Incarnational Witness in Washington, D.C.

I was looking through some old files on my computer recently. Not finding what I was looking for, instead I found this gem from 2005, one of my best trips to Washington, D.C., with Jana. I’ve just got to share it! What follows is a series of stories and emails between me and another hunger advocate named Tracy Young. They remind me of how God calls us to minister out of the broken clay pots of our lives, and just what a gift I have in a sister who never gave up on me, even as others might have given up on her. She teaches me still. Every. Day.

***

This article is reprinted with the author’s permission from “The Advocate,” a publication of the Office of Social Justice and Hunger Action of the Christian Reformed Church, July, 2005

A Glimpse of Hunger No More

By Tracy Young

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. Rev. 21:4

I saw her shuffling awkwardly across the American University campus, her body all elbows and right angles, her chin tucked stiffly into her neck. Her movements were rigid, stilted and slow. I wondered if it hurt to be curled up like that, to disappear into oneself.

At One Table, Many Voices: A Mobilization to Overcome Poverty and Hunger, I joined 600 other Christians in Washington, D.C. on the American University campus to work to end extreme poverty and hunger in our nation and the world. About thirty people from Christian Reformed churches, agencies, and related colleges came together to discuss our efforts to overcome poverty – as individuals, as churches, as schools, as communities. We participated in workshops, listened to speakers, worshipped, lobbied, prayed and learned together.

But the most striking moment for me in Washington did not come in the shadow of the Capitol building on lobby day. It did not come during the round of excellent speakers, during my conversations with the people I met, or even at the National Cathedral during the Interfaith Convocation that mourned hunger and demanded action as a storm pounded the stained glass with rain and lighting made the microphones fizz. It came, of all places, at the French Embassy while I greedily shoveled mushroom canapés into my mouth.

One Table participants piled into the not-so-elegant mass transit of school buses and shuttled to the très élégant French Embassy one evening to celebrate the countries who had become eligible for the US’s Millennium Challenge Account program. Our entertainment for the evening was an African dance troupe from the local Market 5 Gallery.

Market 5 came into the room, all drums and joy, moving like people don’t move where I worship, shouting and beaming and raising the hair on our arms. We were entranced by the energy in front of us, clapping and bouncing our bodies to the beat. As the troupe ended an impressive choreographed sequence, they motioned for the crowd to come into the circle and start dancing with them. People poured in, laughing and dancing, letting the rhythms lift their feet.

And as I watched this gleeful group, I saw a couple of the troupe members move to the side of the circle and bring back with them the woman I saw laboring across the AU campus. I watched as they gently guided her into the circle, right into the middle of it all, held her hands and carefully danced with her, stepping their feet lightly as she swayed and bobbed and shuffled, ever so slightly, back and forth. She was smiling, and they were smiling, and the drums were beating, and I think it was as close to a picture of heaven as I’ve ever seen.

I had only noticed this woman because she had trouble walking. The troupe noticed her and saw a woman who could dance. They went straight to her with no thought that she couldn’t or shouldn’t and invited her in, someone who had probably been overlooked, or ignored – by people like me. By the time the group pulled a participant in a wheelchair into the circle to dance, I was uncomfortably stuffed with shame, joy and too many mushrooms. What a strange combination.

One table, many voices. The dance troupe got it. Everyone, all shapes, sizes, ages, ethnicities and abilities were invited into that circle, invited to that table. Everyone moved a different way, but they all moved together.

As I continue my own work for justice, I’m going to remember that moment. It reminds me that God uses us, unlikely, imperfect vessels to do great things. God uses the timid to speak to the powerful and a teenager to carry the Savior. Even with our heavy feet, God sees that we can dance.

That moment also reminds me of my own sin. How often do I look at image-bearers of God and see only what I consider their weakness? Their homelessness, their poverty, their shortcomings. I don’t like to ask that question. It’s much easier to turn a critical eye on someone else.

