Proud to Be “Woke”

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The first time I heard the term “woke” it was used in a derogatory way to describe people on the political left. Like me. Curious, I decided to find out just what it meant. I learned the term originally emerged in the 1930s in a recording by Lead Belly, and later by Erykah Badu, to signal attention to the social and political issues affecting African Americans. In 2014, following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, it became a cautionary watchword in the Black Lives Matter movement meaning to stay awake to police brutality and unjust practices. Since then, the term has taken on a more generalized meaning and now is often used as a catchall for leftist social justice politics.      

Interesting. It seems in our current climate of increased polarization, hate speech, violent rhetoric, and mass shootings—in a country where anyone eighteen or older can carry a weapon of war—I’d say, if you’re not “woke” to your surrounding conditions, you’re not paying attention. As a nation, we are simmering on a high flame toward a boil and anyone of us, at any time, can be collateral damage in some indiscriminate act of terror. Now, no matter our race, religion or political party, we are each someone’s enemy. Now, sadly, drawing from its original meaning and use, we could say it behooves all of us to stay as “woke” as possible.

But I believe most people, across the political spectrum, don’t want to live in such a climate of hate and distrust and, in particular, don’t want to be responsible for the potential fallout of such a state of affairs on our children and grandchildren. We recognize childish bullying for what it is, masquerading too frequently now as normalized political discourse. We see the extremism, emanating from the far corners of both political parties, religious groups, and nationalistic movements promoting ideologies that thrive on divisiveness. And many of us are disgusted, feed up and simply exhausted.    

The irony is, if we removed the labels Democrat and Republican, we’d likely find the majority of Americans would feel quite comfortable, if not proud, to be called “woke,” as the term is more often used today. For example, to me, “woke” now means striving to overcome barriers to an atmosphere of tolerance, even when inclusion feels incompatible to personal beliefs and points of view. It means a desire to legislate reasonable gun control so we can send our children to school with less fear of a mass shooting. It stands for a yearning to think of ourselves as a people worthy of our Statue of Liberty, a people who welcome immigrants fleeing rampant persecution with an immigration policy that is both compassionate as well as judicious.   

“Woke” now means we want the government out of our doctor’s offices, bedrooms and healthcare decision–making, and that we’d never think to require a ten–year–old girl, or any woman, to endure a pregnancy, in particular, started by incest or rape. It means we herald free speech in our schools, encouraging children to practice the Golden Rule and older students to engage in real dialogue and examination of where we’ve been and who we are as a people, and how even the greatest nation on earth can do better. And, finally, at its core, “woke” means we want an American democracy run by the people, from the bottom up, and not by a theocracy that legislates unilateral beliefs and values from the top down. Yes, I, for one, now stand proud to be called “woke” and suspect there are many Americans, from across the political divide, who would stand with me.

Can we imagine unarming our hearts so we could, at last, see the truth of what we have in common? The place where, regardless of our political party, religious affiliation, racial or ethnic status, we could join hands in the spirit of common purpose and unconditional love to work together to form a more perfect union—where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, for all peoples, could, at last, become the final word in reality.  

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Once Upon a Time

This article is my latest published in the NH capital’s Pulitzer Prize winning daily newspaper, the Concord Monitor. It is particularly timely. Enjoy!!

Opinion > Columns

Opinion: Praying for those of different faiths to come together

By STEPHANIE RUTT

Published: 10/9/2022 7:00:30 AM

Modified: 10/9/2022 7:00:18 AM

Rev. Dr. Stephanie Rutt is founding minister of the Tree of Life Interfaith Temple in Amherst. She lives in Nashua. To read more of her writing visit becomeaforceforgood.com.

It feels like a fairy tale now and yet it wasn’t even twenty years ago. I was Convener of the Souhegan Valley Interfaith Council and we, joining with the Nashua Interfaith Council, sponsored a series of discussions called “To Hear How Others Pray.”

We invited clergy and laypeople from across faith traditions to join — Christians, Catholic and Protestant, Jews, Muslims, Buddhist, and Bahai among others to share their experience of prayer within their tradition. My hope was that we might see more clearly our common humanity, while at the same time, practice respecting our differences.

The talks were well attended and received, and unmarred by hate speech or violence. But this was, again, once upon a time.

Later, I decided to send a letter of invitation to join our Council to all the faith communities in our area not already involved. One reply was from a pastor of a Christian Evangelical church who was writing to politely decline my invitation. He described, simply, how his congregation, and others like his, had different answers to community and societal problems, leaning on biblical scripture.

