Sunday, January 26, 2020

A sermon - Are you talking to me?

Last Sunday, I had the honor of preaching from John 4, the story of the woman at the well.

The first four minutes of the video are the reading of the scripture by three folks from the church. Then I get started.

It's mind-boggling that I get to study the Bible, this book I have loved for as long as I can remember, and share what I learn with others. I pray for many more chances to do so.

Thank you, Caldwell.
Thanks be to God.

Monday, November 25, 2019

It's not that I'm not writing at all...

It's not that.

I write in my journal every day.
Actually I'm keeping four journals these days - so I'm journaling a whole lot.

I write papers for school.

I write old fashioned snail mail notes and put them in the mailbox outside the church, with my fingers crossed, hoping they will reach their intended destination.

I write sermons for church.
I write prayers and liturgy for church as well.
I even write posts for the church blog.
I write there about life and death, about community and parades, and about gratitude and hope.
Hope is an unrelenting theme for me, especially in these past few weeks and months. There are too many stories of despair, loss, suicide, sorrow, and suffering to bear. My mind and my heart cling to hope. Let there be hope; no matter what, let there be hope.

So it's not that I'm not writing.
It's just that I haven't been writing here.

I confess that most evenings, I am exhausted.
My brain is tired, and so are my fingers.
The story of my life journey, adventures I've taken of late, inner and outer adventures remain on the pages of my journals, and never migrate here to the blog.

Some of you have reached out to ask if I'm okay,
if my family is okay,
if all is well.

I am doing better than okay.
I am less than six months away from graduating from seminary.
It's hard to believe that I've been in seminary for almost five years.
I have passed the five ordination exams that are required by the denomination.
So the hardest part of this process is behind me.
Thanks be to God.

I have fallen deeper in love with my life than I had been for a long time.
Friendships are more precious - to sit and talk over a cup of tea, to talk on the phone with a beloved one who lives half a country away, to message through WhatsApp with friends who live oceans and continents away, to do a journal exchange with another creative soul sister - truly priceless.

Steve and I went away for a few days to Hilton Head in early October.
Just the two of us.
Bike rides. Staring at the water.
Reading. Conversation. Sunshine.

Getting caught in the rain - having to ride our bikes back to our condo in a downpour.
On two consecutive days.
It was glorious.

I've been up in the mountains as well. Three times this past summer.
I met Valarie Kaur in August. She is beyond inspirational. Beyond!
And I'll head back up there three times in the new year - to speak, lead, teach, and participate at various conferences and seminars.

Life is pretty good.
And it also sucks sometimes.
Illness struck our family again.
Hospitalization. Twice.
Finding new doctors and specialists.
We are on the way to recovery and stability, but it's hard.
So very hard.
Our hearts break over and over.
Our stamina is tested.
Our hope is strained.
I cry myself to sleep.
I cry out and plead for mercy.
This life thing... it is no joke.

But still. But still.
There is so much to be grateful for.

I have learned and grown.
I have yearned and groaned.
I have laughed out loud and cursed under my breath.
All the feels.
All the things.

And as Dr Angelou write years ago - and still I rise.
With hope and strength.
Never giving up or giving in.
Nevertheless we persist.
I persist.
Hope persists.
I simply don't have a choice.
And if there is a choice other than holding on to hope for dear life, I don't even want to know what it is.

Tell me - what do you cling to these days?
What are you holding on to for dear life?
What joyful, life-affirming choices are you making over and over?

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Thankful Thursday

It has been far, far, far too long since I've come to this page. Honestly, when I decided to blog tonight, even my computer had forgotten how to navigate to this page. When your browser forgets your blog address, it has been far too long.

These past three months have been ridiculous.
Ridiculously busy.
Ridiculously full.
Ridiculously demanding.

Seminary study.
An internship at a senior living community.
Work at church.
I preached at a "city wide" sunrise Easter service.

I took three ordination exams - each of which took nine hours to complete.
I was the speaker at a women's retreat.
Papers to write.
Sermons to preach.
Meetings to attend.
Class discussions to lead.

A member of my family spent two weeks in the hospital.
Our dog almost died - we still don't know what was making her so sick.
A former neighbor was involved in an extremely serious car accident. He is only 23 years old, but as a result of the accident, he suffered a stroke.
One of my dearest friends lost her son in a tragic drowning incident. He was 13 years old.

Did I mention that these past few months have been ridiculous?
These past four months have been the most challenging four months I have faced since I dealt with kanswer back in 2012 and 2013.

And I haven't even touched on all the mass shootings, flooding, tornadoes, the ongoing immigration crisis in this country, and unprecedented debacles related to international un-diplomacy.

But still.
But still.

There have been hawks and owls and hummingbirds and cardinals hovering near.
Irises bloomed in purple splendor on our front lawn.

I passed all three ordination exams. Four down - one to go!
The busiest term of my seminary career will be over in six days.

Our son graduated from college and was named an All-American tennis player in Division 2.
He is now in Europe on his post-graduation grand tour - having the time of his life.

My friendship with the friend whose son died has deepened even as our tears have flowed.
Three friends and I celebrated the twenty year anniversary of our writing group - four women who met at a continuing education course at a community college in Norwalk, Connecticut.

The sweet little dog is fine.
My loved one is doing much better.
Wholeness and healing actually are possible -
even in the face of what seemed like insurmountable odds a few short weeks ago.

My journal pages overflow with gratitude lists, prayers offered and answered, along with sermon ideas, question-provoking quotes, and email excerpts that remind me that there is reason for hope, joy, and gratitude - even in the face of what has sometimes seemed like insurmountable odds.

Earlier today, I heard someone ask if talking about oneself and focusing on gratitude isn't somewhat self-indulgent, selfish even. I suppose there may be some truth to that - especially if "talking about myself" becomes the center of all my conversations and "focusing on gratitude" becomes an opportunity for me to list all the great new stuff I have acquired. 

But if focusing on gratitude opens space for us to notice the small things - the wagging tail of the dog, the smile on the neighbor's face as he watches his toddler attempt those first steps, and the glow of fireflies in the last spring darkness - then what we may find, what I have found is that none of "the small things" is small. 

The boundless love of a dog is not a small thing. 
The freedom and joy experienced by a child learning to walk is not a small thing. 
The bounty in the supermarket produce department. 
The flow of water from the bathroom faucet. 
The buzzing sound of the hard drive as it backs up my computer. 
The beep of my cell phone when my good friend texts me every night before we both go to sleep.
These are not small things. 
This is the stuff of wonder, of love, of joy, and of hope. 
And I am enormously grateful.

On this last Thursday of spring, I am grateful for ceiling fans, air conditioning in my car, and sunglasses.

I am grateful for ice cubes, lemon slices, and bubbly water.
I am grateful for clementines, watermelon, and Trader Joe's sea salt and black pepper potato chips.
I am grateful for morning walks with my husband, followed by a cup of coffee with him.

I am grateful to be six years kanswer-free.
I am grateful for friendships that cross miles and time zones.
I am grateful for "the wonder of life and the mystery of love."

