, “Gracias,” but it was the eyes that said it all.

It is always the eyes that say the most. Whether I spend two minutes, or twelve hours with a family, it is always that last glance that says the most. Gratitude and sorrow and fear and courage. At the close of a day filled with last glances, I shut my eyes and they are all I can see. Those moments imprinted on my memory; those moments when we say everything that the language barrier and our own guardedness has inhibited.

Days like this are never expected or planned. They start with a rapid succession of phone calls and texts. “Hannah call me back…Hannah call now…Hannah, a group of children came in. There’s a lot of them. Get here as soon as you can.”

When I get a call like that, a few things go through my mind. First, I know that a couple hours ago children, and likely their mothers as well, were released from a nearby detention center in Texas and sent to stay somewhere until their trial and – more than likely – their deportation. Second, I know that they are exhausted, hungry, and just as confused as I would be trying to navigate a public transportation system in a language I do not know. Third, I know that they have a long journey ahead of them and it may be a few days, or longer, before they can get a good night’s sleep. Fourth, I know that they have likely already experienced trauma, possibly even before their arrest and detention; and all measures must be taken to make them feel safe, loved, and respected.

The psychological reality for children who are two years old and four years old is chilling. Even more alarming is the messages being received by the eight year olds, and the twelve year olds, and the fourteen year olds, some of whom have grown up in school in the United States and now are being told they cannot stay. Now they are being told we do not want them. Now they are being told they are not a part of the family after all. In Guatemala, I spent time with some of those who have returned. While they focused on empowering those around them and celebrating their culture, some still carried with them scars inflicted by the nation of my birth: scars similar to a child whose parent refuses to claim them as their own. They loved us, and we cast them out as if we did not know them.

So when the call comes in, I go. I drop everything, and I go. I spread the word to those in my network that we have family in town, and we do not have much time to make them feel welcome. We might have two minutes to sprint for water before the next bus leaves. Or we might have twelve hours to collect supplies for the journey and share meals and laughter and stories.

Sitting across the bus aisle from the woman with the thirsty baby, was another mother with a young daughter. She had arrived on an earlier bus and so her transfer had not been quite so erratic. We had a two hour head start on understanding her situation and her needs. However, even with all that time, as I looked around the room at the other two dozen women and children, I could not gather my mind clearly enough to understand what she was trying to tell me. She kept saying something about “tres dias” and I just nodded politely, unalarmed. (The average length of time that these women and their children will be on buses is two to three days, sometimes four.)

Thank God for Jasminne, who came over and with her profound fluency was able to understand that the woman was worried because her cousin would only let her stay for three days when she arrived; after that time she did not know where she and her daughter would stay.

Thank God for Jordan, who lived in the city she was traveling to and answered his phone immediately. “Pastor Hannah!,” my former church member and current colleague exclaimed. I hurriedly explained the situation and left it in his relentlessly compassionate hands, as I turned my attention back to the other eight mothers traveling that day.

I am rarely that fortunate; often I do not get an answer soon enough, and I do not have the luxury of time. That day, however, Jordan did answer the phone and did have the ability to help. So, as I slipped that bottle of water into her seat mate’s hand, she slipped her name and her cousin’s phone number into mine. I would spend the next couple days praying that that information, along with the picture I had taken of her on my phone, would be enough for Jordan to find her when she arrived on the other side of the country.

The bus departures continued throughout the day, more leaving every couple hours. We organized triage so that we could deal with the needs of families case by case: focusing on the needs of those leaving the soonest first, and working our way to the midnight departure of the final group.

Contacts from throughout Houston came in shifts as they were available throughout the day, bringing what they could. Comfort food from a Honduran restaurant arrived first in the hands of Jasminne. Then a coat in the hands of Marianella. Clothes in the hands of Lupe. Hats and gloves for the snowstorm they were driving into from the hands of Brandi. New clothes for the mother whose clothes did not fit in the hands of Jenny. Resources in the hands of Mia. And one final late night delivery by Elaine to meet the requests of the midnight departure.

As I rushed about, I was pulled to the side by a gruff, Texan man with a baseball cap and boots. “I see you are helping these mothers,” he said. “The thing is, I lost my own wife to a brain aneurysm earlier this year, and it would sure make me feel good to be a part of helping.” With that he slipped a twenty dollar bill into my hand, and I slipped it into the hand of a nursing mother.

I drove across the street to get cheeseburgers for the group, and as I pulled up to the window to pay, the cashier told me that the woman in line ahead of me had already paid my bill. I made eye contact with her in her rear view mirror and mouthed a “Thank you” to accompany that last glance.

Back at the bus station, there was one pair of eyes that remained downcast throughout the day. Probably about fifteen, he was the oldest minor present, and he seemed to feel the weight of it, and the weight of caring for his younger brother and sisters.

