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Full Bellies in Boston
I am deeply proud of my city, Boston, for an unusual reason. It has nothing to do with one of our famous sports teams. Instead it’s about school lunch: If you attend a Boston public school, regardless of your income, you will receive a free breakfast, snack, lunch, and then final snack if you are in an afternoon program. That is enough calories for a single day, even if you do not have dinner.
Many cities provide free meal programs for school children, but there is often a complicated documentation system that places the burden of proof on families. More often than not, school social workers need to track down documents that are never received. Children inevitably slip through the cracks. More complex than documentation: food insecurity cannot be easily calculated on paper. Some children do not qualify who are food insecure.
Boston decided in 2013 that full bellies were as important as curriculum. Boston ditched the red tape. All children can eat their fill in the Boston public school system. Then Mayor Thomas Menino said it simply: “Every child has a right to healthy, nutritious meals in school.” He then noted the complications of the application system: “This takes the burden of proof off our low-income families and allows all children, regardless of income, to know healthy meals are waiting for them at school every day.” (BostonPublicSchools.org, BPS Offers Universal Free Meals for Every Child).
The church where I serve has partnered with a local school in Boston. The school social worker noticed that children were stuffing their pockets with food on Friday afternoon. And on Monday morning, they couldn’t get enough food into their empty bellies fast enough. Through our food pantry, Rose’s Bounty, we send children home with bags of kid friendly food each Friday to see them through the weekend.
Ever since Covid left our city locked down and our school system closed, I have worried and worried about this particular group of children. I have prayed for them, wondering if their bellies ache at night. The city of Boston has done an excellent job, as have many cities, providing food assistance through local community organizations and at central localities. Our church has offered a weekly pop up food pantry in the school recess yard to try and reach families in need. And still we know that there are children who are malnourished because they do not have the consistency of school breakfast and lunch each day.
Visible Disparity & Free Lunches
When my mom was a child growing up in Buffalo, New York, she walked home everyday for lunch. School lunches were not provided in her neighborhood school, or in most schools in the early 1940s. And without official school lunches, kids could see how hungry each other were.
In Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, we see how this wealth disparity plays out during the school lunch. The main character, Scout, comes face to face with poverty for the first time when her older brother, Jem, invites a classmate named Walter home for lunch. At the Finch home, Walter greedily pours molasses all over his meat and vegetables to Scout’s horror. Scout, of course, does not remain quiet. Calpurnia, the Finch’s house keeper and mother of sorts, calls Scout into the kitchen and scolds her for her rude behavior. She explains to Scout that not everyone has as much to eat as Scout.
Scout's behavior is not uncommon. I remember vividly bragging about the pot of change my dad left in our kitchen for our school lunches and how my brother and I took however much we wanted (my parents didn’t know this, but they also didn’t monitor). With the extra money we bought ice cream bars and chocolate milk. A classmate was awestruck at this unrestricted access and told me her mother carefully counted out her lunch money each day. My family wanted for nothing; I learned this for the first time at school lunch.
Two things happened in America that created the school lunch programs that were the norm when I entered school in 1980. First, women began organizing. It started small, a mother noticing a child with no lunch. These mothers brought children into their homes at the noon hour and made sure they received a filling lunch. This was more common than you can imagine. Soon women were showing up at schools with pots of soup and slices of bread to make sure all the children were fed lunch. Boston led this movement and was the first school district in the country to offer lunches to all students in the late 1890s. The Boston free lunch program was led by the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union. In 1908 in Manhattan, students paid 3 cents or less for pea soup and two slices of bread offered by the Women’s Missionary Society.
Second, school lunches became federally supported immediately after World War II. Many young men drafted into World War II couldn’t fight due to malnourishment. Present Truman’s legislative response was simple: the 1946 National School Lunch Act provided affordable meals so kids could grow up to be strong soldiers and strong citizens.
The Importance of School Lunches in the Era of Pandemics
There are things we simply take for granted. They have been such a part of the common fabric of our communities that we stop noticing. During this pandemic, I have become aware of just how impactful the 1946 National School Lunch Act was on our country. In fact, I have come to realize school lunches are central to our democracy. Let me explain. My rationale is simple. I will confess that although my experience is limited, my work at the Chittick School has given me a bird’s eye view into the terrible domino effects of food insecurity on education.
