What Shall We Tell Our Babies?
The twin pandemics of Covid-19 and systemic racism struck our small congregation in Jersey City, NJ. Linda Mitchell died, age 65. She was the chair of our trustee board and president of the pastor’s aid. I was Linda’s pastor for 34 years in two different congregations. She died not knowing her daughter was named valedictorian of the Class of 2020 at New Brunswick Theological Seminary. It was the same institution that I served as field education director, dean, and now-retired professor of theology. The music from The Twilight Zone kept playing in my head. These events, in tandem, felt surreal.
What does a pastor say during a 20-minute funeral in such times? What is appropriate to say in a short time frame as a decent goodbye to a long-time member and friend? It was no secret that Linda died in a nursing home saddled with violations. How does one offer hope to a grieving, hurt, and angry congregation? These are not theoretical questions aimed to provoke the students who sat in my courses during 20 years of teaching at four different seminaries. The need for answers was fast approaching. The Home Going for Linda Mitchell was on Saturday, followed by our Zoom worship service the very next day.
“Is There a Word from the Lord?”
We are in uncharted territory. If this were a novel we were writing, our editor would return the manuscript and suggest we make it believable. What’s real are the deaths, the suffering, the unemployment, the polarization. Sunday after Sunday, clergy are pushed to make some sense out of this senseless moment in history. “Is there a word from the Lord?” ask congregational members as our national life becomes more bizarre. Can clergy offer hope with any integrity, or are we cursed to be messengers of doom like some of the Hebrew prophets?
Send a few notes up to the God of all comfort even as you take up the hard, dangerous work of earthly reform.
We have reached a critical point in American history. Regardless of how you voted, civility is nonexistent. We experience violence everywhere. Alienation and intimidation are commonplace. Card-carrying citizens demonized. Americans tear-gassed for protesting. Marvin Gaye said, “Makes me wanna holler.” Police officers exonerated who killed Black men and women. Black Lives Matter labeled a hate group. White people counter with All Lives Matter. Black people respond with “Where was All Lives Matter From 1619 to 1968?”
Killed are George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery – denial of systemic racism is no longer possible. America has an overnight conversion experience. Masses embrace Black Lives Matter. However, the price has become its commercialization and exploitation. BLM becomes a slogan. The jury is still out on whether this national verbal change of heart will result in changes in health disparities, mass incarceration, and Black wealth. The feel-good Mr. Rogers, Barney moments end with the mention of the “R” word. Reparations. Black people wake up every day with one complex yet simple question, What shall we tell our babies?
How do we explain this state of affairs? Unequal justice. Everyday corruption. Politicians who twist the truth. Overprescribed painkillers. Gun slaughters. Racist rants. Sex trafficking masked as hospitality in high places. Drive-by daddies. Hurting mommies. Radicalized teenagers. Overstimulated children who cannot focus on much more than survival. Clueless middle-class education administrators who do not get that so many of our urban kids have no access to technology or the internet. Shut down the bars, restaurants, stadiums, and arenas, but reopen the schools? The Twilight Zone music keeps playing in my head. What do we tell our babies?
How do you preach hope on Sunday knowing disproportionate numbers of Black people are dying from Covid-19? Some of whom died after being sent home because their symptoms were deemed non-life-threatening. How do we explain these tense times to our children? We need help with the right words. We need therapy to sort out anger, rage, shame, disillusionment, frustration, fear, and fleeing faith.
New Voices Arise
Then, in the summer, we lost three great voices, dedicated witnesses and soldiers: Congressman John Lewis, the Rev. C. T. Vivian, and Dr. Thomas Freeman, a debate coach at Texas Southern University. They died within a month of each other. Their deaths mark the end of an era. New voices arise. What do we tell our babies?
I point to a painting by George Frederic Watts, his 1886 work entitled Hope. Watts depicts a blindfolded woman sitting on a globe, playing the lyre though it has only a single string remaining. The Chicago pastor of a young Barack Obama heard about the painting in a lecture by the Rev. Dr. Frederick G. Sampson at Virginia Union University School of Theology. Pastor Jeremiah Wright returned to Chicago. He preached about the art. His sermon, “Audacity to Hope,” inspired the man who became the first Black president of the United States of America.
What do we tell our babies? No matter how dire the circumstances, there is always hope. Dr. Sampson was one of my mentors. He once told me over lunch that the painting is a study in contradictions: “The woman is sitting on top of the world yet all you see is pain and despair.” Sampson told me with his classic smile, “If you look at the horizontal that is all you will see. But look up at the vertical, Ashley, and you notice in the painting a few notes are heaven-bound.” If our gaze is focused only on the earthly, we have little reason to hope. But tell our babies, look up toward heaven. Send a few notes up to the God of all comfort even as you take up the hard, dangerous work of earthly reform. Trust in the living God and never give up hope.
The Rev. Willard C. Ashley, Sr. ’84 M.Div. (ANTS), ’92 D.Min. (ANTS) is a trustee of Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School. He is pastor of Abundant Joy Community Church in Jersey City, NJ. A certified psychoanalyst, he is the author of several books, including Rules for 21st Century Radicals, forthcoming from Judson Press in 2021.