My Backstory

My husband Rudy is five years older than I am. The age difference is significant in that, as African Americans, those five years of difference shaped the trajectory of our individual life experiences. Being five years his junior meant that I never experienced water fountains marked “for whites only.” 

My husband Rudy tells the story, in his book Love Period, of being puzzled as a precocious eight-year-old, in awe of the “for whites only” sign and wondering what the benefits were of the restricted fountain. He realized that both fountains were supplied by the same plumbing line. If the source of the water was identical, why the difference? Did whites have to pay to use the coin-operated restrooms marked “for whites only?” Wasn’t the food prepared the same way at the barbecue restaurant that was owned and operated by a black man—whose white customers sat at neat tables and chairs while his black neighbors and church members (who also supported his business) had to order at the back door?

I was delighted when America elected its first African American president and first family. My heart leaped and tears danced a line down my cheeks. I hoped that his election was saying something about how far the nation had come in race reconciliation and healing. I prayed for Barak Obama every time I remembered, because looming in the back of my mind was the fear that racism had not died but simply had gone undercover. Unfortunately, it seems to me that evil forces entrenched in the veil of public policy and government subsidy once again have shifted, leaving anger and hatred to leak out in ways that I never would have imagined.

Stories of Congress stalling the Presidential policies, more frequent stories of this black man arrested and found dead in his cell … this black woman … that black child murdered. It was for me the beginning of what I hoped was a bad dream from which I would doubtlessly awaken. 

Before I could gather my thoughts, random acts of needless violence against Africa’s dispersed American-born sons and daughters were being brought front and center via Facebook, Twitter, and various other means that made the reality inescapable.

Recently, just days before I was to prepare a sermon, more hate-based crimes were splattered across the news and social media. One of my friends (who happens to be Caucasian) texted me and said “I’m speechless, I don’t know what to say to console you, Juanita, but I love you and I’m praying for America to be healed.” She gave the most honest response I could have heard, because I too was speechless.

I listened for God as I began to prepare my sermon. What would I say? The Church Universal was silent, doors barricaded, church bells ceased to ring … or so it seemed. I never consider myself a social justice activist. I like to think of myself as an advocate—one who stands alongside the poor, the homeless, the least, the last, and the lost. But we live in a time now when text messages are constantly coming in, and people are hurting.  

Many African descendants born in America are living with Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, as author Joy DeGruy reports in her book of the same title. The tragedies we see every day bring us to the edge emotionally when we are already trying to hold a lifetime of emotional balls. As I’ve worked to respond, I’ve realized that we need—I need—shalom.

Spiritual Tools Matter

I had to begin to regain my own sense of equilibrium before I could be present to respond or offer support to others. I turned where I always turn in times of chaos, confusion, tragedy, and conspiracy. I turned to the spiritual disciplines—my practices for hope, consolation, and peace.

I have learned that the daily, routine exercise of various spiritual tools like prayer, fasting, Bible reading and study, meditation, rest, silence, solitude, Sabbath, playtime, and even laughter make all the difference in my ability to cope and come to some measure of shalom. So I pulled out my Bible and, as I read over the assigned text for the following Sunday, the words of Jeremiah took me in a direction that I had not expected.

The Life With God Bible introduces the book of Jeremiah with these words: “Tough times demand tough words. Whenever the community suffers a difficult blow, we quite naturally ask, ‘Why?’ or, more to the point of the faith community, ‘What is God doing in our pain?’ These are the basic pastoral questions that concern any community of faith when it is about its most serious business.” The book of Jeremiah is filled with hard words for tough times.

Power from the Word

As I slowly read and reread the passage in Jeremiah 1:4-10 in the style of Lectio Divina, I was soaking in the reality that even in the chaos and confusion in America, in my hometown, and in my own heart, God has called me and all believers to use the power available to us. I wanted to retreat and hide under the covers, and here I was being charged to “speak whatever God commands me!”

The text went on to say, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.” In my mind I thought, Lord have mercy! 

I was seeking comfort and solace in a world turned upside down, and God was giving me marching orders and telling me not to be silent in the midst of this crisis. All too often the sons and daughters of the King of kings get way too quiet in the midst of chaos. Remember the Holocaust.

The Spirit was reminding me that each of us has power, and that the call is not only to remember our personal power, but also to rely on the power that God will provide in the moment when it is needed most. God touched Jeremiah in verse eight—he put his hand on Jeremiah’s mouth and then assured him that he would also put words in his mouth and appoint Jeremiah over the nations and over kingdoms.

Each of us has a nation or a queendom included in our circles of influence, and as believers who are allowing God to bring about transformation we yield ourselves to his leading and guidance over our territory. As I soaked in the words of the text, God exchanged my fear and anxieties for just what I needed … courage.

The words that God had spoken to Jeremiah became words that brought me shalom. I realized that God was transforming my faith, making it real in this new space, putting a mouth on it and feet to it. I was reconciling the fact that shalom is a greater gift than simply removing my fears. Shalom was inviting me to know my function in the realities that lay around me.

Each of us has the ability to promote harmony among those around us in our little nations and queendoms. I have the ability to speak of the spiritual practices that are helping me keep it together when so much is falling apart. I have the ability to remind those nearest me to care for their minds, souls, and bodies even more gingerly during these unstable times. I can model that kind of care in the way I care for myself.

Have a plan for Shalom

The choices I make now flow out of the rule of life I wrote during a class in theology school. It’s my plan for shalom which includes care for my trinitarian self: mind, body, and spirit. I know the necessity in tough times for me to back away from social media and television—they tend to bombard me with detail after detail of tragedy and inhibit my sleep. Constantly staying “tuned in” to negative information affects our immune systems and our overall state of wellbeing.

I know that if I am to be a vessel of shalom then, as Dallas Willard says in his book Renewing the Christian Mind, “We have to involve the body in spiritual formation because that is where we live and what we live from.” I must engage in routine physical exercise, dancing, or swimming—whatever is life-giving and allows my body to discharge the tensions and anxieties of the day.              

The Necessities of our Peace

Shalom is a higher level of thinking and being in the world, and this way of being is cultivated in part by my practices and in total by the Spirit of God living in me. In times like these we are wise to remember and to engage our spiritual practices so that we are receptive vehicles for the grace that is shalom abiding in us. Social Mystic and theologian Howard Thurman said:

We must remember that at the level of the daily round we must put our own courage, gentleness, and kindly devotion at the disposal of simple community in our homes, in our work, and in our play. The good deed continues to be good, the kind word continues to be kind, the cup of cold water given to the thirsty continues to be refreshing and reassuring—the need for love is as urgent and desperate as it ever was. Faith in life, faith in one’s self, faith in one another, faith in God: these are the necessities of our peace.

What I am clearly seeing in my own heart, my neighborhood, and in the world is that if we are not making space for spiritual transformation as a necessary action in our lives, then we are inadvertently cultivating room for all that is not shalom.