The Women

As I listened to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speak last night about the black women (Shirley Chisholm and others) who paved the way for her historic accomplishment—and about the countless (or rather, counted) other black women who made this redemptive and long-overdue moment possible through their votes and tireless activism—my thoughts turned to some of the black women who have made powerful and profound impacts on my life, and to whom I owe deep debts of gratitude.

And so, while these words are far from sufficient to express my appreciation, respect, and love for the women I name, much less the many others whose lives have also inspired, challenged, and encouraged me along the way, I wanted to share this poem as a small tribute to some daughters of Mississippi who have dedicated themselves to the hard work of building the beloved community in that state. Dear friends, I will forever cherish and celebrate your wisdom, compassion, courage, generosity, kindness, persistence, grace, honesty, strength, and other admirable qualities. Thank you for sharing these treasures with me and with others who have had the honor and privilege of journeying alongside you!


The Women

In this staunchly patriarchal place
where the ghost of white supremacy
still manifests from time to time—
to the chagrin of many
and the surprise of some—
it’s the women of African descent
who have captivated my imagination
and secured my enduring admiration.

So dramatically different from one another
in hue and stature
in demeanor, gifts and dreams,
they are strikingly alike in resilience,
able to stare into the face
of the ugliest things life has to offer
and return beauty and honor
to a world desperately in need
of both.

I watched Lee Sharon Harper,
gifted and called to preach,
as she ministered to a congregation
not yet certain it was ready
to hear the Word of God
through a female vessel.
She persevered,
and they were blessed.

I listen with morbid fascination
as Lee’s baby sister, Vashtie Brown,
speaks of her work in a functionally segregated
chicken plant:
The whites rule the office,
while the blacks work the line.
Caught in a structure fashioned to keep her
in her place,
Vashtie converses boldly with the boss man—
telling him the truth about the business he owns
and the people he does not.

I witnessed Belle Coleman,
on the morning after she had lost
another son,
standing to praise the God
who understood.
And I stood
in awe of her faith—
I who have lost so little,
yet bemoan what little I have lost
as if it could begin to compare
to the riches of which Sister Coleman
has been robbed.

I immerse myself in the story
of Rosie Camper Weary,
who labored for decades
in the shadows,
just outside the white-hot glow
of the spotlight that bathed her husband’s work.
Neither disappointment nor tragic loss
could keep her silent forever,
and now, against her natural inclination,
she tests her voice—
discovering, to her surprise,
a multitude eager to hear it.

And I grieve the loss of Gloria Stene Lotts,
who spent her final weeks on earth
caring for others’ children
as well as her own
and planning the final celebration
of my birthday
that she and I would undertake together.

Without her, the world is a poorer place—
as my own life would have been
had the brilliant example
of these excellent women
and myriad more
not shed light upon my path.

© 2014
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Words from the Deep Core of My Brown Corazón

GS photo

Hello, Friends! I am delighted to introduce those of you who don’t already know him to George Sanchez Garcia Jr., one of the very talented young writers I have had the privilege to work with over the past few years. George spent much of his youth behind bars, during which time he began writing poetry. He has published two books and is currently working on a third, with the hope that his story and the wisdom he has gained along the way can help other inner-city youth avoid some of the struggles he faced, and can also help those of us who live a different reality gain some understanding of what his world and experience have been like. His second book, Words from the Deep Core of My Brown Corazón, is now available on my website (Urban Verses). I encourage you to check it out (excerpt below) and consider supporting this courageous young man in his creative endeavors. Thank you!


Puppet to Writer
(Dedicated to the Barrio)

Roll my eyes back…
Stay in my position…
Wishing to stay
silent, to no longer be
distracted…
Several insults,
disrespects launching off
the nuclear pads…
Moving to many locations
through my peace…
My own homies
are my predators,
worst of the worst
We wear the same tough guy
acts…
See that it’s something
else that directs
this show…
They hug me, and I return
the love of being homies…
We are to fight alongside
each other,
protect a street
that raised those Hispanic
babies,
but they used me entirely,
and my family sat with me
around metal tables,
telling me that they don’t love me…
You’re in jail now, for work
that didn’t pay you with
millions of dollars…
It should be that much.
They took your childhood,
something people wish they
could have back.
At peace, not to worry
about being shot in the back
of my head…
But with that peace come long
stories with powerful
realizations…
My own homies
think that I’m a weapon
they can use
until the rounds are up…
A puppet, you call me,
but a pencil is my strategy
to be at peace, and prove
that a writer I’ve become!

