Beyond the Usual: On Lent and Black History Month

Easter comes early this year. As a consequence, so does Lent.

For that reason, Lent coincides to a substantial degree with Black History Month.

As a white person, I understand Black History Month as a time for me to listen and to learn. It’s a time to hear stories and bear witness.  There are notable figures, overlooked by conventional history books, who have contributed to science and art, to politics and philosophy, to education and to faith. These accomplishments matter to black people and they matter to the rest of us, often far more than we know. They enrich the whole of human existence.

By the end of February, if I’m paying attention, I will know more of the triumphs and joys as well as the sufferings and sorrows of the history of African Americans in this country. It takes intentional effort to see beyond my own whiteness and the lens that comes with it. It takes looking beyond the history I’ve been taught and beyond the white experience that is used as the default in education and popular media.

The call of Lent and the call of Black History Month have a lot in common.

Lent is a season for listening and for learning. It’s a time to hear the stories of others, especially others who are different from us – and most especially a time to listen to the voices of people that our society places at the margins. It’s a time to try to understand the lens that we use to see the world.

Lent offers us the opportunity to repent not only of our individual sins but of our collective cultural sins. We can open our hearts to the triumphs and joys and the sorrows and sufferings of others. We are called to stop long enough and listen closely enough to hear the stories that get drowned out because they disturb or disrupt or threaten to upend our comforts.

Black History Month is a chance to look beyond the usual stories we are fed by the world.

Lent is also a chance to look beyond the usual stories we are fed by the world.

I pray we do so.

*this was first published as a part of Beloved Community Church’s Lenten Reflection Series. Check out the site to see past reflections and sign up to receive future ones – http://us8.campaign-archive1.com/home/?u=b0ec53794d5302e54ac84ec3b&id=9ea25a5d37 

The Problem of Daniel Holtzclaw’s Tears

Yesterday former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw was found guilty of 18 counts of rape and other forms of sexual violence. His victims were poor black women, age 17-50, in the community he was charged with protecting.

He preyed on these marginalized women because he thought no one would take their allegations of wrongdoing seriously. Apparently since there were 13 known victims, it took quite a while before anyone did.

I noticed Holtzclaw cried yesterday at the reading of the jury’s verdict. I wonder if I have ever had less sympathy for someone’s tears.

Nope.

However, I am praying for him today, that his heart and his soul might be healed of whatever horror possesses him. And I am most certainly praying for the women he terrorized and harmed, particularly after Holtzclaw’s attorneys predictably centered their defense strategy on defaming the victims.

In his violence, Holtzclaw brutally denied the value, the dignity, and the humanity of his victims – in a world that already systemically conveyed that message to them because of who they are.

I am working hard against my own temptation to view him as a monster. For the minute I do so, I strip away not only a sense of his humanity, but I also shred my own conviction that I must recognize the full humanity of all people. All people. Even the ones who commit monstrous acts. Even the ones who are so damaged that we (and they themselves) cannot see how they too are made in God’s image.

I am glad that some form of justice was done, whether or not it was complete (apparently the jury did not believe some of the complainants). I am glad that Holtzclaw will be sent to prison for his deeds – and hopefully with the full force of the law will serve a long sentence. I still have no sympathy for his tears. I have a whole heart of sympathy for his victims.

And I keep reminding myself: our casual cultural impulse to dehumanize is a part of the root problem.

I must thus continue in my effort not to dehumanize him in my own heart and mind.

An important task, but not an easy one.

Sample Interfaith Statements of Affirmation and Welcome

In preparation for a recent conference, I assembled some sample statements of affirmation and welcome from various faith groups around the country. While the conference focused on faith and LGBTQ+ issues and inclusion, most of these statements are much broader – and wisely so.

The challenge to us as people of faith and ethics is to create ways to ensure that all people – across all categories of difference – are not only welcomed in each of our communities, but included in its full life and leadership. An explicit statement to that effect, backed up by in-kind actions and behavior, makes a difference.

These statements offer some examples. I am always interested in collecting more, so feel to send others my way.

