Celebrating the Outsider

When my husband Percy died, it was the first real loss of my life.  My mother said, “You love hard, and you grieve hard.”  She was/is right.  So the death of Prince, coupled with the death of the dream the Sanders campaign ignited in my soul has spun me into thinking about the outsiders today.

It’s no surprise that Audre Lorde, the lesbian, womanist, mother, teacher, poet, essayist, writer and profound dropper of science is my favorite philosopher.  Her book, Sister Outsider, is one I take out and read for strength when I get tired of the world.  But on a deeper level, I began to think about outsiders as I have experienced them in my life, and revelation came.  The most effective outsiders have been offered all the benefits the insiders can offer, and have made the intentional choice to reject those pseudo benefits for life in the margins.  They don’t try to play the middle.  They don’t shilly-shally from side to side.  They are accused, by pragmatists and small thinkers, of refusing to compromise.  They understand that everybody ain’t ready for their jelly, and guess what?  They do not give a damn.

And while life in the margins may seem dicey to the casual observer, the rewards of living ethically and with integrity far outweigh what the world can provide.  Take the artist formerly and commonly known as Prince, who could have been a mogul; who could have built an empire on the backs of other artists, as some of our more celebrated cultural icons do.  Instead, Prince decided not to be a slave.  He decided to speak up and speak out on behalf of artists who often wished he would just keep his mouth shut.  He rejected the pseudo benefits, and did it his way.

Take Senator Sanders.  He chose to be a Democratic Socialist.  He had to know that would never be cool.  Yet, he persevered, and now he has proven to anyone who is willing to see it that money in politics can be dealt with whether Citizens United is overturned or not.  Senator Sanders made the uncompromising choice to give the people the wheel.  He rejected the PACS, SuperPACS, super donors and the strings that accompany them.  He could have joined the party (literally and figuratively), but he chose, with intentional integrity, not to be tainted.  In doing so, Bernie Sanders has laid down the gauntlet for politicians.  Forevermore, every time a politician elects to accept money from corporate donors whose interests are in conflict with those of the people, we will know they chose the corporate interest over that of the rank and file.

Outsiders are rare, but they exist.  Take Kathleen Hicks, Maryellen Hicks, Raedorah Stewart or Carmen Saenz, David Allen, or even yours truly.  In every instance, these women and men were celebrated by the institutions they chose, and yet there was a quickening moment, in which they decided, “No.”  Their justice bones hurt, and not for themselves, but for others.  Saying “yes” is great, but sometimes, you just have to say “No.”  And when you do, the world is better for it


Somebody Died, and It’s Personal

When someone in my circle dies of cancer, it’s personal. I know it “shouldn’t” be, but it is. On a stone tablet somewhere, etched in painstaking detail, on the side of a mountain, are the rules of life: the shoulds and should nots. At least that’s the way I imagine it. Of course, there is no such place, and the shoulds and should nots are just a part of my imbedded stuff, but they guide my life now just as they did when I was a little girl. Written on that tablet is the rule against making myself the center of the universe. A friend died. It’s not about me. But despite the rule, it’s personal.

It’s personal because the loss of someone I know to cancer, especially someone kind and wonderful, forces me to take inventory. It forces me to ask, “God, why not me?” Someone who just radiated life and warmth; with a child and family is gone. Why not me? And because I’m not one for the easy answer, I can’t content myself with a truism or a platitude. Mingled with my grief is a feeling of unworthiness. Why not me? Most times, I can rationalize my way out of it, but I find it becoming more and more difficult.

Taking stock of my life was easier when I had a role. When I was a pastor. Or a chaplain. When I was doing good work. But now, living with chronic illness and chronic pain, the feeling of unworthiness is difficult to shake. When I had a role, I knew I was paying rent for my place on the planet.
Growing up Black and middle class, it was a value I was taught. Wherever I am, it’s my duty to make that place better. And God knows I embrace it. I always have. That was a should that gave my life meaning. I sang about it as a Girl Scout (“brighten the corner where you are”) and I still believe it’s better to light my one little candle than to stumble in the dark.

