Dorchester Days

DORCHESTER DAYS: From The Beginning

(This is the beginning of new work about the eight to ten years I spent in Dorchester, Massachusetts from 1966 to 1976. Let me know what you think.)

“From your mother’s womb I knew you.”  Jeremiah 5:1

Mom was six months pregnant with me when we boarded the train in Boston to Chicago to see my father. He was in training to be a bombardier. It was 1943. The trains were crowded with GI’s moving from one station to another for training or to the front.

Mom told me later, “I stood all the way to Chicago. I’d get a break for my legs and back by sitting in the ladies room. I didn’t want to take a seat from any of those boys.”

By the time she arrived in Chicago and Bob met her, “My legs and ankles were swollen,” she said.

It was as if I was witness to the world through my mother’s heartbeat. I believed I knew her joy and her stress, her young fears, her expectant hopes. I knew her fierce compassion for others and her lack of care for her own well-being, as if she in her own right did not deserve a seat on the train. I shared in her stress.

The seed was planted by two young ones who could not know the future and out of passion and love and some exquisite courting, the two had crossed the country to be married in Nevada during the first year of our involvement with WW II. The war entered the womb. Mom’s friend Clare Stata’s husband Chip, was listed as Missing in Action in Europe. The papers reported deaths and MIA’s. The women read the listings and waited.

The birth was difficult. Mother had to be induced and I was pulled out with forceps. I was told, “You looked like Max Schmeling.”  Schmeling was the German heavyweight champion who was a darling of Hitler. He was beaten in the first round by Joe Louis in the 1938 title re-match for world heavyweight champion. My head and shoulders were bruised and misshapen, but I was greeted by a chorus of happy faces and my mother who in her ecstasy and delirium repeated the words, “My son, my son…”

The day after I was born my father sent a letter from a base in North Africa where his unit of B-17’s was stationed to fly across the Mediterranean to hit enemy targets in Eastern and Southern Europe. He had flown three missions since his arrival a few weeks before. One of the flights forced the crew to ditch in the Mediterranean south of Corsica. The crew was rescued. In a day he would fly out on his fourth mission as the bombardier on the California Comet.

Letters from the front were known as V-mail.  This letter dated November 15, 1943, the day after my birth.

“Hello darling, …

How does it feel being a mother? I’m taking it for granted that you are one by now. I’d like to know about it, dear, but I guess I will before many more days. It most certainly will be a relief when I get definite word about it and can be sure you’re allright.

Things are going along pretty well here. No complaints to make and now we have a gasoline stove fixed up so we can keep really comfortably warm in spite of the weather, I hope you are all O.K. and everything is going well.

Your worshipping loving husband always.   Bob”

The California Comet would crash in Sicily on November 19th. All of the crew perished. The news came three or four weeks later. Two uniformed soldiers came to the beveled glass front door of our Boston Victorian. The rest of that day was described to me by Penny Hunt in the hospital where we both volunteered. Penny, a teenager at the time, lived across the street. One day thirty five years later as we sat together in the hospital cafeteria, I asked her about that day.

“The house was bedlam,” she told me. The word “bedlam” reached a visceral memory of the infant I was that day. Tears welled and then uncontrollable sobs.” It seemed to go on forever. Doctors and nurses and others looked at us concerned. Napkin after paper napkin was used and discarded. Penny stayed with me and stolidly sat with me as I let the tears flow. It seemed like the first time I fully grieved that day.

As an infant, I probably did not understand what had happened. And yet it was inscribed in my cells. “Rachel grieving over her lost children”, was familiar to me. I knew there was no easy word of consolation. There were only tears, a grief inconsolable. My mother would say in her later years to me,

 

“I was a bride, a mother and a widow all in the space of one year.”

 

Life would go on, and still the memory of that day would live on in the family. As his only heir, I was named after my father. And so I carried on in some conscious and unconscious ways his legacy. I would protect the women and children, I would fight for freedom. I would be good.

 

Yet I had this inexplicable wander lust. I was picked up by the police at age two or three as I tried to direct traffic a half mile from the house. My grandfather and great grandfather had been a Boston cops. The police bought me an ice-cream cone and brought me home. Mother was scolded for letting me get out of the house.

My tricycle was not fast enough to get me off the sidewalk on St John Street where we lived in an 1890 Victorian House always in need of repair and that cost a fortune to heat with coal in the winter. But in September of 1948, Mom married my step-dad, John Dudas.  John used to admire my mother as she walked me in a carriage wearing a kerchief around her head. “She looked like a good Polish girl”, he thought. She was not Polish but she was pretty good.

John, Dad took me to the Pond where there was a paved stretch of road where he taught me how to ride a bike. I remember when he would hold me and the bike at first. Then one day he pushed and let go. I felt the air move through my hair. Wee, I was riding on my own.

Dad gave me the wheels to ride that bike up the hill to Franklin Park and the overlook of Blue Hill Avenue and Columbia Road where I would later spend ten years. Dad also gave me a fascination with the city and a longing to encounter its diversity. His parents were both Lithuanian immigrants who settled in the West End of Boston in the early 1900’s. He was orphaned at thirteen when his father and mother died in the crowded tenements from consumption (TB). His stories of the West End are worth another book. But it is safe to report that his childhood neighborhood was the most racially, religiously and ethnically mixed part of the city.

I travelled on my bicycle almost everywhere within a three mile radius of my house, though the parks designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, down Washington Street with the overhead El, and to the Zoo at Franklin Park. This was my city, every street and alleyway had the mark of ancestors who arrived here early in the 1640’s. I was a Bostonian as much as any white man or woman I knew and I would know every part of her. Like a lover off to court his beloved, I would know her beauty and her fears, her prejudices and her expansive vision of a “city on a hill”. And I would do what I could to discover ways to make that city a home to all people.

In those days no one ever challenged me or stole my bike. I’d pass by kids on corners and not a word was said to me. At least I didn’t hear them. I was accompanied by the wind in my hair and a trust in life.

Fifteen years after my bicycle carried me to the overlook onto the intersection of Columbia Road and Blue Hill Avenue, I’d arrive back to a place where I had started.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dorchester Days: Arrival at St Mark’s Church

It was a late summer day and the sounds of Jamaica played in the parking lot of the Stop N’ Shop at the intersection of Columbia Road and Washington Street. My companion and driver, David, stopped his powder blue Plymouth and we exited to listen to the rhythms made from the steel drums hammered to precision from the lids of oil cans. The tintinnabulation from sticks that struck the shallow round divots vibrated in the warm breeze. I was seduced by the sounds just like Jeremiah who complained to God when he wrote, “You have seduced me, Adonai, and I have let myself be seduced.” Between the music and Jeremiah and God, I didn’t have a chance. I had to come here to learn what signs of God were to be discovered in the heart of this part of the city.

I looked up. One hundred yards away, a faded red, white and blue sign waved in the wind. It read
The Episcopal Church welcomes you.

“This is the place”, I announced to David.

I wanted to be an Episcopal priest and a requirement for ordination was to do field work. I attended the Episcopal Theological School on Brattle Street in Cambridge. My roots were from the working class, immigrants and a long and poor line of those who settled New England and this part of the city in the 1600’s. As far as I knew I was the only one of that line left in the city. The air of the Seminary on Brattle Street in Cambridge was a few miles and a world away from Dorchester. The window of my dormitory room looked toward the Longfellow House and its gardens. On my first day at the seminary, students were dressed in Blazers and khakis. I felt like an alien, or at least an imposter, sent from another world. Not that I didn’t appreciate its pristine beauty, in fact it was another seduction, one that in 1966, I had to resist as well as navigate.

The year before I arrived in Cambridge, Jonathan Daniels, a student from the seminary was shot and killed in Alabama as he worked to integrate the churches and register the African American vote. I wanted to be in a place where men like Jon went. There was no doubt in my mind that the call I had received was to be among those pushed to the fringes. My step-dad’s experience as he grew up with immigrant parents in Boston’s West End captivated. His parent’s deaths from TB and his subsequent experience in an orphanage were both tragic and inspirational. I could imagine how desperate he felt as he helplessly watched his mother cough and bleed from the TB that would take her young life. I was drawn by his stories of how he scraped out a living from the back rail yards of the North Station. His anger and frustration with life and work also propelled me away from the abuses of authority. I knew I had to try to find a place in the city to live out my call.

