I’m convinced that small towns and rural regions have a critical role in determining the direction of our nation. A couple months ago Ashlyn and I began to feel a call to organize a vigil in our own small town and joined with some like-minded local folks with similar stirrings. It was stretching, to say the least, but we had a sense of being called to “stand in the gap.” We called it Neighbors Stand with Neighbors: A Vigil for Solidarity and Healing.
The planning and promotion had to be done fairly quietly so as to prevent a Bethel situation. Even with that care, there were rumors that Democrats were bringing in buses full of outside agitators and we got word of an unstable individual threatening to attend with several other armed “defenders” of our town. Nevertheless, we decided to move ahead with some extra precautions. The man who made the threats did show up, across the street with a gun, but he kept his distance and held up “police lives matter” signs. There were some ugly and absurd things screamed at us from cars but there were about as many honks and cheers of support.
Ashlyn and I finished the night feeling inspired by the 30+ folks who gathered with us to pray, walk, reflect, mourn, name, sing, and stand. They were educators, postal workers, college students, parents, grandparents, ministers, nannies, activists, caretakers, security guards, and yoga instructors. This is our community too and we want to work together to cultivate a spirit of healing and justice within our county, and stand in solidarity with those doing anti-racism work across our country.
I know it’s simple and small but I really believe simple and small acts make a difference in the world. This morning’s lectionary reading was Jesus’ parable of the sower and I’m reminded that small seeds are a basic unit of growth and transformation in God’s kingdom.
Here are my remarks (with a few edits) that I shared at the vigil on Saturday, July 11, 2020 in Mount Gilead, Ohio:
A reading from the prophet Jeremiah:
They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
“Peace, peace,” they say,
when there is no peace…
Since my people are crushed, I am crushed;
I mourn, and horror grips me.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then is there no healing
for the wound of my people?
The Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who marched with MLK, said that the Hebrew prophets, like Jeremiah, communicate the pathos of God. The passion of God. The emotions of God. God’s passion for peace and justice and God’s anger at violence and injustice. They invite us to let our hearts be broken by the things that break the heart of God.
I was reminded of this about a month ago.
Ashlyn and I joined a protest in Delaware, Ohio, led by local Black folks, largely from the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) church in town. And as I was walking through downtown Delaware, I was surprised by tears and a feeling of spiritual conviction.
I had this overwhelming sense of two things: 1.) This moment was holy; something sacred happens when we come together and stand with our neighbors against injustice. 2.) I had not been taking the wounds of our Black and Brown brothers and sisters as seriously as I should have.
Now, I was walking with them and standing with them. I was learning about issues and learning how to be an ally. To borrow the language of the prophet, I did not deny the existence of the wound. But neither did I take it as seriously as it deserved.
I was reminded of this passage from the prophet Jeremiah and I also recalled that Jeremiah was known as the “weeping prophet.” Tears are an indicator that something deep and important is going on. The spiritual author Richard Rohr wrote:
“Weeping is a gentle release of water that washes, baptizes, and renews. Weeping leads to owning our complicity in a problem. Weeping is the opposite of blaming and also the opposite of denial. It leads to deep healing when inspired by the Spirit.”
Instead of crying, though, it’s easy for us to turn to denying and deflection. “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious,” the Divine Voice says through the prophet. “Peace, peace,” they say, when there is no peace.
Living in our small town and rural county, it’s easy to say “peace, peace.” We inhabit a lovely, quiet town. And we live in the land of the free and the home of the brave. How bad could it really be for Black folks? Besides, we’ve seen the protests and the riots. We are tired of the images on the news. Can’t we just all get along? Can’t we just move on?
I’ve been hearing a lot of people lately say “I’m over it.” “I’m over Covid. I’m over talking about racism.”
I get that feeling; I really do. But here’s the thing: we may be over it; but it’s not over. We may feel done with it but it’s not done with us.
The wound is serious. It must be treated seriously.
The hard truth is that we have participated, often unintentionally, in the wounding- either through action or inaction… By staying silent. By staying neutral. By saying, to borrow from Monty Python, “it’s merely a flesh wound.”
But it’s a deep, real, painful wound. Sometimes it’s a fatal wound.
The wound won’t heal without serious, skilled, compassionate attention and action. Looking away won’t make it go away. As the 12 steps wisdom teaches us, the first step is acknowledging the problem. It’s facing the history, recognizing our complicity, and listening empathically to the stories of suffering. James Baldwin famously said: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
The prophets channel God’s passion to remind us that inaction is a type of action and neutrality is taking a side. As Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel reminds us: “Neutrality helps the the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
But the prophet reminds us that just as we have a part in the wounding, we also have a part in the healing.
Is there a balm in Gilead?
For obvious reasons, I think this question is really relevant for us today. Is there a balm in Gilead? In the biblical landscape, Gilead was a region known for growing healing ointments. It was known for being a place that grew healing and healers. I pray for the day when we are known for being a place and people of healing.
Is there a balm in Gilead? I believe the answer is yes because we are the balm in Gilead.
We are agents of healing and justice. We each have a medicine to apply. We each have gifts to share. We each have particular passions and concerns that move us into action. In big ways and small ways, we are called upon to be the balm of Gilead and to expand the circles of love and justice, wider and wider and wider.
I want to recognize Linda Harvey who just went out to the park and started passing out letters to her community asking them to heal racism in our community. And Olivia and Casey, who just decided to come out here to square and hold up signs that declare Black. Lives. Matter.
Healing and justice don’t come just from opinion and debate; they come when we all find our place and do our part.
We are the problem. We are the solution. We are the wounders. We are the healers. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the ones God has been waiting for.
I believe the divine voice of passion and compassion is inviting us to embrace this call.
Be the balm of healing upon these painful wounds.
Be the breath of new life for those who say “I can’t breath.”
Love your neighbor.
Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.
As we work together for the day when we say “peace, peace” and there is real, lasting, and just peace.
“The time for the healing of the wounds has come,” said Nelson Mandela. “The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us.”