Yiayia / Γιαγιά

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In my heart this week, I have held my grandmother, my “Yiayia” who came to America at age 25 with an older husband and two babies. One of them was my mother. December 16, 1916 it was when the ship Guiseppe Verdi reached Ellis Island. My Yiayia — line number 25 on the ship’s passenger manifest — had never envisioned coming to this land. She never considered she might leave the tiny Greek village on the island that was her home.

Her husband, wanted by Mussolini as a political detractor, had no choice but to flee in the dark of night in search of a place of safety and refuge for his little family. He had the courage to survive and to dream. But here’s the thing: my grandparents were welcomed into this country when they arrived to see the brightness of the Lady Liberty’s lighted torch. To be sure, their life in America was not all bright or easy. They worked hard to eek out a living and to become a part of a new community so very far from the home they loved. 

After I was born into the world, a toddler at Yiayia’s knee, I watched her struggling to learn English, to speak English well enough to be understood by her neighbors. One of my most vivid memories was sitting next to her at our kitchen table next to an enormous silver radiator that creaked and groaned, but warmed us famously. With The Birmingham News spread across the table in front of her, she drank her coffee, dipping her Zuieback toast and reading the newspaper, every morning.

She taught herself to read English, but The Birmingham News was not merely a reading primer for Yiayia. She learned from it. She understood the news events of her day. She knew that liberty was a gift worth protecting. So she studied the political climate and the political personalities asking for her vote. She would insist that you MUST vote, that you must know the candidates, that you must cherish the right to free and fair elections.

So Yiayia would dress in her finest clothing, simple but lovely dresses. She would put on her earrings and her brooch, her rings and her watch. Then she would dress me, and off we would go, across the street and down the block to the polling place. We would go together into the booth with the dark brown curtain. She would vote and I would stand in close to her with the view of only that brown curtain and her chunky shoes, heels of course.

Before we exited the booth — every time — she would look down at me and say, “We are Democrats! That’s how we vote, always!” And to this very day, I have followed her voting directive — always. The truth is that her definitive directive about voting had much more to do with the process than the political party she supported. It went deeper than any party loyalty, all the way back to reading The Birmingham News, seeing the beam of the Statue of Liberty, crossing the ominous ocean, remembering how it felt to have to flee from government oppression and grieving the loss of the island of her home.

Today, it’s not so simple for our neighbors who must flee their homes for so many reasons — safety, survival, fear, oppression. Our president says they are not welcome here. Many Americans say they are not welcome here. Just today, The New York Times reported that Mr. Trump’s growing migrant paranoia resulted in the forced resignation of homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who resigned on Sunday. She is part of Trump’s wider “housecleaning” designed to appoint persons who will make sure migrants can not get across our southwestern borders. Only department heads who will enthusiastically implement the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy will keep their jobs. May we never forget the images of thousands of migrant children who were separated from their families.

The president, in a not so presidential tweet, took aim again Sunday night when he tweeted, “Our Country is FULL!” So yes, he says that our neighbors are not welcome here. Yet, millions of us, second generation citizens of the United States of America, will never forget where we came from. We will always remember that our roots spanned the ocean and survived in a new land.

In my friend’s blog last week, I found words that touched me in a profound way and caused me to grieve the land of welcome we once knew. Her words express a startling poignancy. 

“A country that unwelcomes the world,” she writes.

I want to share with you her entire blog post — Jericho Walk — because it is well worth your time to ponder it, but first I emphasize this portion:

Often there is a shofar
to remind us just how deep
are the cracks
in the foundation of a country
that unwelcomes the world . . .

Jericho Walk
by Maren

I return to the Jericho walk,
in Manchester,
having not been well enough
for a couple months,
and it feels like home —
this moving vigil, silent, but with signs
and grateful waving for drivers
who honk their support.

We travel around the large block
of the federal building
where people we love and
some people we have never met
come to discover
if this week they’ll be deported.

