I remember the first time I went to church with Ronnie. I was a philosophy major at the College of Wooster out in Wooster, Ohio. Ronnie was a townie who would come hang out at various events on campus and we got to be good friends.
I never really found out Ronnie’s story and how he came to hang out on campus. He carried around a rubber ball that he would often squeeze in his hand. I had heard stories that he had been in a car accident, had problems speaking and walking as a result, and squeezing the rubber ball was part of his physical therapy.
One day, he asked if I wanted to go to church with him, and we walked down from the campus to his church. On the way, a car pulled over and asked Ronnie if he was going to church. He said yes, and that he was going with me. They asked if he wanted a ride and we both hopped in.
It was an old land yacht, something like a Buick La Sabre. We crowded in and headed off to church. It was a tight fit, but friendly and Ronnie introduced me to his friends.
As we walked up the steps of the church, one of the women said to me, “I surprised you want to come to church with us.”
I looked at her and said, “Yeah? Why?”
She got all flustered, and apologized and said she probably shouldn’t have said anything. But it got me curious. I looked around for a clue. Everyone was nicely dressed. They probably dressed nicer for church than many of the other churches I had visited. They all sounded pretty normal and I wasn’t expecting to uncover any sort of heresy or strange beliefs.
Ronnie was introducing me to various people from the church and it finally dawned on me when I shook hands with the Assistant Pastor, I was the only white person there. I had never been to a predominantly black church.
It was a pretty normal church service. There was praying and singing, scriptures and a long sermon. The one thing I wasn’t prepared for was the point in the service was the pastor asked visitors to stand up and introduce themselves. There were a few different visitors and when I stood up, everyone looked at me and got real quiet. It was perhaps the first time that I ever felt like part of a minority group.
That was many years ago. Since then, I’ve been to services at various black churches, mostly staffing a politician as they stumped across the state.
More recently, I became a fellow in the CT Health Foundation’s Health Leaders Fellowship Program. The program is focused on addressing health disparities and I once again found myself as a member of what is not normally a minority, white males. I’ve met many great people through this program and established some important friendships.
One such friend is an associate minister at a predominantly black church in Bridgeport. She often posts prayers online, and recently posted about a women’s prayer group that prays together at midnight on a conference call. I commented that I probably didn’t fit in with that group, and that I’m unlikely to be awake and midnight, but that I would lift up my prayers early from afar.
She suggested that we should pray together and I took her up on it. Various thoughts came to mind.
"Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst."
If You Believe and I Believe
If you believe and I believe
And we together pray,
The Holy Spirit must come down
And set God’s people free,
This evening, we prayed. We thanked God for the work God is doing in both our lives and the lives of those around us. We prayed for those who grieve, those how preach, and those who march. Most importantly, we offered ourselves up to God, that God might work through us to bring peace, justice, and healing to this broken world.
We go to different churches. We have different ways of praying. Yet we worship the same God. And if we together pray, The Holy Spirit must come down and set all of us free.
So, I offer this as a challenge to each of you. Find someone who is different from you, someone you don’t normally hang out with, pray with them, and be set free.
“Do you hear the people sing?”
I glance at my Facebook feed
“so I wish I could say I'm numb. I cannot. Surprised? No... but in all kinds of pain.”
“I am at The Taking it to the Streets: Reviving the Black Church Conference. I am in the right place in light of the latest verdict. Yes!”
“There is a lot of unrest in the world. We should care about it.”
When I get home, Fiona is listening to music from Les Mis, which she will be singing in a school concert tomorrow.
“One day more!
Another day, another destiny.
This never-ending road to Calvary;
These men who seem to know my crime
Will surely come a second time.
One day more!”
I try to find words to make sense of it all. It is Advent and I wait expectantly for the coming of peace and justice. The words from Les Mis come back in focus.
“Tomorrow we'll discover
What our God in Heaven has in store!”
A college classmate of mine is a paster in the United Methodist Church and her husband is a physician. She has posted on her Facebook wall a request for prayers for her husband as he flies to Sierra Leone today to work in an Ebola treatment center.
A few weeks ago, she shared posted part of "A Litany in Response to UMCOR’s Call to Pray for Those Affected by the Ebola Epidemic"
Here is a link to the Litany:
Please pray for Dorothea and Guy.
“We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing;”
Kim and Fiona are still sleeping. The dog is pawing at the door, wanting to go roll in the thin layer of snow and slush that turn to ice overnight. It is Thanksgiving morning, yet there is no hustle and bustle in the kitchen or scent of pies or roasting turkey in the air. There are no mints, grapes, or pieces of celery stuffed with cream cheese or peanut butter on the table.
