Sometimes the truth is easy and lovely, to recognize, speak and hear. Like when you happen to open your front door as the sun is descending on a clear, crisp autumn day, and the changing hues of the sky take your breath away; and you exclaim to whoever might hear you (or perhaps simply to yourself), “Oh my God, what a gorgeous sunset.”
Other times, speaking the truth and hearing it aren’t so easy.
Last night 85 of us gathered in the nave to listen to the second speaker in our VOICES series, journalist and author Lawrence Lanahan. As part of his presentation, he read aloud excerpts from his recently published book, The Lines Between Us: Two Families and A Quest to Cross Baltimore’s Racial Divide. I can’t imagine that the words he said were easy for him to speak.
They definitely were not easy to hear.
Baltimore’s wealth follows whiteness.
White supremacy is alive and well.
People with privilege and power have used these to perpetuate socioeconomic inequality and injustice.
Earlier in the day I happened to have visited two different schools in our city. The first one, located in the 21225 zip code, would have closed several years ago, had it not been for the determined engaged activism of its surrounding community; I had to leave the meeting I was attending there several times, due to a persistent cough that time-and-again took my breath away, caused by a faulty air-filtering system. The second one, located in the 21210 zip code, features a newly completed, multi-million dollar, successful renovation of several school spaces; walking down its hallways also took my breath away, but for a different reason. My heart is with and praying for both school communities, that one day, all students in our city may receive the same quality of education, regardless of zip code.
Lawrence Lanahan ended his talk last night with these words from W.E.B. DuBois:
I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?
Sometimes the truth is painful to speak and to hear.
And yet, we must have the courage to do both … and then to act, with God’s grace.
The Labor Day weekend edition of the Baltimore Sun invited readers to explore the history of labor in and around our city: Tide Point, now the headquarters of Under Armour, where Procter and Gamble made soap for 70 years, but more importantly where factory employees were guaranteed 48 weeks of work per year, as well as profit sharing and a pension; the Museum of Industry, where the gritty, industrial past of Baltimore is celebrated “to inspire tomorrow’s workers” today; Hampton, an 18th century mansion in Towson, the largest house in the country at the time, where over 300 enslaved people at its height worked on the plantation; and more. Sarah and I scheduled our exploration of the sites around the Harbor for Monday, and headed to Hampton after church.
The Park Service employee who led our tour was giddy with the number of people inspired by the Sun article to visit, and he told us his personal narrative to ground the story of Hampton. An African-American man from North Carolina, the ranger moved his young family to Baltimore a year ago because of the opportunity to share “the kitchen and field story” of slaves and indentured servants in such an unlikely place: on the border of the industrial north. “How is it possible,” he asked several times, “that hundreds of people remained in bondage over a century and a half, with no wall or fence to hold them, and Pennsylvania only a few miles away?” We walked through lavish period rooms designed to impress the Ridgely family’s weekend guests, but our guide kept directing us to the lives of the people who cooked the food for the banquet table, who sewed the gowns and made the furniture, who milled the lumber and laid the floors for dancing. “What is the impact of language that trains you to feel less-than,” he wondered. “How did slavery cripple both while people and black people? What is the legacy of racism in Baltimore today?”
A great deal of the Ridgely’s wealth came from the discovery of iron ore, and the estate hired indentured servants to run the works. Our guide told us, “The port in Baltimore was noisy with ships unloading finished goods from France and prisoners from England, and then loading them back up with iron bound for Europe.”
Something inside me began to break open.
“How many people were indentured at Hampton?” I asked. “Scores,” he answered. “Mr. Ridgely scoured the downtown docks regularly for skilled labor he could purchase. The work was so demanding at the iron works that they needed a steady supply of prisoners to keep up with it.”
I began to remember something I had forgotten.
“Do you have the names of the servants who worked here?” I wondered. They do.
Here’s what I learned on Labor Day. In 1720 William Isgrig was born in London, England. At 20 he was apprenticed to a goldsmith, an excellent opportunity for a humble, but enterprising young man. Later that same year, William’s father died suddenly, and he left his apprenticeship to go home, presumably to care for his mother and siblings. In 1740, William was arrested for stealing 12 silver belt buckles from the goldsmith who had employed him: feeling desperate, I would imagine, and not able to see beyond the fear that seized him. In 1741 he was indentured to Baltimore. I’m not sure yet if William landed at Hampton, but I learned there that his skills would have been desirable, and public records show that he fathered several children and died in Baltimore County.