© George Sanchez Garcia Jr.
2018

Christmas Present

When I wrote this poem, back in December 2019, I was thinking primarily about Mexican and Central American immigrants to the United States, and about the inhumane ways that these individuals and families are too often treated in our midst and at our borders, despite their tremendous contributions to our society and their innate value and dignity as human beings. And in this time of COVID-19, I fear more than ever for the already precarious well-being of Latin American migrants who are working vital agricultural and other jobs without the kinds of safety precautions, compensation, health care or other “benefits” they need and deserve.1 2 3 4

Today, as we see an increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans, largely Coronavirus-related, I am also grieving the irrational, unprovoked racist violence being done to this group of human beings.5 6 My grandmother immigrated to the U.S. from China after World War II (having spent much of her childhood and youth in Wuhan, incidentally), and though I am certainly not unbiased, I do believe I can truthfully say that her presence in this country was a blessing to the people and places her life touched here. She is no longer with us in body, but it breaks my heart to think that if she were, this honorable, kind, generous, deep-thinking, compassionate woman could be a target for attack simply because of where she was born and the color of her skin—and to know that the beloved grandparents, parents, siblings and children of many Americans of Asian descent are so targeted.

Though it can be hard to maintain optimism in the face of current realities, it continues to be my fervent hope and prayer that our nation (including/especially those among us who claim the Bible as our source of moral guidance) will grow in our commitments:

  • to “not oppress a foreigner” (Exodus 23:9);
  • to “treat the foreigner residing among you as your native born” and “love them as yourself” (Leviticus 19:34);
  • to recognize that “you and the foreigner shall be the same before the Lord” (Numbers 15:15);
  • to “not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow [citizen] or a foreigner residing in one of your towns” (Deuteronomy 24:14);
  • and to “do no wrong or violence to the foreigner” (Jeremiah 22:3)—

to reference just a few of the Old Testament’s teachings on this subject.

When it comes to the New Testament, it seems helpful to remember:

  • that Jesus and his family lived for a time as refugees in Egypt, fleeing violence in their home country (see Matthew 2:13-15);
  • that when Jesus launched his ministry (see Luke 4:14-30), he reminded the gathered worshipers that God had a history of healing/providing for foreigners who were suffering from illness, famine or other afflictions;
  • that Jesus himself showed compassion and respect to a variety of people who hailed from outside of his personal national/ethnic/religious background
    • e.g., the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42),
    • the Centurion and his servant (Matthew 8:5-13),
    • the Samaritan leper (Luke 17:11-19), etc.;
  • and that Jesus’ disciples were challenged to move past their senses of exclusivity and entitlement, and to enter into deep fellowship and resource-sharing with culturally different neighbors
    • e.g., Pentecost multi-lingual gathering & Early Church community life (Acts 2),
    • inclusion of Greek widows in food distribution (Acts 6:1-7),
    • Peter & Cornelius (Acts 10),
    • Paul confronting Peter about separation from Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-16), etc.

And so, from this inner turmoil of fear, sadness, anger, hope, gratitude and awe, I offer these musings about the tremendous gifts that migrants (and descendants of migrants) bring to communities they dwell in, as well as those they visit along the way.


 

Christmas Present

It couldn’t have felt a lot like Christmas
when the weary couple staggered into town
that silent night.

No room at the inn—
or was there just no room for them?
Had their appearance been more presentable—
or their resources more plentiful—
would that innkeeper have discovered
that he did in fact have one more vacancy?
Had their accents been more polished—
or their offerings more lavish—
would this young, pregnant woman
and her quiet, hard-working husband
have been welcomed in this place,
where they had deep ancestral roots
but a crushing lack of current standing?
Would their arduous trek have been heralded
and their newborn baby celebrated
by more than a few startled shepherds
and some wise men from afar?
Would their tenacious faith have been honored
and their humble obedience emulated
by those who claimed to know the Scriptures
and comprehend the heart of God?

