Wednesday, October 11, 2023

"A Rock in a Weary Land: For Rock Hill Missionary Baptist Church"


Upon pain of losing fingers  hands  tongues eyes  or breath itself
                                                                                                           they still stole
the words  the pages  the scraps  the books  and hummed the story into
a stair of light upon which to climb
                                                                 not only up a mountain but into the clouds –
If those words can make you free   they said
                                                                             them words will sprout wings
upon our backs   and spark lightning in our fingers
                                                                                     Every chosen one
had to climb   walk  or crawl up the rock
                                                                    Yes  a mountain                                                                                                                                                                               sometimes
                    a hill  
                              maybe  even just a mound  beneath which the most sacred bones
were cherished
                              A Rock
 Moses went when summoned and returned  shouting   “Go,  Be Free”
                                                                                                                   A Rock
Elijah survived earthquake  fire and storm  to gain the stillness of complete love
at the pinnacle where all is revealed
                                                              A Rock
                                                                                 no,   a stone upon which
the wisest  bravest  oldest of the sojourners  would finally rest
at the crossroads  where hope met dread   where blindness was stunned
into sight
                    Ebenezer  the Rock was called
where help was offered and claimed   where the chosen and blessed were anointed
for the people   always the people
                                                                Samuel waited to see who would stand ready
to deliver God’s children and sing the songs that gladden our hearts even now
They knew that every child who climbed that rock  returned with words that gave
wings to dreams
                                 The child who stood on the mountain  who was dragged up the hill
spoke the word that we still stretch out our souls to hear and to hold
                                                                                                                   the Word
that causes us to tremble   tells us  yes this day   that if you climb the rock
it is to see a way to the Promise Land   go  and return
                                                                                            and guide us on

(There are very, very few institutions in the Black community that can be honored for celebrating 152 years of existence. The fact that three formerly enslaved African American families gathered to pray together, without ceasing, is the most profound reason for confirming with word and deed this milestone celebration. October 6, 2023.)                   

Thursday, May 25, 2023

The Wonder Will Be


The Wonder Will Be

for a friend, on his birthday

 There were how many days

                                                 before I stopped

looking past the boy and  just stared until

he lifted his head

                                 straight into me

                                                            and he

dropped his hand from the fence

and stood still

                           telling me he would stay

if just a nod  or a second glance


him passage


                            Come here

you    come here

                                can you cook

The smile that crept from his eyes

past his mouth

                             and into his chest

was all the answer

                                  I will

ever need

Here   yes  here

                             we need these greens

to be

            picked  and cleaned   and cleaned

and cleaned

                        no grit

none   nowhere    and not

none on you



The smile again

                               Well    I thought

hadn’t been none for some years

somebody is always hungry around

here  and I always got the fixins’


The wonder will be

how long he will stay


his steady hand

                               bowed head

and the hum   he’s sending down

past his hands


I need to make room


            at last

                           and finally


                                          -- 2020

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

“The Presence of the Word: Out of the Darkness: Sound and Substance; Liberation and Black Imagination”

 [In perpetual, joyful transcendent honor of Toni Morrison, upon the issuing of the U. S. Postal Stamp, March 7, 2023. First presented as panel presentation, Conference on the Catholic Imagination, Loyola University Chicago, August 2019 --After [Toni Morrison] Author's comments/responses in red--

“And God said.....”

Of course, God said...”darkness, you shall not prevail. There will be light.”  Creation begins with a word, spoken, with the power to make things. And to make things happen.  Yes,  “àshe:  Make it so.” The power within all that has been created. Before anything was created, there was the power. There was and is and will always be, the word.

“And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”̀

What they were drowning in, in the bottom of the wooden vessel, rocking on water that could also drown them – water that was now to be a forever-locked gate to the only strength they had ever known, where the ancestors, the living-dead, wept for their being ripped away from the earth where they had learned to dance. And it was dark.

The evil ones proved their clever genius in how they broke even the bonds of words -- “We were landed up a river a good way from the sea, about Virginia county, where we saw few or none of our native Africans, and not one soul who could talk to me. I was a few weeks weeding grass, and gathering stones in a plantation; and at last all my companions were distributed different ways, and only myself was left. I was now exceedingly miserable, and thought myself worse off than any of the rest of my companions; for they could talk to each other, but I had no person to speak to that I could understand. In this state I was constantly grieving and pining, and wishing for death rather than any thing else.” (Equiano,  Chapter 3, p. 90)

No words, but crying and moaning and the groans of wide-awake night (always, never broken night):

“Then late at night, after the songs were over, from the darkness of the lower decks of the Young Hero and thousand other ships, the sailors could hear ‘an howling melancholy noise, expressive of extreme anguish.’  On one such occasion, the ship’s doctor said that he asked his black female interpreter to go inquire the cause of the wailing noise. According to the doctor, ‘she discovered it to be owing to their having dreamt that they were in their own country, and finding themselves when awake, in the hold of a slave ship.’” (Harding, There is a River, p. 16)

“And God said”  And in the conviction bestowed in them at birth, they sang.  Each utterance shaped the universe, resisted the darkness. Word. Sound. Sounding truth. Speaking “No,” to the destructive trauma of darkness.  Erasing the circle of all that was truth and evident:  we are born, we grow, we bless and are blessed; we teach; we descend into a darkness where we are named, blessed, called forth through the gateway of the night, to protect those who sleep. We are bringers of peace.


The circle was forever destroyed. This we knew. But we could only sound the anguish, being separated from the words that allowed us to live.

And so we live. They named us, “dead.”  And yet.... we howled and sang and year by burning year, we found a word, then more; then many. And now, we now shape the circle -- being completed once more.

They brought storms into our sky and into our minds and the howling we have done is nothing but the howling we have been burned by.  Flinging the darkness up and away from us, we are the ancestors of the children yet unborn.

Every song draws someone, one by one, by “We”, into the circle where they and we can learn who they and we have always been.

[Toni Morrison]

“For a long time, the art form that was healing for Black people was music. That music is no longer exclusively ours; we don’t have exclusive rights to it.

(Ain’t that the truth! Somebody  stole all my stuff, Father-brother-uncle-cousin Langston said)   

Other people sing it and play it; it is the mode of contemporary music everywhere.  So another form has to take that place, and it seems to me that the novel is needed by African Americans now in a way that it was not needed before – and it is following along the lines of the function of novels everywhere.

(So we gotta do the soul-food magic, again, take the left-overs and cook them up so good and delicious that we can feed a neighborhood...of strangers)  

We don’t live in places where we can hear those stories anymore; parents don’t sit around and tell their children those classical, mythological archetypal stories that we heard years ago.  But new information has to get out, and there are several ways to do it. One is the novel. I regard it as a way to accomplish certain very strong functions....

It should be beautiful, and powerful, but it should also work. It should have something in it that enlightens; something in it that opens the door and points the way. Something in it that suggests what the conflicts are, what the problems are. But it need not solve those problems because it is not a case study, it is not a recipe.

”[there are things to be incorporated] that should be directly and deliberately related to what I regard as the major characteristics of Black art, wherever it is.  One of which is the ability  to be both print and oral literature: to combine those two aspects so that the stories can be read in silence, of course, but one should be able to hear them as well.

It should try deliberately to make you stand up and make you feel something profoundly in the same way that a Black preacher requires his congregation to speak, to join him in the sermon, to behave in a certain way, to stand up and to weep and to cry and to accede or to change and to modify – to expand on the sermon that is being delivered.....And having at my disposal only the letters of the alphabet and some punctuation, i have to provide the places and spaces so that the reader can participate.  Because it is the affective and participatory  relationship between the artist or the speaker and the audience that is of primary importance, as it is in these other art forms that I have described.” (What Moves at the Margin, pp. 58-59)

Oh, so what you mean is that Black literature is sacrament and sacramental?  It achieves the effect that is intended?  It has the power to make the stranger a neighbor, neighbors a community; and communities a culture?  Is that what you mean, Ms. Morrison?  Is there anything else we need to know, for this time and space and place and purpose?  Anything about how the original artists, through their ability to be mystics, in the truest sense of the word – becoming the angels that traverse Jacob’s ladder and not the trashy individual caught up in their dream – learning to demand that God come down from heaven and liberate those who groan and cry and mourn and weep – making their voices the primal and primary therapeutic response to the enduring trauma inflicted on them all – being thoroughly assured that “their wings were going to fit them well, since they tried them on, at the Gates of Hell,”  of becoming Moses, Joshua, Daniel, Elijah, Mary, Martha, John the Baptist, Peter and even the silent abused Savior – in other words,  the carriers of the Voice of God (like all good prophets are).  I’m sorry, Ms. Morrison, is there anything else you want to tell us about how the art you conjure up is so closely aligned with the principles of sacramental theology that we can grin and wallow in your generous teaching?  Is there?  Oh, Ok....

“The only thing I would add  . . is the presence of the ancestor; it seems to me interesting to evaluate Black literature on what the writer does with the presence of the ancestor.  Which is to say a grandfather as in Ralph Ellison, or a grandmother as in Toni Cade Bambara, or a healer as in Bambara or Henry Dumas.  There is always an elder there.  And these ancestors are not just parents, they are sort of timeless people whose relationships to the characters are benevolent, instructive, and protective, and they provide a certain kind of wisdom.

Yes, ma’am. Saints. The living-dead of the Kongo cultures. The visitors of our dreams and daydreams. The intercessors, guides, angels and guides.  The saints. When the survivors of the ocean voyage stepped on the earth that would be their prison, they decided that as soon as they learned the language of those who enslaved them, they would use that language to free themselves.  They stole the book, the book that starts with darkness and sound – with the word of power. And they named themselves the liberating heroes of the stories held dear by those who sought to control them.

And they said, “Never been to heaven, but I’ve been told, the streets of heaven are paved with gold.”  “When I get to heaven, gonna sing and shout, and there will be nobody there to turn me out.”  And, “Everybody talking about heaven ain’t going there.”

Yes, ma’am. And all the ma’ams and sirs.  You have taught us to see and hear prophetic literature.

And we are grateful. And that is why we love you all. By giving us your art and becoming our ancestors, you have taught us to love the gifts you show us to be.

“Without ever leaving the ground, [you] could fly.” (Morrison, Song of Solomon)

To fly.  Without. Ever leaving. The ground… in the world of the Spirit.  Amen. 






Friday, December 23, 2022

“Until None Need Stars to Call Them On”

 “They were overjoyed at seeing the star…”  [Matthew 2: 1 -12]

Moving west for days that blended into a forever now
our minds locked into each other’s vision
                                                                        and the star
defied all the knowledge we had hungrily held

each night it called us
the calm and steady trust brought to us
by that flickering light
                                         was nearly drowned
by the pinched face and the slicing words
of this hungry king whose fear 
assaulted us
                        from the moment
we gave him our cause

That night we did not share a word
of what we felt
                             we slept
                                              we allowed our dreams 
to wrap us in a cloud

And when we found the child   we gave them 
of our treasures
                                and our hoarded dreams
and whispered

            so that what our hearts can barely contain
when following this child’s eyes
                                                        will survive
until none need stars
to call them on

                                                                        Christmas 2022

Monday, April 11, 2022

And Here I Stand on Fire: Palm Sunday Passion Reflection


And Here I Stand on Fire

“As they led him away they took hold of a certain Simon, a Cyrenian,who was coming in from the country; and after laying the cross on him,they made him carry it behind Jesus.” (Luke 23:26)

 Oh  I know  the story
that somehow  I was seized by the soldiers
                                                                      to walk

behind him

                     the burden of the day  

                                                         heavier by far

than a single bar of wood 

                                            But  I know

how I fell out

                         into the road

as they pulled him along 

My breath caught my throat   constricted

water streaming down my face

                                                    Oh  I know 

He stumbled   he shook

                                        he groaned

and I looked into his bloody eyes 

They never seized me

                                       He did 

I grabbed the wood

                                  I could not lift him

from the dirt   I could not leave

I could only see his back   his legs 


When the stumbling stopped

                                                the beasts

pushed me back  into the crowd

two women wiped my face

held my hands   and stood

                                            with me

until the silence and the dark descended


They brought me to the hall

 Men I did not know made me bathe

drink  what little wine they could spare

 It was not sleep

                          it was a falling into nothing

I could dream


Days and nights made

no difference


Please let me cry this  to you

 Again the air grew warm

we all grabbed each other and leaned

into fear

                the door   disappeared

and I saw

                  His eyes

his eyes

                as steady as a fisher’s net

pulled me to him

                               Again I fell

and never broke the stare


hand upon my head

                                  please let me


        His hand

                           and I said


 And here I stand

                             on fire with his eyes

his hand

                  upon me still


(For the Ordination of Joshua Peters, SJ

20 June 2020)

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

"In Galilee a Virgin"


In Galilee, a Virgin

(Luke 1:26)


With the whisper

                                 came the fire

sounding into a hum that caught me

breathing slowly

                                I knew    from somewhere

to be still    but blistering heat

shifted my breath

                                   choking me


Near the edge   I heard

one word   then another

                                              and then

I was light enough to leave my bench

my hands sought the source

                                                     my eyes

blinked and teared

                                    then one word

then another

                             The fire pulsed   the

whisper floated

a circle

                  my hand

trembling  beneath my  heart

                                                      and from

where   or how    I still do not

know   there was only

                                          the fire


And my  yes  stilled the air


What will

                    his eyes see

when I place his hand here


the fire lingers  still

                                    what will

my throat release into 

the world  suddenly and forever split apart


Is any   yes   enough

                                      to shear

away the doubt   the searching

is over


I am now made


             when I can hold what

this fire has claimed

                                      I will

sing  softly   every  yes   I

ever dreamed

                            to give


 -- Luke

20 December 2021

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

"I Done Done What You Told Me to Do"

 [Solicted for a project on Jesuits and Theater, coordinated by George Drance, SJ]

The title of this reflection comes from one of the grand old Spirituals, which should be no surprise to anyone who has sampled any of my other writings. What amazed me when I discovered this song, just a few minutes before I began writing this piece, is how it could be the drumbeat for a meditation on how one lives one’s vocation – no matter what the circumstance or specifics of the call. Not only could I use this song as a way of thinking about all the moments in my life when I was told to do something by my parents or by teachers, something – anything – that I was either hesitant to do or absolutely paralyzed from doing, I can use this song as a way into understanding how faith has been performed throughout my life.  No; it is not a quirk that I have never been able to imagine doing all sorts of great and fulfilling things. I tell people that I have been most successful when I have been told, “I think you ought to do……” and I say, “If you say so….” I have learned to trust those who see gifts in me that I often overlook.

My sixty years of work in theater is the perfect proof of this being led by faith into and out of a wilderness of discovery and transformation. Within weeks of my entering the Society of Jesus in 1962, Fr. Joseph D. Sheehan, our Novice Master, understood that I would need a forceful intervention in my life if I were to ever break through the overwhelming fear I had of speaking in public. Oh, I had been the drum major for the Beloit Catholic High School marching band for three years in high school. But in almost every other public setting I fell into a traumatic state of confusion and fear. I had to be forced to have my picture taken, to be put behind a microphone to speak. Looking back all these decades, I know why this condition controlled so much of my public life. Racism. I was the only Black person in my high school for three of my four years in attendance. The administrators manipulated me into every publicity photo ever produced. I was always pushed forward for the public view. Even my selection as drum major was racially based. “You have a better sense of rhythm than the other band members,” our band director said. Oh, really? The only Black kid in the school? How sensitive. And how completely wrong – at least in the beginning. By my senior year I could perform as well as any drum major in any of the southern Wisconsin high schools.

Three months after I entered the novitiate, Fr. Sheehan had grown frustrated with having to demand that I answer questions or offer comments in our classes. He called me to his office one afternoon, to “give him some advice,” he said. The novitiate was going to produce a holiday musical. It would be a parody of “The Music Man,” called, “Man, Music.”  And he wanted my opinion as to which novices could be cast in many of the roles in the play. He handed me the cast list. My name was already there. “No.” I was clear. “I will not appear on stage. I cannot appear on stage.” “I didn’t ask your permission,” he said. And truly, the rest is history. I went into the absolute wilderness of the theater and came out of the wilderness, more alive than I had ever dreamed possible. The first enthusiastic laughter and applause for what I was doing told me that I should wade into that water, with faith and gratitude.

During my four years in that building, I acted in seven plays – sometimes small roles; sometimes the lead roles. Crafting costumes and creating choreography when needed, added to my skills set. Soon after I moved on to St. Louis University to begin the formal study of philosophy, theater classes and productions became a therapeutic oasis.  My year of graduate studies at Johns Hopkins pulled me into directing – at the request of the Hopkins undergraduate drama club. I directed three plays (two one-acts and one full-length play) during that one academic year. And on and on.

In all of these years, I learned that the theme for this reflection is about faith. This Spiritual fits how I feel about religious life and priesthood – connecting also with another powerful meditation, “Done Made My Vows to the Lord, and I will go, I shall go, to see what the end will be.”  That was the song Sr. Thea Bowman blessed us with when the community of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies visited her in Canton, Mississippi, the year before she died.

I will go. I won’t turn back. I will trust the truth of the vision of others. I have no idea what the end will be, but when I get farther along the path, I will tell God, the ancestors, my elders and my trusted circle, “I done done what you told me to do.”  That is theater at its most vulnerable and transparent.  We trust the script, the director, the actors, the crew. Faith. And then…. oh, how blessed is the moment when we begin to have faith in ourselves; seeing, finally, within us what those who love and trust us have always seen.

From a production of “Teahouse of the August Moon,” performed at St. Louis University in 1968. The director, Leo Hanson, had to convince me that I could play a 90-year-old village elder of Okinawa. At least one member of the audience confirmed Mr. Hanson’s choice. They asked him who was that retired professor who played the old man. An almost 70-year difference between my age and the age of the character. It does not matter. The Spirit of Wisdom inhabits all of us.

And from the most recent moment of blessing and confirmation: playing Solly Two Kings in the 2018 production of “Gem of the Ocean” at Southern Illinois University. The character fit me better than a costume. An elder taking a young questor on a journey into their history and then turning over the role of guide to the young one.

Teaching? Ministry? Acting and directing? Being an elder? 

I done done what I was told to do.