It’s my most common statement these days: ”Have a nice trip!” Saying it to my friends is the polite thing to do, given that I am landlocked in my house. And to my credit, I really mean it when I say it. I really do wish them a nice trip—fun and relaxing and safe and an experience of all things good.
At the same time, my heart is always just a little shattered when someone I know embarks on a summer adventure. It makes me long for times past when my family took amazing vacations to Disney World or Sea World, to the ocean or to the mountains, to Oregon, Seattle, or Vancouver, or Gatlinburg, or Nevada, or San Francisco, New Orleans, Reno, Nashville, Nairobi, Mombasa, Athens, Mexico . . . I can’t even remember all the places. “Those were the days,” I’ve heard it said. And so they were!
Today is a very different reality. Travel is harder, for so many reasons, and being confined to home has a host of repercussions. I have experienced many of those repercussions, physical ones, spiritual ones and emotional ones. Immediately after my kidney transplant in 2019, Covid-19 descended upon us. After that, I accepted my personal reality of taking immunosuppressant medications for the rest of my life to prevent organ rejection. That personal reality meant that, no matter the lifting of mask mandates and the full re-opening of everything, I had no immune system to fight Covid or any other infection. And that means forever!
When everyone around me seems free, and carefree, I feel imprisoned. I admit, it has taken an emotional toll on me. It still does affect my sense of freedom, safety, loneliness, boredom, isolation, creativity—the things that fill your soul. I have tried hard and long for three years to stay active and creative and never to feel bored. But I have reached a kind of stasis, worn out from ”keeping busy” and from pushing myself to be productive, creative and happy.
My husband asked me yesterday if I’m depressed. I almost said, “no” before the truth hit me. I haven’t seen my son and grandchildren for two years. I haven’t seen my Atlanta cousins since November. I haven’t seen most of my friends in months. So, yes, I suppose I am depressed, though I so want to push it away by denying it.
Depression has its own trajectory. Most of the time, I just have to ride it out and wait for better days. In the meantime, to all of you travelers out there: Have a nice trip!
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land; Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name . . .
From her beacon-hand Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she with silent lips.
“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
— Emma Lazarus
In the year 1883, Poet Emma Lazarus wrote this sonnet, “The New Colossus,” to raise money for the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty would stand. The sonnet ends with the poignant, passionate words that were added to the base of the statue in 1903: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
For me, these words always held deep significance, first of all, because both of my parents emigrated to this country from Greece and secondly, because I worked as an advocate and trauma counselor for victims of human trafficking, both adults and children. My work was not merely a job; it was a calling that took me into emotionally and physically dark places that challenged my theology of good and evil. It opened my eyes to the intrinsic evil of politics, wealth, greed, inhumanity and depravity. As I toiled with broken, traumatized women, men and children, trying to help them change their lives, my own life was changed, transformed really.
Lady Liberty spoke to me in those days. I know she is a mere statue with no human attributes to admire, but she is to me a powerful symbol. The Statue of Liberty has been called “Mother of Exiles.” People who have been exiled for so many different reasons have found inspiration in her, in this inanimate sculpture that comes alive in people who yearn for freedom. Lady Liberty is sculpted from the inspiration of Libertas, the Roman goddess of liberty with broken shackle and chain at her feet. The Statue of Liberty became an icon of freedom, a symbol of welcome to immigrants, especially immigrants arriving by sea. I remember hearing my grandmother’s many stories of sailing to America, and one of her memories was seeing the Statue of Liberty’s welcoming light.
I’m writing this today as my commemoration of July 4th, a day that represents freedom, yet not for all. For if you ask your African American brother or sister, “What does July 4th mean to you? You will get an answer expressing something like this: “Are you asking me, a descendant of the American slave, what the 4th of July means to me? I answer: It is a day that reveals to me, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which I am a constant victim.”
So I am always uncomfortable “celebrating” the 4th of July with fireworks and cookouts and a proliferation of mini American flags. Instead, I choose to commemorate, not celebrate. So I will acknowledge the day, yet never forget its full meaning, its meaning not just to me, but to my brothers and sisters — descendants of slaves, immigrants fleeing from oppression, victims of human trafficking.
Are you asking me, a descendant of the American slave, what the 4th of July means to me? I answer: it is a day that reveals to me, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which I am a constant victim.