We walk around seven times
hoping the walls
will come tumbling down —

around this place
that sends into certain danger
kind, hard-working,
tax paying, family-loving people
who contribute so much
to our community

Often there is a shofar
to remind us just how deep
are the cracks
in the foundation of a country
that unwelcomes the world,

but today there is a flautist
playing “Siyahamba”
over and over again —
walking
in the light of God,

and I think of that less-military
Jericho story —
the one that defines neighbor as

anyone from anywhere
who stops to help vulnerable ones
fallen on the side of the road.

Thank you, Maren. 

Thank you, my dear Yiayia, for teaching me that God grants us the grace gifts of refuge, safe haven and freedom. And no human — not even a big, bad, bully president — can take those gifts from us and from the generations that come after us.

May God make it so. Amen.

 

 

Rough, Broken Roads

5E982E74-6C78-42E3-BA27-C642528A9C0CI think often about roads, the roads that take people where they want to go, or not. I think with deep fondness about the terribly rough and broken roads we traveled in Uganda. The time was immediately after the horrific reign of Idi Amin that left the roads, and the entire country, in shambles. I remember the difficulty in traveling those rough, broken roads — washed out, bombed out, neglected for years.

I remember the fear of traveling those roads, the frightening military roadblocks, the pointed machine guns, the soldier’s demand for all that we carried in the vehicle and even the vehicle itself. I remember how some of our missionaries were left in the bush with their vehicle “confiscated” by the occupying army. I remember the roadblock murder of the dear Ugandan man who drove our mission’s supply truck.

I think of traveling a road in the middle of the night that led to my brother’s funeral, made rough by grief. I think of the rough road I traveled in leaving my home of 32 years for a new and unfamiliar place. I can never forget my rough road through serious illness and difficult recovery.

I think of roads that take people where they do not want to go — to war, to prisons, to rehabilitation centers, to the sites of natural disasters. I think about the roads in disaster areas that are simply gone.

I remember a song in a Christian musical of many years ago titled “Rough Old Roads.” It told of the rough roads Jesus walked. The song’s climactic moment gave us these words: “the road that was roughest of all to walk was the road that led to the cross.”

It is appropriate for us during Lent to recall the rough roads Jesus walked, rough for so many reasons: rejection, danger, soul temptation, angry crowds and lynch mobs, and ultimately the rough road that Jesus walked to the cross, to his death. To learn of his roads means that we get a glimpse of our own. The roads we all walk.

None of us can avoid walking the rough and broken roads that appear before us, but it is in traversing those roads that we learn who we are. Rough roads force us to take the hard and narrow way, and thus become who we must ultimately become. Roads can wind around so that we are lost, thus inviting us to take the risk of vulnerability required for an unknown and uncharted journey. Our roads teach and challenge us. When the road ahead of us is rough or broken, our commitment to stay the course results in wisdom. I call it wisdom from the journey. Our rough, broken roads make us stronger and more resilient. The rougher they are, the more we change and grow.

I could bore you with even more personal reflection about rough roads, but instead I want to share a moving poem written by Maren Tirabassi.* In the poem, she writes of broken roads and calls for a God who attends to all who find themselves on broken roads.

Here are Maren’s moving words:

I was praying this morning, God,
for all the people in Mozambique
and Malawi and Zimbabwe,
in the midst of the terrible losses
from cyclone Idai —
the deaths and injury and destruction,
the ongoing need for rescue

and I learned that the roads are broken.

I should have known —

the roads between towns
are impassable,
the bridges smashed, ports unusable.
Also those other paths —
electricity, telephone, Internet,
are gone as well.

And I went from that
flat-hand-on-the-newspaper prayer,
to the jail and my meeting
for spiritual care
and walked among others
with no access

and realized that journey
is not a parable for Lent
for these,
your children on the inside.

And so holy Valley-uplifter,
Rough-place-leveler,
I call you to attend
to all who suffer broken roads —

broken highways or heartways,
or sometimes minds that cannot
find a way out of whatever
dead end they are in,

and teach me to pay attention, too,
put my back against
every road block,
become an opener of the way home.

 

May God make it so. Amen.

 

*Maren served as a pastor in the United Church of Christ for thirty-seven years in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and is the author or editor of 20 books. You may read more of her creative and soulful writing at her blog, “Gifts in Open Hands” at the following link:

https://giftsinopenhands.wordpress.com/2019/03/21/10101/