John Street Church (UMC), New York City –  Learning from 250 years of ministry, and following Jesus Christ today, John Street United Methodist Church invites into its fellowship all persons seeking to live in the Christian environment of the Church, and to receive its nurture and assistance throughout the course of their lives. This invitation is extended without regard to one’s economic status, education, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, political beliefs, ethnic origin, or the present state of their spiritual journey. We publicly affirm that we welcome all persons to participate fully in the worship, fellowship, educational, and service life of our church.

Open Table UCC, Mobile, AL   From its beginning, Open Table has been a radically welcoming faith community. Following the radical message of Jesus, we affirm the worth and dignity of every human being, and we extend extravagant welcome to all persons. We affirm our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters, and acknowledge the suffering they have endured in the context of the larger society. Not only do we welcome them into our congregation, but into the full life, leadership, and ministry of our congregation. As we grow in our understanding of God’s good gifts of human sexuality, gender, and relationships, we stand firm in the Biblical message that all people are created in God’s image and thus are loved and blessed equally by God.

Temple Beth Zion, Brookline, MA  –  We think of our community as a diverse shtetl, a modern incarnation of those vibrant Old World villages, towns and centers of learning which nurtured and evolved our Jewish heritage. Today, our shtetl is populated by an extraordinary mix of passionate people, including singles and those on single-life paths, alongside newly-married and longtime couples; college students; families with young children; single parents; elders; spiritual seekers; GLBT Jews; Jews by choice; and interfaith and multi-cultural families.  Our members come from a wide variety of spiritual- and life-paths. Some of us were raised in observant families. For others, TBZ is the first shul we have ever joined. Our weekly services are populated by former twice-a-year-Jews — men and women who, after b’nai mitzvah, attended services only on the High Holy Days. . . until they discovered Temple Beth Zion. Others among us had regularly attended synagogues, dutifully (if passively) following along in the prayer books, reading responsively and standing when asked, only to discover that something — anything; everything! — was missing. But at TBZ, as one of our members has noted, “I have found connection, authenticity, home. . . .”

The Abbey (Episcopal), Birmingham, AL – Who can come? And what should I wear? Anyone. Seriously, anyone and everyone. Kids, teenagers, young adults, adults. Everyone is welcome at The Abbey, regardless of race, ethnicity, faith tradition, class, age, political party, education, gender, marital status, physical or mental ability, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. Our service is a relaxed environment. Wear what makes you feel comfortable and invite anyone you think would be interested.

Zen Center of New York City –  In the Mountains & Rivers Order, we endeavor to foster a welcoming atmosphere free of prejudice that is open to all people sincerely interested in exploring and practicing the Buddhadharma. We are committed to co-creating a practice environment in which all individuals are recognized as possessing a fundamental dignity, and are therefore treated with respect without regard to their ethnicity, skin color, language, age, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, physical ability, religion, political views, or economic circumstances.

Gethsemane Lutheran Church, Seattle, WA –  From the pastor: I’m glad you’re here and hope to meet you in person. Since 1885, Gethsemane has welcomed people for worship, community time, service, and learning. All these years later, we remain a downtown church committed to connecting to our neighborhood. We are a progressive, GLBTQ-affirming congregation that welcomes all: people who have been to church (any church) their whole lives, as well as those who never have been or have been away for a while; people filled with doubts or questions and those whose faith and hope run deep; people longing to find a community of belonging and anyone who may simply be “passing by”… This is a place open to you wherever you are in your spiritual journey.

Baptist Church of the Covenant, Birmingham, AL –  Baptist Church of the Covenant was established in 1970 to be a racially inclusive congregation. Since that time, it has ordained women to the ministry and affirmed openness to sexual orientation and gender identity. As Christ accepts all who believe, we do likewise. All are welcomed.

Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society, Los Angeles, CA –  Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society was founded by Noah Levine, author of Dharma PunxAgainst the Stream, The Heart of the Revolution, and Refuge Recovery to make the teachings of the Buddha available to all who are interested. We wish to create and sustain communities of healthy, accountable, wise and compassionate people from every walk of life. We welcome people from all racial, economic, sexual, social, political and religious backgrounds and believe that the path of awakening is attainable by all and should be available to all. We strive to create a safe environment for all who come to practice.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco, CA – Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church is made up of children and elders, families and singles, straight and gay people, lifelong Christians, interfaith couples, converts and seekers. We join in worship and service, creating a community that shares the unconditional welcome offered at Jesus’ Table.

St Junia United Methodist Church, Birmingham, AL – Becoming a diverse community:  Our goal is to become as diverse as the Kingdom itself. Since God shows no partiality (Acts 10:34, Galatians 2:6), and since all people are made in the image of God, our desire is to become a community in which black, white, and Latino, gay and straight, old and young, rich and poor, male and female are welcome to the table and invited to use their diverse gifts for worship and ministry. We want to be a witness to Birmingham and to the world that the Good News is for all people.

A Short Sunday Meditation

We have conditioned ourselves to accept violence done to others. And in some ways we do so in order that we may live – so that the deaths of Turkish peace activists, the shooting of Tamir Rice, the campus killings in one state after another, the countless acts of brutality near and far do not jolt us from the necessary stuff of our daily lives.

But sometimes we need to let it touch us. We need to let it touch us not so that we get mired in despair but so that we let it change us. Not so that we are changed toward bitterness and fear, but so that we are changed toward love and compassion and a drive for justice. So that our hearts are more open and more determined to engage one with another in ways that interrupt bloodshed as the price of doing the business of life.

A Desperate Evening Prayer – April 27, 2015

Prayers for Baltimore
Prayers for Baltimore
Prayers for Baltimore

Prayers for Nepal
Prayers for Nepal
Prayers for Nepal

Prayers for all who suffer
all who know fear
all who are caught in the middle
who are caught out in the cold
who are left hungry
who are hungry for justice
who see no other way
who have no hope
who have no reason for hope
who have no home
Prayers for all who grieve.

Amen.

Remarks from ‘What Can White People Do About Racism?’ Panel

These are the notes I made in preparation for – and from which I worked – for a panel discussion entitled “What Can White People Do About Racism?” It’s my effort to identify some problems (always a necessary first step) and suggest at least a few possible solutions. Changing cultural attitudes is a necessary but not sufficient condition for broader social change.

As a white person —

  1. I have a hard time being quiet when black or Latino or Asian or Native American or African peoples talk about their lived experience of race and racism. I always want to leap to the fix — which makes me feel better, but also means I’m skimming the surface of the problem.
    a solution: learn to be quiet and really listen – not listen to argue or listen to respond, but listen to learn.


  1.  I want to direct the gaze of my analysis, focus on black or brown people rather than on the structures of white racism. I’m thus dealing with effects rather than causes.
    a solution: keep the analytical gaze on the issue of white racism and see where that gets us.


  1. I want to make it about individual actions rather than about structures. That keeps the focus on my good intentions rather than on the systemic structures with which I am complicit.a solution:  the key is taking a look at the power structures. It helps to ask:Who benefits in any given situation?

    Do the people who are most affected have a substantive voice and role in decision making?

    related observation: power is generally considered a zero sum game – and as long the game is played that way (with rules set up by white people with power), we white folks may have to give up some power for other people to gain it. That is the reality of the world we live in right now.


  1. I don’t always see how the dominant cultural narrative – which works for me as a white person – doesn’t function that same way for all. Since it works for me, I want to believe it works for all.a solution: quit proclaiming that there’s equal liberty and equal justice and equal opportunity for all. Point out the ways in which that is not true.

  1. I don’t want to face up to the full horror of the history of white people’s interactions with people of color – genocide, enslavement, dehumanization for the sake of power and profit. There’s nothing pretty about it.  It’s hard to stare at that.Or I stare at it and it’s so awful that it stops me.  I say ‘This is too awful. I want to walk away.” And then we do nothing else. We probably all land in this place sometime if we’re in the struggle for the long haul.
    a solution: we really admit this awful history and we educate ourselves about both it and the ways in which it continues to be manifest today. And if we find ourselves in one of the bleak, discouraged spots, we acknowledge it but don’t get stuck there.


