I sit and write this letter in the confines of my home as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep through the entire world. If you wake up every morning only to realize that this was not all a bad dream, I am with you. If your voice does not resonate with the inspirational quotes on your instagram feed today, I hear you. If your heart is broken after an unforeseen loss, my heart breaks with yours.
It is in times like these that I run to the voices of my ancestors before me. Black and brown people who sang spirituals colored by their cries for freedom in the grasp of slavery. Oppressed persons who expressed the pain of their existence in an unjust society in the melodies of the Blues. I run to the words of Langston Hughes, Billie Holiday, Ntozake Shange, and Martin Luther King, who speak the truth of pain to power. As I listen to the words of marginalized groups, I can’t help but notice how deeply their voices echo the prophets of old in scripture.
As I read the words from the spiritual “Nobody Knows,” despair rings out clearly.
“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows my sorrow.
Nobody knows the trouble I see, nobody knows but Jesus.”
As I envision my ancestors struggling for their lives in the era of Jim Crow, I hear the cries.
“There ain’t no freedom here, Lord…
They treat me so mean here, Lord…
I wish I were never born.”
“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
A long way from home.”
I hear these cries echo the words of Lamentations as the war torn and hungry Jerusalem complains,
“Look, Lord, and see.
I am hated.
You who pass by on the road don’t seem to care.
You, come look and see.
Is there any pain like mine?”
I hear their pain resonate with the honest pleadings of the prophet Jeremiah,
“I don’t understand why my pain has no end.
I don’t understand why my injury is not cured or healed.
Will you be like a brook that runs dry?
Will you be like a spring that stops flowing?”
Prophets are called inspired teachers and proclaimers of the will of God. They are deemed as those whose words stream truth from the heart of God. They call us out and speak of a present and future rooted in the reality of heaven. Did they speak of the bright hope in the days to come? Yes. But they also spoke of their pain, their struggle, and their frustration in a world where their bodies were deemed less worthy. They lament. They call out the sins and injustices of society without holding back. Their voices are timeless and speak truth that is still relevant today. They have so much to say about our personal need to lament and offer a critique to the way the American church has recognized and walked with those who are suffering.
The American church is often characterized by an overwhelming perception of optimism and triumph. Our songs reflect themes of light and “oh happy days.” Our messages must always have a silver lining. The notes themselves are often in the major key. We seem to forget that 40% of the psalms are cries of lament, that there’s a whole book in the Bible titled Lamentations, and that even Jesus cried out to God as he died on the cross.
In his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone highlights the voices of “black Christians who believed that just knowing that Jesus went through an experience of suffering similar to theirs gave them faith that Jesus was with them, just as God was present with Jesus on the cross.” He says, “When you can express and articulate what is happening to you, you have a measure of transcendence over it. It gives you speech. It gives you self-definition. Anytime you can articulate your reality, even your loss, there is a terrible beauty.The tragedy is looking at that reality sharply, plainly. That beauty is that you are not defined by it.”
The image that James Cone paints of the cross and the lynching tree is so powerful to me. Personally, it reminds me that God is not far removed from the suffering my ancestors lived. Jesus lived it, too. To me, the resurrection embodies transcendence. When I hear painful side-comments, am misunderstood or overlooked, or I am in spaces where my skin or my hair feels like a curse, it is the reminder of Jesus’s suffering and resurrection that grants solidarity, transforms the ache, and gives my heart strength to beat again. Fully human. Full of hope. But first, we must recognize the ache. In the words of Ntosake Shange, “We need a god who bleeds now. Whose wounds are not the end of anything.”
As I look back on my life, I always find that some of my most transformative shifts come out of times of lament. Before I moved to New Orleans, I called Clarkston, Georgia home. Most of my neighbors resettled there as refugees fleeing violence. Although our life experiences were worlds apart, my times with my neighbors were always filled with joy, peace, and understanding in its purest form.
One winter day, I rushed from my apartment to my car in inconsolable tears on a day where the growing pains of the season I was in ached deeply. The pressures and pain I felt from work, family, and myself seemed unbearable. As I ran to open the door, I was stopped by a familiar voice on the sidewalk. “Cathy, what’s wrong?” “I’m fine,” I say. “I just have to go.” I toggle with the keys in the door of my car. “Sit Down,” she commands firmly. “Sit down.” I could not find an excuse good enough to disobey this strong Burundian mother of 11. I fall down next to her on the sidewalk and she holds me as I sob. My words cannot even be heard through the hard breathing and cries. She tells me I have to let it out. “If you keep it all in your head you go crazy. Sometimes, I go crazy too.” She tells me how everyday she worries about her mother back in Africa, who she hasn’t seen in 10 years. She worries if she will have clothes to wear, food to eat, enough money to send to her this month and still feed her kids. My worries seemed so small in comparison, but never once did she dismiss my pain. So there we sat on the sidewalk. Two women from very different places, being circled by three year olds on tricycles, held in the arms of God. We shared a sense of ornery hope that even if our suffering did not end, we could find some light in each other.
Church, if we cannot lament, we cannot be true to ourselves. If we do not speak loudly about hard things, we do not let them change us. If we do not name injustice, we let the triumph of some prevail and leave the suffering of many in the shadows. If we cannot hear each other’s cries, we cannot answer them.
If we say we want reconciliation, then we must learn to bear witness to suffering and not run away from it. If we want the way to unity in the Church to be neat, tidy, and fixed with a bow, we will not get there. If you cannot sit on the sidewalk and listen to the cries of marginalized people as they cry for the ones they have lost to police violence or the disproportionate amounts of black lives being taken by COVID-19, we will not get there. If you turn your eye from the history of slavery, lynching, and mass incarceration, we will not get there. If you want to welcome people who face discrimination and inequality everyday to your church and expect them to sing your songs and lift your hallelujahs, there is a long road ahead. We must drop the facades and go to the hard, uncomfortable places. God lives in lament and the work we do from those places is far greater than what we can do from a distance.
In her book, Learning to See in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor writes:
“After years of being taught that the way to deal with painful emotions is to get rid of them, it can take a lot of reschooling to learn to sit with them instead. It takes finding out from those who feel them what they have learned by sleeping in the wilderness that those who sleep in comfortable houses may never know.”
May we be a church that does not silence our pain, but uses it as a tool to bring us closer to God and each other.
Beloved, this message is more important now than ever. We are living in a harsh reality. Just when we thought the world was already on fire, loved ones in our communities are getting sick. Some are dying. Many have lost their jobs. Families are hungry. We need hugs, but are afraid to give them. We don’t know the next time we will get to be in the room with our elderly friends and family members. Elderly people don’t know the next time they will be in a room with theirs. The wedding, graduation, concert, or family event that we looked forward to is cancelled. We long for normal. We long for healing. We are “crushed because our people are crushed.” We ask, “Isn’t there a balm in our land? Isn’t there a doctor here? Why aren’t the hurts of my people healed?” Our “heads are like a spring of water and our eyes like a fountain of tears.”
My dear brothers and sisters, our tears are not in vain. May we find peace in knowing that when we cry, we will be held. Our God of unconditional love is not afraid of our confusion. The Spirit of abundance holds space for us. Christ,who knows suffering, walks with us.
May peace that passes all understanding be with you.
In love and solidarity,
Cathy Rice is a daughter, sister, aunt, friend, caregiver, and ally. She recently relocated from Atlanta, Georgia to New Orleans, LA and loves working and playing with young people, yoga, dancing, and podcasts. A deep believer that the peace of Christ will always meet us right where we are, she uses her pastoral gifts to create spaces of hope, safety, and restoration as she pursues a career in social work. Above all, she is a reconciler.