Talking to Beloved

“Can you get me some food?” the woman said, interrupting my friend Krystal and my last few bites as we sat outside, finishing our tacos in the Houston heat. Turning towards her, we saw an extremely thin figure with no teeth and no hair and a hat pulled over most of her small head.

“Can you get me some food? They raped me, yesterday at the courthouse. You’ve got to tell Obama. Some sausage and cheese with tomatoes on a tortilla. They raped me, you’ve got to help me. I want just some sausage with tomatoes on a tortilla and lots of cheese.”

“Would you like a taco?” I asked, addressing what seemed to be her most urgent need first.

“No, my teeth can’t handle it. I want some sausage and cheese and tomatoes in a tortilla. And tell them to put cheese on it,” she responded.

I went to get what sounded very much like a chorizo taco, although the woman refused to call it that, while Krystal invited her to sit down where I had been sitting and chat.

Returning with a glass of ice water for our visitor, I found that Krystal had gotten her much more calm. Her story started to focus away from her need for food and back to her experience at the courthouse and her need for Obama to intervene.

We asked her if she would go to the Houston Women’s Center, but she insisted that the judge would not let her go there.

I don’t know how much of what she was saying was factual, but at the same time I believed her. I believed her because I did not know whether a police man had raped her in the courthouse the day before, but living on the streets the way she did, I could be pretty sure that this woman had been raped, probably many times.

I did not know what I could do for Beloved,* but with Krystal as a compassionate companion in this conversation, I was going to listen.

I knew that I was not going to ignore Beloved, or patronize her, or push her away. I was not going to laugh at her and tell her she needed to get over it. I was not going to ask her if she had forgiven herself yet. I was not going to tell her that I could not afford to hear what she had to say because I needed to protect my own relationship with the police. I was not going to tell her she better keep quiet or she’d make all women look bad. I was – above all – not going to tell her that it was her own fault.

There was not much we could do, but we could listen and we could care.

Her ramblings about the courthouse and the judge were intermixed with another story she started telling as she repeated herself over and over again. A story of a motel. A story of waking up and not knowing what had happened to her. A story of the hotel manager telling her that the police had raped her and left her there.

Something told me that while her story about the courthouse was questionable – although it is within the realm of possibility that everything she said was true – this story about the motel was very likely the true one. Perhaps it was the first one. The root story. The one she may have been telling for decades, with no one believing her. The story that happened back when she had hair on her head and teeth in her mouth and a figure of any kind. When you could tell that she was a woman by more than the fact that she told you she was. This story about the motel may have been the one that started it all, the one that launched her out onto her journey on the streets.

Hearing the word “motel”, it was impossible not to think of my own home here in Houston. A community reclaimed from such a use. Resurrected from dealing death-blows to people’s consciousness, to become instead a place of love and healing.

The story of this building is well known, since the time that Pastor Rudy Rasmus wrote about it in his groundbreaking book, Touch. Here, once upon a time, powerful men from throughout the Houston area would bring a woman for an hour or two. A house of ill-repute. Now it seeks to be a community for artists, promoting love, and healing, and fellowship. Next door to me is a couple from Sierra Leone, taking a sabbatical from their work with Word Made Flesh. Above me is a young couple that commutes around Houston on bikes, and works long into the night on projects in our art studio.

It’s hard to imagine that in this same room where I live – the room that I have filled to the brim with green and red and flowers and light – women, like Beloved, may have stared at colorless walls; may have felt nothing or, worse yet, may have felt something – may have felt fear.

I know what that fear tastes like on the back of your tongue. Bitter and paralyzing. Only when I tasted it for a third time, as I contemplated how to escape the back seat of a careening tuk tuk taxi, was I able to identify the two other times when I had tasted it in my life for what they were. The danger of hate masquerading as love; the danger of violence masquerading as tenderness; the danger of the conqueror circling the prey.

What responsibility do I have to Beloved? I have no more, and no less, than any woman has. The responsibility to listen and the responsibility to care. The responsibility to do something, if there is something that can be done. The responsibility to let her know she is not alone. Above all, the responsibility to be aware of the fact that so many pieces of our over-sexualized culture are complicit accomplices in human trafficking and victimization through normalizing violence, normalizing explicit imagery, and normalizing aggressive behavior as “passion” – and that we become unwitting accomplices ourselves when we promote them.

What could Krystal and I do for Beloved? Not much. We could listen and we could care. We could believe her story, as muddled as it was, for the pieces of truth that we knew lay within it.

“Beloved listen,” I said as she stuffed her lunch into her bag and prepared to make her escape to the safety of an alley, to begin her task of consuming her food without the aid of teeth. “Beloved listen. I am one of the pastors at St. John’s Downtown, do you know where that is? That’s where you can find me.”

“Oh I can’t come there,” she said, “the judge, he’ll make an end of everything if I come there. That will be the end of everything.”

“Okay Beloved, well that is where we are if it ever feels safe enough to come.”

And with that, she was gone.

After finishing our own lunches, Krystal and I began to take a walk, still processing our encounter. Partway through our journey, Beloved intercepted us on the path, rambled for a few minutes, and then dashed back into an alley. We did not know where she was, but she seemed to be keeping track of where we were.

I’ll make it easy for you Beloved – you know where to find us: at St. John’s Downtown.

*Name changed to protect the innocent. Replaced with the name God gives to her.

Back Where I Started

“I thought we were losing you,” Rudy said to me from my iPad screen about six months ago. I was sitting in the red corner chair in the office of Bahamas Methodist Habitat on Eleuthera, on the second floor above the camp showers. It was one of the few places on the island where I could connect to the internet and – incidentally – to the rest of the world. Thanks to the gift of modern technology, I was able to take a break from my work in the garden – a bit sunburnt, dirty and bug-eaten – and share some time of prayer and conversation with both Pastor Rudy and Pastor Juanita Rasmus across the thousands of miles that separated us.

The thing that may be surprising is that when Rudy said he had been worried about losing me, he was not referring to that time, recently, when I had resigned from my job and gone to a distant island with the intention of listening to God and God alone. Nor was he referring to the fact that I had given myself permission on that distant island to do whatever it was that God led me to do, up to and including not returning to ministry or to the United States. Nor was he referring to the six months that followed, of intense spiritual listening, in which I quickly concluded that God neither wanted me to leave the church nor ministry nor the United States.

What he was referring to instead was all that came before that – the years that had been slowly but steadily eroding my ability to be fully myself and live out what many had seen as my “prophetic” calling. For those that knew me well, my resignation was not a surprise; but for those who knew me the best, my resignation was a profound relief.

Five years ago, I was living in a space of unconditional love called the Isaiah House. I was living in one bedroom in a house of six bedrooms, the other bedrooms of which were filled with either community members or women and children transitioning out of homelessness. One big happy family. Sharing meals and dish duties and waiting on our turns in the bathroom; pulling weeds and picking strawberries; getting woken up by crying babies down the hall, or the occasional gunshot in the neighborhood that was constantly resisting the encroachment of gangs. I was not the “best” community member by far; but if I had been a better one, then I might not have realized that the love and grace I was receiving was something I had neither earned nor deserved. I did not have much, and I did not need much. I had a community that loved me, and a calling I believed in, and that was enough.

When I had graduated from Duke Divinity, the Isaiah House had drawn me irresistibly into its family and enfolded me in love, striving to support my physical, and spiritual needs so that I could be free to pursue the ministry of creating spaces of safety and empowerment for young people in our community.

Over time, I realized that people in the community saw me as a pastor, and even called me pastor, but I was not technically a pastor. I knew I needed to be able to serve wholly as a pastor – to be able to offer them the sacraments of communion and baptism – and that I needed to return to Philadelphia to pursue ordination. The reality that I was entering the “institutional hierarchy” caused concern for some as they watched my departure. One mentor, who later would ironically end up writing an impassioned reference for my ordination, articulated her concern to me in this way, “Isn’t there another way? Don’t you know what will happen to you in the institutional hierarchy? Don’t you know what they do with prophets? They kill them.”

The concern did not end when I got back to Pennsylvania; and I was certainly not exempt from feeling that concern myself. As I was asked to lead workshops at almost every Conference event, I could feel the occasional twinge of intimidation or jealousy from others that leads to isolation for many leaders. I may have been new on the block, after spending almost a decade away from home receiving my education in the South, but I was articulate and well-educated and “shiny,” and so people seemed to enjoy putting me up on stages. I confided to a mentor in Philadelphia that I was worried about the path that I seemed to be headed, or pushed, down.