He thanked me for inviting him and said he appreciated my efforts to bring people together. Cordial, respectful, and appreciative while still standing firm in his beliefs. It’s almost hard to believe now. But this was, again, once upon a time.

What has happened? It seems to me such gatherings and respect shown among those who clearly hold different beliefs can only thrive when there is a mutual understanding of the importance of the separation of church and state. Only then can my Evangelical friend and his church community feel free to meet, attract the faithful, and worship just down the street from my church community doing the same.

There’s a reason the founding fathers didn’t specify we should be a Christian theocracy. As many were fleeing religious persecution, I believe that they, imperfect individuals as they were, heralded a higher vision for this great experiment, ‘We the people.’

But in only a few years, as the separation of church and state has steadily blurred, we find this great democratic experiment on the verge of self–destructing as we careen out of control heading straight into Christian nationalism. Sadly, I know many devout Christians are watching this, with nothing short of incredulous disbelief, as one sect of their faith tradition charges forward leading this destruction to make way for the new ‘We the Christians,’ as defined by their particular religious ideology.

And we the people, where the majority has a say in creating policy, become the fallout. Already it no longer matters that the majority of Americans, secular as well as religious people, for a variety of reasons, want legal access to abortion. It doesn’t matter that most Americans, fully supportive of the right to bear arms, also understand that ordinary citizens don’t need to carry weapons of war. It no longer matters that our Statue of Liberty used to offer the promise of welcome to all. Now, reasonable, compassionate, immigration policy is only a dream as, in particular, growing hate groups conveniently blend national, ethnic, and religious ideology, asserting neo-Nazi and white supremacist values.

As I watch the current political ads, I see Democrats focusing almost exclusively on the issue of abortion and Republicans on the economy. Both are missing the mark as I see the much larger issue being: do we uphold the great ‘We the people’ experiment or stand by and let one sect of one faith tradition lead us all into unilateral conformity with their beliefs and values?

I would challenge all of us, regardless of political or religious persuasion, who see ourselves as Americans first, who believe in ‘We the people’ first, to resist polarization and stereotyping and not be shy about standing firm in defense of our great democratic experiment. Those who are leading the charge toward a Christian theocracy are not being shy or camouflaging their goals. They’re actually using the freedoms of ‘We the people’ to their advantage.

It is we, Democrats and Republicans, Christians and those of other faith traditions who uphold and value the separation of church and state and are committed to ‘We the people,’ who must stand together, talk together, work together.

Maybe then, once upon a time can be our time again.

We the people . . .

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A Love Song: Wild and Free

Listen only with your heart

There is a song waiting just for you . . . your special song . . . waiting

And when you least expect it

it will quite suddenly find you

And leave you bursting open

Singing . . . Your love song   

From a distant star

SRutt

For thousands of years, holy men and women from indigenous cultures have gone out into nature to hear their power songs, songs used for healing and ceremonial work. It’s less known that each of us, as well, carries a song, one that silently waits in the deep caverns of our heart yearning to, one day, escape free singing. I like to call it a love song because its power engenders a deep connection to all of life. I’d been sending a prayer on the wind of the Great Spirit asking for my love song to be sung and then, one day, out walking with my drum at our wilderness camp, 3 Feathers, it came. It so took me by surprise, this song–chant I’d never heard before, now suddenly singing me, that I rushed back to our cabin to write it down so I might look up its meaning. (And the Great Spirit was smiling) Of course, I couldn’t find any such chant or even anything remotely like it. This is because our love song is a fully unique expression of our soul. Pause. Imagine that.

Now, each time we visit 3 Feathers, I take my drum, or rattles, and go out singing my love song into the Spirit of the Place. And sometimes when I stop and become very still, I can feel its love in return. And, together, our song fills my soul as my Spirit, and the Spirit of the Place, become one.

Would you like to find your song so your soul can sing again? If so, leave the known way and follow the path known only to the high-flying hawks, budding sunflowers, whispering stones, hidden springs and the night stars lingering now, shining just for you, from a lost time. It will arise from the Great Mother into your feet as soon your steps and turns will instinctively propel it out, singing onto the breath of the Great Spirit to bless all on your path. And you will know a joy that comes only when you find yourself releasing all you carry not essential to the beauty and goodness of life as your soul dances . . . dances now . . .

wild and free.

Nothing like the Spirit of the Rain for play on a hot day!