But then came cancer, and pulmonary fibrosis, and lupus. Don’t misunderstand me. I have neither lost my faith nor my desire to make the world a better place. But I can’t deny my lungs are wrinkled and stiff, when they should be smooth and pliable. I have a cannula stuck up my nose and a splint on my right hand, and just getting out of the house is hard. But that’s not the difficult part of taking stock.

Taking stock means being truthful, and the truth is, my rent is delinquent. Maybe my, “why not me” is really questioning why I haven’t been evicted. Taking stock is not the comfortable exercise it once was.
Not so long ago, my life made sense to me, even if it made no sense to anyone else. I helped people. I made a difference. But cancer struck, and then pulmonary fibrosis. And then lupus, and now I wonder, will my life ever make sense again? Somebody died, and mixed with my grief are so many emotions. It’s personal. Even if it shouldn’t be.

Have you ever been in a space like this? Do you have some advice for me? I’d love to hear it. Please feel free to share, and don’t hold back. Thanks.

Ain’t I?

The images are too numerous and too egregious. The latest, a female student at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina, being brutalized by a police officer. I remember the 15 year-old child in McKinney, Texas earlier this summer. I remember Sandra Bland, standing up for her rights on the roadside, winding up with her face ground into the pavement, and then taunted by another Black female officer of the law. Bland was literally told she should’ve kept her mouth shut. I can’t describe the ache my heart feels, but I know it is an ancient ache. It’s the ache of women like me who were beaten, killed, raped and sold away, because they couldn’t keep their mouths shut. At least, that’s the narrative.

And when I saw the dashcam video of Sandra Bland’s arrest, I knew exactly what people; not just white folk, but Black folk too, would say. Even Black male folk. They would say, “If only she shut her mouth, she’d still be alive.” How is it they don’t see what I see? That she exercised restraint? That she was only standing up for her rights? Of course she was upset. The officer had no reason to even stop her. Why don’t they see it? Can’t they see she’s not to blame? How is it, no matter how often the Earth orbits the sun, the Black woman can’t catch a break? How is it we are never the damsels in distress; the cherished; the protected? This is the sentiment my heroine Sojourner Truth spoke to when she asked, “Ain’t I a Woman?” Ain’t I?

When we were imported here, we were seen as animals; not women. We were bred, like livestock. We were sold, like the property we were. We were many things but we were not women. And we know this because we have never been afforded even the thinly veiled veneer of civilization patriarchy gives to white women. Even Donald Trump “cherishes” women, even as he calls Carly Fiorina ugly. But Black women? Our bodies continue to be grist for the mill of racism, classism and sexism. Don’t believe me? Tell me the last time Laura or Barbara Bush were characterized as gorillas. Tell me the last time Rush Limbaugh (or any liberal political entertainer) talked about either of them as if they are a piece of meat. Ain’t Michelle Obama a woman?
Given the history and the here and now, I look at Sandra Bland and Tatyana Rhodes and even the sister in SC, whose silence spoke for her, and I don’t wonder, “Why don’t they just shut up?” I wonder, “How did they keep it inside so long?”

In the lives of Black women, there comes a time when shutting up equals dying. Not a physical death, but a death to self-respect. There comes a time when you’ve swallowed so much injustice, unfairness and downright evil that you can’t swallow another drop. There comes a time when you can’t endure one more micro-aggression. When you are sick to death of feeling the weight of somebody’s foot on your neck. No, you don’t snap. That’s not us. “To snap” implies a loss of control.

