Reciprocal Humanity

I’ve just finished a class called Church and Social Change, which might have been more aptly titled Theology and Mass Incarceration. What I’m sharing today is a slightly edited copy of the final reflection I submitted based on our weekly readings, videos, and discussions. The materials included, among others, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, Melanie G. Snyder’s Grace Goes to Prison, and some videos from One For Ten (a series of films about innocence and death row). 

It’s easy to make connections between the exonerated in the videos I watched and the folks in Stevenson’s stories. The overwhelming theme from this week is that once a person has spent any time on death row and then been released, they can never get that time back and will always be chased by their incarceration. Featured in a One For Ten video, Joe D’Ambrosio who was released after wrongfully spending over 20 years on death row talks about how technology changed and mentions the cultural and social evolution that occurred during the 8170 days he was imprisoned. He mourns the children he never had and the family he lost during his incarceration. He says of incarceration on death row, even though he was always innocent, “This will always chase me.”

I remember watching the movie Dazed and Confused when I was around twelve years old. There’s this part where Matthew McConaughey walks into a bar, it’s slow motion and dramatic. It’s supposed to be sexy, but I didn’t care about any of that.

I was more focused on the Bob Dylan song playing in the background. It’s called “Hurricane” and tells the story of middleweight boxer Rubin Carter. My dad was in jail, arrested for possession with intent and some other charges. He was guilty of selling pot. But he wasn’t guilty the way they arrested him. That night he had nothing on him, he was not in possession of anything. But the DA was tired of trying to lock him up, so they trumped up all these charges and planted some stuff on him. At least that’s my memory of it. So I was particularly upset with the police and all I could hear was Bob Dylan calling out this corruption when he sang,

“The man the authorities came to blame
For somethin’ that he never done
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world”

That tiny link of proximity to a problem that I thought was only happening to my dad opened the door of awareness for me to step through and recognize this webbed system of injustice. I became obsessed with the story of Rubin Carter. I listened to Bob Dylan singing “Hurricane” on repeat for weeks. The whole story would become a sort of bedrock of my call to ministry, and specifically to responding to racial injustice and wrongful incarceration.

Everything I read and watched this week called me back to this moment as a little girl when I truly understood the corruption and brokenness of our society. And this part in the song when Dylan says, “Don’t forget that you are white,” rings in my ears. He lifts up the all-white jury and the maddening behavior of the lawyers and police and I know when I hear these lyrics that it’s not enough for the Church to help returning citizens. This ministry is prevention, because the one thing that Dylan gets wrong in the song is the idea that folks who were incarcerated can ever get that time back.

“Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties
Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise
While Rubin sits like Buddha in a ten-foot cell
An innocent man in a living hell
That’s the story of the Hurricane
But it won’t be over till they clear his name
And give him back the time he’s done
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world”

Stevenson says, “There is no wholeness outside our reciprocal humanity.” Certainly that’s the root of the gospel and the root of the ministry God is doing through me. I’m not complete while innocent people suffer in a living hell. There is no joy in my heart when I think of the faces of every man and woman living on death row in the United States.

The Gospel reading from Matthew in the Revised Common Lectionary last week required me to really reflect on what it means to sit in the brokenness of life. For preaching, I placed the text in conversation with Paul’s letter to the Philippians. I asked my congregation to sit in the “in-between” of brokenness and joy. I asked them not to be quick to discard anyone into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Because truly, we can’t be responsible for that sort of condemnation. I asked them not to rush into self righteous rejoicing when we sometimes push loved ones into uncomfortable spaces for which they are not prepared or wanting. When I talked about the man who shows up to the wedding banquet without a wedding robe, I asked them to get creative when responding to people who show up in unexpected ways. He wasn’t even supposed to be there, after all.

And I wonder what the world might look like if each of us were to sit in the “in-between” for a while. Maybe we would recognize the natural, necessary reciprocity of our humanity. The “in-between” is where I’m currently fighting against my unfreedoms.