Heading out the back with my rattles…singing my love song…
View from my hammock…the Spirit of this Tree has taught me so much…
The Spirit of the Sun never fails to call me…

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Just Barely Free

As I watched the reactions to the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, I noticed a small group of young women huddled together, gleefully celebrating. And my heart broke. I wrote this open letter to them . . .

“Please forgive this grandmother’s offering to you, but I can’t in good conscience remain silent. Why? Because I can remember what you cannot, and I fear you’re celebrating at your peril. As a teenager, I knew girls, only a little younger than you, who became pregnant and had to sneak away to strange, often dingy, back bedrooms for abortions because telling their parents simply wasn’t an option. Sometimes, the fathers cared deeply and would go along. Sometimes not. But what was clear was that the pregnancy was solely on the girl. Mostly, I remember being so afraid for them, hoping they’d be okay and that the worst wouldn’t happen. These were the years just before Roe v. Wade became law.

Still, even as women were soon discovering and enjoying a new autonomy over their sexuality and reproductive rights with the adoption of Roe and the availability of the pill, there remained a clear resistance to such freedoms particularly from the more fundamentalist Christian communities where there was a strong patriarchy. This resistance is now on full display across our country.   

Think about the recent Texas ruling on abortion which many states are now duplicating. If truly protecting the welfare of the unborn child were the issue, and life begins at conception as Christians strongly believe, then why did the ruling not also require expectant fathers to immediately begin paying child support with the confirmation of a positive pregnancy test? And why weren’t similar vigilante groups legalized to aid in the reporting of any noticed financial delinquencies or, worse, to report any fathers trying to skirt their responsibility? Would not this also have been in the best interest of the unborn child? But, no. No such accountability for the man, now a father, was legislated.   

And over the years, I’ve noticed that the most extreme example of this double standard can happen when there’s sexual abuse occurring within the family. I pray you’ll never be one of those moms (yes, you never imagine it could be you) who discovers that your husband is visiting your daughter’s bed at night and naturally believes that your clergy leader will help and support you. Sadly, it’s not entirely uncommon to find that it is you who are blamed because, of course, the natural solution would be for you to be a better wife.

As very restrictive anti–abortion laws now go into effect around the country, and many don’t allow for exceptions for incest or rape, my dear young women, please pause and consider what will happen to that thirteen–year–old now pregnant with her biological father’s child? She could be your younger sister. And where would you go if, God forbid, you were brutally raped and found yourself pregnant?

Oh, my dear young, beautiful, alive, gleeful women: when a secular democratic society morphs into a theocracy based on one particular religious tradition, or in our case just one part of a tradition, the fundamentalist wing of the Christian faith, a blurring of church and state occurs. And men tend to win as women lose. And this is exactly what’s happening.  

Think I’m being an alarmist? Christian fundamentalists have been laying the foundations for this morphing for quite a while now but, fortunately, other God loving Christians have joined the fight to push back. I urge you to check out former President Jimmy Carter’s article, Losing My Religion for Equality, He talks about severing his six–decade ties with the Southern Baptist Convention after the Convention declared women to be subservient to their husbands and stressed its opposition to women as pastors.

It makes me truly frightened for you to imagine what could be next as Christian fundamentalism, intent on no less than patriarchic theocratic rule, sweeps the country now emboldened by a Supreme Court majority. For example, could women soon be, subtly yet persistently, discouraged or even forbidden from pursuing other leadership roles in our society? If the goal is to largely silence a woman’s voice and curtail her full participation, then is it not a too–far cry to imagine a future time when even a woman’s right to vote could be brought into question? After all, in such an environment, would she ever dare to have a difference of opinion from her husband, or other male figures, and actually make it known? Would she not naturally look to them for guidance on right thought and action? Would not the male voice, and vote, then naturally speak for her, for all women?

Have you read The Handmaid’s Tale? If not, oh my dears, do it now! Wake up before it’s too late! Wake up beautiful, young, gleeful women while you are still . . . just barely . . .  free.”

Image from The Handmaid’s Tale

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Seeing One Another: A Gift from Nature

Anais Nin said, “We don’t see the world as it is. We see it as we are.” I believe when we’re fully in the present moment, seeing, feeling, sensing, absorbing what is right in front of us, it is who we are. When I see the faces of the children and teachers who were gunned down at Robb Elementary School, my belly starts to shake, and I can’t stop the tears. Can’t. I’m a mom, a grandma. I can’t imagine how you make it through. How you get up the next morning, and the next, get breakfast for your other loved ones, take out the trash, pay bills, take a shower, clean . . . how you live through the birthday each year, grill hotdogs on the 4th of July, carve the turkey, hang the Christmas lights . . . all without the little one you’ve lost. What do you do with all that sweet – please don’t touch it – mess in the bedroom that was hurriedly left behind on that fateful morning? How do you continue on as if things were even remotely something like they used to be? How do you do that? I can’t begin to say. And yet, so often now, moms, dads, grandparents and other loved ones do—everyday.

