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Serving Tea

There is something magical about watching my sister Marsha serve tea. Few notice as she performs this kindness. She is quiet and unassuming as she works. Her attention is steadily focused on two things: carefully depressing the button on the cooler and watching as the tea fills the cup and then meeting the eye of the recipient of the sweet tea and giving them a smile. Most who receive the tea do appreciate her considerate goodwill and respond with a “thank you” or a “God bless you.” They would be forgiven for not noticing or appreciating her graciousness. They have many other concerns that could preoccupy them. Her deliberate motions can make the “tea line” move slowly and yet those waiting often, very often, return her smile when the cup passes from her hand to theirs.

For a number of years Marsha and I have joined several friends from the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker community to offer a “Feast in the Streets” on Thursdays at about 4:15 in the afternoon on the sidewalk in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, and again about 4:45 in McPherson Square. For a couple of decades the plaza in front of St. John’s has been “holy ground” for people who come to share a meal; many are homeless, some may have a place to stay but are food insecure.

In June, President Trump stood on that very spot holding a Bible as if “proof” of his religious conviction while invoking “law and order.” I experienced it as sacrilegious. This word comes from Latin: “sacrilegium” meaning “the crime of stealing what is sacred to God.” The images of President Trump were jarring in contrast to the gentle presence of Marsha serving tea among the beloved, if ragged, community that gathers there on Thursday afternoons.

Of course, more jarring and sacrilegious was the manner in which peaceful protesters were cleared from that spot minutes before President Trump’s appearance. And these people were in the street to protest the greatest sacrilege: the crime of stealing the lives of George Floyd and countless other African Americans at the hand of police; stolen lives sacred to God.

Marsha’s developmental disability impacts her ability to do in-depth social analysis, yet she pays attention. She reads the paper. She listens to the news. She declared recently: “It was wrong what those police did to George Floyd.” Similarly, she often remarks after an afternoon of serving tea, “It isn’t right that people are homeless and don’t have enough food.” She sees with clarity and has much to teach us.

I, for one, can learn from her care and attention while serving tea. While I am helping at the food table, I am more aware of moving the line along, making sure there is enough to go around. I do greet people, but I simply am not as present as Marsha. She cannot move too quickly and so remains rooted in the moment, in each drop of tea falling into the cup and in the blessing of passing it to another. My capacity for efficiency can rob me of the significance and singularity of each exchange.

As I reflect on what Marsha has to teach me, I can’t help but wonder what she might teach our whole society. She has an innate sense of the injustices present in our country. She extends respect to every single person she meets. She sees the dignity of each one. She doesn’t often talk about slights and indignities she has experienced because of her disability, although she has known them. I suspect that some of her tenderness with others reflects how she would like to be treated, in spite of what others might see as her “difference or limitation.”

In a similar vein I have also seen jaw-dropping generosity and kindness on the part of people coming for food. Frequently people share their portion of food if we are running low, or people step aside and let others go first. I watch these courtesies in awe. We are not in a settled and comfortable dining room with a promise of endless food. We are out on the street with folks who do not know where their next meal will come from. One can only imagine the myriad un-kindnesses, deprivations, and injustices that have been visited upon our Thursday afternoon friends. Yet so often theirs is a response of bounty and abundance. I have stopped counting how many times someone says to us, “God bless you. Thank you for being here. Thank you for doing this.”

I further speculate about what Marsha and the gathered community at St. John’s might teach President Trump and those police officers who seem blind to the human beings before them. Without a doubt there are historic and systemic causes for the racism, economic inequality and brutality at work in our country. These have to be addressed. Change must happen in broad and sweeping ways to undo centuries of injustice. And at the same time, inner change, changed hearts is vital. What might the President, legislators, law enforcement, and others who hold authority and privilege learn from Marsha and those who express thanks to her for tea? Would our actions be different if we took a lesson from her attention, her deep reverence for others, her slowness, her humility? Marsha is a teacher with a pure heart.

Folk singer Si Kahn has a song called “What You Do With What You’ve Got,” written in celebration of the International Year of Disabled Persons.

You must know someone like him,
He was tall and strong and lean.
Body like a greyhound, mind so sharp and keen.
But his heart just like a laurel, grew twisted on itself,
‘Till almost everything he did brought pain to someone else.

It’s not just what you’re born with, it’s what you choose to bear.
It’s not how large your share is, but how much you can share.
It’s not the fights you dream of, but those you really fought.
It’s not just what you’re given but what you do with what you’ve got.

Between those who use their neighbors, and those who use a cane.
Between those in constant power and those in constant pain.
Between those run to evil and those who cannot run.
Tell me which ones are the cripples and which ones touch the sun?

It’s not just what you’re born with, it’s what you choose to bear.
It’s not how large your share is, but how much you can share.
It’s not the fights you dream of, but those you really fought.
It’s not just what you’re given but what you do with what you’ve got.

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Barbara Herr
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Barbara Herr

Pretty powerful……Thank you,Judy!

Betsy Nero
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Betsy Nero

A beautiful reflection. Thank you.