Letter to My Haitian Neighbor As You Leave Town

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I saw you yesterday pulling on a frayed nylon cord to tie down the mattresses on the roof of your car.  You’re leaving town and we never got to say ‘hello.’

I’ve seen you in the Food Lion and the Wal-mart and I’ve been tempted to try to speak.  But my high school French, which I would use to approximate your Creole, always comes out as rusty Spanish—the language I’m used to breaking out in talking to my immigrant neighbors.  I know.  Haiti is a long way from Mexico in so many ways, but I’m sometimes laughably limited.  I also order in Spanish at the Chinese restaurant.  

So, no, we haven’t said ‘hello.’

And now you’re leaving.

I imagine that it has been a strange sojourn for you here in this small town.  Traveling to this rural peninsula in Virginia to work on farms and in chicken processing plants must have seemed a hopeful opportunity after the earthquake in 2010.  Our government gave you Temporary Protected Status to allow Haiti to recover and now it has revoked that authorization, giving you until next summer to go home.

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photo by Kaique Rocha via Pexels

Our town changed when the Haitian community came.  Oh, not in the ways some politicians say.  You didn’t run down the town.  You occupied buildings that would have remained vacant.  You didn’t ruin the economy.  You kept Dollar General and our legendary five-and-dime humming.  You opened a Caribbean market on the square.  You began a church.  You filled jobs when the poultry farms expanded.  Crime didn’t spike.  The town police say we have one of the lowest crime rates in the state.  

So, even though we never got to know one another, I felt like our town was better with you here.  I wish we’d gotten to share stories.  It is not good for people sharing the same land to be ignorant of each other’s deepest hopes and needs.  We need to see each other’s humanity.

The Bible I preach from tells us to love the sojourner because we were once sojourners [Deuteronomy 10:19].  A wandering Aramean was our ancestor. [Deut. 26:5]  We will always share something with the immigrant.

These are hard times for immigrants in my country.  Most of us found our way here from someplace else, but we have begun to believe that ‘foreign’ means ‘threatening.’  We talk about immigrants as criminal, predatory, and dangerous.  We use verbs like “infest” to describe your actions.  Our fear leads us to closing our eyes to the gifts you bring and the people you are.  Our fear leads us to cruelty.  Unfathomable cruelty.

This week we couldn’t close our eyes because we couldn’t close our ears.  The sounds of children being torn from their parents to be caged in old Wal-marts converted into warehouses couldn’t be ignored. Something is broken, not only in our immigration system, but in our spirits as well. And the most vulnerable, as always, suffer the consequences.

Your story is not so loud.  You came quietly and you are leaving just as quietly.  If I had not passed you yesterday, I would not have known.  I would just notice slowly that the town was changing again.  The malanga and plantains would disappear from the shelves.  I would notice fewer people walking around town and wonder where they’d gone.  There won’t be crying children on the news when you leave.  Just more silence.

Like much of rural America, our silence is growing as our population is declining.  Each year in our county there are more deaths than births.  The most common narrative for our young people is that they leave for college or job opportunities elsewhere and they don’t come back.  The result is a spiritual crisis of confidence.  You interrupted our stories of decline. You helped us understand that we are not dead.  But we live by being connected.

abandoned-america-american-221327Yes, we need border control.  We need an immigration reform that makes sense—that keeps people and businesses from having to live in a furtive secret economy.  And if you have the opportunity to return to your home after it has recovered from a devastating disaster (something that I don’t believe has really happened in Haiti), of course, that is a good thing. 

But I will miss you.  You reminded me that our stereotypes of what we are can be challenged.  That we could be something different.  Something more.

I watched your car as it bumped out of the dirt driveway and onto the road, the edges of the mattresses flopping over the rooftop.  The back right wheel lacked a hubcap and there was a worrying squeal coming from the engine.  I wondered where you were headed.  I wondered if you would make it safely.

I wondered where we were headed, too.

Thanks to Yossi Klein Halevi and his Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor for the inspiration for this letter.

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Come Write at The Porches with Alex

Soul of Place - FlyerDo you like where Heartlands goes–exploring the places that make the world rich and miraculous?  Would you like to develop that sense of place in your own writing?

Then why not come to the first Heartlands writing weekend?  Located at The Porches Writing Retreat, in beautiful, secluded Norwood, Virginia–a site featured in a 2017 Heartlands interview.  Spaces are limited!  Email: alejojoyner@yahoo.com

Rebelling Against King Jesus

Enjoyed this conversation with Taylor Mertins, pastor and podcaster extraordinaire.

think and let think

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alex Joyner about the readings for the Day of Pentecost – Year B (Acts 2.1-21, Psalm 104.24-35b, Romans 8.22-27, John 15.26-17, 16.4b-15). Alex is the District Superintendent for the Eastern Shore in the Virginia Conference, and he regularly blogs on his website Heartlands. Our conversation covers a range of topics including bad puns, living off the map (literally), church birthdays, faithful diversity, the connections between Babel and Pentecost, the impermanence of land, giving voice to the voiceless, and the community in the Trinity. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Rebelling Against King Jesus

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Absence Makes the Heart: A Jerusalem Reflection

IMG_1708On Easter Sunday…some thoughts from my first visit to Jerusalem in 2011…

I would say that the world is a hopeless place…except it’s not.  Somewhere around here – at the Garden Tomb, under a church – there’s an empty tomb to prove it.  It’s what we have to offer this place – emptiness.

