Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child… A long ways from home.
I begin this reflection on the Church’s call to “pursue justice… love mercy… and walk humbly…” with the plaintive words of that Negro Spiritual because it encapsulates in perfect, plaintive tone my disposition as of late. The events in Ferguson (and as of a few nights ago, also St. Louis), Missouri and all around this country, depicting the vicious assault on Black bodies, normalizing the media assault on Black identity as a “threat” and “thug” and therefore requiring lethal force to subdue or control, and the “soul murdering” assault on the Black male by a society ill-equipped, and even threatened by, the depth of Black grief has brought the words of the Negro Spiritual to the forefront of my consciousness. To be clear, the American assault on Blackness is not new. The “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchal culture” described by bell hooks in her book We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity has been systematically lynching Blackness (and frankly, all things non imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchal) since the first enslaved Africans arrived in the Americas some four centuries ago. In order for the American slave system to work, an entire culture had to be annihilated in order for enslaved Africans to accept their new role as slaves. Though the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America may have removed the physical shackles, the Black consciousness of men and women is still held on the bonds of psychological slavery. Carter G. Woodson describes this phenomenon as the “Miseducation of the Negro” and suggests that “If you can control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his action. When you determine what a man shall think you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do. If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself. If you make a man think that he is justly an outcast, you do not have to order him to the back door. He will go without being told; and if there is no back door, his very nature will demand one.” In my opinion the constant assault on Black bodies – perceived as threats for wearing hoodies and walking in the middle of the night, for listening to music too loudly, for refusal to move out of the middle of the street in broad daylight, for carrying a toy gun in a discount department store – is a reminder that, to some, we do not deserve to occupy the same social spaces as others. That is why I feel “like a Motherless Child… a long ways from home…”
To an extent, we are all a long way from home. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the night before he was killed by an assassin’s bulletin, prophetically uttered these immortal words – “He’s [God] allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” As a human family we are all on a cosmically-divine journey to God’s completion of Creation when “…they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.” This prophetic longing for the Reign of God isn’t new, but reflects the presence of a destructive pathology in the human condition that we in ourselves are powerless to change. St. Augustine called this “Original Sin,” a fundamental flaw that binds the disparate human condition with one common sickness.
So how do we get home? In the words of Bishop Michael Curry, how do we live “into God’s Dream?” First, we have to understand that there is a dream in the first place. Among the many lessons that the Story of Creation can teach is that before was was, God’s dream was. God’s dream was that Word upon which stood the pillars of the universe. God’s dream was that Word which spoke perfect light out of virgin darkness and illuminated all of Creation. God’s dream is that Word that created order in chaos and spoke life into the emptiness of space. And tt some point “…the dream of God, God’s deepest intention, God’s most profound purpose, God’s greatest yearning, was to become flesh and dwell among us.” Long before Dr. King had a dream, God had one, and unlike Dr. King’s dream which is “deeply-rooted” in a limited “American Dream,” God’s Dream exudes from an infinite power, suffused with infinite love, and shines with infinite goodness.
After tapping into God’s Dream, it is imperative that we engage that Dream through the age old Christian practice of prayer. To many, prayer is seen as an opiate, a way for the church to avoid the messy work of “doing righteousness” and “maintaining justice.” It is my belief, however, that anyone who thinks of prayer in that way “just ain’t doing it right.” Prayer is a deeply subversive practice wherein we confront a world spinning counter to the Dream of God with the truth of God. The preeminent example of this is the “Lord’s Prayer.” Jesus and his homies were together on the mountain and one of the said, “man, teach us to pray.” Jesus said to them, “when pray, pray for God’s reign to overturn the kingdoms and systems of this world, pray for God’s provision to end the physical and spiritual hunger of humanity, pray for reconciliation and healing to overwhelm the world, and pray for strength to stand up against oppression and to stand firm in liberation.” I think that this prayer has been said so much that is subversion is overlooked. The opening petitions “Our Father in Heaven… your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is making the same declaration over and over – Your name be hallowed, your Kingdom come, your will be done – essentially petitioning God to set up God’s reign in creation and to supplant the nightmare thereof with God’s Dream. In offering this prayer, Jesus wasn’t seeking to escape from the world, but to turn the world upside-down, which is really right-side-up.
The Episcopal Church has long held the belief that “what we pray becomes what we believe.” Through intentionally engaging in the subversion of prayer over and over again, speaking God’s dream into being regularly, it begins to take root in our bones, and produce fruit in our actions. If it’s one thing that the saints teach us over and over again, it’s that faithful action must be preceded by, steeped in, and birthed from faithful prayer. The art of intentional prayer is lost in a modern context of over-scheduled busyness and “too much to do,” and as a result Evil runs amuck and responds to the impotent petitions of the Church by saying “Jesus I know, Paul I know, but who are you?” As a common aphorism states, “no prayer, no power. Little prayer, little power. Much prayer, much power.” The power to co-create the Dream of God with God is only wrought the relationship to and communication with God.
Prayer is the subversive act of having the audacity to recognize mere “creatures of bread and wine…” as “the bread of heaven” and “the cup of salvation.” Prayer is the power to look at slain children and police brutality and speak “the Peace of the Lord…” “…which passes all understanding.” Prayer is the faith to look at broken and corrupt governments and to declare God’s Reign into being. Prayer is courage to look little Black boys and girls in the face and, against the “soul-murdering” assault on who they be, demand that they are “fearfully, and wonderfully made.”
I still “feel like a Motherless child… a long ways from home” many days. I am constantly on my guard against a system that demeans my existence at every turn. I am constantly seeking ways of waking up my consciousness and being a “consciousness-raiser” to those around me. However, although I may feel “a long ways from home,” I, like Dr. King, know intuitively that I am homeward bound. Jesus promises us that when he says “I go to prepare a place for you.” As another Negro Spiritual says: “When you hear me praying… I’m building me a home… this earthly house, is gonna soon decay, and my soul gotta some place to stay.”
The Rev. Marcus Halley currently serves as Pastor for Young Adults and Families at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church – Kansas City, Missouri. He is a graduate of the Interdenominational Theological Center with a Master of Divinity and is currently pursuing his Master of Sacred Theology from the School of Theology at the University of the South. His current theological interests include the intersectionality between Liberation Theology, Anglican liturgical expression, and Afrocentric cosmology.