And tonight, right now, I am grateful that I figured out how to remind my computer that I used to keep a blog. I hope it won't be so hard to find my way back here next time. More than that, I hope my life will never again be so ridiculous - so ridiculously busy, ridiculously full, and ridiculously demanding - that I am compelled to wait four months between blog posts.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Thankful Thursday - Time to Make the Donuts

I am taking a course in seminary this semester called, "Ecology and Worship." We are considering questions related to creation care and the church. Does the church have anything to say about the planet on which we live and the earth that we have done so much damage to? What can we do as the church to acknowledge, own our responsibility, and heal the wounds we have inflicted on our earthly home, this third rock from the sun? What is mine to do?

One of the requirements of the class is to undertake a creation care project. Something tangible that we do every week. We are to document our project with photographs, describe our weekly work, and write a prayer each week - all of which is shared with the class. 

I have chosen picking up garbage in the area surrounding Caldwell as my creation care project. Each time that I head bout to pick up trash, I start on the campus of the church itself. Food wrappers, bottle caps, and cigarette boxes are the things I find most frequently. But last week, I found a pair of sneakers tossed onto the side lawn of the church. I gathered them up and put them next to the curb in case someone came back for them. 

One week I found 75 pennies under some leaves and a candy wrapper. I know there were 75 because I picked them up, cleaned them off, counted them, and put them into the church offering plate that week. 

I have found items of clothing, a broken doll, a small pink lock in the shape of a heart, a magnifying glass, and lots of other interesting and unexpected things. 

There have also been broken things. Empty things. Abandoned things. Like beer bottles and soda cans. Straws - so many straws. Cigarette butts. 

We leave a lot of garbage behind, people. Tons of it. 

During the first weeks of this practice, I spent a lot of my time out there angry. I was angry about how much trash there is on the streets of this city I live in. Angry about the wasted opportunities to recycle bottles and cans a paper. Angry that people didn't have enough mental and intellectual bandwidth to take their trash home with them and dispose of it properly. 

But then as a class we began to think and talk about people who are homeless. Living in public parks. In parking lots. Under trees. In places where there are no garbage containers. At moments in their lives when they are hoping to make it through the night alive, they are not likely to be worried about the trash they leave behind when they wake up and have to move along in the morning. As a class, we are increasingly aware of the fact that there aren't enough garbage containers or recycling bins in public places. We talk about single use plastics. We talk about plastic bags - they are everywhere. Blown up into trees high above our homes and our streets. They are in gutters. In bushes. In sewer grates. My professor commented that we are choking ourselves and our planet with plastic bags.

My anger morphed into sadness. I simply cannot unsee all the trash that is all around me. When I drive back and forth to work, there is one stretch of Providence Road that is so littered that I have begun to look around for a place where I can park my car one day and try to pick up a bag or two of garbage. It's awful. Yesterday, my husband and I drove just to a college two hours away to watch our son play tennis. As we sped down the highways and wound down the two lane roads, I was dumbstruck by the enormity of our litter problem. The grassy median was horrendous. The roadside shoulders were horrific. I had to force myself to look away or I would have wept. I am brokenhearted about the ways in which we are killing our planet and ourselves with all our stuff and our unwillingness to take proper care of this world in which we live. 

Along with the anger and the sadness, I have felt a certain amount of hopelessness too. How on earth can we pick it all up? There are only eight of us in the class. And only half of us are picking up garbage as our creation care project. Three students are creating or revitalizing gardens. Our professor is clearing an overgrown area where he lives. "But if there is no way that we can fix it all or clean it all or clear it all or grow enough food for everyone," I have wondered in my journal, "what's the use? Woe is me. Woe is us." As it turns out, my journal pages are covered with thoughts and questions, commentary and complaints right alongside the reports of answered prayer and joyful praise. 

In response to one of the rants I shared in our online classroom space, my professor wrote this: "Lots of people (perhaps most) labor in menial, repetitive jobs day after day.  A baker wakes up at 2 every morning to go make the dough and bake the bread for the store - day after day after day.  There is no expectation that this task will end.  One of the things that I have been considering when I get discouraged by picking up other people's trash is why I think that my life should be different.  Why am I driven by accomplishment or completion?  Why do I think that I should have an ending for my work?"

That comment hit me right between the eyes. 
Who am I to think that I can solve the trash problem in the neighborhood around my church?
How much power do I think I have? Me? Alone? All by my lonesome?
Why is it not enough for me to put on my rubber gloves, grab my garbage bags, and head out - joining the many thousands, perhaps millions, who have been involved in the work of creation care for decades, for centuries?
I'm one of the new members of this earth care team. How can I possibly think I am or I have the answer everyone has been waiting for?

My professor's comment about the baker took me back to that old Dunkin Donuts television commercial - "time to make the donuts." Day in and day out. Day and night. Making donuts. People buy them and eat them. People come back and buy more and eat more. He may have been tired, hot, cold, or wet, but he kept making the donuts. No end in sight.

For some, baking is their calling.
For others, it is teaching.
For still others, the call is nursing.
Day after day. Day and night. Doing the work. No end in sing.

It feels strange to put this in writing, but I think I have experienced something of a call to pick up garbage. I go out two or three times each week and fill bags with things that others have thrown away. I have discovered that my anger, sadness, and hopelessness related to the enormity of the task are being combined with gratitude these days.

I am grateful for this class and the fantastic professor who teaches it.
I am thankful for my classmates and their ability to listen to me complain about the sense of futility I have sometimes felt.
I am thankful for the chance to do something meaningful every week, even a small thing.
I am thankful for the garbage trucks that pick up the bags I have filled during these past seven weeks - not only for this class project, but also from my home.
I am thankful for the therapeutic work of what I now refer to as "street therapy."
And I am grateful for all the stories that have arisen in my mind and soul since beginning this class, some of which I hope and plan to share here.

There is a lot of trash out there, my friends.
But there are also a lot of treasures too.
The most priceless of which is Planet Earth itself.
Thanks be to God for this marvelous, mysterious, and messy earth, the sacred and beautiful mother of us all.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

A letter to an old friend on the occasion of his birthday

In my lifetime, I have written at least two letters to Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
The first was when I was in high school.
The second when I returned to the same school as a teacher.
I believe I wrote a third one when I was invited to return to my high school alma mater to give a speech for alumni, but I can't prove that. I know I was invited to speak to alumni, but I can't remember if I wrote a third letter to Dr King or only referred to the first two.
In any case, I wrote another letter to the good doctor today. From my office at church.

