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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An open letter to the lizard on the stairs

Stair lizard waits for me. Stair lizard waits for me.

“There will be critters,” I told myself when I was settling in at the Bahamas Methodist Habitat on Eleuthera. “The sooner you accept it, the better.” And I did accept it. In some cases, I even embraced it.

Spiders for instance. I will never look askance at a spider again. They have become both my natural and my chosen allies in the never ending battle against the sand fleas; natural because we have always been about the same business, chosen because it is only now that I have realized it. They build their webs of destruction, and with every sticky circuit that they make, I applaud them. They may need to possess the patience of Job to catch those little critters in their nets; but every sand flea in their web is one less that I have to smack. And smack them I do… and myself in the process. If I feel you bite me, or if you drift into my line of vision – you are a goner. Yet, somehow, there must be many that escape me; for my ankles and feet, if left uncovered, bear evidence that lingers for weeks. And that is where the spiders come in – like friends playing tennis in pairs, I rely on them to catch the ones that get by me. In this war, they are my best hope. Without them, I am alone.

So, yes, enthusiastically, the spiders I have accepted. Even the jumping tarantulas, I have accepted. Even when Pauline said that the one in front of Wesley Methodist Church as we came out of Bible study was the biggest she’d ever seen in all her life spent here on Eleuthera. Even when later, that very same night, one scurried across my foot when I headed for the bathroom and then sat watching me under the bench. Oddly, or I should say thankfully, I never saw another tarantula before that night or after. I guess we got it all out of our system at once. Either that, or I am in denial.

The biggest tarantula Pauline has ever seen... in the middle of the road... like it ain't got time to worry about cars. The biggest tarantula Pauline has ever seen… in the middle of the road… like it ain’t got time to worry about cars.
And the tarantula who decided to stroll across my foot when I got home. And the tarantula who decided to stroll across my foot when I got home.

The snakes, as well, I have made a truce with, ending our long standing feud that dates back to the day that I let Blake the Snake freeze in basement when I was ten years old. They have agreed to pretend to be poised to attack when I see them, but to have no intention of doing so. And I have agreed to scream and prance around as if I am scared, before bravely running in the opposite direction. The most important part of our agreement is that they have committed to never, ever be poisonous. The results of our pact are that they need have no fear of my machete, and I need have no fear of their fangs.

The cockroaches I find to be cute actually, and have accepted that they will scamper about my room and my bathroom and anywhere else their hearts desire. I have warned them, however, that if they scamper too slowly, I will find them much less cute and will be obliged to step on them. This has happened on occasion, to my great regret, but they were warned after all.

The sand fleas. No-see-ums. Ceratopogonidae. Whatever you want to call them. They are my mortal and everlasting enemy and with them I will have no mercy. In fact, I will not honor their brief existence with any further commentary. I respect them. They respect me. And we will both draw blood from the other every chance we get.

All of these critters, these companions, these roommates – for lack of a better term – I have come to accept. But there is one critter whose choices I simply cannot respect.

Stair lizard, we’ve got to have a talk. For the past two weeks I have lived in terror of stepping on you every time I come down the stairs. It does not seem to matter to you what I do to alleviate this situation. Whether I gently encourage you off of the stairs with my finger, or outright pick you up and carry you to a location of safety – nothing seems to have an effect. As soon as I approach the stairs again, there you are, sitting on the edge of a step about eye level.

It’s not that you aren’t cute, stair lizard. In fact, that is just the problem to be honest. Would you want to step on something as cute as you are?

The thing is, stair lizard, you don’t move when I approach. It feels inevitable. If it is not me, it is going to be someone else. It is just not safe. All I am asking is that you find another home. Washing-machine-frog did, why can’t you?

Washing-machine-frog surveys his domain smugly. Washing-machine-frog surveys his domain smugly.
Washing-machine-frog being adorable. Washing-machine-frog being adorable.

