Pauses for Hope
a praxical theologian's modest collection
Sometimes you have to stand up so you don’t fall back.
We cannot afford to fall back. So we must find a way to stand.
When you are afraid to stand or unsure if you should stand, I hope you will look around and find those who lead you—in faith, in hope, in love—standing. I hope you will hear their voices rising, inviting you to the great chorus.
Leaders lead by what they do, by what they say. They set the tone, temper, and texture of faithfulness to which we can measure our own. They supply language and movements that incarnate love of God and love of neighbor. They embody love by walking toward people who are unloved. They show the way to justice by leading us to places where injustice has been left to prevail. They stand with those who are crushed in spirit, they weep with those who are brokenhearted.
This past week, as each of us tried to find our place in the painful matrix of a national uprising, I have found leaders in my midst. They are women I am proud to walk alongside. They supply language and movements that inspire my own. In a time when the Asian American community at large remains reserved or afraid—if not too comfortable—to endanger whatever standing we have secured from navigating the metrics of privilege along the Black and White spectrum in this country, I join the chorus of Asian American activists who are unequivocal in the call to entangle ourselves in the struggle for racial justice and social change. Their poetry and prayers of lament nourish me with hope. I share their words here.
May we be found praying.
May we be found struggling
May we be found hoping.
May we rise.
1965. 1992. 2020.
City burns again
Rage and anguish for George Floyd
Overflow to streets
We are here again
Unable to breathe freely
Fear to see and change
Fear to hear and understand
Admit wrong, repent
Newcomers like me
Entangled in history
Of violence and war
Learn we are not safe
From hate, scapegoating and blame
It’s hard to find home
But this is not time
To hush silently withdraw
It’s time to speak up
God calls us to love
Neighbors from the margins
Where we too reside
Hosting space for rest
Singing ancient songs we share
Conspiring new paths
Rev. Sue Park-Hur
Denominational Director for Transformative Peacemaking, Mennonite Church USA
May we be instruments of Just peace
Where there is hatred, let love never cease
When we are timid; let us be bold
When we hold judgment; may grace be extolled
Heighten our senses - to know what is true
Eyes and skin, of every hue
May we gaze into faces
not like our own
“I can’t breathe”
With a gasp and a moan
How to save ourselves
From violence and strife
our liberator and creator of life
May we seek understanding
amidst this confusion
Making hope a reality
not an illusion
May we have ears that hear
without shame or fear
Faithful love surpasses
this world’s mess
Truth, hope and justice
Surely does bless
We give thanks for
family and community
and everlasting unity.
Minister Diane Ujiiye
API-RISE, Asian Pacific Islander Reentry and Inclusion Support and Empowerment
For all its negative connotations, usually attributed by theorists occupying a centrist position, the margin can be a place where creativity happens…for it is at the margins that wildlife thrives, that one notices things one may never see from the placid surface in the center of the lake.
Here, communities, like smaller ripples, overlap and unheard possibilities occur.
The nature of the center is to maintain things are they are, to opt for stability rather than change.
When you are at the center of a placid lake, the water is still.
Dr. Greer Anne Wenh-In Ng
Professor Emerita, Emmanuel College
My sister and powerful activist leading us in prayer at the memorial service and interfaith clergy-led protest in Downtown Los Angeles, Calif., 8 June 2020.
Lord, we mourn.
Lord, we repent.
Forgive us, we pray...
Rev. Rae Huang
Lead Organizer, LA Voice
What to Do
Understanding begins with listening.
Love begins with listening.
Solidarity begins with listening.
Let us listen.
Let us listen together.
Audre Lorde stunningly writes: “Poetry forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action…it is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”
Lorde’s words have long nourished my commitment to improbable hope. They help me persist in the writing vocation. I believe words and language are vital. Poetry and prayers, ponderings and proclamations are vital necessities for purposeful existence, because they provide a way for prophetic imagination to be expressed, so it can be thought, then ideas and their inspiration can compel faithful action. The sequence is not always linear, but thoughtful reflection is critical for meaningful action; and what we encounter in action affirm and challenge our reflection, theology, hermeneutics, our prayers and our songs.
Let me get myself out of the way, so that as night falls on another day of pain's uprising, we may be guided by the words of those who help to form the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change.
Below is a collection of words I have received this week, from leaders who serve the church with faithful energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. I have known their voices to be marked by steadfast integrity, hospitality, and forth-telling. I invite you to join me in listening, learning, lamenting, and moving in action toward solidarity with the Beloved Community:
If faith is about partnering with God in mending the earth, then faith communities by definition are accountable not to a status-quo where the injustice and inequality of white supremacy reigns. Rather, they are accountable to a more just future where all people are truly created equal. Simply put, faith leaders are to be driven by the urgings of their souls—regardless of their political leanings. It is left to faith leaders, therefore, to live into who they claim to be and thus lead the nation back to its very soul.
Rev. Dr. Kelly Douglas Brown
Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union and Bill and Judith Moyers Chair in Theology
“And they conquered [evil] by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their witness.” The Apocalypse. 12:11.
If white Christians were to ask me, a black Christian, what they should do in response to the spiral of racially sparked violence into which we are rapidly and inevitably descending, I have pondered the response I would give. Strange, since no one has asked, that I nonetheless feel compelled to answer.
I feel compelled because I am afraid. I am afraid because I fear that my voice is too insignificant to matter. I am afraid because I fear that while what I say bears insufficient weight to make a difference, it carries just enough potency to get me in trouble. I am afraid because I fear bringing trouble on myself when my people are writhing in a perpetual abyss of systemic injustice. I am afraid because I fear that one day, long after I have died, my son and daughter will still weep at news about a black individual murdered while sitting in her home, running in his community, walking home from his corner store, driving in her car, standing in his front yard, exploring in his park, worshiping in her church, lying helpless on an American street, the full weight of a cavalier, almost casual, curiously disinterested, white anger crushing his throat beneath its self-righteous, imperious knee. I am afraid because I fear a reckoning on the streets if we cannot find justice in the courts, redress in our politics, realignment of our institutional policies, and reconsideration of our racial values. I am afraid because I fear that when I am called to my own final reckoning the record will show that I didn’t do my part. I didn’t witness. Not enough.
White Christians are not witnessing. Not enough.
Rev. Dr. Brian K. Blount
President and Professor of New Testament in the Walter W. Moore and Charles E.S. Kraemer Presidential Chairs, Union Presbyterian Seminary
Many people yearn for a “return to normal.” Others speak of a “new normal.” I am not interested in either scenario. Racism, that most common of American diseases, is the other viral strain currently ravaging our society. It is scarcely mentioned in polite company, except when the people raise their voices in protest.
Fury and anger between equals and peers—when there is a knee on our necks, an invasion of our homes, in the very taking of our lives—is an act of righteous resistance, an insurrection against power and privilege, and an invitation for all into solidarity. May it be so.
Rev. Dr. Alton Pollard, III
President and Professor of Religion and Culture, Louisville Seminary
May we bow our hearts to join Rev. Dr. Helen Easterling-William’s prayer
offered this Pentecost Sunday morning service of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles:
Our hearts are heavy. The world has been crowding in on us, God. We are feeling the pain, the anguish and anxiety of the world pressing, pressing, pressing—and pressing in on us, God. We come to you looking for relief.
Come Holy Spirit, come heavenly dove in your quickening power. Your children are crying out to be set free. We call for justice to rain down from heaven like cloven tongues of fire, let justice rain down. We know that you are able. We know that you are willing. So have your way. Move by your spirit and cleanse this earth of all inequities. And, we shall declare that the children of the living God are free at last, free at last, truly free in your holy name.