My thesis is that when Black women finally speak, we are taking control; very much aware of what we are doing. Very much aware of the danger, and very, very tired of trying to “deal with it.” We try. We embrace poetry and meditation; and Blue Bell and Zumba. And although our collection of candles and emollients and soothing smooth jazz playlists is second to none; and our contact list is full of sisters who understand; there comes a time when we just can’t. Not again. When you decide, “I can’t accept myself as a fearful chattel slave, unable to speak for myself.” Not again. So we get suspended from school. We get disciplined at work. Or fired. We get jerked around and pushed and prodded. We feel the knees of privilege pressing down on our spines, even as our faces are ground into the dirt. Because we use our agency; our voice. And sometimes, we lose our lives. We lose, even as we fight for our selves.

Despite the best efforts of women like me, you may see another video. When you do; when you fix your mouth to judge another Black woman or girl, remember a few things first. Remember how vulnerable we have always been. Remember that we have yet to be cherished. Remember that we are, after all this time, still asking, “Ain’t I A Woman?” Ain’t I?

When You Believe

There can be miracles when you believe.  Though hope is frail, it’s hard to kill.  Who knows what miracles you can achieve?  You will when you believe.  Stephen Schwartz

In 1963 the body of 14-year-old Addie Mae Collins, one of four African-American girls tragically murdered in a church bombing by white racists, was buried in Birmingham, Alabama. For years family members kept returning to the grave to pray and leave flowers. In 1998 they decided to move the body to another cemetery.  But when workers went to dig up the body, they found the grave was empty.  Understandably, family members were terribly upset. Cemetery officials scrambled to figure out what had happened. Some folk blamed the KKK. Others blamed the cemetery records. Some said Addie Mae’s tombstone was erected in the wrong place.  In all of the discussion, however, one explanation was never proposed: Nobody suggested that young Addie Mae had been resurrected to walk the earth again. Why?  Because by itself an empty grave does not prove a resurrection.  It’s one thing to conclude that Jesus’ grave really was empty on Easter Sunday. But an empty grave and a missing body, only prove one thing:  that the grave is empty and the body is missing.   If I were going to believe that a dead person came back to life, I’d want more evidence. 

“Seeing is believing” is an old adage that means we believe what we see with our own eyes or what we experience on a personal level.  “I’ll believe that when I see it,” or “I’m from Missouri, show me, prove it.”  The man we have come to know as Doubting Thomas has some doubt about the truth of what he heard. Thomas said, “When I see the evidence with my own eyes, then I will believe it’s true.” Thomas wasn’t there when the risen Christ appeared to the other disciples. When they tell Thomas they’ve seen Jesus, Thomas is not having it. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  What do you think about that?  Do you think less of Thomas because he’s not willing to believe the news of the Resurrection unless he can see the evidence with his own eyes, touch it with his hands? Thomas sounds like the kind of brother who won’t settle for secondhand truth.  You might have heard it through the grapevine, but Thomas is the brother who will go to the source.  He’s not going to believe something just because his father or his mother told him that it’s true, or because his teacher says he should; just because he saw it on television or heard it on the telephone.  The words, “Because I said so, that’s why” are not in Thomas’ vocabulary. No, he wants to see the risen Christ with his own two eyes, touch him with his own two hands.  Wouldn’t you? 

Jesus appears before Thomas and the disciples, and his first words are “Peace be with you.” It is peace he brings them.  Forgiveness.  Acceptance.  No matter that they’ve abandoned and denied him and let him down, he loves them still.  “Here,” he says to them. “See my wounded hands and side. It is I. And I love you. I will never leave you.”  Jesus brought peace when he stepped through the door into that locked room.  I’m reminded of the Isaiah 53.5 scripture that says “he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities.  The chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his stripes, we are healed.”  Jesus laid all our sin, all our grief, all our pain, on the cross, and we are healed.  We are forgiven. Thomas doubted the evidence.  But Jesus is saying now, just as Jesus was saying then:  “Peace be with you. I’ve forgiven you, and I will give you the strength to change your life. All the tapes playing in your head . . . the ones that tell you you’re not good enough, you’ll never measure up; you’re too old to change, too young to matter – the familiar refrains that negate your personal value to the universe.  The inner voices you hear when you look in the mirror . . . You can’t see the beauty and grace and giftedness God sees. You can’t see how much God loves you.  You just have to believe God does love you, with a love so great we can only imagine its abundance.  What will you do with this love God has for you?  Will you hide behind your past, your pride, your fear?   Will you hide behind the locked door of your heart?  Your peace has been purchased.  Come on out of the box you’ve been living in.  Come on up into the purpose God has given you.  Seeing is not believing.  Believing is believing.  Believe in God and believe in yourself.  You are enough, and you can do it. 

