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Radical Hospitality in the Real World

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July 23, 2013

by LeDayne McLeese Polaski

Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, 'First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.'" -Matthew 13: 24-30


Joseph Andrew Haynie’s eyes were blue. Reading his Army discharge papers fifty-eight years after his death, I learned this simple fact. Joe Haynie, a man I never knew, married Katie Louise Clyde in the tumultuous year of 1941 – and left not long afterwards for the war. He returned several years later following a serious illness and a lengthy rehabilitation. Joe and Louise set about then to create a normal, ordinary life of work and family – a life that came to a sudden and unexpected end, when Louise, eight months pregnant, walked in the door one afternoon to find Joe collapsed on the floor. When Joe and Louise’s daughter Patsy was born four short weeks later, she entered this world already fatherless.

Katherine Rebecca Polaski’s eyes are blue. Holding her in my arms minutes after her birth, I learned this simple fact. Her vivid eyes were perhaps the most salient feature of her tiny newborn face. Tom and I knew the color wouldn’t last – many babies are born with blue eyes and almost all of them change within a year or so – and we had no blue-eyed family members from whom she could have inherited their startling hue. So – we were greatly puzzled when her first birthday passed – and then her second as well – and her eyes retained their unexpected color. Where could this have come from?

My grandmother’s death in July of the year Kate turned two was neither sudden nor unexpected – her cancer had caused a steady decline since Christmas and had left her so miserable and ill that by the end her death was indeed a blessing. And yet, we grieved deeply as we mourned the loss of a fierce, wonderful, flawed woman who had loved us and shaped us and made of us who we were. She was my daughter’s namesake – I had named Kate with the hope and prayer that she would inherit my grandmother’s fierce love and strength without inheriting some of her flaws.

In the ragged weeks after my grandmother’s death, my mother and I were sorting through the family papers that she had inherited from her mother when we came across the Army discharge papers of Joseph Andrew Haynie – my mother’s father – and learned for the first time that his eyes – like those of his great-granddaughter – were blue. It was an unexpected blessing – a sudden inheritance in our time of grief -- the realization of a previously unknown gift, passed secretly through three generations and more than 50 years.

When Joe Haynie died in 1945, my mother and I had lost not only his presence but also his memory. My grandmother had spent just four brief years with him – and for two of those he was away at war – by the time my mother was old enough to be aware of his absence, and certainly by the time I arrived – he was a part of the distant past – not a secret, but simply a story seldom told. And then suddenly one word on a crumbling piece of paper introduced us to a man who had never lived in my lifetime – a man who had never lived in my mother’s lifetime – a man who had been to us a name on a tombstone –a man who looked out at us with love and laughter – in the vivid blue eyes of Katherine Rebecca Polaski.

Four years after Joe Haynie died, my grandmother met Hyman Lurey, the man who was to be the great enduring love of her life. They spent the next fifty-four years together as companions, sharing the good, bad and ordinary days of their lives together. For more than five decades they loved and were loved and yet they never married. For Hyman was from a strictly Orthodox Jewish family – and his parents, immigrants who kept up their Old Country ways until their deaths, simply could not have brought themselves to accept a non-Jewish daughter-in-law. Tradition dictated that had he married my grandmother, he would literally have been struck from the family – his name crossed out of the family record and never so much as spoken again. He begged her to marry him anyway – but her answer was always the same – though she loved him with all her heart – perhaps because she loved him with all her heart – “I cannot separate you from your family.”

Growing up, we never saw his family -- many of them did not know of my grandmother’s existence and that those who did know either preferred not to know or simply respected and held the secret of their relationship.

After my grandmother’s death – Hyman, who had been in declining health for several years, began to worsen. My mother was his primary caregiver, caring for him in his home as long as his condition allowed and then helping him to find a nursing home when he began to need full-time care. The walls between our families began to be chipped away by necessity as she communicated with his siblings, nieces, and nephews about his health and his care. Knowing that the end was near, I wondered what the funeral would be like – how would our families be together after decades of isolation? I pictured us sitting on the back row, unacknowledged and excluded. Who knows what they pictured as they imagined the day?

