POISON IVY

A blog post about rooting out the poison ivy and racism in my life.
By: Rebecca Garrett Pace
Director of Worship and a child of God struggling with what to do.


Last week, my husband Jeff got poison ivy. A pretty bad case of it, too, all over one ankle and shin. We did all the things we knew to do — wash the clothes he was wearing. Take a shower. Put on cream.
Then the next day he woke up and it had spread to his other leg and his wrist. So we did more of the things. We washed our sheets. We washed his clothes again. We washed his shoes (which didn’t go well. Those sneakers that say they’re machine-washable are lying). Surely we got it all this time.
Then the next day, he woke up and it was around his eye. How many more things can we wash?? We called the doctor. She said the oils are probably lurking somewhere we don’t even realize, and it’ll keep spreading til we find it. And we could keep getting exposed til we get rid of it in the yard, too.
So I walked around outside. Looked carefully through our bushes and front yard. Took pictures. And then texted my mom (because often, mamas are the ones we need when things go wrong in our lives, no?). I asked her how to get rid of poison ivy. I guess I was expecting a short answer, but here’s what I got instead:
  1. Spray vines and roots with herbicide.
  2. Wait for a few days.
  3. Put on long sleeves, long pants, socks, gloves, mask — aka a hazmat suit — and pull up vines and roots. Make sure to get the roots.
  4. Immediately take off clothes inside-out so you don’t come into contact with the oils, and wash clothes in hot water, with soap.
  5. Wash all yard tools you used (in hot water, with soap).
  6. Wash yourself (in hot water, with soap).
  7. Even with all these precautions, be on the lookout for any rashes that appear in the next few days because precautions often don’t cut it. Poison ivy is a tricky beast.
  8. Keep checking your yard. Poison ivy grows back. It doesn’t go away easily. You’ll probably have to spray and then repeat all these steps several more times.

It’s exhausting to think about. All these steps. Rooting out what hurts and harms us. Addressing the cause, but also having to deal with the painful effects, sometimes for a long time.
And this is one of the best metaphors I can think of for what we’re facing right now as a nation. We are collectively rooting out the poison ivy. And it’s such a complicated process. It’s been there a long time. Some of us thought it was gone a century and a half ago. Some of us thought it was gone 60 years ago. Some of us know it’s still there but are so afraid of doing something wrong that we don’t address it (which doesn’t make it go away. It just means the vines get thicker and the irritating oils spread farther). Some of us know it’s there, but just decide to ignore it, because what we don’t touch can’t hurt us. Some of us half-heartedly snip off the most obvious vines but fail to get the roots. Some of us go in full-force to eradicate it, but without pausing to adequately prepare, and end up hurting ourselves or spreading the pain to others through our carelessness.
And once we get rid of it, the darn stuff keeps growing back. We think we’ve moved past the sins of our forefathers and foremothers, only to be shocked at and disappointed in ourselves when an insensitive joke or a careless comment comes out of our mouths. We all have poison ivy in our lives, if we’re courageous enough to search our yards and snap pictures and ask our big ol’ Mama God some tough questions about our own hearts.
John Wesley’s teachings are often summed up like this: 1. Do no harm 2. Do good 3. Stay in love with God. But am I alone in thinking that this is a whole lot harder than Dear Mister Wesley made it seem?
How do we “do no harm”? How do we care for our black brothers and sisters who are hurting, without trying to make it about us, or justify ourselves, or cover up our own insecurity, or brush off others’ hurt because “it’s never happened to me”? How do we do what we can, when some of our best efforts and intentions end up causing more harm than good?
How do we “do good” for our friends, coworkers, and family members? What if we’re unsure what we think about protests? What if we don’t understand the phrase “Black Lives Matter” and would really like to have a conversation but we’re too afraid to ask, because we’ll get trounced on Facebook?
How do we “stay in love with God” when our churches and places of worship are far from exempt from the sins of racism and prejudice? How do we comb through the tangles of history and myth, of scripture and story, to get at the truth that God is trying to bring to us?
If you know me, you know I don’t have the answers. But I do want to share a few things with you that I’m doing these days to help root out the poison ivy of racism and prejudice in my own life. 
May this list do nothing more than inspire you in your own journey toward justice and righteousness, and nothing less than hold us all accountable to the sanctifying grace of God. 
Do No Harm:
  • Listen more than I talk — Listen to people’s stories without trying to correct, or qualify, or interrupt.
  • Try not to judge those who are making different choices than I am — Some people are called to protest, and some are called to pray. Some are called to challenge the powers that be, and some are called to heal the hearts and bodies of those who get hurt. Some are called to write stories and draw picture books and compose music. Some are called to give the mic away and lift up others instead of shouldering the load ourselves.
  • Smile (behind my mask, but you can still totally see it in my eyes, right?) at people in the grocery store who look especially tired. We are all carrying so much these days.
  • Ask for forgiveness when I’m wrong — which is a lot. 
Do Good:
  • Research & Read — In the last week, some of the people and things I’ve researched are: Cornel West, Ella Baker, Daisy Bates, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Height, Septima Poinsette Clark, Jo Ann Robinson, Mavis Staples, Rev. William Barber II, redlining, systemic racism. 
  • Sing — I’m singing freedom songs from South African Anti-Apartheid and from the US Civil Rights marches. I’m singing hymns of God’s unending grace and mercy. I’m singing reminders that God’s justice doesn’t always look like my justice. I’m singing a new world into being.
  • Talk — I’ve been having more conversations with people, and feeling braver in those conversations, than at any other time I can remember. It’s so hard. It’s so tiring. And it’s a slow process — one conversation with one person at a time. But it helps. I know it. I believe it.
Stay in Love with God:
  • Pray for those who make me the angriest — Including, but not limited to, those who are so similar to me that they point out my own glaring flaws for the whole world to see.
  • Pray for those who are in danger — And their families. And their friends. And their ministers. And their doctors. And their teachers. And their governors. Pray a lot.
  • Sing — Yes, it goes on multiple lists. Singing connects me with who God made me to be. What connects you to who God made you to be?  Do more of that, whatever that is. Do more of what makes you come to life. Then spread that life with others who are hurting.
  • Keep tabs — Is the poison ivy gone, or is it just dormant? Is it growing in a different spot in my life? Is it spreading and infecting others?

May God be with you, my sisters and brothers, on this long walk to freedom.

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