Sabbatical, 2018: Listening Tour

“Hey, Everybody, Meet Boss-Man”

I took a walking tour of New Orleans’ French Quarter this morning, a truly unique and vibrant neighborhood within a unique and vibrant city. Stephen was our tour guide, and, because rain was forecast, it was a small group of eight who chanced the weather.

Stephen obviously loved the French Quarter. Like every tour guide, he was knowledgeable and interesting. But there was more than just that for him. He was not just telling us about the neighborhood, he was sharing his world. This was his home, and he was not only proud of it, he was very much a part of it.

He took us through the entire French Quarter, doling out interesting tidbits (e.g., most of the buildings are actually Spanish), and pointing out the best gelato places. His standards for restaurants are “local, tasty, and cheap,” and he made sure we knew which places he favored. He was an excellent guide.

What made him really stand out for me was that he knew every doorman, every street worker, and even every homeless person we encountered. By name. At one point, he was trying to tell us a story about the “Good Friday Fire” which burned much of the area sometime (probably) in the 1800s, when a homeless man started shouting at him. “Hey, man, give me back my hat! I got a hot date tonight!” Stephen stopped his story, looked at the man, and shouted back, “You’re already looking good, Boss-Man!” Then they both laughed. Stephen turned back to us and said, “Hey everybody, meet Boss-Man.” Boss-Man waved and did a little dance in the street.

It was like this for much of the tour. Sanitation workers, the homeless, street cleaners, shop owners, Stephen knew them all–they were all his neighbors, his friends. He even told us which of the homeless shelters he gives money to, adding that he sometimes goes and eats there with these, his neighbors. “And the food’s not bad,” he further informed us.

When my congregation talks about “Strengthening Relationships” in our neighborhood, Stephen can be the inspiration, the tour guide, if you will. In our neighborhood, I’d love it if we all knew our neighbors well enough to say, “Hey, everybody, meet Boss-man.”

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“I’m Bewildered, Too”

I had nothing to lose. It was my last night in Jackson, and I was still confused. I had developed a decent rapport with the server at the restaurant, and so I took a risk and asked if she would answer a question for me. “Sure, if I can.”

“OK,” I ventured. “I find Mississippi somewhat bewildering.” Swallowing hard, I continued. “This state has the highest percentage of Black people in the country, and yet . . . ” I faltered.

“And yet we’re the reddest of the red states?” she suggested.

“Well, maybe. It’s just that there have been really brutal aspects of history regarding race here, yet there have also been astonishingly bold stands on civil rights and human rights.”

“I don’t get it, either,” she replied. “I’m bewildered, too. With all the Black civil rights heroes that have come from Mississippi, I don’t understand why there hasn’t been more change.” She paused, looked around, leaned a little closer, and spoke very quietly, “For instance, in this hotel, virtually all of the service employees are Black, but every person in management is white. I have no idea why it’s still that way.”

An order was up and she had to go and take care of another table. She didn’t get back to my table before I left.

I do believe there is change bubbling up in Mississippi and it’s close to surfacing. But for now, the server and I will have to continue to seek more understanding and, hopefully, live in ways that may bring a little bit of change.

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Listening to Voices Suppressed for 400 Years and Voices of Fear

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The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel, Memphis, TN

I’m in Memphis, Tennessee, birthplace of the Blues. Historic Beale Street is pretty quiet during the day, but transforms into a busy, loud, festival of music and food as the sun sets.

This morning I ventured over to the National Civil Rights Museum, which is housed primarily in the refurbished Lorraine Hotel–the site of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968.

Calling this museum “important” or “well-presented” is inadequate at best. It most certainly is that, but more, it is living history, told through voices that aren’t usually included in school textbooks or in the chambers of power. Enduring centuries of forced migration, African Americans continue to struggle for equality in their own country.

What resonates with me are the tones of fear that have always been associated with whites “losing ground” to any group of “others.” This is invariably followed up with statements to deny or even justify that fear, e.g., “Slavery is a time-honored American tradition,” It’s for their own good,” “We gave them citizenship and the vote (the 14th and 15th Amendments passed after the Civil War), yet it’s still not enough,” “the Supreme Court supported ‘Jim Crow’ laws, they are, therefore, the laws of the land,” “Separate but equal is the best policy,” “They won’t take over our schools,” “Race riots (in the 1960s) wouldn’t happen if those people would just settle down,” and even including the recent “All Lives Matter.”

These are the voices of fear and are still recognizable in our current conversations about immigration, Islam, the flag, and nationalism. I know, because at various times and in various ways, this has been my voice too. Usually not an active voice, but definitely a complicit one.

It took me several hours to go through the whole museum. The opening exhibit focuses on Martin Luther King, Jr. while the rest is organized historically. As I moved through exhibit after exhibit, I was led through American history from the perspective of people whose voices I’ve not always listened to well enough. I heard voices of people captured and enslaved as early as 1619. I heard the cries of slaves over a period of 300 years in the United States. I heard the early recognition that the revered phrase,”all men are created equal” did not include “all men [sic]”. I heard voices of persistence and courage in dealing with chronic, culturally-embedded injustices. I heard creative attempts at calling for freedom, rights, and decency for all people. I heard cries for education, for housing, and for employment, the historic denial of which was somehow justified. I heard heroic voices demanding change and frightened voices clinging to the status quo. I heard voices on strike, voices being beaten, voices lynched, voices favoring violence, voices bent on vengeance, voices denied, voices ignored, voices suppressed. But the voices continued. And still continue. And they are, as yet, not always heard.

