Every summer when I was a child, I went camping with my dad, uncle, grandma and grandpa in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Every summer we set up camp at Little Lake State Campground, site #11, the one with the best access to the water and a fallen log where we could tie up our kayaks. We found a sturdy cedar branch that would be a good makeshift broom, and we always swept the pine needles into a pad where we could pitch our tents. And we lived this way for a week or 10 days at a time, waking up each morning to drink hot cocoa and watch the fog raise over the lake, going to sleep each night listening to the gentle whoo-whoo-ing of the saw-whet owls and the monotonous buzz of cicadas.
When we finished our time camping, when the Klepper kayaks were folded up and stored, when the camp stove had been cleaned, when the tents were dried out and folded, we picked up that cedar branch again and swept the campsite. Grandpa always told me that we had to leave the campsite better than we found it. This sweeping the campsite became a ritual to me, a tidying that went beyond packing out our trash. For me, it became a way to bless the land and the next people or animals who enjoyed that place. A “paying it forward” that cost us nothing but time and attention.
My grandparents were like that. Thinking of the next generations to come. Born during the Great Depression, sometimes I found their propensity for collecting items annoying or just plain weird…but everything had a use, every action served a purpose, nothing was wasted.
For example, my grandma Betty, a diminutive woman who claimed she was 5’4” her whole life but ended up being about 4’10”, often found the sleeves of her shirts too long. An avid sewer, she would take the scissors and cut the sleeves to be an appropriate length for her. And then, because she was not one to waste material, she would make herself pockets with the trimmed fabric. Not ONE pocket, but multiple pocketS. This tiny woman wound up having shirts that had four or five pockets neatly sewn on where before there were none. She never had to carry a handbag, she always had enough pockets to store her keys, tissues, glasses cloth, spare barrettes and anything else she had a mind to.
After grandma died, I shared this story about her pockets with a friend who pointed out that grandma was not only making an item of clothing more functional, but she was also sticking it to the patriarchy. In case you haven’t thought about this recently, or ever, clothing meant for women often lacks pockets. By some accounts, pockets ruin the figure of a woman. By others, women don’t need pockets because we can carry everything in our handbags, of course! Why would we need gender equity in clothing?! And my grandma was making a statement about this injustice by sewing her own pockets.
The cedar branch and the pockets are my heritage, the gifts from those who have gone before. The call to “see differently” that Tim talked about is not only important for those of us who are here now to do as we look forward to the next generations. It is also important for those of us alive now, especially those on the younger side of things, as we recall the past, as we remember ourselves in order to figure out where we are going. Though I wondered at the necessity of sweeping our campsite thoroughly, and was struck embarrassed and skeptical about my grandma’s multiplicity of pockets on all her clothing, I now understand those oddities as gifts, lessons for me about how to be generous to those in the future, how to pave the way for those who come next. I see grandma’s insistence on pockets as an endearingly obstinate way of her telling me to observe the world I have inherited closely, and not to be afraid to change the game to make space for myself.
What do those of us present here and now plan to leave to the generations in the future? Perhaps we leave what the generation behind us left. Wonder at the grandeur of the planet, and the knowledge that we humans play a role in the wellbeing of all created life. Keen observation and critical thinking, enough to realize that the world must not be how it is; and of course, the willpower to take the scissors into our own hands, to approach the sewing machine and fabricate a new reality of equity and justice.
This sermon preached August 25, 2019 at Seattle First Baptist Church.
On Monday morning, I arrived in Cali, Colombia along with almost 400 other peacemakers from around the world. Over 30 countries are represented here, and many different languages are being spoken. Some have asked why I would spend so much money and have such a large carbon footprint by flying here, and I understand those questions. For White, Anglo citizens of the USA, there is a constant temptation and encouragement to think that the way we experience the world is the way everyone experiences the world. Our privilege makes it hard to empathize with others, hard to even start the process of thinking that life is different from ours somewhere else. Traveling to a different country with a different history than the USA’s (yet inexplicably tied to the same forces of domination and destruction that rule over us now) can be an important way to widen our vision and expand our empathy. There are people here from Colombia, from the republic of Georgia, from Mexico, from Cuba, from Rwanda, Uganda, the Phillipines, Italy, Australia…the list goes on. The folks hosting us here in Colombia are sharing their national pain and sorrow with us, including their personal stories and political visions and creative means of responding to the domestic terror they have experienced. These are experiences that is so specific to Colombia, and yet relatable all over the world. The Peace Accord of 2016, which was an agreement between the Colombian government and guerrilla forces (the FARC being the main one) is not a perfect document and it had not been implemented in perfect ways. The former president of Colombia received a Nobel Peace Prize for being an architect of this agreement. But as one survivor of the conflict said in yesterday morning’s panel, “I would rather have an imperfect peace process than a perfect war.” There is no arriving at peace. Peace is not a destination but a process.
the altar from the Global Baptist Peace Conference
Justice is also a process, a path to travel, and not a destination. I am honored and humbled this week to be in the presence of clergy and activists and artists and humanitarian workers who have been engaged in the processes of truth-telling following the civil war and have also engaged in practicing radical forgiveness. Forgiveness is not for the faint of heart, and it is not right for everyone. It cannot be demanded and no one is entitled to it. The survivor I quoted earlier, a journalist whose husband was kidnapped and murdered along with other politicians from this district of Colombia, shared deeply about how she thought she had forgiven the FARC for what they had done in 2002. In 2014 she met representatives of the FARC and realized her rage and pain were still there…telling the truth helped release her from her pain. The same survivor said later on, “people who look for justice only as jail sentences are practicing revenge.” Revenge is not sustainable for a healthy community, though many find it lucrative. Revenge is not Christ-like.