When the end did come, however, it was not at all what I had feared. Hyman’s relatives – some who had known of but seldom spoke of us – and many of whom had just learned of us – included us as full members of his family. They insisted to the funeral director and the rabbi that we be seated with the family and included in the rituals of mourning. They invited us to gather with them for lunch following the service. At the lunch, to Kate’s great delight, was another two-year-old, Abigail – the great-great granddaughter of Hyman’s youngest sister. As we broke bread together, we told stories – about Hyman and my grandmother, about the life they had together. Several of his nieces – who had regarded him as a lonely bachelor uncle, told us how happy they were to learn that he had after all had a rich and full life – that he had loved and been loved. One niece cried when I told her that though Hyman had never felt free to call me his granddaughter, in the nursing home, he introduced Kate as his great-granddaughter.

We swapped tales about our families – finding more similarities and commonalities than we could have dreamed. Kate and Abigail shared dolls – chased each other around the hotel – and joined hands and played Ring Around the Rosie. In seeing them turn around in a dizzy circle, I felt that we had all come full circle – after decades of separation, we had all found warmth and inclusion and acceptance and togetherness that our families had not been able to grasp in earlier years. As Kate and Abigail turned and tumbled, I felt healing in the room, healing in our hearts of pains
and separations never even fully named or recognized until we came together in our time of grief.

And so then what do I make of these stories of my life? What do I ask you to make of them? The truth is that it all remains jumbled up to me – grief and grace and life and death and pain and healing. Like the Psalmist, I have seen even as I have walked through the shadow of death that God has been with me – that grace has surprised me at times when I have least expected it. And yet I know too that it is not that easy – grief is real and powerful and abiding. The facts remain -- Joe Haynie never held his daughter – my grandmother’s life and my mother’s life were shaped in unchangeable ways by his death and his absence – my grandmother died too soon to fulfill my long-cherished hope that she would live long enough for Kate to have real memories of her.

Hyman Lurey never knew the joys and struggles of married life, never knew family acceptance of his beloved, could never be fully who he was with them while he maintained his secret from them – my grandmother spent decades unrecognized and unacknowledged by the family she made great sacrifices not to harm – my mother never knew the full embrace of an extended family. Blue eyes and Ring Around the Rosie do not erase all of that. The wheat and the tares grow up together and I cannot separate them.

Perhaps this is the radical hospitality I have to learn to practice – to welcome both the wheat and the tares into my heart -- to embrace and tell the lovely stories of grace along with the wrenching stories of unredeemed grief and the stories that I don’t yet know how to define or understand. I think – I think – this is also a practice of peace-making – both because I have to – we have to – make peace with the fact that this is the world in which we live – and because, if we are to act, it can only be by keeping our hearts open to both the deep, deep pain of this world and its deep, deep joy and beauty.

On December 22, 1997, a paramilitary group massacred 45 men, women, and children at prayer in the small Mexican village of Acteal. The paramilitary group was Protestant – they and their guns were blessed by Protestant pastors in Protestant churches. The victims were pacifist Catholics.

We visited Acteal as part of a Baptist Peace Fellowship Friendship tour a few years ago. While there, we met a young man whose life, family, and body had been wrecked on that day. He witnessed the death of every member of his immediate family and received a grievous wound to his head. When we met him, it was clear that though he was kind, smiling, and welcoming, he was deeply, visibly broken. It was hard to know how much of his struggle was due to the wound to his head and how much was due to the wounds of his heart.

I heard later that he once told a story about walking in the woods and hearing a bird speak to him. At first he did not understand as birds, after all, do not speak. But the bird continued to call out to him until he finally turned to listen. And then the little bird said, “You ate my family.” And when he realized that he had indeed eaten some of the birds that lived in the forest, he began to weep bitterly. “Little bird,” he cried out, “I am so sorry. I did not know it was your family.” And the little bird answered him, “It is all right. I forgive you. I only wanted to hear you say that you were sorry.”

The people who heard him tell the story wept for they knew that the story as his story – that through the image of the little bird was his soul crying out for someone, just one, of the people responsible for the deaths of his parents and siblings to say, “I’m sorry.” That apology never came.

We got the news not too long ago that the young man had died. He had grown very ill and the village had made the difficult and expensive decision to take him to the hospital in the city. But the hospital in the city does not exist for poor, indigenous folk, and so he died for lack of care. This is an aching, grievous story. This is a story of tares taking over the field. And we know that this story happens day after day after day.

