Thursday, December 17, 2015

All of This Really Happened

My heart, that used to pump along so pleasantly,
has come now to a different sort of music.

Mary Oliver, from Heart Poem (2009)

The night before Dad’s sudden, unexpected death, I caught him watching women’s college basketball on his desktop computer while Lindsay and Mom persevered through some Sherlock Holmes movie about as exciting as a routine pop up. It wasn’t just women’s basketball, though. It was undefeated, #7 ranked Oregon State women’s basketball. This past week, I’ve found myself consistently coming across quirky stuff that Dad would love: about David Letterman’s new Charles Darwin beard or the Brits winning the Davis Cup or the end of that lousy Lions-Packers game. I’ve impulsively wanted to email the link to him. Then I realize he’s no longer here.

My spiritual director, Dianne, an elderly African-American woman who has lived in Detroit her entire life, told me that when her husband died, she had similar feelings. Then, she realized that, if her faith meant anything, it must mean that he was still here, somehow some way. She decided to write him long letters. The look in her soft, confident eyes made it clear that she decisively knew he read them. Heck, if dad can still read I’ll shoot him emails. I’m sure the replies will come mysteriously.

On our first day back in Detroit, a week after Dad’s memorial service, Matthew, the Manna Meal soup kitchen guest from Modesto, told me that he’s convinced that I’m the type of guy who belongs in a nudist colony. I wasn’t really sure what he meant, but I felt the love because he proclaimed it with a big smile, nodding massive approval. He lives on the side of the church, 20 yards from Michigan Avenue.

Surprisingly, Matthew wasn’t in church the next Sunday. But Thurman was. Right after Pastor Bill concluded his homily with a tender “Amen,” Thurman (left: with the stray dog he found bounding down Michigan Ave) keeled over sideways on the pew and launched into the first of two back-to-back seizures. The first to his aid were Janet and Cindy, a lesbian couple in their 50s who adopted Samantha, a teenager with down syndrome.

Sami (right: at a Tigers game back in September) was standing there all compassionate and helpless right next to Gail, the Detroit native and university professor with a PhD in Gandhian philosophy. Back in the 70s, when Gail was a teenager she met an older man from Santa Cruz and ran away from home with him. She memorized T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock on the drive out West and would perform it on the street for tourists to earn some income. I believe her story because she recited it from memory around the bonfire at the church retreat two months ago. To close the service, Sami danced with a tambourine as gospel legend Ange Smith belted out “Wade in the Water."

The previous day, a Saturday in the mid-30s, we were all bundled up in a gym at Frederick Douglass Academy, cheering on the girls basketball team from Burton Middle School. I’ve never seen so many traveling violations and jump balls in my life. We watched the frenzy of Brooke, Lois, Strawberry and Jayla, the daughter of community organizer Monica Lewis-Patrick (right), a native of Tennessee who has been baptized into the struggle against forces hijacking public education, water & housing policy in Detroit. Two years ago, she lost her bid for city council by just a few dozen votes. A few weeks later, she lost her only son to gun violence.

On Monday, Deborah called up. She needed water. She’s lived in the same house on the eastside since she was 1. Now she’s 60. She’s got a college degree, but can’t find a job anywhere. That’s a major problem when water rates have escalated, her pipes leak and her property tax bill adds up to a couple thousand dollars each year. She spends much of her time volunteering at the soup kitchen a few blocks away.

Then, we delivered to Tonja, whose average monthly water bill is $120 and she owes $1400 to the water department. In the past year, the water department enrolled her in a payment plan, but she can’t keep up. When she was telling me her story, we had to step inside her house because a stray pit bull was roaming the neighborhood.

Later that day, Mary Ellen (left), the retired nun who, for two decades, was the executive director of the nation's oldest free health clinic, told us that there were 52 messages on the water hotline voicemail. One of the local news stations posted the digits on a newscast and desperate Detroiters started calling in! We don’t have the capacity to deal with this tsunami of injustice, but we’ll care for as many as possible. The more than 10,000 gallons of water that came flooding in from Canada, West Virginia and Chicago last year is all gone!

We are organizing a faith-based Keep The Water Flowing Sunday, encouraging local congregations to donate all their bottled water to the cause. Pray for the water to come flowing in again, and better yet, for the mayor and city council to change their minds (“repent”) and implement the water affordability plan passed by city council in 2005—to turn the taps back on. While you’re at it, pray for a white Christmas and another win for the Oregon State women’s basketball team.

Happy Birthday, Dad (December 17, 1941--November 17, 2015).

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