June 25th – Carleen Gerber – with audio
“I Spat in the Eye of Hate, and Lived”
A few weeks ago, a man riding on a train in Portland, Oregon began shouting anti-Muslim insults at a black 16-year old girl, and her 17 year-old friend who was wearing a hijab- the traditional head garb of Muslim women. It’s easy to imagine people around them pretending not to hear or see – looking busy in some way or another – averting their eyes. But, instead, three brave passengers stepped forward to protect the girls.
The three men might have looked, at first glance, to be very different one from another. One was a 23-year- old recent college graduate who had flowing long hair. I might have imagined him to be an artist. He was, actually, a consultant of some kind. Another was a 53-year- old Army veteran with the trimmest of haircuts and a record of serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. The other was a 21-year-old poet and Portland State student, heading off to his job at a Pizzeria, where he earned the money to support his college education.
What those three men had in common – as different as they might have seemed to the eye of the onlooker- was decency, and courage.
When they stepped forward to intervene, the man harassing the girls pulled a knife and slashed the three men before fleeing. The 53-year-old Army veteran, Rick Best, died at the scene. Taliesin Namkai-Meche, the long-haired young man, was conscious as he waited for an ambulance. A good Samaritan took off her shirt to cover him. She later recounted that some of his last words as he lay dying were: “I want everyone on the train to know I love them.”
Another person standing by stanched the bleeding of the young poet, and called the young man’s mother to tell her to go to the local hospital. That young man, Micah Fletcher, lived. And he surely did embody the words of the prophet Micah – for whom perhaps he was named:
“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
Almost immediately following surgery, weak but indomitable, Fletcher wrote a poem that stands to redeem the horrific incident, and may well be his gift to all of us. It read, in part;
“I, am alive
I spat in the eye of hate, and lived.
This is what we must do for one another
We must live for one another.”
Nicholas Kristof, a thoughtful New York Times editorialist, said recently,
“I have been dispirited by recent events (in our nation, in our government, in our body politic.) But in tragedy, we can sometimes find inspiration. In that train car, we saw that courage and leadership are alive – if not always in Washington, then among ordinary Americans converging from varied backgrounds on a commuter train, standing together against a threat to our shared humanity.” (NYT: June 5, 2017)
I spat in the eye of hatred, and I lived…
We must live for one another
Courage. Decency. Shared Humanity. Love for one another. Live for one another. Those words, and those phrases, shine as beacons of light and hope in what might have seemed like one more hopelessly dark and gruesome story in this recent chapter of our nation’s long history.
I spat in the eye of hatred, and lived. This is what we must do for one another, we must live for one another.
A few weeks ago, I stood in the state’s legislative capitol building with a large group of clergy persons, community college professors, and members of a group called Moral Mondays Ct. that seeks to reach out and speak out for justice and compassion in our political framework. I have a suspicion that there is no one in this congregation that was really surprised to have heard that I was there.
I volunteered to be one of those arrested and the experience was entirely peaceful, respectful and not unpleasant. The capitol police were polite and gracious and good humored toward us. And were all that to them. They were doing their job. And so were we. We were standing up for what we believe in – and believe in passionately. We were standing up for these two things;
- The central commandment of our gospel; words spoken by Jesus not long before he was crucified:”Love one another as I have loved you.”
One simply cannot dispute the clarity of that commandment.
- The founding vision of this country: “That we shall be as a city set upon a hill…for this end we must be knit together as one. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection…we must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the supply of other’s necessities…we must make other’s conditions our own…we must labor and suffer together… the eyes of all people are upon us.” (John Robinson: “A Model of Christian Charity: a sermon aboard the Arabella)
Now there is absolutely no measure of equity between what those three men in Portland, Oregon did and what the six clergy persons did in Hartford, Connecticut. Absolutely none. But the words of that young poet, Micah Fletcher, were very much on my mind as that event unfolded – and have been very much on my mind in the subsequent days. We must live for one another.
Rick Best and Taliesin Nankai-Meche and Micah Fletcher stepped forward to face a hatred-spewing, knife-wielding madman, whose very aim was to wrench from the hands of all Americans the nobility, and honor that define our nation and her historical narrative. They are heroes.
One of my favorite Robert Frost poems, is entitled “Choose Something Like a Star.” I’ll weave together some excerpts,
“O Star (the Fairest one in sight)…
…(the) dark is what brings out your light…
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat…
Say something! And it says, “I burn.”…
(The star) asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may take something like a star
To stay our minds on and be stayed.”
