Your People Will Be My People

“You must be tired,” the fifty-something woman in front of me said compassionately. “Not as tired as she is,” I replied, turning my eyes to the third woman in our circle. In her early twenties, and journeying with two children under the age of five, she was the picture of dignity – regardless of circumstances that would strain anyone’s composure. Just that morning, she and her children had been released from detention and informed that their family would not move forward intact – her young husband would be held and deported. He had promised, as they said goodbye, that he would find them; someday, somehow, he would find them.

Our journey had begun early that day with a chance meeting, although not an unintentional one. I was receiving a tour of the bus station a few blocks from St. John’s Downtown, as the manager and I dialogued about how we could collaborate to support people traveling through our country. The manager had pointed the young mother out to me as we walked by, telling me that she was someone who had been released from detention that day and these were the people he was interested in helping.

Feeling that our gaze had been drawn to her little family unit, the young woman began to panic, certain that she would be locked up again. That she would be mocked again. That she would be stripped of all she owned again. That she would be told again that her children carried diseases and that people needed to be protected from her little ones.

Big tears began to well up in eyes that beheld us with terror and despair. “Oh Lord,” I thought, “We have so much to learn. Help us.”

Gliding across the room, from where I do not know, came our fifty-something angel of mercy, bringing a mothering embrace and words to sooth. “I speak Spanish,” had been her first words, as her gaze of compassion swallowed the family up into her heart. “I will stay with her. I will stay here and sit with her,” she promised, binding herself into the family unit. With her gray-streaked auburn hair pulled back into a loose braid, and her strong Texas accent, she was the picture of compassionate strength. In that moment, she became Naomi to this Ruth, torn from her husband to journey alone into a foreign land. And as the first one had, this Naomi opened her heart to offer generous hospitality to the land where her family had lived since a time long before there even was a Texas.

Knowing it was best to leave them together, I walked outside with the manager. The gray-haired leader of the Greyhound staff was in need of some fresh air as he fought back tears of his own. “It’s the kids,” he explained, “They get to me. I don’t care about what anyone thinks about politics, we’ve got to do something for these kids!”

While the point he was making had to do with the network we were building to support children coming through the station, I knew that it was those two confused children who had said goodbye to their father that day, perhaps forever, that were getting to him.

“I know we can’t do anything for those kids today, you know, but for others,” he concluded regretfully.

“We can do something. We will do something. For these children. Today.” I said softly, as he turned with gratitude to reveal that was exactly what he had hoped I would say. His excitement was palatable as he began to taste the reality of exactly what he had been dreaming to do for months. A way to help all the children that were weighing on his heart daily.

I promised him I would be back, and within minutes I was in my car, on the phone and our beautiful, connectional church was at work. Pastor Mireya pulled together some clothes and a Santa Biblia, while another Mireya scouted out Salvadorian restaurants to get some comfort food. Morgan and Ashley jumped in the car to meet me for a little necessity shopping, while DJ and Abigail made contact with support services and churches in the city where the family was headed.

The result of all this activity from all these people was tears. Tears of relief and joy – and not from where I would have expected them to come. It was the little daughter, only a few years old, who wept. Overjoyed to see her mother’s anxiety diminish and to see a little pink backpack, packed with the food and supplies that every little girl needs for such a journey – familiar foods and favorite colors.

As the night wore on, I sat beside Naomi, who had taken Ruth under her wing, and we three women became kinfolk – or rather, we recognized that we were. We talked about religion – one of us Methodista, one Evangelica, one Catolica. We talked about food – Naomi comparing the papusas I had brought for Ruth to the quesadillas her Mexican relatives make. We talked about family – the fact that one of my favorite men, the father of my niece and nephew, had come into the country himself when he was just the age of the little daughter; and the reality that lay ahead for these little children’s own father as he fulfilled his promise to see them and be with them again.

Finally, the compassionate and gentle Naomi turned to me and said, “I want to tell you why I am here tonight. I just got out of prison this morning.” I had noticed the locator bracelet strapped to her ankle, but had not thought much of it. “I missed the bus I was supposed to be on, and I had to wait all day for the next chance to get home,” she continued, “And I was sitting here planning to pout and gripe all day long when you walked in and I became a part of this. Not everyone speaks Spanish and could help, even those of us whose families are from Mexico way back. Not everyone here could do what I am doing.” A realization was washing over her that she had a gift and that she was needed.

“Thank God for you! I can’t imagine what we would have done without you today,” I said to her. “You were our angel. You were her mother when she needed a mother. Thank God you were here!”

It was then that I noticed, for the first time, how little Naomi had. A little grocery bag with a bible and a book and some papers in it. I realized that was all she had; it was all she had carried out of prison with her. All day long she had been helping us to serve this young mother, and watching us bring her supplies and food – never once revealing that she had nothing herself. She served with all her compassion, all her generosity, all her heart. Having nothing, she gave everything. Like the widow with two mites, no amount was so small that she could not share.