But, to be fair,
do we who have the benefit of hindsight—
who have peeked behind the scenes
and seen the blueprints undergirding
God’s exquisitely mysterious ways
of working in the world—
do a better job of cherishing those exhausted sojourners
who venture into our communities,
bearing this profoundly good news:
that the life they carry with them
can in fact tear down the dividing wall of hostility
and create in place of “us” and “them”
one new people:
indivisible,
with liberty and justice for all?

© 2020
Alexis Spencer-Byers


1 What Happens if America’s 2.5 Million Farmworkers Get Sick? (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/03/opinion/coronavirus-farm-workers.html?smid=em-share)

2 Farmworkers’ COVID-19 Pandemic Relief Fund (https://hipgive.org/project/farmworkers-covid-19-pandemic-relief-fund/)

3 Justice for Migrant Women (https://justice4women.org/)

4 New Resource: A List of Relief Funds for Undocumented Workers in California (https://legalaidatwork.org/blog/relief-funds/)

5 Asian Americans speak out after rise in hate crimes during coronavirus (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/coronavirus-asian-americans-report-racism-anti-asian-hate-after-trum-china-daniel-dae-kim-jeannie-mai-speak-out/)

6 Asian Americans Advancing Justice (https://www.advancingjustice-aajc.org/covid19)

COVID-19 and the Pursuit of Shalom

On one hand, there is so much being said right now about the coronavirus pandemic that it seems almost pointless to add more words to the swirling conversation.

On the other hand, as an ordinary person (with no medical expertise, manufacturing equipment, or deep pockets at my disposal) who also happens to be a poet, one of the few things I have to offer to my fellow humans at this point is a handful of rudimentary reflections on some of the social possibilities that accompany this health crisis.

Reports of two extreme responses—1) total nonchalance/disregard for recommended (or mandated) measures to safeguard individual and community health, and 2) a kind of knee-jerk panic that can bring with it racism/scapegoating and selfish hoarding of resources—concern, sadden and anger me deeply. It is my hope and prayer that we can find common ground somewhere between these poles, and that even though we’ll need to stand six feet apart in that arena, we will find ways to care for one another and will experience a deep sense of peace and well-being (the “shalom” of the Old Testament) as we focus not just on our own needs, but also on the needs of those around us—especially those most at risk for medical, financial, and other forms of hardship.

To those—and there are many—who have already staked out spots in this community-minded space, thank you for your caring service and your inspiring example! 


 

COVID-19 and the Pursuit of Shalom

Is this the leprosy of our day—
the dread disease that makes us regard one another
with suspicion and fear,
speculating that each person we encounter
could be “unclean”?

Will we, like self-protective religious elite on the Jericho Road,
go out of our way to maximize the literal and metaphorical spaces
between ourselves & others,
hurrying past suffering strangers with a glaring absence
of compassion or concern,
or will we, even while taking care to conscientiously observe
prescribed measures of social distance,
seek out methods to soften the separation—
a smile, a nod,
a brief exchange of conversational grace,
an offer to help in whatever ways remain within our power—
remembering that despite those differences
that have divided us in the past—
and may yet cause disagreement in the future—
we have at least this much in common:
that, more evidently than even before,
our own well-being—
indeed, our very survival—
depends on the health and safety of those,
known and unknown,
with whom we share our corners of the world?

© 2020
Alexis Spencer-Byers

A Lament for America

On this third day after our most recent presidential election, I remain sorrowful and deeply disappointed (both in and for us as a nation). I am gravely concerned about what this next season will look like for individuals and communities who are dear to me. And, frankly, I am grieved and ashamed that so much of the white American church has either embraced or accommodated truly hateful, un-Christlike rhetoric and behavior from the person who is now poised to fill our nation’s highest elected office.