Dear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,
My name is Gail. You probably don’t recall, but I wrote to you many years ago when I was a high school student in Brooklyn, NY.
I told you some of my story, about how I ended up graduating from that predominantly white private school. I shared with you the ways in which your dream, the dream that “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” had come true in my own life and in the life of that school. After being there for six years, from seventh grade until twelfth grade, I was the first black girl to graduate from that school.
A few years have passed since then, Dr. King. Today I write to you from the offices of Caldwell Presbyterian Church, a congregation in Charlotte, North Carolina, that sits just outside of center city. As you recall, back in 1960, black college students, joined by others in the community, staged sit-ins at various stores and restaurants here to protest against racial segregation. Stores were soon integrated, as were schools and other establishments. In fact, it was a member of this church, a restaurateur, who proposed how Charlotte would integrate its restaurants, though, admittedly, his interests were as much commercial as they were civic.
I wish I could tell you that Charlotte has only progressed from there. But the truth is that there is deep division in our city and our nation. Our school system is in need of restructuring. The fault lines around race, socio-economic status, and immigration are deep here. There are acts of injustice and violence almost daily here and across this country.
But, as I said, I write to you today from Caldwell, a community of faith that works every day to bring life to your dream. We walk together, work together, and worship together as people of many colors, many nations, many languages, many gender expressions and many religious backgrounds. We long to open our doors even wider to welcome all of the people of God – because all people are God’s people.
We laugh together. We cry together. We sing together. We fight for others, together, too. We walk in unity most of the time, and we have had times of strong disagreement. But we keep coming back. We come back together to forgive one another and start again. We come back together to pray and worship, to serve and love one another. I thank God for these folks and for bringing us together here.
Back when I was in high school, Dr. King, your dream of true community opened my eyes and my heart to the work of faith, love, racial justice, and equality. That dream is alive and well here at Caldwell. Let me rephrase that – the dream that our Triune God laid on your heart back in the 1950s and 1960s is alive and well here at Caldwell. In fact, God’s dream of freedom, peace, love, and community for all people everywhere existed before the foundation of the world. It is my honor, my privilege, and my joy to be here with these beautiful children of God, working, praying, marching, serving, and dreaming our own dreams of beloved community.
Thank you for the life you lived, the work you did, the example you set, and the hope you planted when you were here among us. Thank you for the words that you left us to read and ponder. Thank you for the work you left us to do. May we continue to honor your legacy here and live into your dream at Caldwell. More than that, may we continue to honor and serve the One in whose name you lived and for whose sake you died, Jesus, our Crucified and Risen Lord.
Your sister in Christ, Gail Henderson-Belsito

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

My Christmas Angel

Last Friday was my birthday. December 14th - all day long. I actually try to celebrate all month-long, but on the day, on my special day, I give thanks for this life I get to live. I look back at the year gone by and look ahead to the year yet to come.

This has been a momentous year for me - especially these past six months.
Why? So glad you asked.
Because I have a job, my friends. A real job. A full time job. And I love my job.
As I drive to work every morning, at some point along the way, I say some version of this statement, "Thank you, Jesus."
I cannot believe that I get paid to visit people who are sick and grieving and in need.
I cannot believe that I paid to sit with them and talk to them and pray with them.
I cannot believe that I get paid to write people notes and cards.
I cannot believe that I get paid to preach the Word of God and encourage the people of this community of faith to hang onto hope, to hang onto each other, and to hang onto the One whose birth we will celebrate in just a few days.
My husband tells me that I shouldn't say that out loud too often,
so I will keep it to myself - and share it with you all.
I love my job.
A couple of months ago, a dear friend of mine said, "I can't believe you tricked them into paying you to just be yourself." She's right. What an amazing gig. I'm so glad I get to live it. I love my Caldwell peeps. Big time.

Anyway, last Friday, my daughter and I went to the mall on my birthday. I had a gift card burning a hole in my wallet and since it was my birthday, why not go spend it? I ended up buying a lot of pairs of socks. I needed socks. I have a lot of athletic socks for walking. I have a lot of those very small socks that I wear with my Converses. I have three pairs of super thick socks for the few days a year when it's cold enough for thick socks here in Charlotte. But I could find only one pair of knee high socks that would work with a skirt and boots for work. Only one. How can this be? So I used my gift card to stock up on socks for work - because I have a job, a job I absolutely love.

After I paid for my socks, I reached out to my son and invited him to join us at the mall so we could get a cup of Starbucks together, all three of us - me and my two beloved children, in whom I am well pleased. So Kristiana and I found seats near the fountain in the center of the mall and did one of our favorite things - we people watched. Oh, the outfits. The gaggles of kids. The women with several large bags from several stores. The man with the enormous Louis Vuitton shopping bag - almost the size of a garment bag. What on earth had he just spent a fortune on??? She and I sat there waiting and watching. Watching and waiting. Finally, my sweet boy arrived. Together we walked to Starbucks, just a few storefronts from where we had been sitting.

Apparently, we weren't the only people with the idea of giving our money to Starbucks; the line was long. The young woman in line ahead of us gave up hope and left the line a couple of moments after we arrived. I turned to my kids and said, "That's the kind of attrition I like. I think we should start coughing on the other people in line." We didn't do that, of course. The good news is that the line moved faster than we expected, and within ten minutes we were seated on stools, staring out at the people walking past and talking about this year and years gone by.

I like birthdays and anniversaries of special days. I remember days and dates of memorable life events pretty well. This year on Tuesday, November 6th, I recognized the six year anniversary of my kanswer diagnosis. It was Tuesday, November 6th, 2012, the day of the second election of President Barack Obama, when I got the worst news of my life: breast kanswer. It was Monday, November 26, 2012, the Monday after Thanksgiving, when I had my first chemotherapy treatment.

On Friday, December 14, 2012, nearly three weeks after my first chemo treatment, my children and I were sitting in a Starbucks having a drink, celebrating my birthday when my dear friend, Karen, called me from Sandy Hook, CT, and asked me to pray because she had heard that there was a school shooting there in her hometown. Little did any of us know the scope of the tragedy that was taking place less than a mile and a half from her house. 

Last Friday, I reminded my children of the sorrow of that day. My prayers continue for those affected by that terrible act of cowardice and violence. I continue to be disgusted that our national leaders still haven't made significant changes to our gun laws. Shame on them. Truly.

Anyway, last Friday, we sat there and talked. We laughed. We shook our heads at some of the outfits and hairdos that we spied from our high stools at Starbucks.

Then I thought, "Let me pull out my phone and see if I've gotten any emails or texts that I need to respond to.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I carry a big bag. All the time.
I like big bags and I cannot lie.

So I dug through my big bag and couldn't find my phone.
I dug through the bag of socks I had just just bought and couldn't find my phone.
Uh oh.
I dug through both bags again.
I asked Daniel to call my cell phone.
He did.


Daniel said, "Who is this?... What?...That's my mom's phone... Where are you?... What?... Okay, thanks."

Someone had found my phone and was sitting where we had been sitting before we walked to Starbucks.

I jumped off my stool and sprinted back to our previous resting place.
My phone was on the arm of the chair where a man who appeared to be Middle Eastern sat.

I grabbed my phone, hugged it to my chest, and thanked him profusely for holding onto it.
He said, "No problem."
His accent confirmed my suspicion that he was from somewhere far from North Carolina.
He went on, "I was ready to leave the mall, but I didn't want to leave your phone here."

Counting back to when I had gotten up from my seat,
I realized that we had been in Starbucks for at least 40 minutes,
and the entire time I was oblivious to the fact that someone who wanted to be on his way,
someone who had his own life to live and his own stories to tell, was sitting there,
patiently and protectively guarding my phone.
I wanted to hug him, but I also know that in many cultures,
it is not proper for men and women who are not related to touch one another.
So I refrained from touching him, but I thanked him verbally several times.
Each time I thanked him, he said, "No problem."