As this family climbed on the bus in the late afternoon, I called out softly, “Vaya con Dios,” and the young man’s head whipped around. He made eye contact with me for the first time and the last time; and “Thank you!” were his first and last words to me as he finally raised his head erect and his mother’s eyes welled with tears.

There it was. The last glance. Varied in intensity, but still the same every time. A glance of gratitude mixed with sadness. A dropping of the guard carefully maintained. In that last moment, getting on the bus unhindered and realizing they can trust us; while at the same time realizing they are walking away. Safety found in the moment it ends. Heart wrenching. In that last glance, they release all they’ve been holding back. Tears well in their eyes. Mouths say words I do not always understand.

I do not know what will happen to them, and it breaks my heart every time.

I wonder what they see in our eyes. I hope they see love. I hope they see respect. I hope they see that my eyes reflect the pain in theirs, and commit to carry a little bit of it with me. I hope that solidarity makes their own burden just a little bit lighter.

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Two days later, my phone buzzed. It was a text from Jordan. “We found her!!” Jordan had arranged for housing, clothes and support for the woman who did not know where she would live in three days; he had found her at the bus station. For the first time, the last glance would not be the final word.

Traveling mother - on the left in Houston with us. On the right, in Boston when Jordan found her. (Face intentionally not shown.)
Traveling mother – on the left in Houston with us. On the right, in Boston when Jordan found her. (Face intentionally not shown.)

A Time to Listen, A Time to Speak

“I cannot wait until I am in a different appointment, so that I can preach the way that you do.”

I cocked my head to the side, a little puzzled. I had just finished a sermon on racism, privilege, solidarity and what it means to be the family of God as the guest preacher at a predominantly white gathering. It is true that serving as the first white pastor on the staff of a predominantly African American congregation means I am accustomed to receiving a consistent flow of interesting statements and questions from those both inside and outside of our congregation. But the clearly articulated assumption that my situation somehow gives me immunity to the consequences and discomfort of addressing injustice made me pause.

After that pause, my response was very simple, “Actually, I’ve always preached this way. No matter where I’ve served. You can preach this way anywhere. It is possible.”

When I first became clergy at the age of twenty-six, I was appointed to two small congregations in rural Maryland, in the beautiful marshes of the Chesapeake. When the appointment was made, my District Superintendent presented the congregations with a resume that led them to expect anyone but a small, blonde woman to walk through their doors. It informed them that I had served an African American congregation in Durham, North Carolina; been part of multiple anti-racism trainings and efforts; and most recently served a diverse, urban congregation in Coatesville, Pennsylvania.

Ironically, or appropriately, the city of Coatesville, that I was leaving, shared an ignoble distinction with this community in Maryland, which I can only assume was an act of coincidence or divine intervention. The distinction is that Coatesville was the host to the last recorded lynching of an African American man in the state of Pennsylvania; while Princess Anne was the host to the last recorded lynching of an African American man in the state of Maryland. In the case of Coatesville, it was Zachariah Walker in 1911; in the case of Princess Anne, it was George Armwood in 1933. Both of them accused of crimes; but more importantly, both of them innocent for all eternity, denied their right to be proven guilty or not.

The way that I found out about the lynching of George Armwood was not from my District Superintendent or from a history book. The way that I heard the story was, instead, over coffee with a man who explained to me that he had relatives who had been a part of the mob. He had relatives who had told him about watching George Armwood die. He presented the facts with little value judgment given; to this day, I do not know with certainty how he felt about those who had taken part in the murder.

What I do know is the reason why the conversation, and many more like it, came up. That reason is the same reason for my colleague’s recent response: I had just finished a sermon on racism, privilege, solidarity and what it means to be the family of God.

It is true that I preach that way in Houston, Texas, at St. John’s Church, one of the largest predominantly African American congregations in Methodism. But it is also true that I preached that way in the pulpits I served in Durham, North Carolina; Dames Quarter & Oriole, Maryland; Coatesville, Wayne, & Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and any other places I have traveled. The truth of the matter was that I spoke to my congregations and audiences about these realities not because we did not care for one another; I spoke to them about hard truths because I loved them and they loved me, and we all deserved the space to talk and think about how to act in order to love others better.

I do not lead a charmed life where there are no consequences for what I do and say. The reality is that there are consequences, and I have and will pay them.

I must also acknowledge, however, that I preach this way because I can; I am able to say things from the pulpit as a white person with privilege that it would be much more difficult for my colleagues who are people of color to say without different repercussions, pressures and stresses.

For this reason, I also acknowledge that I preach this way because I must. I preach this way, in whichever pulpit I stand, because when I search “Cross-Racial Clergy” on Facebook, I am confronted with a virtual monument which will last for as long as God and Mark Zuckerberg will allow. It is the profile of my friend and colleague, the Rev. Joyce Anderson, in whose eyes my youthful exuberance often caused both a smile and a sigh. A smile because she was a loving person; a sigh because I did not really understand the difficulty of her life as “Cross-Racial Clergy.” I wish I could tell her that I understand better now; I wish I could tell her that I am still listening to her and that her experiences and witness have not been silenced by death.