So think of Lady Liberty for a moment. The image of a woman, not a man — a woman who is standing tall and steady, with her torch lifted to offer light to all who need light. She is an image of a woman who represents compassion, invitation, protection, acceptance, freedom. The broken shackles at her feet declare the end of enslavement, cruelty and bondage for all people as she proclaims welcome for the tired, the poor, the ones who yearn to breathe free, the homeless, those tossed by the tempests of their lives. “Send them to me,” she says, “I lift my lamp to light their way!”
In our country, we entertain hard questions in these days, questions about our nation’s borders, about how welcoming we will be, about equality and equity and whether or not black lives really matter. So today I wonder. Will we lock our gates of welcome? Will we turn away persons escaping tyranny, danger and oppression seeking a land of freedom in our homeland? Will we act as if black and brown lives truly matter? Will we act in the spirit of the Lady, the “mother of exiles” who stands in New York Harbor? Or will we pick up the broken chains at her feet, forge them back together and use them to enslave?
These are the questions we should be asking in these days. Of course, political debate continues dissecting our nation’s immigration policies, as always. Politicians do that, often with little thought about the real people, the real families who bring their children to our nation for safety, protection and freedom. Politicians will do what they do as they always have, but I must ask my American compatriots, “What will we do? Will you and I speak in solidarity with the people who seek to live free in our country? I pray that we will show up when it matters and speak from our hearts of compassion, advocating for a nation that will always say, “Give me your tired, your poor.”
Mother of Exiles, may we stand in welcome with you, and in the spirit of our loving God, may we always love the stranger as we love ourselves. Amen.
You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Stand fast therefore in the freedom by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. Galatians 5:1 (NKJV)
What is it about freedom that scares us? What is it about freedom that causes us to refuse to offer it to everyone? Are we afraid that giving freedom to another person or group of persons will diminish our own freedom? What does freedom really mean to persons who are oppressed and to those who live inside the throes of injustice?
I have written very little lately about justice and accountability, the two words most used to describe Derek Chauvin’s conviction. Ican’t help but mark this very moment on the “long arc that bends toward justice.” I feel compelled to call our attention to this week! Actually it’s last week now, but you get the idea. Let’s call it “the week of the verdict.”
The week of the verdict has come full circle from George Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020 to the conviction of Derick Chauvin almost one year later on April 29, 2021. It was a week we will not forget. It brought up emotions in me and perhaps in most people. Most of what I felt mirrored the emotions I imagine George Floyd’s family feeling — happy, calm, relieved, conflicted, hopeful, determined, vindicated. I also felt sad and helpless because the conviction did not end murders of black and brown brothers and sisters. And I felt joyful and hopeful because perhaps this flashpoint in the long history of racial injustice will help us turn the corner and finally see in our communities the justice we long for.
How can that happen? How can we turn the corner and move away from oppressive systems and oppressive people? How do we do that when just minutes after the verdict and less than ten miles away, 16 year old Ma’Khia Bryant was shot and killed by police in Ohio? It happened in the shadow of “the week of the verdict.”
Perhaps for us this is the week of the verdict — the week when the verdict will be read on our failure to end the systemic racism in our communities! Isn’t it past time for us to stand up and stand strong and stand determined and woke? My friends, it is time! This moment in the history of injustice may well be the turning point we need to end racism!
I have said this many times: We cannot just reform injustice, we must transform it. The transformation that results in genuine, lasting justice must begin in the soul and in the heart where intentions are formed. I must lament injustice, confess my own complicity in it, repent of the white supremacy within me, own other forms of oppression and commit to the hard work of transforming injustice in my community and in my world. Only then will transformation happen in the systems that oppress people.
Only transformed people can love neighbors as Jesus loved us. My friend and sister blogger never fails to remind me to answer the ultimate question, “How then shall I live?”* She offers this scripture to us today.
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
1 John 3:16-17
She then reminded us that conditions in India are dire and the people languish.
In India, today the virus surges almost beyond control, hospitals are choked, people die in line waiting for a doctor. How can those of us rejoicing in vaccination, cautious travel, new gatherings, not ask how we can help?
How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
And that is the soul-critical question we must answer. How then shall we live when all around us people suffer every kind of calamity — every kind of violence, disaster, racism, discrimination, dehumanization? Every kind of heartache. How do we, in our suffering world, become the heart, hands and feet of Jesus?
Getting back to the lament of my own heart, that one thing that inspires my passion — transforming the injustice of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia and all forms of evil exclusion and oppression. Transforming injustice! Setting our faces toward the hope of Beloved Community! This one thing I know, the steps of Jesus would have led him to the “healing” of injustice in any form. On every day he walked on this earth, Jesus would be loving every person who was in need and he would be lamenting every injustice that caused harm.
