Saturday, August 26, 2017

Soul Heaven

I never met Big Jerry.  Until today, I'd never heard of Big Jerry. Today I accidentally attended his "Coming Home Celebration."  To Soul Heaven.

Jan and I are in Memphis for the weekend.  She was invited by Grace and St. Luke's Episcopal Church to preach and lead the adult forum for their recovery Sunday tomorrow.  I'm tagging along.  On Monday night we'll be on the Eastern Shore doing a service for the recovery community there.

When we got into town yesterday our first stop (after checking in and seeing the duck march at the Peabody) was the Lorraine Motel, the place where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.  The motel has been turned into the National Civil Rights Museum.  It was eerie, standing in front of the motel, looking at the spot where such a great man had been shot.  It's like it has been frozen in time, with a wreath on the balcony rail to commemorate where he was standing, and a marble plaque below that is inscribed, "Behold, here cometh the dreamer...  Let us slay him...  and we shall see what will become of his dreams."  Genesis 37:19-10.  Scripture referring to Joseph, a story that we just heard read in church last Sunday.  Joseph's dreams were fulfilled.  What about MLK?  The day Barack Obama was inaugurated president, some might have said yes.  But on the day of the protests in Charlottesville, it felt like Joseph was back in the pit dug by his jealous brothers.  We stood for awhile paying our respects to the motel, playing the videos at the listening stations on the sidewalk.  They told the story of the sanitation workers' strike and the injustices that they faced.  We were too late to go to the museum, but we walked around the area, visiting the museum gift shop, being approached by a man who said he'd just gotten out of jail and needed a few bucks so they would let him into the shelter, witnessing Jacqueline Smith's protest banners across the street from the museum that claim people should stop worshiping the past and should not support the museum but should be working to stop gentrification, and taking in the sights, sounds, and the smell of barbecue in this little corner of Memphis.

Last night we walked down Beale Street after dinner, where we heard blues or rock blasting from every joint along the road, each with its own neon sign beckoning people in for beer, music, and food.  Many of them had oversize painted guitars out front or signs relating facts about historical figures or musicians who were known in the area.  We saw B.B. King's bench and blues cafe, Coyote Ugly, Bill Withers' museum, a plaque commemorating Ida B. Wells, and the Hard Rock Cafe.  The street is closed to motor traffic, so people stroll (or stumble) down the middle of the road, drink cups in hand, cigarettes wafting smoke to join with the scents of alcohol and roasting meat, watching street gymnasts turning handsprings and flips or stopping by the park to hear live musicians playing the blues.

This morning we returned to Beale Street looking for breakfast after we watched the march of the ducks down to the Peabody Fountain (one of us really likes ducks!) and the scene was much different during the day.  Music still poured out from several of the establishments but more were closed.  We considered eating at Miss Polly's where the sign said, "Love Peace, and Chicken Grease," but we decided to look a bit farther.  A few people walked down the street, but it felt like the street itself was a bit hungover.  As we got to the end of the shops and bars, we saw a hearse coming toward us.  Behind it marched a mixed band of mourners, a few dressed for a funeral, a few dressed in Memphis Blues Club t-shirts, and a few who were dressed in clothes that were well worn.  They were singing "When the saints go marching in," as they walked.  We stopped to show respect, but we couldn't figure out where they were going.  Halfway up Beale Street at the park we had just passed with a few old guys playing some music, the hearse stopped.  The funeral home people and a few of the mourners took a white casket draped in flowers out of the hearse and carried it into the park.

Curious, we walked back up the street to see if we could figure out what was going on.  Jan surmised it was the funeral for a homeless person, but we later learned it was for Big Jerry, a Beale Street musician.  His family had come from out of town, and his Beale Street music community had gathered to celebrate his homecoming.  One man who had been a friend of his for 30 years, sang "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay," and described how Jerry was sitting on a new dock.  "Save me a seat," he said.  One woman covered in tattoos sang with a powerful voice about going to church to pray.  And then musician after musician came up to play guitar or sax or drums, one blues song after another. "From the bums to the aristocrats, everyone respected Big Jerry."

I did not know this man.  But as I stood on the concrete in Handy Park and listened to Memphis musicians sing the blues and pay tribute to Big Jerry, I felt like I got to know him.  It was clear he was part of a strong community that had loved making music with him.  It was clear that he had been someone who had given young musicians a chance and who had loved making music out with the people more than he wanted to play in the clubs.  The history of the man and the place was palpable.  His blood family - his son and sisters, his uncle and nieces and nephews were all there along with his chosen family of Beale Street.  And a couple of out-of-towners from Williamsburg.  They didn't care who was gathered in the park.  They welcomed everyone.  They were honoring their friend the best way they knew how, by making the music they love in a place that they love with the people they love.  Soul heaven.

Soul heaven.  A place where all kinds of people get together to sing blues and praise, honoring the dead and treating old and young alike with respect.  A place where even those who didn't know a man can come together to pay their respects to his memory.  A place where we make music and peace, not war and violence.  May soul heaven be present here as well as when we make our final journey home.


Thursday, August 10, 2017

Patrick's Rune

Madeleine L'Engle's A Swiftly Tilting Planet has come to mind often in the past few days.  I'm sure I'm not the only one having that experience.  It's been awhile since I've read the Wrinkle in Time books, but I've pulled number three off the shelf because I feel compelled to read it again.  Something about madmen and nuclear weapons.

I'm grateful to Madeleine L'Engle for many things, one of which is introducing me to Patrick's Rune which she puts to such good use in A Swiftly Tilting Planet.  The Rune is from a longer piece, "The Lorica," which is attributed to St. Patrick.  Here it is:

At Tara today in this fateful hour,
I place all Heaven with its power,
And the sun with its brightness,
And the snow with its whiteness,
And the fire with all the strength it hath,
And the lightning with its rapid wrath,
And the winds with their swiftness along their path,
And the sea with its deepness,
And the rocks with their steepness,
And the earth with its starkness,
       All these I place,
       By God's almighty help and grace,
Between myself and the powers of darkness.

I had forgotten about this rune until today when I saw someone else post it.  In this time of threats of fire and fury, of violent rhetoric, and hair triggers, I am grateful for words of power calling for God's almighty help and grace.  It's so easy to get caught up in the anger and fear, and I can't help worrying when I hear world leaders suggesting the use of nuclear weapons.

I share this rune/prayer in case it is helpful to anyone else.  We all have a part in shifting the energy toward peace, and I have gratitude for anything that helps us do so.