In her last blog post, exactly 3 months before she passed away from cancer, Joyce wrote:

“During Black History Month worship services in white churches I have experienced White members passively, but passionately, apologizing to me for the centuries of oppression, suppression, and dehumanization against my African ancestors.  This always made me uncomfortable, because the fact is that those acts were everything but passive. They were blatant acts of cruelty and violence. They were done with calculated evil and conviction, supported by carefully legislated laws, and laced with thin and blasphemous attempts at corroborating them with Biblical principles. The true offense was, and still is, against God.  If anyone needs an apology, it’s God.”

These are the feelings that Joyce endured as she struggled to remain polite in a church culture where the silence of we, her white colleagues, caused the burden to be too heavy and change to seem too far away. We perpetuate this reality when we, as white leaders, are more concerned about the comfort of our congregations than we are concerned about the safety and well-being of our colleagues who are persons of color.

Several years ago, Bishop Kenneth Carder explained to a group of students at Duke that it is not the role of women alone to make churches ready for female pastors; male pastors must also preach as if equality was their responsibility. I raised my hand and asked him a question that he was glad to answer in the affirmative: should not the same also be true for white pastors who bear the responsibility to prepare their congregations to love, accept and follow pastors of any race or ethnicity?

This is the reason why we must preach as if lives depend on it; because somebody’s life does.

I have been quiet for the past few months; unable to write since the blog I posted about standing in a street still stained with the blood of Michael Brown. My ears were still ringing with Justin Hansford’s explanation that this disregard for Michael’s body, this lengthy exposure and exhibition of it, was – in effect – a modern lynching. The body sending a traumatic message to the community where it was left to lie.  It has been my time to listen, rather than speak; to read, rather than write; to follow, rather than lead.

The question was raised by someone a couple months back of whether it was right for me to stand, on occasion, in the pulpit of a predominantly African American church during such a time as this. I have done a good deal of thinking about it. And I know that it is, in fact, for just such a time as this that I stand where I stand. That I speak, after listening. That I write, after reading. That I lead, in the very act of following.

This is where God and the Pastors of St. John’s have asked me to stand. This is where we have chosen to stand together.

Have the courage to join us. Not only in knowing when to speak, but also in knowing when to be silent – when to listen, to read, to follow.  Then, when it is your time, speak truth; in whichever pulpit, podium, or desk you stand; with whichever congregation, classroom, or context you address; carrying whichever fears and apprehensions you bear.

“I say come ye ye who still have hope
That we can still survive now
Let’s work together as we should
And fight to stay alive

I say come ye ye who would have love
It’s time to take a stand
Don’t mind abuse it must be paid
For the love of your fellow man”
Nina Simone

Take Off Your Shoes

“Take off your shoes” had been the words that came into my spirit standing before the Michael Brown memorial in Ferguson, Missouri. Quickly and quietly, I slipped them off.

“Thank you,” said one of the men from the Canfield Apartments, standing watch over the memorial. “I appreciate your respect,” he continued, “Go on over there. Right where it happened. Feel it through the soles of your feet.”

I stepped into the middle of the street at his prompting, shoes in hand. I breathed deeply and took in all of the signs of love that had been left. Teddy bears. Flowers. Crosses. Hats. Basketballs. Items that represented the people that left them. The attempts of a community to say to a young man who had lain dead in the streets of this quiet neighborhood for hours: “You were not alone. We were with you. We were watching. Your life was important to us. Your life is important.”

Something they don’t tell you about this spot on the news is that it is one of the most visible places in Ferguson. It is at the bend of a quiet neighborhood street where several dozen apartment windows in about six buildings point directly at the spot. It is in a spot surrounded by wooden balconies and stairwells, by parking lots with cars pulling in and out, by large grassy areas where children run and play. Children whose mothers had to try to avert their eyes for several hours, as Michael lay on the yellow dividing line of their small neighborhood street; his body blocking the one lane in and one lane out.

In a town where shootings are nearly unheard of, this sight – impossible to avoid and impossible to forget – would have left an indelible mark upon the memory of every child there. Yet, the flowers and bears and hats would now create, for the youngest children, a different image of that spot in their memory. For this reason, their parents debated about whether to let them play and feel joy in that spot, or whether to scold them for picking up one of “Michael’s bears” or one of “Michael’s flowers” and remind them to be sober.

Standing there in the street, I looked down at the layers of candle wax that sealed the darkened asphalt around the memorial and I prayed:
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy…”

Moments before, I had stood on the grass nearby and prayed, “Why did you bring me here? What do you want me to learn here?” And I had felt that answer in only four words, but four words that held a world of meaning: “Take off your shoes.”

