Family, against all odds

I had a friend in college who once said to me that, though he considered himself an atheist, he wanted so badly to believe there was something, anything out there watching over us with tender love and care. He just couldn’t. I was always struck by this because I felt the exact opposite: whereas he was burdened by his lack of belief, I was always burdened by my faith. I wanted not to believe. The last thing I wanted to accept is that this life is all part of some grand plan, some ornate and elaborate blessing after blessing or curse after curse or some hodgepodge of the two. And while I don’t know whether I was ready to throw it all to coincidence, it just feels to me even now like it might be a little simpler if I were more in control of my fate, if God or the Universe or the Great Whatever wasn’t hovering over, because like most of you, I cringe at the notion of being out of control.

But my friends who know I’m adopted from birth and know that I’d communicated with my New Jersey birth family since returning from Morocco will know that some strong sense of purpose, some path-crossing synchronicity, has complicated all of those doubts and beliefs of mine over these past few years. Unbeknownst to me, it was finding out my birth father had worked in the church – just as I had. And it was finding out just after returning from two years of living in Morocco (a place Peace Corps had sent me some seventy years after my grandfather had lived and worked there in the War) that in fact, I was tied to Morocco in another way, since my biological father had traveled there and to Southern Spain around the time of my birth. Of all the places on the planet to be tied to my New Jersey biological family and to my Tennessee adoptive one, it seemed so strange that Morocco would be it.

Sometimes, when you get this kind of news, it seems so unbelievable that it feels like it came out of a movie. People call it “stranger than fiction,” and it is. I worry it’s so strange that it inflates my ego and gives me the false notion that I’m in some sort of Truman Show scenario. Would someone please tell Ed Harris to stop already? There is even a part of me that hears it, knows it to be true, and yet cannot fully accept it, because to do so makes me feel sometimes as though I’ve either fabricated these events in my head and am a pathological liar, or even if it is true, why entertain it because no one else would ever believe it anyway? If there’s anything I’ve learned these past few years, it’s that truth is almost always the scarier reality. But sometimes the more beautiful one despite the silly things we fear.

On Christmas day, I left a little sentimental gift for my girlfriend’s adopted brother, Zech. It was a children’s book I loved that was mostly drawings by John Lennon, and I’d penned a little note on the inside saying that I’d always felt a kindred spirit with this Beatle who’s mother had died when he was young and whose father had disappeared. You gravitate a little to the people who share and understand your story, even if theirs is slightly different, and in the past few months, I’ve gravitated more to Zech and really come to think of him as a brother of sorts.

Truthfully, even though I’d known her family for years, I didn’t even really know Mattie had an adopted brother until we started talking just before I moved to New York. I’d only really known Mattie as someone with roots in Tennessee and had been close with her aunt for years since Mattie and I had both “grown up” at the same camp where her aunt worked, Lakeshore. A few months ago, we discovered that Mattie’s mom, too, in attending Lambuth University in my hometown, had known my grandmother who worked for the Dean. Small towns are small towns, so no major surprises there, and the Methodist community is not a terribly large one. But it was still one of those nice human connections that we made, one of those moments when you discover you have a shared history in some way or another, and that’s always a little affirming.

When I left Shelter Island almost exactly a year ago as I write this, Mattie’s family was a refuge to me as I job-searched New York City and New Jersey. They took me in and treated me as family. It seemed fitting that I’d end up somehow in New Jersey since my roots were on the Jersey side of Philadelphia. And when Zech moved home, it felt like just one more member of the family was showing up.

So, on New Year’s Eve when Zech and I were talking about our Irish ancestry, he mentioned his birth name, and I jokingly asked how he spelled it since it sounded similar to my own. When it was the same, I asked again, “Wait, I’m a Johnston; aren’t you from outside of Philadelphia?” We both started naming areas: Cherry Hill, Mt. Laurel. I mentioned my birth father’s name, and Zech mentioned his grandfather’s name, and that his grandfather had died three weeks ago, and he pulled out a picture of my birth father, his grandfather. My girlfriend’s adopted brother is my biological nephew. His mother is my biological half-sister.