How can we not lament? How can we not expend ourselves in the hard work of transforming injustice? How can we not care for, and pray for, and love our brothers and sisters who are in need? How can we refuse to work for the freedom of black and brown people, indigenous peoples, LGBTQ+ people, immigrants and asylum seekers, and to any person who is enslaved? How can we deny God’s desire for justice and peace?
How can we refuse freedom to black and brown people, indigenous peoples, LGBTQ+ people, immigrants and asylum seekers, and to any person who is enslaved? How can we deny them God’s peace?
— Rev. Kathy Manis Findley
I do not have the answer for how we might do this. But I do have some convictions about it, especially about racism and white supremacy. One of my convictions is that dismantling racism begins in me, in my soul. And eradicating white supremacy begins when I look seriously at my own white supremacy. For you see, as long as white supremacy looks to me like a white-draped person burning a cross, I will never acknowledge that white supremacy is in me. As long as white supremacy looks to me like a man I might see on TV news with a truck, a confederate flag, a rifle and a mission, I can easily distance myself. I am not that white person; I am a different white person that would never tolerate racism.
Am I? Am I that different white person? Or are there ways I contribute to an unjust society? Are there ways I fail to seek Beloved Community? Are there thoughts and feelings within me that diminish other persons, persons not like me? Am I complacent about injustice? Am I complicit? Am I reticent? Am I avoiding, looking the other way?
As long as white supremacy looks to me like a white-draped person burning a cross in someone’s yard, I will never see that white supremacy is in me. As long as white supremacy looks to me like a man I might see on TV news with a pick-up truck, a confederate flag, a rifle and a mission, I can easily distance myself. I am not that kind of white person! Or am I?
Rev. Kathy Manis Findley
Racial injustice may currently be the most visible form of oppression, but we must remember that many groups of people are oppressed. Many people long for freedom from oppression. Only when we “see” and “hear” all of their voices, will we be on the way to transforming injustice. I don’t know everything about oppression, and I don’t know exactly how to make a difference. I don’t really know how to join hands with my community and set about to transform injustice. I do know that I must begin with my own lament, for only lament can open my eyes to every manner of suffering and oppression.
So meet me on the mountain where we find the strength from God to persevere, and then descend with me to all the places where oppression enslaves people. Come with me to the people, and together, let us remove from them the yoke of bondage and offer them new freedom. And may Spirit Wind surround us with courage. Thanks be to God.
*”How then Shall We Live?” was the inspiring theme of the Alliance of Baptists Annual Gathering.
Not a word we are fond of. Nothing inspiring about the word. And when the word insanity is more than just a word, we shudder in its grasp. Insanity brings its own bondage, stealing one’s freedom to live, confiscating one’s creative expression. Insanity can be a complete, all-encompassing mental breakdown, even bordering on madness, OR it can be a state of being that most of us have experienced — irrationality, instability, disorientation, mania. Many people (noted scholars) have mused that “the definition of insanity is the most overused expression of all time.” (Salon.com)
Remember the declaration about “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result?” Yes, I know you remember that definition, probably have said it yourself in an exasperating moment!
Where am I going with these bizarre introductory words?
I’m actually going to a place you may not expect. I’m going to the rush and swirl of color in one of my favorite paintings, A Starry Night by the Dutch Post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh. The painting draws me in — into the little village with its steepled church, into a sky filled with sparkling stars, into the glorious luminance of the crescent moon, into the swirls of blues and whites and yellows. I have pondered many times what sort of mind and soul could have created a painting like this one.
The story behind A Starry Night is the unnerving story of Van Gogh. A few months after experiencing a mental breakdown on December 23, 1988 that resulted in the self-mutilation of his left ear, Van Gogh voluntarily admitted himself to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole Lunatic Asylum. During the year Van Gogh stayed at the asylum, his prolific output of paintings continued and he produced some of the best-known works of his career. A Starry Night was painted by around June 18, the date he wrote to his brother Theo to say he had a new study of a starry sky.
A Starry Night was the only nocturnal painting in the series of views he saw from his bedroom window. In early June, Vincent wrote to Theo, “This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big”. Researchers have determined that Venus was indeed visible at dawn in Provence in the spring of 1889, and was at that time nearly as bright as it could be. So the brightest “star” in the painting, just to the viewer’s right of the cypress tree, is actually Venus.
