Signs & Wonders

Farewell

Once upon a time, I lived on a farm in the mountains of western North Carolina. I had a garden...of sorts. The tomato vines were attacked by some pest or plague and produced exactly one tomato (which, after calculating the cost of the plants, frames, lime, and fertiliizer, was worth about $26). The only things that thrived were my raspberry bushes. I returned home one afternoon, however, to find the goat happily chomping on the last remnant of them. "I can’t grow anything," I said out loud to myself. Then I walked inside and discovered two toadstools growing in the bathroom.

It was damp in western North Carolina. If mildew were a cash crop, I would have been rich the three years I lived there. But abundance came to me in other forms. Friendship. Grace. Hospitality. I rediscovered things I had lost sight of in my last years living with Sojourners Community: the blessings of extended meals and late-into-the-night conversation with friends; the expectant unfolding of the seasons; the mysteries of nature’s bounty.

My closest companion was Savannah, a golden retriever I invited in when I knew I wouldn’t be returning to Sojourners. As I was letting go of a way of life that had spanned 15 years, and was sorely in need of some unconditional love, Savannah arrived with all the grand exuberance and abundant affection of a 7-week-old puppy. She reintroduced me to delight. She lavished me with "gifts" she found and reveled in every day and season, bounding joyfully with equal grace through deep snowdrifts or a pasture bursting with bright yellow buttercups.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1998
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Hearts of Stone

room of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission burst open. The parents of Amy Biehl walk in, surrounded by reporters, microphones, and cameras. From the other side, parents of Amy's young killers file in. The large crowd is riveted on the exchange of handshakes, embraces, and apologies flowing at the front of the room amid a sea of flashing cameras.

This is history in the making, and I am both moved and appalled at the spectacle unfolding before me. Has it been too neatly choreographed for public consumption? Why is it that the world pays so much attention to the murder of an American, while the deaths of thousands of South Africans remain tucked away on the back pages of history?

Amy Biehl was an exchange student, stabbed and stoned to death in August 1993 by a mob in the township of Guguletu, just two days before she was to return home to the United States. Four young men, members of the youth organization of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), were convicted of the murder. This is the day of their amnesty hearing.

The young men appear frightened as they are led into the hearing room. The Biehls have publicly offered them forgiveness and stated that they will support the Truth and Reconciliation Commission if it decides to grant them amnesty.

THE AMNESTY HEARINGS are perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The vast number of the more than 7,000 applicants for amnesty are white police officers and others who have been convicted of the brutal crimes of apartheid. During the negotiations that led to the transfer of power from F.W. de Klerk's NP (National Party) to Nelson Mandela's ANC (African National Congress), NP leaders pushed for blanket amnesty; in other words, those who tortured and murdered were not to be held accountable for their crimes.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1998
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With the Eyes of Christ

"From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view....This is from God, who...has given us the ministry of reconciliation."— 2 Corinthians 5:16, 18

Maude lives in a modest home in a senior citizens' complex outside Cape Town, South Africa. Her story is tragically typical. Thirty years ago—when the apartheid government's Group Areas Act declared the best areas of South Africa "white"—police kicked in her door and stormed into her home in the middle of the night. Rifles pointed at their heads, Maude, her husband, and five children were forced out and thrown into a truck. The police drove them miles away to a barren spot of bush and dumped them there, with nothing. This cruel policy of "forced removals" was the start of the vast squatter camps that were patched together by people who had had everything they owned stolen from them.

I asked Maude the question that I asked virtually everyone I met as I traveled throughout South Africa [in the] summer of [1997]: "Why aren't you consumed with bitterness and hatred?" She answered, "I don't know if I have forgiven them. But I believe that if I want God to forgive me, I have to forgive them."

I wanted to take her by the shoulders and say something like, "I barely know you. But I can't imagine there's anything that you've done that even comes close to what has been done to you."

But many people in South Africa have chosen not to see it that way. They have come to understand and embrace that difficult passage in 2 Corinthians about seeing no longer from a human point of view, but with the eyes of Christ.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1998
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Look to the Children

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
"A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more."

One million children. Gone in a flash. Engulfed in the flames of Holocaust ovens by decree of a modern-day Herod. The scale of the tragedy and the weight of the horror are hard to comprehend. A walk through the Children's Memorial at the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem offers a poignant glimpse.

I always think of children around Christmas. I conjure images of their exuberant singing of carols; the glow of their smiles in candlelight; and, yes, the wonder and delight I've seen on their faces on Christmas morning when they discover the bounty that appeared mysteriously overnight.

I try to imagine the joy that Mary felt, gazing at the face of her young son, Jesus. But the passage above from the second chapter of the gospel of Matthew always intrudes. How could she celebrate the birth of her child, knowing that other children had lost their lives because of him?

THIS YEAR my Christmas images come with more vivid detail. I have been to Bethlehem, to the "Shepherds' Field" and the Church of the Nativity. The church contains the tombs of 25 children. Children slaughtered in Herod's massacre perhaps? History doesn't tell us.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1997
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A Hopeful Slice of History

Four water cannons. Two vicious dogs. Six armored personnel carriers. A score of police. I cringed as I walked past these former symbols of apartheid, making my way into the town hall in rural Ladybrand, near South Africa’s border with Lesotho. But inside, it was explained that the security measures were necessary, not to control the crowd, but because of bomb threats from right-wing elements angry about the truth-telling going on there.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in Ladybrand in late June were the last in an 18-month series around the country, aimed at uncovering gross human rights violations from South Africa’s apartheid years. In contrast to the security apparatus outside, at the front of the hall burned a single white candle, lit at every hearing as a sign of endurance and hope.

The hall was overflowing. People had come three hours from the black township of Bethulie, packed into dilapidated vans and taxis, determined to tell their stories or support others in their telling. What stays with me is a collage of faces: confident, angry, young faces; pained old faces staring at the floor; activist faces bearing the scars of resistance. I will never forget the looks of pride, pleading, and relief.

The stories were often accompanied by tears. A social worker sat beside each witness, offering a comforting arm around the shoulder, a tissue, or a glass of water when needed. For three days the stories of anguish poured out.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1997
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Wounds and Blessings

It had been several years since I'd visited New York City. The sun collapsed into an orange ball behind the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan as my flight swooped by them, over the Statue of Liberty, and on past the Empire State Building to LaGuardia.

I can't view that skyline without experiencing a flood of memories from my time in East Harlem as a college student. Nostalgia and a little sadness overcame me—and regret that the passage of years has dulled some of my enthusiasm. I actually believed then that I could change the world.

Twenty-two years later, I was feeling weary. There's always a danger to agreeing in July to lead a retreat in February on hope. But I had assented to spend a weekend with Pax Christi Metro New York leading a retreat on "Hope for the Long Haul." As the plane touched down, I whispered to myself, "I hope these folks are prepared to be vulnerable this weekend." Not much was going to happen if it all depended on me.

My text that Friday evening was Genesis 32:22-31, the story of Jacob wrestling all night with the angel. I reflected that we seem to be in a wrestling time these days, a time requiring persistence and patience. Most of the people in the room had been to Central America in the '80s during the contra war; they had resisted nuclear weapons in the '70s during the Cold War; many had been active in the '60s in the civil rights struggle. Those times seemed like eras of high energy for resistance.

Often these days it seems that what is most required of us is a lot of waiting and serving and being present—to refugees and homeless people, to prisoners and battered women, to troubled children and dying folk. The people gathered in that room nodded in assent when I reflected that it's easy to feel isolated in our wrestling.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1997
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A Circle of Faith

I live encircled by an eruv—though for weeks it was invisible to my eyes. I would not have known what I was seeing, had I noticed it. I was simply living in a neighborhood I had chosen because it contained one of the few affordable houses for rent in Atlanta during the pre-Olympic profit frenzy of the summer of ’95.

My unobservant eyes were opened in October, when simple structures made out of plywood, covered in branches and decorated with small lights of the sort we Christians put on Christmas trees, appeared virtually overnight in most of the yards. For a week my Orthodox Jewish neighbors observed Sukkoth, the Festival of Booths. It is a harvest celebration, and a reminder that ancient ancestors lived in temporary shelters during their years in the wilderness after the escape from Egypt (Leviticus 23:33-43).

I became more watchful then, observing the parade of neighbors in large hats and long, black coats walking to the nearby synagogue every week on Shabbat (Sabbath). Hannukah brought bright menorahs to all the living room windows, and large gatherings around meals. I walked up and down my street often at night, watching from a distance, filled with a mixture of fascination and envy. I’m drawn to the sense of ritual, to the stability that seems evident, to the strong ties of tradition, family, and community.

