Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Odetta & Loretta: In Loving Memory on a Day of Joy


My life has been deeply affected and shaped by many, many people, but most deeply by several Black women. Most are living, but some are gone from this vale of tears. And all I can sense are standing up and cheering this day for our new President, who will lead in a new era in race relations, and help to define a love that we can share as human beings of all races that takes into account the past, and shapes a future of the Beloved Community that past generations, and even our own today, could only have hoped for.

One passed 7 weeks ago, on Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008. Another in 2007, on the 24th of September. Both I wish could have lived to see this day, and are, I believe, watching from the place of their eternal reward.

One was one of the dearest people in my life, whom I never visited or telephoned enough, but who was always full of love for me and most everyone in her life. Another I did not know personally, and only met once in my life, but has given my soul a dimension of deep and loving experience as well.

One was famous and known throughout the world, traveling all over and affecting thousands and perhaps millions of lives. Another was known well to her friends and family, to her neighbors, to all whom her outgoing and dear personality endeared he; she was born, lived, and died in Harlem.

Both were women whose strength and souls were shaped by Jesus.

Both were women whose love was evident from most every word that I ever heard from them.

Both were women whose wisdom came through experiences I could never know or understand. But, in their own ways, each welcomed me into their lives in a way that I cannot repay but with gratitude and story.

One was Odetta Felious Holmes Gordon. One was Loretta Hernton. Odetta and Loretta.


Loretta Hernton was born in Harlem Hospital on March 2, 1936. She grew up in Harlem, and was a memeber of Walker Memorial Baptist Church in the Bronx, which she joined in 1947. She worked and lived in Harlem her whole life. And she died at the Jewish Home and Hospital, only 30 blocks from where she was born, on September 24, 2007, at the age of 71.

I met her when I was filling in as protestant worship service leader at the Fort Tryon Nursing Home for a period of months before entering seminary in 2002. After one service, she had asked me if I might share with her one of the hymns we had sung during the service. When I came by her room at the Home to bring the hymn, she was in the process of being discharged. Brother Evans and Brother Russell had come by from the Prayer Team of Walker Memorial Baptist Church in the Bronx, where Loretta had become a member in 1947. But had I come by an hour later, I would have missed her altogether, and my life would have been much poorer.

Loretta loved. That is the only way I can say it. Every time I visited her, she would ask after my mother, my father, my sister, and my grandma. She would tell me whom she had been in touch with of our mutual acquaintance, from her roommate at Ft. Tryon, to Brothers Evans and Russell, to her sweetheart whom she’d met at Ft. Tryon, to aged Mr. Davis, who was, I believe, registrar at City University of New York many years ago, and a man who had followed FDR’s funeral train as a young man, after having been discharged from a recently integrated army unit.


Odetta Felious Holmes was born on what would become my own birthday, December 31st, 1930. Although I’m a fan, I don’t know her life verbatim, and would commend you to the grand wisdom of the internet to learn about her. But this is what I know about her.

I know that she sang from an amazing heart that took in everything from segregation and true oppression, nearly to the heights of this inaugural day. This was to be part of the arc of her life.

I say that Odetta’s voice had the power to wound and heal simultaneously. The wounding was not one which she was inflicting, but one which she was uncovering. It was a moment of honesty that she could bring out through the sounds that her own body made, but were sung through years of silent tears.

Thanks by to God and Andy L., I got to see, hear, and meet Odetta once in my life, last April, when she came to sing with Pete Seeger and a group of wonderful 4th graders in Beacon, NY. It is an experience I will never forget, hearing her live and in person. Most moving were the songs “Something Inside So Strong” (“I know I can make it, but you’re doing me wrong, so wrong”), sung to challenge the society of apartheid in South Africa, and “Any Way You Can Make it, Baby” (“You gotta keep on movin' it on. If you can’t run, walk! If you can’t walk, crawl! If you can’t crawl, roll! Any old way you can make it baby, you gotta keep on movin it on.”).

I’m trying to think of the way to describe those places in Odetta’s voice that only she could make, those spaces in which you could meet her and generations of those who shaped her physical structure that could bring her to us, and those who for better or worse, made her who she was.

She had mansions in her body’s temple, and mansions in her soul. She had a place where you could enter and just sit and be.

She had spaces in her voice that would wrap you in velvet, and spaces that would wrap you in a bush of prickly cotton.

She could, in a breath, bring you into a space of discomfort that she has faced in her own life, and lay on the salve that God gave her and gave to us through her.

