Ubuntu Star Quilt

Published by Hillary Watson on

Hillary Watson

Ruth 1:1-20 Colossians 4:10-16 Jeremiah 33:10-11 Matthew 25:34-40

In my seventh grade Spanish textbook, there was a section in the back of the book with proverbs and sayings from Spanish-speaking countries. It may not come as a surprise that I was the type of 12-year-old who skipped ahead from the lessons and browsed these proverbs to glean every drop of wisdom I could from these sayings. My Spanish has suffered over the years, but several of these proverbs has stuck with me. One, in particular, I’ve been thinking about this week: Dime con quien andas y te dire quien eres.

Tell me who you walk with and I will tell you who you are.

It left an impression, perhaps because 12-year-old me was so relieved to realize there was an alternative to performing a perfect, cool self in middle school—and it was about surrounding yourself with people you don’t have to perform for.

But I’ve been thinking of it ruefully this week, the eighth and now the ninth week of quarantine, as I clock mile after mile through my neighborhood: I walk with nobody. Who am I now?

One of the strange features of this pandemic is that we’re not just managing severe stress, we’re managing that stress alone. We are not just “someone who is struggling” or “someone who is fine” we are someone who is doing this alone. Without the communities we’re used to relying on, in big and small ways.

When we gather on Sunday mornings, I love dialing in early and watching each of you join— especially those joining by video. The faces on each camera go through the same pattern: confusion, uncertainty, recognition, and then a wash of joy and comfort that, yes, the Internet has done what it’s supposed to once again and you are connected.

There is such power in this Sunday gathering. And it’s not just the power of standing before our universe’s Creator; not just the stories told; not just the joy of seeing the square inch likeness of each other’s faces. It’s the rebuilding of an identity. It’s the way being around each other causes us to remember who we are. The feeling of knowing who we are walking with.

About a decade ago, at the library, I picked up a book by Desmond Tutu on a whim. I was instantly and profoundly affected by the Anglican Archbishop’s description of Christianity viewed through the lens of South African culture. Through Desmond Tutu, I learned the idea of ubuntu, the philosophy that “a person is a person through other persons.” What makes me human is my connection to other humans. My identity is wrapped up in yours. I am because you are. We are because we are interrelated.

It resonated so strongly with what I knew of the Trinity—a God who is so diverse and so full of love as to be constantly connecting and reconnecting to Godself, and connecting to us. And to the idea that we are made in the image of God—what unifies us, what makes us interdependent, is the inescapable beauty and frustration that each of us contains the image of God. Ubunut immediately became a central concept in my theology.

A person is a person through other persons. Naomi, in the reading we heard this morning, is a person who has lost her other persons. Everything that made her her is gone. As Naomi prepares to return to Bethlehem, she feels a total loss of identity. She lost all of her relationships in Moab and she prepares to return to Bethlehem—to her old home and friends and family—as if the last 10 years never existed, as if her husband and sons never existed. We feel for Naomi because her identity is so deeply shaken. No longer a wife, no longer a mother, no longer a woman who set out for a strange land and made a home and survived a famine. No longer a survivor. No longer human. Just a pile of grief.

But Ruth calls her back to personhood. These words—
“where you go, I will go;
where you stay, I will stay.”—
it is a confession of ubuntu. A person is a person through other persons. I am because you are; you will be because I am. We are never fully ourselves, but collections of the people we have known. Ruth’s presence on the journey to Bethlehem, and as they settle in Bethlehem, is a reminder that it is all real, the last 10 years happened, and that they are remembered.

Imagine you are a quilt, each person is, a large and warm quilt—a star quilt, let’s say—

whose pattern of repeated stars is made from the fabric of those you encounter. There is the steady, warm gray from family and household members, closest and long-time friends, that make up the background and provide coherence and grounding for the quilt. And then there are the stars, wild patches contrasting color that bring it to life: bursts of co-workers. Church family. Of sports teams, musicians and band members, book clubs and neighbors and acquaintances and store clerks and baristas and bar tenders where you were once a regular. Imagine the quilt of your daily relationships before social distancing began—all the patches of fabric you contained.