Thankful for my scars

“I show my scars so that others know they can heal.”  ― Rhachelle Nicol’, Sunday Mourning

I have scars.  No doubt about it.  When I look in the mirror, my body shows the scars of a well-lived life.  My chest has two jagged scars where my breasts once were.  I have a scar near my upper shoulder where a portal for chemotherapy was installed.  It’s been removed (yay!) but the scar remains.  Down the center of my spine is a scar, underneath which sit metal rods, screws, and an electrical implant that allows me to live and work without pain driving me mad.  My lungs are scarred from radiation. 

The physical scars hold me together.  I thank God for advances in medical science that allow it to be so.  I thank God for kind, skilled clinicians who treated me with care when I had great federal government insurance, and now when I have Medicaid.  Every scar represents a victory.  Every breath is confirmation God spared my life.  When I inhale and exhale, I remember I am here above the earth to live with purpose, on purpose. 

In the hospital, I am sometimes jarred by photos of the patients’ scars.  They jump out of the chart, in living color.  I would avoid them if I could, but they are in no particular place, so flipping through, I see their damage as clearly as I see mine.  We all bear scars, whether from a childhood bicycle accident, a sports injury, or surgery.  But we are not only scarred physically.

We all have scars.  They jump out at us just when we think we’ve overcome.  They haunt us when we know we can’t go back and fix something we’ve broken.  They bring us to tears when we remember something we’ve tried to forget.  The scars are there, but it’s up to us to decide if we will be ashamed.

I’m not ashamed of my scars.  I write about them because my victory means you can be victorious too.  My refusal to be a victim means I have seen the value of victory over the martyrdom of victimhood.  One choice is life-affirming and future oriented.  The other is soul murdering; mired in the past.  I am thankful for my scars.  I don’t celebrate them, but God knows I remember the lessons they teach me.  I believe God wants me to use them for Her glory.  And in this season of Thanksgiving, my prayer is you will do the same. 


Living With It

“God didn’t promise day without pain, laughter without sorrow, sun without rain. But God did promise strength for the day, comfort for tears and light for the way.” — Annie J. Flint

The first time I felt the lump in my breast, I convinced myself it was nothing. I told myself it was, if anything at all, a fibroid. I told myself cancer was not even a remote possibility for me.  God knew I had things to do.  My daughter needed me, as did the children in our children’s’ ministry.  There was the degree I was pursuing in order to become ordained.  There was the church to pastor    Besides, hadn’t I sold my home, left familiar surroundings, and uprooted my family, all in obedience to my call to ministry?   I couldn’t live with the thought of cancer.

As the tumor grew and grew and grew, I said nothing to anyone.  I had no insurance.  What could anyone do for me, except pray and worry? I was doing enough of that on my own.  I told myself the girls and women in my family couldn’t bear to lose someone else to breast cancer. I told myself I was not my Mother.  And even as the tumor began to change the shape of my breast, I told myself I would not have breast cancer, and I certainly would not die from it.  I couldn’t envision a universe in which I would live with cancer.

By the time I got to a doctor, my breast was hot to the touch and inflamed.  I was still convinced it couldn’t be cancer.  My research had not uncovered these symptoms.  I didn’t know this was no garden-variety (if that term even applies) breast cancer.  I remember the deep sigh of the nurse practitioner when she saw my breast.  I remember the look on her face.  I could feel her concern. She scheduled the biopsy for the very next day.  The imaging center could not see me that same day.  I appreciated the urgency with which they were moving, but there was no room in my life for cancer.  I was not anxious anymore.  I just knew God would understand how impossible it was for the tumor to be malignant.  I was not worried.  God knew, as well as I did, I couldn’t live with it.

