“Veils and Walls,” delivered 11.03.19 by Joliene Wade Gatlin at Peace United Church of Christ in Santa Cruz, CA
Based on Hebrews 11:1-3, 12:1-2
This time of year is for the mystics among us. It’s a time of transition. Of seasons changing. Of falling leaves. Of misty mornings and early sundown. As the temperature changes, we crave warmth. We find our ways to blankets, fireplaces, cocoa, tea, and contemplation.
Perhaps, then, it’s no wonder that this time of year begins the holiday season. It’s time to spend with family. It’s time to remember those who have gone before us. We lift up historical memory– our biological and spiritual ancestors. We lift up the stories that bind us.
I entered my faith through death. Not by dying. I’m here. Obviously.
My parents, though they both come from religious families, are not religious themselves. I didn’t grow up going to church, but I spent a lot of time in cemeteries. My mother’s Irish Catholic family has worked in cemeteries for the church since their arrival in the bay area. I was 4th generation working in the cemetery industry before entering seminary.
I spent many afternoons tromping around St. John’s Cemetery in San Mateo, reading inscriptions on headstones and pondering the significance of faded trinkets left by loved ones. The stones and mausoleums were mysteries, some overgrown with moss and ivy like something out of a movie. It seemed magical to me– to my young mind, the headstones may as well have been the ancient pyramids. They were monuments to mysterious figures of the past, black and white images of people I didn’t know and would never be able to know. We shared space, but no longer shared time.
For those of you who don’t know, I spent much of my time in my formative years with my grandparents. When I was about 6 months old, my parents had a bad experience with my babysitter, so my grandmother decided she would quit her job and take care of me herself. Eventually, my grandmother would be caring for more than just me. On some days, there were 6 of us grandchildren and on others, more, since the neighbors inevitably ended up playing dress-up in her closet, climbing the tree in the front yard, and eating tuna fish sandwiches on her patio. My grandmother continued to care for my sister and me, 5 days a week, for about a decade.
My grandfather would often return home from the cemetery in the afternoon and go through a Mr.-Rogers-like routine. It didn’t involve a sweater, but he did change his shoes and take off his flannel work shirt. He would sit in his LaZy Boy chair and read the Times, but he could easily be convinced to tell a story first.
As a child, I spent much of my time growing up at my grandparents’ house. They, like many in their generation, were constantly living their values. They cultivated the ability to love well and shared that love often. Through the stories they would tell me at naptime or after Grandpa came home from work, they would teach me values. They would help me become. We made up stories together in games of make-believe as we crafted our ideal households, ideal worlds, and the drama of our imaginations. I learned to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly without ever knowing I’d learned it. Their stories taught me morality and love, not only by the motifs in the stories themselves, but by the love with which they were shared and the creative light with which they were interpreted and retold for the particular context of their given moment.
In these moments, the moments of my adult life, they propel me forward and are the foundation of love from which I try to live my life in the image of those who have gone before me. I have my Grammie’s cheekbones, my Grandma’s gestures, and probably a little bit of everyone’s nose. I bring their stories forward, too.
When my grandfather fell ill in the mid 90s, I experienced the first big death of my life. No one that close to me had died before and at 12 years old, I was arriving at an age at which I understood life and death differently and more deeply. My grandfather had melanoma, or skin cancer. He spent his life, from the time he was 12 until his 70s– working outside at St. John’s Cemetery. His fair Irish skin was not well adapted to California sunshine and he worked many years outside before knowledge about sunscreen and cancer developed.
His death was slow.
We had a lot of time to think about it. And it’s when I started asking questions about God. My grandfather was a devout Catholic who had given his life to the church and his community. He was simple in all the best ways. He didn’t care for new things or picking flowers. He believed in hard work and family and cared little for pretentions or dress codes. I knew his faith had something to do with his goodness. The questions I started asking would eventually lead me here, to a place quite unlike the Catholic Church in which my grandfather found his spiritual home.
He is one of my saints. His journey into death was selfless. It changed my trajectory in many ways. It brought out the best in my family. He had a way of doing that.
Anyone will tell you that death is hard. That love is hard. That grief is hard.
But they don’t tell you that it changes your life. It breaks you in a way that makes you forever stronger and weaker, a spiritual wound like Jacob. It’s make and break.
After funerals, when people stand around, committing themselves to carrying on the beautiful lights of those lost, we all quietly agree to become better people. Knowing how important John Kiely was to the world, I knew there were parts of him that I needed to carry forward. 23 years later, my life is changed.
My grandmother, his wife, passed away a couple of years ago, 2 months after Caleb and I moved to Santa Cruz County. She was 94. I was very close to her. My grandmother’s relationship with the church was different. She also grew up Catholic, but not devout. She wasn’t baptized until after the death of her baby sister, who died at 18 months old. My grandmother grew up hearing that Baby Gloria might not go to heaven because she was unbaptized. At this time of year, my Great Grandma Alice would pray for Gloria’s soul. Grandma grew up hearing various stories about how the church caused pain or refused to help her family in their times of need. She struggled with stories of our spiritual ancestors– to believe the things she thought she had to believe. For my Grandmother, this time of year was painful.