Like I said, stranger than fiction. I want to write Nate Silver, the famous statistician, and ask how that’s statistically possible that a girl I met in Tennessee happened to have someone adopted into her family who was my biological kin in New Jersey. When we sat down with the family to tell everyone else what we’d discovered, Zech joked that I will be more related to his child than anyone else in the family once the kid is born. These days bring a quiet reflective awe, an awe at the power of fate or coincidence, whichever it is.

And so, indeed, back to that whole conversation about coincidence and fate. What am I to say? The facts are in front of me. They are either the craziest coincidence ever or there’s some force pushing us toward a certain reality. Or maybe that’s too limiting a view? Maybe this happenstance and others like it are far more common than we realize or might choose to believe. If you told me that my grandfather had crossed paths with a Moroccan who knew my biological father fifty years later and who also met me when I lived in Morocco, I just don’t think I’d be surprised at all anymore. In fact, knowing how small Morocco can be, I half-expect that was the case. And not because fate wills it that way or because coincidence rules the day with its own sense of destiny or lack thereof but because we, dear humans, are so much more connected than we too often choose to realize. Redneck jokes and “I’m my own Grandpa” music aside, we cannot deny the interconnectedness we all share – sometimes an interconnectedness we may know nothing about. What if this revelation had never come my way? In a way, it changes nothing, because I’d already decided to love Zech as family. Nor does this revelation take away from the daily decisions I’ll make down the road. I am not bound to Zech now anymore than I was before. Because unless I am bound by love, all other sense of duty and obligation is vapid and meaningless. Who we make our family is as much a matter of our choice as it is a matter of blood, and that has far-reaching implications for the world we now face, a world where we seem so divided by our choices to be distant, by our perceived sense of kinship: “you who are not my kin because you think differently or look differently.” I’ve played into that narrative too frequently myself, and maybe sometimes, we do distance ourselves from the ‘family’ because doing so becomes temporarily necessary for our safety and sanity, but how should I act if the family is much bigger than I was prepared to admit before? How should I act if the family is, yes, blood, but is also bigger than blood and, indeed, global? To that friend in college who struggled to believe, I think our sense of the divine, then, is rooted not in belief but in active, faithful choices of love. Whether there’s a God overseeing that or not is less important as whether you chose to love as big and bigger than you might have intended when you started on this little journey we all share. And anything we might call God that lacks that faithful action really isn’t a god I’d like to believe in anyway. However I construe it, I do see something sacred and whole in the choices behind me and in the choices ahead.

In the meantime, you can just think of me as your crazy Uncle Phil. Whether by blood or by choice, there’s a good chance we’re related anyway.

Lead Us Not Into Penn Station

I’m not sure why, but lately, I’m hypersensitive to all the sounds that surround me. Maybe it’s because I’m used to a more rural environment that the sounds of the City are just that jarring to me. Maybe it’s because I’m living just next to the Garden State Parkway, which leaves in its wake a low, constant buzzing almost like that of a hummingbird. Whatever it is, lately I’ve heard it all.

I’ve heard the click-clack of the train that runs over the tracks in the morning, the screeching of its breaks, the muttering of passengers who’ve come to know one another, the familiar lines, “Tickets please,” or, “Remember, if you see something, say something,” the latter of which in reference to terrorism seems to be used to maintain a constant state of communal fear.

I’ve heard the taxis honking, the subway’s mechanical voice promising, “There is… a… local up-town train… one station… away.” I’ve heard quiet, though even quiet is filled with background noise: the harsh police sirens, a jackhammer, the wind weaving through and beating the buildings above – or is that the cars on the street? It sounds so similar to the buzzing of the Parkway. To this country-turned-city boy, so much of it is, well, kind of harsh. There’s no respite, it seems, in the sounds of the City.

In fact, the other morning, I heard screaming. A woman in the train car behind me was giving voice to some kind of anger, though I don’t know the cause. She ran through the aisle cussing at no one and then stood between two train cars. When the train pulled into Penn Station, she started screaming louder and began spitting on the glass door that was about to open – the one we were all standing behind. A man warned a woman in front of me, “Hey, watch out for this nutjob when the door opens.”

