If you drive the long stretch of route 58 west from the low marshes of Virginia, the ground begins to plump and swell towards the the old and bushy Appalachian mountains and the water slowly shifts and drains down into the Mississippi River basin as a spout into the gulf. When the briars become more tangled and lichen spatters across bark and rocks as wrinkled age spots, you have come to the imagined Virginia/Tennessee line. There are no valleys here, only hollows and slanted front porches that overlook gardens grown in brown clay and cows that meander through crooked wooded trails.
We arrived there in our mini-van and always stick out as the city folk among Jason’s extended family. Every year we visit and ever year we become more and more removed from life that is there’s. It’s a natural generational shift when a family moves away from their land and marries outsiders. We come back as observers. Visitors. We wander around the fields. Sit on the porches. Hug and chat and are amazed out how much the children have grown and the elders have weakened. But we aren’t there when the fields need to be plowed and medicine needs to be administered. We aren’t there during the daily moments of meals and bills, seeds and watering. So we soak in as much of each other as we can in sweltering air and cool breezes and we try to make up for lost time by talking for long hours, throw water balloons, build fires, make new memories, help to clean dishes and trim bushes. The compressed time does fill the empty spaces of a separated family, at least for a moment.
We make this journey every year to visit Jason’s aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents, but this trip, for me, was long and difficult. The hotel room was dark and lonely. And you can only eat so many continental breakfasts before you begin to stare at your bagel wondering when the Lord is going to return. My spirit longed to be home. The people who I’m with daily, who see my children slowly creep up through their jeans, they were all home hurting. Being away from home and from my people isolated me to the point of extreme grief. All I wanted to do was talk about it, to pray and grieve with human bodies and hearts. Suppressing my trouble and grief over the deaths of the innocent made me feel less human. Our screens have created a sort of dual reality; what we read and type into digital space is not what we communicate in our physical space. But it’s always right under the surface. We’re all thinking about what the person next to us said or shared on Facebook but we don’t mention it to them while we’re sitting in the grass watching our children fly paper airplanes. We’re too busy filling our empty spaces with each other to talk about grief and pain and murder. That eats at my mind. It makes my spirit weary. And I wanted to go home.
What was it about Alton Sterling’s, Philando Castile’s, and the five police officer’s deaths last week that shattered our collective hearts? What is different this time? Have you noticed the air shift? The ground tilt? When we drove back home into our driveway yesterday evening we rushed inside and ate a quick dinner, changed our clothes, combed our hair, piled back into our van, and drove to church for a special service of lament, confession, and worship. When I sat in the pew, immediately the broken chasm between the digital, the physical and the spiritual broke wide open and I wept with my people. We prayed, we sang, and we cried out to the Lord in our grief and our fear. We individually stood up and confessed our racism, our indifference, our pride, our arrogance, and our retreat from humility and grace. Our pastor, through his own tears and anguish, offered the filled sanctuary words of our Lord’s grace. And our hearts lifted in joy and hope through our grief and sorrow. It’s what my heart needed. I needed to be home with my people, my church, my community, and I needed to grieve with them. I needed to go to the Lord with them. I needed my heart to be healed with them.
While I love my husband’s extended family, their homes, and their land, I’m just so glad to be home. I belong here. The people know me. I know them. We grieve, look towards hope, and march together towards justice. All to the glory of our Lord.