By now, my family and those closest to me knew.  We hunkered down to wait the 3-5 days for the results of the biopsy. On the fifth day, I went back to the doctor, but the biopsy results weren’t in.  Dr. Caroline Woodland got on the phone herself, called the lab, and got the results.  As she told me the biopsy was positive, she cried.  She sat with me while the nurse set up appointments with the surgeon and the oncologist.  I had cancer, and I had to live with it.  No options.  No place to return this cancer I did not ask for and certainly did not want.  I wanted to give the cancer back; send it back wherever it came from, but who was big enough to receive it?  No one but God. 

My friend Katie urged me to visualize the chemo IV as “healing streams,” I could never divorce my mind from the thought that it was poisonous streams, instead.  After all, the combination of cytoxan, taxol and adriamycin had to be strong to arrest the growth of a tumor that had grown from 3.5 cm to 10+cm in less than a month.  When I read about the side effects, I prayed that God would spare me.  God did not spare me.  The nails on my fingers and toes turned black, as did the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet.  Every bone in my body ached for weeks at a time.  Morphine drips and oxycodone didn’t lay a glove on that pain.  I had mouth sores, fever and the shakes.  I was hospitalized.  I was nauseated. Sometimes I wanted to die, but I had to live with it.

Fast-forward through 16 weeks of chemotherapy, a modified radical double mastectomy, and 5 weeks of radiation.  In less than one year, I was cancer-free and training as a chaplain.  I was diagnosed August 27, 2012 and went to work June 28, 2013.  I am grateful.  God is good.  But one day last week, I realized I could not read street signs, or the signs on buildings.  In the daytime.  And there is the nagging problem of my memory.  I work at two hospitals.  At the very small hospital, I keep forgetting how to get to the cafeteria.  At the very large hospital, I still get lost with regularity after almost four months.  I began to have headaches. When I went to The Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders for a checkup, I mentioned the cluster of symptoms to the doctor.  She ordered an MRI of my brain. The thick silence in that room, the look on her face; the seriousness of it struck me like a slap in the face.  Until that moment, the cancer metastasizing to my brain had not occurred to me.  I checked out with the receptionist and walked out of the building to my car.  I opened the car door, poured my body into the front seat, and sat there.  I can’t tell you how long. In my mind, I’m still sitting there, in suspended animation.   

I thought I understood what it means to live with cancer.  Foolish, foolish me.  Living with it means cancer will be my companion for the duration of my life. There will be times I believe I will see Allye graduate college and get married; that I will live to meet a grandchild or maybe two. That I will meet a man to love, who will love me back.  On the other hand, there will not be a day cancer is not visible in my rear view mirror.  I’ve got to live with that.   I will undoubtedly give it back to God over and over again.  Only God is big enough to receive it.  And only hope in God will see me through.

Me. Unequivocally and Unapoligetically

“the Negro must boldly throw off the manacles of self-abnegation and say to himself and the world: ‘I am somebody. I am a person. I am a man with dignity and honor. I have a rich and noble history, however painful and exploited that history has been. I am black and comely.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. writing in Where Do We Go from Here (43-44 )

When they told me I would lose my hair, I decided to cut it off myself. It was my way of taking control in a universe where I had lost all control. I was cool about it. After all, I’ve dealt with the hair issue all my life, right? I’ve done weave, perms, afros, hot combs, locks, texturizers . . . the whole gamut. Truth be told, my hair journey isn’t much different from most of my sisters’. I researched baldness, shaving, even depilatories (a definite don’t) and in the end, I took the scissors and did it myself. I rocked the baldness with pride. Everywhere I went, people told me how lovely I was; how brave. I wore my bald head like a badge of courage. It was not until my hair began to grow back that I was challenged. It was gray! I couldn’t color it! It was too soon after the chemo, and neither could I perm it. Sometimes I wore a wig, and sometimes I went natural, and I thought that settled my internal debate. Foolish, foolish me. All it took was a move to a new city to prove it wasn’t over.

