Pies, Poverty & Papaya

“This is the perfect time for the electricity to go out. Our plates are full of dessert and now no one can see how much we eat!” The table erupted into laughter as Jackie lightened the mood after our attempt at a festive Thanksgiving dinner was interrupted by sudden blackness when the electricity went out for the umpteenth time that day. In a room full of Americans, gathered from throughout the island to celebrate, I realized that if the electricity and internet and music had kept coming in at a steady stream, I might have forgotten where I was. You are on an island – I reminded myself – in a country not your own, and this is normal here.

As we ate our desserts by the lights of flashlights and cellphones, the darkness did not change the mood. It maybe even improved it. We listened to Jackie explain how she had come up with her own family recipe for the amazing flan we were eating. After asking her uncle and her grandmother and her aunt and her mother for their recipes, she took the best parts of each and made her own recipe. She told the story like an expert; acting out how she would sidle up to a relative and, in a conspiratorial manner, ask them in a whisper, “hey, what do you put in yours?” – collecting all the different versions and then fusing them together into her masterpiece.

Along with the flan, we ate Brenda’s pumpkin pie, moist and delicious from a family recipe of her own. We ate Lori’s cheesecake, drowning in blueberries and sweetness – which was characteristic of Lori’s generosity. And we ate Sarah’s key lime pie; Sarah had already firmly placed herself in my “food hero” category by bringing what to me is the essential part of Thanksgiving – green bean casserole. It is a dish that I consider already perfect; and then she added bacon. Bacon. Perfect. Eating like this is an American tradition, but it was a real treat for this crew of folks that were accustomed to rationing food until the boat came in and brought what you needed.

I thought about the meals I had eaten earlier that week as I rationed my money and my food. A packet of “just add water” powdered potatoes, a can of Chef Boyardee. A handful of pancake mix fried up when I had lost the will to continue eating my chicken’s eggs after a month solid of frying them up each morning. We had been blessed enough to have some fresh fish earlier in the week, but the weather had been too bad and the water too choppy for fishing, by hook or by spear, since Sunday. Meat and vegetables, apart from what you can grow or catch yourself, are a luxury here on the island. Trying to make my money last, I wonder about my health. I had been running and eating healthy all year and had been in the best shape of my life a couple months prior. But now, I warn myself of a lesson that I learned long ago – “Eating healthy” is one of the many accessories of privilege in our modern culture. “Getting by”, on the other hand, can quickly erode a person’s health in a variety of ways.

The lesson hit home back in 2008 in the midst of a debate I was having with my uncle about poverty and food when I lived in North Carolina. We were discussing access to healthy foods in the urban center, and I was trying to explain that my community was very concerned because we were at risk of losing our one and only grocery store, Los Primos. Along with the city’s announcement of plans to expand the road through our community, the police had recently labeled our neighborhood “The Bull’s Eye” and targeted us for special vigilance. Seeing no reason for me to be in that area as a white woman, apart from criminal reasons, I would many times find myself followed as I drove through my neighborhood or pulled over without cause. I even had a police officer follow me into my driveway one night when I was returning home from the late shift at one of my three jobs; he turned his spotlight on me dramatically as I got out of my car. I simply gave him a wave, pulled out my house keys, and walked into my own house. I had stared down a man with tear drop tattoos earlier that week when he came around my youth recruiting, a spotlight was not about to alarm me.

Our neighbor across the street led a non-profit called Uplift East Durham that had been started by one of my housemates, and was organizing the neighborhood to protest the new highway being planned in order to move people more quickly through our community. The community remembered well the damage the construction of Highway 147 had wreaked upon “The Black Wall Street”, leaving the city forever changed. They had seen this happen before, felt this happen before; they knew it would strengthen the gentrification of the center of Durham, but weaken their community ties and support. Not only that, but it would add a great deal of danger for the predominantly pedestrian immigrant population that had been increasing in number. Lastly, the project would claim eminent domain over the few businesses we did have operating.

Two things stood in the way of the plan: first, the community’s fierce protectiveness of that one grocery store, Los Primos – threatening it was bordering on sacrilege when there were no other banks or grocery stores that would operate in our community. The second impediment was the fact that the church where I worked was a historic building. That second point was the one that would hold the most weight with the mayor as I observed when I accompanied the senior pastor to the mayor’s office to advocate.

The proposed road project has not taken place… yet. People still had to look at our faces as they drove through our neighborhood, and the tienda was saved. But access to fresh and healthy food was still dramatically different for my neighborhood, bordering NC Central University, than it was for the folks that bordered Duke University on the other side of town. Even my friends from the Iredell House, a community founded by Hauerwas students, had easier access to healthy food when they dumpster dove out behind their neighborhood Whole Foods for certified, organic produce.

My uncle was under the impression that people were making the conscious choice not to obtain healthy food, that mothers had the option and were simply not choosing it. My mind went to a recent evening that I had spent with one of the mothers who was living in the Isaiah House with us while she and her daughter were houseless in Durham. Getting home from work one evening, she had heard I was making a trip in my car to the store across town and asked for a ride. Once we got to the store, she insisted she did not want to hold me up and would take the bus back. It got later and later, and feeling responsible, I sat at home and worried. Finally, frustrated and wet, she made it home, having taken two hours to complete by bus the trip that had taken me twenty minutes by car. This was something that I could not make my uncle understand – that when my housemate got home late and tired from work, the choice to go to a store where she could get “healthy food” for her daughter would cost her every remaining minute until bedtime. Something inside me told me that her daughter would rather spend those minutes with her mother, who she adored, than with a mouth full of “healthy food.”

