Catch up: Part 5 (a)… First March of the Penguins

Though I had Ironed it on the first night of the retreat, I ran the steamer over it once more on the eve of the ceremony. My black suit was spotless and crease free – apart from the intentional one on the trouser legs (my ex-military dad had taught me how to iron and my residual nerves had ensured absolute precision: even samurais are not that sharp). The clerical shirt was immaculate and I could see my face in the spit-shined shoes. If God was going to reject me, it wasn’t going to be for my garments. Maybe for the shoes… maybe.

When I bought the shoes, I thought it funny that they were made by a company called ‘hell leather’. Yes, I knew they were what I would wear to my ordination; Yes, I hoped the people who would be directly behind me would see them; and Yes, on the day of the ordination I knelt with sharpened ears, ready for the ghasp from a holy person about the unholy thing they had noticed about the soon to be deacon. The length of my cassoc, however, scuppered my plans: dresses can be quite annoying.

It’s a weird thing, waking up on days like these. Light, not the clock, woke me up. Gently it trickled in through a small gap in the curtain. It was just enough to give the room a glow: or maybe a child was excited about christmas. I didn’t yawn or stretch. My eyes went from sleep to wide awake in the space of seconds. My mind brought the rest of me up to speed. Fresh in memory the conversations I had had with my fellow ordinands over a 12 year old Aardberg the nights before we went into silence. Fresh in memory the brief interview I had had with the Bishop the day before: brief and encouraging. Fresh in memory the gentle thump of my heart as I tried to fall asleep the night before – dreaming of what was to come while simultaneously being thrust back into the dark room I was to try and rest in. It had felt like a kind of baptism, a kind of tomb. Perhaps part of me was dying. I don’t know. Truly something was going to be slightly different tomorrow, that I knew. My heart wasnt game for a wrestle against the tide, against the time, against what felt like destiny. My bones were aligning and that was good; and I knew that. I knew it well. I knew it in the place one visits when they honestly shut their eyes and look in. There was no trembling here. Just the gentle thump of a peaceful excitement. Today was a big day, there were things to do. Within minutes my bed was made and everything I didn’t need was packed and ready to for check out.

A drink of water can refresh the outside of a person. This morning the cascade of droplets pelleting my face and skin felt like little drums chiming in the horizon. With their pitter patter they soothed me and prepared me for what was ahead. What they said, the cocoa butter sealed in. Awash with peace I dressed up.

There is a thing about uniforms that make them ridiculous. When you wear one part of you is hidden and part of you comes to the fore. No uniform ever captures the totality of the individual (like the extra bits of the fajita that wont fit into the over filled wrap). looking in the mirror I had to laugh.

“Clerical shirts are not good for anything else”, I thought to myself. “Can’t use a normal tie with them”. With a brief smile, recognising the somewhat hilarious confluence of my uniform and branded shoes, I slipped my collar in. After debating whether to wear the jacket with one button or two done I left my room, cassock bag folded over my left arm; ‘normal stuff’ bag slung over my right shoulder; no button done.

We looked like a bunch of penguins sipping tea. Whoever thought giving a group of clergy white tea cups and saucers was a genius. In the sea of black, all you could notice were the moving cups and collars. But one couldn’t laugh could one? No! oh no! One was one of the penguins. One could smile though. Partly because it was the appropriate Christian face for the day (everyone apart from the retreat guides wasn’t in a place to be pastoral so panic face or sad face might have been ignored by the potential church leaders in the building: ceremony first, service later).

At this juncture I’d like to point out for legal reasons that the description put forth in the preceding parentheses are the author’s own and may not be representative of the wider troop.

After tea begun the march of the penguins onto the coach: some kind person had brought chocolates to share. Then the drive to the cathedral for a final rehearsal and the Bishop’s charge. Then lunch at the Bishop’s digs. Then Family time (which I valued greatly) before returning for the final robing and ceremony.

It’s funny how nothing changed… and yet…

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The book of Barabbas

Chapter 1. (New Revised Standard Edition Anglicised.) 

Lamentation’s answer. 

1While an encampment that human beings had erected in order to survive their journey away from death was being torn down (because of external decisions), another – longer standing – encampment of human beings who journeyed in search of a better life was deciding its direction. 2The world that could choose was choosing, the world that could not choose was watching and waiting to learn if its future had hope or darkness. 3Beneath the discourse a slight whisper from the hearts of those who themselves couldn’t hear. 4Words, very clear and chilling to the ears of those who were attentive: “am I my brother’s keeper?”.

5Those who heard it, the same who hold the memory of blood from the shepherd’s head-wound dripping on the rock now dropped by his brother, wept. 6They wept alongside the tent pegs that had been left behind when the bulldozers came; 7they wept beside the old men, sifting through the rubble of the old city for signs of the lives they were in denial of loosing; 8they wept with the mothers of sons who were criminalised, lived under the threat of death and its worse sibling twins – incarceration and slavery, sons who were shot before tasting grey. 9They wept as their tears were projected onto the endless feeds as pictures that mocked justice by pointing to guilt that would go unpunished and unchallenged 10(for those with the power to act, didn’t react – the threat never close enough to warrant lifted hands). 11They wept bitterly, tears bursting the underdeveloped levies and washing away their home: 12how were they to call home the place that their stronger brother had claimed for his own – even without birthright?

13These were the days when judges were scarce; when prophets were silent and pharisees were loud; when the widows were hungry – portions served to false kings; 14and the fatherless uncovered – squatting in the shadows of hillside mansions. 15These were the days when no one noticed the wind – no vanes were erected nor sails raised 16and none with oars left the harbour and nets were swapped for fig leaves. 17These were the days when the third crow was unheard, heart unhurt, and stomachs stretched as far as the blood-soaked heaps of coins would allow. 18No one ventured into the wilderness, by the river where the death that saved awaited: opting rather to skirt the edge of the greens on the journeys from fortresses to fortresses. 19Those who bore the truth had arisen and headed to Tarshish by land leaving the outcry of the infants – whose blood also stained the sacrificial rocks – to rise. 

20Then spoke the Lord to the old soldier’s son,

“Gather your garments,

take off the sackcloth;

rinse your head and be clean.

21Cease from your weeping and rejoice,

for now you know my deeds –

my thoughts in the silence

22when with feeble knees I stood,

half alive from the lashes

wearing my crown of thorns

and my blood-soaked robes of glory,

23watching as they chose

to make Barabas their king.

24Come, stand with me in love,

and love from this place beside the tree

till darkness fails and every knee

bows”.

Let him who has ears…

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Catch up: Part 3…The Little Black Tourist

By the entrance to the crypt a sentry stood.

“I’m here for the ordination retreat”. I almost whispered.

Right this way Sir!”, the reply, with an arm extended toward the well lit hollow.

I lifted my bags so they wouldn’t hit the steps. Inside one of them was a bottle of Aardberg which I had been advised to take with me (as for the contents of that bottle, what happens on retreat stays on retreat!).

The last time I came to St Paul’s Cathedral it was for my confirmation service. I managed to find myself a seat upstairs and secured some for my family: who had come to support me. About five minutes prior to the service, my sister’s nose began to bleed. One of the vergers, who I came to learn later was a cannon (cracking Job title by the way) had let us down some steps into the crypt. That was my first time down there.

I had once, before writing Talitha Koumi, aired some of my frustrations about Christian  obsessions with buildings. Stone altars was the series of blog posts through which I  mused on the place of symbolic structures in the life of faith. At that point, as with now, I was passionate for people to know God as one who did not need the many buildings, and all the ornate things within them, in order to touch the heart. Because of this, the history of St Paul’s Cathedral and of all that was within its walls – specifically the crypt, weren’t a fascination.

Today, as the outstretched arm of the Sentry pointed me down into the crypt, I hadn’t lost that sense of non-wonder (and this has taken a while to understand). It wasn’t the building that I was walking into that had me trembling, it was the life I was leaving behind. Going down the steps felt like leaving the autonomy with which my journey had been peppered: I was one amongst many traversing the busy London streets. It felt as though with each step down my life was stopping being my own.

At the end of the ceremony to come there would be a prefix to my name. One that denoted my connection to the institution that this building represented. It would denote my connection to a whole plethora of people. I trembled because I knew how complex my own sense of identity was (#It’sComplicated). How could I then enter into the space of representing? Would I lose who I was and become something else? If yes, then what if I did not like who I became? There were too few steps and too many tourists going up and down them for any of these questions to have had answers by the time I got to the room we were supposed to congregate in.

Bags down I was glad to see some familiar faces. I was also glad to see some new faces, each with that Nicky Gumble christian smile. It was daunting, but somehow also safe. I could trace in each face I met – of the ordinands – internal turmoils of a similar texture. There was a quiet, subtle, undercurrent of care for each other which made – even the silences – a good thing.

About 40 minutes passed with us, the group of ordinands, doing things not worth the blog-space (apart probably from the pre-quasi-seminar coffee, which was good). When all had been said that needed saying we donned our cassocks to head up for the rehearsal. The cafe in the crypt went silent as soon as the door to the room we were in opened. Cups were put down, some even did the sign of the cross as we – in single file like soldiers – marched out towards the set the same steps that had ushered us individually in. Lifting my cassock so as not to trip on the steps I slowly ascended back out into the sunshine of the courtyard. The faces, now turned towards our cohort of oddly dressed individuals, were filled with wonder and confusion in equal measure. We went up the steps, through the side doors past the tourists into the nave.

Part of what we would have had to do in the service was walk in that same single file up the aisle to the front. There was a slight commotion in the nave as the many tourists who were in the building gathered around close to the font, where we were, in order to see what was going on. Our names were called out so that we will be in the right order when our march begun. Like a good schoolboy I listened attentively for my name, suppressing every instinct towards mischief (I know… it happened). When it came, resounding with echoes, I walked toward where I was supposed to stand: my stomach slightly churning. I lifted my eyes from my shoes and that’s when it happened; that’s when I saw him. I’m certain however, that he had been watching me a while now.

He was short, just tall enough for the rope that demarcated the ‘no access’ area to pass across his shoulders. His hair was combed, dark like his eyes – which were wide open. There was a look of wonder in his eyes that both confused and encouraged me. It was a look mirrored by his mother, who was standing beside him. Hers however, had a tinge of pride: the kind of pride that God likes; that expresses a gratitude mixed with joy and affirmation. No one else had the same look these two had. For most of those surrounding them, the look was more of surprise and intrigue. Somehow, within that moment, I had become his – a memory to savour. He too had become mine. Both our eyes glistened at the realisation that we were no longer just tourists, misfits in a place we didn’t belong. We represented each other from the other side of the rope: I could be him (in fact I was him once but in a life that – till fairly recently – was empty of the counterpart in a cassock), and he could be me. Once innocently colour-blind little black tourists in a sea of white, now priests to each other. Me, evidence of a new possibility; Him, a reminder of where I came from and the privilege I was now to hold: the privilege of who I was becoming.

Stopping short of going to embrace him, I nodded and waved. He slowly raised a hand, still with wonder in his eyes, and gently – almost with a tinge of embarrassment – waved back. With that we were called forward and I had to leave the scene.

Being an ethnic ‘minority’ (and I hate some of what that word might imply) had never really been a thing that I focussed on. Being and ethnic ‘minority’ in the Church of England was also not a thing that I had particularly focussed on. Being a Church of England ordinand from an ethnic minority was also not something I particularly mused upon. For some reason – and do think it is from him – God had somehow blinded me to the fact that I was usually one of perhaps two black guys in most of the churches I had been involved in. Looking back now, with the added experience of my sending church, I can see quite clearly the correlation between the affluence of the particular churches and their ethnic diversity (quite a sad thing to ponder really).

Only once during the discernment process had cultural mis-translation proved an issue for me: even then it was only slight. I barely noticed my ethnicity at my B.A.P (selection conference), and only slightly – on rare occasions – had it become a noticeable thing at theological college or in the placement churches. But this wasn’t because issues regarding race and culture weren’t alive in the undercurrent. No! It was because they were the aspects of my own experience that I had chosen, sub-consciously and consciously at times, not to reflect on. For so long as doors kept opening I kept walking through without pausing to ponder the scars and wounds from the journey.

This moment, then, was important because it helped me realise that I had a tourist’s understanding of my presence at the cathedral. Somewhere between church, the discernment process, theological training and all that had led to this point, I had suppressed the truth of my blackness and thus wasn’t really in the space to recognise the fact that I belonged where I stood. I had forgotten the wonder with which my eyes met my sending incumbent – a young black man serving as a priest. I hadn’t recognised the permission he had given me, permission in my deepest recesses to dream. He had given me the sight of a future I could occupy, like the sight I had here given the little black tourist. I had had the fortune, in the sea of middle-class white males (a generalisation, but also a kind of reality), to have found someone who looked like me, spoke like me, had a story like mine, who was doing what I felt God was calling me to do. My dream had possibility.

To recognise my belonging meant recognising the moments when I was a cultural outcast, smiling in groups when I didn’t understand the references or appreciate the same genre of music or films being used (unintentional exclusion by my God-loving peers). It meant recognising the loneliness of culture-centric pleasures and joys that I couldn’t share: they would neither be appreciated fully/ understood nor enjoyed. It meant having to recognise the struggle to find a barber shop that did afro hair while my colleagues had short walks to theirs. It meant recognising that I didn’t know how to begin to express my hurt when I was made a victim by a racist shopkeeper (my colleagues would have cared for me but they may not have understood the pain – real untranslated empathy heals in a way unparalleled). It meant recognising that I was going to be ordained as a black man.

If I didn’t allow the authenticity of my experience to kneel before the cross, I wouldn’t be healed; neither would the others from my background for whom our shared experience would be an avenue through which hope would flow. As Rev Azariah France-Williams (my sending incumbent) was for me, so I had to be for myself first, then for others. I suppose this was why Jesus had to be fully human, so as not to be a tourist but a priest.

The rest of the rehearsal was a blur: my thoughts overwhelmed me. I was occupied for the days of reflection that followed and have been since. The young boy ensured my commitment to a deeper reflection on the part my ethnicity plays in this great adventure God is leading me on. It’s not easy. Keep me in your prayers.

