Monday, August 28, 2017

My Lord, What a Morning

Oh, give me little time to pray: Jesus, Lay Your Head in the Window

“The wind blows east and the wind blows west, it blows like judgement day, and every soul that ever did pray will be glad to pray that day...”

In the very last minutes of a mighty day of remembrance and, I am afraid, not the last minutes of a viral cloud passing over our horizon, we should pause and think of the sacrifice of the thousands who marched for “jobs and freedom,” long ago, on August 28, 1963. As we are called to note about that great gittin-up morning, the assembly was met with the news that William Edward Burghardt Du Bois had died the previous evening in his destination home in Ghana.  But as only a few of us will know or find in many ways emblematic, the Roman Catholic community honors on this day the great life and genius of Augustine of Hippo. Three of the most brilliant people ever to be blessed with the designation of African. (Because I said so.)

We must remember them, call on them, and feel their presence in our lives today, in this time, when the world is being subjected to viral, toxic winds that are blowing from every direction, truly making our time feel like the Judgement Day.

Too many people declare themselves to be shocked or stunned or overwhelmed by the anger and venom spilling forth in every part of this planet. How could we be surprised or bewildered or undone by the violence, the addictive hatred that marches in our streets?  The sound of hatred on the march is the oldest rhythm of this country, devoted to equality and liberty and justice and fairness and decency – and greed; sexual coercion and domination; ego-driven assaults on the vulnerable and the marginalized; and the sexualized pleasure of public murders. As Martin Luther King said to us all, we should be concerned about the victim lying beaten and bruised on the Jericho Road, but we must be even more concentrated on why there are robbers on that road, and why there are so many who walk blindly by. The blindness is self-inflicted, the deafness is self-determined.  “But that is not the way most of ......are. We are better than this. We have moved beyond mouths dripping with venom and guns pointed at those who have the courage to stand and resist and say, “No,” to anger and threat and chaos.” Believe that, wish that, at our peril and the collapse of all we thought we knew. 

But there is a judgement day, for each of us. No matter how well-prepared we, some of us, thought we were, the death of each child; each young woman who thought that she was one of the free and unbound, each young man who believed that he had a right to dance to the rhythm of his heart and imagination; each sister, brother, aunt, cousin, father or infant – each death was enough to arrest our breath and pause the beating of our hearts. But none of these deaths could stop the determination of those who believed in their right to kill those who were defined as “them.”

What do we do? We do what the songs have told us over and over. My Lord, what a morning. But, more, this time, let our eyes hear the echo of the truth, “My Lord, what a mourning...” For we must stop and reckon with the devastation. As Audre Lorde told us, “we were never meant to survive.”  Of course we will mourn ourselves for our fear. And we will of course mourn the death of all hope in the souls of those who seek to destroy all they cannot embrace. We will mourn the disappearance of our hope when the hurricanes drown Houston and Corpus Christi, and Ferguson and westside Chicago, and Liberty Village and Grenada and Cairo. We will mourn.

And then we will say, Oh, no. Ain’t no grave can hold my body down. If those women could push past their fear and the near certainty of their own deaths and seek the tomb of the blessed son, only to find the stone already rolled away, then we can draw in our collective breath and do what our first fierce ancestors did in the bottom of those imprisoning ships when they woke from dreaming of their homes and found themselves still chained, still smeared in their own filth, still hungry and dehydrated. We can do no less.

They sent out a song that was nothing more and nothing less than a storm of truth. No. Yes. Never. Always.

We will stay on the battlefield.

Let us be attentive to Sweet Honey in the Rock and Sonia Sanchez as they remind us that we are obligated to see the horizon beyond the nightmarish cloud. A total eclipse lasts no more than a few minutes.  This darkness shall not prevail.

It never has.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

"I'm On My Way..."

On April 14, 1978, while teaching at Creighton University, I wrote this poem for the Creighton University African American Student Association’s “Recognition Night.”  As I prepare to do a blessing for the Southern Illinois Black Pre-Commencement Ceremony this spring (May 6, 2017), I find that this poem still has some strength to share.  And the time is always appropriate to hear Mahalia Jackson declare, “I’m falling and rising, but I’m on my way....”