Odetta had long, thin fingers, and her frailty was stronger than my strength. She wished me all the best, and I will carry her benediction with me my whole life long.


Odetta and especially Loretta have been present in my silent tears since Barack Hussein Obama was elected and now has assumed the high office of President of the United States. They both came so close to seeing this day. Loretta would have been smiling and shouting, so happy in her bed, sending out a loud HALLELUIA! when he finally ascended to the high office of President of the United States.

They would be so proud, and I with them, holding the hands of their spirit and the spirits of those who have given their lives, both literally and metaphorically, to see this day arrive.
The words of the Sacred Harp tradition have also been nourishing to my soul, and I wish to let them join together the past and the present times in a song of joy:

Text by Charles Wesley:

O what are all my sufferings here,
If, Lord, Thou count me meet
With that enraptured host to appear,
And worship at Thy feet!
Give joy or grief, give ease or pain,
Take life or friends away,
But let me find them all again
In that eternal day.


May this land of America once again be ALL our home, and a home in the world for the homeless, placeless, nameless who burn with the passion of self-definition and other-regarding love.

May this home be from here into eternity, that for which all being has longed, a place of dignity, a place of prosperity for the hungry, and poverty for the rich.

May this home be one of grace for all, enmity toward none, and a home where even in our hardest times is one of perpetual HALLELUIA!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

This Land is Your Land! This Land is My Land!


"A voice was chanting,
As the fog was lifting,
This land was made for you and me."
--Woody Guthrie

I am listening in tears as Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen sing "This Land is Your Land." Seeger's nearly 90-year-old voice speaking out the wonderful words of Woody Guthrie's old song, and YES! This land is my land! This land is your land! Woody is present in song at Obama's inauguration. Odetta is here in great spirit. Would that her voice, that had the power to would and heal simultaneously, be cascading down upon the crowd in this very moment.

We are getting our country back, to give back to the world. That is the whole liberation that we have found in sending Dick Cheney and George Bush away. No more will that lip of Cheney curl in a strange mixture of disdain and frustration that he's not getting just what he wants when he wants it.

No more will we have to choose between cheering on George Bush against his many critics, and booing, laughing at, or generally deriding a man who seems not to have quite left the frat house on a squalid Sunday morning with a pile of stale beer-puke as his only pillow on a cold, hard floor, only to wake up in these circumstances as the most powerful man in the world.

We can both give thanks that there have been no more 9-11s, no bombs in the subways of New York, no planes crashing into the White House or Capitol building, but also regret that America has been greatly diminished in her power and grandeur, in her ability to broker peace and support nations in need, diminished in being a voice of tolerance and acceptance rather than high-handed moralism of a very certain and narrow stamp.

I find myself thoroughly ready to give Cheney the gentleman's boot out the front door and not mourning him landing on his foie-gras-padded ass bought with the blood of American servicemen and -women as well as tens of thousands of Iraqis, and yet not able to do anything but pity Bush, who, beyond his Ivy League-saturated anti-intellectualism, had some really good ideas that got lost in the shuffle of putting our Constitution to bed for a long midnight's nap.

But the dawn is now breaking above the fruited plain.

For eight long years, this land has been their land.

But now, "This Land is Your Land; This Land is My Land." There is a grandeur in these United States that is both dangerous to behold, and empowering to our own country and to the whole world.


"America! America!
God mend thine ev'ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law."
--Katherine Lee Bates

This grand old nation could use a return to self-control and liberty through the law that was this country’s birthright, but has been flouted for seven years in the name of national security.

Self-control is both something we have lacked as a society, and also as individuals. If you can’t afford the mortgage, don’t buy the house, no matter how much you want your own home. Rent, for God’s sake. It’s not so bad. I've done it for years. If you can’t afford those SUV or car payments, buy something a little less expensive, or, God forbid, use public transportation if you can. If you can’t afford the flat-screen HDTV that is as big as the side of a barn, and costs as much as a herd of cattle, for goodness sakes don’t blow $5000 + on it—just get something within your means! Of course, there are health emergencies that could wipe out one's savings in the blink of an eye, no matter how hard one tries to save.
It’s easy to say, and not as easy to do. But with big daddy in the White House doing whatever the h-e-double hockey sticks he wanted, it seemed fitting that we should as well.

But now, America, this land is your land once again. And you’ve got some payments to make on it.


"O beautiful for heroes prov'd
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life."

