From: Windows Into the Light
Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may receive it thankfully in remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord, who in these holy mysteries gives us a pledge of eternal life; and who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer)
Christ, you gently reach down and cleanse us, as a mother washes a child’s hands coated with dirt from the playground. But many times, we turn and run away, seeking not your face nor your love in those around us. Help us to see our place with all your children, and knowing your grace, to gather together in feast and famine, in joy and sadness, in hope and despair. Amen.
(Washing the disciples’ feet)
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, to betray him. And during supper, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, Lord, are you going to wash my feet? Jesus answered, You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand. Peter said to him, You will never wash my feet. Jesus answered, Unless I wash you, you have no share with me. Simon Peter said to him, Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!
When I was in the first grade, segregation had just ended. As a six-year-old attending public schools in South Carolina, I was on the front lines of social change. But because my parents always taught me to respect everyone no matter the color of their skin, I was more than naïve about what was happening around me.
I was so naïve that I had no clue that being in the class of a black woman was progressive. To me, Mrs. Brown was just a great teacher. She was older, seemed loving, wise, and quite good to me. I was oblivious to those who disagreed. I watched Sesame Street every morning as a kindergartner and wouldn’t have believed that people on my street couldn’t watch it because of its “progressive social agenda,” let alone think that someone might have been transferred out of Mrs. Brown’s class because of how God made her. But several kids did leave our classroom and more than one transferred in. But one little boy forever placed an indelible mark on my life when he walked into the room one day to replace a little girl, who in retrospect needed a “different teacher.”
Sam was that boy. He had a funny walk, his feet seemed to move at a different pace than the rest of his body. And his voice – well, it seemed like it, too, moved at a different pace, as if the words got ahead of the meaning. He would say things like, Mrs. Brown, may restroom go, or, Chocolate milk me today, at which we wanted to laugh, but didn’t. We’d just wrinkle our brows as if the creases would somehow complete the words of his sentences. I remember one day when Mary said that since his head was smaller than those of the rest of the class, a part of his brain was missing, the part that put words together. She said her grandmother had told her that some children’s heads were smashed when they were born and that the brain was squeezed out and didn’t work as well. It sounded true, but our discussion on the merry-go-round never yielded a positive analysis of how anyone’s head could be smashed in the hospital.
The thing that I remember the most about Sam was the smell. Just like his walk and just like his talk, it seemed out of step with the rest of his body. The only problem was that the smell had a quicker pace than he did; it arrived before he came into the room. Now, six-year-olds in that day knew not to make fun of his walk or his voice – at least not in front of him. But there is nothing in social norms or manners that can prevent a six-year-old from exclaiming, What’s that smell? each and every time Sam walked into the room. Mrs. Brown would try to stop us, but we noticed her expression, too. You couldn’t mistake her eyelids twitching and brows lifting for an expression of loveliness; no, Mrs. Brown couldn’t stand it either, and we all knew it.
One day, Mary climbed to the top of the jungle gym and began to lecture us all on the meaning of Sam’s life and why he smelled so very bad. After recalling the smashed head routine once again, she said she knew another truth from her grandmother and that all of us needed to hear it, too. I’ll never forget it. On a cool October day with the sun high in the sky, Mary opened up a chapter of life that I had no idea existed. The naïveté of my Sesame Street life was getting ready to end.
Mary started with the rule that “cleanliness was next to godliness,” something I vaguely remembered as a saying my mom would impart on Saturday mornings when I had to clean my room. But the next line, another truth from Mary’s grandmother, changed me forever. Sam wasn’t clean, said Mary, because he was black. She went on to say that Sam was dirty because he had the mark of Cain upon him. She said it was in the Bible and that her grandmother told her it was true. Cain had killed his brother Able, and because of it, God put a mark on Cain and his race forever to show that Cain had sinned. God had made Cain black because he had killed, and according to Mary, blacks would suffer through the ages. In her world, Sam was dirty because he had the mark of Cain, and he smelled because someone in his family had done something really, really bad.
I was no theologian. But this was too much for me. Several of us told Mary she was crazy, that Sam was just like us, he just didn’t have the money for clean clothes and soap for a bath. But the more we resisted, the more Mary argued. Sam was dirty with the mark of Cain. Sam was dirty because he was black. In desperation, we all stopped arguing with Mary. I stopped playing on the monkey bars that day; the swings and merry-go-round became my new hangout.
