By Tommy Airey, a homily for Day House, a four-decade Catholic Worker experiment wedged between casinos and stadiums a stone’s throw from downtown Detroit
I am new to the traditions of Celtic Samhain and Christian All Saints. I grew up in the world of white suburban Evangelical Christianity. I attended a private Christian school that was part of the movement sparked a decade earlier as a response to the Civil Rights Movement and the racial integration instituted by the Supreme Court (and resisted by Governors who were enabled by Presidents). My pastors and teachers taught me that Catholics were going to hell and that Halloween was the devil’s holiday.
In this context, ancestors were silent in my home, on campus and at church. My four grandparents were all dead by the time I was ten. My Evangelical hope was that I would see them in heaven someday. Maybe. But like the Black folk poets preach, “Every shut eye ain’t asleep. Every goodbye ain’t gone.” So I’m slowly learning what it means to honor my ancestors and to reclaim the power of their resurrection by calling them into circles like these. Each of my grandparents barely made it to 60. Each of them drank and smoked heavily. Each of them traveled thousands of miles West from their birthplaces to settle on stolen land.
Like the ancient Israelites, all of my grandparents were clinging to promises of a better life:
so that your days may be long…
so that it may go well with you…
so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey…
As it was for the Israelites—and as it is for us today—these promises came with complications. My Grandpa Valentine was born on Valentine’s Day 1901 in England. He immigrated to the States when he was 8. His parents Tom and Mary, and their four sons (photo above), settled in Central Washington on what the family story has called “old sage brush land.”
I recently discovered, however, that the land great grandfather Tom tilled into an apple orchard had been inhabited by indigenous peoples who were rounded up and locked into the Colville Indian Reservation, on the other side of the Okanogan River, just a couple miles away. The government turned old Salish land into old sage brush land. Then it dammed the river so that Tom and other white settlers could grow apples in a region with very little rainfall.
This weekend is about saints and souls, but also about loving God and neighbor. So let’s animate love with two ancestors who transitioned in 2018. The white Evangelical pastor and author Eugene Peterson and the Black liberation theologian James Cone. Peterson interpreted the language from today’s Gospel episode as a command to love God “with all our passion, prayer, intelligence and energy.” That’s beautiful and it encompasses everything. Cone defined the love articulated by the Gospel and the Civil Rights movement as “militant.” That’s challenging and makes me uncomfortable. After all, I come from a people that almost always supported war, but almost always avoided conflict.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pleaded for audiences to widen their concept of what love entails. He extended the parable of the Good Samaritan beyond random acts of kindness “to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed.” Militant love isn’t about tossing our spare change to beggars. It calls us to change the system that produces beggars.
This is the opposite of what Evangelicals taught me—that good Christians ought to “stay out of politics” and create charities like rescue missions and food pantries that support those who lack jobs, healthcare and housing. Many of these organizations feature altar calls to get them saved before they are housed and fed.
This is one of the reasons why serving at Manna Meal on Mondays has been a redemptive experience for me. It is a forty-year tradition of modeling militant love with no strings attached. Every last one of us is invited to come just as we are. And for forty years, employees and volunteers at Manna Meal have committed themselves to both dishing up and direct action, to addressing symptoms and transforming systems.
And one of the reasons that I am compelled by the voice of Dr. King is that my Grandpa Valentine was not. When my Aunt Vicky came home from college inspired by the voice of King, let’s just say that old Val had a conniption fit. He was an ardent supporter of George Wallace, the governor who stood in front of the doors of the University of Alabama administrative building to block Black students from integrating the campus.
In fact, of the reasons I quote Dr. King so prolifically is because I see it as an act of resistance to my family genogram. But for me, this is faith: trusting that Grandpa Val, fifty years after his death, is proud of his grandson for actively participating in our family’s repentance. Salvation is intergenerational. The arc of the moral universe is long and it bends towards justice.
And the more I dig, the more I discover that my lineage is a mixed bag of addiction and alienation, beauty and brilliance. My mom recently gifted me with a book of prose and poetry written by my Great Aunt Mil. She was born in Northern Illinois, and like me, she didn’t have children of her own, she traveled extensively and she committed vast amounts of time and energy to the written word. I will close with a poem that she wrote, most likely on one of her many trips to the West Coast. It’s called “Faith.”
I believe in my foreverness!
not in the God they lectured of—
adamant as an ice storm;
not kind, and never hand in glove
with imperfection (that is, me).
He lived behind the organ pipes,
gold organ pipes at church,
watching me with the sorrow that wipes
out all sin. And I counted my sins
to see if His ultimate limit was reached
and I worried (a five-year old worries)
and I counted. And they preached.
But now I feel my foreverness,
my humanness, and I forgive me.
I am at least as important and divine
as a California redwood tree.
Tommy Airey is the co-editor of RadicalDiscipleship.Net and the author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity