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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The Forgotten

We exist,
Far from pebbled streets,
Castles, boats, and the great stream.
Far from the high walls lit up by screens,
From crowns, kings, queen and politics,
We are the only things
They honestly cast aside.
Like a gum wrapper or a flyer from the 4th Sainsburys down the street.
They built it over the ruins of the old library, Which they had first converted into a pub.
Our worth receeding as the companies
Saw fit to freeze the books for drinks,
Then drinks for the chance to squeeze the last pennies
From the emptying streets.
Underneath whose dim lights we exist.

Like the prison, they walled US in.
Slowly we forgot the dreams they sealed,
Visions and hopes tinned between
The tall – wall to wall – blocks that seem
To keep even the slightest glimmer of hope at bay.
the Light of day is rarely seen.
In darkness mothers turned to teens,
And fathers into ghosts – unseen.
Beep
Beep
Beep
Sold the age old heresy
That in these dejected seams
The colours of skins divide.
But we, who in these covered schemes reside
Quietly recite the chants and sing
Knowing that here,
where the forgotten swim,
the truth – like we – exist.

© Denis Adide 2012

 

 

Poetry 034: The seat

A poem about a blind poet

Seated, he heard the foreign sounds
Of passing cars, of children, of hounds,
Of planes sailing through the clouds
Of silent moments, and of crowds.
The wind through the leaves whistled
The bamboo heaved along with the thistles
Distant worlds in torrents neared
But window blinds blocked out the mounds

Seated, he thought to find the nouns
For subtle smiles, for tickles, for frowns
For faces floating from the downs,
through greens, through forests, and through towns.
Deep within old cinders glistened
He strained his heart so it would listen
And the world without in torrents neared
But window blinds blocked out the mounds

© Denis Adide 2011

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

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

 

Something new

For all the human handiwork it displays, the bible remains a peculiar holy book. I cannot think of any other text that has such authority over me, interpreting me faster than I can interpret it. It speaks to me not with the stuffy voice of some mummified sage but with fresh, lively tones of someone who knows what happened to me an hour ago. Familiar passages accumulate meaning as I return to them again and again. They seem to grow during my absences from them; I am always finding something new in them I never found before, something designed to meet me where I am at this particular moment in time.

Barbara Brown Taylor

And in reading God’s word, he most profiteth not always that is most ready in turning of the book, or in saying of it without the book; but he that most tuned into it, that is most inspired with the Holy Ghost, most in his heart and life altered and changed into that thing which he readeth; he that is daily less and less proud, less wrathful, less covetous, and less desirous of worldly and vain pleasures; he that daily (forsaking his old vicious life) increaseth in Virtue more and more.

Thomas Cranmer