Otherwise, I am going to be driven to extremes by your lack of good judgement and do something we will both regret, like trying to make you my pet. You saw how well that turned out for hermit-crab-trying-to-live-in-a-much-too-large-conch-shell didn’t you? And we both know that my history with keeping reptiles alive is less than awe-inspiring. Think of Blake the Snake. Think of Gecko the Gecko. Truly, I am more successful with animals who have fur. I kept my cat alive for twenty years, stair lizard, twenty years – but neither Blake nor Gecko lasted more than a week.

Hermit-crab-trying-to-live-in-a-too-large-conch-shell did not last long. Hermit-crab-trying-to-live-in-a-too-large-conch-shell did not last long.

I’ll give you tonight to think it over. If you are still there in the morning, we are going on a hike to safer ground. Sometimes when you insist on continuing to put yourself in hazardous situations, it is the responsibility of a good friend to intervene. And that is what I’d like to be, stair lizard, a good friend. I know a lot of my own friends wished they’d taken the time to take me for a long hike this year. So, for their sake, stair lizard, either move or we’re going to do it together.

Stair lizard's brother, lizard-who-likes-to-hang-out-on-my-arm Stair lizard’s brother, lizard-who-likes-to-hang-out-on-my-arm

Lutra, the intersex chicken

Lutra, towering over the others, greets me in the morning as I arrive with food. Lutra, towering over the others, greets me in the morning as I arrive with food.

“If he’s really a rooster, then I get to cook him!” Manex exclaimed, as my eyes widened with the horror of what I may have done.

For weeks I had been trying to convince the staff at Bahamas Methodist Habitat that one of the hens I had been caring for was a rooster. When Manex finally came down to the coop with me to take a look, it did not take him more than a glance to finally agree that I was right… and to communicate to me what the result would be. Oddly, it had never occurred to me that there might be consequences for categorizing the gender of what had by then become my favorite chicken.

Lutra – oh yes, I’ve named the chicken – clearly stood out in our flock of 21 chickens. With legs twice the thickness of the other chickens, Lutra towered over them. And Lutra was changing. Every day the red coxcomb on top of Lutra’s head and the waddle under Lutra’s chin seemed to grow larger. Heel spurs appeared to be cropping out on the back of Lutra’s legs and long, shiny feathers grew on Lutra’s neck and back. Over the course of three weeks, I watched as Lutra went from simply the largest chicken in the coop to something that truly resembled the textbook physical description of a rooster. Except for one thing – Lutra still had no tail feathers. And for now, it’s those tail feathers, or lack thereof, that is standing between Lutra and the dinner table. “It’s not a rooster,” Brenda had been telling me for weeks, “It’s got no tail feathers.” It was an argument that all of a sudden I was relieved to have lost.

The truth of the matter was that Lutra stood out in more ways than one. I’ll have to ask you to suspend your disbelief for a moment, when I tell you that Lutra was clearly a bird of a sweet and poetic nature. Having a bent towards the romantic, Lutra would crouch in the corners or on the margins of the crowd, watching the others or contemplating the turtle doves that perched overhead waiting to steal corn. When I brought out the feed or the water for the chickens, Lutra would cautiously approach and timidly try to grab a nibble, but then scamper away when the other chickens pushed and shoved.

Lutra’s behavior mystified me. How was it that Lutra was so gentle and timid with the other birds while being twice their size? And speaking of size, how did Lutra get to be so big when I never saw Lutra successfully get any of the food that the other chickens scrambled after. One thing that I certainly did not think we had to worry about was having any fertilized eggs; Lutra did not seem to be the slick type to make any aggressive moves.

But still my meddling has caused quite a dilemma for Lutra. The gender of my timid friend has become quite the talk around town, and the conclusion of that conversation will determine Lutra’s fate. As is often the case with humans, we feel a need to know the gender, and then we feel a compulsion to assign an identity, then a concept of proper roles and activities, and a likely life path. This is why the first thing we ask our pregnant friends is: “Is it a boy or a girl?”

