Today I Saw God
This Thanksgiving was a simple one for our family. It had been a rocky few months with work and potential financial setbacks that I defaulted to my most instinctual response to my world spinning out of control: I wanted my family. So, this year, we spent Thanksgiving with my mom, my younger sister, and my hero, my grandmother. My grandmother is 90-years-old and will be 91 in January. She still makes the best yeast rolls (a BIG pull to family meals at my mom's house), looks like she may be in her late-60s or mid-70s, and she is mentally sharper than most people alive. Though physically she isn't as spry as she used to be, she can motivate you to do your best with just a raised eyebrow, and that is just what I needed going into the holiday season.
You see, I would be nothing without my grandmother. My grandmother stepped in to fill the void of a father when mine passed away when I was only eight months old. My mother was 20 and had two children under two. My nanna was and is the best father figure that any young child could ask for, in my opinion. She is musical, playing with amazing skill any instrument she touched. She led the student choir at my church with the same professionalism she led the adult choir and her all-state winning choirs at the high school. She was well-read and promoted reading and education at all times. One of my favorite sayings of hers is, "When you have learned everything, you know your time on Earth has come to an end." She is my mentor in exploring music and the arts. We discussed Degas, Serat, Van Gogh, Rimsky-Korsikoff, Rachmoninov, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Aaron Copeland, Rogers & Hammerstein, the Gershwin Brothers, Balanchine, Tallchief, Pavlova, Petipa, Fosse, The Nicholas Brothers, Lena Horne, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Scott Joplin, Sarah Vaughn, Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Bojangles, Cab Calloway, Pearl Bailey, and Herbie Hancock just name a few (and if you don't know who most of those people are, fortunately, there is Google). She taught me the joy of research and the power of learning who you are. She also taught me that who you are and will be is so strongly influenced by who you come from.
In the Bible, there are endless entries that discuss people's lineage. Even in the case of Christ, Matthew makes a point to take the most circuitous route possible to show his relationship to the great King David. That continues even today. Walt Disney and the Disney corporation honor the importance of lineage with the appearance of at least one apple in every major Disney film. This is their way to represent and honor Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – the first full-length animated feature film. It introduced us to the movie soundtrack, was Walt Disney Pictures' first majorly profitable animation, changed the landscape of animation as it was known, won the first Oscar ever for an animated film, but could have also been the film that ended Walt Disney's career.
In business and politics, we acknowledge the lineage of such families as the Rockefellers, the Hearsts, the Rothschilds, and the Kennedys. We watch the antics of their latest generations because their families have access to the mediums that draw us, "the unknowns" in, and many of us desire to be like them. In the world I grew up in that was based in the Southern African-American Baptist lineage was viewed much differently. It was the foundation of the "generational curse," in which it was believed that the circumstances of people today is a direct result of the sins and mistakes of their forefathers. This always baffled me because I always wondered why those who bore the names of slave traders, early settlers that killed entire populations of indigenous people, slave owners, and Confederate generals never hung their heads in shame or faced persecution because of the "sins" of their forefathers? When I informed a boy in high school that my grandmother and I learned his family had actually owned members of my family, instead of asking if I had learned anything else, his response was a snide one of, "well, I guess you're glad you're free now then. I would have made you miserable," followed by laughter. The fact that my ancestors were owned by someone was not a point of sadness or shame for me. My grandmother taught me by learning as much as we could about ourselves, we would find more commonalities and more reasons to live in harmony than we would not to get along. We all in a way have humble beginnings that are changed by our belief that somewhere in our past and perhaps, even someone in our future can create a positive difference for our own part of the world.
Looking from the outside in, the difference from those whose lineage and power is derived mostly from money and very little else and those who lineage comes from investing in something they love that could hopefully better the landscape of the world for a lot of people is a difference of quantity and quality. Those in the financial and political spectrum have a power they control through money. Once the money is gone; once it has no value or a value far less than it does now, that power is gone. I acknowledge Walt Disney was no saint, but Disney made his imprint through quality work. He was obsessed with the quality to make a defining animation that would inspire wonder and imagination. He was not afraid to lose money because what he loved was not in the bank – it was in his sketchbooks and then in his films. Closer to home for me, my grandmother opened her heart, pantry, closet, wallet, and classrooms to students from all walks of life for almost 40 years. She taught in the agrarian areas of Virginia which were the home to impoverished Blacks with limited access to education. She taught in her living room and churches. She taught during segregation into integration. She opened the minds of Black students who only saw the limitations that society wanted them to adhere to, changed the hearts of skeptical White students and teachers, and empowered all her students to be their best self. Years after her students graduated and she retired, her students would come up to her and tell her what a difference she made in their lives. They would speak for hours, and her students would tell me how lucky I was to have her every day. Those were words I didn't need hear but was so proud that I could.
When I come home and sit among the comfort of my family, I am thankful for the line of women I continue. My grandmother's persistence to do well in all things, my mother's desire to always do better than the previous day, week, or year, and the overall drive that those women taught me about never giving up is more powerful than any financial lineage I have read about or witness on the world's stage. It is Christ's example of giving to those who need it, loving those who don't deserve it, and raising up those who feel the least worthy. I am bathed in the stories of triumph in the face of discrimination, calm in the face of violence, compassion in the face of inequality, and truth in the face of lies. There is a world out there that would reduce my family down to the whitewashed history of slaves, loud-mouthed preachers, and uppity-negroes, but what I see are the descendants of the same people who can claim the One True King as their own. I hope to continue the line of people who inspire others to be in the world but not of the world. I couldn't ask for a better lineage to claim as my own.
Not only was this my first trip to Haiti, it was also my first mission trip of any kind. I couldn't help but feel the power of God once I set foot on the work site. The site was set adjacent to the school and we were immediately welcomed by the school children, the school staff, and the local workers who had already assembled at the site and had already broken ground on the project. It was easy to understand the importance of our mission when we looked into the eyes of the children and saw the immediate need. I thanked God for his strength, his mercy, and his grace and felt very fortunate that he embodied that same love and compassion in me so I could share the same with all those I met and with whom I worked. I travelled to Haiti hoping to put my faith into action. I was definitely shortsighted in believing that our team was simply going to provide physical and spiritual support to those in the Leon community. In so many ways the workers and the children taught me valuable spiritual lessons. They taught me that any hardships can be overcome by placing your faith in the power of Jesus. I saw the power of teamwork and how tasks can be accomplished by simply sharing love, compassion, and respect. I was struck by the dedication of the workers and the members of our mission team as everyone embraced the physical and emotional strength that could only be provided by God. With each bucket of dirt and each stone hand-carried to the site, our determination grew. While I knew from the beginning that I would not see the project finished, I couldn't help but enjoy the satisfaction of departing Haiti knowing that all of us, mission team and local workers alike, had come together and made a difference. I praise Jesus for also making a difference in my life. This mission trip taught me an extremely valuable lesson about the love of God and how far-reaching is his hand.
Our trip to Haiti was filled with new experiences, insights, and lessons of all types, but I found the children we met to have the strongest influence on me, and to be the most inspirational. I trust that God used us as a blessing to the kids who attend the Methodist School in Leon, but know with certainty that they were a blessing to me. We provided three-afternoon sessions modeled on VBS for the younger students. This included time for crafts, snacks, and Bible story readings and singing. We also gave each child a Polaroid photo of themselves. The kids were very well behaved and immersed themselves in what we offered.
The blessing they provided us included their gratitude for what we were there doing with them, but much more so in the lessons they taught us during our unstructured times together. While these children have very little in the way of material wealth, they radiate a warmth and happiness I seem to rarely see at home anymore. While their day may well already include carrying several gallons of water long distances uphill from the river to their very basic houses, they eagerly joined in to help us move rocks and gravel uphill to the construction site. One group of boys who didn't even go to the school whose facilities we were improving, showed upon Saturdayand spent the morning helping around the worksite. The kids happily played soccer with empty plastic water bottles as balls. They always greeted us with a smile, which exploded in mirth if you took a picture of them and showed it to them.
I could not help but feel that I was witnessing peace that passed at least my understanding. I can not see myself smiling, and offering to do extra manual labor in the Haitian heat if I found myself in their circumstances. Yet they were content, happy, and giving of themselves. Being with these children, brought new life and meaning to Jesus' message in Matthew 18: 1-6 'At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?' And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, 'Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me,…'. I hope you all find a chance to share time with kids like our new friends in Leon.
"I hope the sights and sounds of Haiti will long linger in my heart and mind: early morning roosters crowing, late-night drums beating, dogs barking, men, women and children chattering, motorcycles revving, cars, trucks and Tap-Taps beeping, marketeers calling, goats bleating, children laughing, singing, jumping, running, men embracing, joking, back-slapping, melodic greetings of 'Bonjour,' 'Bonswa,' 'Kijan ou rele?' These are beautiful memories of a beautiful place and people to not be forgotten.
The return home demands attention to different sights and sounds so that over time, the fresh memories made may require a photo to recall. If I had but one memory to imprint permanently and never forget, it would be the gift of words, gently spoken in Creole by a Catholic priest during an evening team devotion. We were the first United Methodist Volunteer in Mission (UMVIM) team assigned to the Leon circuit for hurricane Matthew recovery efforts. Our lodging was arranged at a nearby Catholic Caritas compound,and we were the first guests at the newly constructed guest house there. Bill, a fellow team member gifted with an inquiring mind, suggested we invite our host priest, Father St. Alfronz, to join us one evening so that we could learn more about the mission of Caritas and the history of the compound where we were staying. We enjoyed a lovely interpreter supported exchange, peppered with Creole, French and English expression, lots of questions, information sharing, head nods, smiles and laughter. As the conversation drew to an end, we asked our interpreters to communicate our heartfelt thanks for the tremendous effort invested to assure the accommodations were ready for use by our arrival date, especially since we were Methodist, not Catholic. Father St. Alfronz bore a puzzled expression and sought clarification from the interpreter, who repeated our thanks, and denominational difference. Father St. Alfronz nodded his head indicating he understood, then lifted his eyes to look directly at his English speaking guests and said, 'This is God's work. This door is always open to those who come in faith to share love from God. There is no signature on love and kindness.'
