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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Notes from the death star

 הָֽאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ

And so the curse prevailed un-curtailed.
I, for my own desires, continued in failing
maintaining that blasted work
of stitching leaves into garments
Even when dried skin sufficed to unify.
Where hands failed, I made new ones to fit,
and covered the blood that soaked them;
Where feet had come unstuck,
cracked from the toil and sweat,
I fashioned boots to hide the bones
fleshed by scars upon scars;
Where my eyes resisted my heart’s covenants
dark glasses over the spaces in the mask,
the same that covered the mind
whos banner self had turned
from usurpations of benevolence
to tyranny’s reign.

“Words I chained in Hymns
and winds to whom once in song I’d yield
rose I and tamed.”

But I hear it,
resounding like the distant echo
of a thousand drums;
a thousand shakers attached to dancer’s heels,
peering over the hills that form the surrounding horizon –
my prison of deeds.
Like the sweetness I once recalled
from the days before the banishing,
before the knowing that couldn’t be unknown;
before the seeing that couldn’t be unseen;
the blaming that couldn’t be undone;
the hiding that couldn’t by my hand be uncovered;
the betrayal to which i’m here unstuck –
like the sweetness of before it rests,
tethered to the memory deep behind
what I’ve hidden;
from the spaces that dream of beyond
bonding to the things the blasted hills deny.
Ahh it is a crying only I can hear, I think,
teased into being by the thoughts that this wind whispers

“there is still good left in him”

I hope for it’s truth
but live out the lie.
walking in the undoable denying of the third crow;
living at the end of the sixth hour,
and the death that is now known as end.

For words I failed to attend,
and actions i’d never commend,
its neither me nor pretence.

“I call out to you, again and again,
Yet you linger.”

From whence cometh my help?

© Denis Adide 2015

 

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Lifted eyes: From whence cometh help?

Dust from fleeing horses
as they leap into the shadow
of the hills I have looked to for help

A thief this night forced
open my stable doors
and to the ground brought my walls and fences

Now with empty words
my lips turn to silence
It wasn’t fire but my own hands that had encompassed me.

“Did the nails,
stained by your blood;
still holding bits of your flesh;
sounding notes from hammer blows;
ever rust?

Did the rough cut wood,
bed for your final rest;
cradle for the crucified;
once soaked for mercy,
ever succumb to rot?

Did the rocks,
hewen out to carry someone else,
rejoice as they laid your body –
their sculptor broken –
awaiting his awakening,
erode?”

I busied myself with a measuring line;
chiseling stones for the wall.
high and thick I made it,
then sitting silently within,
I missed the wind.

Plundered I look to you:
My fortress and shield.

© Denis Adide 2015

….

“Alas for those who go down to Egypt for help
and who rely on horses,
who trust in chariots because they are many
and in horsemen because they are very strong,
but do not look to the Holy One of Israel
or consult the Lord!

The Egyptians are human, and not God;
their horses are flesh, and not spirit.
When the Lord stretches out his hand,
the helper will stumble, and the one helped will fall,
and they will all perish together.”

Isaiah 31:1 & 3

“This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”

Isaiah 29:13

John 19:28-30

But am I thirsty?
Yearning for the cup of obedience,
For the sour wine of humility
And the salvation it brings?

Am I thirsty?
To endure with you and not to reign,
To stay faithful through the pain,
To praise in chains,
Or when blood stains my imperfect garments?

Am I thirsty?
Knowing that nothing else satisfies
No food for this desire,
Wood for this dying fire?
Or am I mourning my death while waiting
For it all to dry up!

No!

Give me thirst,
Give me hunger.
March me into the wilderness,
Into the desert where you are.

Give me stones
Destroy my thrones
Shake these bones and make me re-membered.

The beds are dry, the clouds long departed:
Dust reigns.

Give me thirst,
Give me the name to call
Give me the knees upon which to fall.

In deed I rage against mercy,
Refusing the first.
Oh Lord!

Give me thirst

© Denis Adide 2015

Before he dies Jesus drinks the ‘Cup’ after saying he thirsts. This the same cup he asks be taken away in Gethsemane. On the cross he thirsts. Is it a thirst for something to drink or is it a desire to be obedient even unto death: death on a cross. He desires to take upon himself the work of salvation.

“My food is to do the will of him who sent me”.

Lines composed while contemplating John 19:16-30

They were bare hands that sharp nails received
Bare lips that with a kiss revealed
Sealed with bare stone and silver a heart deceived.

Love seamless as His royal robe
Untouched but taken whole
Given whole.

And as they take your robes, you take mine.

Filthy rags.

I resist for a fear of shame
But you shame my fear by clothing me
Clothing me with that seamless love

I’m touched and overtaken whole
Given whole.

© Denis Adide 2015