Agere Contra, friends

The #WholeMama Dances Through It

Friends, I am sick and I am tired. I am surrounded by the beautiful and inspiring fall season, and I am so overwhelmed that I am struggling to enjoy these sights and sounds and smells that make up all the feels for me in this favorite time of year. I try to snag little moments of time away from the stresses and triggers; moments in which I can just be. In between those moments of solitude I am dancing to the beats of so many drums.

For this week’s theme in the #wholemama movement, we’re writing about the word dance. Check out my anchor post over on Erika Shirk’s blog and feel free to join the movement of mamas mothering their children, their families, and their communities in so many unique and wonderful ways.

Click the #WholeMama button below to read my thoughts on how the #WholeMama dances through everyday life.
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Click the LinkUp button to add your own blog post to the movement.

LinkUPAgere Contra, friends

Calm and the #Wholemama

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Adam and I decide we should take a small trip when Faire season ends. We began these vacations years ago when we were houseparents as a way to get out of the cottage and off campus, away from work. Our trip in the fall, near the end of October, has traditionally been to celebrate our anniversary – hence the phrase “honeymoon adventure” was born. So, for our 2015 10th Anniversary Honeymoon Adventure, Adam suggests the Nature Inn at Bald Eagle State Park in Central PA, just north of State College – home of Penn State University.

I sit at the small four top in our room this morning, after waking for the final time at 4:45 with Alistair who has a cold and isn’t sleeping well, drinking coffee from the Inn lobby and listening to Chet Baker play his cool trumpet directly into my ears, holding back tears. Such intimate sounds. Baby Sweeps unceremoniously falls back to sleep on the pullout bed, curled up next to his sister, while watching Arthur. Adam sleeps in the bedroom under puffy white blankets, the sun nearly ready to rise through the wall of windows. We fill our basic suite with our selves.

The end tables are stacked with field guides, notebooks, pencils, and such. Our hiking boots scatter around the floor. The lazy breeze from a slow ceiling fan carries the scent of us through each room – something like patchouli and English breakfast tea and the outdoors. The lights are all off. I hear my children breathing. Each of them maintains their own rhythm. I think of all the things I’m grateful for this morning…

The privilege to stay at an Inn to celebrate our anniversary, I can’t ignore that it’s a privilege. And I can’t ignore everything that allows us this privilege. So I’m thankful for all of those unstated things. I’m thankful for warm beds and cool jazz and hot coffee. I’m thankful for the amazing view over the water, with the colorful Bald Eagle Mountain as a backdrop to our time spent here. I’m thankful for rest and peaceful quiet. I’m thankful for the time I have alone with my self and with the universal spirit of God. I wish for a million mornings like this.

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Yesterday: We spend the morning doing some school work, because we thankfully have laptops and wifi and we can do our schoolwork from anywhere – both Stella and me. The Sweepster takes a mini-nap. We’re ready to go hiking when he gets up, so we bundle up and head outside. There are hiking trails mere feet from the front door. We set out on the Skyline Trail. Things are wonderful. Stella has a bit of an allergy thing going on, but overall she’s happy to go on an adventure. We’re having a grand ol’ time looking at the mountain over the lake and walking along this trail before we turn onto an intersecting trail that will take us into the woods.

The woods are cool and quiet and I can’t help but feel connected to this earth. Sweeps keeps running off the trail and sometimes he lays down in the leaves and we’re all a little scared he’s going to get covered in deer ticks but we keep smiling and truck on. By the time we reach the foot bridge the toddler’s nose is running nonstop. Sweeps is hyped up. This baby doesn’t understand why he can’t go into the water. Things take an ugly turn. As we pull him away from the bridge for the return hike, he begins to cry. He refuses to walk. He insists on being carried while screaming in our ears. Mom and Dad run through the options of getting back to the Inn and the car the quickest, perhaps Mom can stay with the crying toddler while Dad and sister return to get the car and drive down to the loading dock to pick us up.