But something else happens if we’re fully in the present moment with all the horror, the absolute most painful and tragic times of life. Sometimes we can feel ourselves abruptly jolted and cracked open, to now fully see one another as simply fellow human beings. In times like these, I could care less if those grieving are Hispanic, Republican or Democratic, black, brown or white, rich or poor. Care less. Now all I see is my sister, my brother right there in front of me. I am them. They are me. And we’re crying together.

And I feel something that is often, at least temporarily, awakened in many of us in the quake of such horror—a love for my fellow brothers and sisters that is now truly unconditional. Perhaps this is the unintentional byproduct, or could we possibly even say the gift of such times, to now be able to feel our oneness, free of labels or conditions, with those who, just yesterday, were simply strangers passing by. If so, just for a few moments, we are changed for now we see the world as it is—and as we are—one with all our brothers and sisters—beyond the surface of all those differences we may have once felt so important.

Something I love to do is to go out in nature and find different items wanting to come together to create something new and beautiful. Much like us, these nature items are, initially, unrelated in almost every way. They’re found in different places, they’re different colors, textures, sizes, and at different stages of growth and life. But when I look at what’s created, it makes me wonder if we too could come together in much the same way in times such as these?

I believe we could if we can allow ourselves to see, feel, fully know the horror of this moment—and to experience all the unconditional love it arouses. If so, maybe, just maybe, we could come together to imagine some new, more beautiful pathways forward, pathways that honor those brief moments when we were cracked open to see and remember our oneness with all our brothers and sisters.    

First nature creation of this year just brought together yesterday. . .

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The Mountains are Dancing!

Did you know that something quite extraordinary happens every April? I can tell you that I’m absolute certain it’s not what you expect! Yet, every year, it’s enough to bring my heart to that same place of hope that happens when I saw, for example, that young girl singing a song from Frozen in a Ukrainian basement, or one of the several musicians set up their own solo orchestra in some littered, dirty, deserted town square to fill the air with music—music tender and enduring enough to drown out the flash of sirens.

But I first discovered this awe–filled yearly event many years ago in a poem by e e cummings: when faces called flowers float out of the ground. . .

when faces called flowers float out of the ground

and breathing is wishing and wishing is having—

but keeping is downward and doubting and never

—it’s april (yes,april;my darling) it’s spring!

yes the pretty birds frolic as spry as can fly

yes the little fish gambol as glad as can be

(yes the mountains are dancing together)

I just knew that one day I’d get to go to New Hampshire and visit Joy Farm, e.e. cummings’s summer home, because I just knew it was there that he found those mountains dancing! And, sure enough, in the mid–1980s, fate brought us here and soon after, in April (of course), we made our way up to Madison in search of Joy Farm and those dancing mountains. 

It was a weekend and, being April, lots of snow was still on the ground. We managed to find the entrance to the long driveway up to Joy Farm but it was fenced off and clearly not passable by car. Undaunted, me, already in full swing with those dancing mountains, was not so easily dissuaded! So, we made our way back to town in search of someone who might be able to give us some kind of permission to venture up to the farm by foot. Doug, my husband, whose feet were a little closer to the ground, well, actually on the ground, kept reminding me that those mountains would not be dancing, so unabashedly, with me in jail! Luckily, we were able to locate a man with some authority, in one of the local establishments, who gave us the ok. I remember he looked quite puzzled when I, especially, could not be persuaded to return in a couple of months when the road to the Joy Farm would be passable. Didn’t he know those mountains were dancing now?!   

So, at last, up the long driveway we went! The house had been vacant for a while yet still felt to be alive, standing, waiting patiently for the return of bare feet, frivolous chatter, the smell of barbeque and stargazing off the porch. The grounds were open and rambling and a small gazebo–like room, in the middle of the back field, seemed timeless. 

But, without a doubt, it was those dancing mountains, cradling, holding us, that kept me frolicking round and round as if I could somehow fly right into the center of their waking, unguarded alive;we’re alive,dear:it’s (kiss me now) spring! pulse. 

