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Bishop's Monday Message: Leave Tracks

Posted: October 26 2020 at 09:49 AM
Author: Bishop Sally Dyck


Last Christmastime, Ken and I were visiting my mother. Early one morning, we walked a path along a ridge that overlooks the town near where I grew up. Overnight there had been a light snow and no one had walked on the path…except there were a ton of animal tracks: big ones and very small ones. Sometimes it looked like the same species were going side by side and sometimes it looked like they were weaving in and out. The whole path was covered in different animal tracks! I don’t know what animals they were but mostly likely they were an assortment of mice, rats, coyotes, dogs and cats. We never actually saw any animals but we followed along their tracks! 

All Saints’ Day is a good time to think about people who have left tracks for us. I’m reminded of something Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said: 

Whatever you choose to do, leave tracks, and that means don't do just for yourself, because in the end it's not going to be fully satisfying. I think you will want to leave the world a little better for your having lived. 

Leaving tracks seems like what “saints” do and I use that term in the broadest New Testament sense. Saints were simply those who followed Jesus in their lives and contexts based on their relationship with Jesus. Saints “leave tracks” for the rest of us to follow, learn from and give us direction in our lives. Some of those who leave tracks for us are literally walking beside us and others are people in history who inspire us.

Recently I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, "On Being with Krista Tippett", and she was interviewing Chicago’s Rev. Otis Moss III, who is the pastor of Trinity UCC. The interview with Moss was focused on Rev. Howard Thurman, a 20th-century Black preacher, educator, theologian and civil rights leader. 

I read a lot of Howard Thurman shortly after he died in 1981. What caught my attention to his “tracks,” if you will, was that Howard Thurman and a white pastor established the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco in 1944. It was a revolutionary concept and it became a healthy and growing multiracial congregation.

Thurman left tracks for me because in the late 1980s I was pastoring a church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio that was intentionally becoming multiracial. I began working on my doctor of ministry (D.Min.) at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio in black church studies as a James S. Thomas fellow, addressing the process of becoming a healthy multiracial church. Frankly, multiracial churches weren’t widely accepted at that time, even by some of my cohorts in the D.Min. program.  

Yet Cleveland Heights had been working on fair housing for a couple of decades and this had provided a diversity of people—of races, economic means and education. We as a congregation wanted to mirror the diversity of our community. So I studied Howard Thurman for clues about what such a church might look like but also the validation that it could exist. He left me tracks!

Howard Thurman left tracks for those working for racial justice but he also left tracks of deep spirituality, which resulted in his conviction of radical nonviolence. He followed tracks laid out by his grandmother. Rev. Moss told a foundational story to this effect from Thurman’s childhood. 

Thurman’s grandmother had a little plot of land next door to a very mean old white woman.  This woman was mean to everybody, not just her Black neighbor.  

The woman had a chicken coop and one night after she had cleaned it out, she dumped a big mound of manure on Thurman’s grandmother’s garden. She meant to destroy his grandmother’s garden of flowers and vegetables but his grandmother got up in the morning, saw this dump of manure on her plants and began to work it into the soil.

Weeks later, the old woman got sick and because she was mean to everyone, no one went to visit her. But Thurman’s grandmother picked some of her flowers from her garden and took them over to her neighbor. The woman was rather surprised to see her. She exclaimed that these were really lovely flowers. Where did she get them, knowing that she had tried to destroy her garden?

Thurman’s grandmother told her that she, the white woman, had actually helped grow them. When she dumped all the manure on her plot, she had worked it into the soil as she planted flowers and vegetables and the result was these beautiful flowers. 

His grandmother’s way of dealing with her neighbor deeply impressed young Thurman. It’s a story of forgiveness and redemption—not because anybody deserves it but because it’s the “tracks” Jesus left us. Forgive your enemies. Love your neighbors. Pray for those who hurt you. Work the manure into the soil of your soul.

I found this cemetery on a walk near a lake here in Illinois. I don’t know who these people were and what they kind of tracks they left behind. On this upcoming All Saints Day, we need to look for the tracks of people like Howard Thurman but also people like his grandmother who passed on tracks to him and therefore onto us.  

Who are the saints that we follow? Are they all people who look just like us? Or do they challenge us to grow spiritually because they stretch us in our thinking and living?  

As we approach All Saints Day, look for the “Jesus tracks” that others who have gone before you have followed and left for you, weaving in and out of history. And think about the tracks you are leaving as you walk side by side with others who are seeking to follow Jesus, too.

Leave tracks!

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