My roots in the city went deep. The land only a few miles from this place was farmed by ancestors from the 1640’s. My grandmother was third cousin to Louisa May Alcott. Louisa’s uncle was an abolitionist and was stoned with William Lloyd Garrison as they addressed a gathering on Beacon Hill. They fled the mob through underground tunnels to the river. This was my beloved city and right now she was in pain.  Whether it was pain of death or of birth, I didn’t know. Now as I look back, it was both

That summer I had another mystical experience. I had sworn off mystical experiences  because I wanted to try to be more normal. I contained the inner life as much as possible in fear for my sanity. I was in full rebellion from the constructs and frames of the family. I had some appreciation for their hard efforts to protect me from the world and from their own terrors, memories and fears of war and depression. But a return to the city, from which my family had left for the dream of a little suburban bungalow, beckoned to me.

Many of us were in search of ourselves, trying to figure out who we were and not who someone else thought we should be. The legacy of a deceased hero of the great war was infused into my sense of who I was. I sought out a counselor in Cambridge. The Harvard Health Plan paid for all my medical costs. It was a great perk to those of us who were trying to unravel the complex family systems that kept us enthralled and tied to the past.

Paula the counselor listened as I told her my dream.

“I dreamed of one eye in a skull looking out at me. I knew it was my father who had been killed in the war. He was only twenty three when his B-17 crashed in the hills of Sicily.”

Paula said to me, “Bob, your father lived his life fully, when are you going to live yours.”

It was time.

And still the images and dreams wouldn’t quit. The Aurora Borealis (Northern lights) that summer was too much to ignore. I had never seen one.  On the Maine Island with my beloved, the woman I thought I would marry, we looked up into the vast vault of golden light that pulsed and danced in the heavens. In the center emerged a small black bird. As I watched entranced, the small bird grew. With unfathomable speed and force the black bird descended straight toward me. I could not escape or run away. The black and golden flyer swept over me and exploded into a starburst of light. It was as if I could feel the force of its wings.

No one on the Island saw the descent of the bird that night. I asked others. I was the only one. They remember the Aurora Borealis that night, but not the black golden bird. So I didn’t die, I was not swept up in the talons of a great predator falcon or was I? I kept the vision or illusion, and the experience to myself for the next thirty-five years. But I knew it was some kind of call, whether to God or the devil, I didn’t know, but it got my attention. I figured time would tell what the message was about. Thirty-five years later I saw an image of the Holy Spirit. It was an umber falcon with flecks of gold on its wings and breast. It is the image of the Holy Spirit of the Native American people. No white dove here.

A lifetime of growing up in Episcopal Churches brought me to this place where Dave and I listened to a steel band. One hundred yards away stood St Mark’s Church. I would leave this church nine months later, when the youth group held a going away party for me and a riot broke out a stones throw from the church. Five years later I was ordained at St Mark’s to be a deacon by Bishop Burgess, the first African American Diocesan Bishop in the Episcopal Church. As he laid his hands on my head he sang,

“Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,

And lighten with celestial fire,

Thou the anointing spirit art,

Who doth thy sevenfold gifts impart.

 

Thy blessed unction from above

Is comfort, life and fire of love.

Enable with perpetual light

The dullness of out blinded sight…”

 

 

St Marks Church.

 

The Reggae sounds of the steel band followed us as Dave and I drove the remaining hundred yards to the church. It was a small wooden church, painted brown with a light cream trim. A solid four foot chain link fence surrounded the property. A parish hall of the same early 20th century vintage was attached in the back of the property. A house which I rightly assumed was the rectory stood to the left. I knocked.

 

A big white man opened the door. I told him that I wanted to do field work at St Mark’s. William Buttrick invited us in. By the time we were finished, I had an assignment to return on Sunday for the eight o’clock service and to meet the youth group.

 

The trip from Cambridge to Columbia Road in Dorchester on a Sunday morning had to begin early. I left the seminary at 6 AM and took the train from Harvard Square to Columbia Station. The train was fast and I had to make the connection to the bus that went the three miles up Columbia Road to the Church. I would read, and prepare as I travelled I thought. Instead I looked out the window as the bus covered the distance. I was looking at the neighborhoods I would live in for much of the next ten years: the white neighborhood near the highway and Columbia Station that bordered South Boston, the mixed white and Latino neighborhood of Uphams Corner, and the area around St Marks that bordered Roxbury and was now a largely African American community.

 

Attendance at the eight-o-clock service was sparse. Its familiar words with its thee’s and thou’s were strangely comforting. I had grown up with them and their regular and elegant rhythms had been memorized through force of repetition. The prayer book that defines Anglicans worldwide was in the process of a major update. The congregation was mostly older and West Indian, Jamaican, well dressed, dignified, and groomed. The women wore hats, the men suits. They were erect and formal and also warm and kind as they welcomed me to the church.

 

Will Buttrick took me to breakfast after the service. A bachelor,  Buttrick was a retired army captain who traced his family roots to the battle of the Concord’s North Bridge. We would take the youth group to Concord and point out the stone marker to them of the place where his ancestor Colonel  (then Major) John Buttrick led the minutemen to shoot at the British regulars as they crossed the bridge. A statue of a Minute Man stands facing towards where the British force first appeared that day in 1775. Bill Buttrick was about six feet, solid, erect and he was used to command.  He had his work cut out for him. I was not one to be commanded.

 

Attendance was better at the ten o’clock service, the choir lined up and we processed to traditional, mostly European, hymns into the church. The congregation of predominantly Jamaican and other West Indian English speaking colonies and were closely tied to the traditions of the English church. And they loved to sing. So much of our spiritual life was entwined with the poetry and melodies of the hymns. So I joined in with the choir and we sang the old familiar European songs in parts and with gusto. There were always one or two voices slightly off key to make things interesting. The one hymn that we all knew was written by a Black man was:

 

“In Christ there is no East or West,

In Him No South or North.

But One Great Fellowship of Love

Throughout the whole wide earth.

 

Join Hands then brothers of the faith

What-ere your race may be.

Who Loves the Father and the Son

Is surely kin to me.”

 

We sang that hymn often.

 

The Youth Group

 

Mr. Mills was the elderly grandfather of his family. Dignified and always impeccably dressed in a grey striped suit, he brought his grandson Elliot with him, the youth equally well groomed and dressed.

Mrs. Roundtree who also sang in the choir was both West Indian and Native American. She was a force for the traditional ways of doing things. Formality and form was paramount. She could out do the British, which was fun for me because my Grandmother was an immigrant from Wales by way of Liverpool with almost no loyalty to British manners. Mrs. Neil was the single mother of three daughters. Hope her oldest was one of the key people in the youth group. She was 12 going on 13, tall and erect and bright. Donna Stevens came with her Motown 45’s that the youth group would dance to when they met in the parish hall on Sunday afternoons.

 

 

“What do you want to do?” I asked the group of about twelve tweens when we met that afternoon.

 

“We want to dance and play our music!” They said enthusiastically.

 

“Anything else?”

 

“Go on trips

Get out of the house

Meet other youth groups

Dance.”

 

The meetings of the youth group became regular dance parties. A hi-fi record player, pre- stereo, turned up as high as possible, carried the steady drum beats of Motown and other Black artists. Each of the girls would bring their collections of 45’s, the small disks with the inch and a half holes in the middle. The young girls were steady and graceful and danced together . Dennis Ambrose moved about the floor like a disciplined mad man, finding every nuance to the beat. Dennis moved every part of his body, feet, arms, hips, head, neck, torso and legs were a blur of motion. Hope moved her long neck back and forth, with an acumen that suggested she had another bone or racial memory in her neck that I didn’t have.

