Literacy Class: Learning the Language of Love

vintage photo looking down on woman lounging on floor reading. By D.L. Mayfield.

This past week, I taught my last English class for quite some time. Three years ago, I moved to my new city in the Midwest. Almost right away, I started teaching literacy to people (mostly women, mostly older, all East African refugees) who have been denied access to education.

The levels of trauma, displacement, oppression, and prejudice contained in that single educational qualifier “non-literate” are hard to explain.

I taught in the corners of crowded libraries, classrooms, computer labs. I taught inside of makeshift police offices and elder housing complexes. I learned about the housing crisis in Minneapolis, I met large families who lived in homeless shelters, I learned of the cracks in the system, how gaping and wide open they turned out to be.

I helped people fill out forms and connect with resources and each other, I learned Somali songs and went to weddings, I ate delicious food and learned how to put the proper amount of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and cardamom in the tea I made for us all.

I scolded people for driving without a license and visited women in their apartments after they gave birth. I delivered cheese and pineapple pizza to people, baked hundreds of Funfetti cupcakes, which were much too sweet for any of us. And in the end, I saw maybe one person learn to read. [Read more…]

Listening to Silence

silenceI arrived at the advanced screening for Martin Scorsese’s new film, Silence, in the worst possible frame of mind. For one thing, I was running late after seeing to some errands. Also, I was starving. My only option for getting some food in time was a fancy burger joint near the entrance to the multiplex. It was one of those places that makes your burger to order and I fidgeted at the table, waiting for my number to be announced.

I sensed the irony of chowing down before watching a story that chronicled both the extreme poverty of Japanese peasants in the seventeenth century and the torture and execution of missionary priests and converts. Then while I was waiting for my mega-burger and fries a man entered the restaurant who seemed both high and homeless. Having lived in or near big cities most of my life I was instantly on to what he was up to. He was approaching various people in an oblique way, as if to sit down beside them.

I knew that he wanted to make the diners uncomfortable and generate a sense of obligation toward him. And yet, when he asked if he could sit by me, I instantly said no in such a loud voice that I startled myself. He moved on and was soon being told by one of the cooks to leave the premises. [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “Poverty of Spirit” by Fleda Brown

storage-by-scott-meyers-on-flickr“Blessed are the poor in spirit.” This beatitude has always puzzled me: what, I’ve wondered, does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? So I was drawn to Fleda Brown’s poem “Poverty of Spirit,” hoping it would elucidate the concept. What I found was a fascinating narrative: of the speaker letting a wagonload of gypsies take everything—everything—that was stashed in her garage. For the speaker, this is an act of purging of sorts, a purgation that reminds her of her mortality. As she ponders whether this is true “poverty of spirit,” she uneasily recalls that among the items she passed on to the gypsies were old cans of paint “with dangerous, leachable / lead.” To whom might this lead do harm? The speaker’s poverty of spirit doesn’t feel so pure to her now. I admire the poem for ending with this quandary, with an emptiness, a poverty, that feels more a nothingness than a spiritual good.

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Elegy for My Father

biscuits-by-pen-waggener-on-flickrMy father: Roy Franklin Harmon, Jr., M.D., passed away on September 22, 2016 at the age of eighty-seven. He was the best man I will ever know. Difficult as it was, my mother wanted me to say something at his funeral service that would at least attempt to encapsulate something of his character. I chose the following story, which captures only a small part of the incarnational Christianity that he practiced.

There is not world enough and time to relate all of the stories about a man as great as my father. They would stretch from a boyhood in Mississippi that was poor but love-filled, through a young manhood of devotion and determination, into a career of courage and dynamism, and a later life of purpose and endurance. He lived his days in bold joy, in unending commitment and generosity of self. He was, to the end, a happy warrior.

But I cannot tell all of those stories now. Only one, of those thousands I could share, must suffice: [Read more…]

Morning Prayer and The New York Times

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Summer morning routine: a cup of Awake tea, the Opinion page of The New York Times.

What am I looking for to get my day going? Information to spark the brain? A needle to inject righteous indignation into my sleepy heart?

The flag is coming down. You know which one. I read columnist Nicholas Kristof’s “Tearing Down the Confederate Flag Is Just a Start.”

“America’s greatest shame in 2015 is not a piece of cloth. It’s that a black boy has a life expectancy five years shorter than a white boy. It’s that the net worth of the average black household in 2011 was $6,314, compared with $110,500 for the average white household, according to census data. It’s that almost two-thirds of black children grow up in low-income families. It’s that more than one-third of inner-city black kids suffer lead poisoning (and thus often lifelong brain impairment), mostly from old lead paint in substandard housing. More consequential than that flag is…” [Read more…]