It is not my intent to use this blog as a political forum. And while some might see this post as political, I see it as otherwise. And I invite you to open your heart and feel the movement of the Spirit in you as you read this post.
Back in the early 1990s, I worked at a university hospital on Long Island with a young woman who was from Haiti. She had escaped the island with the clothes on her back during the coup. She grew up wealthy and privileged and was thrust into a life she knew nothing about in a new country, but was so grateful for what she had: her husband, her three year old son, her parents, her sister, the apartment in Queens they lived in, the car she drove, and the job she had. This was a woman who was raised in a mansion and had maids to make her bed and wash, iron, and put away her clothes. She had wanted for nothing.
We were both in our early thirties and we shared stories about our cultures often. One day she was speaking to me with her rich Haitian accent, and then suddenly I could not understand her words. When I asked her to repeat what she was saying, she began to laugh. She realized she had slipped into speaking Creole because she was so comfortable with me. She had an great laugh and a raucous sense of humor, a beautiful and kind heart, and she wanted the same things most young women want: a good and safe place to raise her child and the chance to work hard and own a home with her husband who worked long hours driving a cab. She never once complained that life was unfair in all the years I knew her. I marveled at that. She just resolutely moved forward and kept focused on what mattered: her family and making a better life for them.
We were both house hunting at the time and we’d compare notes on Monday mornings. One morning she asked me about Smithtown, a sleepy little town on Long Island’s north shore, where I was looking at homes. She asked me about the school district, the commute to work, about crime, and the size of backyards. Then she asked me a question that fractured that Spring morning. My wonderful friend with the hard life and the beautiful family and the amazing sense of humor asked me: “is it okay for black people to live there?”
This was the mid-90s, in a highly educated part of New York. And I would have loved nothing more than for my friend to be my next door neighbor.
Her question though presented a hard reality. Not everyone thought the way I thought.
She ended up buying a house in a different neighborhood, one that was more “blended” and where I believe she felt safer. I hate that she had to ask me that question. Because truth was I’m not sure how well-received she would have been in Smithtown, as much as I adored her.
I’ve thought of her and that conversation a lot these past few days given the racist things the current president has said about people from parts of the world where life is hard. I’ve thought about the headlines that have punctuated a truth my Haitian friend knew back in the 90s. A truth I didn’t want to accept then. And a truth I still can’t accept now. Sadly, I know a handful of people who have made excuses for the incomprehensible things we have heard these last few days. They have shaken me. Penetrating such ignorance seems insurmountable. And I am tired of going to bed and wishing I could wake up in another time and place where ignorance is obliterated and decency and goodness are the values that guide our days.
I also know this is not why the Creator put me on this planet. Most of us who are awake right now know we were not put here to have an easy life.
This morning I visited a church in a neighboring town for the first time. Sometimes God puts us in the pews exactly when we are supposed to be there.
The Sunday morning service also included the baptism of a little girl named Isabella. And as with all baptisms, the congregation was asked to renew their baptismal covenant. Before we did so, the pastor discussed the flexible nature of Episcopal theology. One person might view scripture one way. One might view it entirely differently. But if they can support their beliefs, generally we Episcopalians acknowledge that either one can be right. Typically, we are said to not arrive at decisions easily because of this flexible nature.
But the pastor spoke about the baptismal covenant and how the baptismal agreements are “non-negotiable.” These agreements are foundational. There is no grey area in them. More than once he repeated the last one: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”
The words filled that chapel. This question has been written on my soul. And in fact, the question is written on the souls of all of us who have receive the sacrament of Baptism. We know what is right. We know what our covenant with God requires. And yet we feel powerless in this world. And in my clinical practice, I am seeing the daily manifestation of this disempowerment. People are suffering spiritually. And their bodies are paying the consequences. So many, myself included, have been asking “Why?” Why me? Why here? Why now, God? We feel powerless. And our bodies cannot bear that burden. We have no operating manual for this.
Last week I spoke to someone who said the Why question is a disempowering question. She said she has restated her Why questions into What questions. What would you have me do, God?
When I was a kid and I’d ask my mother why I should or shouldn’t do something she had wanted me to do, her favorite reply was “Because Y is a crooked letter.” Why questions typically do not get definitive answers. But What questions do. What time would you like me to put the roast in the oven when I get home from school? What can I do to help you out when you get home from work? We know what to do when we ask What questions. And doing something makes us feel like we have the ability to make a difference.
What questions are action questions. What questions empower us.
And so I leave you (and myself) with these questions:
What will I do to strive for justice and peace among all people?
What will I do to respect the dignity of every human being?
God and the people of the world are waiting on all our answers.
Blessings and peace on your journey,