Many have given their lives in down payment out of love for their country. I am a mere armchair citizen, but they are those who go out when the rubber hits the road.

You know, I would like to serve in the armed forces as a chaplain, but it is not allowed under the current “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policies. I’m not one to not ask, nor not tell. This land may be my land, but it’s yet to fully embrace me.

Barack Obama may help us get to that promised land of full participation in this land that puts the realities of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as bedrock rather than mountaintop experiences. But he can’t do it all by himself.


"This land was made for you and me."

And you know, dammit, the man is right. This land is not just George Bush’s, Dick Cheney’s, Rick Warren’s, Gene Robinson’s, Barack Obama’s, Caroline Kennedy’s, Bill Gates’s, not just the land of those who have large bank accounts and vast connections and high name recognition, who are inheritors of great legacies or forgers of their own legacies, damn the torpedoes.

This land is the land of a lot more people. The “you” may indeed have much more potential breadth than we’ve ever felt possible. And the “me,” notice how it is preceded by “and,” and comes second, not first, may too be much larger than just each of our individual selves.

The coming of Obama is not the coming of a savior, but the turning of a page in a long book whose last chapter has yet to be written. Hope comes in many ways.

We have taken some, perhaps well-deserved, licks. We have not lived up to the potential that this society has always kept as a problematic possibility, rather than a crystal-clear reality. We have, in the words of a rather harsh New Zealand Episcopalian liturgy, “violated your creation, abused one another, and rejected your love,” but instead of doing this towards God per se, we have done it to the rest of the world as well as ourselves.

But there is a new chance not to do that quite as much as we have. There is a new possibility to take some of the God-shed grace from one end of this beautiful country to the other, and from one end of this needful world to another.

May the fog lift from this land, and may the hungry for food, freedom, and equality, be well fed. May this land truly be yours and mine, and may we give it as a gift of great price to those yet to come who will share our dreams and ideals.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

What's in a Fine?

As far away as I feel from God these days, everything engenders an internal theological debate. God is ever-present in my thoughts.

Yesterday, I brought back four DVDs to the Minneapolis public library. I knew they were overdue. It was the first time I had checked out anything from the library here, and of course there would be fines. I just didn't think the fine would be $20.00. I asked that my fines might be reduced, since it was a first offense and I genuinely had no idea they charged $1.00 per day per item fine. But no deal. Their backs were against the wall, and they were not able to dispense any library-fine grace. The law was the law, and they had to enforce it. Fine. (Sorry, no pun intended here, but I'll get one in later on.)

So, since I cannot be reliable in returning the DVDs on time, and don't want another $20.00 fine, I told the folks at the library that I would certainly pay the fine, but that I wouldn't be checking out any more DVDs. Somehow I would subvert their very reason for having their holdings, by not availing myself of them. If people followed the categorical imperative on this one, they’d go under. Woah, a little vindictive?

Where does this get theological?

Sometimes it seems to me that people reject God because the cost of the penalties God seems to impose—e.g., hell—is too high, whether it be one's own prospect of going to hell, or the prospect of God damning even one person to an eternity of suffering and separation from God. My rightful, though exorbitant, $20.00 in library fines pales by comparison.

But I think this happens. I think people do throw away God because they believe that God would throw us away.

And that makes me sad. And I think, if God can be sad, it makes God sad too.

Perhaps it's a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater: just be more timely in returning DVDs. Just be more careful in the way that you understand eternal damnation, adopt another view of God's role in it (i.e., that it's our own damn fault, pun intended, if we're damned), or disbelieve it entirely, i.e., don’t believe in hell. But really, something is there. A loving God and a loving person are separated because of someone's impossibly high expectations, perhaps those of both parties.

I could give a little. The Minneapolis public library could as well. And, I daresay, God and those who oppose God on account of fear could give a little. The Israelis could give a little, and Hamas could give a little. Those who oppose my full civil rights could give a little, and perhaps I could lighten up a bit as well.

I'm reminded of that scene from "On Golden Pond" when Chelsea asks Norman if they can be friends, after a lifetime of separation, enmity, anger, and confusion. "Does that mean you'll come around more often? It'd mean a lot to your mother," Norman replies, meaning it would mean a lot to him.

Reconciliation always means a lot. My prayer is that it might happen on all levels, from the mundane to the national, to those who have been disenfranchised into the franchise, to families set apart by disagreements and betrayals, from us to God, who has paid our existential fine in full.