Lord, Hear our prayer.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And they were all filled with the Spirit. All who believed were together and had all things in common, praising God and having the goodwill of all people. -Acts 2
What to Say
This is my third attempt at this post. I know it is one I must write even if I am unsure how to begin, what to say, which words to appraise as language for the psychosis we are so deeply suffering from. That we can witness a public execution on the concrete floor of our neighborhoods and call it “disturbing,” tells me we have really become crazed. Whatever procedural protocols or their interpretations may be conjured around the killing of Mr. George Floyd, one thing is indisputable: the death of a black son, brother, friend, was executed by the unwarranted, unrelenting force of a white police officer.
We can’t point and call this disturbing, as yet another case adding to the tiring pattern of such crimes. We have to look toward ourselves—individually and as a whole—and see that we are very sick. We have been sick so long that we have become accustomed to our symptoms, only paying momentary attention to them when pain spikes from a blow against our frail body that we mistake as strong, ordered, democratic.
Anyone who sees the 8-minute footage, now in our nation’s responsibility, undeniably first notices the race of the man on the ground and that of the man above him. And we bear witness to one man’s anguished breath succumbing to another’s gratuitous disregard for the life he was—so casually—crushing to death.
If nothing else, it is the eerie, relative calm of those 8-minutes that should keep all of us unable to rest. There is no chaos, no abrupt physical or verbal altercation, where one might lose orientation for sound judgment or where a trained public safety professional can defend his blatant action with reason of unintended impulse or instinctual fear. If it was fear, his fear of the danger of an unarmed, handcuffed, detained and restrained black man, then we have revealed an even uglier depth to the underbelly of our nation’s psychosis.
We live in a nation weakened by our historic sickness with racism. While prophetic dreams, righteous indignation, correcting legislation, and courageous movements expressing our communal humanity have patched parts of our abrasions to bring us to a more equitable place in the long arc of justice, still much of our existential and material day to day is mediated by race. So much of our well-being and our mal-being, so much of our life and our death is understood, complicated, dictated by race.
There are times for discerned resistance, and some of us are forced to remain quiet because resisting with expressed anger or daring to intervene endangers their very lives. The citizens on the sidewalk subjugated to witnessing willful brutality a few feet away were discerning the cadence and volume of their voice so as to not escalate those costly moments or to instigate a gun drawn—or shot. For fear of losing life, Mr. Floyd and those helplessly petitioning near him had to submit.
Now is not the time for measured resistance. It is the time to openly, decisively, boldly, loudly weep, loudly demand, loudly resist.
Now is the time to let our hearts, our words, and our actions spill out and over the limits of our organized boundaries that maintain our relationships as well-intended proximate strangers.
The outcry for the unjust killing of Mr. Floyd must be led by those of us who have not had to learn by default the discipline of calculated submission in order to survive contacts with public authorities. We must stand first. We must speak first.
We must give language to the unspeakable, unbelieved, and disregarded. We must speak aloud so that our collective sickness and the deep abrasions in our sisters’ and brothers’ bodies and hearts might be seen and consoled in the light, in the public square to which we all belong and are responsible for. At the very least, we must catch up to join those who have begun mourning, standing, and shouting. Today, I follow and amplify the lament of my sister reverend doctor of the AME Church leadership, who is despairingly searching for relief from the “ache and pain as another African American is murdered at the ugly hand of hatred and racism.”
Mr. George Floyd’s death is one in a long history of moral-defying violence against black bodies. I have too often remained an observing participant to cries against injustice, waiting for assigned leaders to take their place. I am learning to use whatever portion of voice and resources I am privileged to steward and do my part in shaping who we are and who we are becoming. I will practice doing so with urgency, agency, audacity, even if imperfectly. While I fidgeted, unsure of what to say, I know what must be said, repeated, and believed together:
Life is precious.
Black Lives Matter.
There is no context to reason the cruel death of a man who pleaded, “Sir, I can’t breathe.”