This is because the response to these unheard and uncomfortable voices–not only in history, but even today–are voices that come from fear, denial, and self-justification. Longing to maintain power, those behind these voices deny the legitimacy of stories that reveal the continued and systemic abuse of that power. Maybe someday we’ll stop our frightened shouting and be quiet long enough to listen. Then, maybe the voices largely suppressed for centuries will be heard as valid and authentic. Our history is still being told. Some of it can include new voices and stories finally being heard. If we are to move forward, our history needs to include all voices, not just those with which we are familiar or comfortable. I plan to listen. And I plan to speak.

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The balcony outside room 306 at the Lorraine Hotel, the site of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1968.

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“We’re Here for Something Bigger”

During our time in Rome, Lois and I were noticing a lot of high school groups there at the same time. Everywhere we went—tours, sites, restaurants, shops—groups of kids were there too. Each group was identifiable by the matching hats they were all wearing, or the same t-shirts, or same color wrist bands. The groups varied in size, from less than 10 to 50 or more.

As we were having dinner at one of the many outdoor cafés one night, a group of about 12 youth with two adults came and sat near us. They had matching hats with green head bands and were chatting and laughing with the enthusiasm typical of all high school kids. Curiosity piqued, I went over and asked if any of them spoke English. Many did, so I asked them why there were so many young people in Rome. “It seems like you’re all having a lot of fun,” I said. “What’s going on?”

“We’re all church servers,” They told me. “There are sixty thousand of us here from 19 different countries throughout Europe.” I gathered from their explanation that they were what we used to call “altar boys” (now called “altar servers” because girls are allowed now too), young people who help the priest at Mass. In our Lutheran tradition, we usually call them “acolytes.”

They told me that they were from Munich, Germany and proudly announced that they had an audience with the Pope the next day. Just then another group walked by, this one with matching t-shirts. Simultaneously, both groups started cheering and waving at each other, shouting at each other and laughing together until the other group went around the corner.

“Wow!” I gasped. “Did you know those kids? Were they from Germany too?”

“Oh, no, we don’t know them. We have no idea what country they’re from,” said one girl whose English was particularly good.

“You greeted them like you knew them,” I noted.

“It doesn’t matter what country they’re from,” she explained. “We’re here for something bigger.”

Indeed. I hope that wisdom stays with them well into adulthood. In truth, “we’re here for something bigger.”

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“What are the arches saying?”

The architecture in Florence and Rome is truly amazing. Florence feels more “artsy,” while Rome exudes more “strength.”

One feature that appears over and over again is the stone arch, a major architectural development used for building by the Etruscans (though arches have been found dating back to 2000 BCE),  but used to fullest potential in Rome.

For a long time, arches have held special meaning for me. Usually they are built over a doorway or a pathway, a place where people go through on their way to somewhere else–everything from travelling to a new country all the way down to just a different room. Arches mark a place of passage.

Lois noticed I was taking lots of pictures of arches in Italy. Lots of them (I’d include some here but the internet is spotty). So she asked me, “What are the arches saying to you? What are you hearing?”

I was forced to ponder her very astute  question. After a while I answered, pointing to the most recent subject captured on my camera, “Think of all the people over the centuries who’ve passed under this exact arch. Think of all the places they were going and all the reasons they had for passing through. Imagine some fleeing from enemies and seeking safety while others were just going for a cup of coffee. The arch doesn’t care. It makes no judgments. It simply marks a place where they can pass. I think that’s what the arches are saying. ‘We don’t care what journey you’re on. Just know you can pass through here. We are here to help you through. We will protect you while you pass. Your journey matters, that’s why we’re here.'”

Who knew arches could talk? I think I’ve known it for a long time.

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“In America, we . . .”

I was rather embarrassed, actually. A very nice, polite, well-informed and well-educated tour guide was taking us through the Florentine countryside. She was also very patient. Another US couple was on this tour with us, and were constantly making comparisons between Italy and the US, with the US always coming out on top. Everything from traffic cones to news outlets were brought up. No matter what information she gave us about the region and its history, our tour guide was subjected to a constant barrage of comments, usually beginning with, “In America, we . . .” It just became tiring. And embarrassing.

So we hung out more with the two Swedish IT guys who were taking a couple of weeks off work to tour Italy. They were great! I hear things are pretty good in Sweden too. Unfortunately, I don’t think our tour guide will ever find out about it.

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“They Saved Us”

Florence, Italy is doing just fine, thank you. A thriving wine and olive oil industry is world-famous, and second only to tourism in feeding a fairly healthy economy.

Obviously, historic Florence has held much influence for centuries. A center of art, this city gave rise to Michelangelo, daVinci, and so many others in architecture, painting, and sculpture.