  1.  Somehow when stories or issues of injustice come up, I want to talk about some parallel experience I had that I believe lends me the credibility of moral equivalence. It puts me and my experience at the center of the narrative rather than the people actually dealing with the problem of the moment.
    a solution: Umm, that listening to learn thing? Go back to there.related observation: A subtle but important distinction between this behavior and that of solidarity across difference, which can be done skillfully if it’s done with care. This is about fighting that giant monolith called oppression across difference, which has so many facets.


  1. I want to show these people of color how cool and non-racist I am – and in doing so, I require them to tolerate my neuroses (because I’m not being an authentic human being with them). I thus avoid doing the hard work in my own community.
    a solution: be authentically human – and humble – in my encounters with people of color. Really look at how I can do justice work and bear witness within the white community.related observations:
    pick your battles in engaging with white folks on these issues. This is a long haul. There are times when you have to step back and try again another daybuild relationships of genuine respect, love, and mutuality with people across difference.

    this is not about ceasing to love and care for the people in your life who don’t get it and never will. Nearly all of us white people have these people in our lives. We have to be able to forgive them and to be present with them in ways that honors our history with them. That’s perhaps the most controversial thing I’ll say tonight, but I really believe that’s a very ambiguous part of the struggle. All we can do is continue with our witness for love and justice and to be honest and skillful in our engagements with them. It doesn’t get us anywhere to cut them out of our lives or shut down communication.


  1. I make people of color explain themselves or prove themselves rather than giving them the benefit of the doubt – and then when I do advocacy, I want to make them fit with my agenda rather than getting my ego out of the way and serving in a genuinely useful support role.
    a solution: accept a description of people’s reality without questioning whether it’s really their reality. Provide support (financial, volunteer, communications, and so on) as people and organizations that are led by people of color deem useful.


  1. I try to pull the colorblind thing. It is simply not possible to be colorblind in our society. If I claim to be, all I am seeing is shades of white.
    a solution: It’s not even desirable to be colorblind. Go ahead and see the color of people’s skin and the culture in which they operate. Appreciate it. Revel in our differences. That’s what makes life rich and interesting. Life would be incredibly boring if everyone were all the same.related observation: That said, we can build on what we share. We do have things in common. We just have to realize that it’s contextual rather than universal.


  1. I take the easy way out by expecting people of color to take the trouble to identify our shortcomings, lovingly tolerate them, and then explain them to us.a solution: We need to do our own homework to educate ourselves. There’s a wealth of available resources in fiction and non-fiction books, blogs, social media, film magazines, and television. Take these as sources of information about experiences that are not our own rather than assuming any one source or individual speaks for the culture or subculture or group as a whole. Don’t rely on just one.

 These 10 steps represent one white person’s sense of a starting place.

Perspectives on Race: Looking Back to Move Forward

There is much to be said about race and the current state of racial conflict in our country. It will be a recurring theme here because oppression across racial difference has been a defining feature of our national culture since Europeans first landed on the continent.

I can’t say it all at once. I have to start at what I identify as the root of the problem. My goal today is to explain how this particular white person understands the most basic fundamentals of race in the United States. These are the essential premises I bring to the conversation.

Along those lines, I must begin with the assertion that every human being is not only a child of God, but also has holiness within them. Sometimes it gets obscured (to ourselves and others) by the stuff with which we fill our lives, but it’s always there.

You can frame it as the presence of the Holy Spirit within each person. You can take a cue from the Quakers and see it as the Light within each person. You can look back and take note of how humans are created in God’s image. There are multiple ways to label it. What matters to me is that we understand the presence of the divine within us and others. It’s how we were created.

In other words, I see God all day long in my encounters with other people.