My mind was reeling a bit at the gift that we were all being given of spending the day together. None of it had been planned. Both of them had missed earlier buses and should not have even been there when I walked into the station, on what I planned to be a brief ten minute tour.

We talked some more. About some very big and very important things. And about some very small and very mundane things. We talked about how the family had walked for ten days -through deserts, rivers, mountains – to escape gang violence in their hometown that threatened to conscript young men like Ruth’s husband. While we talked, the children wrestled and pestered us for quarters to play the arcade game.

A former convict, a searching pastor, and a courageous mother. Sitting for a little while together and remembering that what we have in common is a whole lot bigger and stronger than the differences that lie between us.

The time finally came for them to board and depart, and we said goodbye about a dozen times; with kisses on the cheeks and promises to pray for one another, and promises to act – not just for ourselves but for all the mothering figures journeying on this road.

When the last glimpse of them had disappeared from sight, I walked down the street to my car in the deep darkness of late night Houston; completely in another world; incapable of responding to the men who catcalled, or the ones who asked for a dollar. My heart twisting and wrenching inside of me. I slumped into the driver’s seat exhausted. The thought of Ruth, the mother and her children – who by this time I loved – driving in the opposite direction from their father; having to journey on without him. The thought of Naomi, the woman who had become their protector; all the pain she had suffered without becoming hardened; all the light that shone out of her generous and gentle heart. The strength. The courage. The pain. The beauty.

My jaw clenched, and my throat tightened as silent tears slid down my face in mourning and celebration and exhaustion. I felt nothing and I felt everything, all at the same time.

I don’t know what tomorrow will bring; but I know that today love drove out fear, and within one little circle, we acted like family. That is a start.

Identity

“Juanita, you know I was so wiped out, I left my purse hanging on the back of the chair in that restaurant and did not even realize it for hours.” As we were leaving the fifth church service and the fifth “Love. Period.” book-signing that weekend, I saw Juanita’s head cock with more of a reaction than I had anticipated from the comment.

“Remind me to tell you what that’s about,” she said.

When we got to our cars, I did remind her and she did tell me. Losing my purse, leaving something so personal, meant that I was having trouble with my identity in this place, and needed to spend time with God listening and seeking what my identity ought to be in this phase of my ministry.

Damn. That woman has an uncanny ability to read my spirit that I am still getting accustomed to experiencing. When I first met her, I felt certain that she could read every thought in my head – which must be a difficult gift to have when you think about it.

I was, in fact, having difficulty figuring out how to inhabit my identity in this new phase of my life.

The first factor was that I had spent the better part of the last eight months alone with God cultivating an attitude of listening and a raw openness. The most peaceful part had been my time of quietude working in the garden and writing on the island of Eleuthera; and probably the most intense part had been the five weeks at the end that I traveled alone in Guatemala – trying to learn the language, living without a hot shower or mirror, and only ever understanding part of the noise that surrounded me. When I had returned to the States, I felt like one of those characters in a movie where a cacophony of voices rushes in and they can hear everybody’s thoughts; the fact that I could understand everything being said around me was overwhelming. And that extreme openness and raw vulnerability that I had practiced in order to hear best from God became a huge liability as I landed at a national church event in Florida – where I was a speaker – and immediately was surrounded by voices trying to tell me who I was. In those few days, I received some of the most uplifting and some of the most condemnatory words of my life – and all without my usual walls, tough skin, or filters. It all rushed in past my barriers, and I had to sort through it.

Thankfully, that is when the second factor came into play. All that focused listening and soul searching had strengthened a gift that I had been unaware of before: the ability to recognize when someone’s reactions to you are reflections of you, and when they are merely reflections of themselves – their own assumptions, prejudices, and baggage. No one is ever free from their own filters, but I realized that there is certainly a spectrum within which those biases affect the way that we respond to one another. The fact that the woman I was staying with in Guatemala – without knowing much about me and with very little shared vocabulary – was able to identify within two weeks that I was, as she put it, “something like a priest”, had filled me with awe. Consequently, returning to the States, and knowing myself more fully after several months with God; and realizing that this gave me a heightened ability to identify whether the reactions and interactions of friends or strangers were reflections of myself or merely reflections of their own issues; I began to put excessive confidence in the process of increasing the impact of the prior and decreasing the impact of the latter. In other words, I tried to be discerning about who I allowed to have an impact on my identity – shielding myself from those who tried to tell me I was someone I was not, because they could not see past any number of the barriers that blind us to the internal beauty of one another.

