Sunday, January 28, 2018

Excavating Buried Shadow

Saturday, 8:30 AM. January 20, 2018. 
Valencia College, West Campus. Orlando

A handful of academics and community activists from Valencia’s Peace and Justice Institute have come to campus this chilly morning. We are here to plan a series of public scholarship events designed to bring to consciousness the atrocities that occurred in the small town of Ocoee, some 10 miles northwest of this campus, in 1920 on Election Day. 

It is an endeavor to own a community’s Shadow long repressed. The ultimate goal is healing. 

This series of events is part of a much larger project which began with the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) of Montgomery, AL two years ago. EJI is an organization dedicated to commemorating the lives of those victims of lynching and massacres during the long dark years following the end of the Civil War and continuing through the early 20th CE. For an extended period in the early 20th CE, Florida had the most incidences of lynching and massacres in the nation. Our own Orange County led Florida counties in that deadly tally.

Many of us present carry stories – our own and those of family and friends - of dealings with Ku Klux Klan as well as the harm that the structural violence of Jim Crow laws caused to the lives of loved ones. All of us are here to see that those stories do not die with us. 

The event in Ocoee began with a denial of African-American men seeking to exercise their right to vote in the 1920 election. It was a right constitutionally guaranteed since the ratification of the 15th Amendment but rarely exercised after the departure of federal troops at the end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow. 

By nightfall, the conflict at the polling place would shift to a local African-American neighborhood where it escalated into a full-scale massacre. How many local residents joined area Klansmen in that fiery holocaust which would consume the entire neighborhood is not clear.

Ocoee’s black residents were beginning to be economically successful and now sought political equality. The threat to Jim Crow Florida and its racist white power structure was undeniable.

What is clear is that by the following day, the North Quarters neighborhood of Ocoee would lie in smoldering ruins. And within a year, its counterpart, the South Quarters, would be abandoned out of fear of a similar result. 

Stirring up Souls 

We began the morning with a Yoruba priest. He prayed to the Energy in which all that is finds its existence. He prayed for guidance from the Creator from whom all being comes.

That being includes the souls of human beings incinerated in their homes in Ocoee in 1920, punished for crimes they had not committed. And it includes the angry white men wreaking of cheap whiskey, men who ordinarily hid behind costumes when they came out in public. 

Except this night. 

This night they came with torches. And guns. And before the night was over, an untold number of innocent living souls would be lost. 

“Be careful about stirring up souls,” the priest told us. “Time alone does not heal all wounds.” 

And the wounds decidedly remain. 


      Wounds to the land, a once fertile landscape from which citrus trees and sugar cane once sprang, now an industrial zone swept free of any traces of a once burgeoning neighborhood. There African-Americans who tilled the land were beginning to experience the American dream, much to the chagrin of their working-class white fellow townspeople. Today, it is marked by landscaping materials yards and small appliance repair shops.

·         Fatal wounds of shotgun blasts delivered into the backs of those who fled the carnage, those not lucky enough to escape into nearby cane fields and woods.

·         Wounds from rounds of shots fired into a black body swinging from a tree. Their target was a black labor broker, wounded in the initial onslaught, transported to the county jail. He was taken from his jail cell in the middle of the night and drug through the streets of Orlando behind a car before meeting his end in that tree of death, a demonic parody of the tree of life his African heritage reveres.


     Smoldering wounds of those burned to death in their homes. Wounds marked by flickering cinders where Masonic halls and churches once served a vibrant community.

·         Psychic wounds of those lucky enough to escape, leaving behind their homes, their land, their memories, their hopes, and in some cases the bodies of loved ones, bearing trauma that would never completely go away.

There are many stories waiting here to be told. Those whose memories lie waiting to be excavated from the ashes and honored. Those whose ancestors’ deeds await repentance.

“Be careful about stirring up souls,” the Yoruba holy man said, “But know that these are souls waiting to be freed.”

A Calling to Atone 

I am drawn to the work to commemorate the Ocoee Election Day Massacre like a moth to flame. It is horrific work. It is painful to read, ghastly to imagine. The stories dominate my thoughts by day. Their dark images haunt my dreams by night.

But I am called to be here, now, to stand with others as we awaken these souls, as we excavate these memories from our collective Shadow. I am here to help in whatever small way I might to gain the freedom they seek all these many years later. 