Children can’t learn on empty stomachs. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone disagreeing with this statement. And an educated populace is essential to democracy. As democracy took root in America, public education became not just an ideal, but an imperative. An enlightened public, the founders believed, was essential to self-government. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Education is the anvil against upon democracy is forged.” If education is essential to self-government, and school lunches are key to children’s ability to learn, then school lunches are central to our democracy.
I am not a public health official, and I am not challenging in any way the closure of schools. I do want, however, to offer the following observation: sitting down every day in a cafeteria with classmates, at the same table, in the same room, eating from the same lunch trays, is one of the greatest achievements of our democracy. At that cafeteria moment, we are saying to each child in America, “You matter. Your very physical well being matters. Your education matters. Your voice matters. Your experience matters. Your future matters. You are a citizen of this country and one day we will depend on you to uphold our democracy.”
So why does any of this matter to a Christian Disciple?
As followers of Jesus, seeking, fighting for, and securing justice is our job description. Sister Simone Campbell said it most clearly when she asserted that salvation is communal. Therefore, justice is how we measure salvation. The measure of justice is how well we do together, as a nation. My salvation is completely tied up with a child sitting down to eat lunch. If that child is hungry, so am I. If I do not fight for justice for that child, I am not closer to salvation. Our destinies are entwined.
Jesus called all of his disciples, those who were constantly clueless, those who would deny him, those who would betray him, to eat of bread and drink of cup with him. In that upper room, Jesus made it clear there was only one table and at that table there was room for us all and there was enough for us all. Just as Simone Campbell asserts, Jesus saw salvation as a fully communal endeavor. I like to think of the Boston Public School system’s lunch rooms like Jesus’ table. Everyone is welcome. There is enough for every child. The salvation of each child at each rickety cafeteria table is forever bound up with those who sit across from them, and with me, and with you. Those women who sought free lunches for all children worked not only for our justice, but for my salvation.Thank you.
As promised, here is the first installment: a “snippet” of life to glean hope and inspiration. I begin with John Lewis, the man who inspired this blog series.
I was on my parent’s bed. I couldn’t have been older than 11 or 12. The windows were dark, my father was barely awake beside me, the old Philco TV flickered black and white footage from the PBS documentary on the Civil Rights Era, Eyes on the Prize. The first episode I had watched by accident, again beside my half awake father. What I saw viscerally changed me: Emmet Till’s mutilated face. A week later I returned to the series, not for a horror show, but seeking some sort of understanding. What I found was a young, bold man, the Rev. John Lewis. I watched the footage of the Freedom Rides, learned of the angry crowd that greeted Rev. Lewis in Montgomery, the crowd that beat and bloodied him.
How did he possess that kind of courage?
He answered my earnest question many times throughout his life in interviews and through his public service. The answer is fairly simple: faith. John Lewis began preaching at age 15. His faith propelled him into the heart of the civil rights movement shortly after. At 23 during the March on Washington he spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as the head of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). There, he boldly demanded justice.
His fellow Freedom Rider, Jim Zwerg, described John as the one whose faith steadied everyone else: "You knew if you were going to stand with John on a bus platform, John wasn’t going to run. He was going to stand there with you.” This steady, undeterred faith led John from Freedom Rides to the floor of Congress where he fought unrelentingly for justice through gun reform, LGTBQ+ rights, voter protection, education equality and more.
John Lewis’ faith was a steady courage fed by worldly hope. He often reminded people that when fighting for justice there would be setbacks, but you had to keep showing up, you had to be consistent. With this dogged persistence you would get there. Hope was not a sentiment to him; it was a discipline for political change.
We are on the eve of a referendum in which America will decide who America is: racist or equal, inclusive or exclusive, cruel or kind, just or unjust. John Lewis reminds us that if we are to change the world, we can’t just vote and forget. We must be dogged, not episodic; hopeful, not angry. Above all, we must be grounded in a faith that sustains disciplined hope.
