If you can marvel at the face before you with as much wonder and awe as the mountain, the sunset refracting, you have unearthed the Spirit of God. For we are made of glory. —Cole Arthur Riley (Black Liturgies)
I type these words on a rainy Friday evening after a heavy week. Out the window of my third-floor bedroom, I watch rain fall on yellowing leaves and colorful row houses that line this Columbia Heights street. This is my home, this is my neighborhood. I hear my housemates laughing downstairs. These are my people.
I’ve been in D.C. for eight weeks now. I’m living in an intentional community with eight other Sojourners fellows—we’re all working from home, still navigating new jobs and new people and a new city together. We are goofy and love to laugh, but are serious about our work and about asking real, difficult questions about justice and faith.
My job as an editorial assistant mostly consists of fact checking articles, proofing, and uploading articles to the website. I really enjoy the work, and love my supervisor, even though it’s a lot of screen time (which is just the reality of working from home.) So I’m trying to be gracious with myself when I so easily get distracted or feel exhausted. I know it’s a real and true gift to have a job that I really love—I am not taking that for granted.
It’s been wonderful and exciting and life-giving to have deep conversations and eat delicious home-cooked dinners with my new housemates. It’s also been emotionally-taxing having to figure out life in this house with COVID policies, finding space for work, and creating alone time for ourselves. But overwhelmingly it has been so, so good.
Even in the abundance of joy I’ve experienced these past few weeks, I acknowledge the very real suffering of existing in this moment, for others and for myself. In this time of newness, I’m uncovering and wrestling with unprocessed COVID grief—for the way college ended and being separated from my friends. An anxiety is steadily buzzing in me about the future of this country and the election, and I’m asking big questions about my purpose in life, why I’m here and have a job while others don’t. Wondering too how I can be present to my community and our individual pains and celebrations—knowing that I don’t have words or advice, only love to give, and I’m still not sure how to articulate or show that love.
I’m holding all of this in my body right now, in this house. Grateful to be physically present with people, while knowing I need space and alone time to be fully myself. Contradictions clash in me with no words to untangle or understand them.
D.C. is a beautiful, tree-filled, intimidating place to live in. It still doesn’t feel real to me that I live here—I think because it’s been hard to root myself in a place where I can’t necessarily go do things or meet people. But going for walks through parks and city streets has been so nourishing to my tired heart. Running through the woods of Rock Creek Park in the mornings, the stream glimmering with speckles of sunrise. Walking to the local coffeeshop and getting a creamy cup of dark roast on a chilly morning. Taking deep breaths with my housemates at the dinner table. It’s the little nothings, the thousand little nothings, that are everything.
And living in proximity to power—it’s easy to get swept into the fast-paced culture of news cycles and polarization and echo-chambers, where human beings are reduced to numbers and God is used as a political tool. To live in this city with authenticity, I’m realizing, will require me to slow down, and pay attention, and focus on what is true. To resist binaries and objectification—this is a hard and difficult task because it is so much easier to care only for my own self. But, I deeply desire that which is beyond me and bigger than me—love, justice—the unnameable mystery of God. Truth, whatever it means. And so it is the task.
A moment that I’m still reflecting on (still discerning what it meant and how I can learn from the emotions that arose from it) happened a few weekends ago. My sweet housemate Jerrica was able to score a few tickets to the National Museum of African American History. We were excited to go after a heavy week—to be able to get out of the house and celebrate Black art and resilience. That same Saturday, however, happened to be the ‘Prayer March 2020.’ While driving to the Mall in our minivan, we watched giant crowds of people (mostly without masks, in MAGA/American flag gear) march through the National Mall, claiming to gather for worship.
Eventually we were able to find parking and made it to the museum (which was a much-needed few hours), but the whole time we were there, even while reading about inspiring movements and figures, I felt agitated and angry. Just outside of where I stood were thousands of people who, mainly, did not live in D.C. yet came to this city maskless in the middle of a pandemic. People who, as Lyndsay and I overheard while walking, were “praying the demons out of” a small group of Black Lives Matter protesters who had just passed by. People who, like the man who passed us and laughingly commented on how “nothing was burned down today,” had maybe not ever truly listened to the cries of the poor and suffering ones in their country.
Had I had the chance to dialogue with some of these folks, what would I have said? I do not believe they are bad people—they are made in God’s Image, yet their understanding of what it means to protect God’s Image in all people has been distorted. How do I even begin to articulate that whatever it means to be a Christian (and I am still learning what this means!) looks nothing like patriotism or nationalism? That Christ was a poor Palestinian Jew born on the margins of society in a time of an oppressive government and empire, and he taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves. This claim, the truly radical claim of what it means to be a Christian—a follower of Christ—is to know that I am never off the hook when it comes to the call to love my neighbor and fight for a world in which all human beings can live with “dignity and creativity,” as Howard Thurman says.