I am called as a member of a community that has buried its past, seeking to avoid the memories that linger in a festering Shadow. I am here to emphasize that we cannot “just move on,” that time does not heal all wounds without confronting them. I am called as the holder of unearned privilege to recognize that my privilege as a white male has often come at the expense of many, many others with stories like those we seek to memorialize, stories whose time have finally come to be heard. 

Call it commemorative atonement, long overdue.

As we stand in the circle, holding the hands of fellow task force members, I pray that my voice, my words, my thoughts, my own dreams can serve as a medium for those whose time has come to be heard.  I pray that our community can atone for its past. I pray for healing for all the wounded and those who wounded them. And I pray for courage and strength for all of us who are called to this time of accounting, repentance and reconciliation.

It will prove a very fruitful morning. 

Sunday, 8 AM. January 21, 2018
St. Richard’s Episcopal parish, Winter Park.

I got up early to attend the 8 AM Eucharist at St. Richards. I always feel the need for both the spiritual grounding that this parish represents as well as the vibrant, loving community it provides. While I find much of the theology of the Rite I service to be as antiquated as the Elizabethan English in which it is cast, there is a simplicity and quiet about this spoken service that my soul needs this – and most – mornings these days. 

There is no music, no families with children. Sometimes there are families with disabled loved ones present and at 64 I am often among the youngest parishioners present. But I have come to love the odd assemblage that forms this community each week for this quiet, peaceful early morning rite. And this morning I very much need to be here.

As always, at the beginning of announcements our priest recites our mission statement: We are on a mission to discover G-d’s grace, to change our lives and to change the whole world.  And the parish takes that quite seriously, its parishioners involved in work from feeding the local hungry to periodically housing the homeless at the parish and travelling overseas to help create solar lighting for companion parishes in Africa. 

I believe it is essential to be grounded in spiritual community in order to engage in peace and justice work. The reality is, such efforts frequently are frustrated. The holders of power and privilege do not readily relinquish it even in the face of atrocity demanding redress. They often fight back in any way possible.

And yet the calling to transcend the default paradigms that mark a dominance and control culture and to work to create a better world does not end because any one given aspect of that paradigm proves resistant to transformation. If one is to persevere in this reality, grounding in a spiritual community is absolutely indispensable.

Sunday, 2 PM. January 21, 2018. 
Winter Park Library

It is Sunday afternoon. Holly Mandelkern is a friend who has published a beautiful though unsettling book of poems and biographies from the Holocaust including original illustrations by a local artist. She is presenting her work at the Winter Park library.

Holly was kind enough to give me a copy of Beneath White Stars, Holocaust Profiles in Poetry, for my own enrichment and for use in my classes. I was deeply moved by these  poems which allow the reader to enter into the lives of those in ghettos, prison camps and in hiding.

 The Holocaust is a deeply troubling subject. But like the events in Ocoee a century ago, those events remain in our collective Shadow awaiting their turn to be excavated, examined, owned and learned from. 

We are here today to dig some of them up. 

This day Holly spoke of young boys who wrote short stories and first-hand accounts of death camps, In each case, their writing formed their resistance to the darkness that had consumed the western world in the early 20th CE. 

She spoke of poets who could focus on the momentary beauty of a butterfly before it flitted away among the souls of so many innocent lives in a world gone mad. His words would eventually be excavated and spoken at the Nuremberg Trials of war criminals in the years after the camps were finally liberated. 

I have been a student of the Holocaust since my days in seminary over 25 years ago. I have studied at the US Holocaust Museum and twice visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. It is a grim subject to consider. But, like the events in Ocoee, I have long felt called to wrestle with the implications for humanity of this darkness,  to mourn its genocidal impact. There are many lessons to take back to my own Christian tradition which must account for its role in those dark times and the many dark times which preceded and gave rise to it. 

The last figure Holly discussed was Fr. Patrick Dubois, a French Catholic priest who works in the Ukraine. Prior to the German efficient death camps of the Third Reich, Nazi elimination policy impacting a wide range of designated “undesirables” including Jews was carried out by the death squads of the occupying German army called the Einsatgruppen. Thousands of victims were rounded up, taken to remote areas where they dug the pits in which they would be shot and buried in mass graves. 

