The alarm went off, and I drifted, reliving my dreams. Startling awake, I checked the time. I still had an hour to make it to church. Until I looked closely. The secondhand was stuck on the 4, click, click, clicking. After I hurriedly dressed, I ran downstairs where real clocks exist. I had 8 minutes to make it to St. Mary’s.
I was only a bit late, as were others. This service fills up as the liturgy unfolds. By the time Dean Andy asked me to come down front and assist with the chalice, the space was bursting with worshipers.
Early Wednesday morning, the man who’d spent the night on the streets walked the hallway at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral. He stopped at my table, lingering. He did not look happy.
I think of this church hallway as the “neck” between Sister’s Chapel, where we hold the church service attended mostly by those living on the streets, and Martyrs Hall, where breakfast is served. Those who’ve attended church line up for breakfast and pass through the hall—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. For several years I stood in a niche in the hallway at a folding table, encouraging passers-by to engage in small art projects. This morning, for the first time, I was offering the congregants “church to go,” pocket reminders of the Spirit.
The man was in earshot when I cast my net of explanation over the line of waiting folks. He drew nearer as I explained, “Thumb Prayers, I call them. Just small things for you to take with you to remind you of church this morning.”
“Say again?” he asked.
So I did, adding to it. “You can run your thumb across them to remind you of God’s presence in the world.”
“That’s not God,” he said, pointing.
“No, it’s just a reminder,” I repeated, my cache of words depleted by his unhappiness.
“That’s of the devil,” he insisted. “Fetishes.”
“Well, it may not be for you,” I said, and he willingly moved along.
It’s really hard to do anything involving religion that doesn’t offend someone. One time, I had a man tell me our church being named St. Mary’s was a blasphemy because the only focus should be on Jesus. Another time I had a man object to the crosses we were making from chip bags collected from the neighborhood. I don’t think the problem was our using trash to make a cross, the most sacred symbol of Christianity—the colors were all wrong.
I’m okay with this. My view is none of us knows the truth (a view I realize many also find blasphemous—we do know the truth; it’s what my church teaches) so who’s to argue?
For me, much of the difficulty lies in trying to explain the unexplainable, to translate the non-analytic with analysis. Trying, maybe, to traverse the neck between heart and head, body and soul, knowing and unknowing, without getting clogged up in the process.
In the end, I can only do the best I can do and hope that, as I once told a friend when she asked about cremation destroying the body that was supposed to rise again, God won’t let us make an irreversible mistake.
Thumb Prayers will be sold in pop-ups in the Memphis area, the first to take place on May 26, 2016. All proceeds will go to Outreach, Housing, and Community, a Memphis organization working to end homelessness. For more information, visit the Event on my Facebook page.
I hate the Holy Spirit. Okay, hate is a strong word. But I have issues with this Spirit that constantly tells me to do things that embarrass the hell out of me.
Take the recent prayer vigil I attended. A friend of mine was to be a featured speaker at the vigil. She is one of the authors of Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness. She fought her way out of homelessness, only to run into the brick wall of filthy conditions at her federally-subsidized housing complex. In response, she co-founded the Warren Apartments Tenant Association, a group organized to address the needed repairs (and by repairs, I mean—for example—fixing the plumbing so sewage wouldn’t back up in the sink). Her work produced results. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) yanked its contract with the landlord, Global Ministries Foundation, for (repeated) failure to pass inspection. The prayer vigil was organized by Mid-South Peace and Justice, which has been assisting the tenants in their efforts, as an occasion to pray globally for housing justice.
I was giving my friend a ride, and as I walked out the door, I thought, take your thumb prayers with you.
Thumb prayers. Small round objects embedded with vintage buttons. Drop them in your pocket and rub them with your thumb when you need a reminder of the Spirit’s presence in the world. I use vintage buttons because they provide texture. And what the hell—I love buttons. Here’s a pic:
As I’ve blogged about here, I began making Thumb Prayers in connection with the Wednesday morning service my St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral offers for those living on the streets. In searching around for my “next thing” project, I had been doing a VERY informal art program at the church service and wanted to create something to give to the congregants. I wondered, what could I make that a person experiencing homelessness could keep on their body?