Disclaimer: This blog may feel a whole lot more about me than about the saint I would like to celebrate: Tonya. This may be true. If you can, bear with me. The only way I can express the impact this every day saint has had on the world is through my own experience, particularly what I learned about myself in her presence.
And for Tonya: Thank you for letting me share this. How often I pray for you.
Tonya and I began Colgate University in the fall of 1994. We had both made it to our first year at college on our own merits you could argue, but looking back I see now what different worlds we came from. I was groomed for private college in every stereo typical way you can imagine. I graduated from an elite private school and was the fourth generation in my family to attend college. I was not only prepared for the academic rigor of college, but also the social expectations which were much more difficult to navigate.
When I arrived at Colgate, I felt freed from the social constraints of my prep school. I quickly assessed who was comfortable in that world, which girls had possession of their daddy’s credit cards so they could purchase all the J Crew their hearts desired, and just how the social hierarchy would establish itself. Although I did not possess my daddy’s credit card, I could have tried to establish myself in that unspoken elite circle. I had no interest. I never looked back. Instead, within the first semester, I discovered an ever widening circle of extraordinary 18 years olds, earnestly, if not clumsily, finding their way in the world. Some were prep school kids, others were first generation college students, others were overwhelmed by the demands of the classroom, others aced organic chemistry. It was in one of these ever widening circles that I met Tonya for the first time. Meeting her challenged me to the very core.
I wanted to leave the social elitism in which I had marinated for years. I thought I had the moment I walked onto Colgate’s campus. I truly desired to be better than noticing if someone was wearing J Crew or if they had extensive orthodontic work. I yearned to be a real-Jesus-following-inclusive college student. Yes, this sounds overly earnest, but this was my 18 year old self.
First let me tell you the person Tonya was the moment I met her: genuine and deeply kind. Engaged in the world around her in such a way that you knew she loved the human race with all of its flaws. She also lacked all the unwritten private school social rules I was used to. She was unapologetically real and almost loud. Not volume loud, but the kind of genuine-eager-engaged loud. There was nothing couth about her. There was also nothing disingenuous about her. Tonya was 100% who she was and lived into the fullness of that person. 25 years later, theologically trained, I would describe her this way: When God called Tonya by name, she heard it loud and clear, greeted God without hesitation, and lived fully into her God-given gifts God, ignoring every challenge, perhaps almost bulldozing right through them.
It should also be noted that NO ONE has ever described me as quiet nor demure. So why was I so overwhelmed by Tonya’s genuine engagement with the world. I think it was simple: she was unself- conscious in a way I yearned to be. She was lovingly engaged in the world in a way I sought to be. Tonya's example helped me be less concerned about what people thought of me and more concerned about the impact I had on others. Yes this perhaps sounds simple, but to an 18 year old it was an enormously life changing.
At first glance Tonya did not have all of the expensive grooming available to me in prep school world, but at second glance because she was freed from that “grooming” she had discovered the things that truly mattered. Before I met Tonya I thought I didn’t care about such grooming, but my initial reaction to Tonya made me face the truth-- I still did. I wanted to live in both worlds. Yet living in both worlds was not possible if I really wanted to enjoy the freedom of being simply who I was. This was the beginning of a journey, I'm still on (I still am too concerned about what others think of me). I am grateful for the important journey Tonya sent me on: fully embracing the person I was and the person others were regardless of social standards, but instead based on the gifts they shared in relation to others.
Tonya is dying of cancer. Her story is unjust. Not long after meeting the love of her life, she was diagnosed with cancer. Recently her trip to Paris was canceled due to COVID. She is now under the care of hospice. She has recently had to stop working which is her calling -- a school psychologist. Yet in all of this I recognize Tonya is still 100% the person she has always been. She is still building community. Her facebook posts are still filled with honesty, thanksgiving, love, heart ache. She is still her authentic “loud” self. This loud self has given others, including myself, permission to live fully into the life given us, genuinely, celebrating the gifts God has given, and always connecting with others.
Tonya is a saint. I am positive she would tell me she is not. But she is. A reminder: to be a saint is simple. It means to live in the world in a way in which you leave it is better. I am only one small part of that better world Tonya has created. I am sure there are classrooms of children who can attest to the difference she has made in their lives.