Instead, we decide to fight through it and carry him. We take turns carrying him, all 45 pounds of sobbing wiggling angry sick toddler, UP the trail. There is nothing fun or romantic about this return trip, so I won’t even try to dress it up. It was awful. Adam did most of the carrying after I just couldn’t do it anymore. An extra 45 pounds of fussy toddler on my diaphragm was making it hard to breath and my arms were shaking. I was ready to give up and make house in the woods, ya’ll.

I had thoughts of calling the Inn to see if they had a 4-wheeler they could drive down there to pick us up. When we finally reached the road to the Inn, it was like coming out of the woods in The Walking Dead. We might be closer to some sort of civilization, but we were still carrying a crying baby with green snot running out his nose, and the walkers might hear him and come after us. That last stretch felt like coming home after the war. I know, I know. I’ve not making light of actual combat war zones, but have you ever had to carry your sick miserable toddler over a mile uphill? Calm, it was not!

Our trip here is sweet and beautiful and it wouldn’t be us if Alistair hadn’t pitched a fit yesterday in the woods. Adam and I ended our night sharing a nice bottle of wine with some European cheeses and chocolate covered raisins. It’s hard to complain, really. And this morning of solitude, allowed to do whatever I want with this time, is a treasure.

This morning, with my coffee and jazz and sleeping babies and the beautiful sunrise brings me a deep calm. I take these moments whenever I can get them.

This post is part of the #wholemama movement and this week’s theme of “calm.” Find the link up here and join us!

A SheLoves Post – You’ve Got the Wrong Girl, God

SheLoves Magazine: a global community of women who love

An excerpt from my post today on SheLovesMagazine.com: 

“Now I’m 32 and here comes God again, and this time he’s smiling and winking and being all smooth and charming and telling me, This will be fun. He says I should just go ahead and accept this calling because He’s not giving up. He has an abundance of patience, I’m reminded. So I tell my chaplain at work that I’m interested in seminary, and I confess to her that I don’t even feel like myself when I say this out loud. “I’m scared of all of this,” I tell her. But we agree that I’ll do it anyway.”

Read the full article here, and check out the other amazing writers in the SheLoves community!

The #WholeMama is Embraced

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I’m sitting on an orange and brown sofa that smells like one of our South Georgia summer time thunder storms. I hear two women talking in the next room. I can’t hear my mama’s words, but I know her voice, her cadence; and I can feel the urgency in her plea. She’s pawning my jewelry to pay a bill. My jewelry bought for me by my father. She cried when she asked to “borrow” the rings I received as gifts at my eighth birthday party earlier in the year. How could I say no?

She comes out of the room and reaches for my hand. “Let’s go,” she says. The other woman leans against the wall and smiles at me. I’m awe struck by her long silver hair and the large turquoise rings against her leathered skin. In the yard I hear wind chimes. I open the car door and ask my mama why that woman’s house smells like dirt and rain. “That’s patchouli, baby.” I think it must be the best smell in the world.

“I’ll get your rings back on Friday before you go back to your daddy’s, ok?” I nod in agreement. I don’t need any further explanation on how pawning works. My mama’s been pawning stuff and shopping at the pawn shop my whole life. I’m more interested in the woman who lives alone in the rain storm smelling house that’s surrounded with wind chimes. Mama says the woman is just a friend who has a little extra cash and helps her out some times. She’ll hold the rings as collateral, but she won’t sell them to anybody else unless Mama agrees that she will not repay the money.

Mama says she’d rather do business with the silver haired gypsy than with any man owned pawn shop in Albany, Georgia. The woman only does business with other women – in sisterhood and solidarity, Mama tells me. And the woman is from a dying tribe of Native Americans from whom our family descends. Mama looks me in the eyes and asks, “If we don’t support each other, who else will support us?”

I receive an important article in the mail the follow day: my feminist card.