It should be completely expected that a people described as ugly, beastly and anything but comely would internalize that description.  Black women hated their noses, their posteriors, the nappiness of their hair and the dark hue of their skin because white beauty was celebrated while black beauty could not be contemplated as anything but an oxymoron.  Some would argue, “that happened so long ago, why dwell on it,” but it wasn’t that long ago.  And when a load that heavy is shouldered by our grandmothers and our mothers, some (or all) of that weight is transferred to us.  So some of us lighten our skin, torture our hair, and hate what we see in the mirror.  I thought I worked all that out a long time ago.  Now I know that while I processed it philosophically, cancer forced me to look again, in minute detail.

One day shortly after the move, I had a medical appointment at Baylor Hospital.  I sat in the car, afraid to get out.  I felt ugly and feared the reaction of people I didn’t even know.  I looked like a flat-chested, plucked chicken.   I weighed reversing the car and going home, but then I asked myself, “What would be different the next time?”  I forced myself out of the car and walked in.  Yes, people looked at me, but they didn’t point and stare.  I was just one of the walking wounded.  I was the only one, it seemed, concerned about my appearance. When the nurse complemented me on how great I looked, I discounted it as kindness, and I had an epiphany.  Why did I give the ugliness more weight than the beauty?  Could it be that all the self-talk about being and feeling beautiful was just that:  talk.  I needed to take control, as I once did by picking up the scissors, to pick up my life.   I would love to say that was the end of it, but my internal self-abnegation is something I wrestle with.  Even supermodels admit they have body parts they wish were “better.  ”The burgeoning bariatric and plastic surgery industries testify to the troubled relationship women (and a growing number of men) have with their bodies.

My taking control meant I went to be fitted for prosthetics and a bra.  My insurance didn’t cover it, but the Joan Katz Breast Center came through for me with donated funds.  Immediately after the fitting, I walked outside Baylor Hospital and a brother turned and looked at me with appreciation in his eyes.  His comment, “Baby, you sure look good to me.”  I marveled at the power of  breasts, and realized I was standing up straighter.  Prior to the fitting, I fretted about walking bent-over.  That’s the only way I can describe it.  I guess it was difficult for my body to adjust to being breast-less.  Maybe it’s shallow, but I felt good.  Will I suffer through reconstructive surgery?  I don’t know.  But with the Affordable Care Act, at least I have options.

As for the hair, I’m wigging it up for now, and I love it.  I realized I don’t have to wait to feel beautiful. Some women can feel beautiful no matter what.  I’m not one of them.  I don’t apologize for that.  I’ve stopped apologizing for being me.  If it takes fake breasts and a wig through this transition, so be it.  Among all the things cancer gave me, the blessing of being Valda Jean Combs. Me. unequivocally and unapologetically, is the greatest.  I am comely and black. Amen.

Lower Case Whitneys

            Earlier this week a Christian woman with a beautiful   spirit called me with a question.  She   said, “What is the Church to learn from Whitney?”  I asked her what she meant.  She said, “Well, she grew up in a Christian   home.”  She knew God.  “She had money.”  She was beautiful.  And yet, she was a drug addict.  And now she is dead.  I   have thought about Whitney Houston.    Whitney with a capital W.  We   rooted for her, didn’t we?  We followed   her through her ups and downs, and our hearts broke each time she slipped or   stumbled.  And we trusted that a child   trained up right would eventually return to the way she was brought up.  But Whitney ran out of time.  And some of us are wondering, “Where do   broken hearts go?”  But thinking of   Whitney, I couldn’t help thinking about all the lower case whitneys.  The whitneys who walk the streets of our   towns and cities not knowing where they will lay down at night.  The whitneys who trade sex for money.  The whitneys who have 3 or 4 children   before they’re 25.  The whitney who got   punched by her boyfriend or her husband last night.  While we cry over big Whitney and ask God   why, I hope we will remember there are women all around us in trouble, just   as Whitney was.  Women who “almost had   it all.”  An honor roll girl on her way   to college and then she has a baby. She dreamed of being a doctor and now all   she has is a nightmare life with a baby and no husband. Just a baby   daddy.