My housemate Elizabeth and I have befriended 9-year-old Merissa from across the street, who helps Elizabeth with her seminary Hebrew homework. Merissa especially likes Purim, the festival of Esther, with a big costume parade every March. Last year she wanted to dress up as the Easter bunny. Her parents explained the problem with that, but allowed her to wear what she wanted and dubbed her the "Esther Bunny." It was a creative response, I thought, to the inevitable tension that arises between Jewish tradition and the surrounding culture.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1997
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A Pretty Pass

Wesley Woods is a United Methodist retirement high-rise in my Atlanta neighborhood. For a long time, my deepest appreciation of it was related to the grounds that surround it: It's a safe and interesting place to walk my dog. Savannah likes to chase the squirrels, wade in the stream, and arrive around 7 o'clock in the evening. That's when the self-described "bread and peanut lady" comes outside to feed the wild creatures. My typically exuberant and affectionate golden retriever is enamored of her (mostly because she would feed Savannah an entire loaf of white bread every evening if I let her).

Some mornings I catch the Emory University shuttle at Wesley Woods and ride it to my classes at the seminary. A few weeks ago, while I was waiting, I met a woman whose husband had been a pastor in the area where I grew up before he retired several years ago. In the middle of Atlanta, we shared a string of nostalgic reflections about the First United Methodist Church on Chocolate Avenue in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

I've come to appreciate the rich texture of the older lives that exist behind the walls. I find I'm always learning something new. But no one took me more by surprise than Frances Pauley, whose 91st birthday party I recently attended.

BACK IN 1961, Frances was involved in the campaign to desegregate Albany, Georgia. She was arrested, put in jail, then released and told by the police to get out of town. She confronted her fear by marching right into the office of the chief of police, Laurie Pritchett. "Chief," she said, "they asked me to leave town, but I've got a few things I haven't quite finished yet. So I thought I'd tell you I'm gonna be here a few more days. If there's anything I can do to help you, please let me know." His mouth was still hanging open when she turned around and marched out.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1997
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A Combustible Mix

It feels "normal" again in Atlanta, whatever that means. The Goodyear blimp no longer floats over my house five times a day, and there's more in the news than the latest celebrity sighting in a trendy restaurant or the newest person to try dancing the Macarena on International Boulevard. The Olympics have come and gone.

I attempted to get to Centennial Olympic Park only once -- drawn, I suppose, by a journalist's curiosity (or just plain human nature) to see the place where "The Bomb" had gone off a week before. About 9:30 in the evening, a friend and I were in a sea of humanity creeping toward the park. New security measures were in place, and movement was extremely slow. We got about 30 yards from the entrance when word was passed through the crowd that there was another bomb. "There's a suspicious package," somebody said. "They've brought in a bomb-sniffing dog," someone else added. We decided to keep pressing on until we got a definitive word.

The definitive word came quickly: two police officers on horseback, blowing shrill whistles and waving the crowd back while the horses paced swiftly at its forward edge. The task was daunting, as they tried to turn back a mass of humanity that stretched for blocks. Parents pushing strollers or carrying children on their shoulders reacted quickly. A knot of beer-drinking young men made a joke about terrorists, then threw their fists into the air and chanted "Party! Party!" A man behind us started yelling in a panic, "Move! Move!" There was a moment when the crowd surge bordered on mayhem, and it was easy to understand how stampedes get started.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1996
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Hate Radio

It may be the most creative thing that’s ever happened in Woodruff Park in downtown Atlanta. Eight members of the Open Door Community (with a little help from their friends) carried toilets into the park and stationed themselves upon them. Others of us surrounded them with placards declaring “Pee for Free With Dignity” and “Outhouses for People Without Houses.

We got a few stares from the downtown lunch crowd. Some passersby laughed. But we were there to draw attention to something that is far from a laughing matter. In 1994, the city government promised to install 25 public toilets in downtown Atlanta. In the two years since, none has appeared. And every day, more and more homeless people are being arrested and spending time in jail for public urination. As Rev. Murphy Davis of the Open Door put it, the policy is “stupid and mean-spirited.” In six months, she says, the city could have paid for public facilities instead of “flushing public funds down the toilet by locking people up.”

Such arrests aren’t new, but they are being stepped up in a concerted effort to create a “vagrant-free zone” in Atlanta during the upcoming Olympics. New ordinances seem to be as numerous these days as official Olympic sponsors and Coca-Cola souvenirs. Among the most controversial laws is one making it illegal to walk across a parking lot in which you do not have a car parked.

The effort is aided by pith-helmet-wearing, walkie-talkie-toting “goodwill ambassadors,” hired by downtown businesses to alert police to “trouble”—and by a new eight-story, $67 million jail. Homeless people who would prefer not to spend the ’96 Games behind bars are being offered a free, one-way ticket out of town. Project Homeward Bound will send any homeless person anywhere on a bus, provided they promise never to return to Atlanta.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1996
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