How To Live Through A Divided, Turbulent Time With Grace

A Bloomington, IL officer crouches in street to talk with small black girl carrying BLM (Black Lives Matter” poster.
A Bloomington, IL officer crouches in street to talk with small black girl carrying BLM (Black Lives Matter” poster.
A Bloomington, IL police officer talks with one of the younger demonstrators at a Black Lives Matter demonstration. (Photo by David Proeber/The Pantagraph)

“We’re living through a time/ that needs to be lived through us,” Adrienne Rich writes in her collection,“The Will to Change.”

The line is a little like a Zen koan, ripe for meditation. The poem’s words came to me this week after several conversations with friends who are experiencing anxiety and despair over the chaos in our country.

It’s hard not to internalize the anguish and anger coming from our African American citizens. It’s equally heart-wrenching to watch the violent street clashes between police and protesters.

Meanwhile, the pandemic continues to claim thousands more lives. Those who’ve lost their jobs continue to struggle. And a hurricane might be on its way to the southeast.

In the central Illinois community where I live, a few people chose to vandalize and loot. Far more participated in peaceful demonstrations over four days, including one that drew a thousand people. They came — blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asian Americans, students to 80-year-olds.

Protestant, Catholic, Hindu, Jewish, Universalist-Unitarian and Baha’i faith leaders organized a prayer service that over 100 people attended on Zoom in the middle of the afternoon.

Women in Louisville form line of protection in front of black protesters in Louisville.
Women in Louisville form line of protection in front of black protesters in Louisville.
White women linked arms to shield black protesters in Louisville. (Photo by Tim Druck)

Across the country, there were other signs of light amid many dark hours.

In some cities, police knelt with protesters. Sheriffs walked with demonstrators. In Louisville, a line of white women linked arms to create a human shield between police and African American demonstrators.

In my former home, Chicago, students and teachers marched for mandatory education on race. Health care providers held a silent demonstration in front of the old county hospital to protest inequities in the health care system.

One of the most eloquent statements came from Episcopal Bishop Mariann Budde. She said members of St. John’s Church near the White House would continue serving protesters water and snacks — despite the fact that the parish house was damaged by arson — because “people are more important than property.”

That passage returned to me as I was tempted to judge others who seemed more upset about property damage and the criticism Donald Trump is receiving for his handling of the protests than the event that led to those protests: the tragic and unnecessary death of George Floyd.

Some of the people defending the president I know. They are members of my family. Some are fellow Catholics — people whom I’ve experienced as kind and sensitive in other circumstances, people who volunteer in service ministries.

Can I have the hospitality of heart, as St. Benedict urges, to bear with patience the behavior and opinions of those with whom I disagree?

It will likely be an ongoing struggle.

My friend and meditation teacher Lama Tsering Ngodup Yodsampa offers a partial solution. He urges us to confront division with random acts of “loving kindness.”

White man and black man carry sign that says “Stop Killing Black People” as man and woman march with children in Minneapolis.
White man and black man carry sign that says “Stop Killing Black People” as man and woman march with children in Minneapolis.
Demonstrations for racial justice brought blacks and whites together in many cities, like this one in Minneapolis. (Photo courtesy of WIONews).

Another friend, retired Mennonite and United Methodist minister Jim Bortell, reminded me this past week that God is both meaning — and mystery.

Flash of sunlight bursts through clouds with tree in foreground.
Flash of sunlight bursts through clouds with tree in foreground.
There is the spark of God in every event that occurs, says retired Mennonite and Methodist Pastor Jim Bortell.(Photo by Pat Leyko Connelly).

As Jim puts it, “Aware or not, we are always engaged with God, there is that seed — that spark — that inner light of God,” no matter the chaos around us.

The Trappist monk and spirituality author Thomas Merton was alive during the Spanish flu pandemic, both World Wars, the Great Depression, the dropping of the atomic bomb, the assassination of an American president, segregation and the struggle for civil rights.

He died in 1968, a year when Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were felled by assassins, violent protests erupted at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the Vietnam War was killing civilians and soldiers alike. Merton never stopped believing in grace. He wrote:

May it be so in the current time. May we be the women and men who overcome evil with good, hatred with love, greed with charity.

It is the only sane way to allow these turbulent times to “be lived through us.”

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.

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