In this sense, our relationships to our spirituality can be like familial relationships. Your mother might be supportive. She might be abusive. She might be both. Our spiritual ancestors were equally complicated. Their stories celebrate their victories as much as the ways they failed. We can use them in ways that give life or in ways that oppress. We can learn from the failures of our spiritual ancestors or repeat them.
Each generation is incorporated into our being. I am my grandmother and my mother and my great grandfather. I can see pieces of each of them in me. Likewise, though I never met my Great Great Grandmother, she’s in me, too. My ancestors raised the people that raised me.
The stories of our ancestors ripple through history, through our DNA. Our spiritual ancestors, too, ripple in our lives. I know the names of Moses, Joshua, Ruth, Dorothy Day, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez. I know some of their stories. They influence us and become part of us. John Kiely is gone, but today I tell some of his story. Moses is gone, but his deeds remain. We tell how he killed an Egyptian and it was wrong. We tell how he liberated the Hebrews and it was right. These stories are reimagined and reignited in the work of living saints like Greta Thunberg and Desmond Tutu. We here at Peace stand on the legacies of those who built the First Congregational Church of Santa Cruz. The form changes. The building changes. The people change. But love remains.
A few years ago, I was blessed with an opportunity to go to the Holy Land. The trip was, in many ways, not just about me. It was certainly about the people of the land, whose rights to the land matter and whose are upheld, who has access to what… but it was also about my ancestors. I didn’t know that until I got there.
I had a particular experience at the Jordan River that I have only told a handful of people about. So I’m going to embarrass myself and tell all of you.
Now, the historian in me feels obligated to say that many of the sites associated with the life and times of Jesus are likely not authentic. Some of the more famous sites may commemorate events that didn’t happen or be the wrong site for an event or wrong object. Some sites are busy and have long lines.
The site we visited on the Jordan River was not one of those sites. We were on the Jordan side, as opposed to the Palestinian side, of the River. A Lutheran minister brought us to a site reputed to be where John the Baptist lived.
It was just us– maybe 20 of us. We walked around the site John the Baptist was said to live. There were ruins of a monastery built around a small cave. Locusts hopped around and there was wild honey and a spring with drinkable water. There was a slight breeze blowing through the reeds as we meandered down the gravel trail at the holy site.
In the middle of a nothing moment, and quite surprising to me, I smelled my Grammie and was overcome by a strange feeling. I was surprised by the experience. I strongly associate my spiritual journey with my mother’s father. This was my father’s mother. She was Mormon and lived in Utah. I saw my dad’s family every other year, when we would drive out to Utah for family vacation. My Grammie had a sweet, childlike spirit, even in her old age. She liked to scrapbook and bake. She was optimistic and cheerful to a fault.
Honestly, I was confused by this experience. A swirl of emotions and questions flooded my heart and mind. What was going on?
We loaded back into our vans to head toward a Russian pilgrimage site for lunch, and I sat in the back seat, looking out the window as tears poured down my face. I didn’t want to make eye contact with anyone or share this confusing experience. One of my peers, Michelle, asked me if I was okay and I nodded.
We arrived at our lunch site. There was a litter of kittens living outside of the kitchen and while I certainly couldn’t push the experience out of my mind, I managed to stop crying, cuddle some kittens, and eat some soup.
After lunch, we drove to a different spot on the river, miles from the first spot, where Jesus was supposed to have been baptized. Again, I felt strange and smelled my Grammie. Now as much as I was emotionally affected by this, I’m also quite skeptical. I wasn’t about to tell anyone about this experience because I felt quite crazy. So I started to follow each of my peers and smell them without being conspicuous. Surely one of them used the same laundry detergent as Grammie did.
After surveying the musks of my peers I determined that none of them smelled like my grandmother.
I don’t really know what happened. I still don’t quite know what I think, but I like to say that sometimes I believe in things I don’t believe in. But after my experience at the Jordan River, I started to feel my spiritual and religious roots in that land in a different way. That night, we passed the border crossing from Jordan into Israel-Palestine.
The next day, we visited the Western Wall. For folks who don’t know, the Western Wall is the remaining wall of the Jerusalem temple, which was destroyed in 72 AD. It is all that is left of it.
As we entered the Jewish quarter, we found the military presence increase. There were Israeli soldiers, all seemingly younger than me, carrying automatic weapons at every turn and in swarms. To be an outsider in a militarized place felt vulnerable from the get-go, but I had high hopes and expectations for an experience touching the Western Wall– the wall of Jesus’ temple,
older than old,
felt by thousands upon thousands of pious religious folk from a variety of traditions.
I wanted that sense of connection to my spiritual ancestors.
And now I wanted to bring that sense of connection to my biological ancestors.
Men through one door, women through another.
We got to a place where we could see the wall. It was divided–
a section for men;
a section for women.
The men’s section was larger, of course, even though there were far more women at the wall praying. The women were crowded in, many waiting to get close enough to it. The men could have spread their arms out a couple times over.
A woman stomped over to our group to tell one of my peers that she was not dressed appropriately. The look on her face as she asked my friend to modify her appearance was one of disgust– she publicly shamed her. That– publicly shaming– was okay in the holy site. Automatic weapons were okay in the holy site. Relegating the women to a small portion of the wall was okay. Disallowing women from the study room was okay. Banning Muslims and Christians who lived in the area for generations from returning to it was okay. My friend’s church dress and blazer were not.
I wanted to touch the wall. I wanted to touch the wall with the hand I wore my Grammie’s ring on. I wanted to feel the holiness seep through the stone into my hand. I wanted to feel the spiritual weight of centuries of prayer.
My Grammie was Mormon. The LDS church segregates men and women on Sundays. Women are required to wear dresses or skirts to church. My Grammie had Celiac’s disease and at one point, she became very ill and lost a bunch of weight. One Sunday, as she walked down the center of the pews, her church skirt fell down around her ankles. She laughed as she told the story of standing in her slip before the entire congregation. She had no shame as she pantomimed pulling her skirt back up rapidly.
Why did I think of that?
I walked toward the women’s entrance to the wall. Two women sat at a table with head scarves for those who didn’t have their own. One of the women was the one who had shamed my peer. I walked toward the table behind a different one of my peers.
“Are you Jewish?” she asked.
“No,” she answered.
“You don’t need it,” she said, motioning her hand as if she were shooing a fly.
The look on that woman’s face. Disgust. She did not want her there. That wall was not for us to share. That temple which holds prominence in our scriptures, too, was not for us.
The other woman who sat next to her offered a kind face. “No, it’s okay, take it,” she said. She looked apologetic.
We took the scarves. We only wanted to be respectful.
I put it on and walked toward the wall.
The wall was crowded, as I mentioned. The women were squished in. I sat in a chair and waited for a space. Should I move toward the wall? Was it okay? I doubted it now. They let us in, but they didn’t let us in. We were tolerated.
A space opened up between two Israeli soldiers in uniform. No, somewhere else. The wall was so crowded. Nothing else was opening.
Should I? Could I?
I went over and stood between them. My hand was shaking as I lifted it to touch the wall.
Between the soldiers.
I could. Because I had American privilege.
It was dirty. A terrible feeling washed over me, so unlike the feeling of the Jordan River, the Garden of Gethsemane, and the other holy sites that seemed thick with the sense of reverence of centuries of pious pilgrims. This place was thick with centuries of conflict. Of division and segregation.
I lowered myself to the ground. I touched the wall again. I wanted it to speak to me. I wanted to feel something. Something wonderful, but all I felt was a wave of…
It was dirty. It was desecrated.
I held my hand on the wall, wanting something to feel sacred– not fearful, not yucky, not terrible.
A bird pooped on my hand.
I came back to the table and removed my scarf. The woman who had been kind and told us to take the scarves sat there. As I put it back in the box, I looked her in the eyes and with my kindest smile, I said: “Thank you.” Thank you for your kindness. Thank you for treating me like a person. She smiled back at me and nodded.
I walked back toward the group.
The bird pooping on me felt like a sign. I dunno about y’all, but I can count on my fingers the number of times a bird has pooped on me. It felt odd that one of those moments was at one of the holiest sites I could imagine and during that short span of time in which I had physical contact with it. Poo didn’t seem like a good omen, but my peers told me it was a sign of luck.
I believe in things I don’t believe in. I believe that our journey continues after this life. I believe my saints are with me. Maybe only in my DNA and my stories.
We grieve for what is lost, but we can also celebrate the ways they still exist. They are brought into the body of Earth and God and they become part of the universe in a different way. They are still here in our hearts and our memories and the meaning that we give them going forward. The ways that we remember them and tell their stories continue them for the rest of us.
We carry them in our hearts. We tell people about the wonderful light they brought to our lives… and we keep their light burning by continuing the work they did and the ways they loved, by making the world a better place.
So today, I’m not here to tell you that we need to pray for the souls of sinners who’ve passed or that particular rituals will change the course of your eternity.
I’m also not here to tell you that everyone who has passed is dancing around on a cloud in a land of milk and honey. Maybe they are. I don’t know.
I believe in things I don’t believe in. I believe that our journey continues after this life. I believe my saints are with me. Maybe only in my DNA and my stories. Something remains. What remains is love. It is the core of each of us and when it is well developed, its spread is unstoppable. This week, as I continue to think about the lives that have paved the way before me and the saints who I feel called to celebrate, I will remember their examples of great love. I hope to continue their loving.