I write to you, dear reader, from the air, somewhere over the Great Plains in a tiny plane. Below are stripes of green and gold fields, interrupted by folds in the land, twisting and untamable. I wonder if water is collecting there.
Soon we will land in Bismarck.
It’s not my first time, traveling to a place that has earned a reputation for police brutality, to witness the militarization against unarmed civilians; it’s not my first time entering a war-zone-that’s-not-a-war-zone (even though photographic evidence would suggest otherwise), where people of the land are treated as less than human while mainstream media remains astonishingly silent and neutral.
For all that I’ve done similar things before, the blind eye always catches me by surprise. I wish it were otherwise, but for an immense number of people in our country (or, more accurately, in our globalized world), their experience of being non-White in a White-dominant culture has led them to expect that they will be made consistently invisible and voiceless in our whitewashed world. (My privilege is showing again.)
How is it that we can divide ourselves from one another, and not realize how much we are suffering as a result? How long until we finally, collectively, figure out that there is no such thing as someone else’s pain — that the theology of interconnectedness and oneness of being is not just a poetic idea, but the reality of the universe?
The plane will be landing soon. Pausing for turbulence.
My alarm went off at 4:30am, and I stumbled through the darkness to dress for the North Dakota weather (low 60s with the sun, below freezing at night), in spite of the relative (and unseasonal) warmth of Elgin, Illinois in early November. I had packed and showered before bed; my clothes were all laid out; the cat was fed. All I needed to do was make it to the driveway with my backpack, preferably with matching shoes on my feet.
In all my preparations, I tried to be mindful of my destination — fluctuating temperatures, rough outdoor conditions, no running water (because the government turned it off to deter the ones protecting it), no grocery stores, no sidewalks. I’d have my rental car, but otherwise only what I could carry on my back — which had to include everything I’d need to sleep on a floor (either of a church or a tent). With a sleeping bag, travel pillow, and jacket, it didn’t leave room for much else. I’m wearing all the clothes I brought, aside from the clergy collar and stoles for public witness. I managed to fit in a toothbrush. In my daypack, I have goggles to protect against chemical weapons, ear plugs to protect against sonic weapons, and a scarf to cover my face and mouth (and wipe them off, if needed). I packed some TP, and a bag to carry it out in. Some dry hand soap. At the last minute, I threw in a handful of my daily vitamins and some electrolyte powder to mix with the water I’ll buy in Bismarck before driving down.
I saw headlights moving slowly in the dark, winding their way up my long, rural gravel driveway. My ride was here, a couple minutes early. I went out to meet them, switching off the lights and trying not to let my overadventurous cat dart out between my legs.
Turning to the car, I blinked in the darkness, sure that my eyes were tricking me.
The driver had come up to the door to meet me, solicitously inquiring how I was doing. As we walked to the car, I mentioned that the car was perhaps a bit larger than I had expected, with my one backpack of luggage.
“Oh,” said he, ” that’s because we have additional passengers.”
So it was, with some bemusement, that I climbed into a sleek black stretch limousine, which reached half the length of my yard, in the pre-dawn hours on a Wednesday morning, crawling awkwardly over the laps of the two passengers already occupying the forward-facing rear seat. Eventually I was successful in arranging myself on the sideways seat under the mood lighting, facing the carefully arranged mirrored bar.
As the enormous snake of a car attempted to back its way out of my driveway, the other passengers, thinking to engage in small talk at 5am, asked where I was going. In turn, I asked the same of them, and found they were leaving for a vacation to Hawaii.
Having thus exhausted the topic of location, then came the inevitable question: “So why North Dakota?”
I sent a plaintive prayer to the universe, wondering what I had done to warrant being outed as a clergy activist at such an hour, on so little sleep, and while the driver was doing his best not to run over my bergamot and ostrich ferns.
But this is why I’m doing this work, yes? To engage the story, to broaden its reach, and to stir the hearts of people distracted by life’s other minutiae.
And so I gently explained where I was going and why, and what had happened, and what I hoped to do. The couple asked good questions, and by the time we pulled into O’Hare, we were chatting easily in the limousine’s soft mood lighting, and their hearts were engaged, at least in that moment, with the people of Standing Rock. We parted congenially.
Then, as the huge fancy car pulled away, I discovered my flight had been cancelled.
Ministry doesn’t always take the form you expect it to. Sometimes it’s telling hard stories gently in the back of a stretch limo.
Sometimes it’s projecting good cheer and gratitude to the airline attendant whose hands are flying over the keyboard, pulling every string at her disposal to get you to Bismarck when every flight seems full and she can’t figure out why.
Sometimes ministry is ignoring the chatty man in the seat next to you on the flight to Denver as he details, in that early dawn hush, his life story for no reason, even though you’re not looking at him or asking him any questions. Sometimes it’s going a step further and closing your eyes, pretending to fall asleep, as he decides this is a good time for an unsolicited lesson in how runways work. It’s ministry, because it doesn’t involve duct tape.
Sometimes ministry is the quiet voice of the woman on the other side of you, saying she’s glad you’re going to Standing Rock (a detail the chatty man uncovered before changing the topic to one where he was the expert). Sometimes it’s a heart to heart, ranging over many topics, that you realize you don’t want to end when the plane lands.
Sometimes ministry is the flight attendant holding the door after the last call, as you bound down the steps from your delayed flight, sweaty but present, and just in the nick of time.
Amd sometimes ministry is your new seat mate, introducing herself as UUA staff in President Peter Morales’ entourage, letting the conversation fade in a companionable sort of way so that you can have a few minutes of not talking for the first time since that 5am limo ride in the darkness.
It’s the cheerful guy at the car rental counter, introducing himself by name and offering a handshake over the counter as he gets your keys.
It’s the bright North Dakota sunshine and cool breeze over the Great Plains.
It’s the call of friendship and allyship, bringing us together because our hearts are interconnected; there’s no such thing as strangers.
Ministry is what nurtures us into courage, nourishes us into strength, and sings between us across the miles.
And now I leave for the grocery store to stock up on water and food before heading to Cannon Ball, North Dakota!
More later, as connectivity allows.