I grew up in New England. My ancestors were early European settlers in Massachusetts. We all have days that define our culture, and for me, that day is Thanksgiving.
Part of the lore of Thanksgiving is the story of five kernels of corn. As a kid at our big white Congregational church at the center of a small New England college town, we would receive five kernels of corn before Thanksgiving as a reminder of the hardship our ancestors had faced when five kernels of corn was the daily ration to make it through a hard winter as those around we’re dying.
We would be reminded of the days we were the strangers in someone else’s land and despite battles with the local inhabitants, they also helped us, provided us food and taught us how to survive in this difficult land.
I glance outside at the thin layer of frozen slush and think of how things have changed. We are now the local inhabitants. Are we helping those now coming to this land? The furnace kicks on as I finish my bowl of oatmeal. Life is much easier these days, but it can still be harsh. I think of the car accidents I saw on the drive home yesterday. I think of the storm and car accident that took my mother.
“Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining,”
As the family sleeps, I read through messages on Facebook, friends wishing one another “Happy Thanksgiving”. Yet even in that, I see the grief behind the words, friends with cancer, friends who have lost loved ones. One friends posts pictures of pastries he is baking and I think of his grandson who died this year. Another friend ponders about driving to see her stepdad whose cancer has spread. She lost her son to cancer a few years ago and questions whether she will have the strength to be there.
“Over the river and through the woods”
Friends have made it through the snow to grandparents’ house where a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving awaits them. Others have to work this evening and tomorrow. Yesterday, my priest posted, “Do I have to get all ‘annoying preacher’ on y'all, and tell you that it's blasphemy against anything holy or good to go shopping on Thanksgiving or Black Friday?”
Fiona wants to go shopping tomorrow, in part to pick out presents for the eleven year old girl whose family can’t afford gifts. The girl’s wish list is on a gingerbread man that Fiona picked up at church. We will bring our gifts to church, and try to keep a healthy focus on the gift giving.
“Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,”
When I was a kid, we would gather around the old black and white seventeen inch television with rabbit ears antennas on top. We could only receive three channels and we’d switch between the three to see which gave us the best picture of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. As a kid from a small New England town who had never been to a city of more than probably fifty thousand people, New York, with its parade was a place of fantasy, no more real than the places I read about in books of dragons and unicorns.
The first television show I ever saw was Underdog when we got the TV one Christmas. The giant Underdog balloon seemed no more real than the cartoon character we had seen.
As I grew older, those five kernels of corn took root, and I would slip out to church on Thanksgiving morning, going to the small Congregational church a couple miles away. It was a small group, a remnant, that still worshiped on Thanksgiving Day. Later, even that fell away, and I hit the slopes, skiing in the morning and building up a big appetite for the large meal.
“O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,”
So here we are in 2014. The riots driven by racial tensions further exposed by the lack of an indictment in the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri have subsided, although there are reports of planned disruptions of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
“We are here. We are here for all of us.”
The words of Alicia Keys comes to mind as I try to tie it all together, as I think of discussions that are bound to come up over Thanksgiving tables.
“Cause right now it don't make sense”
After my mother-in-law's mother died on Labor Day weekend, no one really had the energy for putting together a big Thanksgiving Dinner at Kim’s parent’s house. So we will drive to a restaurant and have Thanksgiving dinner there. I figure Thanksgiving will be rough for a lot of people this year.
“Let's talk about our part. My heart touch your heart”
What is our part? I ran for State Representative this year. It was a lot of work. I didn’t get elected, but I did get a chance to talk with a lot of people about important issues. I spoke about health disparities, a topic people don’t seem to talk about. I talked about how a black woman in New Haven is two to three times more likely to lose her child in infancy that a white woman in New Haven.
“let's talk about living. Had enough of dying”
I quoted Alica Key’s on the campaign trail.
“Let's do more giving Do more forgiving”
Yet I always come back to my roots, to the pilgrim’s way and the struggles of my ancestors in New England. The rush of Christmas seems so far removed. I’ve become an Episcopalian since my early Congregationalist upbringing. I think more about Liturgy and the flow of the seasons. It is Thanksgiving. We are still in the season of Pentecost and will be until Sunday when Advent starts. I’m not ready for Christmas carols, but I will jump ahead just a little bit with an Advent Hymn.
“Come, Thou long expected Jesus Born to set Thy people free;”
This is what I want to be hearing this weekend, not advertisements for the biggest sales of the year. Yet there is still turkey to be eaten, there are still hymns of Thanksgiving to be sung. God has provided, in the wilderness, during the Thirty Years’ War (when Martin Rinkart wrote “Nun danket alle Gott”), at the first New England Thanksgiving, and today, as friends mourn the death of loved ones and our nation struggles with racial tension.
“For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore."