great cloud of witnesses, all right
early this morning, i opened a package i’d been waiting for all week. it was a great fat book titled, a great cloud of witnesses, and it’s a compendium of saints, so ordained and otherwise. i find myself most drawn to the “otherwise,” the ones whose lives of holiness — a definition worth a lifetime of delving into — the ones whose unheralded kindness, the ones whose courage in the face of attack (be it rubber bullet or tear gas, the lynching tree or one man’s knee), the ones whose words, whose acts of noble defiance, whose everyday living-breathing gospel hold a candle in the darkness.
i’m bringing five of them here to the table this morning, to let their voices be the ones you weave into your day, your soul, your imagination. they are the ones with something wise and beautiful and riveting to say, something worth listening deeply to.
my posture today is one bent low in the sacred prayer of listening.
the ones i’ve gathered here are imani perry, interdisciplinary scholar of race, law, literature, and african-american culture at princeton university; the late great poet and writer james baldwin; michael curry, presiding bishop of the episcopal church; otis moss III, senior pastor of the iconic trinity united church in chicago; and, not least, late-night comedian and cultural critic, trevor noah.
first up, imani perry, with these excerpts from her june 3 essay in the paris review, titled, “a little patch of something,” a meditation that begins with her growing a flat of microgreens on her bedside table, and takes us far far beyond the endosperm of germination. we pick up a couple paragraphs in….(to read the entire essay, click the hyperlink above.)
By any measure of politics and civil order, Black people in the antebellum and Jim Crow South existed in a cruel relationship to land and the agricultural economy. Exploitation happened from birth to death, from the fields all the way to the commissary where people overpaid landowners for minimal goods. Black people gave birth in the cane, died in the cotton, bled into the corn. But out of little patches of something, carefully tended to because beyond survival is love, came reward. The earth gave moments of pleasure: Latching onto a juicy peach—your teeth moving from yellow to red flesh. Digging up a yam, dusting off its dirt, roasting it so long the caramelized sweetness explodes under your tongue. Running your hands across the collard leaves coming up from the ground rippled flowerlike. That green is as pretty as pink.
…But during shelter in place it seems touching and tending to plants has become both more universal and more essential.
Soulful even. I watched my friends and family on screens as they delighted in collards, berries, tomatoes, and chives. Small joys as death rolled by. At first there was a rumor that Black people didn’t get COVID-19, as though by some miracle of our physical constitution. Then we were told it cast us all in the same boat, a virus couldn’t discriminate. Finally, we saw that though a virus doesn’t discriminate the persistent ways a society does had us falling fast. And it seemed we, Black people, all knew someone, or knew someone who knew someone, who died alone in a ward, or a home, or at home. Caresses of loved ones were verboten in the final moments. You had to stay safe from the virus.
This was the context in which the world shifted for the second time in the same season. Police officers killed Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and more, and more. So many in fact that even if I gave you the whole list I know I would be missing some precious lives that also deserve to be remembered. Being killed by police officers is the same old same old for Black people. Same rage, same sorrow, same politicians’ calls for quiet protest but never remedy. The protests grew like wildfire. People emerged from their homes, hungry to stand with each other, to beat back loneliness and fear, angry, resistant and insistent. From every quarter and dozens of states and nations, people have stepped outside to say:
The plants are growing too. Their slowly spreading leaves are synchronous with the shattering glass, the rubber bullets, the gouged-out eyes, the tanks and bullhorns. That synchronicity is not new. When the Klan mobs charged into Black homes, ripping out someone who was loved, dragging them in the dirt, dismembering his body bit by bit before stringing him up, the turnips kept growing. When the bombs shook Dynamite Hill in Birmingham, and the hoses knocked over skinny brown children, the pecans fell from branches. Plums hung heavy, purple and sweet as hot rage bubbled from the gut through the vocal passages.
…I’m remembering all that, looking at my little tray of microgreens, sleepless with fear about the devastation just around the corner, yet hopeful too because the dam holding back rage has broken. I want to hold hands with my friends who have been tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed, who I have seen stumbling yet still holding a banner aloft: BLACK LIVES MATTER. The grace of a shared meal seems so remote now. But those days will return sooner than we think. And if this moment of righteous rage turns into a movement that will be sustained, we will need to both fight and nourish each other. We will have to bolster and build more networks to share food and provide care and shelter, not as an alternative to protest but as an essential element of it. It is a lesson we learned over centuries. Freedom dreams are grown and nurtured out of the hardest, barely yielding soul. Our gardens must grow. That is a metaphor and a literal truth. When the bruised and battered seek refuge from the storm, may all of us who believe in freedom remain ready to feed and sustain them.
briefly, we turn to the words of poet-activist james baldwin, spoken back in 1970, when he and anthropologist margaret mead took to a new york city stage for seven and half hours of “brilliance and bravery,” as described by cultural critic maria popova. mead and baldwin’s entire conversation was later published as a book, a rap on race (1971), and is worth pulling from a bookshelf, your own or your library’s.
baldwin’s words, wise to press against our hearts, include this one searing truth: “we’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope.”
bishop michael curry, the first african-american presiding bishop of the episcopal church, took to the op-ed pages of the washington post last weekend (before the travesty of tear gas and rubber bullets that cleared the way for the president of the united states to walk through lafayette park to the steps of “the presidents’ church,” st. john’s episcopal church, to wield a bible as if a cudgel (by my eyes anyway). bishop curry wrote, in part:
Our nation’s heart breaks right now because we have strayed far from the path of love. Because love does not look like one man’s knee on another man’s neck, crushing the God-given life out of him. This is callous disregard for the life of another human being, shown in the willingness to snuff it out brutally as the unarmed victim pleads for mercy.
Love does not look like the harm being caused by some police or some protesters in our cities. Violence against any person is violence against a child of God, created in God’s image. And that ultimately is violence against God, which is blasphemy — the denial of the God whose love is the root of genuine justice and true human dignity and equality.
Love does not look like the silence and complicity of too many of us, who wish more for tranquility than justice.
next up is otis moss III, senior pastor of trinity united church of christ in chicago. moss is as brilliant a preacher as i’ve heard in a long long while, and i’m thinking some sunday morning i need to hop in the car and drive to 95th street on chicago’s south side. moss, an all-american track star at morehouse college who says he heard a call to the pulpit and switched his major to religious studies then went on to yale divinity school and the chicago theological union, has deep roots in the civil rights movement. his father, otis moss jr., was an affiliate of martin luther king, jr., working together in the southern christian leadership conference, and serving in 1971 as co-pastor with king’s father, martin luther king, sr., at atlanta’s historic ebenezer baptist church.
more than worth your time are either or both of these video sermons posted on the church’s youtube channel:
last weekend, as the nation erupted in a firestorm of protest (and, sadly, pockets of violence), moss preached When Is Someday? , a sermon on the murder of george floyd and its aftermath, framed as a prelude to moss’s unforgettable sermon of the week before, The Cross and The Lynching Tree, in which he addressed the horror of the murder of yet another unarmed black man, this time ahmaud arbery, killed for the crime of taking a jog on a warm spring day in georgia.
and finally, not to be missed is trevor noah‘s powerful 18-minute video posted to his youtube account a week ago friday, reflecting on george floyd and racism in america, in which noah says:
“i don’t know what made that video more painful for people to watch. the fact that that man was having his life taken in front of our eyes, the fact that we were watching someone being murdered by someone whose job is to protect and serve, or the fact that he seemed so calm doing it. there was a black man, on the ground, in handcuffs, and you could take his life, so you did. almost knowing that there would be no ramifications.”
may these voices stir you, revivify you, and bring a speck of light and hope to this dark moment in the american story.
your thoughts always welcome here….
and before i go, happy blessed birthday to two of the chair’s dearest, amy and nan, back-to-back blessings, both blowing out candles on what i hope are sumptuous birthday cakes all across the weekend. xoxoxox