Sermon by Melissa Wood Bartholomew, Associate Dean for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging, Instructor in Ministry, Harvard Divinity School, Sept. 27, 2020. Photo by Cynthia Abatt
This past May, I lost my 99-year-old grandfather, Rev. Marcus Garvey Wood. He transitioned after laboring in ministry as a Baptist pastor for many years in Baltimore, and he was one of my earliest and most formative teachers of justice. Thankfully, he didn’t have the coronavirus. He had just reached the end of his journey. The last time I saw him in person was in January. I was in town for a conference and had spoken on a panel regarding the work of eradicating racism. At the close of my presentation, I talked about my grandfather’s formerly enslaved grandmother Susan. Susan was still alive when he was a child. She always talked to him about how much she loved her husband Moses, and about how much she loved God. She and Moses believed in Jesus, and my grandfather learned powerful lessons about faith and the love of Christ while sitting at her knee. He shared these lessons in a book he wrote about his faith and ministry journey, entitled, And Grace Will Lead Me Home. I’ve learned so much about the faith of my enslaved ancestors through him. I told the group at the conference that as I engage in anti-racism work, and get weary while moving through racism everyday, I call on my ancestors’ strength, and the faith and love that they passed down through the generations in our family. It is all a reminder that we have the capacity to endure unspeakable challenges through our divinity. The fact that my enslaved grandparents could maintain the strength and commitment to love God and each other – keeps me going. So I shared this with my grandfather on my visit with him, and his eyes brightened as he looked at me and said, “Oh yeah, that’s right. Because there is so much that we don’t know….” There is so much that we don’t know. This struck me. How does a man who has lived almost a hundred years, who began preaching the gospel as a teenager, travelled all over the world, and was a seminary classmate of Rev. Martin Luther King, believe at the end of his life, that there is still so much that he doesn’t know?
Something broke open in me that day. His words have never left me. They resonate within me even more strongly now that he is with the ancestors. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic – and the racism pandemic we have been fighting since my ancestors arrived from the West Coast of Africa, I am reminded that there is so much that we don’t know. What he, and my enslaved ancestors are telling me in this contemporary moment, is that there is more to uncover about their capacity to resist and to transcend the world’s practices of dehumanizing hatred and evil, while remaining grounded in love. This was the way of many of the enslaved.
In his book, Jesus and the Disinherited, 20th century theologian Howard Thurman shares the affirming lessons he received from his formerly enslaved grandmother. She relayed the message that the slave minister preached to her and others on the plantation—The reminder that they were not slaves, they were children of God, a message Thurman said “established for them the ground of personal dignity” and “…personal worth” (p.50). This message - that we are children of God - reminds us that we are children of a great Love, because, as we are told, in 1 John, God is Love.
This message of the capacity of my ancestors to resist hate through love was not new. I’ve written about, and I try to practice it as consistently as possible. Last June, about a month after my grandfather transitioned, a new layer of understanding was revealed. I had the privilege of hearing Professor Stephanie Paulsell give a talk about the theologian monk Thomas Merton and his writing, “Solitude is not Separation”. As I listened to her talk about Merton and his reflections on how distance enables us to see the humanity and dignity in others, the Holy Spirit overwhelmed me with an insight about the impact of COVID and our forced social distancing. Like many people, I knew that the global Black Lives Matter protests and calls for racial justice that had emerged with such intensity since the death of George Floyd, were different than the reactions that followed the police killings of so many other unarmed Black people in this country. More White people were taking to the streets and calling for racial justice. Corporations were embracing Black Lives Matter and making statements about anti-racism. I knew that COVID was a factor. As Stephanie shared Merton’s insights on solitude and distance, the Holy Spirit spoke to my spirit: “This is what Americans needed to be able to see the humanity of Black people”.
While we are physically together in society, some of us are practicing spiritual distancing, either consciously or unconsciously, particularly from those characterized as other. Racism animates this spiritual distancing, and then all kinds of things get in the way. That spiritual distancing can translate into distance from themselves and from God, and from love. Distance from God can distort one’s perception of the other and make one susceptible to believing the lie that Black people are less than human. Perhaps the forced COVID-induced social distancing, and the solitude it is generating, was doing what Merton believed solitude was for. He contends, “the only justification for a life of deliberate solitude is the conviction that it will help you to love not only God but also other men” (p.52).
My realization that perhaps some White people needed this distance from Black people in order to see our humanity, literally brought me to tears.
What my grandparents’ way of being illuminates for me, is the power of living with intention to cultivate a quality of connection to God where there is no separation. Where the toxins from the world do not create distortion and distance.
In today’s scripture reading from the book of Romans, Paul reminds us that there is no force strong enough to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. He asks, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?...No, in all these things, Paul writes, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us….There is no power, Paul exclaims, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, that will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Struggle and suffering do not separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. Struggle and suffering, on and off the plantation, did not separate my enslaved grandmother from the Love of God that is in Christ Jesus.
In his memoir, Walking with the Wind, the late civil rights warrior John Lewis, who also studied Merton, describes how the teachings he learned about nonviolence as a young man brought his understanding of the Bible, Christ’s redeeming love, and the role of suffering, into sharper focus. He says, “Suffering,…can be nothing more than a sad and sorry thing without the presence on the part of the sufferer of a graceful heart, an accepting and open heart, a heart that holds no malice toward the inflictors of his or her suffering…He says, it has everything to do with the way of nonviolence. We are talking about love here, he says. Not romantic love. Not the love of one individual for another. Not loving something that is lovely to you. This is a broader, deeper, more all-encompassing love. It is a love that accepts and embraces the hateful and the hurtful.” (p.77)
The suffering that Lewis endured fighting for racial justice all of his life did not create distance between him and God. It did not keep him from living into the love of Christ that is always present. Love, whatever source one attributes it to, transforms your way of being, and your way of doing justice in the world. As a student at the Divinity school a number of years ago, during the early stages of the BLM movement following the killing of Michael Brown, many of us were engaged in protests and die-ins with students across Harvard and with people throughout the Cambridge-Boston community. A popular rallying crying was “Hands up don’t shoot!” Hands up don’t shoot. But some of us from the Div school began articulating a different cry: Hands up, hearts open! Hands up, hearts open! - because we had rooted our anti-racism work in love.
Remaining grounded in love and resisting separation from God and others, requires a daily commitment to seek God first, as scripture reminds us. It requires following the example of Jesus and taking time to be alone each day. My practices of meditation and prayer, scriptural study and reflection, and other ways that I spend time alone with God, help me to resist the tendency toward separation from God and others, even when I am angry and frustrated in this world where racism and anti-blackness are unrelenting. These practices help me to become more deeply imbedded in the mind of Christ, in order to cultivate Christ’s consciousness, and embody Christ’s love. My grandfather modeled this way of being –an intentional connection to a transcendent God which helped to ensure that his vision of justice did not become distorted. He was able to see humanity in all others, even his oppressors.
Now, at this critical time, I know even more about the importance of never letting anything separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. Imbedded within my pursuit of racial justice and healing, is my intentional time of separation so that I can be alone with God and ensure that nothing interferes with my ability to experience the full love of God in Christ that is always present and available to me. Remaining tethered to Christ will help to ensure that I never fail to see the humanity in anyone, even those who may be my enemies. It will help to ensure that I pursue justice through Love’s enduring strength, and not my own. This will keep me from developing a distorted view of justice and believing that anyone or any group is unworthy of love, or mercy, or grace. And, it will fortify my posture of openness and humility ensuring I always remember, as my grandfather reminded me, that there is so much that I don’t know. Amen.