Things can get just as messy for humans as for chickens, I suppose, when we assign them a role and a fate based on our own expectations of what is normal. “Boys are not supposed to wear that. Girls are not supposed to do that.”

In some small way, I experienced that myself as a child. I have always loved working with my hands, building and repairing and learning. I kept the old VCR in our home going all throughout high school; each time it would stop working, my mom would ask me to fix it; out would come the screws and whatever tape had gotten stuck and within five minutes we would be back to movie night. When I was seven, however, I had it fixed in my mind that this kind of skill and behavior was completely inappropriate for me as a girl. Having three older sisters, I had ample opportunity to observe what it meant to be a girl. Although it would not be too many years before I would watch my eldest sister board a carrier plane in her fatigues to care for the Marines as a Navy doctor, when I was seven, the future Lt. Commander Willert had not yet expanded my horizons. So, instead, I tried to hide my hobbies and talents; although it was really no secret that at Christmas my brother passed me his Lego sets to build while he kept an eye on my toys for me.

When, at the age of seven, I cut my hand with a pair of scissors while trying to deconstruct a Walkman Radio, I rushed to hide the evidence. Pulling out a set of historical paper dolls, I insisted that I had slashed my thumb open while cutting out a dress for Martha Washington. My mother looked at me skeptically. My father looked at me skeptically. The doctors looked at me skeptically. But I stuck to my story, as determined as a dog with a bone. There was no way I was going to admit that I had been doing something as boyish as prying apart a Walkman with a pair of scissors. (Mom, if you are reading this, which you probably are, there’s your confession. You were right. I was not cutting out paper dolls when you had to take me to get stitches while 4 nurses held me down.)

As someone who took many years to feel comfortable in her own skin, and even more years to be able to own her skills, gifts and calling, I can’t help but have a good bit of sympathy for Lutra. Dear Lutra, who hides and trembles and tries so hard not to stand out when standing out is clearly what Lutra was made to do.

Lutra’s situation, thankfully, is not an open and shut case. There is definitely ample cause for an appeal to the rooster declaration. Brenda, in what have thankfully been her fervent attempts to prove me wrong, has found an answer that I would not have expected and which, if true, is indeed a privilege to observe. It seems there is a good bit of scientific chatter out there that says that chickens, being hatched with both ovaries and gonads, can actually change their gender phenotype. The essays say that if the ovary is damaged, the gonad can become active in response; releasing chemicals that cause the chicken to begin to take on the characteristics of a rooster more than a hen. Although still biologically a hen, they will exhibit as a rooster.

It is still to early to say, and our access to scientific research here on Eleuthera is a bit limited, but I am fervently hoping that Brenda is right and that Lutra is an intersex chicken. Just as the lack of tail feathers has done for the past couple of weeks, such a conclusion might just save Lutra’s life. Because if Lutra is not a rooster, Lutra is not a roaster.

Oh, the world we live in is so full of boxes and categories and expectations and consequences for transgressing. For Lutra, gender ambiguity has put her life at risk, but it also has the potential to save that life if her unusual identity can be embraced. This is why I named her Lutra, the abbreviated nickname for the island of Eleuthera; because Lutra, or Eleuthera, means freedom and that is what I wish for Lutra. I wish for my unusual chicken not only the freedom to live, of course, but also the freedom to stride around the coop with the self-possession of a chicken who has accepted their identity even if others have not. It pains me to see such a beautiful creature hiding in the shadows. But perhaps Lutra is wiser than me; perhaps Lutra knows that she is safest left unseen, unnoticed, uncategorized.

For now, while her fate hangs in the balance, Lutra will have to be content to receive welcome in any flock that I tend. And for my part, I’ll have to be content that for as much time as we still have together, Lutra – who I now insist is clearly not a rooster – will not only be faithful to wake me up at dawn with crowing, but also be faithful to have my breakfast laid and ready to cook by 9:00.

*Manex, if you are reading this, you can feel free to laugh very hard at me now.

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