Thank you Tonya for being who you are. I am praying and praying that the days you have left are filled with as much joy and love as they have always been.
I have been shaped by the human story. My book shelves are stacked with autobiographies. My dining room hutch is adorned with teapots and dishes owned by women who have loved me and are now gone. As a pastor, people share with me their deepest stories. I am forever shaped by these encounters.
I have looked for God within the beautiful and terrible, mundane and miraculous, human story. For this reason, I have never read the Bible seeking rules, treating its words as a prescription for how to live. Instead, like a forensic scientist of relationship, I have examined the Bible’s account of individuals and communities for what it means to be human and live fully. I have savored each glimpse into a biblical story that reveals how human love transforms, hate cripples, and desperation guts. I have read and studied all in hopes that I might discover how to live in relationship with God.
Brittany Packnett Cunningham wrote in Time magazine after John Lewis’ death: “Our elders become our ancestors ... What kind of ancestors will we be? Daily, the sum of our future ancestry is being totaled. Will we choose mere words? Or, as Lewis compatriot and fellow hero the Rev. C.T. Vivian reminds us, will it be ‘in that action that we find out who we are’?”
Cunningham’s words have been a burr in my mind: elders, ancestors, futures, words, action. I have wrapped my life in the stories of others-- those I know and those I do not, those who are famous, infamous, and unknown. Their stories peek out at me from a bookshelf, call to me from verses, and even speak to me as I pour tea from a well used tea pot. Yet I have never considered how in this very moment, I am shaping the story that one day I will pass onto the next generation. I have never imagined that I am my very own story and that my story will impact the living and loving of those who follow me.
In these disorienting times it is difficult to know just how to live our story. How shall we not just post about justice, but act for justice, as C.T. Vivian urges? How will I live as a faithful disciple in a world that has branded Christianity as exclusive? How can I enact inclusive Christianity, and not just think it? My questions have led me back to the same spiritual practice: studying the human story as a road map forward. Every day I am learning how to be a better ancestor, because I am surrounded by my own saints-as-ancestors, and I live in their stories.
We can do the work we are called to do because others before us, like John Lewis, and the less famous Mr. White and Kay, have tilled the soil. For this reason, I will share with you during the coming months snippets of human stories that have shaped me, from famous leaders like John Lewis to unknown saints like Mr. White and Kay, from self-proclaimed Christians to those of other faiths--and those who were unsure of their faith. My hope is that these stories will inspire us to continue the larger human story of progress: of a society that ultimately bends toward a God of love and justice . . . even now, or especially now.
This covid-19 shit is real.
To be exact: shit show.
We call it a shit show at church.
Shit show because there were no other words.
What are the right words when it comes to a pandemic on top of everything else?
The list is long.
Forest fires rage.
Poverty accelerates with rising unemployment just behind.
And we haven't even mentioned #black lives matter.
Just this week a black man was shot 7 times in the back while his children watched.
Say his name: Jacob Blake.
It was with these heavy hearts that we gathered on Zoom.
Not outside socially distanced like on Sundays,
our folding chairs and water bottles our new church attire.
We miss each other's company. We miss each other's physical presence.
Still we are truly vulnerable and present with one another on Zoom.
The wise woman leading called us simply to share our shit shows.
She asked: What is it like for you? What does it feel like?
Open ended questions that broke our hearts open.
One person confessed that they are so lonely, fighting against depression.
The only thing keeping them sane is a beautiful walk.
They worry. What happens when they can't take that walk?
Another has a stressful job.
She is worn out.
It’s usually okay, but not on top of everything else.
Her mother fell again.
Your mother fell again?
My dad's dementia is worse now, another adds.
Cameras have been placed in his house so they can monitor him.
He lost his phone again. They have to get a new one.
He needs a better living situation, but who will pay for that?
Another confessed he has begun to paint his walls in bright Mexican colors.
He can't stand neutral anymore.
His loneliness is suffocating him.
He doesn't want to give into his depression.
It is all too much.
He misses seeing his children.
He has set his Alexa to remind him every 2 hours to take deep centering breathes.
Another just cries.
She misses her dad.
Her dad has been her rock, her pillar, her life line.
She cries because it's a shitshow,
because there are no other words.