But what I take from that moment most of all, and what I’ll remember when I’m discouraged with this hard work called “doing justice,” is that surreal feeling of the in-between. I caught a precious slivered glimpse of the deep and far and wide, pulsing open just so, with each beat of those drums. I saw hunger no more, justice for all, grace, peace and love radiating out the toes of some twirling children of God.

***

July 23, 2005 – Jana shared this article with me when she received it in the mail from David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World and just another friend of Jana’s. I cried while trying to read it to Steve and immediately sat down to email the author so she could hear the “rest of the story.”

Dear Tracy,

I just finished reading your article “A Glimpse of Hunger No More” in The Advocate, and it moved me to tears.

The article was sent to my sister Jana Prescott from David Beckman with this note, “I never see you in the unflattering way that this young woman first saw you. But I think you will be encouoraged to know what a powerful witness to Christ’s life you were to her.”

I wanted to thank you for the moving way you shared the gospel and our call in this article. For Jana’s life is the witness that brought me back to Christ, and also to his call for justice and love.

Jana was injured in a car/train accident 22 years ago in Colorado, where she worked at a Presbyterian camp in her beautiful Rocky Mountains. A very independent woman, you can imagine what this did to her life.

She would tell you that Feb 14, 1983, is her second birthday, and indeed, we celebrate it each year as a second chance at life.I was with her in Washington as I’ve been privileged to be most years since 1991 for the BFW event. (If you saw her walking alone, it’s because I got sick in the cold of the auditorium, and she even brought food over to me in the dorm! Quite a feat with her impaired balance. ) I’ve learned a lot there and have found my voice, even as she has lost hers. She does dance for joy every day! And I might say that even though I’m the “talker” on Lobby Day, her voicelessness always speaks more profoundly to why we’re there and who we’re there for. We are
voices for the voiceless.

So, thank you. I hope you two meet some day. Don’t be surprised if you hear from her.

I’m hoping it’s okay if I reprint your article in our church newsletter: West Hills Church, Omaha, NE.

Dancing for God with heavy feet, but not a heavy heart,

Julie Prescott Burgess

***

Dear Julie,

Thanks so much for your email. I was actually a little nervous that this article would make its way back to “the woman” – who I now know is Jana! At first, I wasn’t sure if I should write the piece at all. I did not want to hurt the feelings of or embarrass the person I was writing about, and that was my primary concern. I didn’t want to exploit her difficulty for the sake of writing an article. But also, it’s really hard to write about your own brokenness and tell a thousand people about it. At any rate, I hope I did the right thing by sharing the story.

I hate to think that I can be so unfair or so dismissive without even a thought as to what I’m doing…what a soft prejudice, what a quiet little judgement I made about your sister. It just snuck into my brain without any hoopla and sat there until God decided it was time to send in the drums and a lesson.

I hope that Jana will forgive my shortsightedness, and know that she has been a participant in a great, grace-filled gift to me. I’m so glad to know her name and her story and feel blessed to have had her life intersect with mine, even for that brief moment.

Please do feel free to reprint the article in your newsletter.

Blessings,

Tracy

Tracy Young
Social Justice Network and Communications Assistant
Office of Social Justice and Hunger Action
Christian Reformed Church in North America

 

Voices of anger. Voices of Peace.

Homs peace signsIt’s the very end of the first week of February, 2016, the month of love as Valentine’s Day looms just eight days from now. I’m four weeks into classes as a graduate student in pursuit of a Master’s of Arts degree in ministry at our local Jesuit university, Creighton.

It’s been challenging in many ways. I still get up every morning, take a shower, make the bed and get Jana down to the print shop. Instead of heading off to a paying job, I wash the dishes, do the laundry, and then launch into studying for the two classes I am enrolled in: The Christian Tradition, Then and Now and Jesus Christ, Liberator. There is so much reading! I have to write papers! I have to use words and a style of writing that are worthy of the academic institution I am now a member of.