Thankfully, at the Isaiah House, that was not a decision we had to make often during much of the year because the community grew most of their own food. Strawberries in the front yard. Grape vines and apple trees in the side yard. Tomatoes, peppers, green beans, squash, onions, herbs, lettuce in the back. We supplemented it with rice, ate simply, and we were happy. But not everyone has the space, the time, or the knowledge to grow their own food. Food can be a very complicated thing, no more so than when you are hungry. We can educate and we can accompany, but we do not have the right to judge another’s food choices – especially when their belly is empty and ours is full.

Here on Eleuthera, we try to grow a good amount of our own food, but many of the plants are still maturing. Ironically, the one tree that cannot seem to stop producing fruit is the one tree whose fruit no one seems very interested in eating. The papaya trees plays Jan to the mango tree’s Marcia Brady. Like the mango, the papaya tree bears a roundish, orange fruit that is beautiful on the outside and even more beautiful on the inside. It’s flavor, however, is not very popular with visitors or locals. It is sweet and salty, but sadly not in an addictive chocolate-covered pretzel way. It is sweet and salty in more of a confusing manner that leaves you simply ambivalent about whether you want to put any more of its moist flesh in your mouth. This often results in it sitting on the table until it looks like better food for the chickens than for humans. But unless they are very hungry, even the chickens seem ambivalent. Poor papaya, the food of necessity.

I think to myself that the papaya must be rooting for the electricity to go out; because with no way to prepare our “prepared food”, the lovely but confusing papaya might just have its day in the sun after all.

Thankfully, the sun has finally come back out after a week’s absence, and it is a lovely day for fishing. After all, the papaya does not want to sit on my plate alone.

The majestic papaya
The majestic papaya
The expat Americans of Eleuthera gather by the glow of cell phones and flashlights for Thanksgiving dinner.
The expat Americans of Eleuthera gather by the glow of cell phones and flashlights for Thanksgiving dinner.

Pieces of God’s Puzzle

“He dribbled on you, that’s good luck!” Pauline exclaimed as I swung her grandson up over my head and onto my lap, getting a face-full of baby spit in the process. It was news to me that baby spit was good luck; yet, despite the fact that Pauline was laughing at me – as usual – I could see a seriousness in her eyes that assured me she was not joking. I had received a blessing in that wetting just as surely as if I was in a church. Memories of “high church” services floated to the forefront of my mind, complete with priests in cassocks spraying the assembled worshippers with waters of blessing from immersed pine sprigs. I laughed delightedly as I wiped the blessed spittle off my face with my sleeve, while bouncing the happy baby boy on my knee.

In a way it made sense. These afterschool sessions at Camp Symonette – led by the fearless, fun and creative Brenda Thompson – were a little bit of everything, so why not have some blessing thrown in there as well. There certainly was enough blessing to go around on any given afternoon.

Like many rich experiences, the after school time with the kids from James Cistern Primary School was the part of the day that filled me with the most dread and the most joy. You could hear them coming a good ways off, as TJ scooped up the entire contents of the small elementary school building into our bus and brought them bouncing, laughing, chattering and screaming down the long bumpy driveway of Camp Symonette. “They’re coming,” I would invariably say – half whisper, half scream – interrupting our preparations to sound the alarm with all the urgency of a horseless Paul Revere.

It had all been a bit too much for me the first day I had experienced it. Dozens of children, swarming around me, no clue as to what their names were or how to get them to calm down. But it did not take long for my heart to thaw out; for when you learn a child’s name, you quickly learn a child’s heart – and then everything changes. Perhaps learning Brenda’s heart was more crucial to my thawing than anything else, however. Regardless of how tired she was, regardless of how little time we had to prepare, she had no intention of giving up on her volunteer venture and no intention of giving these children anything less than all the love, discipline, teaching and laughter that she had to offer.

Like riding a bike, I felt myself falling back into a rhythm. My apprehension with getting too involved had not been because the work was unfamiliar, but because it was too familiar. It brought back feelings of the happiest time in my life, back in 2009, when I felt most certain that I was in the right place and doing what God was calling me to do. At the time I was living in an intentional community that offered a home to houseless women and children, and rehabilitated boarded up dwellings in the community. Working with a historic congregation in the heart of Durham, NC, I had joined hearts and hands with them to dream about how we could connect with families in our neighborhood – both those long established and those newly arrived from other countries. God gave us the joy of watching that dream become a reality within a couple months as we launched the Wright Room with no funding and no paid staff but with plenty of love and support from many in the city, state and beyond. I fit into those people’s hearts, and they fit into mine like the puzzle piece that starts to make your jumble look like a picture.

But my puzzle piece heart had been ripped out of that picture and I never quite felt the same again. The attention our ministry was getting from the press and community drew new faces, and my supervisors  became worried that I was being stalked by one of these individuals. Concerned for the children I was living with, I left the community for a time while church leaders tried to ascertain my safety.  After a brief interruption when my grandmother died the next week, I received the decision that they did not feel they could manage the situation with my suspected stalker.