Father St. Alfronz's words simply, yet eloquently paraphrased these messages from Scripture:
John 17: 21-23 Jesus' prayer for his disciples on the night on which he was betrayed:
21Iask that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us,[a]so that the world may believe that you have sent me.22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.'
Ephesians 4: 4-6 Paul's teaching to the church at Ephesus:
"4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,5one Lord, one faith, one baptism,6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
Thank you, Father St. Alfronz for reminding us of our common unity (community) in Christ. May we never forget that there is "no signature on sharing God's love.'"
We had just finished a delicious dinner of rice, beans, pork and fruit, when Inervis, the leader of the camp crew, asked us to join her and the fellow staff members in the yard. It was our last night in Camp Canan, which is where our group spent the majority of our time during this 10-day mission trip to Cuba. Much of our journey included getting to know the people and culture of the country while sharing resources collected in America with a variety of small village churches. However, this camp served as our home base, and we generated a special bond with the staff.
Our group stood in a circle per Inervis' instructions, and I anticipated another fun evening of singing and fervent Cuban prayer. However, instead, I see our friends grinning at us with the anticipation of a surprise. After an unnecessarily kind speech thanking us for our time, they excitedly presented us with individual gift bags. Each of the twelve Americans in our mission group was given a Cuban souvenir. As I looked at my tiny pink and brown leather purse, I experienced an unexpected reaction. Rather than mere excitement or sadness as we neared the end of our trip, I felt almost frozen with shock and shame at the lavish generosity of our friends.
You see, I had learned quite a bit from my Cuban neighbors during this time. I discovered that the average monthly salary in Cuba is a mere $25. Monthly! ( This includes doctors and professionals. I saw the humble two-room houses that most people shared with too many people, dilapidated buildings and infrastructure that was truly lacking. I strolled along a street with chickens, pigs and dogs that freely roamed the villages. I learned that electricity, hot water, air conditioning and window screens to protect people from mosquitoes were luxuries reserved for the wealthy. I saw the ration books used to provide each family their monthly allotment of rice and beans and discovered that only tourists were allowed to eat their precious beef. I learned that when a headlight in our van broke or we needed more tools or gasoline, it required a multi-day search around the island only to learn that these items simply did not exist in this country.
Resources are scant in Cuba, yet everywhere we went, the people greeted us with open arms, extravagant hospitality and a generosity I have never experienced or seen anywhere else. How could they possibly afford to give me this gift? I felt burdened with the thought of the sacrifices they had made, yet they seemed sohappy.
Once I returned home, I placed my new souvenir on display and began thinking about generosity differently. Often we get it in our head that we'll be more generous when we have more money. However, statistics show that the opposite is true. In 2011, those in the lower 20% give 3.2% of their income; yet people in the top 20% gave an average of 1.3%. If we wait to be generous with our money, we will simply accumulate more "stuff" which would require more money to maintain. Our Cuban friends had so little, yet they gave without hesitation. This inspired me to also give generously.
I thought about happiness differently. Happiness poured out of the Methodist Cubans that we encountered. Each and every person I met spoke of terrible hardships, yet maintained a spirit of joy that is often lacking amongst my American peers whose problems cannot compare. Once again, this goes against our culture, which teaches us that we just need to buy the right "thing" in order to be happy. However, I think the key to happiness is, in fact, living a generous lifestyle like our Cuban friends.
Many studies suggest that generosity has benefits to both physical and emotional health. An article in the Chicago Tribune says, "The benefits of giving are significant, according to those studies: lower blood pressure, lower risk ofdementia, less anxiety and depression, reduced cardiovascular risk, and overall greater happiness." (Chicago Tribune, 2017) In The Paradox of Generosity, researchers found that those who described themselves as "very happy" donated 5.8 hours of time a month, yet those who were "unhappy" only donated 0.8 hours. There was also a lower rate of depression reported in the group that donated 10% of their income.
While reading this statistic, the number 10% stood out to me, as this is the biblical rule of tithing. I get the impression that some view tithing as a way religion can suck the joy and money out of us, but perhaps God's intent was to give us true joy. Once again, God has outsmarted us and is trying to show us a roadmap to a healthier and happier life.
Honestly, I don't know why the Cubans' gifts surprised me, as this was our experience in every village. Generosity simply flowed from these beautiful people, and I felt incredibly honored and humbled by the purity of their souls. However, their gift had a significant influence on me. My hope for each of us is that as we enter into this season of gratitude, we can also look at ways to be generous with what we've been given. Yes, we have worked for some of our money and possessions, but truthfully it was pure luck that allowed us to be born into a system in which we can prosper. Perhaps if we give often and intentionally, we might actually have the happy life we all yearn for.