What are the right words when it comes to a pandemic?
No one has even mentioned school.
The endless complications of education.
Masks, social distancing, hybrid, not going back, going back, zoom for children?
What about those chittick school children? She laments.
Those children who have no one to watch them, no one to teach them how to read.
No safe space to be nurtured day in and day out.
I’m pretty sure I am not going to teach this year, another says.
It’s just not safe for me at my age.
I’ve yet to make a decision because the school hasn’t made a decision.
Living with indecision, in between, liminal space.
We lament. We wonder. We get quiet.
We hold space for teachers and administrators and kids all at the same time.
We know there are no easy answers.
A mother sighs, If my kids don't leave this house I'm going to lose it!
I can't do it anymore. I can't pick up anymore wet towels.
We all need a break from each other!
Someone else laughs.
Another adds, I'm sure glad I don't have any small kids at home anymore.
I don't think we would have made it!
It wasn’t all lament.
We laughed too, teased each other lovingly.
We talked about the Mr. Potato Head.
Did you know first there was no plastic potato.
You actually used a real potate.
Who had an Easy Bake Oven?
The shitshow is laughter as well.
Is the volume turned up more than before? we wonder.
It feels like the volume is too loud.
There was depression before.
There was anxiety before.
Just dealing with a pandemic is hard enough.
How do we deal with everything else and the pandemic.
Talking about shit shows, I had plumbing problems.
Me too, someone says. We laugh.
We just bought a new house, they explain.
I had no idea what it was like to care for a home.
Talk about shit shows, her father-in-law is dying.
There are no clear answers.
If only we could choose our deaths with the snap of a finger.
He's had a stroke on top of his congestive heart failure. It's awful.
Did you hear so and so fell on her knee at work and is on crutches.
Add her to the shitshow prayers as well.
As if that isn't enough make sure you add those struggling with addiction.
Oh yeah and those struggling with mental health.
Don't forget the children at the Border in cages.
The shitshow continues.
Don't forget the RNC. All that hate. It's too much.
So we pray and we covenant to continue to pray for one another.
Because that's who we are.
We are a community that vulnerably shares with each other.
We surround ourselves in the endlessly loving presence of God and each other.
And that love sinks into the mess of our shit shows.
We are a shit show church.
We say it proudly. Shit show.
We say it loudly. Shit show.
We say it unapologetically. Shit show.
What other word is there to describe what's going on?
We are vulnerable.
We are human to each other.
We are community.
This was written by a fellow traveler at Grace. We are hoping to use this space more often for the collective work of the folks who happen to gather on Sunday nights at Grace. Enjoy. This is a beautiful letter.
To the World:
For my 30th birthday my wife reached out to as many people as she could asking if they would send me a birthday card. On my birthday I received 45. I am overjoyed that people responded in such a profound way. I feel loved, understood, and I am thankful that my hypothesis that people do not care about each other has been challenged. For those of you who know me, and receive calls and messages from me on random days, please know that it is because I love you. That said, my mission is not just to show people that I love them, it is to encourage you to reach out to people you care for more often. When you receive a message or call, respond and show people you understand that their time is valuable. We have stripped one another of our right to be loved-I challenge you to infuse that right back into your community.
We must develop our capacity to love. The mind works like a hard drive on a computer. When you first start using your device you have plenty of space on your hard drive, then suddenly you realize you have started using your device so much that you need more space. I believe we should work that way in developing our hearts, and increase the frequency in showing how much we care about each other. I do not expect people to read this and suddenly go on a messaging spree. Reaching out to someone is not the frivolous behavior that social media makes it seem to be, at times. Yes, we all know how handsome and beautiful you are from the selfie you took from the perfect angle, but call someone and tell them about what was happening when you took that photo. Was that smile real or did it just make you look better? I see you care about YOURSELF, but do you really care about the people looking at the photo? How is it that we live in a world in which we can connect with anyone at any moment, but we have not heard from anyone? We have 4,000 followers and 4 actual friends. I challenge you to change that.