While we all share in this holiness, we are not all the same. We are different. Our differences are what make life beautiful and interesting and constantly educational. Our pluralism, this innate diversity that so defines our shared life together, is a key part of our strength as culture and as a nation.

Having established that about where I’m coming from, I want to move onto the specific question of race.

I believe that we can’t move forward until we look back and (a) figure out what went wrong and (b) from there, determine what that means for all of us today. Unfortunately, it means we have to look way, way back. Then we are obligated to stand and stare at some pretty ugly historical terrain. It makes us white folks uncomfortable. But we cannot hurry past its bleakness and bloodshed, no matter how much we’d like to.

The formal institution of chattel slavery lasted from the 1600s through the Civil War, a period of more than 200 years. During that time, black people were legally considered to be less than human. White people bought and sold black people as property, subject to our whim. White people robbed native peoples of their land and slaughtered them.

We subscribe to a cultural narrative of freedom, individual rights, and equal opportunity. These things are true in certain ways. But as a nation, we have yet to face up to the indisputable historical fact that our country was founded on genocidal violence, dehumanization, and theft – all for the economic and social gain of some people. The whole was sacrificed for the benefit of one part.

We want to slide right past that. We want to dismiss it as the past and claim to be moving forward. Yet that past has defined who we are. It shaped us in ways that we can only begin to understand if we take the time to stare directly into its nightmarish terror.

We broke ourselves in the very beginning. We’ve never healed. We’ve never healed because white people refuse to admit that we break others. We have been doing it for 400 years and we still do it today.

I didn’t live 400 or 200 or 50 years ago, so I did not directly participate directly in those crimes. But I continue to benefit today from a founding system that puts me as a white person at the top of that hierarchy. I don’t come from wealth. My people were poor farmers rather than plantation owners. But the sole fact of the color of their skin gave them rights and privileges that continue to give me sociocultural, political, and economic power today.

Power is inherited. Crucially, the cultural power to define the rules of the game is inherited.

After the end of slavery, white people with power (which they had inherited) created structures that made Jim Crow segregation the law of the land and enshrined the brutality of the lynch law as its means of enforcement. Thousands of people were subjected to arbitrary execution by lynching. We white people rested easily in the exercise of that power. We even made picnics and carried them to watch the spectacle of torture that preceded the moment of death.

In the absence of slavery, we created a system that marginalized and brutalized people of color so that we could keep the privileges of wealth and power of our whiteness.

The Civil Rights era brought incomplete political and economic reforms, as well as fresh waves of savage violence against people of color. Aspects of the system were changed – and those reforms were important, but they represent a beginning, but not an end. The political and legal gains are perpetually at risk (witness the current dismantling of the Voting Rights Act). A paradigm shift in cultural and economic power has never taken place. Our culture and the systems that emerge from it continue to privilege some people over others.

In looking at history, I’ll stop there for the moment (which is ~1970 or so) since this isn’t the format for an entire book. There will be more to be said in the days, weeks, and months ahead.

The critical point is this: we have a long history of extreme racial disparity in this country. It hasn’t gone away just because we want to say that it has.

In fact, the efforts by white people to set the terms of the debate illustrate this ongoing issue. We white folks want to determine the framework of the conversation. We want to say that race doesn’t matter anymore. We say that we’re tired of talking about race. We assert that it is no longer a barrier to individual achievement.

But the fact that we are tired of talking about race and claim that we don’t see race and race doesn’t matter to us doesn’t mean that race doesn’t matter. It just means we’re trying to exercise our control of the social conversation. People of color overwhelmingly respond that color remains a/the defining characteristic of their everyday experiences.

Yes, we can cite a few individuals of color who would say differently, but it’s a tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny portion of the community. If we are really interested in listening to the voices of the broader community, there are many good ways to do that. There are plenty of good sources of information out there in the media for people who want to step back and really, really listen to the diversity of voices coming out of communities of people of color.

I’ll stop here with a summary of the main points I’m trying to argue in this particular post:

1) We are all children of God, but we are not all the same. Our differences are a source of richness and cultural wealth – if we can manage to see them that way.