Absence.

If we take on what this place is full of – despair, hatred, violence – then we place the body of Jesus right back where it was at the end – dead, lifeless, abandoned, abused, scorned, and hopeless.  But if we yield to the absence…If we retain nothing…If we get rid of the pretension that we know what God would have them do…we would at last be true to the truth that is uniquely ours to tell.

And what does that empty space proclaim?  The presence of God who once met us face to face and we survived.  The emptiness says God has gone on before us.  The absence of anything pure reason and feeling would lead us to pushes us back to the way we always reject – Jesus’ way.

Remember how he told you this would be necessary.  Remember how he told you that he came to bring a sword.  Remember how he told you to love your enemy, your neighbor, your projimo.  When you are empty…when you have nothing to give…when you know what it means to lay down your life…you will find it.

Bray into the Dying Light

Jeanne Finley sees dimensions that I hadn’t seen.

Tell it Slant

On January 13 Alex Joyner posted his stunning new poem, “Sunset in Archer County,” on his Heartlands blog.  Coincidentally, that same day an employee of Hawaii’s emergency alert system issued a false alarm that terrified residents and visitors:  “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII.  SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER.  THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”  I read Alex’s poem with that news story hovering over my head.  First the poem . . .

Sunset in Archer County

If coyotes howl at sunset

why do we sit in silence?

Staring at our screens

or dumbfounded by our electrified darlings

we let the miracle pass

unnoticed

day after night after day.

That a nuclear furnace on which all life depends

some millions of miles beyond us

is passing once more out of sight

plunging us into dark from which we could

never recover

and we chose diversion

instead of braying into the dying light?

How…

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This Verbal Tic is Driving Us Crazy, Right?

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photo by Frank McKenna via Unsplash

There are a couple of verbal tics that are reaching peak annoyance right now.  At the low end of the scale, (which runs from “What did he say?” to “Nails-on-a-chalkboard”), is the dulling of the simple preposition ‘to.’  In spoken English the word is gradually losing its “ooo” vowel sound and being replaced with the far less elegant “uh” sound.

The flattening of ‘to’ is often associated with a verbal pause so that a speaker’s thought can catch up with her words.  It’s easy to merge ‘to’ with that perennial oral bugaboo “uh.”  To wit: “So after that, we were going tuh…you know…get some ice cream.”

‘Tuh’ is most noticeable on podcasts and other unscripted media programs where speakers have to think on their feet, but I notice it in everyday interactions, too.  I even it hear it my own speech, which makes all the more annoying.

Much further up the scale, however, is ‘right.’  When I first started noticing it about two years ago, the addition of ‘right?’ to the end of a statement seemed endearing, as if the speaker were drawing me in and inviting me to own the observation with him.  “The popularity of Hillbilly Elegy is a function of urban America’s desire to know more about Appalachia, right?”  Here I’m invited to affirm (or presumably reject) an assertion.

Over time, however, ‘right?’ has infected all manner of statements.  Appended on to the end of a string of facts about which I know nothing, how am I supposed to respond?  When you assert what sounds like a forceful opinion and tack on ‘right?’ I feel like you’re trying to coerce agreement.

Worse, however, is the sense that the speaker needs my reassurance to continue.  ‘Right?’ starts to sound like, “I’m saying this definitively but I may be too forceful, so can you give me some indication that I can keep going?”

How about you go ahead and make your argument and I’ll respond at the end?  You don’t need my agreement to state your case, especially if you’re telling me something that I have no way to evaluate in the first place.  You don’t have to confirm with me every three sentences.  That would be excessive.  Right?

The Myth of the Cosmic Skybox

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photo by Frank Köhntopp via Unsplash

It has finally happened.  I seriously had the thought that I would not attend an event just because I knew that, two days later, I would receive the dreaded email evaluation.  “It will only take 5-10 minutes of your time,” the email will say.

Great.  I’ll get to it right after the questionnaires related to my last hotel stay, the meeting I attended last week, and the consumer survey from a store I visited in a town I’ll probably never return to.

I know from whence these come.  In their pursuit of excellence and quality, the organizations and businesses need feedback on how they’re doing.  They want to improve at their core mission.  They appreciate my offering tips.  Sharing is caring.

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photo by Damian Zaleski via Unsplash

Yes, but scoring is boring!  Worse than boring, the endless surveys assume that I have a judgment to offer (on a functional 5-point scale) about everything I experience.  And if they just fiddle with their formula enough they’ll be able to hit my sweet spot.

Actually, I DO have judgments to offer.  Ask me to consider for a minute and I’ll be able to find a number of things that could be better.  The towels in the hotel bathroom did look a little worn and threadbare.  The speaker’s mic had a kind of tinny sound.  And come to think about it, the paper towels we bought had an odd perforation pattern.

I could do this all day.