Mark the eternally
Redeeming fact
the shadow suffocates
your hope
past the lightning terror
of the demon days
unremembered passage
from home to hell
mute of drum
fashioning banquets from
glacial wrongs
                            Eden was
redeemed in songs

an arthritic alien
hungering greed    ripped
families apart
                            the soul
was mastered by the shadow’s
to deny    and    shatter
to garble and grind
truth into ashes
the verdict of death:
make them blind
the blanket of the crime
to the shaking shoulders
of the bent and broken
let the shadow haunt   and   terrify
let all decency be deprived

until   freedom   spoke   in
the raining of a gun

the delusion of the shadow
was seen as fog
stinging fear     retreated
and the sweat-tasting hymn
of jubilee
                   caught the rhythm
of the drum

in spite of death
still we come
                           we choose
to shed the curse laid
on our back
                        and when
the shadow threatens

Friday, April 28, 2017

On My Journey Now

[Federal District Judge J. Phil Gilbert invited me to provide an Invocation for the Naturalization Ceremony that he conducted at the Lesar Law School on April 27, 2017.  Judge Gilbert is also a member of the SIU Board of Trustees. I find that Invocations are tricky performances, and never more so than at a Naturalization ceremony during which 49 people from about 20 countries pronounced the Oath of Naturalization.  It has frustrated me for a very long time that many who are called to pronounce an Invocation are either unable or unwilling to be truly ecumenical in their prayers, expressing, sometimes, a denominationalism that might be exclusionary more than it is inviting. Each presenter must be allowed the benefit of their sincerity, their desire to give witness to their faith. And I find myself being tolerant, even when I cannot be personally engaged in the sentiment being offered to the assembly.  What follows is my effort to be embracing of the moment and the community. The ceremony touched my heart in unexpected ways, and the power of the joy radiated in all directions. I was proud to be a part of this ceremony. And I am grateful that the ceremony will now be a part of me.  The quoted passages from Martin Luther King, Jr., are taken from Strength to Love – a book that is the subject of an early entry of The Sankofa Muse.]

From the thoughts of Martin Luther King, Jr., we are told that “fear is mastered by faith.”

And so it is. 

Fear of the hunger that steals the lives of our children and breaks the bones of our elders.

Fear that causes the oceans to swell and drown the innocent and that causes bombs to rain down
on the just and unjust, alike.

Fear is mastered by faith.

Out of the darkness, there is a light. And we were told this in the soothing whispers that blessed us at our birth.

Out of the screaming chaos of the midnight nightmares, there is a song that only the heart has ever heard.

Faith. What have we held onto, in darkness, storm and doubt?  That the horizon is defined by God,

and by God alone. 

That our ancestors, who dreamed of us in their fevered times, knew that we would complete the journey that they could never make.

They told us, “Call upon the light. The light, the light that will guide you. From here, to everywhere. Seek and find, and know that seeking the light itself  is where faith takes root. You must believe in light,” they said.

King also tell us: “We are consoled that God has two lights:  a light to guide us in the brightness of the day when hopes are fulfilled and circumstances are favorable, and a light to guide us in the darkness of the midnight when we are thwarted and the slumbering giants of gloom and hopelessness rise in our souls.”

And I call upon light. I name us, “Light bearers.” Let us rejoice that we are here. Each bringing his and her light; each murmuring a “yes” to be part of the song of faith. Let us continue to be the light that others hunger for. 

Let us be the beginning that we have long sought, the beginning that will make this world forever new.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Say Yes, and Say, Now

[A student asked for a favor. Could I find a poem that he could read at his aunt’s wedding? I looked. And then I listened.  And then I wrote. Something about the miracle of remaking the earth with our imaginations, which is the behavior that God requires of us as our part of the work of creation. Nothing is ugly if we choose to truly see. That’s something Ignatius of Loyola managed to pass down to us, through these centuries]

Look at that nasty field
weeds everywhere    you look
and see  thorn bushes  wasps and
kudzu vines
               looking away and up you
can still smell the clotted earth   wet
from days of rain     ain’t nothing
to see  no
                   where you look matters

But   (he said)    I will gather  just a few rocks
that seem to have veins of glitter and shine
and stack them pretty
                            And I (she said)
will bend into the overgrowth   and find lonesome
flowers struggling  to fight the wind  and
be beautiful
                    Just for me (she said)
make the stones stand one atop another
til they mark this place   as   ours
       I will  (laughing in my heart)
root a flower  here  and there
somebody walking by someday in the
early evening  
                 will say  “My, two pairs
of hands and eyes and more than one
singing heart

          here to make us
        how  Pretty can rise up
anywhere  you
                  choose to look”

See Yes
         and say   Now
and flowers and twinkling stones
     show us who you

        -- 4 April 2017

Thursday, December 15, 2016

As In A Dream

a poem for PMcC
[Matthew 1: 19 – 25]

While I tried not to see
                                            to stare

at her stillness    the stone bench

and she   became   one
                                               A voice

she had said   and   a burning flow

through her limbs
                                    and I tried

not to see   but to see

and how   and why   and    now

I have a voice
                             now I am

burning with seeing     just
much she needs my voice

Yes     she told me    was pulled

from her throat
                                  and   Yes

snatched me   from my bed

Care    was all I heard

See where you must carry

it all
                        whose voice

do we   both   hear

Sunday, October 30, 2016

"Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray"

After more than three decades of asking at the beginning of every semester – and often at some point in most lectures and presentations – “Who defines the terms by which we live?” I have recently been visited with a down-by-the-waterside revelation:  Sometimes the definition has to be asked for. Part of the work of the messenger/prophet/healer/advocate is to be awake and aware. That is the simplest and deepest foundation for what our lives must be devoted to. In one of her most valuable (to me) essays, the wandering anthropologist Zora Hurston discusses “Conversions and Visions” and describes how the seeker must be called into the wilderness to receive the vision. And then the seeker must return to the community and share the vision.  Summing up her insight, Hurston says:

The call to preach is altogether external. The vision seeks the man. Punishment follows if he does not heed the call, or until he answers.... In conversion, then, we have the cultural pattern of the person seeking the vision and inducing it by isolation and fasting.  In the call to preach we have the involuntary vision – the call seeking the man.”

(We know that when Zora Neale Hurston was writing this reflection, the prevailing tradition was to use “man” for all human beings. Her very life challenged that gender-restrictive imposition of terms. But she was in good company, then. Nowadays, it needn’t be said....)

In February 2016, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a series of articles, dealing with the health crisis of post-traumatic stress in children. []

 One of the medical professionals used as a source for these articles was Dr. Kenneth Haller, MD, an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the St. Louis University Medical School. Dr. Haller is nationally recognized and respected as a child-care advocate. In his service, Dr. Haller proves the point that Hurston makes about someone “seeking a vision” and devoting one’s life to making the vision known. His preaching occurs every day of his life.  His words in this series of articles filled me up with gratitude that someone I have known for over 40 years is living up to his calling.  And he was called by both the ancestors and the “beautyful [sic] ones as yet unborn.” I know this. I know him. I know them.

The most recent cloud-clearing burst of awareness came from listening to one of the true traversers of Jacob’s Ladder, Ms. Ruby Sales. During a long drive on a Sunday afternoon, I was listening to “On Being” with Krista Tippett on National Public Radio.   It was obvious that Ms. Tippett’s respect for her guest was enormous. And then Ruby Sales began to speak. Her credentials as messenger/prophet/healer/advocate shone bright and cut clean. Now or then, listen to the entire conversation. Then ask, “What wilderness do I inhabit. And how do I find my way to where I am being called?”

[Ruby Sales: “Where Does It Hurt?”/ On Being, with Krista Tippett]

Both Ms. Ruby Sales and Dr. Kenneth Haller ask the same question. It is the question that no one in public life, few people in ecclesiastical power, and even fewer people in the academic world ever ask: “Where does it hurt?”

What must we do to be advocates? Listen. What must we do to be messengers? Listen. And listen and listen and listen. To discover, as has been said on this site recently, to the wilderness within our most hidden self. And they asked Jesus, “Who is our neighbor?”  Our radical transformation begins with telling ourselves that we are hungry, the naked, the imprisoned, the forgotten, neglected, abused and forsaken.  But that revelation is thwarted on every front, on every level and inside most hearts – even in the hearts of those who most loudly declare that they want to “make a difference.”