As I walked back to Starbucks, all I could think was, "He was my Christmas Angel."

Thank you, my angel. And thanks be to God.

Friday, November 02, 2018

"They have welcomed me into their story"

My family and I moved to Charlotte more than fifteen years ago.  The city has changed a lot since then. New houses and condos and shopping plazas have sprung up all over town. There is great wealth here and opportunity for young professionals and trees, so many trees.

It wasn't too long ago when that depiction of Charlotte, the one that included opportunity and wealth and growth, was how I would describe this city to those who didn't know it. It wasn't too long ago when I began to realize just how wrong my perception was. I realized that I didn't know my own city. Charlotte is a busted city. Split. Segregated in profound and long-standing ways. The lines that divide us are deep and difficult to transverse. The mistrust and fear, the exclusion and division are real.

There have been a lot of conversations, forums, investigations, studies, and reports about the problems in Charlotte. Many of those exchanges end with photo ops and hearty handshakes, but we all drive back to our own neighborhoods, and not much really changes.

The good news is that there is movement. There are many who are working hard to shift the balance of power here. There are thought leaders and community leaders who are working to change the narrative.

And there are also people who, although they want to see wholesale change in the systems and institutions that govern our city, aren't waiting for those wholesale changes to happen before they invest themselves in the lives and communities of the people who haven't benefited from the growth and opportunity that some of us take for granted.

Greg and Helms Jarrell are two of those people. They live in an area of Charlotte called Enderly Park, which is just a few blocks from "uptown," the part of Center City with all the bank headquarters, upscale hotels, and Charlotte's theater scene. For too many of the people who live in Enderly Park, the wealth that is concentrated in Charlotte's handful of skyscrapers is completely inaccessible.

Greg has written a book about their life in Enderly Park. It is called A Riff of Love.

Greg is a professional saxophone player - gifted in jazz and gospel, among other styles of music. In his book, Greg uses the language of music, of jazz, of improvisation, of church hymns, and of the blues to tell the story of his family's life in Enderly Park.

It would be easy to assume that their story is one of "white family moves into black neighborhood and saves the poor people in need." But that is not what this is. That's not who they are. That's not how they see themselves, and that is certainly not how they see their neighbors.

There is genuine love in their community - and in this book. There is laughter. There is loss. There is mourning. There are relationships that build up over time and relationships that end with death. There are parties and funerals. There are trips and so many meals around so many tables. There are problems, and there are searches for solutions.

Greg is a not only a gifted musician, but he is also a gifted writer. He gathers lyrics from old church hymns, stories of John Coltrane and Count Basie, theology, Bible verses written by the Apostle Paul, and an analogy about broken windows and unstable building foundations - and weaves it all together into a hope-building, heart-breaking, courage-inducing book.

He knows who he is. He knows what he believes. He realizes that he can't learn enough history or visit enough museums or be able to quote "enough pages in Dr. King's books to make me any less white." In one chapter, Greg relates the tragic death of one of the young men he and his family had gotten to know and had come to love. The way that Greg connected the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, the Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights movement, a John Coltrane song called, "Alabama," and Enderly Park's public expression of grief after Khalil's death is poignant, but not morbid. His eye for detail, his ear for harmony, his willingness to linger on both the sharp notes and the flat notes all give this book the heft and forcefulness that his stories and his neighbors deserve.

Greg riffs on his love for his community on every page of this memoir.
It's lyrical and it's blue. It's sorrowful and it's hopeful.

Here is one of my favorite paragraphs in the book:

"The ground on which we stood the night of that vigil is holy ground. The blood of a beloved and the tears of many loved ones sanctified it. That holy ground holds stories that have as their primary characters creative people who have built a place of thriving in the midst of struggle and heartbreak. They have welcomed me into their story. The meaning and the best use of that ground began to come into question in the days that followed. In the midst of that struggle, and every other one, there stands an old willow oak tree, rooted in earth, reaching towards heaven."

Get it. Read it.

And check out what Greg and Helms are doing here.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

I haven't completely stopped blogging...

I just do it for my church now. Here's what I wrote for today - for Halloween.

PS. I will be back. I promise. I miss you all. I miss this place where I wrestle with my thoughts and fears. I had NO idea that a full time job, full time seminary studies, a full time family life, and a full time personal life would take up so much of my time. Who knew it was so hard and so complicated and so demanding? (Apparently everyone else who has ever done this!)

Hard Days … But God

October 31, 2018 in Uncategorized
Dear Caldwell,
Gail here. It’s Halloween today. This day is a tough one for me – because I have a serious sweet tooth. When my husband buys candy for trick or treaters, I always hope he gets candy that I don’t like. That way, I will be less likely to binge on it during the early days of November. Sweets are a weakness of mine.
This year, today, I don’t have an appetite for as much candy as usual. In fact, it’s hard to find an appetite for much at all these days. There is a lot going on in our country, and in our city as well, that is dampening the collective spirit of our nation. Rampant violence. Political instability. Unjust leadership. An increase in threats and acts of violence related directly to race and religion. Attacks on the media.
There is reason to be sad, reason to be afraid, and reason to be insecure. We want to stay home and hide, but even there, we get caught up with social media feeds and the 24-hour news cycle. We want to spend time with friends and family, but we feel anxiety about engaging in difficult conversations or, worse, encountering people who are intent on doing us harm.
But God. But God. But God.
But God is with us as we stand with those who are sorrowing and afraid.
God is with us in our own sorrow and fear.
But God is with us as we stand with the poor and downtrodden.
God is with us in our own poverty – be it financial or spiritual – and oppression.
But God is with us as we pray for others and pray for justice.
God is with us as we pray for ourselves and for the resolution of the injustices that we face as well.
But God is with us as we gather together in worship.
God is with us when we engage in the spiritual practices that remind us of God’s presence even when we are not together – as we pray, read Scripture, journal, meditate, listen to music, bask in the beauty of nature, or simply sit alone in silence and listen for God’s voice. God is with us. That truth can give us great peace and renew our hope.
As I sit here at my desk, thinking of you, my Caldwell family, as I think of the children who will undoubtedly ring our doorbell tonight, seeking treats, as I ponder the bitterness that is rampant in the world at the moment, I am driven back to the Word of God, the book that guides my life. I turn to some of my favorite Psalms, and I pray them to the God who is our Refuge and Strength.
I pray that these words, these prayers, will bring peace to you as they have for me. I pray that they will restore hope and sweetness where despair and bitterness may have begun to take root within your heart.
More than Skittles, more than Snicker bars, more than Reese’s peanut butter cups, even more than red Australian licorice (which is my personal favorite!), may you be filled with the sweetness of the Spirit of God, calming your fears, healing your hurts, and restoring the joy of your salvation – today, tomorrow, and always.
Grace and peace, Gail

Thursday, September 27, 2018

What I was doing last Sunday morning

I love my job. Truly I do. I get to visit people and talk to people and listen to people's stories.
I get to write notes of support and encouragement. I get to laugh with people and cry with people.

