We rose early this morning — especially given that a number of us are on Pacific Time sleep schedules — to come together for breakfast. Waiting for us on the table was a King’s Cake — a giant pastry, in this case cinnamon, covered in icing and liberally sprinkled with purple, green, and yellow sugar. In fine print on the side of the box, I found the warning: “CAUTION! NON-EDIBLE BABY FIGURE INSIDE THIS CAKE!” Later, we uncovered a tiny gold plastic infant, and this, we were told, was what gave the cake its name — baby Jesus, the King. “After all,” our New Orleanean guide laughed, “the cake sure isn’t named after Elvis!”
We went downstairs into the sanctuary of First UU Church of New Orleans for morning reflection and worship. While much of the building has been repaired after the damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it currently exists in a curiously
patchworked state — water damage is still very evident on certain walls, near some of the windows, and on one of the back staircases. Other parts are crisply new — beautiful fabric wall hangings, the freshly painted mural on the front doors, and the gleaming stone tile mosaic labyrinth inlaid on the floor of the sanctuary. After the hurricane, various flooring stores around the country would donate whatever tiles they could spare; as a result, the church got random amounts of different colors, shapes, and material. The sanctuary floor is polished and looks like stone; down the hall is a joyful burst of rainbow linoleum; the landing on the staircase is bamboo. Upstairs in the dormitory, the floors are a more serviceable grey linoleum in the hall, with my communal bedroom boasting striped salmon and black ceramic. Our group will be starting a mural of the seven UU principles on one wall, while the ceiling paint is still cracked and curled nearby. The church building seems to embody in microcosm much of the reality of the progress of recovery in New Orleans as a whole — appearing repaired to the untrained eye, while discrepancies begin to show themselves to a more discerning viewer, and in places the damage is still very evident, off away from the front entryway.
Our morning included a brief anti-racism dialogue circle as a preparatory training for the work we will be engaging in during our stay in the city. As one of our facilitators put it, “Well-intentioned people sometimes get confused about how to do good work.” It can be hard to find a way into work that requires us to step outside of our comfort zones (sometimes FAR outside) and take the risk of, at worst, causing damage rather than helping with healing, or at the very least becoming so tangled in our personal embarrassment that we flee from the work altogether. We were challenged to respond to the question, “When do you first remember being categorized into a racial group, and what was significant for you?” Many of us explored memories of exclusion; others noted that there hadn’t been a moment where they suddenly realized their skin had a particular tone that was different than someone else’s, but rather could remember the first time it was problematic. It gave us the opportunity to explore the idea that being “normal” means that you aren’t singled out; if something is “normative,” that means it is supposed the be that way in the wider cultural understanding.
As we prepared to break for lunch, we were asked to summarize what is it that keeps us in the work, even in the face of realizing what a long and arduous task it is to work for justice. My companions had some beautiful answers:
~ The dream of beloved community
~ Seeing people cherishing each other
~ Hope for our children, grandchildren, etc.
~ Healing the world
~ Growing good roots
~ Desire to live in true relationship
~ Wanting to be our divinity
What is it that calls you to the table, dear reader? What dream or vision do you pursue in the face of powerful odds? It is worth articulating, even if only in the secret recesses of your heart.
More soon, dear ones.