Too much information? Probably, but here’s my point that is not really about insanity at all. Rather, it’s about breaking free from bondage and taking back my life. You see, sometimes the sight of a big, bright morning star can replace whatever fear or angst I am feeling. Sometimes looking into the deep of a starry night can carry me to resplendent places. Sometimes even my slight insanity can transport me to my deepest expressions of creativity.
For me, insanity is my incessant scurrying around with too many things to do, a kind of mania. That frenzied scurrying is of my own choosing and therefore, leans a little too close to self-imposed insanity. I wonder if instead of that scurrying life of bondage, I could make time for moments of thought that would enable me to say something like what Vincent Van Gogh said from his asylum:
“This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise with nothing but the morning star — the brightest star — which looked very big!“
Contemplate for a moment the insanity of a life encumbered — filled to overflowing with too many things to do — compared with a life of stargazing that might just awaken fresh and bright creativity in you.
As for me, I’m heading toward a spiritual transformation — a life of sacred pauses, a stargazing life, a grace-filled re-awakening!
Juneteenth is a celebration. It’s not solemn, it’s filled with joy and pageantry. It’s not a funeral. But 2020 Juneteenth is uncomfortably juxtaposed with police violence against Black people, protesters in cities all over the nation and funerals — too many funerals.
A Bit of History . . .
Juneteenth is one of America’s oldest holidays and is observed each year on June 19 to mark the official end of slavery in the United States. The day has long been celebrated by black Americans as a symbol of their long-awaited emancipation. But the story behind the holiday starts 155 years ago today in Galveston, Texas.
On June 19, 1865, Union troops led by General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to break the news to the last remaining Confederate sympathizers that they had lost the Civil War and that all slaves must be freed. The Union general read aloud to the residents of Galveston:
The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.
The newly freed slaves celebrated emancipation with prayer, feasting, song, and dance, and the following year, the first official Juneteenth celebration was born. But the importance of Juneteenth is that it is rooted in a long history of struggle for freedom and then perhaps the greater struggle to maintain freedom in the face of the enormous repression that was to come.
The Struggle for Freedom Continued
It turned out that being free did not mean being being treated with respect. Yes, it was the true end of the Civil War, but it was also the beginning of Reconstruction, a time that was supposed to be very happy and hopeful. Yet the period of Reconstruction became a miserable time for freed Black people because Reconstruction became part of the redemption of the South. As such, it set out to move African Americans to indentured servitude. While President Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery in his Jan. 1, 1863, Emancipation Proclamation, rebellious Confederate strongholds dotted across the South delayed the widespread implementation.
The South would not hear of the end of slavery, and landowners moved heaven and earth to make sure they had plenty of indentured servants. They were determined to continue the ostentatious lifestyle that they believed was their right and their legacy. They were resolute in their quest to maintain their master/servant status.
Still Today, Elusive Freedom
Juneteenth has been “passed down” through black communities since 1866, but in this year — 2020 — this nation seems to be at the height of a modern-day civil rights movement. My friend says, “2020 is the year of reset!” People throughout this nation of every race and creed hope beyond hope the 2020 will go even beyond “reset” to reconciliation, transformation and rebirth. So that every person is free, respected and cherished as a part of beloved community.
The cruel and violent death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer might mean that this year Juneteenth may not be only about festivals, parades and cookouts. It may well be somewhat of a silent, reflective vigil for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, Caine Van Pelt, Michael Thomas, Lewis Ruffin, Kamal Flowers, Momodou Lamin Sisay, Ruben Smith, Modesto Reyes . . . and the list could continue.
It is a list of tragedy and horror. It is a list that is a stain that will ever remain on this nation, an indelible mark of shame. It is a list of names we must never forget. So in your commemoration of Juneteenth today, honor those names, pray for their mourning families, and pray that you will confront racial injustice with an unshakeable resolve.
Juneteenth was meant to be a celebration, although many people might not be able to celebrate today. Heartbreak and horror have a tendency to override celebration and joy. Even with hearts broken, I hope we will find in our hearts even a tiny desire to celebrate this day that was, and is, all about freedom.
May the change that comes from the “2020 movement for racial justice” cause us to celebrate, not mourn, every time Juneteenth comes around — today and forevermore. And may each of us and all of us — a people of God’s creation — witness the rebirth of a nation where every person lives under a worldwide canopy of justice, peace, equality, respect and freedom.
May God make it so through us. Amen.