There is so much about my life at Caldwell Presbyterian Church that gives me great joy.
One of my favorite things to do at Caldwell is preach.
That is what I was doing last Sunday morning.
Preaching a sermon called: "What's in Your Backpack? Walkie Talkie."

I need to get back into blogging.
But I haven't yet figured out how to work full time, be a full time seminary student,
stay connected with my family and friends, exercise, read, journal - and blog.
Balance is crucial, and I need to figure out how to maintain it.

In the meantime, I hope you will spend just under eighteen minutes checking out what I was doing last Sunday morning.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Thankful Thursday

How does the time fly by so quickly?
It has been six weeks since my last blog post.
Life has been full and beautiful and hard and demanding.

At the end of July, I drove up to the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, PA, for a week of silence.
Solitude. Good food. Great prayer. Intense journaling.
I drove more than eight hours each way - and traveled safely in both directions.
I love the time I get to spend at the Jesuit Center.
I don't love long drives by myself.
But the healing that my soul experiences there,
the rest that my body experiences there,
the grace that God pours on me there -
they redeem every hour I spend on the road.
I am so grateful.

I participated at the Women's Connection conference at Montreat earlier this month.
Kate Bowler was the keynote speaker. Her recently released memoir is called Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I've Loved. The story of her journey with stage 4 colon kanswer is terrifying, heart-wrenching, hopeful, funny, and life-affirming.
I am enormously grateful for her courage and for her vulnerability.

The two other folks who led us there are a mother and daughter team: Reverend Dr. Diane Givens Moffett and Reverend Eustacia Moffett Marshall. They are truly a dynamic duo of strong, gifted, outspoken, inspirational women. They both preach. They both sing. They both motivated me to continue to do what I love to do with passion and with great joy.

I shared my new favorite video with the retreat attendees who signed up for my writing workshop.

"This is me."
(I dare you to watch this video without smiling,
without wanting to dance.)

The workshop I offered was called "Your body, your story."
Our bodies are telling us stories.
We tell stories about our bodies.
Our society tells us stories about our bodies.
And our bodies are in relationship with other bodies.
We talked about all of that - and did some writing too - in an hour and a half.

I talked about kanswer and bipolar disorder and hope.
I talked about how we are fearfully and wonderfully made -
no matter what we think of our bodies or what society thinks of our bodies.
We took some time to share some of what our bodies have endured.
We also wrote and talked about some of the ways in which our bodies
have astonished us with their strength and resilience.
We laughed. We cried. Truthfully, I did most of the crying.
I am so grateful for the women who came, for all that they shared, for their questions,
and for the ways in which they supported and cared for each other as well.

We watched "American Made,"  this film made by Valarie Kaur and her husband.
Valarie will be the keynote speaker next summer at the Women's Connection retreat.
I hope I get to meet her.

Every time I get to lead people into places of deeper thought,
into deeper questions, into deeper reflection on life and faith,
whenever I get to watch people connect with each other,
discover new ways to see themselves and their roles in the world,
whenever someone approaches me after a talk or a workshop or a
service of worship, and declares that they have a better understanding
of what gives them hope
what keeps them up at night
what makes them laugh
what will get them through the crisis they are in
what they can do with the gifts they have been given
- every time any of that kind of thing happens,
I thank them for sharing their story
I nod my weary head
I say a silent word of thanks to God
because I know that I know that I know
that I have been witness to another miracle.

The miracle of growth.
The miracle of hope.
The miracle of wisdom.
The miracle of discernment.
The miracle of faith.
The miracle of life itself.
And I am enormously grateful.

I have had dozens of funny, sad, meandering conversations with people at my church.
I have listened to their heart breaking stories.
I have held their hands and wiped their tears.
I have preached. I have prayed.
For the first time, I participated in a memorial service.
It was an honor to join in the celebration of the life of that dear man.
I am so grateful.

For old friendships and for new connections,
for ripe peaches and sun-dried tomatoes,
for barber shops and yoga studios,
for rain and for cloudy days,
for chiropractors and herbal teas,
for hospice care and maternity centers,
for friendly neighbors and their rambunctious dogs,
I am grateful.

I am grateful too, for the quote by Dag Hammarskjold:
"For all that has been, Thank you.
For all that is to come, Yes!"

Saturday, July 07, 2018

LWB - at the art supply store

I went to Michael's today.
I didn't need to go to Michael's.
I already have too many art supplies.
Actually, let me rephrase that - I already have a lot of art supplies.
I'm not sure I could ever have too many.
As long as I use them, right?

Anyway, I went to Michael's because a dear friend of mine,
who will remain unnamed - (cough - Heather! - cough) -
told me that there was a sale on washi tape.
Three rolls for $1.

So I was standing at the washi tape display, rifling through roll after roll,
consciously and intentionally resisting the urge to dump it all into my basket,
when a young white woman approached and began to dig through the bins as well.

Let me stop here and say that I've been struggling with anger this past week.
Actually for the past few weeks, but it has been most intense this past week.
Anger about injustice. Anger about racism. Anger about mass incarceration.
Anger about the frequency with which the police are being called
because black people are being people.
Sleeping in her college dorm common area.
Selling water near a sporting event.
Barbecuing in a public park.
Sitting at the pool in her own neighborhood.
Canvassing for political office in her area.
Carrying out a home inspection.
Checking out of an Air BnB with their suitcases.
It's ridiculous.
The crime code should be LWB - Living while black.

So, yea, I've been angry. Very angry.
And also sensitive about being black in this country at a time when
walking through my own neighborhood, pulling something out of my trunk,
putting my cell phone into my purse, and other normal activities
could be misunderstood and considered threatening.
And prompt someone to call the police on me - or my children.

So all of that was floating in my head when that young woman approached.
I took a deep breath and decided to break the ice.
I said, "Great deal, right?"
She smiled and said, "Yes, this is a great deal."
Then she gushed about how much she loves washi tape
and how she uses it all the time and
then she said she should probably just walk away because she already had so much.
I said, "Can you have too much?" She laughed.
We wished each other a good day - and then she left.
So simple. So pleasant.
Thanks be to God.

I wandered around the store a little bit more.
Then I went to the register.
The cashier was a beautiful brown skinned woman.
Was she Indian or Latinx or ...?
It doesn't matter who she was or where she was born or what her first language is
or what she believes or who she loves.
What matters is that she was outrageously kind and pleasant in her interaction with me.
She smiled and made small talk.
She looked me in the eye when she spoke to me.
When the exchange was complete, she wished me a wonderful afternoon.
So simple. So pleasant.
Thanks be to God.

I really needed both of those exchanges today.
I needed to remember that most people are pleasant and kind.
Most people don't hate other people.
Most people really want "liberty and justice for all."
It is the minority, truly the minority of people, who want to dominate others,
who want to deport everyone who wasn't born here,
who want to use violence to intimidate anyone who doesn't agree with them.
Truly a minority.

Glennon Doyle has planted a couple of phrases in my mind and heart lately.

