That’s What Bearing Witness Is…


Let go of what you know
and honor what exists
Son, that’s what bearing witness is
Daughter, that’s what bearing witness is
~ David Shannon Bazan, Bearing Witness

Less than 15 miles away from the city of New Orleans as the crow flies – or 25 miles if you drive along the every curving Mississippi River – there is a parish (county) called Plaquemines. From the town of Braithwaite to White Ditch, water flowed in over top the river levee just over a month ago. Hurricane Isaac slowly swirled across southeastern Louisiana on the 7 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the Flood of 2005. When the city of New Orleans stayed dry and the power was restored within a week, most of us breathed a sigh of relief and tried to pick up where we had left off – beginning new school years and new jobs, or simply a new season, transitioning from summer to autumn.

On the long stretch of road along the east bank of the Mississippi River, it was another week before the water drained away. Still today the houses, tombs, and trees washed over the road are being cleared away. You have to see it to believe it. And few people have seen it. It’s a rural commuter community downriver. New Orleans did not flood. Next news story.

Driving along highway 39 with Rev. Tyrone Edwards, I was reminded again of the importance of bearing witness. It restores us to our humanity, to our connection with all that is.  It is certainly spiritual practice.

I knew from talking on the phone to partners in the area that the situation on the ground was intense. In addition to houses, cemeteries, and trees uprooted and washed around, dead animals and rotten fruit had to be cleared off of the roads before people could return home – or at least return to where their home had been. It was so hard to imagine that only a half hour outside of my (fairly) functional city, there was utter devastation for hundreds of families, homes, farms, and an ecosystem. I had to travel there, to bear witness to what exists.

So it is with many things, the importance of this journey to bear witness – white people doing the hard work of letting go of what white people “know” to acknowledge and begin to undo the racism that exists, men letting go of their conditioning of superiority to honor the truth of women’s long struggle within sexism, heterosexuals realizing that there are other ways to love, cis-gendered people recognizing that trans-gendered people are living their own truths…when we are willing to let go of what we know and honor what exists, we bear witness to some extraordinary truths.

On Thursday, I journeyed over a bridge, through a tunnel, and on a ferry to bear witness to a community bearing the consequences brought about by forces beyond their control – coastal erosion, chemical spills, underfunded engineering, climate change… As the ferry pulled away, taking me back to the city, a brilliant rainbow arced over the flooded gas station where I had met Rev. Tyrone Edwards earlier in the day. While there is no Genesis promise that Plaquemines Parish will not be flooded again, the rainbow is still a symbol of promise. We can offer the promise of bearing witness to each other – letting go of what we know and honoring what exists. This is what bearing witness is, beloveds. May we find the courage every day to make the journey.


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