In the late morning (about 11 am or so) after taking a shower, I stepped out of the tub and looked at myself in the mirror. A small beard is taking shape on my countenance, and my white, jiggly belly reminds me that I need to get rid of it before my sister’s wedding come January. I stared into the reflection of my brown, almond-shaped eyes and thought about all the events in my childhood, youth and college-years that led up this moment where I’m stark-naked and nudging myself to run a bit more and eat New Orleans cuisine a bit less. The reflection in the mirror was clear and nearly free of blemishes (I had the responsibility to clean our upstairs bathroom for this week).
The people who I share this house with serve as a mirror of sorts (perhaps I serve this purpose to them as well). Every group and individual conversation, every action performed, every word spoken, every miniscule interaction that reveals one’s inner intention, reveals to me the aspects of myself that I simultaneously take pride in/hide in revulsion from. I recognize that they have the dilemma of having stains and specks that hinder them from seeing me clearly, but I also recognize that I have the same human dilemma of having numerous stains and specks that keep me from seeing them clearly. God knows that my thinking patterns and my mode and paradigm of human interaction are not always rooted in the unconditional love of which God is particularly noted for being. It is sometimes rooted, I am sensing, in self-defensiveness of my ego and in the unworthiness I experience in the seeking of love and affirmation from others.
These specks and stains follow me as I go on my day-to-day routine of assisting on-staff teachers with the seemingly minuscule to-do items of copying pages, creating folders, searching the internet for teaching resources, while also helping adult students by going over their homework for the day, sounding out words with them from a Magic Tree House book, teaching a student how to find a common denominator of a fraction, and an assortment of other daily activities. During these interactions, some teachers and students shared with me their stories of how they got to where they are now– narratives themed with starting fresh/new birth, childhood abuse and endangerment, lack of familial and community support–stories that are wide-ranging and far apart from each other, but also sound as ancient as the words being taught and learnt in the classroom.
I can certainly see that society relies on the written word exclusively. Growing up, I read books both as a means of escape but also to better understand the reality of which I dwelled in. To see students struggle reading and sounding words like, at, tree, book, and live out-loud make me reflect on their lives outside the classroom where all signifiers of society–traffic directions, instruction manuals, food labels–anything pertaining value is expressed in the mode of the written word, as well as my own ungratefulness for my family and education that I do have. Hearing their narratives told through the mouths and minds of these students reminds me that there is value in the oral transmission of information, that I will forever be a student–being transformed by the hearing of the word and not merely reading it, and the common yet always-profound theme of resiliency in the face of hardship and despair.
Around two weeks ago on a Friday evening, I went to Touro Synagogue on St. Charles Avenue. Judaism has always fascinated me–I took a course, Intro to the History of Jewish Thought during my sophomore year of college, and I’ve always admired Judaism for being a religion focused more on human conduct and ethics rather than on human belief and dogma (it seemed almost liberating to think of not having to deal with the complexities of the meaning of the Trinity, how to understand Jesus as simultaneously God and human, and doubting the Evangelical mantra to “believe the Gospel to get into heaven”…etc.). This admiration for Jewish thought has never left me, and along with my discovery of Jewish ancestry a few years ago, I wanted to go and experience a Shabbat service in New Orleans.
The entrance to the Synagogue was heavily guarded by the New Orleans police that Friday evening. Two lines were formed; one for the members, and one for those visiting. Police had to scan entrants into the Synagogue with metal detectors before one could enter the building. Incidentally, it happened to be the first day of the Jewish New Year of Yom Kippur called Kol Nidrei (meaning “all vows”). The service was dedicated to the releasing of all vows unfulfilled and all promises broken before the start of the new year in the Jewish Calendar.
The rabbi’s homily, unexpectedly for me, transcended the concept of vows and promises to include the evolution of firmly held beliefs of a once-solid worldview in the age of post-Truth. Her honest, self-depreciating, classic Jewish humor made me laugh-out-loud, and made me reflect on my theological vows during my Pentecostal upbringing, how I theologically left-behind the promise of American Christianity, how I came back to follow, unfollow and follow again in the cycle of the way of Jesus, and my sense of disorientation with the world around me.
The continuous process of deconstruction and reconstruction has the propensity to leave an empty vacuum of direction, and my knee-jerk reaction is to find the absolute claim based on reason and human experience, and hold on to it for dear life. I sometimes wish that the human experience could be simplified by a few variables and solved for X. It’s perhaps this paradigm–this vow of finding an absolute claim–will forever be unfilled and shattered, and perhaps I will learn to be okay with it.
About a week when I first arrived here in New Orleans, I went to visit a predominately African-American church, the Historic St. James African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. Throughout my life, the churches of which I belonged to (both the Pentecostal church during my youth and the Presbyterian church during my undergraduate years) were made up of predominately white congregants. When I was initially accepted into the YAV Program, I wanted to use my YAV year to purposefully examine the intersections of race, class and religion through a faith lens (which is one reason why I wanted to be placed in New Orleans–the other minor but important reasons being the delicious food and beautiful music). I knew from my past studies on history of race and U.S. culture that the AME church was one of the first historically-black, Protestant denominations–that it has a rich history of not just spiritual uplift for its congregants, but also delved into political activism, education, the pursuit of social justice, and served as a cultural and communal center for its members in each AME church. The fact that Historic St. James is the oldest AME church in the deep south piqued my curiosity, and so I took a public-bus to visit their 10:00 AM church service.
I was overtaken with nervousness on the bus-ride to the church service. The memory of seeing coverage of the Emanuel AME Church massacre on the news in 2015 haunted me on the bus-ride. My only claim to being considered a person of color is from my half-Puerto Rican father, and although my name is “Miguel”, I’m a heavily freckled individual with a serious melanin deficiency–I cannot recall a moment in which I was mistreated or discriminated against because of my ethnicity. I was deeply afraid and unsure of how I would be perceived by the people within the congregation when I walked in their space in the midst of national racial strife and tension.
As I approached the entrance of the church, despite the racial tensions occurring throughout the United States, there were no police scanning for weapons, no long lines differentiating between guests and members; the entrance doors were merely left open. I walked into the foyer and was greeted by the ushers with the typical, southern-religious, Sunday-morning greeting, “Hello, God bless you!.” I sat in one of the pews on the left side of the sanctuary, around six rows above the back row. I sat there quietly as I waited for the service to begin. Some older women of the congregation greeted me with a “God bless you!” along with a hug and kiss on the cheek (a typical New Orleans custom, I’ve been told). Some men came, shook my hand, and proceeded to perform the quintessential “bro-hug.” My fears were relieved for the moment.
The service began. The jazz-organ played spiritedly and the drums kept rhythm as the congregation sang together songs without the use of the hymnbook or a projection of the text on a screen. The music was so lively that I couldn’t fully pick out the words of the songs being sung, but the atmospheric energy and the beat kept me clapping and swaying in sync with the rest of the congregation.
The sermon began. As the young guest minister articulated his main points, with “Yes sirs!” and “That’s right!” flowing from the congregation in a call-and-response, homiletical exchange, I caught the glimpse of an infant girl sitting on the opposite side of me on the right side of the sanctuary. Her beautiful, moistened, large brown eyes stared into mine for a moment as a smile began to form on her countenance. I contemplated what her life would look like when she grew older–how she would perceive her reality and those in it and surrounding it. For the moment, there were no stains and specks left overtime to alter her perception of myself. At that moment, I can only guess that she merely saw a person.
I only wish that my specks and stains would be fully removed to see as clearly as she did. So far, my young life has stained and speckled my vision from the residue of getting older–receiving new experiences, meeting new people and forming new relationships, reading books, watching television, living in the environment of which I was raised, and being blessed and deeply hurt throughout those moments in time. The words of the classic hymn Amazing Grace, “I once was lost but now am found; was blind but now I see” have me questioning what am I actually seeing post-Blindness. How do I know that I’m not blind in some aspects of my life? How can I remove the log in my eye so that I can take the speck out of someone else’s?
This is what I am seeing in the mirror.