I landed on these little portable prayer prompts. Often, I need a physical reminder to pray for someone who I’ve said I’d pray for. Or in the middle of a busy day I need a reminder that God is still around. So, with some trial and error, I made a batch and gave them away at the service. They were mostly well-received, and I made more, always giving them away in the context of homelessness. Folks seemed to share my need for a reminder of God’s presence in our lives.
Clarification: I don’t always feel this way about God’s presence. In fact, when the Spirit arrives unbidden, I sometimes wish She would go away. But there she is, jumping up and down, waving her metaphorical arms, hollering and telling me what a great idea she has. Never are these ideas rational, sedate, or respectable. Nope. She always wants me to do something the very idea of which makes me cringe.
Such as taking my bag of Thumb Prayers to the prayer vigil. The vigil wasn’t about me or my prayer tokens. I didn’t want to insert myself into the goings-on. I only wanted to go and lend my support. But I’ve been at this thing called Life long enough to know to take the damn bag. Besides, I might not actually have to DO anything with them . . .
When we arrived at the vigil, my friend gave an excellent talk to the group. She was factual and passionate, a rare combination. Another activist spoke about her particular concerns, and the leader talked to us about the work needing to be done after we left the vigil. When all had finished talking, the leader asked if anyone else wanted to offer a prayer into the group space or maybe relate an experience as a tenant.
I did not want to offer a prayer. So I kept my mouth shut, and another tenant chose to speak to us about her personal experience. This, I thought, is as it should be. Those affected by the terrible conditions should be the ones who teach and inform the rest of us. Also, her answering the call meant I didn’t have to do anything with the durn Thumb Prayers.
When she finished, we clapped, and then the leader did it again. “Before we disperse, does anyone else want to offer a prayer into the group?”
Before I knew what was happening, I heard my voice saying, “I make Thumb Prayers. Just little things to put in your pocket and rub when you want to remember the presence of God. If anyone wants to take a Thumb Prayer with them, to remind us that work still needs to be done after we leave here, they can have one. For free.”
I added the last bit because the leader’s face told me he thought I might be ACTUALLY USING THE PRAYER VIGIL TO SELL SOMETHING!!!
I’m telling you, this is why I really don’t like the Holy Spirit.
My mortification was mollified when the preacher who had led us in prayer immediately raised his hand indicating he wanted a Thumb Prayer. After that, people swooped over to get their prayers. So I walked around our small but committed group, offering each person a Thumb Prayer. Several said, “Whaaaat?” And took one after I explained.
So, all ends well, right? Except it hadn’t ended. It came to me that I needed to make more Thumb Prayers, sell them, and donate the proceeds to housing justice.
You see what the Spirit did there? She took a question I’ve been asking myself: what is my next project? She connected it to one of my passions: homelessness. And she led me to the next step: quality housing for those who have moved one step beyond homelessness.
Truly, She is divine. I don’t deserve such a wonderful friend.
I thought I’d be shot. Dean Andy Andrews announced that, following the Wednesday morning service, he would be walking the neighborhood around St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral. He invited us to join him. I attended the Wednesday service, but I believed if I walked in the neighborhood I’d be shot.
You need to know: Alabama Avenue, which runs directly behind the cathedral, was at one point called out as one of the most dangerous streets in the city. Cathedral staff regularly heard the pop! of gunfire. The Cathedral was predominantly white; the neighborhood predominantly black. But Andy was determined to get to know our neighbors, hence the walking-and-praying plan.
I prayed about whether to make the walk. At the end of the praying, I was no less convinced I’d be shot. But I figured we all had to die sometime, and I’d feel worse if Andy went by himself and got shot than I would if I went and got shot. So I showed up in the parking lot with the gaggle of white folks who agreed to walk. After a prayer, our ragtag group set out. We were led—thank you, Jesus—by an African-American congregant who was a local activist and schooled us on how not to rile up our more dangerous neighbors. “Pick up trash” she said. “That way they won’t be worried about what you’re up to, coming into their neighborhood.”
I didn’t get shot. No one got shot. No one even got accosted or yelled at. We got some hard stares until we became a fixture on Wednesday mornings. I kept it up until my hips gave out and I had to quit. Over the course of those walks the neighborhood morphed from something I drove quickly through to houses I recognized, store owners I’d bought chips from, a discovered tucked-away park.
Saturday morning, I was thinking about this episode of fear as I listened to the Very Reverend Mike Kinman from Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis speak. I was attending a St. Mary’s workshop with a really long title but, essentially, it concerned race, white privilege, and Ferguson.