Away with respectable composure! Down with petty self-consciousness! Let’s dive as all the pretty birds dive to the heart of the sky and climb as all the little fish climb through the mind of the sea! 

It’s April! We’re sun-drenched alive! Our faces like flowers float out of the ground! We’re opening as every leaf opens without any sound! We’ve quivering, waking, pulsing as the little fish quiver so you and so i…

So, yes! Let’s dance, unbridled and undone, for its april (yes,april;my darling) it’s spring!  and, most wondrously…

all the mountains are dancing; are dancing

A pen and ink drawing of Joy Farm by my husband as it looked at the time.

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The Way of the Warrior

I’m an interfaith minister. My default for addressing problems has always been the way of nonviolence. Two of my lifelong heroes are the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. So, it may surprise you when I say I’m not a pacifist. I do believe there are times when right action calls for the warrior to rise up. When Hitler was seeking expansion and engaging in ethnic cleansing, giving rise to the eradication of the Jews, was one such time. Today, Putin’s war on Ukraine is another. But I’m no military strategist or political analyst so I’ll leave such commentary to those better qualified. Instead, I’m going to share a story in hopes that it’ll reveal just why I believe that this moment, indeed, calls for the way of the warrior.     

“Imagine you live in an old family home, well–aged by several generations of babies’ cries, backyard birthday parties, holiday gatherings around the large, worn, wooden table, and by the many cherished nights of star gazing from the tree swing out the back door. It is who you are. All you’ve known. Your great–great grandparents had settled in this home and you want nothing more than for your children and grandchildren to know the feel of the old, curvy, wooden floors beneath their bare feet and to smell all those lingering scents drifting out of the kitchen from the homemade biscuits, pot roasts, and apple pies.

Then, one day, when all of the extended family had gathered for a family reunion, the unthinkable happens. You wake in the middle of the night and you smell smoke coming up from below. Frantically you run down and discover a small fire, just starting, from the back wall in the kitchen. Luckily, the fire department is close by so you immediately call but the person answering the phone, after taking down your address, says they’ll have to call you right back.

Shaken and confused, you race through the house yelling to wake everyone while still trying desperately to keep calm for the children. The biggest challenge is to get your elderly grandmother, who’s unable to walk without help, down the stairs from the top floor. All of your other relatives are now up and rushing around erratically trying to grab what they can from the closets, drawers and cupboards. As smoke begins to fill the house, you call the fire department again and, this time, the voice on the other end, trying to be as compassionate as possible, tries to explain that, because you’re just beyond the town line, they’re not able to come.

“What?! But you’re so close!” you shout not believing what you’re hearing. “I’m losing my home!”

“I’m so very sorry,” the person says with a shaky voice. “I really wish we could help. Really. But we’ll send over some supplies, some things to help to get you through. They’re on the way.” And the call ends.

Meanwhile, two of the children have run back into the house to get their special stuffed animals, and now they’re nowhere to be found. But there’s too much smoke coming from the house to go back in to look for them. You know now the house will soon collapse.

Numb, tremblingly uncontrollably, shrouded tight in your worst nightmare, unable to fully grasp the magnitude of what’s happening: the children inside, burning, about to be buried in the rubble, you frantically call the fire department again this time screaming into the phone unable to control yourself.

“Please come! Now! Two children have gone back inside and the house is about to fall! Please come now!!!”

But the voice on the other end, choking back tears, says again, “I’m so very sorry, sir. I so wish we could help. Your supplies will be arriving soon.”

*********

Now I realize this may appear to be an overly simplistic representation of Zelenskyy’s plea to us for help. But is it? I don’t know about you but if it were my children trapped inside a burning house, my family’s homestead about to be leveled, my entire life literally going up in smoke, I wouldn’t care so much for the arbitrary reasons given by the fire department. Being told my home is outside the town line would feel about as irrelevant and nonsensical as being told in essence, “You’re not a part of NATO so, sorry, please understand we’re under no obligation to do what really needs to be done to help you. But we’ll send you what we can—just short of this—along with additional supplies.”

Yes, I do understand the larger potential implications of sending what is really needed, the fire hoses, the full force of our military—and the possibility of nuclear warfare and the start of World War III. And I get that I’m well beyond fighting age and have largely lived my life so it’s likely easier for me to advocate for such a response. But please tell me, what better use could there possibly be of the world’s most powerful military than for it to defend an innocent democratic country being unjustly and brutally attacked by a much larger and more powerful autocratic one?

So, as hard as I try to be sober about the possible ramifications of such a response, somehow all the good justifications crumble when I witness all those bunny ears atop crying swollen faces; the teddy bears being held tight as tiny exhausted feet try hard to keep up; the moms now having to hold themselves and their children together, not knowing if or when they’ll ever see their husbands again; the fathers, everyday men, now suddenly warriors called to fight to defend their homeland. An innocent people being assaulted. A country being annihilated. Their house is burning. And we choose to send everything . . . everything except the fire trucks.

And what message does this send to Putin and to all the other autocratic leaders around the world? What not–so–silent message does it send to all the democratic countries watching the most powerful nation on earth not show up to do what’s really needed? To me, it broadcasts worldwide that the forces of terror and genocide are prevailing as the ultimate darkness in the human spirit is now unleashed and on full display.

So, what will we do in this critical hour? Will we rise up to follow the way of the warrior, to defend the innocent, right a wrong and restore justice or keep giving arbitrary reasons that allow for the darkness to prevail?

The way of the warrior always requires fearlessness in the face of death . . . it does so because it knows some things are worth fighting for . . . dying for . . . so, freedom and justice for all, for all peoples around the world, may prevail. 

Imagine, again, if it were your children trapped inside your burning home . . .

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To Dream a Life

For the February 5, 2022, Concord Monitor – “My Turn”

you have chosen the hip shirt

with the star on it

for today

and you dream

you will

choose your

life

– Thomas C. Kent, Blue Lights and River Songs

I recently came upon this book I’d had in college in 1971 and was mesmerized by this short poem. It caused me to reflect upon what dreams have been lost since that time and which ones still lay silent in broken hearts, hearts that once yearned to choose a life.

I thought about the cry of our times, “Black Lives Matter,” and the resounding echo back, “All Lives Matter,” bouncing off deaf walls. Of course, all lives matter! Yet, many disenfranchised groups have had to fight for the right to matter, for inclusion in our founding ‘all men are created equal’ ideal — African Americans, Native Americans, many other ethnic groups, women, the LGBTQ community, the disabled, the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill.

Yes, how wonderful it would be if we could all stand side by side with our disenfranchised brothers and sisters and, together, proclaim, “All Lives Matter!” However, when we witness horrific injustice, even murder, of a fellow American, as we did in the killing of George Floyd, as well as the killing of all those who came before him and of the many others since, such a cry rings flat and feels like a not–so–subtle attempt to veil the historical legacy of discrimination and racism found in these United States where the ‘all men are created equal’ ideal neglected to specify that, in essence, the ‘all men’ referred only to aristocratic white males.

Truly, I wish we didn’t even need to say the words “Black Lives Matter.” But I’ve seen too much. Felt too much. Known too much to deny my part — yes, my part. I remember “white only” drinking fountains and bathrooms and not just in the deep south. I remember shacks clustered on the back dusty roads and heard of “colored towns” hidden deep in the woods.

In the city, I could see at the edge of town those segregated neighborhoods, especially at night when the oil lamps glowed, where white folks just didn’t go, “‘cause, you know, colored people live there.” I’m old enough to remember that, of course, I must be somehow better “‘cause yous is white.”

Sheltered in my privileged status, I could easily look away, get busy, deny, rationalize, anything but recognize and acknowledge my sisters’ and brothers’ disenfranchised isolation. Like so many of my status, by not giving voice to the uncomfortable truth, I helped to perpetuate the lie.

And such complacency, however innocent or unintended, continues to allow for the seed of racism to take hold, generation after generation. This seed begins with what I’ve imagined being the moment and it happens, mercilessly, in the hearts of children. Something happens and suddenly they know they’re different and that that difference isn’t good.

Sadly, in that moment, I can imagine that even the most sparkly star on their shirt could begin to dim. For our African American brothers and sisters, I can imagine it happening one Christmas sitting on Santa’s lap. “Why does Santa look different?” Or, perhaps in church. “Why does Jesus?” Or, perhaps, it wasn’t any specific event but just, one day, a sour, sinking, “it ain’t ever goin’ away” feeling that Black made them different, less than, and worst of all, it couldn’t be changed or gotten rid of.

When we deny any group of people the right to dream, to choose a life, something dies within them and, I believe, within us as well. This is actually a great blessing because this painful acknowledgment can only arise from an undeniable knowing that we’re all one family so what we do to the other we do to ourselves.

The good news is we can choose to reject the lie and follow the truth that we’re all truly equal in the eyes of our creator. This means that, perhaps, we of privilege must also give up the lie we’ve knowingly or unknowingly told ourselves: that our lives matter more than others.