When I was in High School I wrote an article for the school newspaper titled “people don’t care about each other.” I wrote it after a tragic event happened to someone I am close to, and there was a sudden outpour of support for a person who could use some support EVERY DAY! Unfortunately, on a daily basis people are hurt because they do not feel loved. The purpose of this message is to encourage people to show that they care about each other, more often. Reaching out to others should be a habit.
Friends, be prepared to get one of those random text messages from Torrey that read “oh you forgot about me?” or “Happy Birthday!” Mentors, look out for the calls from your former student or the player that you coached as a 12-year-old; I have not forgotten about you. Family, look out for the call from your Son, Brother, Grandson or Nephew. To my wife Andrea, I understand now more than ever how blessed I am to be loved by you. I am married to someone who understands me and that is not a right: being married to you is a blessing. Being loved by you allows me to maintain the bandwidth to love you back and to love so many people. In all, I love you too, WORLD!!
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” It’s an age-old question. Cain was the first to ask. He killed his brother Abel in a jealous rage (Genesis 4). God asks Cain what has happened to Abel and Cain responds, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God knows that Cain has murdered his brother. It’s not complicated detective work. There are only four people living on earth at this point: Cain and Abel and their parents, Adam and Eve.
The particulars of the story are less significant. Even as a kid I knew the story of the first human family was implausible: if Adam and Eve were the first people and they had two sons, where did Abel and Cain’s wives come from?
What the story tells us about human nature is what matters most. This is why the story has lasted throughout time. It tells us that from the beginning, violence and jealousy have been a part of our human story. It tells us that selfishness has been as well. Perhaps these two go hand in hand. How else could Cain have killed his brother and then respond to God in such a callous way, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Recently I have been overwhelmed by the callousness of humanity. If I am to be honest, I also witness on a daily basis the generosity and goodness of humanity. That said, I have been shocked by the unbridled nationalism that has flooded our country’s collective psyche. This nationalism seems too often coupled with violence (think Charlottesville) and jealousy (think “They’re taking our jobs!”). How could a country that erected the Statue of Liberty, whose plaque reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” turn away desperate families seeking asylum at our southern borders? Our nation is asking once again the age old question, “Are we our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers?”
The answer for some is clearly, “No.” This NO is evident as we build walls, expand detainee camps, and deport people who came to America so young that they don’t know anyone in their country of origin. This NO is evident when we respond angrily on social media, “They would be welcomed if they came legally like the rest of us!” This NO is evident as we scoff at the desperation of young families who have walked for months seeking safety, and as we ignore children locked behind barbed wire, separated from their parents.
I can just imagine everything that raced through Cain’s head before he responded to God: Don’t blame me. Not my problem. Not my responsibility. Abel thought he was better. He deserved what he got. Anyhow his death isn’t my fault-- you’re to blame. You favored him. Cain’s explanation rings as hollow as the nationalists’ declaration that the only way to keep our country safe is by keeping everyone different out.
Not my problem.
Not my responsibility.
Let someone else deal.
Me first. America first. End of story.
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asked. The answer to Cain’s question from a Christian perspective is simple: YES. You are your brother’s keeper. You are your neighbor’s keeper. You are your annoying co-worker’s keeper. You are even your mother-in-law’s keeper. You are your community’s keeper. You are the keeper of the dehydrated child, clinging to her parents as they seek safety in a new land. You are the keeper of the many separated families locked in detention centers. Yes, you are your brother and sister’s keeper.
Before Cain murders his brother, God tells Cain he has a choice. He can, if he chooses, master his sin (Genesis 4:7). We still possess this choice.
We can choose denial and ask the maddening question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Or we can choose to live utterly interconnectedly, seeing ourselves as deeply related to all within our human story. We can choose to respond in a way that includes all and even at times places others before ourselves. We can welcome asylum seekers across our border and offer them safety and shelter and even love. We can say yes, come not only into my backyard, but come into my home as well. We can build longer tables instead of taller walls.
We can say, “Yes, we are each other’s keepers.”
