They Cannot Take the Sky

Many years ago, when South Africa was in the stranglehold grip of the system of racial hatred and separation known as apartheid, I visited that country to learn about and report on the freedom struggle there. On one of my last evenings, a young man named Jabulani was showing me around the black township of Khayelitsha outside Cape Town, just as the sun was beginning to set. Domestics and laborers, weary from a long day’s work in the city, were making their way home in the last glimmers of daylight. A stream of women, water jugs balanced on their heads, some with swaddled babies on their backs, moved slowly out from the central spigot of the township’s rutted roads in the encroaching cool of the evening. Paraffin lamps came to life, one by one, up and down the rows of small and fragile homes constructed of plywood, cardboard, and corrugated metal.

sunset 3

At the entrance to the township, spread out on a table, were rows of sheep’s heads, blood still running from their necks and the look of terror from the slaughter on their faces. Women tending fires cut pieces of meat from the carcasses and skewered them for sale. A family with several children that could not afford the mutton bought scores of the sheep’s legs, scraping off the hair and cooking the pile of bones with scant meat for their dinner.

Continue reading

Stranger Courage

In honor of his 75th birthday, I was inscribing to my friend Randy a copy of a book that I co-authored. I wanted to thank him for inspiring me to “greater commitment, deeper compassion, and…”—well, something about courage. Having already used “greater” and “deeper,” my mind was momentarily absent of adjectives. After a little thought, I settled on “stronger.”

I don’t write in longhand much these days, and as I’m only a decade younger than Randy, my handwriting has become less legible with age. “Stronger” came out looking on the page like “stranger.” I laughed. Randy has indeed inspired me to stranger courage—and I think the world could use a lot more of it. Betsy & Randy - July 2019

I met Randy Kehler, his partner Betsy Corner, and their daughter Lillian in January 1990 in their almost-century-old clapboard home, tucked in the mountains of western Massachusetts—a home they were in danger of being evicted from at any moment. When word finally came almost two years later that federal marshals were on their way, Betsy left with 12-year-old Lillian. Randy stayed and, trying to calm his racing heart, sat down at the piano. He was hauled away in handcuffs—but only after finishing Bach/Gounod’s “Ave Maria” while the marshals waited. Continue reading

The Gift of Vulnerability

The jangle of an incoming text woke me from a deep sleep. “We’re in trouble,” it began. It was 5:16 a.m. California time. I was 2,000 miles from home, jet-lagged and groggy. I managed to send a reply to Michael along the lines of “Be there as soon as I can.”Michael and me with Sparky at the beach

Michael Galovic and Tamara Puffer met almost 25 years ago at the Open Door Community in Atlanta, when he was living there as a resident volunteer and she showed up one day to help out in the soup kitchen with the youth group from the suburban Presbyterian church where she served as associate pastor. Tamara kept coming back. Her time at the Open Door reshaped her theology and calling, and she began seeking a position where she could serve marginalized people like the homeless ones and former prisoners who were revealing Jesus to her there in transformative ways. Continue reading

Berta

We stood in the church sanctuary, surrounded by piles of bright tissue-paper flowers, festive streamers, and banners of the paper cut-outs known in Mexico as papeles picados—all joyfully fashioned the week before by those of us who meet every Thursday as Mujeres Unidas en Fe (Women United in Faith). We went to work decorating, bringing to life a colorful ofrenda (altar) for our November 2 Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration.Berta ofrenda 2

When we were finished, Berta added a plate of fruit, explaining that she loved the shiny color of the tangerines and the sweet aroma of the guavas. She seemed especially tired that day. But we had no idea that she would hold the place of honor at the heart of our ofrenda. Nothing could have prepared us for that shock. Only 38 years old, the mother of a 12-year-old daughter, Berta passed away three days later.

When we gathered again, Carmen and Rosalinda knelt in front of the ofrenda, clutching their rosaries, leading the rest of us in prayer. Berta grinned out at us, surrounded by flowers, candles, and her favorite foods, offered in the Mexican tradition of honoring the dead. Heaped on plates and in bowls were tamales, snap peas, pink wafer cookies, and chicharrones—wheels of fried pork rinds—doused with the blazing hot sauce valentina. Continue reading

Prey Without Ceasing

On the eve of Election Day, as the migrant caravan continues its dangerous journey north, I think of the words of the prophet Ezekiel to the ancient rulers: “You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick…but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered…and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals…[They] have become prey. (Ezekiel 34:4-5, 8)

Focused on migrants as prey and compassionate responses to the immigration crisis, my second reflection from the Arizona-Mexico border was just published by The Christian Century:

crosses-migrant_deaths_border

Crosses mark the sites of migrant deaths. Photo by No More Deaths

Sometimes they find people wandering in the south Arizona desert—usually hungry, often lost, almost always dehydrated and desperate. Sometimes they find bodies—if they get there before the vultures and the coyotes. And sometimes they find bones, scattered and bleached by the sun. For the 300 volunteers who call themselves the Green Valley-Sahuarita Samaritans, Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones is one that tragically resonates—as does the familiar Psalm 23, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”

Every week these Samaritans conduct compassionate searches around the Arizona-Mexico border, giving aid to migrants who need it. They gather up cherished possessions left behind in the sand: family pictures, icons of saints, a rosary, a child’s backpack, a well-loved doll. They collect signs of dashed dreams—a woman’s high heels and makeup kit, a man’s wide brush for painting houses, cloths used for wrapping tortillas, delicately embroidered with flowers and edged in bright crochet work—found strewn across this unforgiving land.