I am moving into the “we have work to do” camp—because we certainly do. As has ever been the case (only now amplified and validated in a devastating way through this election process), racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, and a host of other discriminatory and violent ideologies are alive and well in our society. Those of us who recognize the harm and evil in that fact (whether we have long been painfully aware of this reality or have just had a very rude awakening) have an ongoing responsibility to fight for transformation in how members of various oppressed groups are viewed, valued and treated.

But while gearing up for what lies ahead, I have also felt the need to lament what we have witnessed this week and in the months (and decades, even centuries) leading up to November 8, 2016. And so, with the words of Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah ringing in my ears (and very much aware of how guilty I am of not loving all my neighbors and how much I still need to learn and grow), here is an attempt to communicate some part of the anguish, anger, and sorrow, as well as the (sometimes very fragile-feeling) hope I carry in my heart in these days:

A Lament for America

Oh, America.
So beautiful in myriad ways:
land of innovation and imagination
a place where dreams run wild
     and many that are chased are caught
a lofty experiment
     boldly declaring the possibility
          of unity in diversity
adopted home of many a weary sojourner
     desperately in need
          of a safe place for a fresh start

But we have been that whitewashed sepulcher:
externally shiny and bright
adorned with every form of advanced technology,
     with breath-taking talent
     and jaw-dropping wealth
self-proclaimed greatest nation in the world
self-righteously pointing the finger
     at those we deem less moral than ourselves
but on the inside, stained with every “ism” in the book
prejudiced and prideful
fearful and furious
willing to take out our anxieties and disappointments
     on those already vulnerable in our midst
the privileged among us feasting on the forbidden fruit
     of stolen land
          stolen labor
          stolen lives

And now here we stand, with our feet in a most precarious place
for God has been down this road before
     with many a generation of stiff-necked people
and His anger burns white-hot
when the poor find no justice in the courts
when the foreigner is not welcomed,
     the widow and orphan not provided for
when people who bear His Name bow down
     before those who have no claim to their allegiance

Lord of mercy,
be near to the broken-hearted and bind their wounds
bring the oppressor to justice—
     and contrition
stand in the gap for those whose worth and dignity are denied
     whose health and well-being are recklessly cast aside
teach us, O God, to search our own souls
     and lay them bare before you
then fit us for the crucial work ahead—
     the never-ending labor
          of loving our neighbors—
               and (Lord, help us!) even our enemies—
               as ourselves.

© 2016
Alexis Spencer-Byers

September 11

I share the following poem with a fair amount of trepidation, for I am acutely aware that it may offend and/or anger some who read it. I have chosen to post it today, rather than yesterday, in the hope that this deferment will help to communicate that my intent is not to minimize the horror and suffering of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.

My heart breaks for those who lost their lives, for those who lost loved ones, for those who bear deep and enduring scars of various types, and for the hatred that incited the violent actions of that day—and it swells with gratitude for those who rushed, at great risk to their own lives and well-being, into harm’s way to do whatever they could to offer aid to others.

But for 15 years now, every time I’ve heard someone (usually someone white and/or affluent) say that 9/11 changed everything, I have silently wrestled with the sense that this is more true for some of us than it is for others. For some Americans, the world was basically a safe and happy place on September 10, and a sad and scary one on the 12th. For others, life before 9/11 was already characterized by far too much struggle, suffering, fear, discrimination, threat, and attack.

This year, as battles rage over national anthem protests, the Black Lives Matter movement, and other topics that highlight how different the experience of America is for different groups of Americans, I feel compelled to add this long-stifled reflection (an almost-certainly imperfect/insufficient response that I can only even attempt because I have been so graciously welcomed and educated by non-white, non-affluent communities and friends) to the conversation—and to plead with my fellow privileged Americans to try, in whatever limited way we are able, to imagine what it must be like to face the homegrown terrors that some of our neighbors (Americans of African, Latin American, and many Asian descents; American Muslims; members of the LGBTQ community; and others) confront every day.*

There are many things that I love dearly about this country of ours. But there are also things that have been and continue to be terribly, terribly wrong with how we do life together here. I pray that as we seek to be honest and, where necessary, repentant about those things, we will be better able to labor together toward the beautiful vision of liberty and justice for all.