Celebrate, or mourn, today as you spend a few moments watching this moving and poignant video, “Oh Freedom.”
Peace, joy and freedom. All three are needed things, soul things that make us content. They are not easily gained, however, as the daily routine we call life attacks them on a regular basis.
How troubling it is to lose one’s sense of peace. A number of life situations can result in a loss of soul-peace — worry about illness, financial concerns, difficulty with children, caring for aging parents, moving to another home. It would be impossible to complete the list of things that can steal our sense of peace.
Perhaps we should go one step further, though, and acknowledge that our loss is not merely the loss of peace, it is the loss of peacefulness. That loss can be disconcerting at best and devastating at worse. All of us long for a deep and abiding sense of peacefulness. We sometimes cry out “peace, peace, when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14)
Joy! At times, it can be hard for us to feel joy. I think it is because we’re not at all sure what joy hidden inside the soul feels like. For joy is not simply happiness over something that has come to us — a new house or car, a life milestone like graduation or a wedding, a celebration of the birth of a child. Such things seem to bring joy, but our actual response to such events is a brief burst of happiness. Genuine joy — soul joy — happens when something inside of us deeply responds to joy and we tuck it away safely in our hearts. And that kind of joy is not a brief response to a happy event, it is an abiding, spiritual state of being that comes with a grace-filled assurance that Christ came to make sure we live our lives ‘more abundantly.” The message from Jesus comes to us using various words:
I have come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.
(John 10:10, paraphrased)
I came to give life with joy and abundance.
(The VOICE translation)
I have come in order that you might have life—life in all its fullness.
(The Good News Bible)
Living “Life in all its fullness” seems to be the end result of abiding joy, in the soul and in the heart. Even when we listened to the song our children learned to sing, “I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart,” we somehow knew that true joy was internal not external. That joy resided in our hearts and in our souls.
Finally freedom — the kind of freedom we have when peace and joy is hidden in the deepest recesses of our being. Freedom does not leave those who practice gratefulness, prayer, meditation and confession. It is at the altar of confession that God offers us assurance of pardon. It’s the opposite of the soul’s bondage. I cannot help but recall the words of the Apostle Paul about the nature of Christian freedom that so boldly introduce the 5th chapter of Galatians:
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of bondage. (Galatians 5:1)
Frederick Buechner added a new dimension to our longing for peace, joy and freedom with this powerful thought:
Unless there is peace and joy and freedom for you,
there can be no real peace or joy or freedom for me.
Therein lies the crux of living the Christian life: an interconnectedness among those who follow Christ, a community of faith in which each one supports the other. It is an interconnectedness that transcends differences of opinion, different ways of practicing faith, disagreements about which hymns are more appropriate in worship or, even more trivial, what kind of light bulbs should we use in the sanctuary.
Our interconnectedness ensures that each of us will have the will and the faithfulness to enjoy the kind of peace, joy and freedom that abides in us when we “do not forsake the assembling of ourselves together and when we exhort and encourage one another. The Message translation by Eugene Peterson calls it “spurring each other on.” (Hebrews 10:25)
Perhaps caring for one another — exhorting, encouraging and “spurring each other on” — is the message of this beloved hymn that so often informs our worship and our community when we sing it together:
Brother, sister, let me serve you;
Let me be as Christ to you;
Pray that I might have the grace to
Let you be my servant, too.
We are pilgrims on a journey;
We are family on the road;
We are here to help each other
Walk the miles and bear the load.
I will hold the Christ-light for you
In the nighttime of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you,
Speak the peace you long to hear.
I will weep when you are weeping;
When you laugh I’ll laugh with you;
I will share your joys and sorrows
Till we’ve seen this journey through.
When we sing to God in Heaven
We shall find such harmony,
Born of all we’ve known together
Of Christ’s love and agony.
— THE SERVANT SONG, Words and music by Richard Gillard
In our deepest time of prayer and contemplation and in the sacred refuge of our community of faith, our souls find peace, joy and freedom — for all of us, for each of us.
Women in white gowns emerge from the crashing water of a moonlit waterfall. What in the world does that have to do with me, other than the fact that I am completely enthralled by this painting? I certainly cannot relate or see myself emerging from rushing waters or even dancing with a tambourine in my hand. Yet, there is something about this art that inspired my soul searching and brought up some questions I want to contemplate.
Where did I come from? Where will I go?
What will I do with my life? Which of my dreams will I realize?
