Every once in a while, I have a day when the convergence of events leaves me contemplative for several days afterward.
Sometimes the days leave me laughing. Sometimes they leave me reflecting on how far we have yet to go to see either the kingdom of God on earth or the dream of America manifest for all its citizens.
An example of the former happened a few years ago when I, for the first time in some 30 years, attended a Holy Week service at my new Episcopal church. There were two congregations, one referred to as “Anglo” (which included a small contingent of people of color mostly of Jamaican ancestry), one Hispanic, who usually held separate services to overcome the language barrier. On this particular night, however, the rector had decided to combine the two. Our programs included the verses of Scripture and the words to the songs to be sung, alternating in reverse from the actual performance. In other words, if the Scripture was read in English, the words in the program were in Spanish. If a song was sung in Spanish, the words to the song in English were printed in the program.
The beginning of the service quickly illuminated the differences in our congregations. Not having an organ in the Youth Center where the Hispanic services were normally held, a band including guitarists and an electric bass player were positioned to the left, across from the Anglo congregation’s choirmaster, who doubled as the organist. Both played in accompaniment, whether the song was sung in Spanish or English.
Also on this night, there were a number of children presented for baptism from the Hispanic congregation, so there were quite a few large families in attendance with children of a variety of ages. More than once, I found myself reaching under the pew in front of me to rescue a wayward pacifier or other toy. At one point, a cell phone rang out from a couple of pews behind me and a Spanish conversation ensued, despite whatever else was going on up front.
A longstanding traditionalist in terms of church music, the choirmaster, incidentally a gay man, had chosen the English songs as he usually did, to match the Scripture readings. One of his choices was the Negro spiritual hymn, “Go Down, Moses,” which I was, frankly, surprised to find in the Episcopal hymnal.
As a lead-in to the song, the bass player began to play a simple, but familiar, rhythm often employed in country music. I realized suddenly that what he was playing was the underline of the fight song of my high school before our “white” and “black” schools were consolidated post court-ordered desegregation. We’d been the “Rebels,” and the song was “Rebel Rouser,” for those who might know it. For those who don’t, yes, I’m talking about those Rebels.
I glanced to the front at the rector and deacons, all of whom looked a bit like deer in headlights, surrounded by a host of beautiful young Hispanic couples with children in gleaming white dresses, and I lost it right then and there. I laughed until tears ran down my face. A gay white man and a Hispanic bass player were playing a Negro spiritual to the tune of a Confederate-tinged fight song in a church still loosely tied to the English monarchy. I don’t know if anyone else in the place made those connections, but I can say without reservation that I have seldom enjoyed a church service as much before or since.
Fast forward to this past weekend, and you find me in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee. My best friend and I, who both played on our high school girls’ basketball teams in the early 1970s, had gone on a whim to visit the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. While there, we spent a half hour dribbling around on a couple of half-courts and trying to play H-O-R-S-E. (Today, I’m reminded of what the days after the first practice were like 45 years ago.)
I found myself thinking about how many of the inductees I had never heard of, how many women had gone before, reaching back to the early 20th century, to lay the groundwork for me to play—remembering too that I played when Title IX had first become the law of the land and it was still thought that we female sorts as a rule were incapable of playing 5-on-5, all running the full court. We had at least progressed to where it was admissable for two of us to run up and down the court, but the others of us had to stay in our respective half-courts.
My friend and I had noticed a food festival of some sort setting up in a large field across from the Sun Sphere, which remains from the World’s Fair held in Knoxville in 1982, and decided to eat lunch there. It turned out to be an international food festival, supporting the local Muslim community, with offerings from all around the Near East, except for those of Israeli extraction, of course. The partakers of the feast ran the gamut of ethnicities, from WASPs like us to people of color, from the obviously well-to-do to some I suspect were homeless.
We went to our room to watch college football and take post-lunch naps before heading out for an early dinner. We walked a few blocks to the Market Street Square and put our names on a waiting list for one of the many restaurants there. We were sitting out on a bench waiting to receive a text that our table was ready when a probably homeless fellow walked by, pointing up to the sky, and said, “The birds are back.”
There above us were literally thousands of black birds, flying in a massive circle. Every once in a while, a small group would break off, fly away from the swarm, and then return, joining in once again. While watching the spectacle, I happened to hear some of the words of three men who stood diagonally across the square from where we sat—a diatribe about how it was God’s will that women remain in the home, cooking for their families and bearing children. I will assume that playing basketball, much less running for office, was out of the question.
I won’t describe these men because it doesn’t matter what sub-groups they’re members of. Besides, you’ve already projected onto them your own imagination, anyway, and proclaimed it as truth, despite the likelihood that you were hundreds of miles away from that square. There are many different iterations of those who would demonstrate the arrogance of speaking for God, from virtually every religious tradition, including your own, whatever it is. The noise is loud today, in every public square.
Our text finally came. We ate quietly, watching with UT fans as their team, playing away in South Carolina, came up short, and walked back to the hotel. It had been quite a day. But this time, I wasn’t laughing. I was wondering, instead, of what those a hundred years from now, will think of us.
We’ve been here before, many times. We can choose to celebrate a diversity of experience that benefits us all and doesn’t require that one group of people dominate another on the basis of wealth or physical characteristic or country of origin or any other differences we had nothing to do with. (I’ve accomplished a lot of things, but the fact that I’m a Southern white female is not among them.)
We can choose to defend those who do not seek to harm us from the delusions of those scared to death, screaming that the system is rigged against them when the truth is, on a level playing field, they can’t measure up unless the system is rigged in their favor. We can choose to laugh at the ironies like white and Hispanic people playing Negro spirituals with an undercurrent of Confederate leanings, and then, sheepish, shake each other’s hands and go about our business, no matter how different our cultures are, only to return when it matters to join together for a spectacular finish, like the birds that flew above me on Saturday. Sounds a lot like the kingdom of God to me. Sounds a lot like the dream of America, too.
The question is will we?