Before the #metoo movement became defined with a hashtag, I found myself in the throws of an intense sexual abuse investigation. With an open letter to the Board of Trustees at our high school, my childhood friend, Liza, and I forced our alma mater to look deep into its past and its current culture regarding sexual abuse. The incident we brought to their attention occurred over twenty years prior to our letter, but it was as raw to us as when we were 17 year old girl-women. Although I was not the abused, but rather the “defender” of my abused friend, Liza and I share this story intimately. Our roles and experiences are different, but we were both victims of a culture that ignored sexual abuse. The investigation we triggered was simultaneously healing and difficult. You can read the blog I wrote about this almost cliche sexual abuse story of institutional preservation, male power, and female silencing.
When the news broke this week about Professor Christine Blasey Ford’s story of survival and courage, my experience confronting my alma mater came crashing back. Each news story, each detailed article incessantly picked at my #metoo wound. I was pleased to discover that my wound is mostly healed, but I could not ignore the connections. I could not ignore the anger that rose from deep within. I also could not ignore how defeated I felt. How many times will I have to listen to commentators ask, “Why is she telling her story now?” or “It happened 30 years ago. How can she be sure?”
Let me offer “you” some answers, “you” being the emotionally-bankrupt-head-in-the-sand politicians who ask such ignorant questions! Or as the Hawaii Sen Mazie Hirono said, “Shut up and Step Up!” But in my case I want you to Shut Up and Listen Up. Professor Ford is confronting a country. I only confronted a school. Imagine her courage. She has nothing to gain! Nor did I.
Why is she telling her story now?
Um, isn’t that obvious? Because Brett Kavanaugh has been nominated to the Supreme Court. Professor Ford is a patriot for sacrificing her privacy for the good of our country.
If you need a more nuanced answer: Christine Blasely Ford did tell her story earlier to her husband, therapist and probably many others. Women have been telling our stories of sexual abuse for centuries, but we have been silenced. For many of us our silencing has been covert. We’ve been silenced by our culture everytime we hear, “Boys will be boys” or my personal favorite, “It was just locker room talk.” We’ve been silenced when our mothers told us never to find ourselves in a room alone with a boy, because whatever happens after would be our fault. We’ve been silenced by our fellow classmates who heard the rumors about what happened and lowered their heads in shame, unable to look at us . . . as if we were at fault. We’ve been silenced by every comment that insinuates the way we dress, the way we act, the way we look, “asks for it.” We have been silenced by our sexual partners who didn’t want the past to inconveniently interrupt their pleasure.
I am confident that Professor Ford told a handful of people her story about the bathing suit that saved her. In fact, I am positive everytime she found herself struggling to take off a one piece bathing suit in a bathroom stall, she murmured a silent thanks. I can imagine the telling of her story, piece by piece, that has moved her from a place of shame and fear to a new place of survival and healing.
She has told her story. Now she is telling it again.
We have all told our stories before.
YOU HAVEN’T LISTENED!
I told my my headmaster twice that my friend was being abused by a teacher. He didn’t listen and worse, he didn’t care. I then told my dean and she told me to be quiet. Her words, “Abby, we already know what you think. Be quiet!” echo in my psyche.
Stop asking why we’ve never spoken up before. We have. You haven’t listened. And just to be clear, we get to share our stories of abuse and survival whenever we want. They belong to us. Not you.
How can she be sure what happened 30 years ago?
Scientists have proven that traumatic experiences leave a signature in the brain that is hard to erase. I can attest to this truth.
I can tell you where all my classrooms were located in my high school, my teachers’ names, and more. I have a very good memory. I could not tell you, however, the color of the walls, where each teacher placed book shelves or desks. I could only guess.
But I can tell you every detail of my dean’s office. I can tell you every detail of the meeting, where a group of other students and I went to seek help for our classmate who was being abused. I can tell you where I sat in that small room and where the dean first sat, and then stood, leaning against her desk. I can remember the hesitant, almost stalling voices of my classmates, too afraid to say the word, “sex.” I know now that my memory is so clear because the experience was traumatic. I’ve carried this moment with me for years in technicolor, and I can hear my dean’s voice, “Abby, we already know what you think. Be quiet!”
I am not surprised that Professor Ford can remember the sequence of events during that particular high school party: the two drunks boys pushing her into a deserted room, the struggle, the bathing suit, the hand over her mouth, the tumble, and her escape.