A few days later, Sam didn’t come to school. Mrs. Brown said nothing. Days went by and we began to wonder if Sam would ever come back. So one day, just as recess began, a group of us from the swings ventured over to Mrs. Brown to ask, Where’s Sam? Mrs. Brown looked at once sad and happy, something I had only seen a couple of times before in my life, like when my Dad didn’t get a new job in another state. Mom said she didn’t want to move but that the money would have been nice.
Mrs. Brown said that she couldn’t tell us much. The only thing she revealed was that he had gone to live with his grandparents now, and that, in a few days, Sam might come back to school. I remember thinking that she knew a whole lot more, but that what she knew had to be scary, a secret she didn’t want to let out and hurt us with. It was like she could see something in her eyes as she told us these few words, as if she had lived them herself. As she talked, I remember thinking that she had the most beautiful and loving eyes I’d ever seen, the kind of eyes you’re just happy knowing you yourself appear in from time to time. And I remember thinking that there was no way any mark of Cain was upon her, Sam, or anyone else. Mary’s grandmother had to be wrong. I just knew it.
A few weeks later, a new boy came to school. He walked in, sat down at the desk next to me, and looked a little scared. Mrs. Brown walked him to the desk as she announced, Boys and girls, let’s welcome Sam back today! Sam! Sam who? This boy with the neat clothes the sparkling skin, the closely-shaved head? This boy with the new shoes, the new notebook, the straight walk, and the smell of Ivory soap? All of us gasped in disbelief.
I don’t remember when I learned the rest of the story, of how Sam’s parents had left him alone with his brothers and sisters just before the beginning of school that summer in the 1960s, never to return. Of how his older sister, just thirteen years old, had tried to care for them all so they could stay together and not be turned over to social services. No, I don’t remember when I found out the rest of their story. All I really remember was that Mary and her grandmother were wrong; Sesame Street was real after all.
Now, when I look back on the first grade, I don’t remember anything that I learned from books, worksheets, or bulletin boards. But what I learned from Mrs. Brown is written in my heart. I know that she was the one who helped Sam, helped his brothers and sisters, and got them to the people that they needed to be loved and cherished. That was the look in her eyes that day. And, in the end, I suppose that’s enough to learn in the first grade. Enough to know for a lifetime.
Washing Away the Grime
There are places within each of us that we’re unwilling to acknowledge. Places where we put others down, pushing them into a corner and barring all light from shining. But when we close others off from the possibility of new life and light in their lives, we also close ourselves off from God’s grace. By identifying these places in our journey, and asking forgiveness, we too are liberated. Since we’ve done word collages several times, you should be comfortable with this technique, and because of that, you’re likely to go deeper in this exercise.
- A sheet of paper, preferably card stock or construction paper, 11 x 17 inches.
- Two markers of different colors.
This exercise is similar to other word collages thus far. We begin in our workspace and take time to center ourselves, letting go of all the daily events and challenges that preoccupy our minds. If meditation would be helpful as you begin, take ample time. Pray for God’s faithfulness and safety to surround you as you venture into a new area of the journey.
Ask yourself a simple question: Whom have I hurt in my life? What forgiveness should I seek? As you consider these questions, begin to write quickly, as in past exercises. Write the person’s name and why you need forgiveness, and, as before, use single words and short phrases. Work quickly and continue to work as long as people come to mind. Also be sure to write creatively, let the word collage become more of an art form than a paragraph.
When you are no longer writing, stop and take time to reflect on what you’ve written. When you’re ready, take a different color pen and begin to write quickly how you might respond. What would bring forgiveness to each situation? A phone call? A note? A face-to-face visit or confession? Write what would bring wholeness to each situation and see if you can identify the way to bring forgiveness and reconciliation.
When you’ve finished, reflect on the exercise, noting any similarities, themes, or other commonalities. Use the Soul Questions as a guide.
- Was it easy to identify the people you’ve hurt? Were you surprised by anyone that you listed or was it pretty much what you expected?
- What were the common themes among the relationships? Were there any similarities in how you hurt others? Do you believe that similarities say more about you or those you hurt?
- Is it easy for you to forgive others? Yourself? Why or why not?
- How can you accomplish the steps you outlined in the exercise? Can you set a schedule to contact those you have hurt and seek reconciliation?
Thoughts for the Journey
- How can you be more honest in your relationships? How could finding that honesty help prevent future hurts among relationships?
- How could identifying common themes in past hurts help you transform your life for the future?
- Could you include an inventory of relationships in your spiritual discipline? How might regularly considering your life and how it intersects with others’ lives bring wholeness to you?