Finisterre: Going Further

A pledge to keep walking beyond where I have once called home, onto where I am challenged to change, forgive, reconcile and surrender.

Sometimes a poem flops down in front of you and demands to be read in that very moment. Unusually insistent, always not what you had planned for the day and, for this kind of poem, one that is uncomfortable. That is the truth of the poem that opened up in a book as I moved it from my bedside table. The poem was short. The poet was Rumi who I hold dear. So I stopped my packing for a trip I leave on tomorrow and let the poem have its say.

Reach your long hand out
to another door,
beyond where you go on the street,
the street
where everyone says, “How are you?”
and no one says, “How aren’t you?”

I don’t know what Rumi was trying to say in his time, in his context, in his soul although I can guess– with Rumi’s predilection to Love. But with a poem, it’s really only relevant in how the poem stirs in the person reading it. And it stirred up in me a story from over twenty years ago when I was at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California, taking my required class in Multicultural Ministries.

The teacher was a fiery woman of Mexican heritage in her forties who served as the pastor to the prisoners at the penitentiary in San Jose. We had just returned from a field trip to that penitentiary where the population was primarily people of color. Where I saw a young man in solitary confinement look at me through a narrow window slit with one wild eye pressed so hard against the glass with a despair so great that I was thrown back by the force of it. We watched the rough treatment by the guards, the suspicious looks of the inmates, the stark, colorless, dark nature of the cell rows. Where it seemed the question always being silently asked was, “How aren’t you?” How aren’t you human? How aren’t you worthy? How aren’t you of value?

When we met back at the classroom, the teacher told us how she had recently created an Easter worship with many of the prisoners there.. She spoke of the joyous music they created, the earnestness of their desire for God, and their sense of belonging in the service that morning. She was so touched. It was only later she learned that the guards, not wanting the prisoners to remember who they really were, forced anyone who was at the church service to be strip searched–“included all orifices” is what the teacher said. “It wasn’t necessary,” she said. “The space was secure and everyone coming from outside had been thoroughly searched. They just couldn’t let the prisoners have their dignity back.” In unison, we were indignant with her.

And then she had us do an exercise that haunts me to this day. We sat around a table so that maybe ten or twelve of us were looking at each other. And we were each given the role of someone at the prison: warden, prison guards, prisoners, chaplain. She gave us a scenario which I don’t remember. But what I do remember is that within just a few minutes, we literally became our roles. Sweet Monica was the punishing warden. And she flourished in it. I was one of the prison guards who fell easily into being powerful and in control. How did I know this arrogant confidence? The prisoners shrank and grew silent for the most part. The ones who talked back were so effectively put down that maybe just ten minutes into the exercise, we had to stop. We had become the humans that made us indignant. We were the humans asking other humans, “How aren’t you?”

It shook the whole class. It literally took our breath away. As we debriefed, we all reported that we were shocked at how easily we could shift into these roles–and even more damning, that we enjoyed the roles– if we were the ones with power. “The prison guards are in prison too,” said our teacher. The prison guards can lose their true selves too.

That class taught me a lot about racism, defining it as prejudice with power. I have never forgotten that as uncomfortable as it is, I am prejudiced and as a white person, I have power. I may not want to be. I may have all the right intentions and say all the right things. And even do things that look kind and understanding to those unlike me. But it is inherent. It is patterned in me. I have much further to go as I “reach out a long hand to another door” and “beyond where I go” currently on the street.

This is good conscience, it’s not that relentless inner judge that is always trying to put me down. No, this is good conscience that turns me toward truth and points the way of integrity. And I cannot by my own strength change. This is something I cannot do. This transformation is one that walks only on the street of surrender. Being present to the truth. And waiting to be undone by Love.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s