————

9/11

The towers fell,
and choking clouds of dust and smoke
     darkened the sky,
     stinging wide eyes
     and parching opened throats
          from which rose the anguished lament:
In this cataclysmic moment,
     the foundations of the world have shifted
     and the fundamental nature of our existence
          is forever changed!

And my tears flowed,
mingling with bitter rivers cried
     by a multitude of fellow Americans,
because it was true…

…and because it wasn’t.

I wept with those who no longer felt secure
     in the nation they called their home,
and with those who had never for one moment
     labored under that illusion…

…with the parents who suddenly sensed
     that the world was a treacherous place
          into which to send beloved children
and with those who had long known
     without any shadow of doubt
          that this was the case…

…with those just now being exposed to the notion
     that they might be targeted
          not for who they had chosen individually to become
          but for a collective identity
               they’d been handed at their birth
and with those whose backs bore generations of scars
     attesting to this terrorizing truth…

And as I wept,
I wondered
if the privileged would ever know
     what a luxury it was
     to be utterly shocked
          when tragedy struck.

© 2016
Alexis Spencer-Byers

* Two notes: 1) This reflection represents only one strand of my response to an incredibly complicated set of events and realities related to 9/11—much more could be written about the ensuing backlash against American Muslims, the Iraq War, etc. 2) Nothing I say here is meant to imply that Americans who experienced various forms of terror prior to 9/11 were not deeply grieved by what happened on that day, or that their love for America is any less real or true than that of those who may have a “simpler” experience of our nation.

Aftermath

I spent much of last Thursday on an airplane, weeping and trying to write about the events of the first half of the week. Since then, I have been in a largely-offline, slightly surreal Indiana family reunion bubble, hearing bits and pieces of information about subsequent tragedies and trying to navigate the emotional juxtaposition of grief, fear and anger on the one side, and celebration of my grandmother’s 95 years of life, love and courage on the other.

While there’s a part of me that feels uncertain about sharing anything when I am so minimally informed about the later events of this incredibly painful week, there is a more substantial part that knows without a doubt that nothing that has happened since Thursday morning changes how I felt (and feel) in the wake of the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Other lives, events and realities matter, of course, very greatly, but nothing about them detracts from the fact that black lives matter… so, so much… every day… to God, to me personally, to the fabric of our shared human experience… no matter what else is happening, related or unrelated, in the world around us…

And so, while these words are feeble and completely insufficient, I offer them to my beloved brothers and sisters who face injustice, oppression and danger with profound courage and resilience. I love you, I grieve with you, and I will continue to learn how better to stand with you in the ongoing human rights struggle.


Aftermath

The grief settles on my shoulders
like an insatiable bird of prey—
talons and beak gouging my flesh
until the blood streams down my face and arms—
angry red rivulets that mourn
but can never match
the lifeblood that pours from the gaping wounds
of another brother gunned down
during a routine traffic stop.

The fear takes up residence inside my chest
like an implacable boa—
mercilessly constricting my heart
as the images of endangered loved ones—
innocent, trusting brown children,
earnestly striving black men—
flash through my mind,
endearing smiles on their faces
arbitrary targets on their backs.

Guilt and despair shred my soul
like a ravenous lion—
dismembering the illusion of progress,
stripping away idealistic visions of justice and peace,
devouring the notion that I will ever be able to do anything
that will begin to atone for the atrocities
perpetuated under the protective cover of white privilege.

And yet…
somehow…
against all odds
and every expectation…
determination kneads my belly
like a relentlessly purring tabby—
on her eighth or ninth life,
to be sure,
but unwilling and unable to expire
while those against whom the attack is leveled
arise to face another day
and another
and still another
heart-breakingly aware that they may not reach
the Promised Land
yet completely committed to pressing toward it
just the same.

© 2016
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Thank You

It has once again been ages since I’ve posted anything (Is there a “most inconsistent blogger” award out there somewhere? Because I’m pretty sure I’d be a contender!), and the longer I’ve put it off, the more I’ve felt pressure for the next thing I shared to be something grand. But, alas, I don’t have anything grand to share.