Seeing thousands of American-flag waving Christians gather to worship in the middle of a pandemic (in which thousands of Americans have died) without ever addressing or responding to the real cries for justice coming from BIPOC people in this county, makes me angry—shaky hands, heavy-belly kind of angry. To use religion/God/Jesus as a weapon makes me angry. And I think this anger comes from something beyond me, stirring me to write and process.
The God I believe in, the Jesus I believe in—is the suffering body on a cross. The God who flipped tables at systematic injustice. The love in us and outside of us that makes us want to fight evil. I’ve never been good at expressing anger. People think I’m never angry. I often think I’m never angry. But hot, hot tears steam in my eyes, there is a ball of lead at the pit of my belly, and I still have a hard time calling it anger. What do I have to be angry about? Life is fine for me. I literally have everything I need. But I’m angry, angry because a love greater than me calls me out of myself and to my suffering neighbor.
There is work to do. Being a Christian, and calling myself a Christian, means something totally different to me now, in this time and place, than it ever did. To take up my cross and follow Jesus. That is a radical command. Like our program director Moya said to us the other day, Jesus never said ‘take up your cross and worship me.’ No, he said ‘take up your cross and follow me.’ Whatever it means to follow Jesus, I truly believe, is to always be on the side of the marginalized.
In Pope Francis’ new Encyclical (which was released just a few days ago), he relates the story of the Good Samaritan to our current context—calling out religious hypocrites:
One detail about the passers-by does stand out: they were religious, devoted to the worship of God: a priest and a Levite. This detail should not be overlooked. It shows that belief in God and the worship of God are not enough to ensure that we are actually living in a way pleasing to God. A believer may be untrue to everything that [their] faith demands of [them], and yet think [they] are close to God and better than others. The guarantee of an authentic openness to God, on the other hand, is a way of practising the faith that helps open our hearts to our brothers and sisters. Saint John Chrysostom expressed this pointedly when he challenged his Christian hearers: “Do you wish to honour the body of the Saviour? Do not despise it when it is naked. Do not honour it in church with silk vestments while outside it is naked and numb with cold.” Paradoxically, those who claim to be unbelievers can sometimes put God’s will into practice better than believers.
My prayer is that I will be able to pay attention in this ivory-castle city of government buildings, built by enslaved hands, trembling with the weight of injustice and empire. To remember that my worship, without action, means nothing. May I never become numb to another’s suffering. May I never ‘honor’ Christ with silk and fancy bells while ignoring Christ’s real body, the one who is hungry and cold sitting right outside the church building.
Pope Francis, in his Encyclical, said that “true wisdom demands an encounter with reality.” How do I make space to encounter reality, in a place so intimidating and rich with power, just as the air is rich with water? How do I take the Gospel seriously, encountering its reality today?
Taking anti-racism and anti-oppression seriously is work that starts with my immediate neighbors—my housemates, my neighborhood, my city. The deconstruction of unjust systems is important—so is loving the human being in front of me, for they are Christ to me in this moment. It is in loving our neighbor, loving the particular and messy human being, that we have hope of creating a just world with just systems. May I not get so caught up in heady theories that I forget or neglect the radical hopefulness of the now, the opportunity to love and be loved in this fleeting moment.
I’m slowly learning to breathe in this city of burgundy brick and marble and sirens and thumping music and green trees and colorful row houses and water-filled skies. And power and suffering. And resistance and courage.
The other day, after a long work day and feeling overwhelmed with my need for alone time, I went up on the roof and watched the sky. At 6pm the bells at Howard started gonging, their metallic hymn looping beneath the gray-plum sky. The thick city air soaked up the sound like water, and I with it. Laying flat on the roof, little black birds flying in formation above me—for just a moment, I was completely immersed in the infinite present. We are, indeed, finite creatures who need moments of beauty sung over our sad selves. Appreciating moments like that as they come. I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive.
This is the irrational season when love blooms bright and wild. If Mary had been filled with reason, there’d have been no room for the child. —Madeline l’Engle
May I exist in this irrational season with authenticity. May I always be moved to honor the glory of God in the face of the Other. May I use words to love and tell truth. I make mistakes. I am not perfect. I am jealous, I am selfish and proud, I do not truly know or understand what it means to love. But I pray for that wisdom my God. I miss in-person church—the Sunday ritual that grounded me. I miss encountering You in the Eucharist. But even in this irrational season, You are awakening me to a deeper presence, a deeper reality. I find you here among the protesters and artists and workers and humans around me. You are present in them just the same. You are present in me. I don’t know what anything means, but I say Amen, believing you are love, and believing you will love me and help me love others in this scary, irrational season when the future is so fragile. Hold us and help us. We are afraid, help us know we are not alone. Amen.
The purpose of relation is the relation itself—touching the You. For as soon as we touch a You, we are touched by a breath of eternal life.