That is the world in which we live. And yet let me tell you this. On the day we visited Acteal, on the day we wealthy people from the North visited the tiny, poor village of Acteal, on the day we Protestants visited the very spot on which our evangelical brethren murdered Catholic men, women, and children at prayer, we were invited in for coffee. And then alongside the coffee suddenly appeared handmade tortillas cooked over the fire, and beans, and rice. And people we had not yet met sat with us and we shared a meal. If I have ever had communion in my life, it was then and there. One of our group members reflected later, “They did not give us what they had. They gave us what they did not have.” And in their hospitality to me, in that meal which I did not and cannot deserve, I found the food, the fuel, to keep living and working in this world. This world of untimely deaths, losses we never get over, prejudices people never lose, secrets people never tell, chasms people never cross. This world in which grace comes through one word on a crumbling piece of paper, children turning in circles, and people who’ve turned their pain and loss into gracious welcome.

Until two weeks ago, Everly Broadway planned to be at Peace Camp. I know that some of you were not with us this morning so let me explain that Everly was a dear sister to this fellowship who passed away this morning. Everly and her husband Mike and their children David, Naomi, and Lydia have been at the very heart of this movement for many years, and we are aching today with them. Everly had planned to be here – and those of you who knew her know how rare it is for something that Everly PLANNED not to happen. She decided not to come not because she wasn’t feeling up to it but because she needed to schedule daily radiation treatments.

Until just a few days before we gathered, Naomi was planning to be with us, but it was just then that the doctors stopped talking about next treatments and started talking about the end. And then this morning came the news, “She’s gone.” The move from hope to grief was fast. It’s hard, hard news. It is a field full of tares.

And yet. The last time I was with Everly was this past February. I was in Texas for a BPFNA board meeting and stayed on to make some visits, making sure that one of them was with her. We met at a Lady Bears game at her beloved Baylor University -- we sat together through halftime and the second half. We joked, we laughed, we cheered, we cried. They’d had bad news that week, and Everly shared that she wasn’t frightened for herself. She was ready to die if this was her time, but she wept for her family. She was clearly the emotional center of that family and she knew how hard it would be for them if she left them. I know that when I travel, I represent you so I took her hand and told her, “Everly, we’re all praying that you beat this. But if there comes a time when you cannot be there for them, we’ll be there for them.” I have wept all day – not just at the loss but at the beauty of watching you fulfill that promise. Wheat among the tares.

Some of you watched the film The Color of Conscience this week or visited the Human Rights Education Institute and so you learned about the prejudice, the hate crimes, the bigotry, the violence especially of the Aryan Nation in Idaho. When I asked Katy Friggle-Norton about the field trip, she said, “It was wonderful. I’ve heard all about the awful stuff on the news. I had not heard about the people are who are doing something about it.” It’s a field full of tares but there is wheat among it.

Some of you know that my home state of North Carolina is undergoing a dramatic, traumatic shift – having long been the one progressive state in the American South, we’ve begun passing draconian laws that benefit the privileged and punish the poor. If there is a polar opposite of radical hospitality, it is my home right now. I’ve talked this week with my friend Peter Carman, also a North Carolinian. Peter is one of the many who’ve been arrested while protesting these laws at a weekly event called "Moral Monday." Peter reflected, “We haven’t accomplished anything. All the legislation has passed. But at least history will show that when they did this, people were not silent.” It’s a field full of tares but there is wheat among it.

You know I could go on and on. Peace Camp is one of those places in which we turn our eyes toward the tares. And it is one of those places in which we see, in which we can put our hands on, the wheat.

I wonder. Can we stand in this world and receive it all? Can we take into our hearts with hospitality all the wheat, all the tares, all the grief, all the love, all the pain, all the grace, all the terror, all the beauty? Can we go back into our churches and honor it all? Can we go back to our schools and workplaces and welcome it all? Can we go back into our neighborhoods and our communities and hold it all? Can we look into ourselves, our own lives, our own stories and accept it all? In this world, this world, this world of real and lasting pain, this world of real and compelling beauty, can we stay open to all that is real?

If we can, if we can . . . that will be radical.



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