I have asked myself similar questions, questions about what made me who I am and if I will ever feel that I have realized my life dreams. It’s true that I have entered my seventieth year of life, and one might wonder why the need for all the introspective questions. But In the core of my being, I believe that I can still dream and that I can still experience wonder about what I see in and around my life.
What people will enter my life leaving cherished gifts of friendship? What wonder will I see around me as I search for meaning? What will Spirit say to me with the gentle breath of her voice that can also enter my life as a rushing, mighty wind? And how does God continue to call me to new ministries of the heart?
I do not know the answer to those questions. Nor do I know who or what I will be when I grow up. So I struggle to know. I plead with God to give me direction. During this season of my life while I am challenged with so many things related to my kidney transplant, I have been somewhat obsessed with finding the answers to all those “who am I?” questions. I despair a little when I can’t find the answers.
Back to the art. Yesterday, I accidentally came across the painting by Canadian artist Rob Gonsalves which is at the top of this post. I was immediately captivated by the image, especially the rushing waterfall that changed into women living life — some of them dancing, others playing their tambourines, others just emerging, still others just beginning to awaken.
The art reminds me of how we might emerge into life — to grow into life, to be open to change, to be willing to embrace a process of becoming. Each of us is engaged in that kind of process whether we know it or not, whether we embrace it or not. We want to experience an awakening that opens our eyes to wonder and our souls to extraordinary newness of life. We want the freedom to be who we are. We don’t want to stay in our awakening place, reticent about moving into the best part of our lives, refusing to move because of our fear. We want to throw off our hesitation and, in search of our dreams, to sing, to dance, to play our tambourines in celebration of our unique personhood.
I am reminded of a beautiful passage of Scripture from the Psalms.
Let them praise his name with dancing,
making melody to him with tambourine and lyre.
— Psalm 149:3 (NRSV)
Isn’t that precisely what we want for our lives? To lean into our true selves so that we are compelled to sing, to dance with tambourines in our hands, to celebrate our lives, to dream and to praise the God who rejoices when we live into freedom and joy!
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 . . .
I return to the Jericho walk,
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
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
over and over again —
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.
On this day — the day we usually spend celebrating America each year — some of us are lamenting because we don’t feel much like celebrating. The children and families separated at our borders leave us feeling deep-down-where-it-hurts grief. And it is not that we look at the border fiasco as the crisis “du jour.” No. The toddlers in detention centers have come on the heels of the Parkland shooting and the protests it sparked around the nation and throughout the world when all of us cried out in unified voice, “Not our children,”
Again and again, we have witnessed tragedies inflicted on the children. We have wept over them and have seen the horror that left our children unprotected and in harm’s way. There are, of course, other issues before us that cause grave concern, but it’s the children that leave us speechless and breathless. If we are a free and just nation at all, then we simply cannot abide the thought of children being in danger.
So what do I do today? What do I celebrate? Do I display the American flag in my front yard? What do I say about today?
I have determined to say nothing further, but instead to offer the poignant poem written in 1935 by American poet Langston Hughes.
Let America Be America Again
Langston Hughes, 1902 – 1967
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed— Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today — O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free?Not me?
Surely not me?
The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does that not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
Some folks see a golden necklace with sparkling links. But others see chains as cruel symbols of enslavement. History records thousands of inhumane acts of enslavement. A review of history is about real people whose lives were oppressive, whose chains were heavy, whose slavery was permanent. We remember their lives with a sense of shame and we honor them with genuine repentance.
But we must also bring the reality of chains closer to home as we recall the times of our lives that held us in chains. Serious illnesses. Violent relationships. Troubled children. Careers that became personal enslavement. No, the chains that bound us were not made of steel. Instead, they were chains that bound our very being, holding us fast, oppressing our spirits.
In all of this, there is hope. It is the hope of God’s grace that empowers us to break free. I am reminded of one of my favorite Scripture passages.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
– Galatians 5:1, New International Version
Of one thing I am certain. God does not desire for us a life of enslavement, but graces us with the courage to free ourselves from all that holds us hostage. Life in Christ is not a life of chains. It is a life of freedom to live, to love, and to thrive. Though we may have been hurt by circumstances that left us in chains, our souls can never be chained.
Laurie Halse Anderson writes this in her brilliant novel series, Chains: Seeds of America.
She cannot chain my soul. Yes, she could hurt me. She’d already done so . . . I would bleed, or not. Scar, or not. Live, or not. But she could not hurt my soul, not unless I gave it to her.