The People Who Walk in Darkness

The People Who Walk in Darkness
6th and San Pedro
Midnight Mission on the left. Central City Community Church of the Nazarene on the right.

I finally got around to reading Alex Ross’ piece in The New Yorker entitled, “Handel’s ‘Messiah’ On Skid Row.” I almost missed it. As is apt to happen with a relentless subscription to that weekly magazine, one day you set an issue by the reading chair with good intentions only to come home from work to find next week’s edition in the mailbox. This morning’s providence allowed me to pick up the January 1 edition rather than the January 15.

The article begins by telling the story of Brian Palmer, a formerly homeless man, who would sing “The People That Walked in Darkness” with the Street Symphony. The Street Symphony is a group of professional musicians who work with homeless, mentally ill and incarcerated people. They annually perform an abbreviated version of George Frideric Handel’s oratorio, “The Messiah” at the Midnight Mission at 6th and San Pedro, on Skid Row, Los Angeles, CA.

The People That Walked in Darkness” is a bass aria from “The Messiah” named from a line in Isaiah. “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” —Isaiah 9:2 (KJV)

Several years ago I had an opportunity to attend Karaoke Night at Central City Community Church of the Nazarene which meets directly across 6th Street from the Midnight Mission (see the photo above). I’ll not write much specifically about that experience here. I will say that it remains one of the 5 or 6 spiritual touchstones in my life continually returning to mind to anchor my journey and focus my call. (Watch this video about Karaoke Night. It’ll be the best thing you see all day. It might as well have been filmed on the night we visited. The memories of that evening nearly a decade ago all come flooding back to me when I watch it. I recognized many of the people featured.

Ross observes something we should all recognize in ourselves: “Spiritual homilies, whether in the form of venerable religious texts or recovery literature, have a way of seeming corny until a crisis arrives, at which point they take on the force of breaking news. That explains why line after line of “Messiah” felt especially acute on Skid Row.” Our world and the ways we engage with it form us to be cynical. Often, it’s our only defense mechanism. So if we hear something that sounds too sweet or perfect or warm, we often write it off as “corny.” But there are times when the still small voice of actual truth finds its way through the noise of our self-centered and overly protective cynicism. Our hearts melt when exposed to the living and breathing presence of God in a stranger. Epiphany! And it is difficult to unsee what we just saw or un-experience what just changed our lives.

Ross’ entire article is an account of such an epiphany. But it closes with lines that point to what I think to be a common and critical mistake. The writer confesses that “The spell dissolves when you leave the Midnight Mission. The people that walked in darkness are still there. Hard stares greet you as you proceed to your car. This feeling is, if anything, even worse than the one that hits you going in. The entire experience is at once exalting and crushing, luminous and bleak.” What Ross fails to recognize is that the residents of Skid Row aren’t the only ones walking in darkness. Ross seems to assume a return to the vehicle and the real world is a return to the light.

What had actually happened was that Ross stepped out of the darkness of routine, selective attention, and pretensions of enlightenment into the light shining forth at Midnight Mission in the heart of Skid Row. Suddenly Handel’s “Messiah” was transformed from a mere seasonal cliche into a glorious proclamation of the gospel of the Kingdom of God sung by a heavenly choir. It was a light that dismissed the shadows of class and racism and addictions for a moment allowing human beings to see other human beings. And when we see each other, our natural inclination is to lift each other up. We are all in it together. Common good. Common humanity. Love.

I am fully aware of the real and complex problems we must confront in our fallen world. Addictions are debilitating whether they be chemical, physical, material, or emotional. Racism deforms all human beings: the victims and the racists. Darkness blinds us all regardless of our address or lack thereof.

On this day we’ve set aside to remember the work of Martin Luther King, its good to recognize that we are celebrating just such a proclamation of the news of God’s intentions for God’s creation. All of us who walked in darkness saw that great light in Dr. King’s prophetic announcements of justice and peace. And on this day, we can recognize just how easily and quickly we return to the darkness of injustice and inequality. This is a day to remind us of the great light and how quickly we turn away from it.

Vijay Gupta is a violinist with the LA Philharmonic and the founder of Street Symphony. He commented on Ross’ observation about how leaving felt worse than arriving. “We get to leave,” Gupta said. “That’s the source of our shame. The only way to deal with it is to go back.” The reason we celebrate a day like Martin Luther King day is for us to go back and remember. But its more than mere remembering. Its opportunity to see that great light again. And once we see it, we can choose to live in that light. It illuminates everything. It is, in fact, the place we were created to live.