That action, rooted in an ancient story, was sufficient even without words to communicate to the neighbors standing watch and the friends standing with me: This is holy ground.

It didn’t really hit home, however, until tonight, two weeks later, as the words “Right now in #Ferguson” scrolled across my Twitter feed. After a busy day at work, I had not been paying attention to much outside of my own corner of the world and attempts to create community within it.

Yet, the news that there were crowds in the streets face to face again with police drove me to prayer and then to investigation of what was happening.

With just a couple key strokes, I was confronted with a picture of that same memorial that I had stood beside when I took off my shoes; before I stepped off the grass and into the main memorial in the center of the street. The conical structure had leaned against a light pole, a construction of teddy bears and silk flowers and cards. It was there that I had witnessed a three year old girl pull a faux sunflower out from the middle and carry it, giggling with pride, to a mother who did not have the heart to scold her.

Now I was seeing that same street side memorial in flames. It had burnt earlier in the day in what officials had called an accident, and residents had called an intentional act. At the end of the day, whatever happened, the tragedy at the heart of things is how it feels to the neighborhood. The shock of seeing flames at a spot they had committed to protect; reminding them of the wheels of the police vehicles that had run over their first attempt at a memorial.

Suddenly, I had the “do you get it now moment?” once again, as the impact of what I had experienced hit my heart two weeks after it had hit my brain, drawing hot tears down my cheek.

I had understood the simple concept that the ground I stood on was sacred and important, but I had failed to take the time to really hear the rest of the story from which those words arose. The sight of that memorial in flames made it impossible to ignore.

The man in the story is Moses. He was born a slave, found abandoned, raised by a princess. He was a fugitive now, fled from home; he is living in another land, after the injustice surrounding him had been too much for him to bear and he had became violent in response. In the course of his work, he comes upon a flame, in the midst of a blazing bush, and a voice tells him to remove his shoes, “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

God speaks to Moses and says, “I have observed the misery of my people… I have heard their cry… I know their sufferings.” God then tells Moses that he intends to end oppression and bring the people to a joyful place, and he wants Moses to go and bring them there. Moses resists, but God insists and says, “I will be with you.”

God is with us. God was with Michael. God also once lay bleeding to death while his family and friends were forced to watch helplessly. God listens. God hears. God plans to end oppression. And God intends to use us to do so.

So, take off your shoes.

To all of my brothers and sisters from Houston, to Durham, to Philadelphia, to St. Louis. Take off your shoes.

Taking off your shoes does not mean it is time to put up your feet. Taking off your shoes means you are about to embark on a journey – a journey that will take all the integrity and all the courage that you can muster.

Taking off your shoes means you are not alone. God, and all those God calls to walk the journey of justice and joy, are with you.

Finishing my prayers, that day in Ferguson, I stepped back out of the street and onto the grass in time to hear the end of a lesson from David, the guardian of the memorial. “Religion divides people,” he said. “God unites people. Jesus said trust no man, lean on him. We gotta trust God. I am here for peace. God is protecting Canfield, and I am determined that my children will be able to play outside here.”

To his left, two of his children that were old enough to walk chased each other and giggled. They ran past a tree with a sign that said, “his blood cries out from the ground.” Not old enough to read, and consumed with delight in each other’s company, they seemed only to understand that something important had happened and that now their yard was full of teddy bears and flowers, and that their mother kept telling them that all this cool stuff belonged to a kid named Michael.

Tripping over a root, the oldest child, a girl, fell face down at my feet and lifted her head up to smile at me. The American flag that she had taken from the nearby memorial – two weeks before it would burn – had flown out of her hand as she fell and now lay a couple feet away. Stooping down, I picked it up and handed it to her as she stood to her feet. As I gave it back to her, I looked in her eyes and said, “This is yours.” I did so with a deep awareness that this was her flag; that this was her country; and that all the rights of this nation are hers equally, regardless of her gender or anything else about her.

Yet, we have learned that these rights will not merely be handed to her. Beautiful words written long ago by powerful men only come alive when their wives and daughters and brothers and sisters demand that they be more than ink on a page. We need to stand together. Whether it be in the streets of Ferguson, the classrooms of our public schools, the pulpits of our cathedrals, or the halls of justice: we need to stand together.

Then, we need to take off our shoes. We need to recognize that we are not alone, that Michael Brown was not alone. That all the young children of his neighborhood – the ones who laugh because they are not old enough to understand why their mothers mourn – that they too are not alone.

We live in a world where, be it far or be it close, injustice has an expiration date and justice is our true destination. We must remember that will not get reach it if we never start to walk.

But before we start, let’s take off our shoes and listen; because it is a very long journey we have ahead of us, and we cannot get there alone.

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"There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." (Leonard Cohen)