I’m in eighth grade and my English teacher is arguing with me over a current event I shared with the class. The newspaper article discusses the appropriateness of tattoos in the work place. Our town does not have a tattoo parlor and I’m told business permits for tattoo and piercing shops are denied yearly. It’s 1996 and the internet is on the cusp of bringing the world to our fingertips. In the meantime, we’re still living in small town America with only print media and MTV to save us. Fox News joins CNN as sources of 24 hour news, but our world views are still often limited by our experiences in our local community.

The argument gets heated and the teacher sends me into the hallway. Later, I speak with another teacher, one who seems to get me, and she explains that my advocate card is peeking out of my pocket, and I might need to be more aware of how I’m approaching controversial topics in the classroom. I get it. I apologize to my English teacher for being disrespectful, but only after she admits that her bigotry card is also showing.

In 2012 I assist my work community in planning and hosting a Coming Out Day. We work with at risk youth who cannot live with their own families for one reason or another. I have no problem standing up with my name tag and saying out loud, “My name is Rose. I am an ally.”

We each possess certain identities that we share with the world without a thought. Some identifiers we share with more caution. And some others are so deeply ingrained in us, so often, they are such a part of who we are, that without purposeful consideration, we don’t realize those identifiers exist – until they are called out.

Feminist, advocate, and ally.

But what happens when another identifier is called out? What happens when this card, the one held as a foundation upon which other cards should be placed, is suddenly plastered to my sleeve before I’m ready? What happens when it’s God calling out the hidden identity?

In our first Theology class we each completed a self-assessment that would help us understand our own individual theologies as we began to explore various world views. I scored rather high in the world of the crusader, the reformer. When I say rather high, I mean out of 50 questions, I chose the crusader answer 30 times. Now I know what a crusader is, and I know why I answered those questions the way I did, but for shits and giggles let’s share what Google says a crusader is:

Crusader – a person who campaigns vigorously for political, social, or religious change; a campaigner.

I’m at my best when I’m campaigning for something I believe in. My heart is full of love and joy when I am part of another creature’s liberation. Change is my middle name. Progress, growth, transformation! That’s what life is all about! I will cradle the other into my bosom and cherish them and love them and care for them and provide for them while they learn to do these things for their own. I will help them open their eyes. I will teach the other until they themselves become teachers. This is my default setting.

I make room in my wallet for my crusader card.

Where I struggle is allowing God to cradle me when I’m so exhausted from helping others that I cannot sleep. Sometimes, my heart is so broken by the violence and the oppression of creation, that I feel guilty for my own sanctuary of happiness. I hesitate to let God embrace me and give me enough nourishment to continue the good fight.

I try to send God away, saying, “I have enough. Go be with the children who are suffering abuse and neglect. Go be with the women who are beaten and bruised and bleeding. Go be with the forgotten people of our world!”

But then I get too tired and my defenses are weaker than usual. I leave the door open and begin to nod off in the chair. I’m between awake and asleep when God lets herself in and sits next me. When she pulls me to her bosom and cradles me, my heart slows and my body relaxes into the embrace.

God whispers into my ear, “Rest now, I’ve got you. I will stay with you and I will hold you. You cannot send me away.” God smells like my mama and holds me like a small child until a deep slumber takes over.

Learning to care for myself so that I can more fully care for others is a lifelong study. My apprenticeship in surrendering and accepting help is never ending. I slowly understand that crusaders need nourishment and care and love; that we, too, need to be held. Today, I add to my card collection one titled Embraced.

Agere Contra, friends

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This post is part of the #WholeMama group writing on today’s theme of Embrace, and continuing my September theme of Transformation. Check out the other amazing writers in this group by clicking here. You can also join the conversation by clicking this —> LinkUP

The #WholeMama Brings Forth Creation

Shalom, friends. I’ve been out of the #wholemama loop for a month, but I’m back and I’m excited to jump in on this week’s theme of #birth! These are my thoughts. Please share and join in if you feel like it. 