Or the woman who’s “saving all her love” for a married man.  Or the whitney who “just wanted to dance with somebody” but got raped instead.  You couldn’t help Whitney with a capital W, but there are thousands of lower case Whitneys right where you live that you can do something about.  All you need is “one moment in time.”  Kevin Costner said at her funeral, that she wondered, “Am I good enough, am I pretty enough, will they like me?”  Whitney with a capital W had the same concerns as all of us lower case whitneys.  And as a Black woman, her insecurities were even greater, for we have always been called ugly and nappy headed and thick lipped and wide nosed.  Just like Whitney, we know the address of Heartbreak Hotel.  And though we might go there, we can’t stay there.  For we have work to do.  Anna Julia Cooper wrote, “Only the Black woman can say, “when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and with suing or special patronage, then and there the whole…race enters with me.”   For those of you who may be unfamiliar with her legacy, Dr. Cooper was the pioneering African American author, educator and social activist who said in the late nineteenth century that the educational, moral and spiritual progress of Black women would be the force for change in Black communities across the nation and the world.   Anna Julia was right.  But that was back in the day when women picked children up for Sunday School.  Before we were so busy.  At the mall.  And the nail shop.  And the Bingo parlor.  And the club. And the gambling boat. On the  phone.  With our man.  Doing  me.  Black women have been the bridge everybody walked across to get to where they needed to go, but somewhere along the way, we decided it is all about “me.”  And  the beloved community suffers.  When we got to sit at the lunch counter at Walgreen’s we thought the struggle was over.  It is not over.  And on this day, I hope we mourn both whitney with a capital W and lower case Whitney.

Luke 6.27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great.  36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

So today, I pray you will make up in your mind to take the focus off you and what you want and the way you like it and put it on somebody who needs you.  I pray you will decide to help somebody along the way.  Not your family, and not your friends.  The scripture says that anybody can do that.  God doesn’t reward us for helping the folk we love.  God commands that we love the stranger, the sojourner.  You might think you can’t do it, but I say “You don’t know your own strength.”  Help somebody and don’t expect anything back.  Do to others as you would have them do to you.

The songwriter writes, If I can help somebody, as I pass along.   If I can cheer somebody, with a word or song,   If I can show somebody, she is travelling wrong.  Then my living shall not be in vain.  If I can do my duty, as all ought   If I can bring that duty to a world that’s lost.  If I can spread a love message that the Master taught.  Then my living shall not be in vain.

Whitney ran out of time.  My prayer is we will find the time to reclaim the beloved community.

Chronic Pain

My constitutional law professor had a phrase I have appropriated.  After reading a particularly difficult set of facts, before we got to the majority opinion and the dissent, Dean T. Gerald Treece would pause and say, “Now, doesn’t that just hurt your justice bone?”  My justice bone is sensitive.  It aches for the poor and the vulnerable.  It throbs for children who go to school every day, but can’t read by the third grade. It was a  sharp, stabbing pain when I faced the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, for I had to pray for the people who were dispossessed so the Wall could be built.  This justice affliction is complex. It forces me to dig deep; to follow the trails; to sort out truth from lies . . . to locate the roots of injustice. And I’ve certainly been angered by what I’ve seen of oppressive systems.  But I’ve never been bitter.  I’ve held on to hope.  Somehow, I maintained my belief that things would change.  My Mother often cautioned me about my idealism, saying my heart would one day be broken if I refused to see the world as it really is. Mama was right. My heart is broken.