Heart doubly broken, and aware that my family was in pain, I made the choice to go home, to head North. I never talked about what had happened, never told people why I was leaving, I just slipped away. I thought it would make things easier for those who I led in ministry. I was consumed with the worry that what had happened to me would be disillusioning for our young leaders.  I did not want them to carry the hurt that I was carrying; I did not want them to misplace their anger on the church.  They did stay, and they did grow, and my heart feels so big it could burst with joy and pride when I see pictures of graduations and of new babies and of bright futures.

And now I get the chance to serve under the leadership of a woman who inspires this community the way that God once used me to inspire another community; a woman who compels others to action through her own example; a woman who makes our oddly shaped and differently colored puzzle pieces somehow form a picture. In the symmetry, I see my story mirrored and I begin again. In the magnetic pull of this team, I feel my heart coming back together. I may not yet know where my puzzle piece belongs, but I begin again to see its contours, its shapes, its pattern. And seeing myself clearly is the first step in finding my place in God’s picture.

While I wait and while I listen to God, I’ll spend a few more of my Tuesdays and Thursdays here with Brenda, Pauline, Maxine, Lori, TJ, Leroy, and whoever else gets drawn into this picture God is creating. I will hone my soccer skills, which are epic by Bahamian standards, and my free throw shots, which are epic by absolutely nobody’s standards. I will brush up on my arithmetic, practice being patient, and feel the joy of being part of a team. I will begin the afternoon with the slightly alarmed whisper, “they’re coming!” – and end it with the confidence that I have just experienced the best part of my day.

I will rest in the humbling knowledge that God calls forth these pockets of faithfulness and joy all over the world, and I am not necessary to God moving, but I am welcome to get caught in the current.

So bless me Lord, once again, with frustrating math problems and pencils that need to be sharpened; with balls to my head and sticky fingers on my arms; with the sight of young men playing sports with the young boys who crave their attention; with snack time and craft time and play time; and most of all, Lord, cover me in baby spit, for a very wise woman told me that receiving that kind of baptismal remembrance is very good luck – and I’ve never found Pauline to be wrong yet.

Leroy shares some dunking lessons with the James Cistern kids.
Leroy shares some dunking lessons with the James Cistern kids.
Brenda keeps an eye on the baby with the blessed spit.
Brenda keeps an eye on the baby with the blessed spit.
Maxine, Pauline's sister, reads to the kids.
Maxine, Pauline’s sister, reads to the kids.

And some bonus vintage photos from my days serving at the Isaiah House and the Wright Room  in 2009.

Eliciting a rare smile from the little girl who cried every day because her daddy had been deported.
Eliciting a rare smile from the little girl who cried every day because her daddy had been deported.
2009 - Working hard with young leaders at painting one of the rooms in the church to be a gathering place for young people in the community.
2009 – Working hard with young leaders at painting one of the rooms in the church to be a gathering place for young people in the community.
2009 - Water balloon day at the Wright Room
2009 – Water balloon day at the Wright Room

Lutra, the intersex chicken

Lutra, towering over the others, greets me in the morning as I arrive with food.
Lutra, towering over the others, greets me in the morning as I arrive with food.

“If he’s really a rooster, then I get to cook him!” Manex exclaimed, as my eyes widened with the horror of what I may have done.

For weeks I had been trying to convince the staff at Bahamas Methodist Habitat that one of the hens I had been caring for was a rooster. When Manex finally came down to the coop with me to take a look, it did not take him more than a glance to finally agree that I was right… and to communicate to me what the result would be. Oddly, it had never occurred to me that there might be consequences for categorizing the gender of what had by then become my favorite chicken.

Lutra – oh yes, I’ve named the chicken – clearly stood out in our flock of 21 chickens. With legs twice the thickness of the other chickens, Lutra towered over them. And Lutra was changing. Every day the red coxcomb on top of Lutra’s head and the waddle under Lutra’s chin seemed to grow larger. Heel spurs appeared to be cropping out on the back of Lutra’s legs and long, shiny feathers grew on Lutra’s neck and back. Over the course of three weeks, I watched as Lutra went from simply the largest chicken in the coop to something that truly resembled the textbook physical description of a rooster. Except for one thing – Lutra still had no tail feathers. And for now, it’s those tail feathers, or lack thereof, that is standing between Lutra and the dinner table. “It’s not a rooster,” Brenda had been telling me for weeks, “It’s got no tail feathers.” It was an argument that all of a sudden I was relieved to have lost.

The truth of the matter was that Lutra stood out in more ways than one. I’ll have to ask you to suspend your disbelief for a moment, when I tell you that Lutra was clearly a bird of a sweet and poetic nature. Having a bent towards the romantic, Lutra would crouch in the corners or on the margins of the crowd, watching the others or contemplating the turtle doves that perched overhead waiting to steal corn. When I brought out the feed or the water for the chickens, Lutra would cautiously approach and timidly try to grab a nibble, but then scamper away when the other chickens pushed and shoved.

Lutra’s behavior mystified me. How was it that Lutra was so gentle and timid with the other birds while being twice their size? And speaking of size, how did Lutra get to be so big when I never saw Lutra successfully get any of the food that the other chickens scrambled after. One thing that I certainly did not think we had to worry about was having any fertilized eggs; Lutra did not seem to be the slick type to make any aggressive moves.