His descendants found their way to Indiana, where land was cheap and they could start over. Another broken law and a midnight horse ride got his family to Arkansas—but that’s another story…
My grandmother was Elsie Jane Isgrig, and she would have been scandalized by William’s connection to Baltimore, but I’m drawn to his plight. He was a striver and a survivor, vulnerable to his fears but able to rise above them. He learned to work hard and keep his head down and make amends for his mistakes. I know the men in my family, so I imagine William carried shame to his grave, but I’m proud of him. Fear and low self-worth can be carried like a perverse gene, enticing the descendants of servants and slaves to wound themselves and others for reasons that elude us. Separating a person’s identity from his labor is a sin, and the legacy of slavery will continue to cripple us until we face how both the owner and the owned are dehumanized in that system, and in the racism that it engendered. That is the work that calls me to Baltimore, which it turns out, is an invitation to come back home. Thank you, William.
Knowing your story makes you an agent of your identity instead of somebody’s victim. Accepting how you are afraid and frail is the beginning of love—of others and yourself. Light peeks through the broken places.
I am convinced that each person on the earth has something to teach every other person on the earth. We are meant to learn and grow in this garden we call LIFE. Sometimes though, those without the knowing or knowledge with which we’re most comfortable, can be disregarded and/or ignored by those whom we consider the uneducated or unsophisticated among us. Nevertheless, I love the Scripture that asks the question, “has not God chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the promised Kingdom.” (cf. James 2:5)
These thoughts come on the heels of a recent story I read about the 33 Chilean coal miners who were trapped in the bowels of the earth for 2 months and 8 days back in August of 2010. Most of us remember the event as evening news accounts, but one writer, Hector Tobar, has chronicled the entire incident by culling the hearts and minds of the miners who lived (and thought they’d die) in the dark, fetid atmosphere of a copper-gold mine in Chile. This passage from Mr. Tobar’s book, DEEP DOWN DARK, is especially memorable and telling:
“On August 5th, a Christian man named Don Jose Henriquez, turned to a fellow miner named Mario and whispered, “God is the only way out of this.” Before the miners Mario announced, “Don José, we know you are a Christian man, and we need you to lead us in prayer. Will you?”
From that moment forward Henríquez became known as “the Pastor” to his fellow miners because as soon as he opens his mouth and begins to talk it’s clear that he knows how to speak of God and to God … Henríquez drops to his knees and tells the men they should also do so, because when you pray you have to humble yourself before your Creator. “We aren’t the best men, but Lord, have pity on us,” Henríquez begins. It’s a simple statement, but it strikes several of the men hard. “No somos los mejores hombres.” We aren’t the best men. Víctor Segovia knows he drinks too much. Víctor Zamora is too quick to anger. Pedro Cortez thinks about the poor father he’s been to his young daughter: He left the girl’s mother, and he hasn’t even done the basic fatherly thing of visiting his little girl, even though he knows his absence is inflicting a lasting hurt on her.
“Jesus Christ, our Lord, let us enter the sacred throne of your grace,” Henríquez continues. “Consider this moment of difficulty of ours. We are sinners and we need you.” Just about everyone who was at the entrance to the Refuge or inside is on his knees … Henríquez is a man of God, and suddenly here, in this tomb, the religious severity that many of them found annoying during the everyday encounters of the A shift is exactly what they need. “We want you to make us stronger and help us in this hour of need,” Henríquez says. “There’s nothing we can humanly do without your help. We need you to take charge of this situation. Please, Lord. Take charge of this.”
Henriquez’ prayer, prayed in humble trust in GOD allowed those miners trapped with him, and indeed the whole world, to see a miracle in a world in which very few miracles allegedly exist. I believe Henriquez’ prayer has much to teach us about the power of prayer and the nature of a humble and loving GOD. My own experience tells me that it is in the “letting go,” that the discovery of so much more is realized. “Please, Lord. Take charge of this,” Henriquez prays.
I am always ready to learn from the underside; from the ones who society supposes has little to offer. Uneducated, poor trapped miners teach me that GOD does answer prayer—when we have learned to let go and let God. What new thing have you learned from those who live on the underside of life?
Our questions about healing are complicated. How does it happen? Who is responsible for it? What does it really mean to be well? For as long as humans have gathered in communities, we’ve wondered: “Doctor, will I walk again? Will my baby die?” Or this: “Will I ever stop drinking or drugging? Will I ever not be afraid, or angry, or sad? Can my relationships be sound and loving again? Can I be less anxious? Where can I find purpose and meaning or hope?” The words “God save me” are an ancient plea for wellbeing.
