In early May I took a train ride from Washington DC to San Francisco. My best friend Constance, whom many of you have met, likes to travel to celebrate her birthday, and she invited me to go along. Another friend and her husband joined us. We took Amtrak’s Capitol Limited from Washington to Chicago, and the California Zephyr the rest of the way. We saw lots of beautiful scenery – but not every minute of the trip. And so, for example, on the plains there was ample time for Constance to introduce me to a game app called “Letter Soup.” We’d sit at a table in the observation car, and two or three of us would play it together. It reminded me of how, when I was growing up, my sister and I would sit with my Dad working crosswords or other puzzles in the newspaper. It was a nice way to pass time between the spectacles of the landscape.
Of course, I got hooked. “Letter Soup” is the kind of game that eats up as much time as you give it. It does always pick up where you left off, so you never need fear to put it down. You don’t lose anything by having a little self-discipline. But I let myself get absorbed in it, and I unexpectedly learned something from that experience.
“Letter Soup” is like that newspaper puzzle called “Jumble.” You get 6 or 7 letters arranged in a circle – like letters in a bowl of alphabet soup – and you get a series of 3-to-6-letter boxes to fill in. The words you make with those letters come, of course, from what you already know, and after a while the game has taught you a few words it knows. I learned that the words I know are part of a view of the world that I have learned over a lifetime – some taught to me in childhood, some learned and cultivated in school or life experiences. I learned that when I’m stuck finding another 3-letter word to make out of those 6 or 7 letters in the soup bowl, having already made a dozen or more – how many can there be? – the most annoying thing about “Letter Soup” is when it wants certain foreign words, like “hombre” or “mas,” or worse, when it wants something that I don’t recognize as a word at all. Then, something in me rises up to say: “that’s wrong!” or “that’s not fair!”
And I think this sort of thing happens a lot among people, when it’s not a dumb computer program but each other that we disagree with. When you say or do something, or create or cook something, that doesn’t fit my expectations, my habits, my worldview, my sense of what’s fair or right, I can’t help feeling sometimes that what you have said or done has to be just a little bit “wrong.” We all have that in us, probably more than we think we do. And it often crops up when we’re feeling frustrated or urgent about something.
Another thing I learned on that train trip was about how we are – with our expectations, habits, worldviews, and sense of what’s right or fair, how we are affects how we show up for each other.
The train, you might know, has a coach section, and it has sleeper cars, and a dining car, and an observation car. Folks in coach travel much as we do on buses or planes, but the seats are bigger. If you travel coach, you have to pay for meals in the dining car, but if you’re in a sleeper your meals are included. Either way, you have access to the observation car, which has tables to sit at as well as seats that face the windows and swivel. The observation car is a commons. It is a fact of American life that too few people – especially the well-off – understand how to behave in a commons. You can’t reserve your seat in a common area. It’s shared space. That’s the idea of it. You can’t claim it for yourself, because there are more passengers than there are seats in the observation car, and everyone is entitled to use it. If nobody’s currently sitting there, it’s available to anyone. We share it.
Each sleeper car has an attendant to help you with supplies and to make up your bed. This is not just maid service, it’s engineering. In a roomette, like we had, there are two facing seats that both recline (if you have the muscle and know the tricks) to make a lower berth, and an upper berth folds down from the ceiling. We were very happy to have an expert open and close those beds for us!
The second train, from Chicago to San Francisco, was short-staffed for some reason. Our sleeper car attendant also was assigned to tend the coach section – sweeping, emptying trash, and cleaning bathrooms. She was working hard. And there was a bunch of teenagers in coach, so she had her hands full.
I liked her right away. I noticed some familiar cadences and expressions in her speech, and after a while I found a moment to ask her if she was from New Orleans. “No, but I married a New Orleanian and lived there a few years. I have family there.” “I ask because you talk like folks back home. You picked it up!”
“Yes, I did!” she laughed.
“Well, I just want you to know that hearing you talk makes me feel at home.”
Came the reply: “Thanks, dawlin’”
That wasn’t how everyone felt about her. Some in our sleeper car felt she wasn’t around enough, or didn’t like it when she said she had something else to do first but she’d be right back. One young fellow – a twenty- or thirty-something – had a particular need to vent about how she wasn’t “professional.” I was annoyed with him, trying not to show it, because he would each day stake out a four-seater table for himself in the observation car, and spend the day there staring at his computer. You know, every sleeper has a table in it, he didn’t have to take up the commons for that. But he clearly felt entitled. And to him, “professional” was a way of saying a person knew their place, that was clear from the rest of what he said.
