Returning Home: An Epiphany

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Nehemiah 8:1-3, 9-12

All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.

 And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’ So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, ‘Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.’ And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.


“Returning Home: An Epiphany”

Returning home is an ancient, archetypal theme.  We return to that place we came from, “and know the place for the first time,” as poet T. S. Eliot puts it.  If we pay attention, and if we’re lucky, or blessed, the return home can be full of epiphanies.  The people of Israel returned home after many years in exile.  The years in Babylon had changed them, and the home they returned to barely resembled the home that they had left. And they knew the place for the first time.

A few years ago, I returned home for a High School reunion.  (Our 35th, if you must know.) The trip troubled the waters of memory, unlocking the echoes of a lost world. Driving up the main street in Danville, Virginia you would never know it was once a thriving downtown.  Now the stores are empty and the hotels closed.  Once a flourishing mill town, home of the famous Dan River Fabrics, the remaining mill buildings sit empty along the river.  The Mill was sold a few years ago to a buyer in India, the machinery packed up and shipped overseas, the brick buildings torn down, the river empty of the dye that used to seep out into the Muddy Dan on dying days.  The World’s Largest Tobacco market is now silent, as the tobacco business dried up years ago as well.  And as I drive past the old Sutherland Mansion, now a museum, I am reminded that Danville was the “last capitol of the Confederacy,” the place where Jefferson Davis and his cabinet officially disbanded after holing up for eight days with the Sutherland’s on their flight from the victorious Yankees. 

       Every time I return home I can’t help but think about “isms” and the profoundly mixed messages around race, sexual orientation, and religious identity that were a part of my heritage growing up as a white woman in the South.  Racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, heterosexism, and homophobia were a part of the air that I breathed in Danville.  Stand at the corner of Market and Main Streets and close your eyes, and you can almost hear the rumblings from the past and the presence of layer upon layer of injustice: the mill workers who were not allowed to organize into Labor Unions, the fire hoses turned on demonstrators during the Civil Rights movement, the gun shots from the Danville Riot of 1883 where 7 black men were killed in a political skirmish, the trains carrying Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, the poisonous seepage from a society founded on slavery fouling the air.

The people of Israel returned home and wondered: “Who are we now? What happened to our former glory?”  Was exile a punishment for the failings of their parents?  Did the exiles continue to pay a price for those before them who failed to live up to God’s vision of justice and goodness?  Returning home made them re-visit their values, their religion, and their guiding principles.  Coming home again made them feel like strangers in their own home.

       Returning home to a High School Reunion means returning to memories of uncomfortable meal times at my house when I was a teenager.  My dad and I would almost always end up in an argument about one of these difficult “ism” topics of race, sexual orientation, and the role of Jews in the Southern social strata.  Our dinner time fights were more than just an argumentative adolescent distancing herself from her father, our conflicts mirrored the upheaval of a culture facing its deepest “isms” upon which it was built: a crumbling foundation that was coming out from under the feet of White Privilege.  I had never heard that term growing up, but the daily effects of White Privilege were everywhere I turned.

       It wasn’t until I read Lillian Smith’s powerfully honest book Killers Of the Dream, that I was finally able to name the profoundly mixed messages that I had received as a part of Southern culture.  Our Christian faith taught us that all were equal in God’s eyes, that no one was better than another, that injustice of any kind was wrong headed and un-Biblical.  Yet the religion of Southern culture also taught us that blacks and whites should “stay in their places” and not stir things up.  Mixed messages.  Racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism were expressed beneath the veneer of civility in ways that crippled us all.

The exiled people of Israel had returned home.  In a world turned upside down, they no longer knew who they were.  The exiles asked the priest Ezra to bring the book of the revelations of Moses into their midst, and to read it aloud.  They stood together in the town square, before the Water Gate, as one people, listening with their minds and with their hearts.  They stood for hours, listening for the ways they and their parents before them had failed to live into God’s vision for them, trying to orient themselves once again.

       Our HS class had lived through the integration of the public schools, which was a time fraught with tension and anxiety. When my class entered the recently integrated George Washington High School, racial tensions were still evident.  The cultural air was thick with anger, confusion, and fear during those years.  We were teenagers, already “amped out on hormones and shame,” as Anne Lamott says, and we were struggling to make our way in a world that seemed to be turned upside down.  We bumbled our way through the racially tense landscape, managing to make friends across racial lines in spite of the climate of fear.  But as a white Southerner, I had a long way to go in taking responsibility for the racism that I had internalized without even thinking twice about it.  The class on the History of Slavery I took in College started unpeeling the layers of racism that permeated the culture I was raised in. 