As a political science student in college, I remember hastily jotting down the first sentence of the first lecture:
The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government.
In church, in government; in neighborhoods, in families; at gravesides, at bedsides; in the common life we share as a society of diverse people, we must affirm and reaffirm what we so often take for granted as a given: life is precious, and every life is worthy of protection, honor—and remembrance.
This day, I pause in the shadow of mighty words offered by a pre-president General Garfield, at the Arlington Cemetery in 1868, on a May morning of what would become Memorial Day:
I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion. If silence is ever golden, it must be here, beside the graves of fifteen thousand soldiers, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung.
Death is a question, a fear, an uncertainty for which our human wisdom cannot comprehend. Death is a mystery belonging to an eternal reality, which we do not know how to fix or make better. It is in the face of death that our earthly lives encounter deepest helplessness.
As a human community, we recognize the gravity of the loss of life. We are overwhelmed by the immensity of lives lost. Fallen soldiers marked by humble stones standing in dignified attention, a thousand names filling the abounding space of this week’s front pages. Each life incalculably beloved by grieving families everywhere this day.
From every distance, we pause to share our human condition—in respectful silence. In so doing, we affirm life and reaffirm our care of it, our care of one another.
For the final in a course called God and the Human Experience, I ask students to reflect on an ancient text of a prophet's picture of true community: where the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the calf and the lion will graze together, as a small child leads them along. The students are to write an essay with an assigned title: Borrow My Vision. It is an invitation for each student to envision a just society. A powerful essay was submitted by a quiet, 6’7” basketball player who crouched into the tight table-chair combo in my 8 a.m. class. The college senior started his paper with a poem:
Borrow my vision
and you will see fathers embrace their sons with contagious strength.
You will stand tall, really tall, stand proud.
You will walk, walk everywhere, anywhere, even without a shield.
Borrow my vision and you will see me. All of me.
Not just my skin and the fear you choose to see of it.
He followed these words with a moving essay about how coming to college and walking around campus donning the college basketball team’s crimson uniform was the first time he saw people walk toward, not away, from him.
As an African American young man, he knew what it was to be perceived as dangerous, to be feared. He knew what it was to be subject to unwarranted suspicion and humiliation. In his incisive essay, he wrote about his jersey. It was his protection. It was his shield. He was especially sure to wear it when running errands in the neighborhood around campus. The jersey let people know he was safe, not dangerous; he was a college athlete, at a private university no less. He ended his essay worrying about life after graduating, when he can no longer rely on this protection.
I have been thinking about my former student these days. I thought about the time I turned around hearing, “Good morning, prof,” at a gourmet market near campus.
There we were, standing at the checkout, feeling the eyes of the people in line uniformly, silently, turning toward us: quite visibly, the only two people of color in this place. We smiled, happy to see one another, feeling the strength of our feet grounded next to one another, feeling the curious attention of the people around us. As we walked toward the exit, he grinned, “Good thing I’m wearing my jersey today. They were probably afraid I was going to hurt this petite Asian lady.” If only they knew the lamb-like heart inside this towering figure, I thought.
This “Asian lady” is now needing a jersey of her own. Two days ago, an Asian American couple walking in their neighborhood was slapped and beaten down by a man yelling, “It’s all your fault.” A Chinese American ER doctor who attends to patients suffering from coronavirus went to the market on her day off, to stock up on groceries for her family, only to face a shopper announce behind her, “They bring the virus and now they are hoarding all of our stuff.”
Ever perpetual foreigners, people who look like me have become targets of covert and overt racist attacks. It is a very lonely place to be. It helps when we see another’s feet next to ours, reminding us that we are not standing alone. It helps to borrow the hope of those who have known that utterly lonely place far deeper, far longer.
Borrow my vision
and you will see fathers embrace their sons with contagious strength.
You will stand tall, really tall, stand proud.