I’ve been so several of these types of workshops, and sometimes they fall flat. This one didn’t. I wondered why. Maybe because the day began with love. The group was directed to remember love. To discuss with others at the table a specific instance of when you felt loved. Often, such workshops begin with a video or images designed to reveal white privilege. I find these exercises interesting, but even so they can come across with a kind of “gotcha” feel. Love is reassuring.
Significantly, we were also asked to share a time when we didn’t feel loved. It’s hard to be standoffish with another human being after you’ve revealed such a thing. Most interesting, the responses at my table—both loved and unloved—often went to community. Feeling loved: teams, classrooms, writing groups ( 🙂 ). Feeling unloved: school classes, work situations. We are a relationship species, and a workshop designed to build relationship had to be on the right track.
The day ended with relationship, too. The Dean asked us to covenant with one other person in the room to continue the conversation. The woman sitting next to me, a stranger, and I covenanted to get together. She’d responded when I blurted out that Saturday was the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and I was weepy about everything, so be prepared. This random confession—one I didn’t want to make—may have been the thing she most connected with.
So, anyway. I’ll add “Attend a workshop” to the list of things I’ve shared that you can do if your desire to address racism has been piqued by recent events. I’ll also pass along two websites the Dean recommended. Campaign Zero which breaks down problems and provides policy solutions for which you can volunteer. I haven’t studied it, but it looks good.
The other site he recommended was the fairly famous Harvard test for implicit racial bias, entitled (surprise, surprise) implicit.harvard.edu I took this online test 5 or more years ago and scored somewhat high on bias for European Americans, which, sadly, both whites and blacks frequently do.
This time I showed a moderate bias for African-Americans, which I found curious. The test is facial-recognition based, and perhaps I’ve spent more time in the company of African-American faces the last 5 years? I don’t know, but, honestly, it doesn’t much matter. I resolved many years ago to admit I have racial prejudice and to never forget it, or else my many years in a racist society (I grew up in Mississippi in the 1960s when racism was the law) would default me to a racist reaction more often than not.
Before I sign off, an even simpler thing you can do is create a #BlackLivesMatter list on Twitter. It’s an easy way to keep up with what’s going on in the movement, and if you’re like me, you’ll learn immeasurably from it. If you want a harder schooling, tweet something in support of the movement, using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Then wait for the deluge of racists who troll this conversation to flood forth, calling you and the #BlackLIvesMatter supporters every ugly name in the book. Never again will you believe we live in a post-racial America. You’ll also develop immense respect for those who are courageous enough to do this work.
I’d ducked inside the Support Center to make sure he hadn’t already arrived, and I exited as he walked up the drive, waving. “I’m late!” he called, though it was still a few minutes until 7:30. He told me he saw me drive by. I didn’t see him. I was concentrating on hoping he showed up—when you make plans a week ahead of time and there is no cell phone contact and the other party is walking or riding the bus to the meeting, the gathering is almost a matter of faith. “She’s ready for us,” he said as we buckled in. So we would be three, me and my friend and my other friend who announced—out of the clear blue—that she wanted to go to church Wednesday morning at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral. He helped her get her oxygen tank in the backseat. She’s always been no bigger than a minute. This morning she looked strong. Pretty with her hair up. Her friend was wearing a jacket. I’d dressed same as the others who would be at the church service: jeans and t-shirt. I’d forgotten about getting dressed up for church. I hoped my friends didn’t think my clothes meant I didn’t care about going to church. Or them.
As we arrived and settled on the pew, I worried my friends had gotten so past being homeless that this service for those living on the street would insult them. Maybe my friend didn’t know the makeup of the service when she’d asked to go. I leaned and tapped them both on the shoulder. “Y’all doing okay?” They both nodded. The guy seated next to me talked absolute gibberish, mostly about the Black president and Michael Jackson. Then he followed along on the bulletin as we read the Psalm.
The priest asked for someone to serve the wine for communion, and my friend stepped up. She left her oxygen tank beside her chair. The priest offered her communion before the rest of us. I realized she would be serving me communion. I turned my face to the side as I recalled the number of months before she would sit with us in writing group, how the Executive Director said one word when I wondered aloud what had changed such that she was willing to join us: “Trust. She trusts you.” Now we were at church together, and she was about to offer me the communion cup. Afterwards, she said it was a bit tricky. Not letting people get too big a gulp. I would never tell her that seeing her holding the cup made me cry.