2) Facing up to our history and the ways in which it still shapes systems and individual experiences is an essential first step – and the predominant white culture has never done so. It is a necessary (though not a sufficient) condition for moving forward in healthy ways.

3) Seeking out voices from people who are different from us (white people) is important. This doesn’t mean we have to bombard people of color we know with tons of intrusive questions. Sometimes we have a personal relationship with people who have incredible patience and are willing to educate us. I’m grateful for those people in my life. But there are plenty of ways we can do our homework by seeking out – and sifting out – public voices. There are books (both fiction and non-fiction), websites, social media sites, magazines, blogs, and so on that can teach us about the lived experience of people of color – if we are willing to seek them out.

4) Once we find those voices, we have to be secure enough to be still and really listen. Not listen in order to reply or to argue, but really listen. Open our hearts and our minds. Not bring it back around to ourselves. Not make their stories about us in some self-referential way. Bear witness.

These ideas represent one person’s idea of a beginning. It is not an end. There are many specific issues to be addressed – and I will over time do my best to explore them from my perspective here. But I will argue that if we white folks could just start here, could just make an honest beginning of this, it would be progress. We cannot fix anything until we come to understand the ways in which we are broken and in which we break others.

All Other Points West: 1553 to Dallas

In Atlanta, the ramp leads us down to the street as
buckets of water dump from the sky.
As one we pull up our hoods and
step beyond a waiting bus to the next, meant for us,
1553 to Dallas.

I trail a small boy, as black as I am white, tugging an enormous red suitcase
whose tag reads San Francisco.
A glance ahead suggests the likely mom,
pulling another bag and another brother.
Then another traveler, a thief of space, mistakes me for weak,
tries to gain a place in our long wet line.
I know this game and
checkmate her with a
single
polite
decisive
step.

Upon the bus, I scan the seats.
There sits the boy, three rows back,
across the aisle from bro and mom.
A safe seat mate.
“Hey, little man. Anybody sitting in that seat besides your backpack?”
Quick glance at mom, who nods.
He tucks the bag to his feet.
I take the window.
Soldiers with duffles,
small women with big purses, and
young lean men of every color slip past us down the aisle.

My seatmate compliments my blue pen,
likes it because it writes so fine.
He’s ten years old,
in the 5th grade.
The name is mumbled once, twice and
then I give up on getting it for now.
He eyes his brother
who has custody of mom’s phone and its games.
“Next time he crashes, it’s mine, Mom. Mom. Mom.”
It’s a word of many syllables.
Soon though not peacefully the phone changes hands.

We trade information.
“I’m going to San Francisco,” he says.
“That’s a long way,” I reply.
“That’s what everybody says.”

Four rows back a couple speaks loudly of sex
before subsiding as the driver works the aisle for tickets.
“We got tickets to San Francisco,” says my seatmate.
The driver smiles. “That’s where you’re going?”
My turn: “Don’t tell him that’s a long way.
That’s what everybody says.”

“Nice watch,” my boy tells the driver.
To me “I bet that cost a lot of money.”
“Well, he does work hard.”
He notes my Timex turned under on my wrist.
“Yeah. Hey, you wear yours likes that, upside down?”
“My granddaddy wore his like that and it became my habit.”
“Oh, okay. You want a mint?”
He’s generous and also offers gum. Grateful, I decline.

We wait
for another bus and its people.
Outside a man argues over luggage gone awry.
Or possibly going awry at this very moment.
He’s not getting far.
The driver paces the wet pavement, then turns
as the sister bus releases another line to join our crew.
These people look tired.
And quickly they are wet.
We silently assess their stuff.
Pillows, dripping coats, bags of boxes of cereal clutched close.

Then the rumble,
both sky and engine.
Darkness suspended briefly as we pull away.
The driver introduces himself as Roger, “our motorcoach operator,”
ticking off rules and destinations.
“This bus will go to downtown Dallas, Texas but
I will only go as far as Jackson, Mississippi,” he explains.