Our attendant one afternoon found herself picking up jackets and sweaters from seats in the observation car, and made an announcement over the speaker system reminding folks that the observation car was a common area and you can’t save seats there. Her tone suggested she had had some sort of annoying interaction with those teenagers in coach. After that another regular in the observation car started calling her “Mom” behind her back.
Throughout all this, I couldn’t help but see another set of dynamics in the situation. Many passengers assumed an attitude of privilege, like the young man buried in his computer. Whether this was an attitude absorbed from our capitalist commercial culture – “the customer is always right” – or influenced by the fact that nearly all the employees on the train were people of color, while nearly all the passengers were white (at least those in the sleepers, dining and observation cars, where I was), or was a personal sense of entitlement, or some combination of these and maybe other factors, I can’t know. But the hierarchy in it was clear. The expectations around power, and who worked and who didn’t, or whose work was what, came through.
And what also came through was (at least) two underlying sets of cultural expectations, which could be distinguished by their differing expectations of the train employees: were they there to help, or to serve? A helper you can make friends with; a server must be distant, professional, only there to serve.
On reflection, I remembered the famous counsel of Fred Rodgers about what to do with your fears in a crisis or disaster: “look for the helpers,” he said. “Look for the helpers.” I think that might be good advice also in ordinary times. Look upon folks with a job to do as helpers. Look upon yourself that way, in your job. It will change your expectations and attitudes toward others.
This all points to some key questions for us, as we strive to be “the church that shows up”: When we show up, what do we bring? Do we bring spiritual vitality, a spirit of partnership and collaboration? And are we organized – inwardly as well as outwardly – to have the impact that will do the most good? What does all that look like?
Some of us have been exploring those questions in a challenging context: a ministry of witness for restorative justice toward the four young men who assaulted UUA staffers Tim Byrne and James Curran in the French Quarter during our General Assembly. Tim and James have expressed a willingness and desire to engage in a process of restorative justice with their attackers. So we are organizing to support that possibility. At the end of June, Rev. Jim and Rev. Deanna and Rev. Melanie and I along with some members of our Greater New Orleans UU congregations – Jolanda Walter and Leslie Runnels and Kathleen North from our church, and Patricia Stout from North Shore UU Society – attended the bail hearing for the four young men, bringing with us copies of UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray’s pastoral letter calling for a restorative justice approach to their case – embracing the full humanity of all parties, that’s what restorative justice aims for – and introduced ourselves to the defense attorneys and state’s attorney and some members of the defendants’ families who were present. We intend to keep following the case and helping prepare ground for restorative justice to happen.
That day, a Friday morning, we met outside the criminal court building at Tulane & Broad. We did not bring our cellphones or iPads because they are prohibited in court. We were there a total of about four hours. We had to wait for the courtroom doors to be opened for us. At the other end of the courtroom from the door where we entered is the connection between the courtroom and the jail. About 20 young people, all young adults, almost all black, all but one male, all wearing orange jumpers and chains, filed into two rows of benches behind a railing with a gate in it that communicates with the area where the judge and clerks and attorneys were at work. A guard stood at that gate. To one side, there was a booth like you use when visiting inmates at a prison – doors on each side led into closed booths divided by a glass panel. That was where attorneys could consult with their clients. Just past the booth, on our side, was a short hallway with a double door – the “airlock” between prison and freedom.
We sat on church pews – three rows of them are there for visitors and observers, the front row reserved for folks who were witnesses or attorneys’ assistants who were involved in the day’s business in court. Between the front pew and the work area of the court was what looked to me, for all the world, like a communion rail. How interesting, I thought: in the furniture, no separation of style between church and state. There’s a story there, I feel sure. I hope there’s a book, too.
It took four hours to hear the four young men’s bail hearings because two of them were handled early, the defendants and attorneys all being present, while in the third case the attorney was delayed in arriving, and in the fourth the prisoner was brought late to court. Several others of the twenty-or-so cases were heard in between. So we got a flavor of how court work runs and feels.
In our conversations with defense attorneys outside of court, we began to learn the stories of these four young men, which court procedure – at least when it comes to bail hearings – is not particularly interested in. That’s the stuff of restorative justice, those stories. That’s how we come to see the full humanity of the defendants. We hope to learn more, and to find creative and appropriate ways to help those stories, and a picture of these young men as our fully-human neighbors, become more and better known.
