(I wrote this in July, 2008, shortly after my internship at Bethel-Imani Lutheran church ended)
Early last year, after buying yet another friend a copy of Gilead to see him on his journey away from Chicago, I read the opening on the train. I made myself stop after this:
I don’t know how many times people have asked me what death is like, sometimes when they were only an hour or two from finding out for themselves. Even when I was a very young man, people as old as I am now would ask me, hold on to my hands and look into my eyes with their old milky eyes, as if they knew I knew and they were going to make me tell them. I used to say it was like going home. We have no home in this world, I used to say, and then I’d walk back up the road to this old place and make myself a pot of coffee and a fried-egg sandwich and listen to the radio, when I got one, in the dark as often as not.
As I wait for Marilynne Robinson’s new novel, Home, to drop, this passage has been on my mind. There’s a kind of bedside philosophy here, but it’s not the less true for that. I remember falling in love with theology when, in the introduction to The Nature and Destiny of Man, Reinhold Niebuhr refers to “the essential homelessness of the human spirit.” Nostalgia–homesickness, for a home real or imagined–is one of the most powerful and deceitful emotions in the world. As Odysseus learned, to his sorrow, you can come back to Ithaca, but it won’t be the same Ithaca.
Driving down the Dan Ryan to 63rd Street yesterday for the first time in seven weeks, I felt a palpable thrill. I was going back, back to the church that I had given a year of my working and praying life to but that had given me so much more in return. The shuttered businesses and broken-down cars were, perversely, signs of welcome to one who had gone astray. I had only been gone since early July, but it felt like a long time. Preaching to a white church, much as one may love it, feels like preaching on the moon after a year in a black pulpit. My debriefing upon reentry to white society was enough to produce instant nostalgia, but beyond that there was the matter of the young people I had spent so much time with and had gone to the extremity of worry over. Most of the time I could not bear to think much on them.
The welcome was as warm–warmer, even–than I could have expected. Sunday morning Bible study had some new faces and the tables were reconfigured. The raggedy old carpet in the fellowship hall had been replaced with gleaming wood laminate. But otherwise it was the same. Paul is on trial (again) in Acts. The choir robes are donned and the pastor invites me to vest and assist in the liturgy, which had not been my intention in coming but which I was happy to do. It was “good church,” as some folks say–the congregation was animated and involved, the preacher was strong, the choir was more than solid. I brought greetings. We prayed for Barack Obama. We celebrated Holy Communion and shared the bread and wine–body and blood–with each other and the whole community. It was, as at least one person said afterwards, as if I’d never left.
But of course that wasn’t true. If only in my own head, things had already shifted just a little bit. There was no lack of warmth–if anything, a surprise visit to an internship site is good for the self-esteem–but I no longer had a place there. And, to state the obvious, when we return to an old haunt of any kind, we may be a little shocked to see that life has just gone on without us, missed or unmissed as we may be. Time works its disappearing trick on us immediately–“old timber to new fires.”
I left Bethel-Imani in July with words something like this, wrapping up a sermon on the 7th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans (“Wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of of death? Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ!”):
Sisters and brothers, we’re going to be doing this until we die. We’re going to need this place, and these words, and this forgiveness, and these gifts, and each other until our journey ends. We will never get past our need for the grace we get here. And we will be here or somewhere else. And faces will come and go, drift away, or show up new. And we will keep fighting the same battles against the same sins, and we will keep trying to love one another and we will keep trying to make the world just a little bit better than we found it. But we will never stop needing faith.
I get weary, in fact, Mrs. C–, thinking about all the years I’m going to spend trying to persuade people of this–trying to persuade myself of this. But–and pastor, you asked me what I believe, and this is what I believe–I believe that some day, faith will be sight. Some day, when you look at Mr. C–, you’ll look into the fact of God. When you look at Mrs. G–, you’ll look into the face of God. When you look at Pastor L–, you’ll…when you look at Mrs. L–, you’ll look into the face of God. Everything and all of us will be mirrors that reflect the glory of God, and all our struggles and our scars will only magnify his great glory and love.
Until then, sisters and brothers, until then, fight the good faith, run the race, and most of all, keep the faith.
This sermon, I saw in retrospect, was a distillation of sadness. It’s a valediction from someone who has spent the few years of his adult life launching from the Trojan plains, only to arrive at another temporary island that feels like home just before the next departure, and will never feel like home again. There’s nothing unique in this. I’ve lived in Chicago for eight years and thus have enjoyed a stability that few of my friends have shared as jobs and assignments and sheer wanderlust take them from one point on a map to another. There are moments of homecoming–when a group of friends from a forlorn valley gather to share a kind of camaraderie that can exist in only that social microclime–but they feed on their own transitoriness, and then it is back to a job or a place that offers, inevitably, but a glimpse of home. Family does a great deal to mitigate this feeling, of course, but even that river flows, however gently. I just get the hang–I fancy–of caring for a two-month-old, and suddenly he wants to do all kinds of things I haven’t thought of.
There’s something beautiful, long as it took me to realize it, in the African American tradition of calling a funeral a “homegoing service.” I used to think of this as something that blunted true and necessary grief, and perhaps it does just that. But it also expresses something pure and delightful and, I hope, true: that behind every softly-tinted image of that world beyond ours is a powerful yearning, not for escape, but for something like the home we will look for and never find in this life. Not in 63rd street, and not anywhere else.