Earlier today, I saw an Instagram post of hers in which she said she and her wife are out "waging joy." I love that. No more staying stuck in fear, despair, or anxiety. It's time for us to "wage joy."I need to get out and wage some joy myself.

She has a sign off that she sometimes uses when she writes: "in hope and fury." Again, I love that. I can live in hope. I can work for hope. I can preach about hope. I can sit with someone who is hurting and pray that hope finds its way into their broken heart. And I can also feel a deep fury at what I see and what I hear around me. And I can also be furious about how helpless and fearful so many people feel these days - myself included.

Someone said that if you're not mad, you're not paying attention.
If you're weeping, if you're broken hearted, if you're disgusted,
then you are paying attention.
If those are the criteria at the moment, then I am definitely paying attention.

Although it could easily be argued that I didn't need any more washi tape today,
I do know that I needed the two exchanges I had there.
I needed to be reminded of the gift of kindness and conversation.
I needed to be reminded - look up, see and be seen.
Make conversation.
Smile and be smiled at.
I needed to be reminded that I can be furious and also relentlessly hopeful.

There is so much work to do.
Perhaps some of that work can be done while waging joy over washi tape.
I'm about to test that theory.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Thankful Thursday

Today was a good day. A very good day.
I took my daughter with me to work this morning.
That statement alone makes me smile -
my daughter came with me to work.
To work. I have a job.
I am gainfully employed.
I am joyfully employed.

After she left to meet up with a friend for tea, I did some work on my computer.
In my office. At my job.

I have spent the better part of these past two weeks pinching myself. Smiling to myself.
Giving thanks to God and to the loving, kind, welcoming people of Caldwell Memorial Presbyterian Church for opening their arms to me and my family. 
I sit at my desk and stare at that beautiful window.
I stare at my computer screen - with emails coming in. With people dropping by to talk.
I close my eyes and say, "Thank you, thank you, thank you," over and over.

Later in the morning, my colleague, John, and I set out to visit one of the church members who is in a nursing home several miles from the church. Jackie Abernethy is a firecracker of a woman, with a quick smile, a warm heart, and a long history at the church. I wish I had known her when she was still actively involved at Caldwell. She has seen a lot change in Charlotte and at Caldwell - and has the stories to prove it. She appears in this video - which tells the story of how Caldwell has recovered from a near-death experience as a church.

After returning from our visit with Jackie, John and I had a meeting with two women whose excitement about how to deepen and broaden the spiritual life of the members of the church was contagious. It was exciting for me to hear their passion for growth and depth, their yearning for more, for more of God, for more prayer, for more connection, not only for themselves, but also for the people of this faith community.

This evening, I sat in on another meeting of passionate Caldwell people, talking about more ways to be people of joy, of music, of giving, people who are concerned about one another, and want to find ways to pray more effectively for one another.

It is a lot, this job of mine. There is so much to learn. There is so much to do.
I have felt supported. I have been given many opportunities to ask many questions.
I have been invited to lunch, to tea, to dinner, to people's homes, and more.
I am enormously grateful for these first two weeks and all they have brought.

I know there will be hard times, difficult decisions, and disappointments.
I know that I will mess up - and they will mess up.
I know that phone calls will be missed, emails will go unanswered, and disagreement will arise.
That is the nature of life in community. That is the nature of life.

We will hurt each other - mostly unintentionally, but there may be times when it is not unintentional.
We will misunderstand one another. We will judge one another.
There is brokenness, woundedness, and humanness at Caldwell,
because we are all broken, wounded, and human.
That is the nature of life in community. That is the nature of life.

But there is also something beautiful, holy, and hopeful afoot at Caldwell.
There is joy and love and grace afoot.
God is on the move at Caldwell.
Comforting, healing, restoring, and renewing us.
Inviting us to come closer, to dig deeper, to bear witness to the movement of Spirit
in a world that desperately needs beauty, hope, joy, grace, and love.
I am excited to see and to live into all that is yet to come.

On this Thursday evening, I am thankful for this new phase,
this new stage, this new adventure in the adventure that is my life journey.
Thanks be to the people of Caldwell for taking a risk and inviting me to join them on their journey.

Most of all, thanks be to God.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Ten things: "Oh, it's happening, sweetheart."

Have you seen this commercial? I'm sure you have. I have seen it dozens of times. It makes me laugh. The part that cracks me up the most is when the car owner is looking at the remains of his car, which is up on cinder blocks. He says, "This can't be happening." The onlooker says, "Oh, it's happening, sweetheart."

Indeed. It's happening. I am about to start a new job. At a church. Serving a community of faith. Serving my city. In one of the early conversations with the senior minister of the church, Caldwell Presbyterian Church here in Charlotte, I asked him what the church needs in the person who would be called to work and serve there. He said, "The church needs someone who wakes up in the morning thinking about ways to love them." I smiled and thought, "I can do that."

Here are ten things that have come to mind as I ponder the start of this new and next stage of my life journey.

1. I remember being a child in Sunday school class at the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York, and wishing I could go to church five days a week and go to school only two days. Well, it looks like that wish is about to come true; actually the reality will be better than that childhood wishful and wistful dream. I will be in church five days a week - or out in the community loving the church and its people, loving the city and its people - but I will be going to school only one day. Yes, I will continue my seminary studies, and I look forward to putting these studies and lessons to work on a daily basis. Before you write and warn me about the reality of work in the church, the brokenness of people, the division and difficulties, the hypocrisy and deceit, please know that I am fully aware of all of that. Because if I am going to be there, I am going to bring my own healthy dose of brokenness, woundedness, hypocrisy, and inconsistency. That's part of the human experience. Thanks be to God - part of the church experience, certainly what I know of the experience at Caldwell, is openly and honestly admitting our brokenness and walking together towards healing and wholeness.

2. Back when I was a kid, the youth group at Sixth Avenue Baptist Church was called "The Liberators." You had to be 13 years old to join, and unfortunately I wasn't ever able to join them because our family was asked to leave the church when I was 12. (Yes, I bring my own church hurt as well.) Anyway, my parents were youth leaders. And my three older brothers were all members of The Liberators. While they spent time down in the basement of the church, while they laughed and learned, played games, and listened to dire warnings about being left behind when the rapture happened, I would be upstairs in the main part of the church, wishing desperately I could be down there with them. Anyway (again), there was a young guy who was part of The Liberators who was a bit of a loner. He was one of the few kids in the group who wasn't African American. He was Puerto Rican. Looking back now as an adult, I think it might be reasonable to guess that he had some developmental delays; physically, socially, and intellectually, he was more like a twelve year old than a fifteen year old. That young man and I would would talk to one another often. We would go for walks in the neighborhood. Sometimes we even talked on the phone. We weren't romantically involved at all. We were just friends. I liked listening to his stories. I liked walking with him.

Those walks I took with Noel back then were preparing me for the walks I will take with the folks at Caldwell. They will talk. I will listen. They will share. I will pray. Together we will walk each other back and forth to the church. Back and forth out into the community. Where we are developmentally delayed, where we are physically, emotionally, intellectually, financially, relationally challenged, we will walk together. We will pray together. We will be both the liberators and the liberated - together.