Here is the problem: this is not the way I write. If you have read my blog (thank you! if this is so), you may have noticed that I write in the first person and with a lot of emotion. I am a feeler. Look at my Myers Briggs profile. INFP. The “F” there stands for the fact that I tend to make decisions based on feelings or values, rather than logic or reason. As a matter of fact, when I first took the MB profile evaluation I scored absolutely zero on thinking.

I am a feeler. It becomes more clear to me every day.

So this week has been interesting as I have been asked to write academically. Here were my questions on the midterm of my beginning theology course:

How does John’s gospel fulfill its purpose?

What is Augustine’s theology of will?

Why was “The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas importance to Christians of their age?”

How did Benedict XVI use the philosophical concept of logos in his Regensburg lecture?

It’s hard to write answers as a feeler when what is required is the answer of a thinker.

Somehow, I got through that.

And the assignment for my Jesus Christ: Liberator class, which I absolutely love, was to write a reflection on a movie called Voces Inocentes. This movie is about the war in El Salvador that the U.S. threw its resources into on behalf of the landed, rich minority, represented by the government, against the oppressed majority of the poor. Why do we seem to always find the wrong side to support since the end of World War II?

Since this is a theology class, and we are studying about theology in the form of Christology, Jesus as liberator, our job was to write a reflection on the movie with our texts in mind. It should be thoughtful, not emotional.

So today I wrote my reflection. I tied it to the textbook chapter that talked about a document called Gaudium et spes (the joy and hope), that came out of Vatican II and changed the church’s vision about its mission in and to the world. I tried to be academic even as the feeling heart that is right under my skin wanted to cry out in anger.

Really? How is it possible in this world that eleven- and twelve-year old boys have to choose between being conscripted into an army to fight against their families or join the guerillas trying to overcome injustice in their land? Either choice comes with a price: losing their humanity or losing their lives. Why can’t little boys just kick soccer balls and tease little girls? Why do these same boys have to become “man of the house” because their fathers have left the country to stay out of the war and find ways to support their families in other countries? Why are children in the crossfire? Why are women considered things to be used and discarded? Why does an old woman of faith decide that prayer will not end this war?

Anger. Boiling blood. That is how I wanted to react.

And then I saw a Facebook post from friends in Syria who are living in a war that they experience every day. It takes their neighbors. It takes their sons and daughters. It has torn their country apart and my country and many others are making choices that disrupt their lives. And we pray and they pray and somehow it doesn’t end.

Where is God? Where is grace? Where is peace?

I don’t have an answer to any of these questions. But I am left with this amazing speech by the unnamed priest in this movie that makes the feeling side of me think:

…the word of God must also be heard by those who have not yet found grace within themselves. What is grace? Grace is the presence of the Divine in every one of our actions. Innocence is stolen from our children and hope is replaced by fear. The skeptics say, if God existed, there would be no war. And I respond if men would obey the word of God, then there would be no war! Because God our father has given man the privilege to live in grace, or on the contrary, to provoke disgrace. I assure you when one lives in the grace of God, war does not exist. There are others who choose differently. It is time to raise our voices against them. To defend our right to live! To use our strength to oppose the force of death. Today it is not enough to pray.

It is not enough to pray today. Today is a day to ask people to look in the mirror and see the reflection of God there. And then, to look into the face of the neighbor and see the same thing. Look into the mirror and see Chava the Salvadorean boy, to see Ali the boy from Aleppo, to see John from the streets of Omaha…to see Jesus. Would you throw the rock at Jesus? Would you fire the gun at Jesus? Would you drop the bomb on Jesus? Can we not see the humanity in each face and also see the reflection of the divine? Can we choose to live in grace and not disgrace?

Can’t we have a conversation together about how what I do affects what happens to you? What you do affects what happens to me? Can’t we see that what we have is more than enough and it is enough to share?

I just want to finish by sharing this video which came to me in an email from Creighton University this week. It is a message from Pope Francis about conversations among those who are different in culture and faith. But they are all humans, made in the image of God. And this has helped me with my anger.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6FfTxwTX34&feature=share

Dona nobis pacem.