Breaking The Heart To Open It


I am Willing
Holli Near


The Love of Travelers

At the rest stop on the way to Mississippi
we found the butterfly mired in the oil slick;
its wings thick
and blunted. One of us, tender in the fingertips,
smoothed with a tissue the oil
that came off only a little;
the oil-smeared wings like lips colored with lipstick
blotted before a kiss.

So delicate the cleansing of the wings.  I thought the color soft as
would wash off under the method of her mercy for something
so slight and graceful, injured, beyond the love of travelers.

It was torn then, even after her kindest work,
the almost-moth, exquisite charity could not mend
what weighted the wing, melded with it,
then ruptured it in release.
The body of the thing lifted out of its place
between the washed wings.
Imagine the agony of a self separated by gentlest repair.

“Should we kill it?” One of us said. And I said yes.
But none of us had the nerve.
We walked away, the last of the oil welding the butterfly
to the wood of the picnic table.
The wings stuck out and quivered when the wind went by.

Whoever found it must have marveled at this.
And loved it for what it was and
had been.
I think, meticulous mercy is the work of travelers,
and leaving things as they are
or reward.

I have died for the smallest things.
Nothing washes off.
Angela Jackson


(First preached on February 21, 2010 at First Unitarian Church of Portland, Portland, OR.)

It is said that God will break your heart again and again, until it remains open.

Surely our hearts have been broken enough recently, with the disaster in Haiti, and the police shooting of Aaron Campbell here in Portland–not to mention all our own personal disasters, of which I know there are many.

But it is Black History Month, and I want us to focus on the particular heartbreak of racism.  I want us to see how having our hearts broken can open them to change.  And so I offer you a bit of my story, in the hopes that my mistakes might be instructive for you.

Imagine this:  It is my very first preaching class in seminary, and I am about to deliver my very first sermon.  I’m nervous, and my voice shakes.  My sermon begins with a walk in the woods to a stream.  From my very first sentence, the teacher, who is an African American woman, crosses her arms over her chest, leans back in her chair, and frowns.

When I’ve finished, this is how she responds:

“Do you realize how many people you have excluded by starting your sermon with a walk in the woods?  This is such a typical White UU thing.  Y’all want to preach about walkin’ in the woods.  But not only do most black people not have access to any woods to walk in, we can’t walk safely anywhere at all.  What would happen if a black person went up to those woods you can just casually walk into?  Just imagine a young black man from Oakland going up into the Berkeley hills to walk in Tilden Park.  Would it be safe for him to do that?”

I imagine it:  it would not be safe.  He would get harassed or possibly arrested just for being black in a white neighborhood; he might even get shot.  And his mother would be left mourning a precious child who wanted nothing more than to find solace among the trees.

The teacher continues, “When you preach, you need to include everyone’s experience, not just the experience of rich white people.  Otherwise this whole movement is going to stay nothing but a whites-only club.”

When I got home that evening, I cried.  I felt as if my heart had been smashed with a hammer.

Why was this so deeply painful?

It wasn’t because my teacher didn’t like my sermon.  It was because her response struck at the very core of my identity.  I thought of myself as someone whose life was dedicated to working for justice for all people.  I had spent years out in farm fields and sitting at tables with people from Asia, Africa, India, Latin America, Europe, and my own country…we were trying to develop farming systems and trade policies that would make it possible for countries like Haiti to feed their people, instead of servicing debt by exporting coffee and sugar, and importing garbage and toxic waste.  We wanted to make it possible for local communities everywhere to grow food for children in healthy ecosystems.  We wanted to make it impossible for corporations to continue turning entire landscapes into deserts and impoverishing whole nations.  To me, this work on sustainability was justice work:  it was about redistributing wealth, restoring ecosystems, making a healthy world for people of all colors to live in together.

This was one layer of the identity that was being challenged.  The second layer was much deeper.  Let me explain with a story.

It was the late 1960’s in the California Bay Area, and my family’s best friends were the Hewitts.  Lisa and Allen were the kids of the family.  One hot September evening, the parents smoked and drank and talked politics, while “Jeremiah was a Bullfrog,” played in the background. Lisa and Allen and my sister and I ran madly through the sweltering house in our underpants.  We compared our skins:  Lisa and Allen were a light caramel color, I was whitish pinkish, and my sister Kass was pale golden.  Both of the mothers were white, and my sister’s father was dark tan.  Lisa and Allen’s father was dark chocolaty brown, like Hershey’s syrup.  Why I was the palest of everyone was a mystery because my biological father was Choctaw from Oklahoma.

My palms were the same color as the back of my hands, but Lisa and Allen had hands with brown backs and pink fingernails and palms.  Our lips were different colors, but everyone’s tongues were the same bubble gum pink.  At kindergarten, we had a friend named Tommy Lee and his eyes were sharp at one end and round at the other, and he had skin a color somewhere between Lisa’s and mine, and black hair.  Our friend Rosa, from Guatemala, had lustrous black hair in two thick braids, huge black eyes, golden brown skin, and pierced ears with gold earrings.  We weren’t allowed to have pierced ears.  It was so unfair.  But Rosa had to sleep without a pillow to keep her back and neck straight, so that kind of made up for the earrings.

As a child in this unique time and place, I developed an identity as a member of a multi-racial, multi-ethnic “us.”  We kids were not colorblind; human beings cannot be colorblind.  Instead, we delighted in discovering the ways in which we were the same and the ways in which we were different.  We thought “other” meant interesting.  We had not yet been taught that “other” means inferior to ourselves, or frightening, or somehow so different as to be outside our own consideration.  We were like a garden of different and beautiful flowers.