Perhaps that would be helpful to someone, but when it comes to the life of the Spirit, I’m not so sure.  I appreciate churches that strive for excellence in hospitality and worship.  And I definitely notice when its not done well.  But if we’re talking encounter with God, am I really qualified for the job of consumer critic?

Survey Monkey questionnaires, like every online tool of evaluation, are a product of the modern world in which the autonomous individual is assumed to have a cosmic skybox inside them from which she can stand, detached from the earth and context, and cast an all-knowing eye at the thing before her.  It’s not a bad assumption if you just want some feedback on the sound system in the theater, but it’s more problematic if we’re talking about worldviews.

The essential things in this world, (like the deep pulse of the natural world, the complex bonds of family, and the mystery of a holy God), all have their hooks in us before we ever find words to describe them.  To imagine we can understand them fully or stand apart from them enough to pass judgment on them is an illusion.  Not that we shouldn’t use the gift of reason to explore them more fully.  It’s just that these big realities don’t pass before our skybox like a parade.  And we ought not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think, as Paul says in Romans 12:3.

51A7VfV9RNL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Too many surveys and I begin to feel that I am more autonomous, more god-like than it’s good for a creature to feel.  More powerful is to stand before the God who knows me and to feel that I am connected to—somehow inside—a reality much larger than I.  How well does our worship, our common life lead us into such a realm?

In her poem “Two Pigeons and One Dove,” Mary Szybist looks at a tree and writes:

“Nothing stays long enough to know.

How long since we’ve been inside

anything together the way

these birds are inside

this tree together, shifting, making it into

a shivering thing.”

The birds don’t need a skybox.

Fake Candles at the Tomb: A Holy Land Reflection

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Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

We’d all like a Holy Land made in our own image.  I’ve just spent two weeks in Israel and Palestine and there are a few things I’d change.  Yes, ending the occupation and a two-state solution are on the list.  (More on that to come.)  But, less grandly, how about the simplicity of a church with an open tomb without stalls selling ‘Guns & Moses’ T-shirts just outside the door?

Early on a Sunday morning, I walked the Via Dolorosa past Crusader churches, Byzantine arches, Mamluk stonework, and mass production-era kitsch.  I ended up at the Edicule of the Tomb, the recently-restored shrine in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre marking the spot where Jesus’ body was taken following the crucifixion.

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Candle outside the Edicule of the Tomb

Waiting with the polyglot pilgrims of a hundred points of origin, I felt the power of the place, but I couldn’t help being distracted by the huge candles at the entrance of the tomb.  Highly ornamented, twice my height…and topped by lightbulbs.  It looked like something your Aunt Lulu would construct from a kit she got down at the Hobby Lobby.  (Though it should be noted that the bulbs were of the high-efficiency LED variety.)

I touched the rock slab of the tomb—the impact of which was not diminished by the muffled cursing of the man ahead of me when he bumped his head on the low entrance.  Then I headed to a beautiful prayer chapel where I found the silence I craved.

In the chapel, you could hear the shuffling and muted conversation of tour groups, the chanting of monks, the rhythm of a familiar prayer.  Incense filled the air, an olfactory reminder of the beauty of God’s sacrificial act in Christ.  A riot of iron sculptures depicting the stations of the cross lined the wall.  Behind the eucharistic table, a blue mosaic of tile formed a fitting backdrop for a globe—the world summoned and surrounded by God’s grace.

We didn’t deserve this place, this church, this peace.  Just days before I met with an Israeli police spokesperson who had been at the scene of 48 suicide bombings during the Second Intifada, the memory of which is not cast away like the shoes he had to discard after each one.  One day earlier I met with a Palestinian woman of East Jerusalem who doesn’t know how to describe her nationality.  Israel, which annexed her neighborhood but sometimes treats her like a foreigner or a potential terrorist?  Palestine, which only exists as a profession of nationhood?  Jordan, the country on her papers, but which hasn’t ruled here since before she was born?

IMG_0800We pray for the peace of Jerusalem, as the Psalms prescribe, but any peace we can glimpse is tawdry, contingent, messy, rude, conditional—like the uneasy truce between the seven Christian groups that stake a claim to this church.  Ethiopian monks squat on the roof to preserve their foothold.  Fights break out from time to time between others.  And all the while the masses come and take their photos, genuflect at the sites, kneel beneath the table to touch the rock of Calvary, wonder what trinket to take back home.  Perhaps an olive wood Jesus?  Some Dallas Cowboys gear in Hebrew?

I tried to settle my mind.  My life is no less distracted than the street.  My attention wanders.  My enemies plague me even here.  “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are still not saved.” [Jeremiah 8:20]

Jesus meet me here.  This holy land teems with the violent, frivolous, stupid things we do.  And yet children play in the streets, couples smile at one another, pilgrims stare wide-eyed in wonder as the guide ahead waves a flag to keep them from losing their way, spices fragrance the air, a neglected cat finds food left on a stone wall by an unknown hand.

FullSizeRenderThere is light in this chaos.  Brilliant light like the burning sun of the Judean desert.  True, sometimes it’s mounted to a fake candle and needs to be replaced every 5-7 years.  But light.  Light which burns through and burns on to reconcile all things.