“I’ve spent my whole life trying to get over having had Nikki for a mother, and I have to say that from day one after she died, I liked having a dead mother more than an impossible one. I prayed to forgive her but I didn’t – for staying in a fever dream of a marriage, for fanatically pushing her children to achieve, for letting herself go from great beauty to hugely overweight woman in dowdy clothes and a gloppy mask of make up. It wasn’t black and white: I really loved her, and took great care of her, and was proud of some of the heroic things she had done with her life. She had put herself through law school, fought the great good fights for justice and civil rights, marched against the war in Vietnam. But she was like someone who had broken my leg, and my leg had healed badly, and I would limp forever. I couldn’t pretend she hadn’t done extensive damage – that’s called denial. But I wanted to dance anyway, even with a limp.” – Anne Lamont
This quote reminds me of Willie from Watts Power House Church. I remember Willie stopped me one day on my walk through the Imperial Courts housing projects. He began describing the journey of his life that had played out over the last 60 years in his community and spoke of one drama after another, depicting what it was like to grow up a young black man in the 70’s and 80’s on Grape Street and 112th. Over time, his community enveloped him in a lifestyle that ended up making his neighborhood one of the most notorious gang communities in recent history of the United States.
My storyteller inhabited a thin, bony frame with visible muscle strains all over his neck and arms, the result of living with multiple sclerosis for the last ten years. Although he visibly twinged with pain as he spoke, he loved sharing every strained word, entrusting me with his biography as if I was some kind of living will. I particularly enjoyed the tale of the first time he was arrested. “I was too stupid to be a good criminal when I was young,” he said smiling. “Every one of my friends was selling drugs. And when I decided to go ahead and try it for myself, I was such a fresh daisy. The first person I tried to sell it to was some kinda rookie undercover cop. Damn, I bet he got a promotion, too.”
Where I was from, no one had a funny story about how they went to jail for selling crack; needless to say, I was in stitches. I realize now that he was inviting me into his sacred world by showing me his wounds. Tale after tale of lost loved ones came forth, all revolving around the planet-sized grief that he wore so openly, the consequence of growing up in a violent neighborhood which forced him to make difficult decisions to survive. These were stories that did not need verification from an outside source because they were told for my benefit, not his.
We Shall Overcome
Willie wasn’t just my unofficial greeter to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. After his conversion four years earlier, he had made it his mission to be a grandfather to all who would take the time to listen. And really, who better? His spirit was incredibly gentle and surprisingly disarming. You couldn’t simply walk past him without feeling enveloped by his spirit of “we shall overcome” that reverberated from his every belabored gesture. In the year that I interned at his church, I saw some of the most intimidating men I’ve ever laid eyes on bend over and hug his fragile body.
No one could argue with his attitude. For many, it was one of the clearest examples of what the transformative work of the Holy Spirit can do in a person’s life. As a man, he was literally the walking wounded, and yet he woke up every Sunday morning ready to dance. No matter how bad the music was, a few triumphant handclaps from Willie in a worship service, and you knew that God was close. He couldn’t cover up his wounds even if he wanted to. And during the times when the pain was so great he couldn’t take care of himself, people in the community considered it a privilege to give back to him in some small way that which he offered in such large helpings.
Exposing Our Scars
For me, Willie became a picture of what Christians look like at their best: wounded priests with scars and scrapes from a life lived trying to love in dark places. They are risky folks who are willing to unwrap their bandages and expose the places on their bodies that still nag and cripple them in order to say, with all earnestness, two of the most healing words that can be spoken in the English language: “me too.”
In his brilliant book Wounded Healers, Henri Nouwen writes, “The great illusion of leadership is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.”
Will we risk being known? Will we first go to Jesus with our wounds? And when the great physician is finished with us, will we go to those in our care and let them touch the scars? Are we able to celebrate the cracks in our lives as the places where God’s grace is most transmitted from one human soul to another?
If Willie can do it, why can’t we?