But still my meddling has caused quite a dilemma for Lutra. The gender of my timid friend has become quite the talk around town, and the conclusion of that conversation will determine Lutra’s fate. As is often the case with humans, we feel a need to know the gender, and then we feel a compulsion to assign an identity, then a concept of proper roles and activities, and a likely life path. This is why the first thing we ask our pregnant friends is: “Is it a boy or a girl?”

Things can get just as messy for humans as for chickens, I suppose, when we assign them a role and a fate based on our own expectations of what is normal. “Boys are not supposed to wear that. Girls are not supposed to do that.”

In some small way, I experienced that myself as a child. I have always loved working with my hands, building and repairing and learning. I kept the old VCR in our home going all throughout high school; each time it would stop working, my mom would ask me to fix it; out would come the screws and whatever tape had gotten stuck and within five minutes we would be back to movie night. When I was seven, however, I had it fixed in my mind that this kind of skill and behavior was completely inappropriate for me as a girl. Having three older sisters, I had ample opportunity to observe what it meant to be a girl. Although it would not be too many years before I would watch my eldest sister board a carrier plane in her fatigues to care for the Marines as a Navy doctor, when I was seven, the future Lt. Commander Willert had not yet expanded my horizons. So, instead, I tried to hide my hobbies and talents; although it was really no secret that at Christmas my brother passed me his Lego sets to build while he kept an eye on my toys for me.

When, at the age of seven, I cut my hand with a pair of scissors while trying to deconstruct a Walkman Radio, I rushed to hide the evidence. Pulling out a set of historical paper dolls, I insisted that I had slashed my thumb open while cutting out a dress for Martha Washington. My mother looked at me skeptically. My father looked at me skeptically. The doctors looked at me skeptically. But I stuck to my story, as determined as a dog with a bone. There was no way I was going to admit that I had been doing something as boyish as prying apart a Walkman with a pair of scissors. (Mom, if you are reading this, which you probably are, there’s your confession. You were right. I was not cutting out paper dolls when you had to take me to get stitches while 4 nurses held me down.)

As someone who took many years to feel comfortable in her own skin, and even more years to be able to own her skills, gifts and calling, I can’t help but have a good bit of sympathy for Lutra. Dear Lutra, who hides and trembles and tries so hard not to stand out when standing out is clearly what Lutra was made to do.

Lutra’s situation, thankfully, is not an open and shut case. There is definitely ample cause for an appeal to the rooster declaration. Brenda, in what have thankfully been her fervent attempts to prove me wrong, has found an answer that I would not have expected and which, if true, is indeed a privilege to observe. It seems there is a good bit of scientific chatter out there that says that chickens, being hatched with both ovaries and gonads, can actually change their gender phenotype. The essays say that if the ovary is damaged, the gonad can become active in response; releasing chemicals that cause the chicken to begin to take on the characteristics of a rooster more than a hen. Although still biologically a hen, they will exhibit as a rooster.

It is still to early to say, and our access to scientific research here on Eleuthera is a bit limited, but I am fervently hoping that Brenda is right and that Lutra is an intersex chicken. Just as the lack of tail feathers has done for the past couple of weeks, such a conclusion might just save Lutra’s life. Because if Lutra is not a rooster, Lutra is not a roaster.

Oh, the world we live in is so full of boxes and categories and expectations and consequences for transgressing. For Lutra, gender ambiguity has put her life at risk, but it also has the potential to save that life if her unusual identity can be embraced. This is why I named her Lutra, the abbreviated nickname for the island of Eleuthera; because Lutra, or Eleuthera, means freedom and that is what I wish for Lutra. I wish for my unusual chicken not only the freedom to live, of course, but also the freedom to stride around the coop with the self-possession of a chicken who has accepted their identity even if others have not. It pains me to see such a beautiful creature hiding in the shadows. But perhaps Lutra is wiser than me; perhaps Lutra knows that she is safest left unseen, unnoticed, uncategorized.

For now, while her fate hangs in the balance, Lutra will have to be content to receive welcome in any flock that I tend. And for my part, I’ll have to be content that for as much time as we still have together, Lutra – who I now insist is clearly not a rooster – will not only be faithful to wake me up at dawn with crowing, but also be faithful to have my breakfast laid and ready to cook by 9:00.

*Manex, if you are reading this, you can feel free to laugh very hard at me now.

Swimming with sharks

“Whatcha going to do with those fish guts?” I called up from the water to Audrey on the dock, who was filleting the day’s catch to cook up for Sunday supper, along with the remainder of the calamari bait. “Throw ’em in the water,” she answered. “Not while I’m down here!” I responded, alarmed. “Of course not, I’ll wait till you’re out,” Audrey laughed at me.

I had every right to be a bit skittish though. The evening before, I had been cooking dinner with marine researchers who showed me videos of sharks swarming down at their dock when the fishermen cleaned their catch. Needless to say, I had no desire to be present when Audrey’s tempting morsels went in the water. While we had no expectation of seeing sharks swarm up for these meager trimmings from our catch of only two groupers, there were other creatures to think about. For instance, the several large barracudas who had been patrolling the spot where I was swimming about half an hour before I jumped in the water. While we had cast lines excitedly in their direction while on dry land, I had no desire to encounter those lovely beasts when they had the home court advantage.