I had come home with a sense of passionate calling to be a part of justice, healing and reconciliation in a region of our country – and church – that had experienced division after division since Richard Allen walked out of our doors in the 1800’s. I was even willing to give up my beautiful life at the Isaiah House to pursue that calling, but those opportunities did not seem to be the doors that opened to me within our itinerant system. I told my mentor in Philadelphia that I was worried I would give in to the pressure to move up the ladder and forsake my life of ministry on the margins. I asked her to watch me and to hold me accountable to the calling I had articulated to her.

When I resigned from my job within the denominational institution a few years later, and decided to spend time re-evaluating my role in ministry, few words needed to be exchanged between my mentor and I. We both knew that this was exactly what we had worried about. I was being highly effective in ministry; I was still technically living out my calling, or struggling to do so. I was building multi-ethnic community. I was empowering young leaders. I was working to build justice and reconciliation. But all of that work was carried out as if by a bird in a cage, and I could only fly so far. It had gotten intertwined with the expectations of my job, the requirements of my institution, the pressures of power and reputation – and it was breaking my spirit. I could not speak truth to power when I sat in the seat of power and represented the General Church.

Over the months that followed my resignation, and then later my conversation with Rudy and Juanita, I spent a lot of time listening. Traveling. Listening. Unwilling to say yes to anyone until I felt confident that I was saying yes to God. Some asked if I won the lottery or if someone was funding me. Absolutely not, I told them, I was just trusting God to guide my path, and was willing to lose everything I had before I would end the Journey prematurely.

It took me many conversations, and journeys within the Journey, before I had exhausted every doubt in my mind, and submitted every bit of my will, and come to terms with who and what I could really count on in life, and where and how I was to live.

Once I had finally accepted where God wanted me to be, there was nothing left to do but pack up my car, spend whatever time I had left with my family, and finally go home to the place that God had prepared for me.

In the end, I found myself driving down to Houston, Texas, excited to join a thriving community and be a part of promoting justice and peace in this city. Excited to work at St. John’s with the pastors who knew my heart better than most people. The people who knew with relief that watching everything I had built gradually slip away day after day – while my trust in God was built stronger day after day – was the very best thing that had ever happened to me.

I learned that spending time with people who thought they knew who I was, or who I ought to be, had not helped me become my truest self.

So I saved every last minute I had left in the Journey for those who truly did know me and love me best. Those who know the very worst and the very best of what I am capable of doing. I went to West Chester, Pennsylvania and had dinner and watched movies with my aunts. I was engulfed in bear hugs by my cousins Jeff and Katie, Buddy and Annie and Erin. I went for a long walk in the woods with my mother and had breakfast with my dad.

I stopped in Baltimore to spend time with my friend Nadiera, and in Washington, D.C. to spend time with my sisters. I cherished taking my niece and nephew on the last one-on-one outings that we would have for a while to come.

Then I continued on a journey that I had driven many times before. I drove to North Carolina and spent time with my family at the Isaiah House and with the amazing young leaders that I had tutored and mentored – now all thriving college students who are – incidentally – my biggest inspirations.

I drove to South Carolina and stayed at the Vista House community where I had lived in college and allowed myself to soak in its beauty, and meditate on my gratitude for the people I had loved in that place.

I continued on to Florida to my oldest sister’s house, to take my niece and nephew swimming and biking. To hug them and talk to them about their troubles and read them more bedtime stories than any child could expect.

Then I did something that I have never done before. I kept going. I drove all the way to Texas.

At the end of my journey, I have ended up back where I started. Living in one room as I did at the Isaiah House, in a community that offers transitional housing and engenders a sense of family. I do not have much, and I do not need much. I have a community that loves me, and a calling I believe in, and that is enough.

In the end, those who know me the best know that I was never really lost; I was just finding my way home.

Time with cousins
Time with cousins
Time with niece & nephew
Time with niece & nephew
Time with mom & dad
Time with mom & dad
Time at the Isaiah House
Time at the Isaiah House
Time with family in Florida
Time with family in Florida
Home in Texas
Home in Texas