 

Five years earlier, I was on the lam from the Episcopal boy’s school I attended in Western Mass. With a book of essays by Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, I read a piece by him as I rode the bus from Lenox to Boston called the General Dance. I was 18. Merton wrote that “God did not create humans to punish them. God created humans because he wanted a partner to be a companion in the dance.”

I learned later that some of the wise ones in the early church, considered this movement as one of the dance of love from Father, to son to the Holy Spirit that spills to overflowing in self-emptying love for all creatures and people. And we go round and round in a dance of divine love, taking our grief and fear and anger and self-hatred and dance the night away learning the dance of Holy Love. We are all a part of this holy interchange of divine energy that circles round and round. When we join in the dance we are taken up in the divine dance and into holy love and holy laughter.

 

Yet there is a wide gulf between thinking about something and doing it, of living into it.  I seldom got up and danced. Now the tweens in my Youth Group wanted nothing more than to dance. But I had no idea how to move to the beats of the drums or the high falsetto’s of the singers. I sat and watched on the sidelines along with Elliot Francis, the grandson of Mr. Mills.

 

When I was their age, I was embarrassed into dance class. I learned how to do a halting waltz, a tripping and toe stomping fox-trot, and a jerking cha-cha. No one ever told me how to dance to the faster pace of Rock and Roll, R & B and soul. I couldn’t even do a decent Twist. After all White boys don’t dance, and neither do some Black boys.

 

After a couple of weeks of sitting and watching, 12 year old Hope Neil took me out on the floor of the parish hall and taught me some steps. I was dancing.  It was fantastic. I watched the young Dennis Ambrose as he moved like a wild child around the floor. I had to dance like Dennis. In no time I was in the dance and I started to lose my self in the movement. I wasn’t self-conscious any more; there was nothing else between me and the music, me and my partner, me and the sweetness of God.

All I had to do was step onto the dance floor and a little child would lead me.

My two earliest teachers Hope Neil and Dennis Ambrose live on in the dance. Hope Neil later went to Princeton where she met and married a Poet. She is a doctor. Dennis Ambrose was taken from us in the first on-rush of the AIDS epidemic that killed so many of our best youth.

 

So the dance is between Hope and Dennis, hope and grief, joy and sorrow and laughter and tears.

 

Elliot probably eventually learned to dance. After all I was at least ten years older than he. He had plenty of time to catch up and pass me by.

 

Later, I grew to dance in circles.

 

Are you God?

 

It was a warm day a week or two later when I walked up the front stairs of Mrs. Neil’s house to do a parish visit. I was amazed how this single mother raised her three daughters. Even then I could tell Hope, the oldest, was destined for greatness.  A three or four year old Black boy played on the front porch as I climbed them to ring the bell. I say Black because in those days it was a mark of pride and beauty. We capitalized Black because it was an identity rather than a description. The beautiful young child was no more than three feet. He looked up at me with his eyes wide and asked,

 

“Are you God?”

 

I was embarrassed. I had long sun bleached hair and a beard.  I had to think of something fast.

 

So I said, “No I’m not. Didn’t you know God is Black and she’s a woman?”

 

I was both pleased with myself and deeply troubled. Pleased I could come up with a flip counterpoint to the child’s false idea of God and dismay that the child had completely absorbed a notion of God as white. How much did my mere presence in this community play into that stereotype? It was a question I would ask over the next two years.

 

Mrs. Neil was worn and wise. She was my Madonna, the holy mother as some of the women were in the parish and neighborhood. I silently bowed in her presence in deference and respect for the work she had undertaken to raise the three girls. How did she dress them? How did she teach them to respect themselves in a culture where there was little respect?

People from the community bridled at a mention I carelessly made about Mrs. Neil raising the girls on “Welfare”. I considered it a great accomplishment; my critics thought it was meant to demean her accomplishments. I listened. I had much to learn.

 

The youth group visited Franklin Park, only a block away from the church.  The park had been one of my early destinations when I got my first bike. In 1948 or 49 at the age of five or six, I’d drive my Freedom machine up the hill from my Jamaica Plain neighborhood to the Park navigate over the Puddingstone rock, a major geological hold over from the ice age and did not slip on rocks sharp ridges.

 

The Park contained the zoo. Caged lions and Rhino’s and elephants created a stench. The huge creatures spent a large part of their day chained in a concrete sluice where their waste could be easily washed away. Outside these dark prisons, the park, in contrast, was beautiful. It was part of a network of Parks designed by Frederick Law Olmstead originally designed to encircle the city. The park stopped here on the border of Dorchester.

 

By 1966 it was still accessible during the day. Families would bring their picnics. The youth group brought some kites and a whiffle ball and bat and we played and picnicked in the park near the entrance where a stone entry arch marked a broad avenue of green mown grass and a large field that paralleled Blue Hill avenue. We left before dusk because the park by then was known to be dangerous. The Black families, ever protective, did not understand my naiveté about the safety of the youth and the youth and I conspired to find opportunities to gain more time away from the protective confines of the family and the church buildings.

 

I devised with another seminarian a visit to a suburban parish. The youth group was hosting a dinner for the parish.  We’d have a little time together we thought after the meal had been served by their youth group and ours. The youth were great together. Everyone was treated well and there was a lot of camaraderie among the youth as they did a fantastic job serving the adults. But the night drew on and by 8:30 PM, I started to get calls on the church phone asking where the youth were. Just when we were getting a chance to meet and talk with the other group. I stalled another half hour and returned the youth to Dorchester to a distraught Will Buttrick and a bevy of upset parents. The youth were fine.

 

The city had a long and storied African-American history. We went on trips into Boston and forged a Black Freedom trail. The stops included the site of the Boston Massacre and its first casualty the African American youth Crispus Attucks. Then we walked to the frieze of the African American regiment that went and fought valiantly from Massachusetts during the Civil War. We visited the site where the great African American  abolitionist, Frederick Douglas addressed a crowd in Boston. We finished the visit to the Diocesan House where they met Bishop Burgess the first African American Diocesan Bishop in the United States.  There were more places and histories about great Black Bostonians, such as Phyllis Wheatley who came from the very neighborhood where the youth lived. Such a curriculum would be slow to develop.

 

In response to the forgotten memory of it’s African American legacy, Byron Rushing, a contemporary and Harvard grad opened a museum in Roxbury that gathered together some of the city’s and regions history and artifacts. Twenty years later, Byron Rushing, now an older and brilliant representative from Roxbury to the state legislature, impugned my Abolitionist ancestor. The white Abolitionists were blind to their racism and condescension to Blacks. I bridled. I knew he was right. I stood and said to him, “and they were the only friends you had.”

 

Tim’s slide show of Jamaica

 

Tim was a friend and seminarian with me and had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Jamaica.

 

Tim I asked, “How’d you like to show your slides of Jamaica to the Church in Dorchester?”

 

Tim was delighted. He arranged and brought all the equipment to show the slides. The parish women set up the parish hall with a silver tea service, white table cloths all around and fine china and they were going to have a high tea along with the slide presentation.

 

Tim’s slide show was greatly appreciated. The flowers that were omnipresent in Jamaica, bougainvillea climbed over walls and fences and buildings even in the cities, the folk in rural villages,  the hardship and the dignity, all brought memories and tears of longing to many in the room. After the presentation Tim, the rector and I were all seated at the head of the table by ourselves while everyone else was clustered around the rectangle at our feet.  It was obvious that they wanted to honor Tim and give him the place of honor which would have been all right, but to have the rector and me in the place of honor and not seated next to the parish leaders was an embarrassment. We were three white boys in a sea of Black faces.

 

But the community around us was changing. From the neighborhood Malcolm X and later Louis Farrakhan emerged as leaders of the Black Muslim movement. Louis was raised as an Episcopalian and it was true that the English church was a colonial church and had its roots in a slave culture. The youth and the parish within a few years would move out of this mindset and the next priests would be African and African American men. I would know two of them. Donna Stevens would change her name to Aqilla and scarf adorns her head.

 

One day Will Buttrick pointed out a light grey hearse as it drove up Columbia Road.

 

“It’s another military funeral”, he said. “There are more of them now, almost every day”.

