Friday, June 6, 2008

Towers of Strength: The Power of Solidarity in Our Lives

You are my refuge, a tower of strength against the foe (Psalm 61).

6 June 2008: a day of commemoration and meditation.

I’m looking at an icon that stands in a corner of my home office. It’s called “Tower of Strength.” It depicts Jesus hanging on the cross, the blood pouring from his side transformed into a rainbow.

In the foreground are Mary, Mary Magdalene, and John, the few among his followers who did not abandon him at his time of anguish. They are locked into a tight embrace, a circle of support and solidarity.

In the rainbow fly multi-racial angels. The icon is inscribed with the words of the psalm with which I began this posting. Underneath the cross the twin towers and Pentagon are in flames.

The icon is a creation of Franciscan brother Mickey McGrath. An online description of it at Trinity Stores, where I bought it, notes that the tower of strength depicted by the icon is the circle of solidarity that Mary, Mary Magdalene, and John form (

While human towers fail—the twin towers—the towers we build when we form bonds of love and solidarity with each other do not. These towers of strength tide us over in times when the earth rocks, when it seems all foundations are ripped away from us. The rainbow is a sign of the hope for transformation of the world through the solidarity of those who commit themselves to practice practical compassion together.

6 June 2008: I bought this icon last summer. It arrived in the mail on 5 June. At the place at which I was then working, I had been assigned a new office.

Because it was small and windowless, I wanted to transform it. To be specific, I wanted to take what others saw as a barren place and turn it into a kind of poustinia, a place of prayer. I bought colorful pillows to adorn the small sofa I found in the office when I first occupied it, a colorful rug, a little fountain—all at thrift shops. I like shopping at thrift shops, because so much that we discard is still beautiful and useful, and can be given new life by someone who sees its potential when others have thrown it away.

And the icon.

I brought it to work on the 6th and hung it over the sofa, where I could see and think about it as I worked. It hung near a small plaque of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul that a faculty member had brought me. He lives in exile from his own nation in the Middle East, seeing his mother very infrequently. He brought back the plaque from a trip to visit his mother. I cherish it.

Beside the plaque were an ebony carved knife and spoon an African faculty member had brought to me, from his homeland. These artifacts are in their own way icons, reminders of the possibility we can all discover in the small worlds around us, to form community if we open our hearts to each other, listen to each others’ stories, take time to be in each others’ presence respectfully, and, above all, refrain from ever turning another human being into an object to be played with for our own base ends.

6 June 2008: as I did my morning’s work, a faculty member called to ask if she could discuss an idea with me, one connected to the assignment I had been given in a new position. I invited her over. When she arrived, she had a fan in hand, one of those old-fashioned Southern funeral-home fans.

It was a hot day. She told me she had come not just to talk about work, but to see how I was doing. Faculty wanted me to know that they esteemed me and would find ways to keep up with me in my tiny poustinia.

I proposed that we turn the meeting into a tea party. I made tea, she fanned, we talked about her proposal. We laughed. We listened to two songs I had discovered in the days immediately prior to 6 June, songs to which I had been listening constantly as I worked, prayed, rested: “Nella Fantasia,” and Labi Siffre’s “Something Inside So Strong.”

We talked about how these songs spoke to our hearts and our needs. The faculty member—I knew already—was suffering through her mother’s gradual demise. I have been through that. I could not be inside her unique pain, but I can certainly understand something of what it feels like, having been there, too.

I talked about the lines in Labi Siffre’s song that tell oppressors that, the higher they build their barriers, the taller we become; the farther you take our rights away, the faster we will run:

“The more you refuse to hear my voice

The louder I will sing

You hide behind walls of Jericho

Your lies will come tumbling

Deny my place in time

You squander wealth that's mine

My light will shine so brightly

It will blind you

‘Cause there's something inside so strong . . . .”

I talked about how those words speak to me of the struggle of oppressed people everywhere (my job description was related to this issue) for self-determination—for a voice, for freedom not to be used as objects, lied to, shut out, their/our talents used while our contributions are denied.

We talked about how Labi Siffre is Afro-European, and also a gay man, and how this song has become an anthem of human rights around the world.

We talked about the towers of strength we hoped to build in our work together, in the project she was proposing. We talked about my icon.

It hung in the office a half day, on that day.

It now hangs in my home office, a reminder of the call that makes its claim on my life even when I would like to deny it: the call to keep on keeping on, forming solidarity with anyone who is unjustly excluded, oppressed, denied fundamental human rights, turned into a non-person by those with power and authority who seek to use others as things and not respect them as persons. The call to keep on keeping on claiming solidarity even if those who, in turn, deny any human connection to me and respect for me happen to be themselves members of oppressed minorities . . . .

The Tower of Strength icon continues to speak to me.

It continues to speak just as loudly as it did that half day that it hung in my office a year ago—a day I prayerfully commemorate today.

No comments: