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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Catch up: part 2…#Pilgrim

About a month had passed since the valedictory service. Some of the faces and memories are referred to in my last post was still fresh my head. I hadn’t quite began to miss things because it all sort of felt like an extended break. Somewhere within, I was convinced that things would resume at a certain point and the rhythm that I had grown accustomed to would return. This illusion was kept in place by the fact that we hadn’t moved from the house we had lived in while in Bristol. The place we were to take up during my curacy was due to be worked on – maintenance and repairs. What this meant was I would have to take my stuff for the ordination retreat with me all the way from Bristol and after the ceremony return to Bristol. This wasn’t particularly ideal: but that’s life. To be honest I was more daunted by the prospect of ordination than I was with the discomfort of travelling.

I suppose there is something about the pilgrims journey being the pilgrims journey. If one does not own the destination as their own, where does one draw determination and the hope to persevere – or even the courage to attempt the journey in the first place.

Close to 3 years prior, I set off from quiet house in West Sussex to make the three-hour trip across to Bristol to begin my theological education. I stress that ‘quiet house’ because it was empty. There was no one to share my anxiety and excitement; no one to encourage me; no one to pray for me – I had needed it badly. Then, and in this moment I am here reflecting on, it felt as though God clearly wanted me to understand my sense of calling as my own. In as much as there are so many people he had placed around me to nurture me and encourage me through the journey, it seemed important to him that I knew that it was my journey first. That it will be me that would be shaped, tested, carried, refilled, thirsty, bruised, strengthened, and approved. So when with the retreat beckoning I placed my bags in the boot of my Little VW, that sense of solitude – positive solitude – was one that I recognised. This journey was for me.

There is something about the M4 that’s both charming and frustrating. Over the time spent in Bristol I have had to make numerous trips to and from London. Both the night time and the daytime journeys always gave me time to reflect, time to dream – obviously not while asleep at the wheel, and time to ‘defragment the hard drive’. The morning  drive was east into the sunrise, the evening drive west into the sunset; and the night’s peppered by a cascade of headlights. One grows accustomed to the red of the rear lamps. (If you are doing the London to Bristol trip, the Membury services have a drive through Starbucks #BroTip). On some days you might be lucky and there are no roadworks slow you down. But on other days, most days are really, at some point you have to slow down to a creep because hundred or so drivers decided they wanted to have a look at what was going on the other side of the motorway. For the many trips I had taken, I had grown to know the different curves and distances between the junctions; and how many songs would get me to which point.

This journey was different. For some reason  It had a feeling of finality to it. Almost like the beginning of an end. This was more than just a ‘you will no longer live in Bristol’ kind of end. Or a ‘you will no longer be a student at Trinity’ kind of end. This was a ‘your life is about to change’ kind of end. A ‘brace yourself’ kind of excitement washed over me as I buckled in. I started the ignition as that kind of smile you smile when you see the lion in the zoo and recognise how small you are, washed across my face. Needless to say I was parked up and a few steps away from the train station in Chiswick when I realised that I didn’t even put the Radio on for the two hour road trip.

The headphones were in and the music soundtracks for the cascading scenes and faces as the train took me deeper into the big smoke. The same Waterloo station that I had frequented in my freelance days now took on a different sense of wonder. Light interrupted by rows of steel ushered me forward. I slowly walked past the National Theatre and the BFI keeping away from the river because I knew what awaited me. But with a sense of inevitability the buildings peeled away. I could see it across the water, that great survivor who had welcome me into her arms once before and now towered above all so she could do it again.

When Wordsworth talks about spots of time, I think it’s things like these that he refers to. The memory is etched, maybe seared in. I can almost count the contours on the stems of the trees that line the embankment, their broad leaves slowly swaying in the gentle breeze. In front of me the tourists with their big cameras trying to catch little scenes, little glimpses to take home with them. And then there are other joggers, pilgrims themselves; and those on benches unpacking their sandwiches. I must have fitted right in with my travel bag and cassock carrier.

Slowly, as I approached Millennium bridge, all other buildings began to shrink. The cathedral grew bigger with each step, and so did the tremor from within. I was hungry but knew I couldn’t eat. It was all made worse by the fact that I knew I was afraid, wanted to turn back but couldn’t: I just couldn’t. I should have bought the sugar coated peanuts from the vendor on the bridge. There were steps to ascend gradually as the paved path from the river to the courtyard opened up. I wished I had memorised a song of ascent: there was a song playing through the headphones that I can’t recall – in truth I wasn’t listening.

