Liberation and Oppression: Redefining the Task of Post-Modern Clergy
I am a spinner of yarns, a woman, a crucified person, an oppressor by birthright, a would-be pastor. I will reveal to you the task of post-modern clergy. I will share with you my story. This is a saga of liberation and oppression, of unwitting workers of genocide and crucified people, of improbable homecomings and gospel writers. This is a tale about the eyes of Jesus, and the way in which he continues to look out on this world. As you read, perhaps you, too, will glimpse Christ in unlikely circumstance. Perhaps you, too, will be moved to simple acts of service. Perhaps you, too, will be set free.
The sky is cloudless and endlessly blue, as only the sky of a South Dakota summer can be. A mini-van pulls to a stop in front of a yellow, asbestos-shingle, tract house. I know, from hours spent cleaning within, that this home is held together by cigarette smoke and cockroaches. There are fist-sized holes in the back wall stuffed with flannel against the chill of past winters. The air is heavy within, with the smell of poverty and metabolized alcohol. This is Jepthah?s home, the place from which his spirit will depart for its yearlong journey to the next life. This is the place where he was raised with ten brothers and sisters, where he staked out a sleeping space on the floor behind a door. This is the place where two days before I had read the hopeless credo burned with countless patient lighter clicks onto the ceiling, "One day at a time. Fuck it." The body has been resting here for two days, accompanied by family and visitors.
There are Lakota people in the yard. Men-folk perch on the top rail of a fence, making small talk. From the corner of my eye, I see a quart jar filled with a brownish liquid making the rounds among a silent few seated in lawn chairs. I emerge from the van, feeling conspicuous with my white face and blue jeans, ill clad for a wake. I file across the lawn with eyes downcast and pass through the front door to find that the living room has been transformed. Star quilts are nailed to the walls in multicolored cascades. Flowers cover the floor at the foot of the casket. Favorite pictures of Jepthah in happier times are lovingly displayed. I smell the pungent aromas of burned sage and strong black coffee. As I step across the room to pay my respects, I keenly feel that I am an intruder here. I imagine myself, long legs flying, running far across the surrounding grasslands away from this place, from this reality, but I stand my ground. I wonder what is in the quart jar. Time crawls as I wait. I step up. It is my turn next.
And there is Jepthah, a slender, gentle man, dead of an alcohol-related death at age thirty-two. He is younger than I am. He is the father of four children. Just days before, I had cut careful slabs of sheet cake, piled them onto a paper plate, and shrouded them in saran wrap for his later consumption. He told me that he liked chocolate and laughed. Now a thin veil of netting separates us. His eyes are closed and his mustache has been groomed pencil-thin. He is rakishly clothed in dress slacks and a stylish black cowboy shirt with pearl snaps. Clutched tight in his folded hands is a large silver crucifix, its chain draped in a silvery pool. I cannot take my eyes from the crucifix, this ornate Christ held fast in unfeeling hands. I want to pray for Jepthah?s safe journey, for the well being of his children, but I feel guilty and complicit. As I stand face to face with the concreteness of life on the reservation, of graveyards filled with those who have met young, untimely deaths, this silver Jesus cradled in brown hands silences me. The well-intended oppression of my clergy predecessors has served to weave this spell of death and silence. They have brought Jepthah to an early grave and have left me suddenly unable to even pray.