3. A young woman named Hope was also a member of that youth group at Sixth Avenue. I remember that there were often whispers, nudges, nods, and shifted chairs when Hope was around. Why? Because "she likes girls." I remember realizing, not fully understanding but definitely sensing, that the folks who were talking about her and saying those things were saying something more than those words expressed. I remember her well. I remember, even at a young age, wishing I could do something or say something to let her know that I didn't care who she liked or didn't like; I liked her. I loved watching her play basketball and football and whatever other games the young group played. I liked that she didn't have to wear dresses to church like I did. I liked that she wore her hair short.

Watching Hope and admiring her strength and independence prepared me for the position I am stepping into, for the church God has called me to serve. This church welcomes everyone, no matter who they like, who they love, or who they marry. This church welcomes people from all walks of life, from all along the many spectrums that exist in our society and our culture. This church wrestles openly and actively with its checkered past, related to slavery, related to bigotry, related to the brokenness that plagues all of us.

4. I spent my elementary school years attending PS 307 in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn. I think I was in 4th grade when I began to serve as a buddy for a blind boy who was in my class. His name was Lodi. He was the only white kid in the class for a while, then another boy came, but, as I recall, that second boy didn't stay at our school for long. Lodi and I became good friends. He held onto my elbow sometimes when we moved from one room to another in the school. It wasn't long before he didn't need my elbow because he knew his way around, but we remained friends and spent a lot of time together. He taught me how to use his braille machine and also how to read braille. He taught me how he arranged his food and his belongings. He told me stories about his life. I told him stories about mine. Whenever I had the chance, I would go with him to the room that was set up in the school for the blind students to do whatever they needed to do that couldn't be done in their classrooms. I loved hanging out with him and his buddies there.

Three doors down the block from where I grew up on Bedford Avenue, there was another blind friend. He was older than me by several years. His family was from Panama. Tall black man who walked with the long, thin cane often used by the visually impaired. He and I became buddies too. When I saw him coming home from work, and I often spotted him while he was still a block away, I would run to where he was, greet him, and offer him my shoulder.

Plus there were the blind adults that my dad used to drive back and forth to the New York School for the Blind in Manhattan. During the summer months, I would ride with him in the van, hanging out with folks three and four times my age, marveling at their ability to navigate their world without one of the senses that I took so much for granted.

Once again, it was all preparation. To learn from folks that so many other people ignored or belittled or underestimated. One day when I was no more than ten or eleven years of age, one of the adults who held onto my elbow as I led her from my father's van to the front door of the School for the Blind, said, "You are going to be tall when you grow up." I asked her how she knew that, and she responded, "I can tell by your elbow, by your arm." She had wisdom in her hands, in her fingers, deep within her. Wisdom that had nothing to do with what she saw, because she couldn't see me.

It was all preparation to lead and be led. Preparation to see and be seen. Preparation to listen and learn. Preparation to welcome the stranger, the outcast, the neglected. Preparation to not discount anyone. Preparation to recognize my own blindness and my need to learn to live by more than what was apparent to the physical eye or the societal eye.

5. During my growing up time, we attended churches where women were not allowed to be pastors or elders or deacons. Women could be deaconesses and Sunday school teachers, but not pastors. I had female cousins and aunts who were ministers, but we didn't go to their churches. In fact, before I began to attend First Presbyterian Church here in Charlotte, the church I attend now, I had never been a member of a church where women were ordained ministers. That's all I'm going to say about that...

6. One evening when I was teaching a series on journaling as a spiritual discipline at a church where I had been reprimanded for the fact that a man attended one of the class sessions, at the end of the class, one of the attendees, a woman who wasn't a member of the church approached me and said, "You belong in the pulpit. You think you are teaching a class, but you are preaching in here." I nodded and smiled - and I thought, "Total heresy." Looking back now, I am enormously grateful for Bonnie's boldness in speaking the truth to me that night.

7. I am grateful for Katie Crowe, the pastor who initially mentored me at First Pres and encouraged me to pursue seminary study. She suggested that I visit Union Presbyterian Seminary here in Charlotte and speak to Dean Richard Boyce. I never went. But God wasn't letting me off the hook that easily. One evening, at a training session at First Pres, the dean of the seminary came to the church to teach. I don't remember a whole lot of what he said, but I do remember thinking, "Okay, Lord. I didn't go to see him at the seminary, so you brought him here." I approached him after the session that evening. He invited me to visit one Saturday. I am nearly finished with my third year of a five year program.

8. Back in October of last year, I was sitting in my car in a local park, eating lunch. My cell phone rang. I looked down at it - but didn't recognize the number. Normally, I don't answer calls from unknown callers, but that time I did. The caller asked me to consider applying for a job at Caldwell Presbyterian Church. I said no, that I wasn't yet done with seminary. I wasn't ready. I said no three times. He was gentle but firm, and he pointed out that my repeated declines meant that I was taking the job and the work of ministry seriously. I hadn't thought about it that way, but he was right. So I finally said yes; I would put my name in the hat.

Resume updated. Prayers prayed.
Forms filled in. Prayers prayed.
Facetime interview completed. Prayers prayed.
In person interview completed. More prayers prayed.
Trial sermon preached. Prayers prayed.
Questions asked and answered. Prayers prayed.
An offer made. Prayers prayed.
My profile and candidacy presented to the church (while I was in Guatemala!).
More prayers.
The church stepped out in faith and said yes.
I start two weeks from tomorrow.

9. I have spent a lot of time in the past several months shaking my head, pinching myself, journaling, and praying. A lot of praying. I pray out loud while I'm out walking. I pray silently while lying awake in bed. I pray in the car. And yesterday, for the first time, I stood in the pulpit at Caldwell, and looked out onto the empty pews. I imagined the congregation, the beloved and beautiful, the broken and lonely, the fearful and joyful people of God, sitting out there, looking at me, looking at my colleagues, looking towards us for a word of encouragement, hope, challenge, and exhortation. I stood there and cried - and prayed.

10. I stepped out from behind that sacred desk, walked down those steps, approached the friend who was giving me the detailed tour of the church, and asked her if she had seen the commercial I mentioned and linked at the beginning of this post. With tears in my eyes, I said to her - and much more to myself - "This is really happening. (deep breath) Oh, it's happening, sweetheart."

Friday, May 18, 2018

Remembering El Salvador

(Trigger Warning: there is a photo in this post that shows someone who was shot)

Four weeks ago today, we arrived in San Salvador, El Salvador.
The layers of clothing I needed to stay warm on the airplane were 
excruciatingly unnecessary once we deplaned.
As we stood waiting for our luggage,
as we waited for our passports to be stamped, 
as we watched dozens of American military personnel drag their enormous bags
out of the terminal,
as we drove from the airport to our guest house,
every step along that journey,
I was reminded that we weren't in Charlotte anymore.
This was a whole different world.
A world of barbed wire and locked gates.
A world where coconut water straight out of the coconut was available at every turn.
A world of street food and hustlers sold at every traffic light.
A world with a bloody past and a resilient people.