Then listen.

The life of the woman Krista Tippett calls “a Civil Rights legend,” was spared for us all when a young man threw his body in front of hers when protestors were being attacked in Lowndes County, Alabama, when Ruby Sales was seventeen years old. All of this background can be found elsewhere. What captures us is the story Ms. Sales tells about sitting down and asking a young woman, “Where does it hurt?”  When I heard her say that, even the muscles of my imagination took note. Where does it hurt?  How would my life have been different if someone had asked when I was five or seven, after being abused, when I was manifesting the pain through the migraine headaches that started when I was seven: “Where does it hurt?”  What deeper sources of strength would I be able to utilize if after my being initially rejected for priesthood and doctoral studies, someone would have said, “Where does it hurt?” and then found the spiritual reserves to simply listen.

One part of the blessing that flowed from this interview was my being able to actually see the gift that the abuse, rejection and diminishment had cultivated in me. I can listen. The advice and counsel may be effective; but the listening is where the miracle of the Spirit is found.

Which brings me to Dr. Haller.

When I was carried to Omaha in November, 1973, with strict orders to rest and recuperate for at least six months, I was invited to see a student production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” being presented at Creighton. The play has my special love. Years before, my first lead role in a play was as the title character in the Roman comedy (“Phormio”) that is one of the sources for “Forum.”  Besides nothing is more therapeutic than a Broadway musical --just ask Dr. Haller He was, I think, a sophomore in the pre-med program at Creighton University. He played, in my interpretation, the absolutely central character of Hysterium (played in the original by one of my theatrical heroes, Jack Guilford). The production was student produced and directed. No faculty were involved. Faculty and students did not work together in theater at that time. That struck me as not only odd, but wrong.

Given the nature of Jesuit obedience – and that is not a given – when I arrived in Omaha my “recuperation” consisted of me already being named an associate pastor of the university college church.  Yes. so much for extended care.  Part of my therapy as interpreted by others was an invitation from Fr. Tony Weber to help him out in one of his theater classes.  I could easily be in “Zoo Story,” he said.  For his class. No real stress. Theater is always restorative. Art. Obedience. Tony Weber. I said yes. Then I was asked to help with a production being directed by the Speech Department Chair. Finally, faculty and students were working together; how could I say no? After all, I was merely recuperating from one of the most devastating and traumatic experiences of my life. So, I said yes. (Refer to the tradition of “Jesuit obedience,” please.) And then the Chair of the Speech Department went on a semester-long sabbatical. Tony Weber then suggested that, even without a sufficient academic preparation, I could easily (oh, yes; easily) step in as a substitute for just one semester. No big deal. “You know enough to keep ahead of the students. It’s just one semester. What could be the harm?” The Chair never returned. Not. Ever.

Five years later, sixteen productions later; two courses every semester, and an occasional trip across a local community theater stage, I left Omaha – after having designed the major in Theater.  More trauma. More disappointments. More betrayals by Jesuits.  A lifetime in six years.

But the students who made the whole enterprise work?  There were many, some of whom will read this entry and wonder why I am singling out only one of the many. And they would be likely candidates for such remembrance, to be sure. But Ken Haller was one of the mainstays of our program, our community, my heart. From “Cabaret” to the infamous “Caucasian Chalk Circle,” he sang, danced and endured. And he was open and honest and generous and determined. After an internship among the Lakota people of South Dakota, graduation from medical school and three years of medical practice for the United States Public Health Service, he called me and said, “I need to be working where the need is greatest. Any ideas?”  That is the Ignatian mission. And putting others into impossible situations was something I had learned to do quite well, since it had been done to me for over twenty years by that time.

East St. Louis. Illinois Physician of the Year. Open. Honest. Tireless. Impatient of petty politics and fear. A friend and healer of many.  “And he grew in wisdom and grace.”  While he was in medical school, he did not perform in any theater events.  And while he eventually found a way to sing in the St. Louis chapter of the Gateway Men’s Chorus, he was busy being well and doing good. Mourning the death of friends, being supportive of so many who were drawn to his wit, talent and generosity, he became the healer he had always aspired to be. In an interview he did as part of a publicity campaign for Cardinal Glennon Hospital he briefly and with laser-like clarity describes his whole understanding of “responding to the vision.”

