Monday, February 18, 2019

A Touching Experience

“If you touch me, you'll understand what happiness is.” Those words are sung by Grizabella, the Glamour Cat, in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. Growing research suggests that Grizabella is onto something. We need touch to thrive. Dacher Keltner, UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center, says, “…touch is truly fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health." I speak, of course, of healthy, non-aggressive touch--the pat on the back, the squeeze of the arm, the handshake.

And hugs! Hugs are amazing, aren’t they? Have you ever been hugged by someone who puts their whole body and soul into making you feel loved and accepted? It’s a powerful experience. I know many good huggers, but two stand out as exceptional. First was my cousin Alvin. Everything about the experience, from the warm smile that preceded it to the way in which he pulled me close and held me, let me know that I was, indeed, someone very special.

Alvin has passed away, but I get to enjoy an extraordinary hug every Sunday when I’m in church and my friend Ray and I meet. There is no doubt in my mind that Ray's hug is as loving as it is powerful. We both agree it’s the best part of the morning, and an excellent way to pass the peace.

I was reminded of the importance of touch today as I went with our confirmation class to Friends of the Homeless shelter in Springfield with a group from Holy Cross Church’s Sandwich Ministry. Every week this faithful group makes sandwiches to distribute to the homeless of the city. In the twelve years of the program they have made and distributed over 295,000 sandwiches. They also distribute blankets, underwear, clothes, and toiletries.

After the sandwiches were distributed outside, we went indoors where tables were arranged, and bags of underwear were sorted according to size and gender. Then the door was opened, and the grateful men and women came in to collect these essentials. At first I was watching our kids, seeing how they were doing with handing out these donations (quite well). Then I turned to look at the door where Cathy and Will from Holy Cross were greeting every single soul coming through the door with a broad smile, a hug, and a “God bless you.”

The residents were young and old, male and female. Some wore heavy jackets. Some were in tee shirts. Some smiled brightly. Some looked at the ground. Some looked ill. Some looked quite fit. No matter what they looked like or how they acted, each one was blessed and hugged by someone who looked into their eyes and smiled, someone who saw beyond their outward appearance, someone who didn’t look at them as “homeless” but as human beings worthy of being recognized.

Cathy has been doing this for several years. It was clear that she knew many of the residents as she asked for updates on their health or family. She said she began to hug everyone after she found out that the rules of the shelter forbade touching among the residents. Her hug and Will’s might be the only physical touch they received in the week. Some residents had been there for years. Imagine all that time with one touch a week.

Touching another person, even if it’s only a handshake or a pat on the back, seems such simple and ordinary thing, but to be deprived of it can be devastating. I feel blessed to have met Cathy and Will, to have witnessed their selfless sharing and to have gotten a hug from them. Grizabella was right.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Looking Back

Whether it was reading a Facebook comment from a former student, going to a first-person presentation of Harriet Tubman, or seeing Katori Hall’s play The Mountaintop, I have been thinking a lot recently about race and racism, specifically about what and how I came to feel about these subjects.

I realize that, as a middle-class white woman, my perspective is limited. I cannot ever know or experience the world as an African-American. Though I am limited, I think it’s important, especially for Caucasians, to think about how our attitudes about race and racism were formed, about what voices and images stayed with us, and how those voices and images became the lens through which we view the world.

My Sunday School Class 1949
Though I grew up in a diverse city, I lived in a white neighborhood, went to all-white elementary schools, and attended an all-white (except for dear Miss Baker) church. In school my contacts with persons of color were limited to twice a year when all public school students came together: once for field day at Forest Park and once again for a trip to the Springfield Symphony.

Still I had been taught by my parents and my Sunday School teachers that I was to love my neighbor, and that included those I only saw twice a year. I remembered their words and saw how they lived out those words in their actions. But there was something else impressing itself on my young mind. More and more every night on the news I began to see scenes of hatred for neighbors.

When I was only ten I heard about the murder of Emmett Till, only four years older than I was. At twelve I watched the angry white mobs screaming hate at the nine students who would integrate Little Rock Central High School. At fifteen I watched more angry whites attack the black college students who asked to be served at Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. I had never been to North Carolina, but I knew Woolworth’s lunch counter. That’s where my mother and I had lunch whenever we went downtown.

On the day I graduated from high school Governor George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama to block two black students from registering. The very next day Medgar Evers was assassinated in his own driveway. In September as I began college Addie Mae Collins (14), Denise McNair (12), Carole Robertson (14), and Cynthia Wesley (14) were killed when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Street Church was bombed. At the end of my freshman year in college Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner were abducted and murdered by the Klan.

As I was learning American history in school, I was watching it unfold in front of me, and with each new incident of hate and bigotry, I grieved for what was happening to my brothers and sisters—my neighbors whom I was commanded to love. The list of hate-filled incidents goes on, and it continues to be a challenge for me not to be discouraged and to live out these core beliefs, but then I remember Dr.King’s words, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope,” and I go on.