When I gave the Thumb Prayers away, folks bent and peered and scooped them up as I offered my spiel: “They’re to put in your pocket and rub with your thumb when you need a reminder that God is always with us.” Some said no, then kept looking and said, “I’ve changed my mind. “Can I have one?” One guy kept asking, “How did you know how to make these? Did you read about it? Did someone tell you how to do it?” I told him I made them up from scratch. I’m not sure he ever believed me. When I had been leaving home that morning, I second-guessed myself and wondered if anyone would want them. I gathered 100 little thumb Prayers and brought them with me to church. I went home with five.
My friends both got glasses from the eyeglasses give-away. They enjoyed breakfast. She said she liked the Episcopal service. Twice, they asked if the woman conducting the service was a priest (she was.) When I dropped them back off at the house, he said they’d be spending the day together watching old movies. We talked about Perry Mason because he got me into Perry Mason. She said, “Do you remember me calling you and wishing you a Merry Christmas? I was sitting there thinking to myself, who can I call and wish Merry Christmas? I thought, I’ll call Ellen.” I wrapped my arms around her in a long hug goodbye, pressing my palms against her backbone. We promised to get together when I return in August. I hope we do.
The incense hangs in the chapel air. We’re all squeezed in where we can fit, no concern for “our pew.” We listen to Gospel readings using The Message translation, so the words makes everyday sense. There is—or isn’t—an unpredictable response to the music.The blessing of the wine and bread is abbreviated. That’s okay. I know all that stuff anyway.
I began attending the Wednesday morning church service at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral to help with the art ministry. Most congregants at the service stay at the Union Mission down the street or are otherwise homeless. The amazing Canon Laura Foster Gettys wanted to add an art component to the morning and asked me to be involved. She knew I facilitate a weekly writing group of those who’ve experienced homelessness and that I’d written a book about making crosses from found objects. She combined the two and asked me to come make art at this service for those on the streets. In my opinion, this is what priests should do: identify a ministry that might gladden a church member’s heart and ASK the member to do it. I’m glad she asked me, glad I said yes.
* I weave through folks, passing the peace. He sits on the last row of chairs, his back to me. Seasoned by the rigors of living on the street, he feels my approach and glances out of the corner of his eye. I smile. He realizes I am going to talk to him. His face softens. His eyes smile. We shake hands and pass the peace.
* I’ve been showing up at the service—when I’m in town—for over a year. This stint in Memphis, I’ve not been doing art work. The—again—amazing students from Rhodes College have been offering art projects over the last several months. So I am now simply a congregant. *
The guitar player says, “Y’all sing along with this one. You know it.” She strums into Amazing Grace. I walk back from communion and sit on the piano bench. My voice wobbles. I keep at it until I hit the same note she’s hitting. When she finishes, we all clap.
Why do I go to this church service? What about it makes me want to come back?
Not everyone does the same thing–some go to communion, some don’t. Some stand when prompted, some don’t. Announcements describe services for those listening (blood pressure checks, computer classes), not committee work of the church. The group murmurs when the priest touches a soft spot. Sometimes the murmurings are in disagreement. An impromptu ending “off bulletin” sends us into the next phase of the morning: raucous rock-and-roll music during breakfast where, occasionally, folks dance.
The church service I keep coming to is the exact opposite of what most folks want out of church: shared beliefs, planned movement, familiar readings, behavior understood as appropriate, known faces, church music, beautiful language, written ritual you can follow along, predictability. Others at the service around me may keep coming for the chance to sit down. For the opportunity to serve at the altar. For the amazing breakfast afterwards. To wipe trays. Who knows. Who cares.
After the service, I speak to the peanut butter and jelly sandwich-makers. Those waiting in line for breakfast trail past me. I find I like it, standing there, saying hi to everyone on their way to get food. “I’m just standing here,” I explain. “I’ve been out of town for several months, and I’ve missed seeing y’all.”
“We’ve missed seeing you too,” one guy says.
I have no idea if he knows who I am. Maybe he’s just being kind. That’s sort of the point. Those at this service let me be happy without judging my happiness, which makes me happy.
We all come to church for our own reasons, and mine aren’t any better than anyone else’s. This service isn’t any better than any other church service. It only better suits me. Which, I think, is the purpose of this thing we call church.