Dubois has made his life work to excavate the memories of those swept away by the Nazi paramilitaries. “The sanctity of life was violated so deeply here. Human beings were shot in mass and thrown into pits. These acts are so immoral they demand a response.” 

A fellow priest, whose tradition had made a pact with Hitler to protect its priests and religious during the war, Dubois arranges memorial services with Jewish rabbis to honor the humanity of those killed. His efforts have helped local children of nations occupied by the Third Reich, who were pressed into service, to finally speak their painful truth.

Together they uncover this history, unbury its atrocities, own the dark Shadow and lay it to rest.. 

Digging Up Wounded Spirits 

What struck me as I listened to all these stories was the role that burial had played in insuring these atrocities would one day be addressed. The burial of these writings meant they would survive even as most of the writers would not. The villagers’ burial of their stories deep within their own souls insured that these many voices of atrocity would finally be heard.

“Even in the face of danger, the threat of death, spirit will not die,” Holly said. “Our life experience may not survive. So we bury these memories, waiting for the day when they can safely reemerge.” 

Like the souls of the Ocoee massacre victims, they have lain silent many years, waiting for their time to come out of the darkness back into the light. 

Now that time has come. 

Those of us who are called to once again bear witness to atrocity long after the immediate suffering has ended have the unenviable task of excavating the horror and the pain of events which have long gone unaddressed. We must dig up wounded spirits. They must have their say. 

Time has not healed these wounds. They have only festered in the darkness.

There is no way to simply “move on.” The past cannot just be the past. 

This history which lies within our collective Shadow must be faced before any healing can occur. Until then, the souls of those living lights extinguished by fear, cruelty and hatred cannot rest. 

And ultimately, neither can we. 

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami ShapiroWisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993) 

 © Harry Coverston 2018

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Can Anything Good Come Out of a “S***hole”?

Jesus of the People, Janet McKenzie (1999)

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

"Why do we want all these people from 's***hole’ countries' coming here?"

This past week, the CEO of Trumpland, Inc., proclaimed that while white Europeans from countries like Norway were welcome to immigrate to his country, people of color from countries like Haiti were not. "Why do we want all these people from 's***hole’ countries' coming here?" he asked.

Later in the day, he would act to end the protections for refugees from another “s***hole country,” El Salvador. Up to a quarter of a million Salvadoran-Americans now face deportation to a country torn by violence and crime, a country the younger potential deportees have never really known. But it is a country I know a bit about first hand.

You may think we live like animals…”

The man was perhaps in his late 30s though his weather-beaten hands and face suggested many more years. He stood in front of a long barn with a number of stalls in it. Inside the barn, families had created living quarters, sleeping on straw and cooking over charcoal fires.
“You may think we live like animals,” he said, “but this is the first roof many of us have ever had over our heads.” Where did you live before, we asked. He pointed to the wooden bridge spanning a small river on the edge of the farm. 

“Under the bridge.”

Just at this moment, a handful of children came to join us. All of them bore the distended bellies of malnutrition. The man saw our expressions of discomfort on our faces as we observed these children. “Two of our children have died this week from starvation,” he said. “One of them was my son. He was 10.”

This story is one of many that I carry from my two visits to El Salvador in the early 1990s at the end of the civil war there. We were in the conflicted zone, the area in the countryside outside the capital. A UN patrolled cease fire had tentatively been established in this place where the guerillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation movement (FMLN) had battled the US supported Salvadoran army and its US trained paramilitary terrorists to a standstill.

The farm had once belonged to one of the famous 14 Families of El Salvador. At one time it had housed prized Charolais cows imported from France only for their oligarch owners to discover that these animals did poorly in tropical climates with their tropical diseases and parasites. The barn in front of which we stood had actually once been air conditioned to keep the Charolais alive.

The sharecroppers who worked in the nearby fields managed by global agribusiness entities with names like Dole lived in view of the barns under the bridge. When they dared to organize and begin to demand three basic needs – education for their children, access to health care and the right to form cooperatives to market the fruits of their labor – the Salvadoran government dominated by the oligarchs declared war on them.

It was a war the US government under Ronald Reagan was only too happy to join even when it was legally prohibited from doing so. Under a rubric of anti-communism that only marginally applied to this uprising of working class peasants, the Salvadoran army was furnished arms, funding and training, much of that under the auspices of the School of the Americas then operating out of the Canal Zone of Panama. The evidence of that war was everywhere around us as we made our way past the blue helmets of the UN peacekeepers along unpaved country roads where signs on either side warned of mines capable of blowing up our vehicle and its occupants.