Advertisements
Create

I treated myself to an “Artist Date” last Saturday.  Please know that every manly fiber in my being protested that first sentence.  It has a very Oprah ring to it.  (It wasn’t Oprah…it’s Julia Cameron’s fault.) That first sentence tromps all over so many norms I’ve allowed to grow up around my life and work.

From very early on in our childhood, all of us have submitted something we have created to the harsh lights of the public.  A stick figure drawing shown to a friend.  A color book sheet submitted to the refrigerator exhibit in the kitchen of your childhood home.  Homework or exams turned in to the teacher seated in the front of the room.  _W6C8430

Some of those creations from our childhood days of naive confidence were received with encouragement and affirmation.  Some were ignored.  Some were ridiculed and pronounced as “dumb” or “you traced that!” or “what is that?”  Some were judged based on the harsh scale of a grading system.

And so, more and more we decided not to submit our “art” to the public.  We decided it wasn’t worth the risk.  But, what tends to happen is that much like a plant that is stored in a closet, the impulses begin to wither and die.  We assume that creative impulse is for someone else.  Very early on, we begin to reserve the term “artist” for those other people who can draw better than us or write better than us or sing better than us or play an instrument better than us.   And there is always someone better.

_W6C8434So, why an “Artist Date”?  A couple of personal reasons.  I rediscovered the first 5 words of my copy of the Old Testament the other day: “In the beginning, God created…” —Genesis 1:1.  And when I got on down to vs. 26, I read, “Let us create humankind in our own image…”.  It really seemed pretty obvious that if I’m created in the creator’s image I might just be creative too.  Simple to the point of simplistic, but it was a good place for me to start.

The next reason was I heard yet another “artist” I highly respect refer to some practices they discovered in a book that I’ve heard mentioned dozens of times by other artists I respect.  Through the magic of my Kindle and my purchase impulse, I downloaded “The Artist’s Wayimmediately.  The first two practices introduced very early in the book are Daily Pages and Artist Date.

_W6C8450The Daily pages are 3 hand written pages of stream of consciousness thoughts for no ones else’s consumption.  Technically, not even my own.  Its sort of a written form of meditation.  I’m about 30 pages into that practice and it is challenging but very rewarding.  The Artist’s Date is something I haven’t fully wrapped my head around yet.   It’s a block of time set aside each week to nurture one’s “inner artist”.  (The Oprah gag reflex is rising up again…but I’m holding it together!)

_W6C8451So one Saturday, a  week into my reading of this book, I packed up my journal and my camera, got on my motorcycle and rode up to Sewanee via Roark’s Cove road for my first Artist date.  I took photos of the cars on the way up.  I stopped at the Blue Chair Cafe for a bowl of oatmeal and some coffee, and then continued to the Sewanee Natural Bridge  with a stop by the cemetery and a short visit to Mr. Garner’s grave.

I humbly present some of my photographs from that day as well as these reflections to the harsh judgement of the internet.  But I also am indirectly submitting the creativity of those who informed my little artist date:  the artist who installed our small version of the “Cadillac Ranch” on Roark’s Cove Road; the graffiti artists who did their thing on those cars; the creativity of the Blue Chair Cafe offering up great food and atmosphere for all who enter; Mr. Garner who someone recognized as “the best damn moonshiner who ever lived” and all the creativity involved to earn such a title; the stone carver who created the monument commemorating Mr. Garner’s art; the person who created the cherub perched on top of the neighboring marker; and finally the great Creator who provided the Sewanee Natural bridge and the trail I was able to hike and contemplate the other natural art on display.

_W6C8457I would also like to challenge all of you to nurture your own inner artists.  Creativity is what moves us forward in the world.  It provides fresh perspectives on everyday things we tend to take for granted.  Exercising those impulses strengthens muscles that we need in our everyday lives.  And having the courage to share your creativity boosts all of our courage to do the same.

Create something strictly for your eyes only.  Or, How are you going to reach that kid that isn’t interested in school? How can you increase the efficiency of this jet engine your team has been tasked to design? What’s made your lawn mower difficult to start? How could you make that birthday cake reflect that little girl’s personality? What’s the win/win solution to the conflict you are having with your friend/spouse/coworker/democrat/republican?  Etc.

All of these questions are answered through creativity.  And all of the human beings involved have been made creative by their Creator.  Go get ‘um.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.