The screaming woman was obviously poor and in some kind of psychic pain. I thought immediately about the man’s use of the word “nutjob” to further disconnect her from us and how, in America, her mental illness and poverty were likely deeply in cahoots and were both things we used to see her as somehow “less” than us. For a moment – a brief moment – I considered attempting to console the woman or shaming the man for typecasting her in such a way that robbed her of her humanity. But I did nothing, said nothing. After all, she might spit on me. Or, I thought, I wasn’t trained or prepared to know how to deal with her situation. So I just let the words fill the air as more harsh sounds, and when the doors opened, the police entered the car and whisked the woman away. I have no idea what came of her. But I couldn’t escape the notion that her psychic pain was likely intensified by our collective apathy, or worse, our disdain for her situation which mirrored our fears of what could, perhaps, happen to us or to those we love. The police carted the ugliness away so we didn’t have to hear her suffering any longer. God bless them?

In one of his trips to encounter Syrian refugees, Pope Francis has remarked, “We are a society which has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion – ‘suffering with’ others: the globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep!” I think he’s right. There’s no “suffering with” others; it’s us and them, and we want the sounds of their screams, their tears, their harsh contribution to the world to simply be removed, forgotten, compartmentalized from the public sphere. I find myself too often among those who want that.

But if I stopped there, having heard only the harsher sounds of the City, I don’t know what hope would be left. And I do know that I would not have heard all there was to hear:

On Thursday, I met with the director of three Christian-run hospitals that were set up to serve the people of Lebanon and, since the Syrian crisis, have come to serve (indeed, being overrun by) Syrian and Armenian refugees, as well. While much of what he shared was hard to hear, there was hope to it, too. He described the relationships between many Christians and Muslims in Syria and Lebanon as a “mosaic,” that in suffering together, their religious differences had not always gotten in the way of their willingness to help one another. He described churches which were distributing water to anyone, regardless of creed, in Aleppo since those ancient structures had been built on top of water wells. He described instances of Muslims protecting Christians from ISIS and vice versa. And he described the good work he was doing: offering psychosocial support for children experiencing PTSD, healthcare to refugees even when the UN refused to fund it and the clinic picked up the cost; the list went on and on, and in it all, what I heard was not the sound of dogma or hopelessness but of the dignity of all people and the hope of a brighter future for those currently entrenched in conflict.

In the afternoon, as I headed back home to New Jersey, there were certainly still those harsher sounds. But that’s not all I heard: I heard a violinist in the subway and a jazz band filling the air in Penn Station. I heard gratitude in all the chattering on the train and people ending their phone conversations with love. I heard conductors from the train wishing passengers a good day as they exited. I heard a car honk – but to get the attention of an old friend. And as I got closer to the humming of the Parkway, I heard a mourning dove cooing a friendly reminder that it’s finally spring.

What I’ve noticed for me is that there are some sounds that pull me back into the full symphony of life. It’s so easy, so tempting to get sucked into one section or hear only a solo and be convinced of the domination that sound holds over the whole corpus. But while the ambiance of brokenness is assuredly in harmony with the ambiance of love, we need not forget that love leads the melody. Sure it’s all happening at once, each screech and scream perhaps isolated to a painful solo that in that moment needs to be heard, but what the mourning dove or the violinist or the kind conductor adds to the world is not isolated but is heard by those with ears willing to listen. And so, too, we contribute our own euphony or cacophony to the orchestra of life. Sometimes, we give both. Sometimes, we give more of one than the other. And sometimes, for better or for worse, we find ourselves silent. What we add or take away from the symphony is often entirely up to us; other times it isn’t. But perhaps the best we can do is simply listen, to be as aware as we can of how it all comes together (or doesn’t); that before we decide to contribute, we know exactly what we’re going to offer and why and how it belongs in this space where there are so many other sounds seemingly detached but, in truth, are just a completely different instrument yet still in connection with one symphony. Needless to say, I guess I’m a little thankful that I’ve been so hypersensitive to all these sounds lately. They might just have something to teach me.