Will, had been an army captain, probably trying in his way to follow the legacy of his ancestor who helped pick off the British regulars who tried to cross the North Bridge over the Concord River and who are immortalized as the Minute Men.

 

The build up in Vietnam ratcheted up and the War on Poverty was, drop by drop, abandoned. Columbia Road was one of the main roads to travel from the neighborhoods of Dorchester and Roxbury to reach to the grave yards in Jamaica Plain and Hyde Park. There were a lot of poor and working class Black and white casualties from the Vietnam conflict who made their mournful way pass the church to their graves that year.

 

The Last day with the youth group, June 2, 1967

 

I stepped onto the bus in front of the church. It was empty except for the driver and a plain clothes cop who looked at me as if I was scum. To him, I probably was. A young bearded radical white college kid had become the enemy.

It was June 2, nine months after I first arrived to the sounds of a steel band at the corner of Columbia Road and Washington Street. The youth group organized a going away party. I was to leave and go to train in a state mental hospital in Maine.  It was a Friday and the last Sunday with the congregation would be that Sunday. It was a beautiful day. The event was filled with fun and laughter. The youth danced. By then Hope Neil, Donna Stevens, and Stephen Ambrose had taught me to dance and I loved moving around to the sounds of Motown. Who said white boys don’t dance? I became a dancing machine. The party abruptly ended when a riot broke out three blocks away in Grove Hall. Parents, fearful for their children, called to bring them home. The priest and some of the parents drove the youth home. The families of the youth gathered enough money for a gift for me. I wanted something that would forever be a reminder of that year at St Marks. I picked out a fine pewter mug. I still have it and use it to keep my pens and pencils and some art supplies.

During the afternoon that Friday a group of women, black and white, entered the Grove Hall Welfare Office along with some students, to demand respect and better rights for women on welfare. The group chained themselves into the building and refused to allow the fifty or so staff to leave unless their demands were met. Someone made a call from the building saying one of the staff was having a heart attack, the police and fire department forced themselves into a window in the back of the building and a woman, and it was believed, called out. “They’re beating us with night sticks.” The crowd that had gathered erupted. At the end of the night and the next two days, the neighborhood was in lock down. 1900 police were called on duty forty five people were injured and as many arrested. According to my associate and state representative Byron Rushing who was there that night, it was when someone called out, “they’re beating the women,” that the riot began.

As the riot erupted a few blocks away, I boarded the bus to Cambridge.

The following Sunday, I was routed to Dorchester via Dudley Street Station Down Blue Hill Ave. Twenty to thirty stores had been vandalized and some burnt. The main business district of this area of the city was now decimated and boarded.  From that day Boston changed and so did the youth group. Aqilla, who changed her name from Donna Stevens, told me recently as she laughed at some of these ancient memories, “Those were the last years of my innocence.”

Thanks for teaching me how to dance and I hope you haven’t forgotten.

The summer of 1967:

I was hopelessly in love with Annie. We met during my last and her first year at College. She was also from Dedham, where Dad had moved us from Jamaica Plain when I was seven. Ann’s grandmother had taught me in the seventh grade, forcing me in front of the class to recite Longfellow’s Evangeline, “This is the forest primeval, but where are the hearts that beneath it?” It was a question about which I had no clue, but I learned that I could both memorize and make a credible presentation in front of the class. Annie was certainly the woman I thought I would marry. Yet the time apart had proved too lonely for her. She met others and the letters became less frequent and cautious.

 

By the summer of 1967 I was off for more training in Clinical Pastoral Education at the huge state hospital in Maine. Over 1000 souls from the profoundly developmentally disabled to those with Down syndrome, who often lit up the room, to teens with severe psychopathic or sociopathic issues and placed their by the court, all lived on one gigantic campus.

 

We were housed in a dormitory on the grounds that looked over a field of Black- eyed Susan’s and Kapalian Hall. Kapalian Hall housed the most severely mentally disabled. One room was a large concrete poll about six inches deep that held no water. Naked men roamed in the gym sized space and talked with their monsters and imaginary friends. The men were placed due to their incontinence and they and their excrement could be hosed down. It was my idea of hell.

 

Some of the other units were homes with four to six people with two or more house parents. These “homes” were better models and they took in those who tended to be more functional and who had jobs around the campus.

 

Our task was to visit with as wide a variety of people who lived here and to report back to the group of four other students and our leader what we talked about. The exercise was called “the verbatim”. We had to try to remember what we said and what they said and to put it verbatim on paper. We then presented the verbatim in front of the group.

 

The program lasted for twelve weeks. We were on twelve hours a day. One Sunday I took the non-denominational service in a room in one of the main dormitories converted to a chapel. The room was crowded. In the back a couple with Down syndrome sat smiling at one another. My sermon was about how much God loves you. A voice from the back came back, “Not as much as my girlfriend loves me”.

The young man with Down’s stood up. I chuckled. “Even that much,” I said.

 

I had kept a promise to myself that I wouldn’t have sex except with the woman I would marry. With some exceptions for heavy petting in the front seat of my Dad’s car, at the age of 22 I was still technically a virgin.  Annie had been the one and when our love affair fell apart so did my carefully protected idea of virginity.

 

That summer I got a date with the Maine State Apple Queen. A few years younger she borrowed her father’s Ford Fairlane and we went dancing in a great roadside dance joint called the Carpet Factory. With my new skills we danced the night away.

 

The second date we drove to Sebago Lake and parked in the State Park. That night as the dark descended and mosquitos swarmed, I sang the Magnificat. I sang the old plainsong setting. It was something far beyond her experience. What to me was a holy moment must have been inexorably foreign to her. I was still in mourning for Annie and held hopes that we could be together again. We drove home. That was our last date.

 

I was half way to a major depression during that summer and the next year as things started to fully unravel with Annie. This entry into the inner life, some of the readings we were doing, the long and sometimes terrifying revelations about us and our motivations were breaking down and through the outward image I tried to unsuccessfully present to the world.

 

There were at least two gifts that summer. I learned to listen a little better. It helped train the ear for conversation, but I don’t remember much of conversations that summer. By the end of it, my opinion of myself had been significantly humbled. I wonder how much positive self-image one needs?  I mean it seemed I had everything going for me. I was white, male, tall smart enough and had been surrounded by women who loved me. My first full venture into the world of love and its death caused {my ideas of love and loyalty to crumble.}

 

Seminary began in September. It was my second year. I worked in the school cafeteria, at Colonial Drug Store in Harvard Square, and taught Sunday school in a parish in Brookline. I also tried to study. One of the courses in Pastoral Theology incited me to write a paper on “Class and the Church.” The dear man who was our professor disputed with me that there was a class issue in either the church or in the United States. He gave me a C.

 

The nightly news carried images of the undeclared war in Vietnam. After work at the drug store, Michael Ferber a student at Harvard Divinity School regaled an overflow audience at the Brattle Street Theater about the draft. Along with Dr. Benjamin Spock, and William Sloane Coffin and others, he had been indicted by the Attorney General for conspiracy to “aid and abet resistance to the draft”. The generals wanted four-hundred-thousand more draftees for the conflict. “Conspiracy”, Ferber said, “means to breathe together. We are indicted for breathing together.”

 

At the end of December, concentration on my studies had ground to a halt. I went to the Dean and asked if I could take a leave of absence for a year. “Of course, and when you come back there will be a place for you”, he said.

 

So where would I live? The closest I could find a place to live to Dorchester was Roxbury.  St John and St James Church was on Roxbury Street across from an ancient and revered Unitarian Church and a block from Prince Hall, the first African American Masonic Group in the nation.

 

Rick D’Onofrio the priest gave me a room above the sanctuary on the third floor. Helen Robinson a member of the mostly all African American Church was my guide and intermediary. I was invited to a Baptism for a family I didn’t know; I looked around and noticed that Rick and I were the only white people in the room. I turned to Helen and blurted out, “Helen I’m the only white guy here, I feel a little uncomfortable.” Helen responded without a breath, “How do you think we feel?”

 

In the basement, the venerable African American Artist, Alan Crite would arrive to cut his Sunday Bulletin covers on stencils of a Black Jesus, and ran them off on the AB Dick copy machine. One day he had recently retuned from Central America and his images of angels and flowing robes and wings were ablaze with color which he added by hand. To have Alan present a Black Jesus on a weekly bulletin dramatized the conflict that was taking place even now in the South and building to consciousness in the city.

 

I gravitated toward the New England Resistance that was organizing against the draft. That March we made a tour of New England to speak to students in Connecticut and Maine. At the Pomfret School in Connecticut we met with a full house of students and faculty. Twenty five African American students sat stolidly in a group in the front of the room. Such a demonstration of solidarity and separation seemed to me worth pointing out to the assembled multitude. With no attempt to interpret what it meant, I said nothing more about what was taking place in the rest of the country.

 

At the University of Maine in Portland we were greeted by Diane Francis, a native Passamaquoddy in her second year at the school. The tribe to which she belonged was one of the first encountered by Samuel De Champlain when he explored the coast of the country we now call New England. Francis was a natural leader from a long line of chiefs in the tribe. She shared how she planned to return to the reservation in Old Town and work on the high incidence of alcoholism and reclaim land taken from the tribe years before. She succeeded at the later. The former I’m not so sure.

 

On the way to Orono to the main campus of the University of Maine, the March ice had failed to melt and the earth was covered in a carpet of crystal. Some of those we met on the way would come to turn in their draft cards with me on April 3rd at the Arlington Street Church.

 

On April 3rd, 1968 I lived above the sanctuary of the church which was a large converted house. The congregation, unlike St Mark’s was mostly African American, descendants of North American slavery. Some remembered grandparents who had lived in the South; others could trace their roots in the city back as long as mine. Boston’s segregation was what we called “de-facto” or by neighborhood. The Black community was virtually a ghetto. Henry, a Heroin addict, shared the upstairs with me.  One afternoon, Henry sweat and shivered through withdrawal from heroin. I did what I could and then called an ambulance.

Our group called the New England Resistance helped to organize a massive demonstration against the war and a draft card burning. Over 100,000 massed on Boston Common. About thirty of us turned in or burned our cards. My act was largely symbolic as I was exempt from the draft because my father had been killed in WWII. For me it was an act of resistance and to the mounting death toll in Vietnam as well as a protest to the draft.

On Thursday morning, April 4th, I made my way to the Subway that took me downtown and to the Arlington Street Church. We were to plan for the Sanctuary of two young draftees who refused to return to active duty. Dates had been set and I returned to our office where we put together the newspaper. News arrived that evening that Martin had been assassinated. We hastily planned a meeting the next morning and I returned home to Roxbury in the dark. The city was quiet and in mourning.

I had heard Dr. King only a few months before deliver a sermon he entitled simply: “Why I am Against the War in Vietnam”. Martin was working his sermon when I entered the sacristy, to be introduced to great and diminutive Rabbi Abraham Heschel. Heschel was revered by many of us seminarians for his work The Prophets, his stand with Martin in the South and his dedication to the life of prayer. To be in the presence of such eminence was powerful. I extended my hand and stuttered, “r-r-r Rabbi Heschel I am honored to meet you.” Martin did not look up from the text of his sermon. I was relieved. I would have been struck silent.

The meeting the next day was crowded. Three hundred of us were crammed into Arlington Street Church. Homer was one of the only Blacks in the room. Agitated and nearly in tears he left the room. I followed and returned to Roxbury. The Boston Police had amassed around Dudley Street Station in preparation for school letting out and to stop any attempts at a riot like the one that had burned down many of the businesses along Blue Hill Avenue less than two years before. I told the wise elders at the church that I wanted to go down to Dudley Street and monitor the police. They said, “No. You should not go out. It’s not that the Blacks are going to hurt you.” They said, “It is more dangerous for us in our own community; it’s the unpredictability of the police.” In my naiveté, I thought that as the grandson and great grandson of Boston cops, I had some imagined authority to be there as a monitor. There were no riots in Boston that day.

It wasn’t lost on us that Martin was moving still in another direction when he was shot; organizing Municipal garbage handlers. We had just had the ground shaken from under our feet. The leader of one of the most powerful, influential and critical movements in the history of the land had been killed. We were learning that every effort to change the nation could be interrupted by an assassin’s bullet. We now had to learn to organize. Organizations could have many leaders and they could change. You couldn’t kill an organization by killing one leader. That is the direction many of us would take in the coming years, including the young College graduate, Barack Obama in Chicago twenty or so years later. .

Martin in a sermon in 1957 in Montgomery Alabama at the height of the bus boycott made a plea to Love One’s enemies: He refutes the idea that the love of one’s enemies is too idealistic and impractical.
“…we have followed the so-called practical way for too long now, and it has led

inexorably to deeper confusion and chaos. Time is cluttered with the refuge

of communities which surrendered to hatred and violence. For the salvation of

our nation and the salvation of (hu)mankind, we must follow another way. This

does not mean to abandon our righteous efforts. With every ounce of our energy we must continue to rid this nation of the incubus of segregation. But we shall not in the process relinquish our privilege and our obligation to love. While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community”

 

 

What had begun as a day of hope and resistance to the War in Vietnam ended in the dark night in the heart of the Black community in the city of my youth.  It became a time of evaluation of where we had been and where we needed to go. The killers had their practical way, now we would have to find another road. A road we have yet to take as a nation and a people. And yet there are many of us who have tried and bled on the way to some kind of truce. We would try love, with its twist and turns and its imperfections and failures. We would try love.

 

A month later Federal Marshalls and Boston Police invaded the sanctuary at Arlington Street Church and hauled our two resisters away. We circled the church and sang “We Shall Overcome” and placed ourselves in front of the vehicles that would take the two young men away. I was maced and hit over the head with a hidden cudgel by one of the Boston cops who I would re-encounter when I became a parish priest in another Boston neighborhood. We were hauled away, placed in a dark city jail and released. Exhilarated, I rode the trolley car home at rush hour, holding the strap with dried blood on my head.

 

Smoke: Off to Berkeley, California.

 

I had never been farther west than Niagara Falls, so when Joshua Chasan and I met in April and we decided to make a cross country trip to California. Joshua was working on a doctorate in American History at the University of Pittsburg. We had been roommates at Hobart and his clear and compassionate Jewish left of center politics turned me around. Joshua introduced me to Pete Seeger. Seeger had been labeled as a Communist by the Joe McCarthy “red-baiting,” of the 50’s. So I was gun shy of him until Josh and I would sing and he would play, “Oh had I a Golden Thread”. That song and the ones we had been singing at Arlington Street and “This Land is Your Land,” changed the way I saw the country.

 

He had given me a copy of Anne Frank’s little Diary for my 20th birthday. When he gave it to me he said, “You’re one person I know who can understand this book.” Anyone who lived in the post WW II era who had an ounce of sensitivity had been shattered by the holocaust. Our notions of God had been transformed from omnipotence to one of vulnerability and suffering. God was with the ones in the death chambers, dying and rising again to a new consciousness about evil and redemption. Our redemption was found in the great suffering in the camps that led people like Victor Frankl to write his hauntingly heartbreaking tome , “From Death Camp to Existentialism”, which I read on one sitting in the summer of 1966. He wrote about the vulnerability and the kindness of the people to each other as the virtues that redeemed the slaughter.

 

Even though Josh had a driver’s license, his experience had only been in New York City. We took a U-Drive it Car and after Josh’s attempt to keep the car on the road when the second semi roared past, I drove the rest of the way to California. We survived a wild ride into the city by an erratic youth on speed when we hitched the rest of the five hundred miles from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

 

Josh remembers that the first thing I did when we reached San Francisco was to jump into the Pacific with all my clothes on. I remember how our eyes began to burn as we arrived in Berkeley. I approached a young man on the street. “Is this smog?” I asked innocently. At least I had heard of the smog in California, but we were 500 miles North of LA.

 

He chuckled, “This is tear gas.”