But barracudas or no barracudas, it had not taken Brenda too much convincing to get me into the water with her. First of all, the sand fleas, or no-see-ums, had been tormenting me all day – and nothing numbs that torturous itch like salt water. There are moments when I think I would rather take my chances with barracudas then sand fleas. Second, Brenda’s logic had been simple and compelling as she called out, “Get in the water with me!” The logic went something like this – Audrey and Brenda had not gotten many bites on their fishing bait that day, so we were not likely to get many bites ourselves. “Besides,” Audrey completed Brenda’s argument, “Brenda is already in there, if they are going to bite anything, they are going to bite her first.” With that air-tight argument sealed, I jumped off the rocks and felt the cool water rush over me.

This is how I try to live life these days. A little less caution, a little more daring. A little less thinking, a little more doing. A little less hedging, a little more betting (*figure of speech, I am Methodist clergy after all). It has occurred to me that the majority of the struggle that I have experienced in my life has been through a basic lack of daring, lack of courage. In all my years of living on the margins, pushing the envelope, and laying it all on the line – there has always been a basic area where I have lacked courage. There has always been one person who I have let be trampled without fighting back. Myself. I have never had the courage to refuse a salary that was lowered because of my age, gender, or marital status. I have stood silent time and again when I was told decisions were being made about me because I did “not have a family to support.” I have twice signed papers that, for legal reasons, said I was voluntarily forfeiting part of my rights as an Elder – while inside a part of me died at how helpless and disempowered it made me feel. No one understood the price my soul paid for all that self-betrayal, all that cowardice under pressure.  In all my years, only one person fought for me to have more not less, but that person was not me.  A part of me hopes that if others knew they would not have made choices and statements that made me feel that I was worth less than a man, worth less because I was single, worth less because I was young. In my weakest moments a voice inside pulled the words closer together and whispered “they think you’re worth less… worth-less… worthless” – while I tried to protest that I was a child of God and a person of sacred worth.

When I was in college, I noticed my senior year that rather than promoting the junior and senior women to manager positions, underclass men were being brought in to manage us. Concerned, I began to look at our salaries as well, and teaming up with another Bachelor of Science, I graphed the starting salaries of employees through to the current period. A disturbing trend emerged. It appeared from our graph that the men had been receiving a raise of $0.50 per hour per year. Most of the women, myself included, had never received a raise – which is a big deal when you are working three different jobs to put yourself through school as I was at the time. I shared my graph with the supervisors, who took the situation seriously. But it did little to help those of us approaching graduation; my stomach dropped to think of how much accumulated income loss that was for all of us over the course of years.

A year earlier I had sat in the same building and met with representatives from the fraternities on campus in my role as head of Orientation. They were proposing I accept their sponsorship of a party on campus with an open bar during Orientation the next year. I was having trouble following the logic of why it would be a good idea to have a party with an open bar on a dry campus for eighteen year olds who were away from home for the first time. It was, to put it bluntly, part of my role to educate in order to prevent not facilitate those kinds of situations. It would not be the last time in my life I would see a man’s face turn that shade of red, as one of the young gentlemen began to threaten the five foot two blonde who stood as in immovable impediment to the way he was accustomed to having. “We’ll tell all the freshman you aren’t cool!” finally burst out of his mouth as the final threat in his escalating tirade. It was the kind of sad threat that just evokes pity for the speaker no matter how frightening they are trying to sound. I’ll never know if he followed through on his threat, but I found no evidence of it being effective. Like many times before and many times after, I sat in that large circle of men without a hesitating bone in my body when it came to protecting others, but little knowledge of how to protect myself.

I will admit that I am a person with more courage than many, but it is a certain kind of courage. It is a courage that cracks the door, but doesn’t push it open. It is a courage that can speak of incidents that took place a decade ago, but not a month ago. It is a courage that speaks enough truth to make people uncomfortable, but not so much truth that they stone me. It is a courage that stands unmoved by peer pressure, but crumbled under burnout. It is a courage that swims with the sharks, but does not have a clue how to avoid being eaten alive. It is a courage that has grown weary after paying over and over again the consequences for trying to “do the right thing” – that has begun to have a delayed response element to it as a result.

So, I am taking this time apart to try to hone my courage into something different. I want to have a courage that is directed, and effective. Not idealistic, but realistic. A courage that may swim in the same waters as sharks, but is wise enough not to go in at feeding time. A courage that is able to say “yes” to a calling that is a challenge, while still retaining the wisdom to say an emphatic “no” to a trap masquerading as an opportunity. A courage that is willing to “go,” but also strong enough to say “Stop!” A courage that is rooted in calling not coercion, grounded in experience rather than innocence, acting out of wisdom rather than naivete.

So these days, I may swim in deep waters, but as I look out my window and see that wind is whipping the ocean into an angry white froth, I know that I will not be going in the water today. My courage is growing up. I am taking every opportunity to say yes to the things that scare me, but not the things that will kill me. I am learning to tell the difference. For true courage, wise courage, and lots of it, will be a main requirement for clergy in the days ahead.

I have learned that the things we avoid doing out of fear, are often the same things that have the power to save our lives, the power to let us live.

