by Maria Post
“I have never appreciated the incarnate nature of God more.” Someone recently shared this reflection at a virtual retreat I attended, while lamenting that we could not be together in person. Since then, I have found myself quoting them often, every time I find myself overjoyed to be in the presence of loved ones.
Another way to say that God is incarnate is to say that God takes on flesh and blood, God became human, God moved onto our block and became God next door.
This proximity takes on more meaning for me this year, as I spend much more of my time in my home in one of the communities most impacted by the coronavirus, where racial health disparities, structural violence, and the death gap are more obvious than ever.
Although grief and worry are ever present, at my best moments, I also remember that God is omnipresent as well and shows up in the faces and actions of my neighbors. In the words of the song,
“Dios esta aqui, tan cierto como el aire que respiro, tan cierto como la manana se levanta el sol, tan cierto porque yo le canto y me puede oir.”
“God is here, as certain as the air I breathe, as certain as the sun rises in the morning, certain because I sing to God and God can hear me.”
When I have been around others the last few months, I often find myself having one of two reactions. First, I can be more awkward and edgy, as I try to maintain at least six feet of distance. (As my favorite bookstore recently shared in its reopening procedures, “We’ve all become more feral the last few months.”) Conversely, I can also feel great tenderness toward the people around me. In both cases, one could say I am not taking the people around me for granted anymore; I am recognizing their significance, their humanity, I am thinking about their health, and I am perhaps seeing the image of God in them more than ever. As Sister Kathy Brazda often says, wholeness is holiness, and I am seeing people more and more as whole individuals, each of whom has a family and community that is affected by their health and wellbeing.
For the last few months, Taller de Jose has offered accompaniment through phone conversations, supportive listening as community members process grief, anxiety, and frustration; referrals to resources; and practical support with applying for unemployment benefits, emergency assistance funds, and food stamps. Our staff has missed the energy of being in someone’s physical presence and the body language that facilitates conversation and communicates empathy. We have been stretching our understanding of how to walk together in the safest way possible and how to care for each other.
This summer has been exhausting for Chicago, the nation, and the world as we have been confronted with the twin pandemics of racism and the coronavirus. The waves of tragedy after tragedy and injustice after injustice have reminded me of a passage from the recently passed Representative John Lewis’ book Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement:
This little story has nothing to do with a national stage, or historic figures, or monumental events. it’s a simple story, a true story, about a group of young children, a wood-frame house, and a windstorm.
The children were my cousins—about a dozen of them, all told—along with three siblings. And me. I was four years old at the time, too young to understand there was a war going on over in Europe and out in the Pacific as well. The grown-ups called it a world war, but I had no idea what that meant. The only world I knew was the one I stepped out into each morning, a place of thick pine forests and white cotton fields and red clay roads winding around my family’s house in our little corner of Pike County, Alabama….
On this particular afternoon—it was a Saturday, I’m almost certain—about fifteen of us children were outside my aunt Seneva’s house, playing in her dirt yard. The sky began clouding over, the wind started picking up, lightning flashed far off in the distance, and suddenly I wasn’t thinking about playing anymore; I was terrified. I had already seen what lightning could do. I’d seen fields catch on fire after a hit to a haystack. I’d watched trees actually explode when a bolt of lightning struck them, the sap inside rising to an instant boil, the trunk swelling until it burst its bark. The site of those strips of pine bark snaking through the air like ribbons was both fascinating and horrifying.
Lightning terrified me, and so did thunder. My mother used to gather us around her whenever we’d hear thunder and she’d tell us to hush, be still now, because God was doing his work. That was what the thunder was, my mother said. It was the sound of God doing his work.
But my mother wasn’t with us on this particular afternoon. Aunt Sevena was the only adult around, and as the sky blackened and the wind grew stronger, she herded us all inside. Her house was not the biggest place around, and it seemed even smaller with so many children squeezed inside. Small and surprisingly quiet. All of the shouting and laughter that had been going on earlier, outside, had stopped. The wind was howling now, and the house was starting to shake. We were scared. Even Aunt Sevena was scared.
And then it got worse. Now the house was beginning to sway. The wood plank flooring beneath us began to bend. And then, a corner of the room began lifting up.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. None of us could. This storm was actually pulling the house toward the sky. With us inside it. That was when Aunt Sevena told us to clasp hands. Line up and hold hands, she said, and we did as we were told. Then she had us walk as a group toward the corner of the room that was rising. From the kitchen to the front of the house we walked, the wind screaming outside, sheets of rain beating on the tin roof. Then we walked back in the other direction, as the other end of the house began to lift.
And so, it went, back and forth, fifteen children walking with the wind, holding that trembling house down with the weight of our small bodies.
More than half a century has passed since that day, and it has struck me more than once over the years that our society is not unlike the children in that house, rocked again and again by the winds of one storm or another, the walls around us seeming at times as if they might fly apart.
It seemed that way in the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights movement, when America itself felt as if it might burst at the seams—so much tension, so many storms. But the people of conscience never left the house. They never ran away. They stayed, they came together and they did the best they could, clasping hands and moving toward the corner of the house that was the weakest.
And then another corner would lift, and we would go there. And eventually, inevitably, the storm would settle, and the house would still stand.
But we knew another storm would come, and we would have to do it all over again. And we did. And we still do, all of us. You and I. Children holding hands, walking with the wind. That is America to me—not just the movement for civil rights but the endless struggle to respond with decency, dignity, and a sense of brotherhood to all the challenges that face us as a nation, as a whole.
My hope is that as the corners of the house keep lifting with new challenges to our safety and wellbeing, we will not lose heart–at least not for long. I hope we can remember that we have been here before and we can follow Representative Lewis’ example, that we can courageously persist and keep walking together with the wind.