The Samaritans regularly place 55-gallon drums of drinking water throughout this arid wilderness. With an administration in Washington that is fanning flames of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment, increasingly U.S. Border Patrol agents and members of militia and hate groups slash the drums or shoot them full of holes. One Border Patrol agent admitted that destroying water stations was part of his training.

Continue reading at https://www.christiancentury.org/article/first-person/us-mexico-border-where-migrants-are-hunted

Samhain and Sukkot

We arrived at my friend Sandra’s home, a small parade of women, each carrying a hollowed-out squash or pumpkin – in one case, a scooped-out sweet potato. When the first chill of autumn hits, I always think of the ancient Celtic tradition of Samhain, which was celebrated in late October to mark the transition from harvest to winter. A large bonfire burned in every village square. Each family arrived with a hollow winter vegetable, into which they placed an ember from the communal fire, likely the root of our tradition of making jack-o-lanterns. They carried these embers home to light their own hearth fires as winter began to close in. We were carrying on the beautiful ritual in our own style.

Squash

We gathered around a fire, poised between looming Samhain and just-finished Sukkot. The late-September Jewish festival recalls the forty years that the Jews spent wandering in the wilderness after being released from slavery in Egypt, when they lived in transitory shelters and ate manna that rained down from heaven. I first learned of Sukkot while I was in seminary in Atlanta in the 1990s, when for a week my Jewish neighbors hosted backyard parties in shelters they had temporarily created out of sheets of plywood and tree branches. Continue reading

Into the Jaws of a Crocodile

To our right the desert sunset was a dazzling blaze of gold with streaks of red behind towering saguaro cacti, as my partner Bill, our friend Becca, and I drove south from Phoenix to the Arizona-Mexico border. To our left a glowing, salmon-colored full moon rose and perched on a blue-gray mountain peak. We were on our way to participate with a hundred other people of faith from around the country in a week of prayer and protest, communion and confrontation, organized by the Southwest Conference of the United Church of Christ.Cross in desert

The breathtaking beauty of the moment was interrupted by a bank of glaring floodlights, affixed to an enormous metal arch spanning the other side of the highway, behind which waited a backup of northbound traffic. The Border Patrol checkpoint was chilling, like something out of a futuristic sci-fi movie: the blinding lights, a phalanx of agents dressed in army green with weapons at the ready, a drug-sniffing dog running between cars. Continue reading

Visit from a Prophet

I slept late yesterday morning. By the time I had emerged from the trees on my walk, the pasture was already blanketed in a sultry haze. My mind was preoccupied with an upcoming trip and the pile of tasks I need to accomplish before I can leave for a week. I plodded along, barely noticing what was around me.Praying mantis 2

I felt a tiny prick above my right ankle and reached down reflexively to brush away a mosquito. This was some mosquito—huge and bright green, with a triangular face. When I tried to pry the odd creature away from my sock, it dug in the sharp spines on its forelegs and clung more fiercely. I was afraid it would leave behind a leg or two if I persisted, so I sat down in the grass and stared for a while at its curious face. Continue reading

Rekindled by Ritual

How to hold the heartbreak and the outrage? Hundreds of babies and toddlers, schoolchildren and teenagers wrenched from the embrace of their parents, many now sobbing inconsolably in immigrant detention centers—some unbelievably lost in the system. My friend Rosalinda, who used to earn just pennies an hour working in a U.S. factory on the Mexican border, who had a nephew who was murdered there, felt a need to tell me her own family’s story of escape from desperate poverty and rampant violence. She related a harrowing saga of vulnerable hiding places, grueling river and desert crossings, capture and release by Border Patrol agents, and a second attempt—all endured so that her children might have safety, enough food, and the chance to grow up. It is unimaginable to think that they might have been stolen from her here.Bonfire

So we make phone calls, write letters, sign petitions, and take our candles to the park to pray and protest. We do it over and over because this is how we know to be human, to stay connected, to make sure that no victim is forgotten. Last month in the park, tears slipped down my cheeks as young American Jewish women slowly read out the names of the 60 unarmed Palestinian protesters who were massacred on May 14 in Gaza by Israeli troops, and then led us in a Hebrew Kaddish of mourning for them. In that extraordinary moment, I realized that there is deep within me a hunger for ritual, for gathering with others to remind ourselves of who we are, to keep ourselves grounded in hope. Continue reading

Murder on Shades Mountain

Last Thursday in Montgomery, Alabama, the Equal Justice Initiative opened its museum dedicated to racial equality, at the heart of which is a profoundly powerful memorial to the more than 4,400 African-Americans who were lynched in this country between the Civil War and World War II. Three days later Melanie Morrison made a visit to Western North Carolina, reminding us that not all such acts of terrorism and brutality were carried out by white mobs under trees and the cover of darkness. Some were perpetrated in courtrooms in broad daylight.COVER MOSM_3.18

Melanie is the author of the newly released Murder on Shades Mountain: The Legal Lynching of Willie Peterson and the Struggle for Justice in Jim Crow Birmingham. She and I first met in the fall of 1976 when we were students at Yale Divinity School. She had just spent three and a half years at Koinonia Partners, an interracial community in Americus, Georgia, that suffered through Klan shootings and a boycott during its early years. Though I didn’t know it then, I was on my way to Sojourners Community. Conversations with Melanie about theology, racism, and intentional community contributed to my decision to leave seminary after my first year and make the move to inner-city Washington, DC. Continue reading