This is the fourth blog post for the Companions on the Inner Way summer retreat. The featured speaker is Enuma Okoro.
You can find the other blog posts here:
Blogging for Companions on the Inner Way: It’s Not About Me.
Seeking Home: Where Do We Come From?
Who Have We Become?
Exile and Belonging
Yesterday’s afternoon worship involved no internet access, so I didn’t tweet the sermon, delivered by Roché Vermaak. He preached as Joseph. He had several great lines, like “my brothers hated me for my Technicolor dream coat” and “we had a slightly dysfunctional family.” He also said that he (as Joseph) had made Egypt into his home, but after the reconciliation with his brothers, home was with his family in Egypt. Letting go of past resentments helped make a new home. Letting go is not the same as forgetting. We have to deal with the past in order to live in the future.
(As a side-note, I have to say that the conference staff are impressive. They are always moving around the worship space, keeping it fresh with different arrangements and elements. And the music is pretty darn amazing.)
The Scripture for last night’s Lectio Divina group session was Genesis 45:3-5.
I found a website about Lectio Divina that might be helpful.
The word that stood out to me, or “glimmered,” was “presence.” I have no clue as to why. But as we did further reflection, and went away and did some art and some prayer-walking, things became a little clearer.
I call this “Presence.”
Presence: I rarely feel alone. This is in part because I have great community, even if they live far away, and because after a childhood of running around in the woods and years spent in large cities, I know I’m never alone. There is always some critter or someone else out for a walk. And the cosmos is full of life. But presence is not necessarily something that can be controlled. It isn’t a docile pet.
I have also been thinking a lot about presence, because I know a few people who have been in Ferguson, being presence in the midst of vigils and protests and important work. I struggle with how I can be a presence for social change, as a couple of earlier efforts to be present and in solidarity without going to Ferguson did not exactly pan out. I've been in marches and vigils and actions in New York, Chicago, and Atlanta for various causes related to police brutality, war, worker justice, banking reform, and ending the death penalty, but I still haven't been able to participate in anything in Louisville, where I now live. And I'm not sure I would be the right person to show up at Ferguson, a year late. I can do important work within institutional structures, and none of what I do is visible. Of what use is my presence, really?
This morning I went down to the lake early. I might do the same thing again tomorrow, since I have yet to find time to use the bathing suit I brought with me.
Today’s session was about exile, or unbelonging. Of course, exile can mean many things. We were invited to consider what it is like when home is a place of exile, or when we feel we are in exile from a person or from a place.
What are the periods of exile in your life?
The Scripture passages were John 15:18-21 and Jeremiah 29.
As I listened to Enumo Okoro speak, and reflected on exile and unbelonging, I thought of a few things. The first is that the church can be a place that is both home and a place of unbelonging. This pertains particularly to those who are not cisgendered heterosexuals. Too often, people who identify as non-gender-conforming or transgender or gay or lesbian or queer find that the churches that raise them are also places of rejection. Some of us are incredibly fortunate, and never have that experience. But just because the church has changed its policy doesn’t mean individual churches are equipped to be true homes.
The other thing that came up for me is my relative comfort with exile. I’ve been in exile for years. Currently, it has to do with where I live. Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes it’s tiring. When people ask me where I’m from, I say I live in Kentucky, but I’m from the west. (After living for 15 years east of the Mississippi, the amount of land in the west I’m willing to claim as home has expanded dramatically. Sometimes I’m happy just to get as far west as Denver.) I live in the south, but I am not of the south. In the discussion we had in pairs, I started laughing, because after having had five years in the south, I now defend the south to people who look down on it or don’t understand it.
Yes, you heard that correctly. I defend the south, because the south isn’t just Fox News and Duck Dynasty. It is also Moral Mondays and queer activism and a fantastic food culture.
Exile isn’t always bad for me. But it is not just about location. It is also that I do not always fit into my social or professional group because of my Asian American biraciality. Just because I identify as Asian American or as a person of color doesn’t mean it’s easy for me to connect with Asian Americans and with people of color. The way my denomination is structured is that each racial or cultural group that isn’t white has its own group (caucus). But how you get connected with the caucus is either you do a lot of national church work (me) or you belong to a racially-specific or culturally-specific congregation that relates to the caucus. People like me, who are people of color but not affiliated with a culturally-specific (non-white) congregation, are not universally connected with the caucus. I really love my time with the Asian American caucus, and they have been nothing but welcoming, but it takes extra work on both our parts to be in relationship. It’s not bad. It’s just how it is for me.
The value of these explorations in community wasn’t lost on me. As the speaker pointed out, our individual paths and journeys are grounded in the larger Christian narrative, which already has an ending.
Walter Brueggemann writes about exile, of course. In Jeremiah 29:4-7, God makes it clear that being in exile is its own sort of call. The people are given instructions (build houses and live in them, plant fields and eat from them) that are about what they are to do in exile. They are to really live it. They are to make themselves at home, even marrying their children to others already in the land.
And because I consider myself somewhat in exile, it was striking when Enuma Okoro pointed out the text indicates that exiles can still be beloved and chosen. Exile is not forever. It does not mean God will forget you.
We listened to a partner’s story of exile. And then we did art about not-belonging. Here is mine.
What does un-belonging look like for you?
The last time we moved, we rushed to unpack. And we didn’t unpack important files or our clothes. We unpacked linens and put up art on the first floor. We made sure beds were made for guests and the vases for fresh flowers were available. A few months after the move, and I’m still pulling out clothes from boxes. Fresh linens and flowers and art are far more important to feeling settled and at home, even in a land I don’t yet much appreciate. We have people over for dinners and drinks and an open house, hosted a work retreat, had family for a few days, and we felt at home in the midst of exile.
A life-long question for me, that the speaker also raised, is how we go one without feeling we are home. (Clearly, I put out art and make up the guest beds and gather friends around for food and conversation.) Perhaps God is really our home, whether or not we are in our place of belonging or un-belonging. Even in exile, we are accompanied.
When you feel a sense of not-belonging, of exile, do you make your home in the midst of it?