Also, a few of us – Rev. Jim and Jolanda Walter – spoke with journalists about why we were there.
I noticed an interesting – and unintended – symbol in that courtroom. On both sides of the “communion rail,” there were chandeliers with four or five glass globes. Those on our side had all the globes lit. On the other side – where the business of the court is conducted – every chandelier had some bulbs out. I read that as a symbol of how the tedious procedures of the court cause some of the inner light to go out in those conducting the court’s business. It wears on them. It would wear on me. Some of my light – my creativity, my willingness to be present and attentive to each case, to push back against the press of the volume of cases needing attention in order to give due attention to any of them – some of my light would go out if I were doing that job. And lives are at stake there – precious futures waste away in the jail and the courtroom and the prison.
I’m sure that, in that state, I would resent the presence of third parties whose purpose was to tell me how I should be doing my job. But also, in the better moments I hope I would have, I’d be grateful that anybody else cared about the job I was doing. Maybe I wouldn’t agree with them, maybe I would; either way, I’d be reminded of something larger than the procedures of the court, that the quest for justice is the big idea and common public concern I’m supposed to be serving. I wouldn’t necessarily invite those folks to dinner, but I’d feel better about the community I live in, knowing that here, neighbors care about neighbors.
Another possibility for a similar ministry is with Court Watch NOLA.
Court Watch NOLA was founded ten years ago, not long after the storm, to bring greater transparency and efficiency to our criminal courts. The founders were the Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region, Common Good, and Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans. It began as a grassroots volunteer effort, with 15 volunteers, and now recruits, trains, and supports volunteers who observe and report on whether our judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and other public servants are doing their jobs professionally, transparently, and without wasting taxpayer resources.
Court Watch NOLA volunteers track hundreds of felony cases, a daily and visible presence in the courtroom that helps identify systemic problems while sending the message that our community cares about making the courts more accountable and just.
The program compiles the results of volunteers’ observations and publishes regular reports, is strictly nonpartisan, and does not make candidate endorsements. Its mission is to promote reform in the Orleans Parish criminal court system through civic engagement and courtroom observation – to act as an objective agent to institute best practices in criminal justice.
One reason I bring this program up, is that white people showing up can make a difference in outcomes. It’s a form of power the white folks among us have that we can use for good. And all you have to do is sit there, pay attention, and take notes. Most white folks come well-trained for that. And Court Watch NOLA will train you about what to watch for and note down.
When we show up, what do we bring? Do we bring spiritual vitality, a spirit of partnership and collaboration? And are we organized – inwardly as well as outwardly – to have the impact that will do the most good? What does all that look like?
These are also good questions to consider when we think about how we show up here at church: how are we organized – internally and externally – to have the impact of radical hospitality we aspire to? We recently updated our Safe Congregation Policy to address microaggressions and other impacts that are part of the dynamics of privilege and oppression we may unwittingly carry with us into our spiritual community and home. In the coming weeks the Board and I will be working on recruiting new members for the Committee on Ministry – the body that assists me and all our lay leadership to develop and follow best practices in the life of our church. The Committee will add consulting on the Safe Congregation Policy to its portfolio of leadership and institutional best practices that it keeps its eye on and helps us all with, to keep us at our best in our efforts to truly welcome, include, and show radical hospitality to all who gather here in faith.
In striving to realize our ideal of radical hospitality – hospitality at the root of who we are and what we do – it is not classism or racism or patriarchy or heterosexism, but ALL of these that we are up against. These are all just different forms of carving out privilege and imposing oppression, and if we can own the many ways that we carve out privilege and impose oppression – be they sexist or heteronormative or capitalist or class denying or white supremacist – and also learn to recognize the ways we have formed habits and built institutions that reinforce and reinscribe oppressive norms so that, not only have we absorbed them in childhood (and therefore formed emotional attachments to the “normalcy” of oppressive norms), but have and are reinforcing and reinscribing them on our children and grandchildren – if we can own up to and learn to recognize all that, then we’re in with a chance of making our social world one where we treat all our neighbors as whole people, as potential helpers rather than potential servers, as strangers who might be friends. This, friends, is the deepest and most basic set of skills we can cultivate if we really want to be “the church that shows up” for justice and peace, love and life.
May we strive in these ways to be that church. Amen.