“Alas, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young!”
I used to work as a chaplain at an elderly residential facility and rehab hospital in Atlanta. I was there on December 28th 2015, the day that the police officer who killed Tamir Rice was not indicted. I was scheduled to preach to a community of little old black ladies who marched in Alabama for Civil Rights, and little old white ladies who practiced racism as a daily ritual.
I haven’t ever felt so young, ever, ever, as when I stood up to preach. I looked at all these people who leaned on me for spiritual care and guidance, and a fear/anger/sadness/anxiety ball sunk in my stomach, because oh Jesus this little white girl from one of the whitest states in the US who has only just barely graduated seminary is not prepared to do this. Let’s just skip, just skip this subject, just preach something else, preach the fruits of the Spirit because what I was holding was too heavy and too fragile for me to lift and not shatter.
This is absolutely not a story of me wildly succeeding as a White Savior to end racism in the course of a nine minute sermon. It also is definitely not a story of me mastering how to talk about oppression when the oppressed and the oppressor are both in the room with me. It’s not even a story about me owning my spiritual authority and leaning into my female empowerment as a pastor.
I’m not really sure what this story is about, but ever since the election I can’t stop thinking about all those elderly faces watching me, and how it felt to talk about evil when we all disagree about what evil is.
I started work at the nursing home in August, and by December, I was excelling at ducking and dodging all sensitive topics with my congregation. It was a politically and racially diverse hospital, which seemed like a really good reason to just talk about Jesus Loves Me all the time. I avoided “taking a stand” like it was my job (I may have actually told folks that it was my job). I was Chaplain Laura Jean for the middle-aged Midwestern white man as well as the black trans woman on suicide watch. My work was to be present to every member of the community, to love well, to listen well, to hold them up in prayer, and when preaching, to preach the Gospel of grace and the unfailing, unrelenting, unstoppable love of God through Jesus Christ.
I underestimated a really central part of life in the nursing home. Everyone, of every political, religious, ethnic, racial identity, was watching the news. Non. Stop. There isn’t a whole lot to do in a nursing home except play Bingo (not a stereotype! We loved Bingo!), sing old Broadway musicals (my favorite unofficial Chaplain Position was Broadway Pianist), and watch the news. By October, every time I knocked on a door and walked into someone’s room, people talked about politics. People wanted to talk to the chaplain about the primaries and the election and about the immigrants and about the urban crime and police violence and the gay agenda and racist politicians. So I listened super well to everyone, and asked good questions, and worked hard to be present to every member of the community.
Every week, I got up and I preached on Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday to a racially mixed community about trusting God, faith in light of physical sickness, God as reconciler of relationships, Jesus as comforter to our loneliness, unrelenting grace for our own sins of resentment and fear and greed. And every week, in people’s cramped, barren hospital rooms, I listened to the patter of anxiety while TV’s ran in the background like a morbid soundtrack – prayers and reflections punctuated by CNN and an endless loop of gunshots and shaky cameras and black bodies dying in the road.
Then the week after Christmas, a grand jury declined to indict the police officer who killed Tamir Rice, a twelve year old Black boy playing with a toy gun. The police officer pulled up in his car and shot him dead. The official records states it was less than two seconds after his arrival on the scene. The officer did not go to trial. Tamir was a little boy who probably hadn’t even hit his growth spurt yet. He probably wasn’t embarrassed to be seen at the grocery store with his mom yet. We know that he liked to draw and play drums.
What I had started to feel somewhere in my gut was suddenly out loud and in my face. I had worked so hard to “be present to every member of the community” by avoiding difficult issues in public. That week I realize that my avoidance was also a statement – a statement of non-presence to my Black residents. My silence said that both sides of the issue of racism had equal weight and that as a spiritual leader I was committed to letting evil hide as long as it was uncomfortable for me talk about. I had chosen the most vulnerable members of my congregation, and had decided that I’d address their fear and sorrow and anger privately, just in case I unsettled a cart of apples that I didn’t have the skills to re-bag.
I had another sermon prepared and I threw it away. I sat in my car outside the building I worked in, and cried, and prayed, and looked at my watch because I had to walk into that building in 45 minutes to preach a sermon to my broken hearted and oppressed and racist and lonely congregation.
There are times in a preacher’s life when the lectionary is more than just a convenience, it is a sacred mandate. I went scrabbling to the lectionary to throw me a line and keep me from drowning, and the text for the week was Matthew 2:13-23. “The Slaughter of the Innocents.”
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
Little boys, innocent children who didn’t know the geo-political scene they were born into, didn’t know that they represented something terrifying and threatening to the powerful, didn’t know that they weren’t just “little children” but symbols of a deadly threat to the oppressor, little boys shot down in the streets by an insecure regime terrified of what they signified. Mothers weeping, because they didn’t lose a symbol but their babies. Oppression driven by rage and above all, by fear. And always it’s the babies, the innocent, the harmless, the different, the unarmed, that are shot down in the streets.
A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more. The sorrow and of Black women and mothers and sisters, right here, in our sacred text.
I wrote my sermon on the back of a charting clipboard, and I don’t have it anymore. What I remember most is how scared I was when I stood up. It would have been easier to preach to homogeny – to my seminarian friends, to the college ministry group, to the small liberal church plant. It was terrifying to preach to a room of beautiful ancient Black women that I loved, that I was scared to betray by saying the wrong thing; and a room full of beautiful ancient white women who grew up in the South in the 20’s and whose racism was rooted as deeply in their hearts as their identity – and who I also loved, loved, loved so much.
What I preached that day was probably 80% wrong, unhelpful, overly self-righteous, or overly capitulating. I “spoke of things that I did not understand” and spoke to people that I barely understood.
But I did speak. Too late, too young, too wrong, too complex, overly simplified – but none of those things were silence.
Scripture gives us a lot of ways to speak. It’s rich with language for calling angry judgment on pastors and priests (Malachi), mocking authorities with potty humor (Elijah – “LOL maybe your God is on the toilet hehe”) for performance art as activism (Jeremiah), for calling rulers to repentance with metaphors (Nathan), for answering questions in the dead of night with the religious leaders (Jesus) and also for calling religious leaders names (also Jesus). Jesus submits to evil even unto death, and meanwhile Moses is dropping an ocean on an oppressive army.
The only thing that is not a powerful force against injustice in Scripture is silence.
I am going to get it wrong. You are also going to get it wrong. I have already gotten it wrong a ridiculous amount of times and I’m not even to my 30’s yet. Some days I will be too gentle towards evil, and some days I will be too self-righteous towards humans made in the image of God. I’m going to be angry when I should be listening well, and listen silently when I should be angry at injustice. I am going to get called out, sometimes kindly and sometimes angrily, by people that I hurt when I get it wrong. And I’m going to have to learn how to humbly course-correct myself when I’m called out, so that I keep learning how to speak, when to speak, and what to say.
These are weird and confusing and evil times. Don’t let fear of getting it wrong keep you from saying what your conscience prods you to say. Listen humbly, be kind, be angry, and speak bravely.
On October 2, 2018, find this piece published in Chalice Press’s collection, “Preaching As Resistance,” available via Chalice Press and Amazon!