Years do not erase the memory of trauma. If only they did. When such memories are buried by the psyche so the victim can survive, they always return to haunt their hosts. In my work as a pastor I can’t tell you the number of times I have borne witness to women in the throws of terrible depressions who discover they have buried memories of sexual abuse. I have seen the scars on teenage girls’ arms after they have cut themselves because it was the only way they could dull the repressed memory-pain of sexual abuse. I have listened to a 60 year old woman tell of her father’s daily rape that she had blocked from her memory until she finally felt safe after his death.
Professor Ford has a story to tell. She remembers this story too vividly. Sexual abuse will never stop until we listen and believe. She is telling this story again with clarity and courage because it matters to the future of our country. It also matters to the many women who are still hiding their #metoo stories. Telling and listening is the only way as a nation we can heal and move forward into a new way of living as sexual beings of all gendered identities who never accept abuse as the norm.
#MeToo #UsToo #AllofUs
It's the New Year. A fresh start. We make resolutions. We feel empowered to change our lives. We can create new selves. But what kind of new selves do we want to be?
With the coming of the new year we are bombarded with conflicting advice about just what new path we should take. On one hand our news feeds are filled with ways to become more spiritually centered and balanced. Yet in one click the next newsfeed entices us with promises of sleek bodies, corporate success, and filled closets. (If your closets are already filled, there is another new year’s promise regarding organization and simplification. Or a new home with a bigger closet.)
These seductive promises are schizophrenic and also incredibly ironic. We are living in a moment of history with the lowest participation in faith community and the largest waist lines. Ours newsfeeds know for what we yearn: spirituality and healthier bodies.
A year ago I saved an advertisement I received in the mail. It was a glossy invitation to attend the “Ultimate Wealth Summit.” Tom Brady was a featured speaker. Just what is an ultimate wealth summit? And why is it a summit instead of a conference? My guess is that summit sounds bigger or more important somehow. It made me laugh. And sorry Patriots fans, but what does Tom Brady have to teach me? I can't throw a football and I don’t want to. Sure he’s got some self-discipline, but from my vantage point, a man with an incredibly abnormal talent does not have much to teach me about success.
But I digress.
Here’s the best part about this SUMMIT. They had a congress of “National Achievers.” I couldn’t figure out from their website just what made the members of this congress national achievers, but I was pretty certain it had something to do with their bank accounts. They promised to teach attendees how to raise “the essential capital to fund your passion,” “multiply their income,” and create “a systemised wealth plan.” These were only steps to the ultimate goal: enjoying life. Which is apparently impossible without gobs of money.
I need to stop writing here so I can gag.
As I was pursuing pinterest, searching the best advice on just how to obtain that sleek body I most intensely yearn for after my Christmas butter consumption, somehow the wealth summit snuck into my feed. It promised a new year. A new path to wealth. Prestige. Esteem. Everything I had sought after achieved. Maybe if I attended, I too could be a member of the congress of national achievers.
Clearly, the pin didn’t seduce me, even if I would love to be wealthy and a nationally recognized achiever. Yet this string of thoughts made me question our national obsession with New Year’s itself and collective dreams of being more spiritually centered, successful, balanced, organized, skinnier, wealthier . . . What if instead this year I didn’t seek after any promise? What if this year instead I gathered with regular old folks at a home, not a summit, and we decided we would be community? What if we decided we didn’t need to create a congress of national achievers, or a seven point plan on how to become that thing--wealthier, skinnier, better-- and instead we supported one another in our earnest, faith-filled, stumbling endeavors to be kinder? And then I remembered: I already do that! My New Year’s resolution is complete. I just need to continue to gather with the folks at Grace and Stratford Street. They expect nothing of me. They just desire my company, as I desire theirs.
New Year’s can be a good time for assessment--where we are in life, where we’re going, where we would like to go. It can also be an opportunity to assess where all those little voices in our head come from, the voices that tell us we’re not good enough, but that this product can make us better. But wouldn’t it be best, wouldn’t we thrive more, if instead we joined a community that told us we were already good enough? That we were already better than we could possibly imagine, that we were already beloved--by God? That’s what faith communities do. Now, if we can only listen to them, and tune out all the voices that tell us we’re not good enough. Because we are good enough, because God delights in us, right now, as we are.
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.