Reading through the Sunday paper account of the happenings at ‘Injustice Square’ in Louisville marking the first anniversary of the murder of Breonna Taylor, we read:
‘Armed militia members flanked the protestors for security as they walk through downtown’s barricaded streets…’
But wait, what did we miss? We (Sr. Charlene Moser, OP, and Associates Rosie Blackburn and Marybeth Irvine) were there. Why did we need security? Who was posing a threat? We were aware of our surroundings. We saw a couple of silhouettes on the rooftop but no sign of weapons. We saw some LMPD police. We saw barriers blocking thru traffic. All just watching. More predominant was an incredible mix of human beings who were present to remember Breonna’s life, death, and the absence of accountability for the loss of both. We saw a community of people who crossed many barriers to be present with one another.
So where was the perceived danger? For us, the threat was presented by our so called ‘protectors.’ These individuals who roamed through the gathering with their military style weapons and ammunition. This is what frightened us. This group of mostly white males roamed in and out of the gathering looking like they were patrolling a hostile environment. But there was no hostility; there was no danger. What were they doing there? What is it about our society that makes individuals think they need to show this kind of power? Yes, there were also individuals packing their sidearms in our open carry state but they were not a menacing presence. As women, as white women, we were fearful. We wonder how others felt. Did they feel safer, protected? Or were they, too, ill at ease. Is this the kind of situation the framers of our Constitution had in mind when they gave us the right to carry arms? Something seems to have been lost in the translation.
We, Dominicans of Peace, corporately stand for common sense gun reform. Hopefully this reform will include an end to practices that allow guns to be present as a means to intimidate peace seeking individuals rallying for justice.
Listen, can you hear it? No, try again, become stiller – drop further into silence. Surely now you can hear the buoy bell as it chimes outside my window. Why is hearing it important? For me, it has been associated with Colette Parker’s voice in the months since her death. The buoy bell is both peaceful and melodic and is an indicator that a person is safely close to harbor (home).
My bell has been making its presence heard a lot this past month as we reflected again on Colette’s wisdom. It has been calling me to listen to the journey on which she partnered with me. A journey that helped move me from a place of wondering ‘How did I not know?’ to accepting I could not have known because the past history of people of color in the United States had been locked behind doors to which only a few possessed keys. But then what was I to do since I now had eyes to see? I was to listen openly, to listen willingly, to listen believing there was truth to be heard.
I listened through the discussions of my Dominican study group as we processed the information in the Congregation’s study packet on racial justice, so I thought I had done the work. Not so, says Colette, there is more listening to do. I again moved to study and leisure reading but only works written by and about people of color. I heard the pain of injustice, the daily fears, the struggle for existence, the inequities. I moved out of my comfort zone to attend events in support of Breonna Taylor. I watched webinars and documentaries. I had conversations about blackness in Louisville with my hairdresser. Surely, I had done the work that Colette challenged me to do. But not so, the bell kept ringing, asking me to listen beyond the knowledge and limited interactions.
What was the “more” I needed to listen to? Strangely, the more was with me every day. To understand the pain and suffering, I needed to walk in the shoes of the other. Now clearly I could not be black and inhabit skin the was not mine, but I could listen to my body’s responses.
The listening asked me to recall the inner terror I experienced when the bus I was on in Tanzania was stopped by a military-looking guy with his gun clearly in view. To hear inside me the fear as a shouting match took place in a language I did not understand. After all, haven’t we all read of kidnappings of foreigners? I had to listen again to my own body’s response as I heard George Floyd’s cry: ‘I can’t breathe.’ I had that experience in my dentist’s office. I remember the terror that filled my being. And last week, as I listened to a presentation by the director of Roots 101 (a new museum of black history in Louisville), he dropped a set of shackles. My body trembled just hearing the sound.
So what I hear Colette teaching me is my own body gives me insight into the black experience. An experience that a body of color lives every minute of every day and everywhere. My experiences were all time-limited, brief, and mostly in safe places, yet I felt the trauma. How does one’s body heal from that kind of trauma when it is relentless? Maybe what I am hearing Colette invite me to is more listening to the responses in my own body when I am in places of discomfort and then to listen with compassion to those who know of no other way to live. They are always coping with the generational trauma as well as the daily ones.
So my invitation to each of us is to listen not only to the words outside but to turn inside and listen there as well. That is the gift contemplation nurtures. Contemplate and share with others the fruits of that listening.
In Sunday’s first reading, we hear that the king of Nineveh ordered everyone to wear sackcloth and he sat in ashes. In fact, we often read in the Bible that penitents wore sackcloth and sat in ashes or put ashes on their head. Why not just say dirt? Isn’t that the point, that a penitent would sit in ugly sackcloth and be dirty?
Well, no. Sackcloth, as you can imagine, is not only unfashionable, but it is rough and itchy. I’ve always imagined that it must not be good at keeping out the cool of the night, either.
But what always strikes my soul is the use of the ashes. Wood ashes, when combined with water, make lye, a terribly caustic chemical. Most of the farm families I knew growing up made their own soap with commercial lye, and everyone had a healthy respect for it. A small can of lye poured into a crock of water could have it nearly boiling in seconds. Children were to be kept away from soap making so that they wouldn’t get any lye on their skin and be burned.
If a penitent sweated or if dew fell, the water would combine with the ashes and make small amounts of weak lye. But it would be lye nonetheless. And it would itch, maybe burn. It would be terribly uncomfortable to be scratched by the sackcloth and then burned by the lye from the ashes. And after? We don’t hear about people being done with this ordeal. It must have felt so good to leave the sackcloth and ashes behind, take a bath, and put oil on all the places that were rubbed and irritated.