What pulled me back and forward was this comment: “When I walk into a room the first time I immediately look for the child...”

Ah, “I immediately look for the child.”  And then he asks, “Where does it hurt?” And he listens. As has been said before, the most radical act of intervention is to be able to say, “I see you.”  Ruby Sales knows this. Bob Moses knows this. Sr. Thea Bowman knew it. So did my mother and grandmothers.  “I see you.” I think I can say that much of my own ministry is that simple, also.

What is most beautiful about this one who serves among us is that he has returned to the stage; has been called one of the treasures in St. Louis theater. During this season of performances, he is presenting himself and his journey to becoming a healer. What he learned on the stages of Omaha in the 1970’s he is practicing today: how to be fearless, “on key and in tune” with his surroundings.  And to always be grateful. One of his best “open mic” nights is presented here. He explains it well:

October 31 is his birthday. He listens. He works. He is a doctor without borders. And he is the son and brother and friend about whom we should be proud.

Monday, August 15, 2016

“Go in the Wilderness”

Listen to the song.  The first one, as the beginning. Simple truth.  Nothing could be farther from “metaphor” or “symbol.”  Go in the Wilderness. Leaning on the Lord.

If I had known this song, the morning of August 14. 1962, it might have staved off or at least diminished the occupying enemy that was the migraine that grew and grew, from 8:20 in the morning, when I boarded the train in Beloit, until 7:10 that evening when Fr. Bill Wrenn met me at the Minneapolis train station, so that he could drive me the 30 miles to St. Bonifacius, Minnesota.  The land was reclaimed swamp – or wetlands, today? – and the building whose door we faced sprawled across the land like a true fortress, built of bright stones quarried from the region. It struck me as humorous, even with the migraine, that we arrived just about 9 pm, when the bells rang out “De Profoundis” – “Out of the depths I call to you, LORD; Lord, hear my cry! May your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.” While I had to have explained to me the monastic significance of the tolling, and the prayer that was to be said during that period, it soon made much sense, that I should hear those bells that night.

Over the next four years the signal for night prayer would be a constant for all of us; and the sentiments of Psalm 130 could very easily have summed up my most constant prayer for those same years.

Fifty-four years ago, this night, I began my journey into the wilderness.

No one provided cross-cultural competency training for the priests and brothers who staffed the house, nor for the other young men who had arrived much earlier that day and with a sense of entitlement bolstering them on this new adventure. No one said much of anything to me when I left my family, except my mother’s embracing last directive, “Pray for your brother.”  The previous six years of my life – which I still cannot write down in any detail – was an intensive immersion in cultural dislocation and re-assemblage.  My younger sister and I probably survived the experience of desegregating a school system by being somewhat innocent of what covert racism was. Only the largest insults were dealt with. The small harms were accepted as something to which we adjusted. Each instructive episode about how easily privilege can be wielded to inflict a thousand tiny wounds into an adolescent’s mind heart and spirit was nevertheless packed into my consciousness; but not as neatly as all the clothes that were packed into my one suitcase.

I walked into a dark and silent building, wishing only to lie still and alone.

And Jesus was waiting to meet me, in the wilderness.

Much earlier in these reflections the gifts from my father and mother have been lifted up. The books. The phonograph records. The letters. The one visit every year that must have cost them so much more than they would have ever said.  How did Jesus touch me, then?  Protecting me with art. The language of Baldwin and King, the sounds of Billie Holiday and Mahalia Jackson. The music that I fearlessly and calmly claimed as my therapy – practicing the flute every day, for only 30 minutes gave me, me. “I will practice. Because I must.”  And so the house rules were changed.  The poetry that had already been my way to hear myself dream was also there, a covenant with my imagination that promised me flight from the meanest times and the most wounding words of the mostly ignorant and sometimes thoughtless men who surrounded me.