We can’t dictate what happens to us in life; we can’t magically protect ourselves or those we love from harm. But if we can nourish our capacity to choose what is life-giving over what is death-dealing, and remember that we are created in the image of God, then we can practice how we interpret and respond to both opportunity and adversity. However tired or wounded we may be, we can be well. Wellbeing is a habit—of the heart, and mind, and body.
Jesus was once in Jerusalem, John tells us, and he happens by the pool of Bethesda. On occasion the waters there would begin to bubble and stir, troubled by an angel or some underground volcanic activity or both, not unlike what happens periodically at Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park… and legend had it that the first person in the pool after it had stirred to life would be healed. So structures were built around the spring over the centuries to shelter pilgrims, and generations of people gathered there, waiting for the water and some movement and some luck.
And there was a man there who had been out of luck for 38 years, waiting to be healed, unable to get himself to the pool fast enough to be first. And I don’t know whether to feel sorry for him or frustrated or both. 38 years… are you kidding me? “Get up and start walking,” demands my most adolescent voice, the part of me least comfortable with weakness in myself or anyone else.
But instead of judging him, Jesus asks the man a question. “Do you want to be made well?” “I see you,” says the living God, in other words. “I see you. Not what you can’t do. Not what you don’t have. Not how you haven’t measured up, but who you are and what you can be.”
“Do you want to be whole?” Jesus asks him, and the man first answers with his own childish plea. “I can’t win. I have no one to help me. Someone always beats me to the finish. I can’t do it,” he says, in a voice that every one of us can recognize as our own, at least at some point in our struggle.
When my daughter was two, she and I spent a lot of time on a playground near our house. We would swing and dig in the sandbox and chase each other on a little path. And at some point on every visit, she would begin to circle around the slide, and then scramble up the steps alone. “All by self, Daddy,” she would tell me, and I knew I was supposed to stay on the ground below. Step by step, singing the whole way up, she would get herself all the way to the top. Once there, she’d sit down, get settled, look around, and then yell out, “Too big!” For months. And I would say, “You can do it,” and she would respond, “Too big!” For months. And eventually I’d go up and give her a hand.
I get it. Sometimes we need a witness to hear us say that the mountain is too high, that the healing pool I really want to get to is just out of my reach, that nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. So maybe Jesus is honoring this man’s endurance and his ability to hang in there all those years. Average life expectancy for a male in the Roman empire was 35 years, so this individual has literally been sick for a lifetime, and some of what Jesus offers here is validation. He holds up a mirror to this man’s difficult experience—including his shame and exclusion from society—and Jesus says, “I see you and the fact that for 38 years you haven’t given up.”
But there’s got to be more, so Jesus goes on: “Now, do you want to be well? Because you can stand up and walk, if you want to. Get started. Critics might point out that the way you stand and walk is pitiful or comical, but your steps are your steps, and once you rise, no one can take that away from you. Your movement changes everything: for you, your family, even the community. If you want to be well, says the living God, then all the living water you need is welling up inside you.”
Do you see what is happening? Can you see yourself, the way this story of healing sees you and the man at the pool? We don’t have to be stuck or doomed to being always late to the party, and neither does Baltimore.
18 months ago, Caroline Stewart and I began to talk about the role a parish church in general and Redeemer in particular might play in the field of wellness. What are folks truly longing for? What is the role of Spirit in healing? What is the role of education, group work, silence… the arts, movement, faith… mutual respect, consistent nutrition, affordable housing? How can we de-stigmatize mental illness in individuals and address the trauma of poverty, of racism, of meanness or violence of any kind?
Early steps were to create a lay ministry of healing prayers, offered regularly at our weekly services. Then 166 people were trained in Mental Health First Aid. (We knew we were onto something…) And now we are creating The Center for Wellbeing.
The Center will offer educational programs, on a regular rotation of Sundays at Redeemer, as well as in the broader community. It will offer individual and group spiritual direction. (n.b. Group spiritual direction is a process in which a small group of people gather on a regular basis to assist one another in an ongoing awareness of God in their lives.) In time, it will offer ways to explore how music and movement and meditation sponsor health, consider the wellbeing of our environment, and provide articles and links to websites that bolster our wholeness.
Beginning a new chapter in her life, Caroline will be the executive director of The Center, no longer a member of the parish clergy, but in the community offering education, spiritual direction, and overall management of The Center.
Do you want to be well? The Spirit is moving in you, asking you to get up, leading you toward some healing for yourself and for the whole. And that will change everything.