The demonstration in the capitol building in Hartford was organized by a group called Moral Mondays. You might have seen the lead article in a recent Sunday’s New York Times about that movement and its founder, the eloquent and passionate black preacher named William Barber. Barber has spoken recently at Yale Divinity School, and at Riverside Church in New York City. He follows close on the theological and political heals of men like William Sloan Coffin, and Martin Luther King. He is committed to peaceful action and dialogue. He is charismatic. He is energetic and engaging. Preachers in sleepy little hamlets like Old Lyme, Connecticut, listen closely to William Barber because he is a voice for the voiceless, and his is a voice we need to hear.
The six of us who happened to be arrested have had our appearance in superior court, and we have been sentenced to three full days of community service which must be served in Hartford, Connecticut – the location of our initial “crime.” Our crime, by the way, was singing “This Little Light of Mine, I’m Gonna Let it Shine.” As Don and I frequently say to one another as we watch the evening news, “You just can’t make this stuff up!” Singing inside the capitol building is a violation of Connecticut State statute 2-71H, which prohibits singing or chanting inside the legislative building.
I’d like to tell you about “doing community service” in the city of Hartford, and what that experience has meant to me. An organization in Hartford called “Community Partners” oversees whatever service the court mandates. Community Partners has lost significant state funding in the past few years. And that, I think, is tragic. It is an organization I find very, very impressive.
A group of 25-30 of us – we so-called criminals – wait in line at the community court building promptly at 8 am on our day of appointed service. We are allowed to carry with us no cell phone, no money, no belongings. We must have on our person a simple ID- like a driver’s license – and we must wear a bright yellow vest for the entire 8 hours of our service time. The vest identifies us as serving under the auspices of Community Partners- doing community service on the streets and in the non-profit enterprises of the city.
I worked one day in the Bloomfield warehouse of FOOD SHARE – the organization that distributes annually about 3 million pounds of surplus and donated food to all the food banks in Hartford County.
When a group of young executives from one of Hartford’s big insurance companies stood alongside me at FOOD SHARE that day, I wondered what they might have imagined my crime to be.
I would call community service a great leveling ground. It doesn’t matter how much education you have (or don’t have). It doesn’t matter how nice a house (or NOT nice a dwelling) you might live in. It doesn’t extend mercy if you happen to be homeless. And it doesn’t matter what your crime was. On this one day, we are all treated the same. The woman who gave me my first assignment on my first day of service, said to me, “So I understand you are a minister. I hope you’ll go out on the streets and remind everyone alongside you that God loves them – and God forgives them – no matter what they have done, or failed to do. That could be your most important work out on the streets.” That woman was one of Robert Frost’s “stars” – a person to “stay our minds on and be stayed.”
What I could see on the streets of Hartford- and see with great clarity – is the enormous, enormous disparity that exists in our state- and in our nation – between those who live with advantages of all kinds, and those who live with almost no advantages in life at all. And so help me, God, I swear to you that if I had been “dealt the hand” in life that some of my community service friends have been dealt, I, like many of them, would be tossed to and fro on a turbulent sea of disaffection. I, like many of them, would be unable to get any purchase or traction on success.
I serve again tomorrow on the streets of Hartford. And I just know it will become yet ever more clear to me that “we must live for one another.”
One could liken this nation to a great ship. We are all on that ship together. The ship is taking on water. And when the ship goes down, we all go down.
I have hope. I have hope for the nation, and the state – and this ship we are all on together. Because I am more and more convinced that we will survive, and maybe even thrive, when we begin to do endless, countless, small acts of mercy that connect us one to another across all the lines that divide us. Tip your waitress more. Say “thank-you” to the beleaguered, grouchy clerk in the store who earns minimum wage, and might just have to live every day as a struggle for survival. Smile at strangers on the street- even if they look like they have absolutely nothing in common with you. Call your legislator and thank him for the grueling hours he or she works. And say thank-you for whatever legislation you ARE grateful for.
Sow gratitude and humility all around you – because those elements are the fertile ground for justice. And without justice, our ship continues to take on water and flounder.
William Blake gave us these wonderful words: “We must do good for one another in minute particulars.” Those are good words to live by now.
I have placed on the communion table this morning a “crazy quilt” that was made in the 1890’s by a group of Baptist women, some of whom were in my family. The quilt serves as a visual of the minute particulars that bind people to one another. Those women sat close by one another. They undoubtedly shared their life stories with one another as they stitched. They each had an artistic gift to give, and they added what they could. But it was only in its “binding together” its “holding together” that the individual pieces become what those women intended and imagined and hoped for. Together, the tiny scraps of cloth become a thing of beauty.
What does the Lord require of us? To do justice. To love kindness. And to walk humbly with our God. There is no time to waste, we must hasten to live for one another.
Carleen R. Gerber
The First Congregational Church of Old Lyme