 

A young man from a group calling themselves the Young Socialist Alliance, harangued a crowd on Telegraph Avenue. They were going to blockade Telegraph Avenue again that night. They were determined to make Telegraph Avenue a pedestrian walkway. The police and town leaders would give no quarter. Our destination was the church on Channing Way. A Lutheran Church just off Telegraph, it housed a basement full of run-aways. It had a full feeding program and counseling services. On the third floor was a medical station to treat the tear gas victims who were certain to arrive that night. It was dusk as I walked to the church. A young man threw a brick through the plate glass window of the Bank of America.

 

“What did you do that for?” I asked in surprise.

 

He turned and fled.

 

That night the city was filled with tear gas. The police arrived in riot gear and tore apart the barricades and scattered the youth. Tear gas canisters even found their way into the alleyway beside the church.

 

Josh threw me out of the apartment he shared with his girl friend. He said I made a pass at her. I don’t remember. I wound my way over to the seminary where they gracefully gave me a room for a week and offered me a rental apartment of a couple from the seminary that were in South Dakota as volunteers at the Rosebud Reservation. Buffy St. Marie was from that home there that she called her “Piney Wood Hills”.

 

For a week I didn’t have a job or any income. I went to the Copper Penny on University Avenue and told them I’d work for food. I pestered them for long enough that they gave me a job busing tables and washing pots and dishes and throwing out the garbage. But the job gave me food and enough income to pay the rent and to have stale cups of coffee at La Val’s across the street from the apartment and play Ray Charles version of Eleanor Rigby and its great line,

 

“Fr. McKenzie writing a sermon that no one will hear, No one comes near. Look at all the lonely people.”

 

In the afternoon I headed to the Berkeley Library where I discovered one of Neruda’s poems in a journal of poetry. And that night I went to the Berkeley Campus where Big Brother and the Holding Company played as Janis Joplin mesmerized me and lifted my bluesy heart. That night after the concert she walked by me as I returned to my apartment.

“Thank you,” I said.

 

“You’re welcome,” she replied as she walked by with her female friend.

 

The local barber was organizing a suicide prevention line and asked for me to man the phones. I started to take calls.

 

“You’re a natural,” he said.

 

One sunny afternoon a wiry New York woman invited me to her apartment to serve me tea and oranges (really) that came all the way from California and India. We sat on the floor on cushions and smoked a joint, my first, and talked with a couple who lay naked on a bed under a huge American flag. “This is crazy”, I thought. My stoned state helped me to see the irony. Such a large flag was in my childhood home in Boston. It had come to my mother at my father’s memorial service. But the smoke was sublime. The next day the sun seemed warmer, the smell of the Eucalyptus trees more intense and colors harper. This smoke could be dangerous, I thought.

 

Early in the summer I saw an advertisement for a group called TOUCH. It was a group course using much of the early material from the human potential movement. Our group of about a dozen travelled up to Napa Valley crowded in the back of a Lotus where we ate guacamole by a pool as we looked at the horses owned by the vintners a BV Vineyards. On the way in I spied the dilapidated houses of the migrant farm workers.

 

One night on the way to a weekend workshop, Jill, one of the women in the group let me drive her convertible Corsair down the highway. As the song sung by Dionne Warwick blasted on the radio, “Do you know the way to San Jose?” The headlights hit the exit sign, “San Jose.”

“Yes”, I shouted as I raised my arms as we passed the exit.

 

It had been the summer of my retreat and escape from Boston and New England. I got a ride to Chicago in a VW without a heater and in the high places in Wyoming the nights were cold. I hitched the rest of the way to Massachusetts in a blue jaguar. Deposited at the Sturbridge Rest stop on the Mass Turnpike, I sat and smelled the familiar scent of golden rod and clover and listened to gentle song of the bees. I hitched the rest of the way from Sturbridge to Boston.

 

 

City Hospital:

 

Boston City Hospital was the number one Emergency Room for the poor of the city. It was close to Roxbury and Dorchester and the downtown. So I went to work there as a medical aide. The work was menial: taking temps, blood-pressures, and cleaning and placing Band-Aids. The life on the Emergency floor was always hopping. I loved it.

 

I found a rooming house with a small kitchen and shared bath. The bath was shared with a friendly African American pusher. It was around the corner from Symphony Hall and the Museums. The Elizabeth Stuart Gardner Museum was free in those days and I would go there to visit the Rembrandt, later stolen in the 80’s, of “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee”.

 

James Cotter was in training to be an LPN. A recovering alcoholic he beguiled me with stories about how he lost his family, job and livelihood to alcohol. Finally someone literally picked him up from the gutter and brought him to the hospital. Cotter would venture into the city after and before work that winter and found drunks in the gutter and brought them to the hospital to get them out of the cold.

 

We couldn’t save Joseph Meara from overdosing on a full bottle of Vodka. He had been in the emergency room before; where we patched him up and sent him back out onto the street. One night he came in comatose. We gave him CPR, but Joseph Meara was gone.

 

The doctors and some of the nurses on the floor had served in Vietnam. There was little sentimentality among them, but they were good at emergency care. I watched and learned.

 

US Gary Bonds was a recording artist from the city. The young man came to the hospital at least twice when I was there with shakes and sweats that were related to sickle-cell-anemia. Sickle- cell is the shape of the blood corpuscle that lives in the blood of some African Americans and was a defense against Malaria. Outside of Africa and the tropics, the cell is the cause of much suffering. I would wash the young man’s body with cool towels to reduce his fever and he was usually sent home after he was stabilized.

 

The dirty and the homeless and suffering were sent to me to be washed. One day an old man was sent to me who was covered in his own feces. He had lain on the floor of his room unable to move or call for help for three days. When he was discovered, he was near death. I don’t know what happened that moment, but I approached the man as if he were the Christ. I tenderly washed him with warm towels and soap, moving from his head to between his toes. The response was voluntary and unexpected. The smell and the suffering underneath it were powerful, and yet I felt that this was a sacred act. This I could do. I could wash away the filth and the grime and treat the man’s old and hurt body with respect.

 

I suspect such a response was almost hereditary. It is the kind of thing my Mother’s mother would do when she would take me to visit the sick and homebound in our parish in Jamaica Plain. It is akin to the word, “Namaste”, the divine in me recognizes and bows to the divine in you or a similar phrase I say when entering a house or meeting a person, “Peace be to this house and all who dwell herein.” They’re old ideas but they work. The most menial tasks can become instruments of the divine.

 

I spent time at the trial of Dr. Spock, William Sloane Coffin, Michael Ferber and two others at the courthouse in Boston. The Boston Five were indicted by the government for Conspiracy to aid and abet resistance to the draft. Atty Holman, a tall and bony Yankee, represented Ferber in a remarkable and eloquent defense. The trail was high drama and significant in the steps to end the draft and our successful attempts to change consciousness about our involvement in places like Vietnam. Four of the defendants were found guilty, and sentenced to jail. And when the case was appealed it was thrown out by the judge of the superior court.

To Really Dance with God

“This Kenosis thing is hard to do,” a friend said recently to me. Kenosis, hmm? Not wanting to appear ignorant, I mumbled something and told myself that I’d have to look up the word sometime before I saw him again. My Greek was never that good. My research on Wikipedia reminded me that Kenosis is the self-emptying of Jesus’ own will so he could be a vessel and instrument for the will of God. It means to “Let it be”, or to die to self. Jesus and others perfected that way of life.

And yes it is hard to do. So maybe we can’t DO IT. It may be that all our spiritual exertions and exercises are not the point here. Maybe life itself offers a lot of opportunities to let it be. I know life gives plenty of opportunities to “die to self”, to let ourselves BE. Isn’t the ability to die to self a gift and a grace that comes from God who shows us how to “let it be”?

Here’s a Story:

I was on the lam from the Episcopal boy’s school I attended in Western Mass. With a book of essays by Thomas Merton, the Monk, I read a piece by him as I rode the bus from Lenox to Boston called the General Dance. I was 18. Merton wrote that “God did not create humans to punish them. God created humans because he wanted a partner to be a companion in the dance.”