….

I couldn’t post this without this minor appendix….

In the diverse city that London is, I was the only black person ordained in 2016. There were a few from other ethnicities but in total we were a small percentage and I suspect didn’t represent the make up of our city. I don’t think this is an issue whose root rests solely in the majority male-middle class white clergy. What God blinded me to, other’s see and are afraid. Had I seen it myself, I might not be where I am. We must together share the burden of cross-cultural translation. I think it is at the centre of the term ‘incarnate’. Difference is not to be feared but to be embraced. Sin will mask our fear in apathy or the illusion that is the assurance of our being untouched by issues of race and culture: do not allow it to take root. Repentance, specific to this, looks like a real interrogation of the sub-conscious biases that exist within us. These are not just about race and culture but also include gender and age. Kneeling at the foot of the cross means just that, accepting that our minds need transformation and our whole lives conforming to be like the God who reached out to the uncircumcised.

(More can be said, more will undoubtedly be said.)

PS: Pontiff sed hi.

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Note to the son 3:

He couldn’t look me in the eye. I couldn’t hold this gaze much longer either, the tears were slowly welling and I didn’t want him to see me cry: I didn’t want him to think me weak.

[What is weakness but strength hidden,
what are damned tears and a stern face
if not markers of fear victorious
flags at the feet of mountains
and courage lost…
and courage lost.]

He only ever cried once when I was around. That was a while ago, nearly a decade. Time has made me unsure of the honesty in the droplets he slowly wiped with his handkerchief, folded into a perfect square.

[These ‘spots of time’ like brushstrokes loose their paint the further they stretch,
colour rages against the canvas, the canvas wins – unless the painter dabs once more.
But some streaks are seared, from the furnace to the mind they are etched
and like the wounds they are, remembered they are ever sore.
And scarred ….
And scarred…
And maybe sacred.]

Shame had brought us here. The same that made me quiver when I thought of how I might end up opposite you. Just as he does opposite me. Afraid to become a composite I had lived up to my name – his name. IF we end up here I hope you’d not hide as I did.

And thus we stood in silence. The words like a torrent had flown out and filtered downstream. Wetting the hard stones on their way to the plains. Forgotten until our descent.

[… and like wounds they were, remembered ever sore.
and ever sacred…
never sacred…
always scared like courage lost…
and no more…
no more.]

“Yet to those who believed”… Help my unbelief.

© Denis Adide 2013

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Poetry 031: Recompense

How am I to face the eyes of pity
that will surround and follow me
the rest of the days before they all
begin to forget, Knowing that I,
for the love – yours – sowed within,
am reaping eternal – internal – grief?

I can’t unless you give it all back.

I had enough love for four lifetimes
and more, all you to do was ask;
all you had to do was talk, take,
walk, live… give – a little.

Set my heart alight – immolate –
this rebellion must succeed.
Failure ensures my mind recedes,
past the faith I held, as the torch of old
that with coloured rings made a whole
of the hemispheres. Once to love,
and to hold, but lo! and behold the bold
did to frailty fall.
Forsaking the rollings stones, they became
immersed in moss. covered in the green
they gave way to the mud that slowly
inched over inches to make six feet;
and ashes – once oaks – returned to dust:
the crowds, like the vicar, slowly left
pinching more earth and spraying them
over the flowers – like the memories doomed
to rot and die – that adorned the lonely casket.

The groom, escorted by all into the sepulchre,
now slept. His weeping stilled by the thick
air, lightly lit, hovering between the stained panes
that crowned the walls. Prayers unheard,
like insence, floating hazily; kept in by
the sooty roof.

When they bury the dead, everyone leaves
except the dead. They stay, singing to the stars,
unrequited songs of love, of hope, of floating dreams
in tins unsealed, of loss encountered in daring
for victory, of death, of end without end,
of conflicted beginnings, of afflicted unamended –
untamed – …
Their affectations slowly, like their flesh, disappear:
Unheard once covered, unseen once left.

I can’t unless you give it all back.

What hurts is the hand that held the blade
and not the merciful blade itself. For edges,
sharp or blunt, have no master, no loyalty,
nor judgement. They serve hearts, and hands,
and feet, and thoughts grown to become deeds,
and deeds done in attempts to undo others:
be they dreams once seeded, now rejected
as shoots – unplucked but doomed to die.

uprooted into insignificance, like a drop of rain
falling from the clouds onto the surface of the sea,
drifting. One among many drops; no longer a drop.
At once sea, no mercy but what is given me,
no power nor self. Shelved until the improbable:
the currents drift me back up into the realms
of elevating rays. For now though, and maybe
forever, the abyss awaits, and hell.

And I can’t unless you give it all back:
all of it, in it’s separate pieces and moments;
spots that form the person that, within your
supposed love, I grew to become: grew
away from being.

© Denis Adide 2012