So this was why, when my preaching teacher gave me her comments, it felt as if my heart had broken.  I saw myself as a mixed-race woman, part of a global “us,” and had spent my entire career working for justice, healing, and restoration.  But this professor saw before her a privileged white woman, ignorant of the realities facing American black people in the early 21st century.   And she was mostly right.  Although I knew people of every color, all over the world, and myself had a multi-ethnic identity, I had not one single close personal relationship with an African American.  Because of the privilege I am accorded by having white skin, it had not occurred to me that not everyone in the United States can go for a walk in a public park.

I felt sick with shame.  But when this happens—and it does happen in this kind of work, privileged people of any ethnicity will sometimes feel shame when we realize we have been blind to our own privilege—we have to give ourselves over to love.  And so I saw that in order to heal our world, I needed to change myself.  That is the place to start. And that would involve pain, and it would surely involve more feelings of shame and embarrassment when I made mistakes.  But I had to be willing to endure those feelings when they happened, because when you really care, that is what you have to do.  You have to accept that the work of transformation is going to hurt.  It is like childbirth:  you have to lean into the pain, yell through the pain, cry when you need to.  And most times, the outcome is a reward beyond price:  A new life.  A new world.

But also like childbirth, there are some times when the best we can do is not quite enough.  The poem we heard earlier spoke to that.  The travelers did all they could to save a beautiful life from what endangered it, but they did not succeed.  We will not be able to save everything, but the love is in the trying.  We must be willing to feel our pain—Jackson writes, “I have died for the smallest things”—and continue trying.

Was I willing?  I was.  So I changed myself.  I went out of my comfort zone and went to black churches and interracial dialogues and took classes at the Baptist seminary.  I now have deep friendships with African Americans.  And these friendships have broken my heart open again and again.

Sometimes the breaking has been in the form of tough love.  Once my friend Chris, of mixed African American and Chinese descent, was helping me plan a worship service in which I was planning to tell a story of UU’s helping migrant farm workers get access to clean water.  Chris said, “Honey, we don’t need stories of white people helping brown people.  What did these brown people do for themselves?”  And I realized I had framed the story from the viewpoint of the whites, not the farm workers.  And it was actually the farm workers who had taken action, while the white UU’s stood with them in solidarity.  Oh, was I embarrassed.  Chris said, “We want allies, not saviors.  We want solidarity, not rescue.”  And then he went upstairs, because he was tired of being a mirror for his mostly white friends.  And I was even more embarrassed because I have had to do that too and I know how exhausting it is.

Sometimes the breaking has been by the suffering caused by institutional racism.  One friend’s collegebound son was arrested.  Why?  Just for standing there, goofing off with friends like boys do.  He was just standing there being a young black man, and he was arrested for disturbing the peace.  He was taken to jail, where he was raped before his family could bail him out.  The HIV test came back negative, but…now this young man has a police record.  And if he gets pulled over by the cops for driving while black, they will approach him with guns drawn, because he has a record.  So god forbid he should move a single muscle because then in the minds of the cops it would look like he was reaching for a gun…and we have just now here in Portland seen what happens when the police think a young black man is going for a gun.

Before my teacher held a mirror up to my privilege, when I heard of these shootings of unarmed black men, I used to get upset.  But I was focused on my own justice work and I didn’t feel I had the time to get involved in every cause.  Now, I am accountable to my African American friends.  Now, once again, there is no “them,” there is only “us.”  Getting involved is a necessity.  So last Tuesday night I went to the rally where Jesse Jackson spoke, and on Wednesday I marched to City Hall.  And I heard some very disturbing numbers.  According to Reverend Jackson, in the state of Oregon, where there is 11 percent unemployment, there is 22 percent unemployment among blacks.  At the University of Oregon, there are 22,000 students.  300 of them are black.  Seven percent of Oregon’s population is black.  20 percent of the population in prison is black.  The grand jury appointed to investigate the killing of Aaron Campbell was all white.  The city council in Portland is all white.  The police force in the City of Portland is mostly white.

Where are we?  NPR reported early in the fall that Portland is the epicenter of white supremacist activity in the Pacific Northwest.

We’ve got some work to do here.

Are we willing?  Are we willing to put our hearts on the line, to develop personal relationships with people different from us?  Are we willing to risk making mistakes and feeling embarrassed?  Are we willing to feel pain, but let love carry us through it?  Are the white people among us, of whom I am one, willing to share power?  Are the people of color, of whom I am also one, willing to share our knowledge of how to live in community?

I think we are.  Our ancestors in faith are the men who ordained the first women into ministry.  Our ancestors in faith are the white women who invited black women Sojourner Truth and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper to share speaking platforms when they demanded equal rights for women.  Our ancestors fought for abolition and equal suffrage for all.  Our ancestors started the Red Cross and Planned Parenthood.  Our ancestor James Reeb gave his life in the fight for civil rights.  Over and over again, the people of this religion have been willing.  So let us begin right here.

Because this is where it starts.  Right here at home is where we need that “meticulous mercy.”  If we can change our lives here at home—if we can develop resilient and sustainable communities here, communities that provide equal access to health, opportunity, beauty, and education for all of our citizens—then we will not need to import luxuries from or dump waste on countries like Haiti.  And then they too will be able to heal.

For the sake of all life on earth, we must…be…willing!


Let us pray.

Great Spirit of Life,
Make us willing.
Make us willing to be broken open
by your persistent knocking on our hearts.
You call us into love for life in all its diverse forms,
all its beautiful faces.
May we be willing to answer the call.
May we be willing to go wherever it takes us.
Lift us up to the light of change.