I chose the United Methodist denomination because I fell in love with the Social Principles.  I felt empowered by the Book of Discipline. I was infatuated with a denomination that has the courage to call out racism as a sin. I chose this denomination carefully. No generational pull for me. I was not baptized and confirmed UM.  I had little exposure to UM, although I did note the UM churches in Prairie View and Hempstead, Texas were just as segregated as the Baptists, the Lutherans, the Episcopalians and the Catholics.  I chose UM as a mature woman, convinced I could not remain Baptist because of the oppression against women. So I surveyed denominations.  I established criteria.  I was intentional because I know my justice bone is sensitive.  I know the space in which I live my life.  Look for me at the intersection of race, class, and gender.  I don’t live there by choice.  I live there because at this stage in the evolution of these United States, that is the address available to me.  It is the same place Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Audre Lorde lived, but I must say it infuriates me that after all the striving, leading, speaking, marching, and writing, I’m still pressed upon and pressed down because of race, class, and gender. And as I look around at my gifted, graceful clergy colleagues, I realize I am not standing here alone. Standing shoulder to shoulder with me are my sisters; some passive and submissive; some bold, loud and proud. What must be understood here is that whether we keep silent or speak out, we are relegated to the same neighborhood.  It is not zoned United Methodist only. I have seen women of color voted out, pushed out, evaluated out, frozen out, and starved out of pulpits by every denomination I know.

My sisters and I approach ministry with joy, so glad to be serving God that it is years before we come to grips with our own marginality. In  the early years, we accept that everyone starts out at the smallest churches, for the least amount of compensation. We are expected to perform miracles.  And we do.  But somehow, the miracles never morph into the plum appointment, just another impossible situation. And you try not to make comparisons, but it is obvious that men with less experience and less ability are being appointed to the larger, more lucrative churches. And if you are African-American, you realize there are multiple tiers in the appointment process, and you are on the bottom tier. And if you are an African-American woman, you are the lowest of the low.  Here is where folk will point to this or that African-American or woman in the hierarchy, as if exceptionalism and tokenism demonstrate fairness. Yet women keep coming, filling the seats at seminaries and sanctuaries; giving ourselves and our money and making miracles happen, because we desire to serve God with all our hearts.  And the Church talks, meets, writes grand sounding words, and appoints commissions. And weeds out troublemakers, and silences those who speak out. It’s enough to make my justice bone ache, and my heart breaks for me and my gifted, glorious sisters.

Ntozake Shange wrote, in For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide . . ., “Being alive and being a woman is all I got, but being colored is a metaphysical dilemma I haven’t conquered yet.”  How about being alive, a woman, a colored woman, and a clergywoman?  All I am certain of at this point is that I make a conscious choice to be vulnerable, even when it hurts. I will not slumber through life, numbed by shopping, sex, religion, Facebook, work or children. I will not deny the pain.  If I deny the pain, how can I remain a truthful woman?  If I deny the pain, I will not fight so that my daughter and her daughter will not find themselves standing in this very same place. I choose to love the beloved community. I choose to trust in a God who is a woman, for I trust that a woman will not forget me and my sisters.  And I choose not to divest myself of my glorious, God-given power.  I stand with Sojourner and Harriet and Zora Neale, and Fannie Lou, and Stacey, and Irie, and Jerrolyn, and Freedom, and Valeta, and so many more.  We will not stop coming.  And I choose not to be silent.  Ever again.

The United Methodist Church recognizes that the sin of racism has been destructive to its unity throughout its history. Racism continues to cause painful division and marginalization. The United Methodist Church shall confront and seek to eliminate racism, whether in organizations or in individuals, in every facet of its life and in society at large. The United Methodist Church shall work collaboratively with others to address concerns that threaten the cause of racial justice at all times and in all places. (Article V, Book of Discipline (2004), ¶5)