What itch is distracting us from closer union with God? What fear or pride burns at our souls so that we are not at peace with God? God does not want us to stay this way. God wants us to remove our sackcloth, bathe in His mercy, and feel His Love soothing us.
God made you and loves you because you are worth loving.
In these difficult times, weeping may stay the night, but Joy comes in the morning. (Ps 30:5) For me, the Joy was the announcement of two Covid mRNA vaccines now being distributed and given to frontline healthcare workers that include doctors, nurses, technologists, technicians, EMTs, and environmental service workers – the whole shebang – and last but not the least, our elderly, after 10 months of much sadness, loneliness, isolation and darkness.
On Thursday, December 23, with sheer Joy in my heart, I received the first dose of the vaccine to protect me and those I care for from Covid-19. You see, I am a clinical microbiologist. My staff and I work with clinical respiratory samples all day, never knowing who has the virus until the test flags and results are interpreted as positive. Yes, we take all of the precautions – masking, gowning, gloving, washing hands, working in biological safety cabinets, and physical distancing in our own workspace. We no longer dine together for dinner. Most meetings are via Zoom. If our senior team happens to meet in person – no more than 6 people in the room as we literally talk in raised voices spread apart.
Over the past few weeks our institution has prepped us for what might be coming. There were lots of communications, a video of a panel discussion which included our head of infectious diseases, a pharmacist, director of nursing nurse, and even our CEO. I also discussed the vaccine with three of my directors – all gifted women scientists. I didn’t think we’d get the vaccine so quickly being a children’s hospital. A physician from another hospital wrote a recent blog commenting that it felt like he and his colleagues were waiting to get into a Bruce Springsteen concert, all eagerly leaning and straining toward the entrance. Imagine a Bruce Springsteen concert full of glad tidings.
When my turn came, I slowly walked with some sadness and trepidation to the vaccination site with my daddy on my mind. He succumbed to Covid-19 on September 15, death certificate stating cause of death as acute respiratory failure due to bilateral Covid-19 pneumonia. If only he could have held out three more months and one week; he would have received this vaccine. I, too, had Covid-19, a moderate eventful case, leading to the emergency room and overnight hospitalization – I couldn’t breathe. “How can this be?” I wondered. “I’m in the emergency room on oxygen, steroids and pain killer because it hurt to breathe and my 86-year-old dad is upstairs in intensive care struggling to breathe, struggling to live.”
Ready for the vaccine, I walked into the auditorium, smooth jazz music playing overhead while I was escorted to seat number 6. My vaccinator, a hospital pharmacist asked how I felt, and we chit chatted for a few moments. He asked, “which arm?” I said “left.” I’m right-handed, and if anything should go awry, I’d still have my good hand/arm to use. It’s crazy what wafts through your mind.
I received the first dose and almost cried due to my sense of relief, hope, JOY, and gratitude. I thanked my vaccinator and moved to another staged area so I could be observed for 15-20 minutes by other medical professionals for any life-threatening side effects. I sat there and said a prayer of thanks to God. God’s hands and providence touched the minds of countless scientists to find a way, to make a vaccine so that many others will be able to continue to live and to spread Good News of JOY and hope. Yes, your arm will be very sore a day or two later after receiving the vaccine with varying symptoms for many ranging from mild to severe.
As a Dominican Associate, I received the vaccine for me, for my colleagues, for patients, for families, for friends, for our communities, for our nation, for the world. I did this for those hundreds of thousands who have died, many due to lack of access to care or due to the ignorance, or fear and obstinacy of those in power. As an African American woman, I especially encourage my black brothers and sisters to get the vaccine; the virus is killing us! I know the history of what happened to our ancestors and elders, but today is a new day, another journey that brings hope. We are a people of hope! Everyone will eventually have a choice to receive this miracle in 2021. Let’s hope that all will be open to it, for Joy comes in the morning.
In today’s Gospel, Mary goes to visit Elizabeth and the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy. At Christmas time we sing “Joy to the World”. The shepherds hear the angels proclaim “Good News of Great Joy.” We are surrounded by messages of Joy at this time of year. Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit given to us. The Greek word for joy is “chara” which is defined as the natural reaction to the work of God, whether promised or fulfilled. This Joy is a feeling of inner gladness and delight. It comes from a recognition of the presence of God in us, in each other, and in the world around us. Possessing joy is a choice. When we open ourselves to receive this gift, the Spirit opens our eyes to see God’s grace in and around us even in the midst of difficult times.
As we head into the last week of Advent we invite you to focus on your internal Joy. Reminisce about a simpler time when you first felt the presence of Jesus Christ in your life. Were you a child or an adult? Did you feel the quickening of this newly lit fire in your belly when you thought of your Lord and Savior? Did this Joy propel you to give more, be more? Were you able to hold on to this fire regardless of external circumstances?
At the initial confirmation of the Dominican order the Pope declared the brothers would be “the champions of the faith and the true lights of the world.” Letting our lights shine as members of the Dominican family is what we are called to do. Although our circumstances may be hard or even insurmountable, we can draw on that initial flame of Joy. We cultivate it by adding fellowship, study and prayer- surely our flame will grow brighter as we move into the New Year! Spending quiet time this season thinking of the birth of Christ and His gifts to the world can ignite the Joy within us!