       One of the best moments of our HS reunion was when Dewey Hutchins asked me to dance.  (It took 35 years for someone to ask me to dance at a HS dance: no one ever asked me to dance in High School.)  Dewey is a really good dancer, and a widely respected student and co-president of the Senior Class.  At the reunion, we teased Dewey mercilessly because his once mile high Afro has been pared down to nothing, replaced by the beautiful cranial glow of his baldhead. As we danced, the photographer was moving around taking pictures.  I shouted over the music: “I hope we don’t end up on the front page of the newspaper.”  I was thinking of all of my jiggly, wiggly parts flapping around in the breeze, hanging out there for all to see, a far cry from my skinny self from High School.   (The low point of the reunion was when someone said: “Weren’t you really skinny in High School?” But a little alarm was going off in my head making me aware that thirty five years ago I wouldn’t have wanted a picture of me dancing with Dewey in the newspaper because my father would have had a hissy fit seeing me dancing with an African-American man and Dad and I would have been more at war than we already were. 

The people of Israel returned home, and stood for hours as the priest Ezra read the Law of Moses.  They began to weep as they listened, for they saw how they and their parents before them had failed to live up to God’s vision for them.  They wept when they looked across the great divide between who they were and who they might have become.

       I’m sure my political and social justice views on many things are causing my dad to do whirling Dervishes in his grave. But I have a personal stake in contributing what I can to confront and heal the wounds of racism in this country.  It is part of my responsibility as a woman of faith, and perhaps even more importantly, as a parent.

       The morning after Barack Obama was elected president Peter and I sat down with our daughter Keziah in front of the computer and watched President Obama’s historic acceptance speech.  I wanted her to be there to celebrate the election of the first African-American President of the United States. 

       I cried during Obama’s speech, tears of gratitude and relief.  As the parent of an Asian-American child, a minority in this country, it is more important to me than I can express to have evidence that we are moving beyond the profound racism upon which this country was built.  When we adopted a child from China, I had concerns and reservations about taking her out of her original culture, where she was a member of the majority, and raising her in a place where she will be a racial minority.  There are times when I think my concerns are exaggerated, and other times when I think I underestimate the damaging role racism can play in her life.

       When Keziah came home from her first week of nursery school, at the age of three, she said: “I am the only Chinese kid in the class.”  She noticed.  One day when she was in first grade, while driving her to her yoga-dance class, I heard her say from the backseat: “I had a little trouble with so-and –so (we call him “The Boy Who Must Not Be Named”) on the playground today.”  I glanced at her serious face in my rear view mirror and said: “What happened?”  “He called me a stinking little Chinese baby.”  (The teacher later said she heard it was “stinking little China doll.”)  My hands gripped the steering wheel and my heart was right here in my throat.  When stopped at the traffic light, I turned to look at her and asked: “How did you feel about that?”  She said: “I felt like crying for the rest of the day.” 

       They were both invited into the principal’s office to share their versions of what had happened, and the little boy was given a dressing down and a note sent home to his parents.  To his parents’ credit, the boy called that night to apologize to Keziah, and gave her a handwritten note of apology the next day.  I appreciated those efforts, but the damage was done.

       She was six years old, and I couldn’t protect her from a racial slur.  Which is one more reason I am called to examine my own unconscious racism and take responsibility for rooting it out of me.  I couldn’t protect my daughter, but I can take racism seriously and name its pain and injustice whenever I can, I can help heal its scars, and I can work to eradicate racism[1] wherever I find it.

The people of Israel returned home, and when they recognized how far away from God’ vision their world was, they wept.  When they saw that their former life lay in ruins, they wept.  But the priest said: “Don’t weep.  This is a time for rejoicing.  For God is more powerful than all of our brokenness.”

       My child felt like crying for the rest of the day.  Which is why I cried for joy when Mr. Obama was elected president.  And it is why we all cry to see how racism and other isms cripple and wound in ways we cannot fully measure.  It is why most of us cried when we watched “12 Years a Slave.”  But God says that our weeping is not the last word, that there is always hope in this world for God’s healing love to change us all.   

       After the high school reunion, I wrote a blog post about my experience of dancing with Dewey and described how difficult dinner hour was as my father and I argued about race.  Dewey wrote a response in the comment section, and what we wrote made me cry:

Discussions at dinner were no different at my home. My Dad insisted that a man of color always had to work harder, be paid less, stepped over for promotions, not respected, and not be considered equal in Danville or anywhere in the U.S. Our generation looked at things differently from what we were exposed to at dinner. I believe it had something to do with our desire to be differentand to prove them wrong. Or was it simply a quiet rebellion? Whatever the reason,” Dewey wrote, “I am thankful we didn’t become products of a closed and negative society. Thirty five years is a long time, but think: Where we would be if our generation didn’t have the fortitude to move beyond?”

The people of God returned home to their ruined land, and knew the place for the first time.  And they heard the word of God: “Do not weep, people of God, but rejoice, for God can transform even the most ruined places in our world and in our hearts.” Which is why when Dewey asked me to dance, we danced for joy.  AMEN

[1] My thanks to Melissa Bartholomew for the reminder that our job is to eradicate racism, to get rid of it altogether.

  • Pastor Meg Hess