Rose Gets Spiral Tattoo

In the chair at Mike’s Tattoo. #ladiesfirst

It’s May 2008, Memorial Day weekend. Our friend Brian is visiting Adam and me from Georgia. It’s our first spring in Pennsylvania and I’m still homesick. I’m so homesick that my mind is still living in Georgia in our sweet little farm house surrounded by pecan trees and grape vines. The visit with Brian is a comfort and helps me feel like I’m home again. We’ve been here almost a year, but our purpose here isn’t yet clear.

Adam designs this tattoo, a spiral cross, and the three of us venture out to a tattoo parlor we choose from a google search and get some fresh ink. It’s hot for this time of year and my feet hurt in the brown pumps I decide to wear. The artist takes us in because of the uniqueness of our story, three friends wanting the same tattoo in the same place on our bodies. The tattoos are the exact same on the inside of our left forearms. The artist talks about going camping with friends for the holiday weekend and politely rushes us out the door when he’s finished. Our arms are swollen and feverish.

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Seven years later this symbol still serves to remind me of my potential for growth and transformation.

The spiral symbolizes the path leading from our outer consciousness to our inner souls. The outer consciousness is marked by our unfreedoms, materialism, external awareness, and the ego (our basic day to day – the things we’re easily aware of); while our inner souls are marked by enlightenment, nirvana, and cosmic awareness (that place where we find ourselves hanging out with and changed by the Other Devine, God, or our Higher Power).

This is central to my purpose, I realize. Recognizing and breaking away from those unfreedoms is becoming my specialty. It’s my favorite. Even more than laughing. Before we can be enlightened or transformed, we have to surrender our selfishness and realize that we are one part of the whole interconnected universe, that all of creation is interdependent. We’re all connected. We’re all in community. We’re all in relationship. Just like John Donne’s poem says, “No man is an island.” I prefer the exploration of the “No Man is an Island” theme in About a Boy with Hugh Grant and Toni Collette. Put it on your To Watch list if you haven’t seen it, or just go ahead and watch it again because it’s a great film. I am digressing.

Back on point.

This symbol is close to my heart for another reason. The spiral can also represent birth, creation, or growth when we understand that our purpose begins in our core and expands outward. Just as my children grew in my womb and were born into the outer world, my ideas and dreams come from inside of me and are expressed to the world around me. I believe my soul receives info from the cosmos and sends little nudges to my outer self, and when that self receives the message and acts upon it growth and transformation and evolution happen.

Transformation starts in the center and works its way out. 

Are you still with me, friends?

We see spirals in nature and in the stars. In Astrology, the spiral is a symbol of a universe in constant motion. I like to go ahead and put all of this together when I look at the spiral on my arm.

I Surrender → I am one with Creation → I realize a Purpose → Transformation → Universe in constant motion → I am always growing and creating and breathing new life. I am constantly transformed.

And that’s not something I’m observing or learning about myself as an afterthought. My transformation is in real time. It’s intentional. I wrote a short report recently about the image of God as a woman in labor. The image comes from the biblical text in Isaiah 42.14. I found an essay from Leslie Wood titled “Maternal Images of God in Second and Third Isaiah” in which Wood says, “This image of God as a mother expresses the pain that She is willing to suffer in order to bear creation.”

The pain she is willing to suffer in order to bear creation. Transformation, rebirth, is painful and dirty and raw and I feel vulnerable and ugly in this process. But on the other side, I will bear beautiful creation. 

Agere Contra, friends

Preach? Who? Me!?

Wait, which one is supposed to be me? Oh, the one on the right? Are you sure?

Last week I get on Facebook and tell everybody that I’m sorry for being MIA; seminary got a hold of me and won’t let go. I say that I’ll be over here talking about transformation and growth and change and monarch butterflies. Then, I sit and wonder what exactly I might have to say about transformation. We can all search for trite transformation cliches on Pinterest, so I’ll let you do that in your free time – that’s not why I’m here. I’m in the midst of a serious transformation; I know that for sure. But, I’ve recently learned that before I can hug up on all that good change going on, surely I have to recognize it for what it is.