The challenges to the Peace Accord are much the same as challenges to countries around the world, especially as fascism and nationalism and populism are on the rise. Challenges like political polarization, deep income inequity, and government being dominated by an extreme wing are familiar, too familiar, for comfort…hearing these stories and being in this place are a call to action.
We could receive stories and learn from the comfort of our own homes in the USA, but what we receive would only be part of the truth. As a friend said aptly, “It’s another form of colonization to learn everything in a USA context.” Being in Colombia to participate in this Global Baptist Peace Conference is part of decentering myself as white Anglo USA citizen and showing solidarity with people who have experienced unrest that causes most USA citizens to call it “dangerous” to travel here. There is something sacred about being physically present with people, greeting each other with the same spirit across languages and nations. I pray the rest of this week and this time together will work in me and in all of us so that we are all moved to do what we can to pursue a world without violence.
July 18, 2019
This time together in Colombia is sacred. People of many races and many languages and many theological perspectives have gathered together, spending many hours traveling, being the targets of searches at country borders, functioning on little sleep, missing events in their churches and families and countries. After we have made such an effort to be here, I cannot look away.
As people share stories of violence done to babies as young as 18 months, women, children, transgender people, queer people, migrants, religious minorities, poor people and people who are oppressed because of their race and ethnicity, it is hard to listen. I’ll just be honest about that. In my life I have faced violence, yes, but my white, Anglo, US-American privilege has protected me from a lot of the physical and political violence faced by people I am meeting here this week. At times this week, as I am deeply moved by what people are sharing about the ways they (literally) stand in the gap between oppressors and oppressed, terrorists and civilians, hateful counter protesters and justice-seeking demonstrators…I have heard things that break my heart. I have learned about ways my country has supported violence against rural farmers in Colombia and exported death-dealing theologies to indigenous people in Mexico and the ways people who claim to share my faith oppress our LGBTQ+ siblings. I have heard testimonies from people whose families have been targets of torture, who have received death threats, whose children have been kidnapped, who are afraid to leave their homes at times because of the work they are doing to bring about a more just world. I cannot turn away.
And as I contemplate returning to my country, the United States of America (not just “America” because that includes the whole Western Hemisphere), I cannot, and will not, turn away. And I am grateful and hopeful to know that there are many who will not turn away. Some are here this week in Cali. Some are reading this post. Some are in my church. I thank the God who overturns tables and chooses women to be witness to the resurrection and who makes a meal to feed thousands out of two loaves and three fish that I am part of a community of peacemakers who will not turn away. As Mayra Picos-Lee, the president of the Board of the BPFNA~Bautistas por La Paz, said today in her responding words following our morning plenary: “the commitment is to action.” When our hearts break, may they always break open, so the compassion we feel moves us to action.
And by no means am I, are we, are those gathered here, perfect. We cannot “let perfect be the enemy of the good”, as my beloved pastor and mentor and friend Steve Hammond says. The people who are here, who are part of Baptist denominations and organizations, we are not perfect. But a remarkable thing about this conference is that the work people are doing is being shared without shaming anybody, without guilting people into action, without playing the game of out-activist-ing someone. Stories and testimonies and sermons are being shared out of a desire to deeply know each other in meaningful ways, to take account of what part of the work is ours to do and to support each other while doing it.
Repenting is a part of this work. Before I became Baptist, i was part of a tradition that had prayers for repentance that we said on everyday Sunday. It was helpful for our community to have a space to air grievances and acknowledge our complicity. But with my low self-esteem, i took repentance too far sometimes. And after spending a lot of time in my personal prayer repenting out of my own broken image of my self-worth, I have since come to know the grace of God’s loving me as I am, as Mary Oliver says, “you do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles repenting.” I have reached a point in my understanding of sin and of God that I am convinced that communities of faith, particularly those marked by various privileges such as whiteness and high socioeconomic status, must consider again repentance as a part of our spiritual practice. We have much to repent for: complicity in white supremacy, USAmerican supremacy, exploitative capitalistic practices, silence, Christian supremacy, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia. Repentance has its linguistic roots in the Greek word “metanoia” which means “to think again” and “to change ones heart and mind.”
This conference is calling me to repent. And I share that call with you. Repent, change your heart and mind, about the ways we engage with exploitative practices. Change our hearts and minds from buying into death-dealing theologies that play into white/Christian/USAmerican supremacy. Change our hearts and minds to not only be the Samaritan who helps the person left at the side of the road, but also to accept help and wisdom and care from those from whom we least expect it.
Leaving and returning are part of the cycles of life. So on Sunday morning, I will leave Colombia and leave this community of peacemakers and return home, to the USA, to Seattle, to my church and my home and my community, with my heart and mind moved to action, to find the work that is mine to do.