But it was the less obvious results of that School of the Americas training that proved most deadly to these campesinos relegated to living under bridges. Called la Escuela de los Asesinos by many Central Americans (asesino being a general word for murderer, not just those who target governmental figureheads), the School provided training in terrorist tactics designed to keep the peasants under control through fear of paramilitaries who operated in the shadows.

                           Maryknoll sisters, 1980

The handiwork of the paramilitaries who operated under cover of darkness was everywhere to be seen in the light of day: the bodies of those designated as enemies of the state who were “necklaced,” rubber tires tied to their bodies and set afire only to burn all the way through its human anchor; students, journalists and union officials who simply disappeared, their mutilated bodies later appearing on the highway to the San Salvador International Airport; Maryknoll sisters who dared to seek to bring health care, education and a modicum of hope to the anawim of El Salvador run off the road, raped and killed; an archbishop who dared to speak out against the terrorism and its governmental and corporate sponsors shot down at the altar as he celebrated the Eucharist.

This is how s***holes come into being. None of them ever arise in a vacuum.

A mother with photo of one of the desaparecidos

It is also how waves of immigrants came to seek refuge in the United States, ironically fleeing to the very country which was the primary cause of their need to leave. When the hostilities in El Salvador waned, the US pulled out much of its largely covert military presence, leaving behind a country decimated by war, a government incapacitated by deep distrust, families and communities broken by two decades of civil war and a country floating in a sea of weapons. The rise of the most ferocious gangs in North America in the wake of the US exit is not terribly difficult to understand.

But there is more to this story.

Their Lives - Lessons That Changed My Life

My visits to El Salvador were life changing. I went each time as an Episcopal seminarian under the auspices of the World Council of Churches, first as an observer of the cease-fire and the second visit as an international election observer.

The Gospels were more alive in Central America than anywhere I’ve ever been. The people Jesus loved, who served as the raw material for his parables, were all around me. “Blessed are the poor” takes on an entirely different significance when poverty that results in literal starvation to death is present all around you.

Like Roman occupied Judea, the brutality of the Salvadoran army and the obscenities carried out by the agents of empire - US trained paramilitary men - were everywhere to be seen. Archbishop Romero would compare his beloved people’s reality to that of Jesus himself: The people are being crucified. Soon, he, himself, would be crucified.

A vivid reflection of that assessment would confront us on our visit to the University of Central America, a Jesuit institution where six brothers and their two housekeepers had been shot to death in a rose garden, their brains beaten out of their heads to send the message: This is what happens to those who would use their brains to question the oligarchy. In the university chapel the Stations of the Cross took the form of those martyred people of El Salvador, the moment of their tortured deaths graphically conveying the suffering of those who dare to challenge empires.

But it was precisely the people in this hellhole created in the death grip of a modern empire who proved to be my teachers, their lives the lessons that changed my life.

I learned that it’s quite possible to distinguish people from their governments. Frankly, I had no idea why any SalvadoreƱo could stand to be in the same room with a citizen of the country that had been the author of such misery. Yet they made very clear that their own government was not the same as the people I was encountering, people whose hospitality and openness was astounding given their suffering. Why should I be any different?

Their lives were lessons in perseverance under conditions that would long ago have staggered people of the First World like me. Their hope for a better El Salvador rising from the ruins of the old, a relic of an older era whose time had now passed, was amazing if not counter-intuitive. 

Their generosity in sharing the meager material goods their lives of back breaking labor and overwhelming poverty managed to produce overwhelmed me again and again during my days there. It stood in stark contrast to the villas of the oligarchs we passed whose broken glass capped concrete walls and iron gates guarded by men with machine guns shielded them from the misery their privilege required for its existence. And it brought to consciousness my own privilege in what most in the First World would see as a very ordinary life, a privilege made possible by the suffering of the Third.

That privilege would become very clear to me within hours of arriving home the first trip. My husband needed to go to the local K-Mart for something. Inside the store, shelves of material good stacked to the ceiling required a rolling ladder to retrieve them. I had just come from a place where people were living in cattle stalls cooking over charcoal fires.

What did people here need all this stuff for?