And imagine that quilt now. What colors have disappeared? What holes are there in the fabric? This is how quarantine has affected our identity. We have lost huge patches of what made our identity, from “I am someone who stops for coffee on Tuesdays and Thursdays” to “I am someone who thanks my bus driver every day” to “I am someone who sits next to Patrick who gives me daily updates on Michigan football, even in March.” Both our identities of work and of leisure have changed—I’m no longer someone who has a standing work meeting at Literati on Mondays, and I’m also no longer someone who sometimes stops at Homes or Wolverine after rock climbing with friends. It can be a heavy load to change one identity—with a job transition or new baby or child moving out of the house—but for many of us, this pandemic has caused several identity changes at once. Our quilted identity was built of the familiar and the routine and now it’s full of big holes their presence once filled. These holes may be full of loss.

Or they may be full of possibility.

It is a heavy load for our brains to process just how much our identity has changed. Like Ruth and like Naomi, we can patch the holes in our quilts with the new and rekindled relationships we build in quarantine, but it will take time until our quilt has the same warmth it did a few weeks ago.

As we examine our quilted identity and the holes in it, there is value, I think, in noticing the places where the fabric is still in tact. The phone calls and texts and porch visits of familiar faces. And the ways your identity is still true, even if the people who joined you are no longer present: the places where still a Good Musician or an Enthusiastic Cook or an Avid Knitter or an Expert Lawnmower or a Medium-Slow Runner, quarantine or no. You are still you.

It can be helpful, too, to return old identities that have been crowded out by recent activities, but still resonate. Rediscovering the joy of being a Pretty Bad Guitarist or a Decent Sudoku Solver.

Being someone, somewhere, connected. That’s what I love about Colossians 4. This is such a throwaway scripture—these long greetings throughout the New Testament letters, rejoicing in obscure and otherwise spiritually insignificant characters—Aristarchus, Mark the cousin of Barnabas, Justus, Demas and Nympha. These names who appear in the most sacred text of our faith, just to say hello. There is power in that detail, in the meandering patience of a holy text who greets the people in the background. After all his admonishments are arguments and moralizing, Paul pens a few names, a few greetings, the practice of naming and greeting as important as his more tedious instructions for proper behavior and belief.

It is resonant, too, since this letter of Colossians is written while Paul is imprisoned, a different and more political kind of forced isolation. His letter from prison calls forth, evokes the presence, patches the holes in the quilt of identity, to name and be present with each other.

I think of the ways each of us are able to connect, little by little, with each other, how important these small connections have. I’m grateful for the days I get to walk my dog past Jackson’s house and hear, at a distance, about his school and home improvement projects. Or when I can walk by, Olive and Pearl’s house, and Leila and Clay’s, and wave to them and their parents. I was so grateful for the care package Rebecca made for me several weeks ago, and the way Cathy Mellett responded to my frustration at being unable to find me flour by ordering me wheat flour from one of the Versluis’ girl’s farm. This gesture was so deeply grounded in identity, to get a package of heritage Turkey Red Mennonite-grown wheat flour, which reminded me that the Versluis children not only grew up in this church while Paul pastored here, but one of them was also a college classmate of mind, and you were part of my identity before I came here, as I was part of yours, and the world is small and the connections are rich, and a person is a person through other persons.

These small gestures, these reminders of connection, I believe, will get us through.

A few weeks ago, Michelle reminded us that we are not human doings, we are human beings. But we are not just human beings, we are human connectings.

The ways that we connect—safely, slowly—perhaps biblically slowly—are so vital. The letters written, meals delivered, masks sown, songs recorded, videos shared, phone call made—even the practice of praying for each other, thinking of and holding each other in the light—every one of these acts calls us back to our collective identity, patch a hole in a quilt, are a way of walking together without walking.

As God said, speaking through the prophet Jeremiah,

In this place of which you say, “It is a waste without human beings or animals,” in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, without inhabitants, human or animal, there shall once more be heard 11 the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness… For I will restore the fortunes of the land.”

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