Complicating my ability to engage my identity in a new space, I found myself stripped of all the things that I had leaned on in the past to help me communicate my role, calling and identity to others. I do not wear “the uniform” – neither the button up shirts and slacks, nor the clergy collar; leaving the majority of people who have not been introduced to me properly to assume I am an intern – which on the upside knocks about a decade off my age; and on the downside also knocks off my years in college, seminary and the pulpit. No one knows I am a Reverend, and wouldn’t care if they did. My stoles are in a box, my robe is in a garment bag behind my winter jackets. I serve a church, but I don’t exactly have a flock yet, and I don’t exactly have a pulpit that I preach from each week, as I did for years. I have ceased my geographic journey, but will never quite finish my internal journey. I’m trying to reimagine church, and in the process having to reimagine the role of a pastor without being able to rely on any of the usual cues to communicate that – neither the ones I have personally relied on – nor that one that church culture often relies on to identify pastors… namely being a man.

So when Juanita told me that I was in a space of needing to be still and listen to God to discern how to live out my identity in this phase of my life – she could not have struck the bull’s eye any more dead center.

And somehow in doing so, she answered the question I had been struggling with for months; revealed why I had written so many blogs that rung incomplete and remained un-posted; relieved the pressure in my mind and the pang in my heart.

Life is not about figuring out which people are reliable mirrors and which people are not able to see you past their issues (although that can help you be more healthy). Because life is not about figuring out who you are in the eyes of others, life is about figuring out who you are in the eyes of God.

Identity does not come from outside of a person; it comes from within; it comes from a conversation between the Creator and the Created about exactly who and what they were created to be. And as helpful as the input, feedback, reactions, guidance, accountability and teaching of others can be, it should never – I repeat NEVER – be permitted to interrupt, contradict or distract from that conversation between the Creator and the Created.

As I reflected on Juanita’s words, her encouragement to talk to God about how to express my identity in this phase of my life, I thought back over all the phases that had come and gone. I thought of the “damn yankee” that arrived in South Carolina for college in 2001 to discover that Southern culture was an awful lot more than hush puppies and Steel Magnolias. I thought of the bubbly and optimistic young woman who arrived in North Carolina for seminary in 2005, only to discover that it was not the oasis from racism and politics that she had imagined it to be.

But of all the me’s that I have been and of all the places that I have lived, the one who bangs loudest on the door of my consciousness and demands to be heard is the 26 year old pastor who was sent down to the isolated marshes of Maryland for her first pulpit assignment. Her presence is insistent. Her courage is bewildering. Her optimism is contagious. And her determination demands a response.

She stands over my life and declares – we have not come this far for nothing, we have not learned this much to squander it, we have not survived this much to ever doubt what we can do.

We owe it to Donnie and Buster and Jack and Jim and Bipp and all the men who called me Rev. Bonner; and all the men who tipped their hat; and all the men who caught me oysters fresh from the bay; and believed that I could do anything I set my mind to do. And we owe it to Libby and Debbie and Betsy and Mary Lou and Judy and all the women taught me to be a pastor; and all the women who brought laughter to my life; and all the women who tried to love me hard enough to keep me from ever leaving.

None of us knew at the time that in the years and churches that lay ahead, there would be men who would refuse to call me Pastor, or leave the church altogether because – as I woman – I was THE Pastor. We did not fully understand the pressure that was falling on young clergy, in the world outside our little Chesapeake village; the pressure to “save” the church – the pressure that would soon fall on me – and that I would accept and place on myself. We could never have imagined the toll it would take on me, and the time I would need with God to rejuvenate.

Yet still, of all the me’s that I have been, the one that cries out loudest to me is exactly she – that newly minted pastor who drove alone, at 26 years old, into that isolated community; and stepped alone into the pulpits of St. Peter’s and Somerset; and who despite her diminutive size filled those pulpits with the power of her voice, the strength of her convictions, the consistency of her integrity, and the gentleness of her love. That young woman who rode her bike through the marshes to visit elderly parishioners, all the while throwing her face up at the sun and her arms up in the air, and worshipping in the rushing wind of her solitude the God who had never and would never leave her… alone.

She bangs at the door of my consciousness and demands an answer. And so I open the door. Because she is someone I admire; she is someone who I want to be… and so I am her… and I am also so much more.

At the dock where I prayed each day as the pastor of the Oriole charge.
In 2009, at the dock where I prayed each day as the pastor of the Oriole charge.
Chatting after Easter Sunday with some of my favorite ladies.
Chatting after Easter Sunday with some of my favorite ladies.
Teaching my niece how to stand in the pulpit.
Teaching my niece how to stand in the pulpit.
Visiting the foundation of the local economy.
Visiting the foundation of the local economy.
St. Peter's United Methodist Church
St. Peter’s United Methodist Church

 

Life these days in Texas with Pastor Juanita
Life these days in Texas with Pastor Juanita