You will walk, walk everywhere, anywhere, even without a shield
Borrow my vision and you will see me. All of me.
Not just my skin and the fear you choose to see of it.
We are all injured in the ever churning grind of belonging and othering regulated by the insidious whim and need of empires dependent on division and hierarchy. In the kin-dom God is creating, all will belong. The weakest and the strongest among us will look to one another with honor, with reverence. We will neither harm nor destroy.
Until then, may our hearts turn toward one another. May we practice regarding one another with mutual grace. May we be one another’s protectors. Maybe then, all of us will be able to walk, walk everywhere, anywhere,.
even without a shield.
To learn more about the experience of Asian Americans during this crisis:
Beneath the Trees, Linda Kim
Life is Precious
I am searching for sites of collective mourning, confronted by the mountainous number of deaths from this unrelenting pandemic. 800,000 lives and the millions more intimately connected to them command a sea of tears, days and days of mourning. Yet, our hearts hardly have bandwidth to embrace adjacent sorrows because our own immediate spaces are taken up by an undecipherable sense of disorientation, distraction, depression.
I read the obituary of a 86-year old woman who died in Connecticut. I immediately loved her. “A sharp dresser who had a weakness for elegant hats.” A part of the Silent Generation, she spent her resilient life raising funds for domestic abuse survivors. I imagined the family raised by this marvelous woman and how, after this terrible season passes, they will gather and talk for hours about her captivating ways, her strength, her hat collection.
My mother taught me that friends’ weddings and funerals of their families are to be attended, without excuse. Life’s heights and depths are to be shared with one another. Among the two events, funerals are definitely not to be missed. I have quietly thanked my mother sitting in the back row of many memorial services that I almost decided I wouldn’t be able to make.
Maybe this is why I have been so confounded by the numbers of people who are dying alone and the unknowable number of those who are grieving in isolation, unable to lean on another, to weep together, to receive the consolation of friends who show up to be with us in the depths of loss. Without the rituals of remembrance providing shape and words to boundless grief, it is hard to know how to feel or speak about life so illusively missing.
I am weak to tears. These days my eyes well up at the thought of life so swiftly gone. I feel it is important to take time to say, to write out this statement: Life is precious.
Death is a part of our journey, and countless lives have succumbed to illness, violence, wars, and unnecessary tragedies long before this pandemic. Perhaps, it is the unfathomable concentration and global nature of deaths reported during this crisis that overwhelm our capacity to resolve what we hear and see with our hearts.
My seminary colleague and poet pastor, Andrew Taylor-Troutman, through his gift of words provides a place for my restless heart to weep with those who are mourning. I followed him to the edges of anxiety and followed him to the chapel where he stood under the elegant swags of purple, beside his friend, to share the burden of death, to bear reverent witness to life.
At the Edges
by Andrew Taylor-Troutman
In memory of GFY
When my best friend asked me to be
a pallbearer for his father’s funeral,
I replied Of course I will, I’d be honored
and felt the anxiety around the edges
as I wondered how far the virus had spread
and how many were unknown positives.
I slipped unnoticed into the narthex,
pumped the hand sanitizer three times,
then signed the guestbook with my own pen
and sat in isolation in a pew near the back.
As a distant organist played old familiars,
purple Lenten banners hung exposed in the air
and The Lord’s Table sat empty and sterile.
When the priest intoned, rise if you are able,
the coffin was wheeled down the center aisle
followed by my friend, hefting his toddler.
His older daughter halted beside my pew,
her face split into an infectious grin.
Service over, I joined the other pallbearers,
the wooden handle smooth and slick in my palm
as I stepped in formation to the hearse,
aware of the others around the coffin
and my friend standing in silent witness,
his hands on the heads of his children.
Smelling of hand sanitizer, I drove
in the slow line of blinking taillights,
my right hand over my beating heart.
At the Edges was originally published on March 25, 2020: