Before I begin I pause to acknowledge the land I currently occupy, lands that rightfully belong to the Mvskoke Nation, a people who lived here for centuries, who tended the soil and raised their crops, birthed and raised their children, celebrated the Green Corn ceremony and other ceremonies that linked them to each other and to the Creator and all their relatives. A people who, despite all efforts to remove them, still exist, as the Mvskoke Nation in Oklahoma, the 4th largest Indigenous Nation in this country. They have not disappeared. Mvskoke people live on as the Poarch Band in Alabama and the Lower Muscogee/Creek Tribe of the Tama Tribal Town in south Georgia; there are descendants who continue to live in Louisiana and Texas and Florida. The first Native poet laureate of the US, Joy Harjo, descends from the Mvskoke. Their place names, their stories, their council fires continue. I honor them.
But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days: I will put my Law in their minds and on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.Jeremiah 31: 33
For three weeks or more before preaching on March 21, I’d been thinking about the words Remove and Rebuild, the themes that fell on the 5th Sunday of Lent as part of our overall theme Resilience. And I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to say. I wanted to talk about the removal of the Confederate monument in Decatur Square last June, on the eve of Juneteenth. I wanted to talk about ongoing efforts to remove the cannon, with the big lie hidden in its short inscription.* I planned to talk about English ivy, how it crowds out native vegetation and kills trees, and how you can’t just pull up the part of the ivy that you can see, because it will grow again from any part of the root or stem. I wanted to say that white supremacy is like English ivy, and that until we pull it up, root and stem, it will continue to grow, to spread, to kill.
“The truth of the matter is, unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.”John 12: 24
Somehow I planned to tie all of this back to one of the lectionary readings for that Sunday, about God writing the Law on our hearts. To the Gospel passage from the lectionary about the grain of wheat that must fall to the ground and die, or remain a single grain. I got to thinking about that grain of wheat and the potential it carries to feed the world, and the way it has been genetically modified in this country so that many of us can no longer eat it. The way we manipulate food production in a starving world in order to drive up prices and profits. How Jesus said that the heart of the Law, the Law that God says the MOST HIGH will write on our hearts, is mercy, and that Love (of God, of neighbor, of self) is the thing on which everything else depends, all the Law and all the prophets (Matthew 22:40). I got to thinking about Love as the grain of wheat that can yield a rich harvest and feed the world. I kept coming back to an image that haunted me–haunts me still–of Love planting itself inside my heart, the shell of that grain breaking open, Love cracking open my heart, breaking through the hardened ground of my heart.
Just days before, the murder of eight people, seven of them women, and six of those women Asian American, was evidence yet again of the pervasive racism that stalks our country under so many different disguises, wearing so many different masks. One of our pastors had asked me to craft a statement that the church might release and invite other clergy to sign, in support of the AAPI community and condemning the racism that so often blossoms in blood and violence.
I was doing pretty well writing about the word Remove.
It was the word Rebuild that stopped me. Stopped me cold. I kept writing and rewriting, and rewriting again. And my words felt like lead, tasted like ashes. There was no way that I was going to put those words in front of our congregation. So I woke up early Sunday morning and wrote what I am sharing with all of you now. From my heart. Which was and is cracking wide open.
That word Remove has so many layers. Shall I talk about the removal that the cannon in Decatur Square disguises as the “Indian War of 1836”? The Indian Removal Act of 1830, and the forced marches to “Indian Territory,” along too many Trails of Death? Shall I talk about how by 1827, virtually all the Mvskoke, whose land my neighbors and I now occupy, had been removed from Georgia, by legal and illegal means, but all of them violations of covenant? How Indigenous peoples all across this continent were systematically removed and their history erased? How “Indian” children were ripped from their homes and forced into boarding schools, their hair cut off, forbidden to speak their languages, so that even if they escaped, they found themselves cut off from all that had nurtured them, caught in a liminal space that was neither white nor Indian? How African people were kidnapped and forced into slavery, and the brutal attempt to remove all sense of kinship and family?