Acknowledging our part in the propagation of racism and discrimination is not for the fainthearted. If we’re to avoid postures of either moral superiority on the one hand or overplayed humility on the other, we must be willing to follow the advice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and first look within ourselves. Yes, within.

We must search our own hearts, indeed conduct a fierce inventory, of where we’ve been blind but now are daring to see. Maybe then we’d be ready to approach our African American brothers and sisters and ask, “What can I do to ensure that the ‘moment’ never happens to another innocent child?” and then be willing to hear the answers.

And, if so, maybe, just maybe, we’d all come a bit closer to the day when all peoples may be free to dream a life . . . a life of their choosing.

(Rev. Dr. Stephanie Rutt is founding minister of the Tree of Life Interfaith Temple in Amherst. She lives in Nashua. To read more of her writing visit becomeaforceforgood.com.)

Photo with article in the Concord Monitor

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3 Feathers for Ukraine

Today, as with so many, my heart is with the Ukrainian people – the men turned fighters and their families turned refugees—the courage being asked of them, the resolve to persevere being required of them, and the love, yes, the love of home and country that must now sustain them. And I ask myself, not in the usual hypothetical sense, but, today, in a very real, palpable, way, “What would I be willing to fight for . . . to die for?” My family, first and foremost. And, of course, the opportunity to do my work and to serve those in my small corner of the world. Yes, I am blessed.

Still, to live these questions, as the Ukrainian people are now doing, often requires great courage—the courage to lift ourselves up and to keep going when fear, in all its forms, lurks ready to trip our gait and collapse our will. Ordinary men turned fighters must now, suddenly, steady their advance and galvanize their will for destiny does not cater to the fearful. It requires resolve—relentless, unshakable, resolve—to stay honed–in on that faint lighthouse beacon when our life’s rudder has broken, and night is falling fast. Mothers, now refugees, must drag exhausted children while carrying all they own on their backs, stepping one foot at a time, toward some unknown place. And, mostly, it requires love…the kind of love that, in the end, frees us, propelling us, in spite of the fear and the unknown, to rise up and meet our destiny . . . and, in the process, to, blessedly, discover our self to be what we may not have imagined.

As I’ve been sitting in communion with the Ukrainian people, I’ve been asking myself what I can do, being so far away, to support them? And I remember Chief Seattle’s reminder that we’re all bound together in this web of life. It’s a beautiful reminder that everything we do matters whether or not we may ever know or be able to see the results of our actions. It’s only important that we do act and offer our gift, our heart, our love.   

So, whenever I want to offer something special to someone, one of the first places I look is on my altar and in my prayer bowl. In the past several years, the Holy Spirit, Great Spirit, has gifted me with the symbol of “3 Feathers” which has permeated my life. The picture below is from the three feathers that are now on my altar. Many Native American tribes believe that the white feather symbolizes peace, purification, faith and the heavens. I can think of no greater gift from my heart to offer the Ukrainian people at this time. In particular: one feather to honor their courage, one for their resolve and, finally, one for their love.

Perhaps there’s something special, sacred, in your life you’d like to offer our Ukrainian brothers and sisters. If so, join me in breathing it into this web of life where we are all one and, rest assured . . .

The Great Spirit will take it from there.  

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“Negro Wench for Sale”

“Any persons inclined to purchase, may know the particulars by . . .”

ULSTER COUNTY GAZETTE. Published at KINGSTON (Ulster County [NY] By SAMUEL FREET and SON (Vol. II. Num. 88. Saturday, January 4, 1800.)

How it got into the secretary of my great–grandparent’s home in Alabama, that prized piece of furniture I was told was made by the slaves, I’ll never know–that desk that sat up against the wall in the long hallway that ran from the front to the back of my great–grandparent’s house. But that’s where I found it. It was loosely folded and stuffed in a back corner of the top drawer, a page from the January 4, 1800, Ulster County Gazette. It was the early 1970s and my great–grandmother had just died, following the passing of my great–grandfather a few years earlier. I, rummaging through the old secretary, had found it and asked my grandmother if I could keep it. For many years it remained in one of the boxes where all the old family pictures and other relics were stored. Then, not too many years ago, while cleaning out, I found it again. This time I took the time to look it over and immediately saw “Negro Wench.” I knew in that moment that, someday, I’d write about her. Today is that day—in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the dream still yet to be realized by so many.