Audrey and Brenda fish for supper before we go for a swim
Audrey and Brenda fish for supper before we go for a swim

Wounding Fish

“Lady, you must be brave. Fishing all the way out there with him,” Miguel’s mother called to me as I walked out of the water in Rainbow Bay, spear in hand. I actually had not thought about it that much, but I suspected that the sting ray that had just glided past my feet would probably agree with her.

Oddly enough, swimming out into deep water with Manex, I had not felt a bit of fear. Perhaps it was because the man who had asked me to be his spear fishing partner was a person whose skill and friendship I trusted. Or perhaps it was because, let’s be honest, I had a spear in my hand – it has a way of changing the game a bit.

I had never worn flippers before; I had never used a snorkel before; and I had never shot a spear before… but really those were just details. I learned as we went. First pausing to ask Manex how to get the water out of my snorkel after diving – “blow as hard as you can.” Then pausing to ask what to do when I dove deep and my ears felt like they were screaming – “hold your nose and blow hard.”

It was a lot to balance. Swimming hard enough to keep up with the fish, but not so hard that you pulled a muscle in your leg. Breathing through the snorkel, but remembering to stop breathing when you dove deep under the water. Diving fast enough to get your fish before your lungs gave out, but not so fast that you scared your fish away. Balancing your body under the water perfectly still, while somehow still loading, aiming and firing your spear. Needless to say, despite the fact that Manex said I was a natural, we were really still counting on him to make sure we had something to eat that night.

In addition to my inexperience, I have a slight suspicion my killer instinct was diminished by the fact that it seemed I was in God’s fish tank. Creatures that mimicked the colors and shapes of pet store prizes, only several times their size, swam past me alone and in schools. Vibrant green parrot fish and dark gray angel fish the size of my head. Huge spotted eagle rays that seemed to outweigh me gliding solo. Lion fish as large as a football, for whom I had long ago learned to have abundant respect. And one sweet little bluish bubble that left me with a painful kiss goodbye on my back after engaging me in a twirling dance that Manex called my “encounter” with the “baby man o’ war.”

It was probably the most adventurous outing of my life, but for Manex it was simply the necessary precursor to making dinner… catching it that is. Today, for a couple hours, Manex was not a construction manager and I was not a gardner, we were spear fisherman and spear fisherwoman, and we had “dominion over the fish of the sea.”

After returning to camp to clean, scale, fillet, cook and eat our feast of fresh fish, I thanked Manex for a terrific afternoon and headed off in search of some wifi to catch up on what was taking place back home in the Philadelphia area. What I found in my newsfeed was a scene that did not look all that different from the bucket of wounded fish that I had recently looked down into with sadness-twinged wonder. The news had come in that the Rev. Frank Schaefer had received his sentence for transgressing church law – 30 days to change course or surrender his credentials.

As I scanned through my wounded-fish-bucket of a newsfeed, the irony was not lost on me. The calling to be fishers of men does not look so charming when our school of fish is bleeding and struggling on the end of a spear. And the more vibrant, lively and beautiful they are, the more tragic it seems. When Jesus called the disciples to be “fishers of men”, he certainly did not mean for us to carry that metaphor all the way through to the gory end… did he? I thought about the story Manex had been telling me at dinner – of the damage done to the barrier reef in China from dynamite fishing – and that is what it feels like right here. One small stick of dynamite in Pennsylvania causing shockwaves all around the world as GLBTQ friends and the allies who support them wonder what this will mean for them.

I’m struggling to know what to do with the fish metaphor that has so driven the church after being elbow deep in wounded fish, and then eyeball deep in wounded friends.

If I had to pick a metaphor for today, I’d rather see the church as a school of fish than as a fisherman with a hungry belly and dangerous intent. Such a metaphor just does not work for me today. Rather than a hunter stalking a school of fish, I’d prefer to see the church itself as the school of fish – communicating effortlessly, adapting swiftly, shifting in unison – individuals moving together in unity for the safety and protection of all its members.

But we are not always given either the circumstances or the metaphors that we would choose. And so I am left with neither the metaphor of a school of fish in my scriptures, nor the reality of its unity in my church.

Lord, if you would make us to be fishers of men, let it not be the sort that use dynamite nor the sort that use spears. In fact, Lord, I just can’t reside in that metaphor right now. Not after today. What I need, what we all need, is the good shepherd who leaves the ninety nine to go after the one. And seeing as I have no plans to go to a sheep farm any time soon and find out the conclusion of that metaphor, the image of the God who does not want to lose a single lamb still bears comfort.

So bless these your lambs, Lord, and bless these your fish too. The gray and drab, the green and flashy, the striped ones and the spotted ones – won’t you be a shepherd to your fish? Won’t you tend our wounds? Won’t you bring us back?

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A Prayer for Philadelphia

“Slow down,” Pauline, the hospitality coordinator for Bahamas Methodist Habitat told me repeatedly over the past couple of days. With the office cleaned, the chicken coop fixed, and the towels from the recently departed volunteer group already washed and drying on the line, Pauline could tell that I was already slipping back into multi-tasking tendencies. It was only a few days since Alex, my chilling guru, had headed back to the States for medical treatment and Pauline could see I was going to need some help if my own soul treatment here on Eleuthera was going to be effective. “Leave some work for next week. Get out of here! Go to the beach!” she said as she chased me off the site.

The reality, however, is that pink sand and turquoise water cannot distract me from what is about to begin on Monday any better than hard work and long walks can.