Actually, that sounds a lot like Charlotte after all...

On our very first day there, we went to a place called CRISPAZ.
Christians for Peace.
After decades of bloody and brutal repression by the government,
after the ongoing horrors of political and economic corruption,
there has been yet another assault on the people through gang violence.
The poorest people are always the most vulnerable.
That's true in El Salvador and Guatemala - and also these United States of America.
So people like the man on the left have made it their goal 
to advocate, to work, to speak up, to march, to live for peace.
I was honored to be there and also challenged by what I heard and learned there.

Hope and joy regained a foothold when he told the story of his own father - 
who went from a life of military service against the people
to a life of guerrilla warfare and life service on the side of the people.
Later as we reflected on his account, I said, 
"Sometimes we use the word 'conversion' when we talk about stories like that."

One of the things I loved most about El Salvador and Guatemala
was their practice of incorporating green spaces in the middle of their homes and work places.
This photo was taken from an office at CRISPAZ -
looking across their green space into the room where we had listened 
to that gentleman tell his story. 
Notice the gorgeous greenery in between. 
The sunlight you see on the right is streaming into open space.
How lovely is that?
Imagine having a space like that just feet from your desk?
Especially a desk that is so often covered with accounts of brutality and suffering...

I wrote about Monsenor Oscar Romero in my last blog post.
I wrote about how he was assassinated while serving communion.
That act of horror took place in this chapel, behind this table.
His body lay on that floor, bleeding out,
while nuns and nurses, parishioners and visitors,
cried and screamed for help,
cradling his body, loving him
to the end. 

I had his book with me as I sat in that chapel.
I read portions of his homilies and speeches in the very place
where his life was taken from him - 
and I pondered the sorrow that must have gripped those present on that fateful day.

Oscar Romero's love for the poor exposed the violence in those who hated the poor.
His love forced others to recognize their violent tendencies.
His love pushed those who don't believe in the love or justice
so far into their hatred, injustice, and fear that they thought
they had no choice but to act violently against his love.

Once again, that sounds a lot like Charlotte, 
a lot like these United States.
More than that, it sounds a whole lot like the One I Love Most of All -
it sounds a whole like like Jesus.

Although much attention has been paid to Archbishop Romero and other who were brutally murdered because they loved and cared for the poor among them there in El Salvador,
although I spent thirteen days exploring the themes of martyrdom and oppression 
in two Central American countries,
the truth is that the poor and vulnerable have been martyred and oppressed 
dispossessed and discarded everywhere
throughout all of history.
they still are being martyred, oppressed, neglected, hated -
and also blamed for creating their own circumstances.

Grandmothers, mothers, daughters, 
farmers, coal miners, store clerks,
community organizers, small business owners,
preachers, priests, nuns, lawyers,
teachers, doctors, nurses,
people from every walk of life,
from every level of education and privilege,
have seen and heard the cries of the needy and the desperate.
They have stood alongside, spoken up for,
protested and sought justice on behalf of,
and given their lives for others. 

As I remember my time in El Salvador,
as I am reminded of their history,
may I not forget my own,
the history of my own oppressed people
here in my own broken country.
May I never abandon the work of peace and justice
here in my home city
and in my home country. 

Friday, May 11, 2018

I'm Back!!!

Actually, I've been back for more than a week. But I have needed every one of these days to readjust. To reconnect. To rediscover my land legs. To rebound from the nasty virus I brought home with me. And to recover my heart. Truthfully, I hope I never recover my heart. I remember feeling the same way after the trip my daughter and I took to Nicaragua in 2008 and my trip to Haiti in 2012. Heartbreak, poverty, hunger, mixed unrelentingly with hope, resilience, and strength in the stories, the homes, the meals, the hugs, and the faces of everyone we met. Stories of deportation from the United States. Gang violence. Military massacres. Loss of life. But never a loss of hope. Never a loss of joy.

In the face of the worst that people do to people, colors shine bright 
in San Salvador, El Salvador. 
Art emerges. 

 Monsenor Oscar Romero was called an indefatigable defender of 
human rights until his martyrdom.

Oscar Romero said, "A church that doesn't suffer persecution,
but enjoys the privileges and support of the bourgeoisie
is not the true church of Jesus Christ." 
For such statements and convictions, he was assassinated
 on March 24, 1980 - while serving communion.
At the table. Body broken. Blood poured out.

On December 2, 1980, four American nuns were raped and murdered
because they dared to involve themselves in the work of justice
and peace in El Salvador.
The priests and catechists and nuns who famously lost their lives
during those years are far outnumbered by the hundreds of thousands of adults and children
who were burned alive, shot, thrown into wells while still alive,
forcibly "disappeared," and massacred -
during a period of decades.
The stories are horrific.
The suffering continues - there are signs, posters, photos on walls
all over both countries - asking for answers,
seeking for those who are still missing.
But hope remains.

Doors were opened to us.
We were welcomed.
We were fed.

We were honored to stand on sacred, blood soaked ground.
Where shots were fired.
Where lives were taken.
Where blood was shed.
Where power was misused.
Where powerless were mistreated. 

I'm back. 
But my mind wanders back to El Salvador and Guatemala daily.
I wonder about how Esvin and Ana Silvia and Daniel are doing.
I wonder where Emerson and Roberto are.
I wonder what Father Cirilo is talking to his students and church members about.
I remember the women who cooked and cleaned and the men who drove.
I remember the women who walked with impossible loads on their heads and shoulders.
I remember the children in their pristine school uniforms, walking to and from school.
I pray that they are safe, that they are filled with hope, that they are surrounded by love.

On one of the early nights of our trip, as we sat together reviewing the day, talking about what we had seen and experienced, I felt something shift. Literally. My chair shifted and shook. I looked over my left shoulder, at the man who served as our group facilitation, making sure that we arrived safely at all our destinations, called ahead and made hotel and restaurant arrangements, Esvin. He looked at me and said, "That was a tremor." What? A tremor? As in earthquake tremor?

I confess that I spent a significant amount of time every day after that praying, pleading with God that there not be an earthquake while we were there. Then I expanded my prayer requests to pleas that there never be another earthquake there. Or anywhere. Here's how I see it - if I'm gonna pray, I may as well pray big. Ask for big things - never another earthquake anywhere ever.

What I didn't yet realize was that the tremor I noticed that evening was a physical manifestation of what was beginning to happen inside me - the shaking of the foundation of what I used to know and used to understand about migration, the indigenous peoples of Central America, social and legal policies in our own country, and what all of that has to do with the faith I claim to practice. How will what I learned and saw and experienced there affect the ministry I have been called to join at Caldwell Presbyterian Church? (More about that yet to come...) Will those lessons affect my understanding of justice and state-sanctioned violence here in my own country?  May the spiritual and emotional shifting never end - and may I never have to live through a true earthquake.

I'm back.
And profoundly grateful.

PS. Here is a reflection I wrote toward the end of our trip. Each member of our class and travel team was given the opportunity to write a blog post for the Union Presbyterian Seminary website.