Wench. It’s a word that makes my stomach flinch. Historically, it referred to a girl or young woman. But to better understand the full meaning of the word in the context of the times, we can look at Dolen Perkins–Valdez’s, 2010, best–selling historical fiction novel, WenchThe book’s front matter includes a quotation from 1836 about a slave owner who, “especially prided himself upon owning the swiftest horse, the handsomest wench, and the finest pack of hounds in all Virginia.”

So, it feels reasonable to imagine that, in this case, the wench was, likely, a young teenage girl. But why would she be for sale? And just what were those particulars? Did she not make the cut on the handsomest scale? Was she unruly? Was she just one mouth too many to feed over the long winters? Regardless of the reason, it’s clear she was just property to be monetized —a dispensable thing—and not likely even a second thought on her owner’s mind while he was sippin’ his brandy, the slow goin’ down kind, just like the evening sun.

So, to honor her, I thought I’d quiet my heart just long enough to ask, and maybe hear, just what she’d want us to know today from all those years ago—about her life, in her voice. May her words somehow honor, in some small way, all that’s been lost, forgotten, tucked away, relegated to the back corner of our collective mind.  

And from across time, I heard . . .

“I never had a chance to be nothin.’ I was human just like you but no one saw. Why you’d own us? All I wanted was to be free. To fly away somewhere. I just knew if I could, I’d find some new fine place to be. I just knew. But truth is, I’d never leave on account of my little sister. Never.”

“What were your days like?” I asked.

“We’d be up with the sun to work the fields. Sundays we’d maybe get some time for ourselves. Sometimes Master would come in my bed at night. I’d just close my eyes and go somewhere until he’d be done and gone. Next day, I’d be so tired cause I could never sleep after that. The Misses, she’d look at me like she could kill me. Like I did somethin.’ Fine with me. Most the time, I wished I was dead anyways.

I was sixteen and gonna have a baby when he went to sell me. Didn’t want the Misses to find out. That’s the ad you saw. I couldn’t read but I knowed he’d done it.  

My mamma’d been sold a few years back and I’d takin’ to spending all my time trying to forget her being put in that wagon and watchin’ her get smaller and smaller away from me. For a long time, I’d go back and look down the road first thing when I got up and then before I’d go to bed just to see if she’d be comin’ back. I just knew she would. But I wasn’t old enough to know that wasn’t gonna happen.   

So, when I got sold to a family a good ways away, I begged Master to let Pee, that’s my little sister, go with me. I called her Lil’ Pee cause she was so small. Never did grow right. But I knew he wouldn’t so I tried to tell Pee what was gonna happen. But every time she’d just start crying so I’d have to stop. I started staying up late to make her a bracelet out of twine to go with one I made for me just like it. The day Master told me it was the day I’d be goin,’ I gave it to her and told her to always wear it and I’d wear mine too and that way we’d always be together. Being hauled onto the wagon seein’ Lil Pee screamin’ and tryin’ hard to run after me, just like I’d done after my mamma, haunted me all the rest of my days. I never saw her again. Don’t know what ever happened to her.

Next year my baby was born. I called him Moses cause I’d heard how Moses had parted the waters to let his people go. I wanted him to be strong like that. The years went by pretty fast and he did grow big and strong. But I tried hard not to get too close just in case one of us got sold. But he was a good worker so Master kept him.

Shortly after my first grandbaby was born, I came down with the cough. Master had the doctor come but he said there wasn’t anything he could do. I died a few months later.”

“What do you want to say to us here today?”

“Always remember that we all be God’s children—no matter the color. We all want to be somebody and you got to be free to do that. We all want to just love our mammas and pappas, our sisters and brothers, children, grandchildren. We all just want a chance to live. Whenever you start thinkin’ you be better than someone else cause you be white, stop yourself, cause it ain’t true. Cause you be no different from me. Stop and ask how’d you feel to be sold, to see your mamma hauled away or you bein’ hauled away and your lil’ sister just screamin’ like crazy. If you’re a girl, how’d you’d feel to have some big white man come into your bed before your time and you to wake up bleeding all over and not know why. Ask yourself and I bet you get the same answers as me.

Stop and ask how’d it feel to make a twine bracelet for the one you know, real soon, you’ll never see again, the same one you make for yourself and never take off for all your life.  

Ask yourself. Then, you’d know me. Better yet, maybe then you’d be knowin’ youself better . . . cause we want the same things . . . you and me.

Ya know? I’d make you one of those twine bracelets if I could . . . sure enough . . . just so we’d always have something to remind us that we be the same . . . you and me . . .

We be the same.”      

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