On Monday morning, November 18, 2013, my Annual Conference will begin a church trial that has the potential to lead to more. Despite my location and despite my minimal contact with the world outside of Eleuthera, the situation back home is one of which I am neither ignorant nor indifferent. There is truly no way that I could be either due to the fact that I have close friends, family and mentors on both sides of the debate – as well as strong opinions of my own.

It is hard to hear the words church and trial put together. The church is the body of believers who are to show the world who God is through their love for one another and continue Christ’s ministry of reconciliation. A church trial is an act of institutional force – becoming necessary when individual dialogue has not brought about reconciliation. While we can use the language of “tough love” and covenant, the reality remains that a trial is simply not the place where the body of Christ is presented in the best light. The words themselves trigger for most people images of the Salem Witch Trials and the Inquisition. And it seems the further removed we are in history from church trials, the more painful and illogical they seem to us.

The Philadelphia Episcopal Area, and specifically the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference, has seen more than its fair share of painful trials, and it may not stop with this one. In the pre-Civil War era, we were referred to as “The Border Conference” because we were the first Conference north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Growing up only 20 minutes north of the Mason-Dixon myself, I can only begin to imagine what this felt like for residents in the 1800’s. The proximity with slave-holding territories not only provided our preachers with the opportunity to risk their lives riding the circuit and preaching against slavery in the slave-holding Maryland peninsula, but also – and unfortunately – provided some of them with the opportunity to profit from the slave trade while technically living in a non-slave-holding state. Thus, the weight and temptation of slavery advocates in the South put pressure on the Philadelphia area from below, while the weight and frequent criticism of the Northern abolitionists pressed down on them from above, threatening to crush the small Border Conference.

But with great pressure, there sometimes emerges diamonds – and there certainly were some preachers who emerged decisive and courageous in the midst of these pressures. One of them caught my eye in seminary, a man named John Dixon Long, who had written a book called Pictures of Slavery in 1857 about the slaves held by preachers in the Conference and the conditions they suffered under; J.D. had been promptly brought up on charges of slander at Annual Conference in 1858. There was not much more information than that about J.D. Long at the time, but I got a tip that his letters and journals had been recently donated to the archives at Old Saint George’s in Philadelphia, and consumed with the need to know more about this church trial, I drove home from Durham, North Carolina to spend the day in the archives. With white gloves and careful hands, I pored through countless newspaper articles and opinion pieces; letters between J.D. and his friends – checking to make sure one another were alive while preaching against slavery below the Mason Dixon; notes that J.D. had scribbled in his journal as he interviewed slaves about their lives. Perhaps most valuable, I found an account written by one of J.D.’s friends of the proceedings at Annual Conference that year and the way that his friends were inspired by his courage to speak up in his defense and take risks themselves. The newspapers at the time were in an uproar – especially the abolitionist ones, of which Philadelphia had plenty – and the silence and hypocrisy that had surrounded the issue was split wide open as the region engaged in vigorous public debate.

The conclusion of the whole situation was that the Conference decided to quell the storm of criticism by dropping the charges against J.D. A painful compromise seemed apparent, however, because the charges against the pastors who held slaves were also dropped. J.D. limped off into the sunset, living another 30 years and running a home for children in Philadelphia, but his health was ruined by the stress and toll of the trial.

J.D.’s legacy was clear – one person with immense courage can make a tremendous difference – inspiring others to action, shaking the institution out of complacency, bringing hypocrisy into the light of day and galvanizing public opinion to hold religious leaders accountable to live with integrity and compassion.

While I was consumed with researching this Philadelphia trial, I did so in ignorance of the fact that the trial of a young clergywoman in my Conference had concluded shortly before I began seminary. I spent my life consumed with this trial in the 1800’s that exemplified the pressures often placed on my Annual Conference, while my decade of schooling in the Carolinas kept me completely unaware that the pressure was once again heavy on my home city. The young clergy that would soon be my colleagues and friends were struggling to cope with witnessing one of their own defrocked at an equally public trial. Ignorant at that moment, however, the irony was completely lost on me.

But I am neither ignorant nor indifferent now. Despite my current location, on a small island in another nation, I am carrying the names of all of my friends back home in fervent prayer. It seems the pressure of the denomination is on us once again as we sit in that Border space, that crucial territory, where no caucus has full control and where no opinion reigns supreme, where there is still space for debate and there is a diversity of opinion that is stronger than in areas where opinions lean heavy in one direction or another. Our diversity has always been our greatest strength, as well as the source of some of our greatest pain.

I am carrying love and prayers for you, all of you. I understand the concern of those who feel the responsibility to uphold our covenant and Discipline; your points are heard. However, I also empathize with those who feel, like many before them, that what they see to be an unjust law need not be obeyed.

To my Eastern Pennsylvania friends, family and colleagues, I have this to say – we have been here before and we will be here again. We are strong and we can take the pressure; but don’t stop short at showing the world our strength, reveal to them our compassion as well. May we show ourselves to be the Body of Christ, even in the moment when we look the most like an institution.

