The first session is an evening session, and by the time it rolls around, I'm about as lively as a cadaver on CSI. I'm jetlagged and fatigued, and I've lost two hours in the sky, now confused about what time it really is.
This is the state I arrive to the auditorium in. An attractive women, with salt and pepper hair and caramel kissed skin sits down next to me. I don't know her, but she congratulates me on my journey into the Orthodox Church. She tells me her own story in a matter of moments, and then tells me she wants to support me. She pulls out a checkbook. She writes a very supportive check.
Father Paisius comes to the stage. He is what my grandmother would call a "tall drink of water", only in his case, the water he offers would be the Living kind. I hear his voice for the first time, and it is comforting in the way that honey is comforting. It has a rich texture about it, and it's yummy!
He starts a movie he's done for school. It's called, "Is Chrisitianity A White Man's Religion?" I think this is a very bold move, seeing as Fr. Paisius is a white man. The question he asks shakes something off of a dusty shelf inside of me that's been stored there for too many years. Several things fall off that shelf. I feel them clatter to the floor of my soul, making all kinds of noise, and hurting me when they slam on the ground.
Is Christianity A White Man's Religion? How many times have I asked myself that question? Malcolm X's voice rumbles in my head. Gabriel's voice--the man who taught me most about Africa, while abusing me more than I thought could be possible. Stories whispered in me. Stories my grandparents told us about white people. These stories were stern warnings, serving to protect us from people my foreparents believed--no, they knew, could do us great harm. Their voices still chill me, while my mind tells me that we are no longer strange fruit hanging on southern trees. And maybe, it's true. But the stories stay. They are a part of my history, and irrevocable.
So I bring my sad legacy to this lecture, and wonder if I can trust what I hear. I am a child of the sixties. The Black Panthers served breakfast where I lived, and they taught us crafts at the Malcolm X Cultural Center, where they had cartoon drawings of pigs in police uniforms on the walls. I have had white boys careen by in their cars throwing bottles at me shouting, "Nigger." I ask myself when I move to a town, "Will white people accept me here?" People follow me in convenience stores, and sometimes ask me to empty my pockets, and I don't even get "I'm sorry, ma'am," when they see I wasn't stealing at all. I know that publishers have asked if they can sell a book I write because I am black, and some people are still wondering if black people even read, and if white people will buy a book with a black woman on a cover. These are questions that still have to be asked. I don't say this to condemn. It's just the truth, and we all know the truth often hurts.
So here I am, with my stories and voices, and the golden mouthed priest with the controversial movie stands in front of me. He begins to pick up those secret things that were hidden on my inner shelves. He dusts them off. He validates them, and then he tells me of the contributions of saints of African descent for centuries. I feel a balm of healing as I sit, taking it all in. I feel fear flee in the presence of a truth that cost many black martyrs their lives (and white one's, too): our history did not begin with slavery. We have roots that go deep into the heart of God. White men don't own this great faith. It belongs to God.
We, African, have always believed.
I am indebted to Fr. Paisius for his scholarship and fearlessness. I am grateful that he examined his own heart and history, and finding it wanting, bent his knee to the God who loves us all and he told the truth--a truth of amazing significance to me, and to all Americans. Fr. Paisius didn't just dust off and affirm the hidden things in me, he shined a clear light on them. I saw that they were the truths that my parents held on to. They are the truths their parents held on to. They are the truths of the martyrs, and passion bearers, and slave confessors, and conductors on the underground railroad. They are the hard and gorgeous truths that compelled safehouse proprietors to risk all for righteousness sake.
Those truths, in it's myriad forms, is simply this: we are all made in the image and likeness of God, and in Christ, we are all slave to God, and all free from the things of this temporary kingdom of the world.
May we live that way, and if necessary, be willing to die for that same way.
God wants to heal this ugly schism of racisms that still divides us. Let's let Him.
Forgive me, my brothers and sisters, a sinner, for the sin of racism, bigotry, and division among the brethren, both inherited, and my own.
In unity in Christ, and great sorrow,
For more information on Fr. Paisius's writing and the work of St. Mary of Egypt Othodox Church, visit www.stmaryofegypt.net, and tell them Mair Claudia sent you.