“We go through Mississippi?” asks my little man.
“You do. I’m stopping in Alabama.”
“We go through Alabama?”
“Yep, that’ll be our next stop.”

We turn back to the voice: “If any of you have been listening to the weather,
we probably are going to experience
some very bad inclement weather.”
I’ve been watching the screens as we waited inside.
The worst is past.

Still a thick grey of stormy night descends.
The slick streets give themselves to us
as we roll past sleeping shells of brick,
crumbles of commerce,
shadows of stone human beings.
A row ahead the angry man still fusses
and cusses on his phone about his luggage.
It will be a long story.

Back in our seat, my friend plays his game,
basketball,
on mom’s phone.
I pack my failing electronics away and
speak of reading.
“You read? You mean books?”
“Yeah, I like to read. You?”
“Yeah, I like to read. I learned in 3rd grade. No, 2nd grade. No, 3rd grade.”
His words are deep urban west coast.
My own speech a stew of south and mid-atlantic edu-speak.
We both must work at hearing them,
but tacitly decide it’s worth the effort.

My eyes close as we take the highway.
I hear him surrender the phone,
almost gracefully since it didn’t go to the brother.
Atlanta, Austell, Lithia Springs, Douglasville, Villa Rica blur by.
Familiar exits creep into my dozing brain.
A baby cries for days.
Okay, not really.

The quiet voice: “You mind if I turn on the light?”
“No man, it’s fine. I’m just resting.”
“Okay. Which button is it?”
The slender outstretched arm does not reach.
Not yet.
I help him out and then turn to look.
He’s got a book.
I blink at the paperback with snow and a sleigh on its cover.
A Candlelight Romance with very small print and a heroine named Calista.
“That’s your book, huh?”
“It’s my mom’s. She’s got a bunch of them. But I’m going to read it too.”
“That’s good.”

He begins to read softly, aloud,
each word a swirl of unfamiliar sounds pulled from the page.
“I read this book the whole thing once,” he says,
unfazed as my eyebrows raise.
“I sound out the words. Put them in chunks.”
Mom leans across, tells him to read to himself, quiet-like.

The book lasts until it’s time to drain
a huge bottle of Orange Crush of its final swig.
He offers me Doritos.
We talk in expert tones of Cool Ranch and Nacho Cheese.
And then I explain Central Time,
the difference between Mexico and New Mexico
and between city and state.
Topics we will revisit.

“Alabama, it’s nice too,” he says. They have all those tomatoes.”
I’m still deciding what to say to this, when moments later:
“Wow! That’s Alabama?!?”
He points into the dark at acres of bright lights,
a huge, shiny RV dealer.
“‘Yes, this is Alabama.”

First stop is Anniston,
where the bus station is a gas station.
People disperse in search of food, cigarettes, and bathrooms.
I’m stuck to my notebook, with my blue pen.
I like this boy and want to keep the words he gives me,
this journey’s unexpected small treasure.

We resume.
The man in front continues to berate his phone about his luggage,
more loudly now that his seatmate’s wisely moved on.
I’ve been hearing his story for more than 100 miles and
still can’t make sense of it.
“Do you cuss?” my boy asks me.
“Not around kids.”
“What do you say?”
“I’m not going to say them in front of you. Not in front of kids, right?”
“I’m allowed to say the s-word. Because it comes from donkeys.”
“Uh huh.”

Leftovers of a Mexican lunch provide me dinner.
We share chips and talk of favorite foods.
He likes Chinese.
I have citrus to spare for him and bro,
clementines bought by morning for my daughter.
I accept some sour Skittles in return.
Orange, red, and then he adds a yellow.
“These are the best,” he says,
as he takes the yellow one and places it in my palm.

“Are you racist?”
“Ummm . . “
Aren’t we all?
but some of us choose to try to recover from it.
But I can’t say that, so I’m still thinking.
“I mean, do you like black people?”
“What do you think? Do I like black people? I’m talking to you, aren’t I?”
“I like all kinds of people. If they are nice.”
“I’m with you on that one. It gets boring if everybody’s just like me.”