Yet Florence, in fairly recent times, was suffering. The wine industry was relatively unknown and tourism was nowhere near the boom it is now. Grapes and olives were only harvested in small amounts due to a lack of workers.

But then they received help from a surprising source. According to a winery tour guide I was listening to, immigrants from the Middle East and Africa increased in numbers, providing a work force that saved the wine industry. Florence regained lost status on a world stage.

Thanks to immigrants, apparently.

Some racism, xenophobia, and nationalism still exist from the Fascism days after WW1. Unfortunately, those narrow attitudes are still present among some of the young people of Florence and other parts of Italy.

My tour guide’s attitude seems hopeful yet objective. And somehow universal from the perspective of humanity. Immigrants? “They saved us.” It’s not that hard to believe.

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“I don’t recommend that for tourists.”

Wanting a fuller “Paris” experience, I ventured into an area about which I know nothing: food. Normally I can eat about anything (with a few exceptions, e.g., seafood), so I felt comfortable ordering a grade AAAAA sausage. Right? The French are known for their cuisine, so this ought to be great!

The server, however, upon hearing my order, frowned. “I don’t recommend that for tourists,” she said with significant emphasis. “Don’t worry,” I responded. “I’m feeling brave.” “No,” she said again. “This is not good for tourists. It is very strong.” “Good!” says the naive tourist, who, by the way, is on a sabbatical the theme of which is “Listening.”

She brought the unique French sausage, called “andouillette,” and I quickly admitted she was right about the strong odor. Well, more than strong. Actually closer to a 2-week old teenager’s gym socks, stuffed into a wet mattress and left in the stairwell of a bus station parking ramp. But I’m in France, so, what the heck. I took a bite–after all, it couldn’t taste worse than it smelled.

Now, to my credit, I did swallow a bite. And kept it down. So far.

And then I made the mistake of Googling it. There’s a reason for the pungent smell. It’s made of all kinds of meat from all kinds of animal parts. Including the colon. Yes, I believe I ate a cow rectum.

When in Paris, and the native Parisian server says, “I don’t recommend that for tourists,” it’s probably a good idea to listen. And then order a nice French burger and fries.

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What’s Your Steak?

Enjoying a glass of wine at a sidewalk cafe in downtown Paris, I’m awash in thought about Lois’s and my time in Belgium. We stayed with friends just outside of  Brussels, who were were wonderful and gracious hosts.  Theirs were the first non-American voices I’ve had the chance to hear, and there were a few surprises.

First, America is confusing and maddening to them of late. Although that wasn’t so surprising, the vehemence with which it was expressed was.

Next, I was with them as Belgium took 3rd place in the Soccer World Cup. The patriotic pride was tangible, with the black, yellow, and red flags waving everywhere. All were cheering and slapping each other on the back. A feeling of contributing something worthwhile in the world was dominant.

On a more personal level, these dear friends shared some insights they’ve gained in the last few years. “Take care of yourself,” they cautioned. “Everyone needs to be true to who they are.” It’s like going to a steak house, my friend told me. No one should expect fish (or at least good fish) there, because it’s a restaurant that specializes in steak. If a customer is upset that you won’t serve them fish, you just point to the menu and state that you serve steak and are good at that. If they want fish, they should go to a place that specializes in fish.

What’s your steak? they asked. Too many of us try to serve everyone whatever they want in our lives. This results in nothing being very good, and everyone, including you, are unhappy. Find your steak–that about which you are passionate–and don’t apologize for being that.

Good advice from Belgium. Medium-rare, please.

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My Mom: Starting with Voices from the Past

I’m spending a few days visiting my sisters (and families) who all live in the Salt Lake City metro area. We’ve always been pretty close, but have bonded even more as our mother continued her difficult Alzheimer’s journey. Since my mom’s death a year and a half ago we’ve committed to staying close, so my first sabbatical traveling is, of course, to SLC.

Each time I come to Utah, I make sure I visit my mother’s grave site. Nothing macabre, no weeping or one-sided conversations; I just spend a minute in reflection and perhaps sweep a bit of stray grass clippings from the gravestone. I did so again this morning. In answer to my sister’s question, yes, she’s still there.

In reflection, I can still hear my mom’s voice, Boston accent intact. “Only three cookies per day.” “Do your jobs before you ride your bike.” “Who got into the Jim Beam?” But mostly I hear what she said every day of her life as a mother. Not really ever with words, but with every action and intention. “You are worth everything. I would sacrifice anything for you. That’s what love looks like.” Again, those were never her words, and I didn’t always understand it as a kid, but standing at her grave this morning, it was as clear as any words she could have spoken. Her life, once her children were born, was spent making whatever sacrifice was necessary to benefit her children. That’s what love looks like. It’s never about one’s self (at least that’s not the primary concern), but always about what benefits the other.

That’s my first voice–one that is deeply embedded in my past. Ellie Kilbourn told me with her life what love looks like. You do whatever you have to do for the sake of the other.

May I continue to hear that voice and grow in my own capacity to love like that. Thanks, Mom.IMG_20180707_100213

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