We left the K-Mart for the Sizzler Steak House. The first thing to greet my vision upon entering the restaurant was the open food bar covered by the obligatory translucent plastic sneeze guard which stretched nearly the length of the room. The bar was stocked to overflowing. But the chances that all this food would be eaten this day were slim to none. Much – perhaps most – of it would be thrown away at the end of the night. Within the past 24 hours I had seen people starving to death, people who may well have picked some of the very produce I now observed headed for a dumpster before day’s end.

How does one make sense of this?

We Could Learn From This…

The lessons learned in countries like this one which frightened, ignorant men of privilege call s***holes have much to teach those of us in the First World. They are lessons in the harsh economic realities that, far from being “just business,” are the result of deliberate choices that create and maintain privilege for a few at the expense of enormous suffering for many.

This reality is never a given. These ongoing choices can be made very differently with different results.

Perhaps more important, it is the people of the s***holes in the world who have the potential to teach those of us leading privileged First World lives about our own humanity. It’s not just our privilege and the unexamined sense of entitlement we hold regarding that privilege. It’s much deeper than that.

Fully human beings have learned that it’s never “all about me,” the moral reasoning of children. They have learned that if one of us suffers, all of us suffer. They have learned that if we are to fully develop our humanity, we must find something larger than ourselves to devote our lives to. They have learned that if we foul this nest in which we all reside, there will be no others to shelter us.

I am hardly the only person to benefit from the lessons that people in the developing world - the fully human beings living in places that angry white men of privilege call “s***holes” – offer us.

With a voice quivering from outrage and pain, CNN announcer Anderson Cooper reacted to the “s***hole” comments speaking of his time spent in Haiti:

I have never met a Haitian who isn't strong. You have to be to survive in a place where the government has often abandoned its people. Where opportunities are few and where Mother Nature has punished the people far more than anyone should ever be punished…Haitians slap your hand hard when they shake it. They look you in the eye, they do not blink. They stand tall. They have dignity. A dignity many in this White House could learn from. A dignity the President with all his money and power could learn from as well.

Indeed. A highly insecure, narcissistic man who by a fluke of an archaic electoral system now holds power has much to learn about what it actually means to be human. Those lessons could begin with the humility that is immediately evident when one steps off the plane in virtually any country in the developing world.

From the S***holes, Hope for Salvation

In the 1st CE Roman Empire, the region of Palestine was seen as a hardship post. It contained several tetrarchies including Judea and the Galilee exploited to the point of breaking by the First World elites of its time. Within the region, local oligarchs scrambled to insure their own privilege while denigrating those they deigned to be beneath them.

In the Gospel lesson read in Sunday’s common lectionary in the western churches, a figure named Nathaniel is being recruited by Philip, a disciple of Jesus, to join the inner circle of this Galilean prophetic sage. Nathaniel’s response reflects the same level of contempt and dismissal as the recent pronouncements of Donald Trump: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Even within tense, exploited Palestine with its imperial extraction economy, not all places and residents were alike. Judeans despised their northern neighbors in Galilee, seeing them as country cousins, their lack of Jewish sophistication compounded by their greater openness to Hellenistic influence. Within that despised region, a backwater village off the main road to the nearby Roman city of Sepphoris named Nazareth would decidedly have been seen as a “s**hole.”

It would be from that s***hole that a man would rise whose brief but incredible life would change the world forever.

It is from the s***holes of the world – the places least suspected of harboring anything of value - that hope for salvation - the journey to wholeness - often springs. It is often the daughters and sons of the working poor whose wisdom draws into question the common sense and implicit values of empire and exposes the destructiveness of its deadly grip. It is often the anawim, the little ones, of backwater provinces who often possess the very means to a full humanity that those of us leading privileged lives of superficiality and the constant escape we seek from them so badly need.

It is always easier to dismiss the wells of suffering in our world as s***holes than to admit we have ourselves created them and benefit from them. It is always safer to stone our prophets than to admit that they have something to tell us we badly need to hear and to open ourselves to the wisdom they might offer us.

As Anderson Cooper observed, it is precisely the example of their life experience in the face of enormous suffering that offers us a lesson in dignity so many of us so badly need. And truth be told, in a country whose CEO conducts the nation’s business in the scatological terms of a middle school boy, a little dignity would go an awful long way. 

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami ShapiroWisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993) 

 © Harry Coverston 2018