We watch the dark go by,
pass a bus-sized truck whose driver sips coffee,
then the sign for Chula Vista.
He says
“I asked my dad how he was doing. He said he was good.
I said ‘Good’ back to him. And then I told him ‘But man, you’ve got to put more details in it.’”

They’ve come from Charlotte,
a month-long visit so mom,
I hear her explain,
could “take care of some business.”
She offers me her phone charger
to juice my tablet,
but I tell her I don’t have far to go and
have enough juice for that.

And enough to show her boy a map.
He nods.
“I like maps. And globes. You know globes? My teacher has one.”
We touch the screen and trace his likely path across the states.
I tear a scrap of paper and write them down for him to keep.

North Carolina
South Carolina
Georgia
Alabama
Mississippi
Louisiana
Texas
New Mexico
Arizona
California.
At least I think.
I tell him I don’t know how they’ll go from Texas,
but maybe like that.

We review the Mexico-New Mexico difference again.
Then the talk turns to dinosaurs and what they eat
and then to iron and what we eat.
“That’s my TV, the window,” he says. “Are there any black people in Texas?”
“Why, yes there are. I do know that.”
“I mean like a lot of black people?”
“I guess that depends on how you look at it.”

“Look at those lights,”
I tell him as we glide into town.
“I’ve got to call my friend so I can get home.”

You’re a nice lady.”
“Thank you. I think you are nice too. I enjoyed talking with you.”
“Not everyone is nice.”
“No, not everyone is nice. You do have to be careful about that.”

We shake hands.
I finally get his name.
Elisha.
I tell him my own again.
Repeat it.

I give mom my card, tell her to have him e-mail me someday
when he learns how.
She says to him: “you made a friend.”

I hand her the last four clementines.
She has me give them to Elisha.
I remind him: “Now, they’re for you AND your brother.”
“I know.”
“Good.”

And then I go
away,
home.
And they go
away.

I sit this morning in the sunlight,
with my coffee and my dogs and my blue pen.
Elisha should be in Texas by now,
Dallas soon.
Then another bus will take him west,
so he can find his own way
home.

A Communal Lament for Ferguson

A Liturgy of Communal Lament, written in the wake of the Ferguson protests

One: Dear God, what must we do?

All: My God, my God, we grieve.

One: Dear God, we grieve.

All: Dear God, we grieve.

One: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. But we see the darkness all around, dear God. Sometimes we cannot see through the darkness to find the light.

All: Together we grieve.

One:  We grieve for young black men lying in the street.

We grieve for Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

We grieve for Tamir Rice and Akai Gurley.

We grieve for the all the precious lives we throw away.

We bow our heads and ask for a new world,

a world where life is not disposable.

All: We grieve.

One: We grieve because too often black lives do not matter in our world,

brown lives,

bodies at the border,

dead in the desert.

We grieve for men with guns who believe they need to shoot to kill

We grieve for those who kill.

All: We grieve because too often black lives do not matter in our world.

We grieve for brown lives, bodies at the border, dead in the desert.

We grieve for men with guns who believe they need to shoot to kill

We grieve for those who kill.

One: From the Psalm 44: Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground. Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.

All: We mourn our racism,

our systems that deal death instead of life,

that offer the justice of the market,

the justice of the slave market.

One: O come, o come Emmanuel.

All: O come, o come Emmanuel.

We need justice for all.

We long for love for all creation.

One: Lynch law

Jim Crow

Mass incarceration

Inadequate education

Oh God, oh God, we grieve

All: Together we grieve.

One: We hope for joy.

All: We long for peace.

One: From Psalm 80: Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted. They have burned it down with fire, they have cut it down.

All: Together we grieve.

One: We grieve for Syrians slaughtered by bombs,

thousands dead from Ebola,

our dying earth,

species dying,

air dying,

seas dying,

all the death we cause

when what we really need is life

All: Why, God? Why?

One: What are we to do but love one another?

All: What are we to do but love one another?

We hope for peace.

We wait.

And we grieve.

One: Let us be silent.