To my friends around the world, pray for Eastern Pennsylvania. We have been through so much already; we have born more than our fair share of the traumas of this denomination. From the loss of Richard Allen and the painful split with the AME church at Old St. George’s in 1816, to the trial of J.D. Long forty years later; and now from the trial of Beth Stroud to that of Frank Schaefer a decade later in the same spot. Whatever camp you are in, you will be tempted at one moment or another in the process to throw stones at us, but be kind. Remember what Jesus said to do with stones. Instead offer your prayer and support as Philadelphia is once again made to endure the birthing pains of a denomination finding its way forward.

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Daily Labor for Daily Bread

The first morning of my second week in Eleuthera I woke up to the deep muscle fatigue that accompanies a life of manual labor. Nothing hurt exactly, but somehow still everything ached. I was struck full in the face with the realization that years of studying, pastoring and administrating had gradually eroded the strength that I had built up through a youth of chopping wood, hauling sound systems, and balancing pizzas on my shoulder. Where was the girl who had gotten in trouble for building tree houses in the woods alone? The girl who spent hours every summer day slamming her field hockey ball into an overturned picnic table to practice her shots? The girl who won the 4-H hammering contest every time? That girl had apparently long ago been buried by this woman, under massive piles of church bulletins, ordination papers, sermons, grants and weekly/monthly/quarterly progress reports. Pressure had weighed heavier and heavier on my shoulders, and so it was with relief that I realized my shoulders now hurt in a welcome way; a pain brought on not by wading through political tensions, but by honest physical exertion; a pain that indicated growth and strengthening rather than stress and weakening.

After a week in the garden, I had learned that when fruit trees and determined Bahamian weeds are involved, the work does not bear much resemblance to the kind of gardening that my grandmother did with yellow daffodils in her soft Pennsylvania dirt. Wrestling with this dusty, weed-filled soil bears more of a resemblance to her husband’s life on the farm. This gardening involves straining and grunting, rather than pruning and puttering. It does not leave me glistening, it leaves me filthy. Sharp barbs dig into my ankles, my hands, the backs of my knees, and anywhere else the weeds can strike at in their fight for survival. This work makes me filthy; it makes me tired; it makes me happy.

It should come as no surprise that my time with God in the garden is more of a struggle than a stroll. That is where God and I are at, and that is why we came here to draw apart and spend some time alone together. We have some hard work and some hard healing to do; this year we have seen my fractured elbow healed, and my wrecked car rebuilt – but now we have a tired mind, a wounded spirit, and a broken heart to deal with and no hospital or garage can help us with this restoration. This is the type of restoration that can only take place in a garden, the place where God first gave us life and purpose; the place where God first loved us and walked with us; the place where God first told us we would struggle but we would survive; and the place where God first told us that our faces would sweat and our hands would toil while we wrestled with thistles and thorns for our food.

I look down and take stock of my hard worked hands, a constant reminder of those verses. I count three swollen sore spots where burs from a few of the hundreds of nasty sharp nettles I have pulled off me stuck. A painful blister fills the gap between the two knuckles of one finger after an afternoon spent with a machete, fighting back the weeds that had outgrown my height. Red bruising covers the knuckles of my left hand where gale force winds slammed a metal door shut on my hand; leaving me wide eyed and gasping for breath for a full 30 minutes as I did my morning garden chores with a frozen bag of peas clutched in my hand. I again give thanks to God that I had been back to practicing Mumford & Sons songs on my guitar by that evening, rather than losing any fingers the way my sister had in a church door as a child. My nails harbor the kind of persistent dirt that clings stubbornly, and reappears almost instantly every time I think I have gotten them clean. Lastly, and only this afternoon acquired, scratches lace the back of my hands and my arms from my recent tussle with a roll of chicken wire.

For days I had been responding to a regular series of outcries – “Hannah! Hannah! The chickens are out!” This cry of alarm would send me time and again scurrying down the hill and past the laundry lines to hunt down the clever hens. The chickens became increasingly skilled at flying the coop – each time teaching another one to join them in their flight to freedom. Unfortunately for our valiant freedom fighters, however, my chicken soothing and capturing skills had kept pace with their brilliant escape plans. Yet, the feeling of living life constantly in a claymation chicken escapade film had grown wearisome. While part of me applauded their cleverness and thirst for freedom; a larger part of me knew this was not a place for free range chickens after a couple had been eaten by local potcakes, the island’s packs of wild dogs. I wished I could explain to the frustrated hens that we all have our struggles to endure, and their cross to bear was a bunch of well-intentioned humans who knew the hens would not last long outside their spacious yard.

So, unfortunately for my day off, as well as for the chickens’ short lived revolution, I spent the afternoon running chicken wire over their path to freedom; creating my own liberation from the constant chase. Enduring twenty chickens pecking at my feet, I finally left the field of battle victorious. A streak of blood ran across my forehead where the chicken wire had gouged me as we turned and tumbled until I pinned it down with one hand and lashed it to the fence with the other. Scratches criss crossed my hands and arms, but I had won. And with that victory, I had earned myself a sunset swim in the ocean, free from the fear that my sweet hens would find victory in escaping only to find themselves in the potcake’s jaws of defeat.

Satisfied that my hands have struggled with the earth enough for one week, I call Brenda and drive to her house. After scanning the horizon for shark fins, as is my somewhat ironic and equally useless habit, I dive off the rocks and into the wild blue sea. As the sun dips below the horizon, I find it fitting that my daily baptism should be just as turbulent as the labor for my daily bread.

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