With one last look up the steps at those daunting West doors I turned left as had been instructed. 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.

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Poetry 033: Live!

“Let us make man in our own image
and in our likeness form him.”

Perfected yet dead; still he lay
void, recent from the deep.
No thoughts emerged nor receded
None pleaded for victory, none defeated,
And none rebelled: He was balanced,
inanimate, formed but still,
alive but perfectly dead.

Then breath, hovering over the deep;
the same that churned him from the mound,
approached from steep heaven
and un-barrened sea to seep
Awakening earth from death to sleep.

Inhaling, he embraced life – the gift;
drifting into the breath that once crept
into the crypt – fleshy heart at the mercy
of fleshed earth – made first animate.

Before him he saw his naked arms,
with naked eyes saw naked feet,
felt naked air be drafted in
and blown on naked skin.
Untamed wind within,
unchained wind without,
both whispering “Live!”

© Denis Adide 2012

 

Poetry 032: Happy Father’s day

Your absence –
felt more than empty clouds,
or late rains after hot days,
or delayed snow in the cold,
dark winter months,
or breath withheld
by clasping hands,
the dry well,
a moonless night,
shadowless willow,
no pulse on a flat line –
is killing me.

My heart –
like new shoots,
empty young beaks,
and soft small fingers –
reaches out,
calling
weeping
….
immersed in the hope
that wherever you are
on this, our day,
you’re happy.

© Denis Adide 2012

 

 

and to all who received him, all who believed. He gave the right to be called the sons of God

The branches

I spent the latter half of today with an eight month old baby in an office that was eighty percent female. You would have thought it a nightmare, to have all the swooners pass by and take their fair share of the baby’s chuckle. It was however, a lot of fun because he was great company to have. Unlike the rest of us there, he was open, unguarded and honest about how he felt. He farted when he felt like it, cried when he felt sad or deprived, laughed when he found something funny, and never once hid his desire to learn new things. I ended the evening, on my way away from the child – someone else was going to look after him now – comforted away from the anxiety surrounding my own children (potentially on their way via stalks from heaven): it seems the biggest swooner of the day was myself.

The comfort however, was twinned with an aching heart. There was a thought emerging, a concern for the millions of children who – in that very vulnerable phase of life – are left to endure extreme hardships. It felt in my heart – and this is the image I had – as though the adult hidden inside that small body was being pounded out of shape by the various circumstances that the child was forced to go through – circumstances that we, society and their parents, are supposed to shelter them from. There was a sorrow for the abused, neglected, forgotten, as well as murdered children. This sunk me and almost brought me to tears – I didn’t cry though, I stopped for a minute to compose myself, tears didn’t seem becoming of a tall, hooded, black man.

To all the parents – potential and actual – think on this. I heard it said somewhere that we are possibly the only animals that require others in their species to survive for the first ten or so years of life. Nearly all other animals can survive on their own after the first year. We however require assistance for much longer. That level of fragility is one that we should look to cater for and cradle with as much love, affection, and care as our human potential can muster. It’s far from a question of instinct, our brains are more developed than the rest of the animal species: there is the depth and wealth of love that we must tap into and discipline ourselves in the acknowledgement of our weakness, with a view to change or seek assistance. It takes two to conceive but more than two to parent: we are all hollow in some areas, knit the web that’ll cradle our children.

To the rest of us ‘adults’, here is a thought. Why is it that as we grow older, the things we lose are the very things that kept us happy? I was shocked at my dishonesty when close to tears I turned away from view and took a few breaths: the image of composure was one I was desperate to keep; as though weakness was somehow an inhuman trait. What happened to the nakedness of out youth: the tears and laughter, the dependency and honesty, the vulnerability that made us carefree, and the peaceful sleep. In my experience, they are cultured away by the rod of pretence. The more we learn deception and pretence, the more we mask who we are, using the tools to our freedom to hide our scars – when our scars are the marks that make us uniquely beautiful.

I yearn to be attached again to that child inside, to be free again; attached to branches of life: unique and yet part of something bigger. Happy and honest, that’s the aim.

Adideism number one.

“Love fiercely, freely, and without compromise; but begin with yourself”