And what about the gazebo in Cleveland? the one beside which a 12-year-old Tamir Rice was playing when cops shot him as he held a toy gun? Cleveland wanted to demolish that gazebo once all the legal avenues had been exhausted and no police were held to account. But Tamir’s mother Samaria said, No, you will not erase this piece of history. An artist in Chicago, Theaster Gates, founder of The Rebuild Foundation, brought the dismantled pieces to Chicago, rebuilt the gazebo on the Foundation’s grounds, rededicated the space, haunted by violent memories, hallowed it as a place of sanctuary and community conversation and, as he himself said, “Black joy.”
White Southerners are so worried that their history is going to be erased if these monuments are removed–and yet how much erasure and removal has been done in the name of whiteness? Which wasn’t even a thing when the European settlers first came and took this land! The first time the word white appears in a document is 1681. “White”–an erasure not only of the cultural identities of African peoples and Indigenous peoples, but also of all the different shades of Scots-Irish, French, German, Spanish, Italian, every rich and vibrant culture reduced to a so-called color in which all color is absorbed and all vibrancy disappears!
Yes, I feel that grain of Love cracking my heart wide open.
You know, you can eliminate English ivy: If the soil is moist enough, you can pull it up by hand. In “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” James Weldon Johnson wrote, “We have come over a way that with tears has been watered; we have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered….”
This past year, this past week, our hearts have been broken over and over again. Is the soil moist enough now with blood and tears? How many more have to die? How many more families have to grieve? I can’t even get to the word Rebuild! We’re not ready to rebuild! From what I can see, we haven’t even really begun to admit and confess all the wrong that has been done in the name of whiteness.
The first time I heard “Prophecy Song” was in South Dakota. I had gone to Wounded Knee, to the graveyard on a hill open to the sky that stretches so wide over the Plains. I stood at the chainlink fence that surrounds the monument chronicling the names of those buried in a mass grave. A young Lakota man, dressed in tan khakis and a freshly-pressed white shirt, his long black hair gathered in a series of ties down his back, all the way to his hips, came and stood near me. Both of us standing by the gray metal fence. In the West, to our left, dark clouds were gathering: a storm was coming, and the wind was kicking up. People were scattering, hurrying to their cars. We stood there, alone, together. He began to speak: “They say that only a certain number of Lakota were massacred that day, but we know that the count was much higher. My grandmother”–he pointed behind us toward the dark clouds–”hid in that ravine, she was afraid to come out because the soldiers were still shooting. She hid there until the next day. My grandfather”–he pointed again in a different direction–”spent all night hiding over there. They were children. It was cold, snow on the ground. Bodies frozen on the ground. There are many more people buried here than they say. We know.” We stood a little longer, talked a little, I don’t remember what, and then he walked away. I felt his bitterness, his anger, his frustration, something he wanted me to hear, to know, that somehow I was not receiving. The rain was coming. I went to my car. As I drove away, a CD began to play, and I heard Joanne Shenandoah’s melodious voice saying, “The words say that we are to awaken, stand up! be counted, for you are being recognized in the Spirit world.” The skies finally broke wide open, and the rain poured down. I pulled off to the side of the road and wept.
What I want to know is: How is Love breaking your heart? And if Love isn’t breaking your heart, what would happen if it did?
*See my previous post, “From Where I Stand.”
To listen to Joanne Shenandoah’s recording of “Prophecy Song:” https://youtu.be/cgNZwzRWjvc (NOTE: The full recording, just over 5 minutes long, includes the opening translation: from the album Orenda, Joanne Shenandoah, with Lawrence Laughing. You can find both “Prophecy Song” and Orenda on Spotify, Amazon Music, or whatever app you use to listen to music.)
For more information about The Rebuild Foundation, visit https://rebuild-foundation.org/