Last Monday: I get a text message from a dear friend who happens to be a UCC pastor and my previous pastor for that matter. The message says, “There is a church in Shamokin (that’s a real place, ya’ll – go ahead, you can say it like Jim Carrey in The Mask, we all do) who needs someone to preach every now and then. Are you interested and may I give them your info?” Now, I look at this text and I look at who sent it and I think, “Whaaaaat??” Preach? She sent this to the wrong person. But before I can do anything else it sinks in.

She sent this message to exactly the right person. I’m pursuing a Master of Divinity at a theological seminary. I try to let this sink in daily. I took a huge risk, a big leap of faith, even applying at the school, because on paper I just don’t look qualified for acceptance into graduate school. But here I am. And guess what – no it’s not chicken butt – I’m still having a hard time identifying as a preacher. Preachers are something else.

In all my years with the UCC, I’m still hurting from the fire and brimstone preaching of my childhood. The raving evangelists who were certain we were all about to burn in hell for any given reason still stand in my memory and still scare the shit out of me, just like they scared me away from God when I was little. Those people were the only preachers I knew growing up. I’m realizing that I never thought of my UCC ministers as preachers, even though of course they are.

I say to my friend that I’m preparing to be a minister but that the word preacher makes me a little uncomfortable. She says, “Rose, you already are a minister and a preacher. You’ve been preaching to me for six years!” I know she’s right, so I have to reflect on this whirlwind of changes that have taken place in the last three months.

I let all the thoughts and feelings swirl around. When I envision my future in ministry I think of advocating for social justice and cutting the mass incarceration rates in our country and the dismantling of the US prison system. I think of counseling people on their relationships and faith issues and helping them explore ways to be in relationship with a loving breathing God. I think of pastoral care and preparing and offering the Eucharist. I think of growth and bringing people back into the church. I even think of my identity as a theologian and the theologies that most appeal to my ministry. And, mostly, I think of having conversations with the congregation.

Then I think to myself, “There’s a lot of preaching that goes on in churches on Sunday mornings, Rose. You might as well get good and comfy with that term!” There’s trauma mixed into my visual association of preachers with certain crazy-shouting-hell and damnation-slapping the podium-stomping around-acting a fool-individuals. I’m trying not to judge those people, but I’m saying they freak me right out. I meditate on the word preacher and try to match it up to the gentle Jesus and the clergy people I have come to love and appreciate.

I tell my pastor friend that I would absolutely love to help out at this church, and to please give them my name and number. I talk to an elder in the church and she asks me to preach every Sunday from October through December. When I preach to the attendants in our chapel at work I don’t wear anything special, but I decide that I should really go the distance and fully embrace this transformation from just Rose to Rose the clergywoman (I know – I believe in gender diversity ya’ll, and I’m so comfy identifying as a woman, not just a person, so that’s what I do) and wear a robe.

A few months ago, one of our previous superintendents, who was a UCC minister, passed away. Being a friend of the family and a seminarian, I was given one of his robes. His initials are embroidered under the tag in the back. The robe has been hanging in my closet at work until today when I try it on for the first time. I rub my finger across his initials and think of all the amazing work he did for our organization. And I am reminded of the first time, as an adult, that I felt called to the pulpit; and how it all ties into my own service in this historical and life changing organization.

I slide my arms into the robe and pull it across my chest. It sweeps against my ankles and drapes just right across my shoulders. I feel such a mix of emotions. I feel like a fraud. I feel unqualified. I feel humbled and small. I wonder, is this really my life?

I’m a planner and I’m outcomes oriented. Sometimes, I can prepare for an upcoming change and anticipate certain outcomes. Sometimes, I think I know what I’m getting myself into. I’ve totally got this covered, I think. Then, a friend sends a text asking me to preach the word of God to a thirsty congregation in need of spiritual leadership. And she thinks I can do this. I pull this calling tight into my core and stare into the mirror at myself in the billowing black robe. I might not recognize the person looking back me, but God surely does.

Agere Contra, friends