Now this was revolutionary in 1961. But since that time we have been using the idea of the dance to talk about God and yet we don’t dance.

Five years later I was in seminary and the tweens in my Youth Group in Dorchester, MA, an inner city neighborhood of Boston, wanted nothing more than to dance. The African American and Caribbean youth would bring the newest Motown sounds on their 45 records, a record player and set it up in the parish hall and they would move.

But I had no idea how to move to the beats of the drums or the high falsetto’s of the singers. I sat and watched on the sidelines along with one of the other boys. When I was their age, I was embarrassed into dance class. I learned how to do a halting waltz, a tripping and toe stomping fox-trot, and a jerking cha-cha. No one ever told me how to dance to the faster pace of Rock and Roll and soul. I couldn’t even do a decent Twist.

After all White boys don’t dance, and neither do some Black boys. After a couple of weeks of sitting and watching, 12 year old Hope Neil took me out on the floor of the parish hall and taught me some steps. I was dancing.  It was fantastic. I watched the young Dennis Ambrose as he moved like a wild child around the floor. The boy was one with the tumbling beats of drum and rhythms of bass and lead guitar and the vocalists. His arms, hands, head, torso, legs and feet and hips were all a whirr of motion. I had to dance like Dennis. In no time I was in the dance and I started to lose my self in the movement. I wasn’t self-conscious any more; there was nothing else between me and the music, me and my partner, me and the sweetness of God. Over the years the young ones have learned that at Weddings, I can keep up with some pretty tricky moves. I was learning Kenosis, dying to self. Letting it be and letting God be in the moment.

All I had to do was step onto the dance floor and a little child would lead me.

Abraham in the Hebrew Bible we read this morning is troubled by the ancient question for those who start on the path to God, “What is the most precious gift can I give to the One who gives so much to us, the food we eat, the sun, the air, the water, the loping Moose, the Monarch Butterfly?  Where have you gone, Monarch Butterfly, I await you and you have not come? What can one do to repair the destruction to the creation we have wrought and the harm we have done to one another?

Basically it’s a question of “How can I buy God’s love, mercy, abundance?” What offering can I present unto the Lord? And what the story shows is the evolution in consciousness of what it is that God wants of us. God doesn’t want us to sacrifice our most beloved child! No!

God does not want to punish us for our sins! No!

God doesn’t want us to fret and struggle over how to pray and find a way to God’s heart! No!

God wants to dance with us,

God wants to play in the fields of the creation with us,

And God wants to be in a holy, merciful, joyful, compassionate, steadfast relationship with us.

God says, “May I have this dance?” I imagine God as a little more formal than “d’ya wanna dance?” Which is OK too? And we either can reach out and become enfolded into the arms of God or sit on the side trying to decide what to do. Whether I can risk that kind of relationship with One who seems to know me very well and one who asks nothing from us except our loving and open hearts. And we look on while others around us seem to have enjoyment without measure, a cup overflowing, flying around the room, letting it all BE.

Our dear friend said to a group of us last Friday that she has a place in her heart called the “Grand Ballroom”. In that room of the heart there are many entrances and from one side enters joy, from another grief, from another the friend, then another the enemy. There is love and fear, jealousy and forgiveness, betrayal and steadfastness, the secular and the sacred, all and more come into the grand ballroom dressed in beautiful gowns and elegant formal wear, dressed in beauty to visit and take each other in their arms and swirl and waltz and dance together in the heart and eye of Christ’s love and mercy, grace and forgiveness. Here Sarah and Hagar dance together as do Ishmael and Isaac. Here father is reconciled with the son, and mother with daughter. In the heart of Christ’s love there is no opposite which cannot be included in this great room. There is safety here, Kenosis, where we have died to self. And where we can let it all be.

Let it all be, while God holds us in arms of love.

Maybe the next step in this path of Kenosis, of dying to self, is to reach out our own arms to Jesus, to the Holy Spirit, to God and say, “Okay, I’m ready, I don’t know why or how, but it’s right to ask you. “Do you wanna dance?, Can I hold you in my arms as you weep over the world. Can I presume to comfort you at the hurt you must see?

And slow dance the night away.

Hope Neil from the youth group in Dorchester went to Princeton and became a Doctor. Dennis Ambrose died in the first on-rush of the AIDS epidemic and so in a way I dance between Hope and Grief, between Joy and sorrow as I remember my two youthful teachers in the dance. It is the divine movement between tears and joy, laughter and delight and sorrow. It is all held in the heart of love where all that lasts, lives and moves and has its being.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“What Do You Really Believe?” Trinity

“Do you want to know what the Trinity is: God laughs and creates the Son. The Son laughs and creates the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit laughs and creates us.” Meister Eckhart.

The three Women, Trinity

The three Women, Trinity

Thomas Merton and more recently Cynthia Bourgeault describe the making of the Trinity as a flow of divine love. Both of them describe the Cappadocian “brothers”; Basil, Gregory of Nanzianzus  and Gregory of Nyssa, as the keys to the formulation of the idea of the Trinity as a divine flow of love and energy between the three “persons’ of the Trinity. They were not primarily trying to prove anything about the divinity of Christ, but rather the flow of energy between the three.

“Indeed the word hypostasis in Greek does not mean an individual at all but more a state of being… The Cappadocians were interested in how this movement or change of state, takes place. They saw it as an out pouring of love from Father to Son, From Son to Spirit and from Spirit back to Father. The Trinity in this sense is really an icon of overflowing and self-emptying love.  The three person go round and round like buckets on a watermill constantly overflowing into one another. As  they do the mill turns and the energy of love becomes manifest and accessible.“ (The Wisdom Jesus, Cynthia Bourgeault, pgs 71 and 72,)

Both authors describe this process of divine relationship as a dance. Merton writes about it in his “Seeds of Contemplation”, as the divine seeking to play in the dance with human beings, God reaching out God’s loving arms to take us into the sacred dance of life.

Seen in this way the Trinity is the flow of love and laughter between the three beings of the divine and describes our own relationship with the Holy.  The divine laughter that delights in the creative and imaginative relationship between all the three persons of the Trinity in turn becomes a design and template for our own spiritual life. The Trinity is an icon of the holy, of the divine dance of love exchanged between three manifestations of the Divinity. That is why one becomes “seduced” by life in the spirit. It is filled with laughter and delight. One begins to see with the eye of the heart as if for the first time. Everything becomes a doorway to the sacred, there is no door that is locked and bolted.

Still one of the great questions raised for my generation is that of Bonhoeffer who asked, “What do you really believe, believe enough to stake your life on it.” In the 70’s a group of us went to work to write our own creeds, they changed frequently, they were imaginative and inclusive, they envisioned the Holy as One and Compassion, as within and beyond. One creed penned by Richard York and John Pairman Brown stated, “ Bread means revolution and the bread is rising.” The author’s described a time when our youth were in a war and when our fathers had returned or not from two other wars. The time now was to raise questions about who we are and to emphasize counter-cultural words and lives of Jesus and the prophets. Sometimes the times do not change.

Back then we intoned the creeds. A chord was played in a descending and ascending order and the people would sing it in parts. Taize and African American and Latino rhythms were teaching us to chant and sing and dance in new ways. The Creeds are meant to be sung and danced and laughed. They are not meant to serve as a litmus test for what one believes, because the edges blur in song and poetry and in the dance. “I believe in One God, The Father Almighty maker of heaven and earth” can deaden the spirit when treated as a statement of rule and law and not an opportunity to enter into the mystery and the numinous and the unitive relationship of lover between the Father/Mother, Son and Holy Spirit.

And yet to the young and more literal mind, the Creeds are something to which to hold on for dear life in the swirling tides and eddy’s of the many spiritual voices that surround us. For all the creeds problems with history and with its abuses it is still a song to be sung as we stand together and recite the ancient words, the best formulation that the gathered church has yet imagined.

The Trinity in the Creed helps me focus and perpetually continues to remind me that here is a song to be sung and danced and laughed and not a pledge of allegiance. The allegiance comes when the heart is opened and comes with lightness and gentleness. When we lose sight of its wonder, I begin again to fret about my friends who don’t see things my way. Even the most beautiful of poem can become the instrument of evil.  Invictus, for instance was used as a clarion call for the bomber who killed many in Oklahoma City. We singers and laughers and dancers are called to be vigilant about the abuses of the words we say and pray and believe. After all is said, “I believe we are all One flow from and to the divine and back again. And I know I’m not always in that flow. ” And I’d defend anyone who didn’t see it that way. I crave the beauty of dissent much more than thoughtless conformity.

 

 

 

 

 

The Fire Bird and the Hawk: Pentecost

There had been a vision forty years before. During an Aurora Borealis on an Island in Maine, a dark form had appeared in the midst of a pulsing and vibrating vault of fire and gold. The darkness at the center took the shape of small bird. And then the bird expanded towards me, swooped at unfathomable speed and as I stood transfixed and rooted to the ground, the bird passed over,almost as if great wind had passed. Then it burst in a flash of golden light and fire, a fire that did not consume. I was relieved.

An Icon by Robert Lentz that depicts the Holy Spirit as a Falcon

An Icon by Robert Lentz that depicts the Holy Spirit as a Falcon

No one else saw this visitation at the time and I didn’t need anyone at the seminary questioning my sanity, so I never talked about the vision until maybe seven years ago in a parish I had already been the priest for ten years. I write about this in my blog dated 2013, The Baptism of Jesus. This bird was no dove. It was something more fierce than that, more passionate, more potentially destructive and with healing power in its wings. As it turned out, I saw the bird that visited me that night in an icon imagined by Robert Lentz.  It was a golden falcon, the symbol of the Holy Spirit for the Crow people.

It was now forty years later. I sat alone in the old 1835 rectory. My wife had left me for a woman who I brought into the parish. I was out of inspiration. I was both angry and relieved to dimly know what had happened to the marriage. Bob Dylan’s words, “You just kind of wasted my precious time” played on the radio. And yet the twenty plus years with her had been for most of them good years. She had been a good wife and mother to our three children. She had been the fierce lioness of protection and advocacy for our two children with special needs. But she was worn out and she discovered that she was in love with a woman.

I was worn out too, dead in the water. No inspiration came for the sermon I wanted to give on the Holy Spirit. I was dried up no words would come. Often towards the end of week, by a Friday or Saturday, if nothing was forthcoming, I’d simply pray; “Okay, I give up. What do you want me to say?” I probably should have been more intentional with that prayer at the beginning, but I still had a few lingering illusions that I could say it better than God.

I was almost at that point when a loud crash came from our enclosed back porch. The back window was shattered. A thousand pieces of white and blue and green glass was scatted over table, chairs and floor. I looked to see if someone had thrown a rock or an errant baseball. There was no one. In the far corner of the porch there was movement. A hawk cringed there in shock from its impact with the glass.  It didn’t move. He or she was about 18 inches, with a wing span of about three feet. The hawk stayed perfectly still, its breast feathers an orange brown and white. I saw no blood. I spoke in a tone that I thought the creature might understand. “You rest now and I’ll show you to the door. I’ll pick up the glass while you collect yourself.” I was confident the bird understood every word and intonation. I worried that the bird might come out of its trauma and try to fly around the small enclosed porch. Slowly I approached her, I think she was a female, and encouraged her toward the door. My gloved hand gently moved her toward the opening and the deck beyond. After five minutes of gentle prodding the hawk reached the door and flew a few feet to the back of a metal chair on the deck. There it waited to gauge whether it had the energy and ability to fly the twenty feet to the branch of a Norway maple in the yard. She spread her wings and lifted up toward the branch, reached  it with care and remained there for fifteen minutes. Then she flew away.

Sometimes the Holy Spirit comes with wind and fire, sometimes with a still small voice of calm. For me that day I needed the sound of breaking glass and a loud crash to focus my attention. That Sunday the sermon wrote itself. It was about the two birds breaking through into  consciousness with their various messages about the holy. The first was a message to risk everything for the love of God. The second was a reminder that, “Hey. I’m with you. Everything will work out and you still have to write the sermon.”

I think the bird was trying to tell me, “Get out of your rut and SOAR.”

And so far, it’s been working. It’s all gratitude now.    

An Icon by Robert Lentz. It depicts a golden dark falcon as the Holy Spirit.

An Icon by Robert Lentz. It depicts a golden dark falcon as the Holy Spirit.

The Rabbi, my old friend: John !5

For Easter 6

My best friend is a Rabbi. We meet every Tuesday for breakfast. We were college roommates in a third floor attic apartment fifty years ago. His long friendship has helped me to read scripture through the eyes of a Jew. Of all the blessings in my ministry this is one of the big ones.

The Gospel of John is particularly problematic when read through his eyes. The Rabbi is not going to accept Jesus as the son of Gd. He is not going to resonate with the idea that we are engrafted on the vine of the Christ. His insights inform my own.  To be engrafted onto the vine of the Christ is to remember who we come from and who Jesus was and, for me, still is; a Jew.

This of course flies in the face of history and tradition and yet John’s Gospel is almost a mirror image of what was going on in the Jewish community after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. That event became the catalyst for the Jewish and Christian communities to forge a new identity, to find out who they were in this new paradigm.

The Pharisees gathered what was left of the tradition and became the school of the Rabbis. Every local community of Jews would now meet in a center for education and formation. The primary focus of the faith would be in the family and around the family meal. Celebrations such as Passover would be in the home, the elder usually male head of the family would lead the ritual reading. The mother would light the Sabbath candles and say the blessing. Observance of Kosher food laws and other ritual practices distinguished the Jewish people from their neighbors and inter-marriage with non-Jews was discouraged.  Survival for the Jews required a new definition of who they were and are. Surrounded by a hostile world, its evidence an almost eternal truth, the Jewish community is setting guidelines and procedures for survival and a new identity in Gd.

John’s community faces many of the same tests to their identity and survival. Some of the early faithful have fallen away and returned to the Middle Eastern and Southern European gods. The Jews fed up with the proselytizing of the emergent Christians, expelled many of them from the synagogue. Persecution that came with their identity as a new religion that did not hold to the Roman pantheon and their close relationship with the Jewish community, led to many falling away or running for their lives.

John’s almost mystical Gospel of Jesus as the Son of God, the Word, the Truth, the light and the life, were his largely successful attempt to craft an identity for the People of the Way in the face of a hostile world. It was a minority defense of his faith in the One God and His Son, the New Christ. John’s Gospel is written for a persecuted church that is trying to survive under the Roman Imperium.

Once John’s Gospel becomes the text for a majority culture it loses its initial purpose. It can become and has become an instrument of persecution to those, who will not believe. For those of us who have listened to these words over a lifetime, we can become blind to the potential of these words for harm. Words that should be sung and prayed and contemplated may and have become the tyranny of the majority.

The words of John in John 14: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one can come to the father except through me,” isn’t meant to be a club, but an invitation to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Anyone who knows Jesus knows that confessing a faith with words and not living it out in its fullness is a mockery.  They are an invitation to live with a heart of love, a refusal to conform to the fads and fleeting allures of the times, to live with integrity and to seek justice with mercy and humility. It means to follow the steps of Jesus toward his death and resurrection and to hold Jesus like Mary in our arms as he weeps over the suffering world.

I can only show the love of God by becoming the best Christ that is within me, looking straight ahead and not worrying who and how many are seeing the same way as I. If those I meet along the way behave with compassion, they are true followers of the Christ whether they confess him or not. for the leaven of the Christ is love.  And isn’t that the Truth of the Christ of which John writes?

I met with the rabbi at our regular Tuesday morning outing. Trying to explain John as well as my lack of scholarship in the area, he said,

“I talk to Jesus.

I chuckled, “When did you last talk with him?”

“I’m serious, how recently do you want?” he said.

“I know you’re serious, I was chuckling at how familiar this conversation is for me.” I responded.

“I’ve been praying most recently to St Anthony to help me find my wallet.” He said.

We both laughed.

 

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