Wednesday, July 30, 2014
The Bethel Experience: Walking in the footsteps of old dreams
It felt like the cold would chill my dreams. I stepped out of my Ford F-150 to begin a journey that would unthaw my iced heart. I didn’t know it. Journeys often begin without our knowledge.
My friend Clanton Dawson invited me to the lectionary group that meets every Wednesday at the Rock Bridge Christian Church. Maureen Dickman, the pastor at the church, followed up with an invite when we met at Dunn Bros Coffee. I was looking for a safe place to unwind and share Biblical and theological thoughts. I needed more than the Sunday morning shout that came with sitting in the pews at the Second Missionary Baptist Church.
Part of me was fading away after deciding to relocate to Columbia to take care of my sick father. Most of my nights found me waiting in the dark, afraid to sleep after watching my father fall on numerous occasions. My desire to preach and participate in worship kept me trapped in between sickness and hope. My midnight torture was followed by days of walking devoid of sleep.
Caregiving was taking a massive toil on both my spirit and body. I prayed for time away from cooking, taking vitals, handing out medication, trips to doctors and tending to other household chores. Surviving with the daily task was worsened by the messages from Durham, NC. We miss you. Things are not the same. Please come back. When will you come back? Why did you leave?
Each note did more to shatter my dwindling hope. Each day felt like a nightmare. I needed to preach. I needed to pray. I needed a place to remind me that God’s will for me is here.
I exhaled with each footstep as I approached the door. Clanton was there to greet me. Maureen was happy to see me. The others welcomed me to the group. More exhales followed as I contributed to the study. For a moment, it felt like I was back in the classroom. Yes, temporary relief from the burden.
Then she spoke. My friend spoke. My twin shared. Bonnie Cassida’s body was bruised by a long illness. She needed relief from the weekly activity of the church.
“Can you preach for me?” she asked through email shortly after our meeting.
It was hard for me to preach that Sunday. It came after my father was forced back into the hospital due to an infection. The illness would lead to an amputation. After weeks in rehab, he returned for more amputation and a longer stay. Then he broke his femur. Everything seemed to be falling apart.
The crying worsened.
“God fix my daddy!” I screamed each night. “God grant me the strength to be what I must be in this situation.”
It was never enough. There was more to do than I was able to give. The urge to preach, to pray and pastor intensified. Then Bonnie called.
“Can you serve Bethel Church as I take time to heal?”
I said yes. Saying yes scared me.
There were no comfort zones. All of my teaching and preaching was offered from the perspective of the black faith tradition. I agreed to offer service without knowing what to do. I brought my faith and training, yet something was missing. Everything was unfamiliar.
There were no amen’s and yes Lord's to set the tone for my preaching. The idiomatic expression of the black faith tradition was not there to create the context for what I do best. My preaching was limited. The mood and issues in the room forced me to step outside of myself and learn from those in need of ministry.
I felt lonely when I preached. It was a new language in need of translation. I pulled from my vast library for help. I revisited Theo Witvliet’s The Way of the Black Messiah to address the balance between universality and particularity. I clung to the teachings of Howard Thurman to rekindle his vision for a multicultural church. I read J. Kameron Carter’s book Race: A Theological Account and Willie Jennings book The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race to connect with the teachings of my friends who teach at Duke University.
I needed more to help me. I agreed with Carter's contention that race is a social construction used to manage belonging. I agreed with Bonnie’s vision regarding diversity. I needed more. In giving, something was being lost along the way.
I reflected on my conversations with Craig S. Keener, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, before his decision to join me at the Orange Grove Missionary Baptist Church. I told him to read the Autobiography of Malcolm X and meet with me after he finished. I wanted to be sure he understood black culture and pain before becoming a white minister in a predominately black church. He came back a few days later.
“I wish I could take my white skin and make it black,” he cried.
He joined us. We learned from him. He taught us humility and service. He was ordained and moved on to become one of the leading New Testament scholars in America.
He tore off his skin and made it black. Could I do the same?
I preached with hesitation. I learned to strip myself of the part that limited my being present. They loved and accepted that part of me that presented itself on Sunday morning. I felt the message of Frantz Fanon in his book Black Skin, White Mask. My training allowed me to maneuver around the sensitive matter of race and other divides, but was something lost along the way? Was I becoming something other as I offered a part of myself in ministry?
I kept praying. The tears followed each prayer.
“Lord, what does it all mean?”
Then it happened.
You are called to this. Move toward Howard Thurman’s vision. Embrace King’s dream. It’s not what is lost along the way; it’s the emergence of a new reality that demands the steps you are taking.
Pause and pray. Weep some more. Still asking questions along the way.
“Send me Lord, and I will follow.”
This is the road less traveled.
Teach me Lord Jesus, teach me.