On the Road to Racial [and other types of] Reconciliation, or What I Wish the Churches I’d seen in the South Looked More Like

On my ride aboard the Long Island Rail Road returning from a trip to New Jersey this weekend, I thought a lot about a course I took at Vanderbilt Divinity where we were discussing racial reconciliation, and on the table was a really tough question about whether black congregations and white congregations should be worshiping together. That may seem like it deserves an obvious answer in 2015. Of course they should, right? But we arrived at that question by first asking why our churches – unlike our schools, unlike most of society since the 1960s – had remained mostly segregated. Was that evidence of our inherent prejudices? The ones we seem still so stubborn to admit we have? Was it simply the reality that different experiences had created different cultures? One black student remarked that she feared if she were to worship in a white church, her cultural history would be washed away. Would a white church with a white pastor focus as much on the story of the Exodus where Moses leads God’s people out of Egypt like those slaves seeking freedom along the underground railroad? Would that sense of liberation – still so crucial to black churches – be as important to white churches? Moreover, what does it mean for a white church to have been “free” for so many generations that we can no longer conceive of the need for liberation for others? Have we lost the ability to relate? Must we experience oppression to see the need for calling the oppressors into question? If we think we have no need of this, do we lack empathy for those who still very much relate to the need to be liberated? That day in that classroom opened my eyes in a way I don’t think I’ve realized until recent events, really, that whether or not black churches and white churches should worship together is a deeply complicated question with a deeply complicated past, present, and future. What I came to terms with at the time was this: maybe we need to be segregated in our worship, but we still have to find some way to work together for the betterment of everyone. Separate in worship, together in mission could be a solution. But I’m not so sure I’m as satisfied with that answer anymore.

This morning, I attended my first church service north of the Mason-Dixon, and it drew an incredibly incriminating picture on the almost insular way of the church in the South. Sure, up here, the church may be dying in numbers, but what I saw this morning drew a picture of a church that is, in my mind, thriving. On the wooden pews in an ark-shaped sanctuary in Bloomfield, New Jersey, there are members from four continents and twenty countries. Every color. Gay. Straight. Female. Male. Transgender. Hurting. Joyful. Family. The lot of them: family. And you could feel it. Something that was in the air, like a kind of earnestness that the people there wanted to be there. No – that the people there were there because they needed to be. That they were honest about their brokenness and joyful to be made whole together. Outside of camp, I’m not sure I’ve seen so many different people made into one family in a church. And for most of the service, I was just overcome with sadness for my home state, for the South, for the reality not that it’s broken but that it’s so gosh-darn unaware of just how broken and pathetic it is. No, more than that: that down south it’s in-your-face adamant about how it carries the one-and-only capital “T” truth when the church in the South as I experienced was driven too-often instead by staged ostentation and a smug need to grab and maintain control and power in a world where people of privilege fear losing it.

Eh, I should come down off my high-horse long enough to say that my own disdain for those kinds of churches or even for the South at times isn’t lacking its own arrogance. Nor am I naive enough to imagine that every church up here is like the one I went to today. Or that this particular church isn’t without its own members who are there for the wrong reasons: to gossip and grasp power when and where they can. That’s just all too human to be confined solely to one region of the country. And yet, having seen what church could be is to know what so many congregations are lacking, and frankly, I’d take a small church with a healthy soul over a large soulless church any day. But I can’t seem to shake the question over what’s the difference between here and there, between this church or that one? Maybe it’s tied to the urban nature of a church that’s only a twenty-minute train ride to New York City. More exposure to diversity is bound to breed world-centric behaviors as opposed to the more insular, isolated rural communities of the South. Or maybe it has something to do with southern culture’s tie to social traditions. If you were born into a world where people go to church because “that’s just what you’re supposed to do,” you’re bound to find people who are there to maintain “polite social behaviors,” or niceties rather than to claim with honest self-awareness their own struggles in an effort to find sacred wholeness like that preached about in our holy texts, or y’know, to do church.

Of course, the deeper question underlying much of this is to ask, “What is church?” It’s become trite to say it’s when “two or three are gathered” in God’s name. I’m not sure I really know what that means anymore. Plenty of awful people gather themselves invoking the name of God or Jesus or Allah, after all. But I’d be willing to bet that, even if we remain segregated in the here-and-now, what church – what all of religion – is meant to be is to provide a space where “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28), nor gay nor straight nor conservative nor liberal nor rural nor urban. If religion can’t be what breaks down the barriers that are the sources of our strife and violence, what good is it doing us? I, for one, want to seek out and hold up those places where that’s actually happening, where those boundaries fall away, because it is happening. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. It may happen in a place where the church is dying, but on this road, we are well on our way to something good, to something better, and we will keep moving forward as best we can.