But any of those who remain from that time who will read this will most likely say, “But we had so much joy and we learned so much and we bonded so deeply and forever.” Yes. That is true. Not all the “Sorrow Songs” were sad. And not every blues song is filled with existential despair. Being in the wilderness was the great endeavor in which I forged the armor of my faith. Persistence in the face of the shadows taught me steadfastness and resilience. And most of all, at least as I see and feel this memory this night, I learned to listen, to deeply listen, much like any creature dropped into a wilderness that could either sustain or utterly devour.

I learned to listen. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois elevates the folk belief that some special ones are “born with a sort of a veil, and are gifted with second sight.” This folk belief stems from some babies being born with part of the placenta still covering their heads – the “veil” that bestowed a “double vision” on the fortunate few. And that gift, like all gifts articulated in African culture, was given for the benefit of all the community. Prophecy is not the vision; it is the articulation of the vision once the vessel of the word of power has returned to tell “what has been seen and heard.”  In that same way, I had to learn to listen on several simultaneous frequencies. Otherwise, the unfortunate, ignorant and utterly misspoken remarks would have been fatal – to me, if not to the speaker.  I had to learn to hear beyond the depression, the confusion, and the loneliness that rolled into my horizon and often brought me low. I had to learn to hear my grandmothers say, “You gonna be all right, baby. You gonna be just fine.”

But the formation of my spirit, the forging of my armor of resistance, the cultivation of my “dogged strength...which alone kept me from being torn asunder” (again, the words of Du Bois, early in Souls), were my private schooling, done in addition to learning the history, traditions and excesses of community that were the laboratory of assimilation in which we were being reassembled.  “Learning to be a Jesuit” meant in the deepest sense possible, that I had to learn what it would mean to be “a Black Jesuit.”  No one was there to teach that syllabus. Not until one someone too many asked me if I knew Ted Cunningham. Finding out that there was one other Black man in the Society of Jesus, Wisconsin Province, triggered my by-now legendary decisiveness. I wrote to him. He came to visit, along with his other classmates, at the time of their ordination to the sub-deaconate.  We walked. We talked. We laughed. We shared silence.

“And if Jesus Himself shall be our leader, we shall walk through the valley of peace.”

And now I wonder, fifty-four years later:  did anyone else ever learn to listen, as I was forced to do? The half-century of my surviving with my first vision still intact has made me ask that question, more and more. Did any of them, of you, ever learn that my gift to this brotherhood was the fact that I did not assimilate into a culture that was designed to grind me and those like me (including Ted Cunningham a few years after we met) into a fine dust that the slightest breeze would scatter into oblivion. And a further wonder, to be played as the second drumming of this dance of remembrance:  Have those who claim a ministry of service of faith through justice been willing to spend the needed time in the wilderness that is this country’s culture of forced inequality, violence, and degradation toward the automatically inferior “other”?

In order to both survive the wilderness and to grow strong enough to be a wilderness guide for others, I had to learn to listen.  The question for the Church of the United States, for the Society of Jesus in the United States, for every institution of higher learning; for every government agency; every social work office, every police department; every hospital emergency room – the question is this:  Have you learned to listen, to be conscious, to know that what seems like howling threats in the wilderness around you just might be the sound of the whirlwind that precedes the stillness that is the voice of God?

This question is now being shouted with urgency all over the land. But each one must journey to the wilderness, one fearful step after another. And then each will learn the glorious secret in the only way any of us can learn.  Step into whatever death you most fear. And choose to live.

Can you listen to me, so that you can learn to hear the deepest truth inside your deepest self? Can any and all who believe that their obligation is to keep the wilderness at bay, at all costs, ever hear the whispering in the darkness: “Know this: the wilderness is already within you.”  The prayer is always “Out of the depths, I call to you O Lord.  May your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.”

Young men and young women from beyond the walls of cultural sameness will never enter in the gates fashioned to keep them in the wilderness of another’s devising.  These young women and men will not hear the bell calling them, will perhaps never understand that the net being cast to draw them in is firmly in the hands of their ancestors. We need to tell them what only Jesus was there to tell me, all those many years ago: “You are already a Child of God, formed before you were born. Don’t let nobody turn you ‘round. You are just who we need you to be.”

In the wilderness I learned it: may my ears be attentive to my own cry for mercy.  

How did you feel when you come out the wilderness?

August 14