So…instead, today, I’m going to post this intentionally small something: a brief Thanksgiving reflection that attempts to convey the difficulty of expressing how grateful I am–for any number of things, but primarily for the many astonishingly loving/supportive collections of humans I have been privileged to be a part of along the way.

Thank you to and for all of you*, and happy Thanksgiving!

 

Thank You

“Thank you” hardly seems an adequate vessel
to contain the outpouring of gratitude
that longs to present itself in a form
sufficiently splendid
to mirror the magnitude
of the blessings that brought it into being.

But perhaps, like that rough-hewn chalice of old,
a humble cup is best suited to hold
this finest of wines—
a rich, earthy blend
pressed from the fruit
of daily gifts:

a place to lay my head
a part to play in labor that matters
and a plethora of lavishly loving people
with whom to share the journey.

© 2015
Alexis Spencer-Byers

* A special thanks to Street Poets for creating the space for this reflection (and for being one of the collections of humans for whom I am profoundly grateful!), and to Indiana Jones’s writers for imprinting the image of a humble holy grail on my mind so many years ago…

Quiet Warrior

Ten years ago today, my friend Gloria’s battle with cancer concluded, and she entered into her rest.

It doesn’t seem like nearly that long ago that I spent the night wandering in and out of her bedroom, checking her breathing and pausing from time to time to read to her from the Book of Psalms or some of the many loving cards and letters stacked on her bedside table.

It seems like just a few blinks ago that I finally lay down, the hospice nurse’s assurance that we were several days from the end ringing in my ears, only to wake a couple of hours later to discover that Gloria had quietly taken her leave while I slept.

I can still see the house filling rapidly with members of Gloria’s “village” who came to bid farewell to the body that had housed a truly remarkable spirit.

After that, I confess, things are a bit foggy—though I do have vague recollections of a funeral home, a memorial service planning meeting in my living room, and of course the memorial and burial services themselves.

As I look back on that difficult/sad/infuriating/beautiful/rich season from this near-far distance of ten years, any number of images and stories swirl through my brain—but the memory that stands out and begs to be shared today is one from a few weeks before Gloria’s death.

I had picked up a cold somewhere, so I stayed home from work that day and slept through most of the morning. Around noon, there was a knock on my door, and I roused myself enough to mutter groggily, “Come in?”

Gloria’s son, Kortney, opened the door so his mom could enter the room in her wheelchair, a tray holding a bowl of chicken soup and some other lunch items sitting on her lap.

It was a small gesture, but a tremendously powerful one. I was overwhelmed and touched by the fact that someone whose situation was so much more serious than mine—who was experiencing true suffering and not just minor discomfort—would go out of her way to care for me and meet a need I had. It was a beautiful illustration of Jesus’ exhortation to love our neighbors as ourselves.

I have thought of this moment often over the last decade—particularly when I feel too tired or busy or burdened to do something kind for another person. It’s not that there aren’t times to say no or to choose rest (there certainly are!), but there are also times to “play through the pain” and serve sacrificially. I want to be the kind of person who shows up at a friend’s sickbed with a bowl of chicken soup, even if I am facing struggles of my own.

Thank you, dear Gloria, for the many ways you inspired me and helped me to grow during (and beyond) the years I had the privilege to spend in community with you in Jackson!

– – – –

Quiet Warrior

for Gloria

Quiet warrior
Steady presence in my home
Enduring pain
And disappointment
With strength and patience passing
My still feeble understanding

Devoted mother
Tending more than just her own
Among the children
In our flock
From a heart whose depths defy
Measurement by worldly standards

Trusting child
Holding tight the Divine Hand
And ever heeding
Her Father’s voice
As it summons her so gently,
“Come and make your home with me.”

© 2005
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Another’s Treasure: Kindle Version

AT_Kindle

Greetings, friends!

Just a quick note to let you know that I have dragged myself ever so slightly closer to the 21st century, and Another’s Treasure is now available as a Kindle e-book (check it out here). I would not recommend trying to read it on a phone (the line breaks in the poems become pretty chaotic), but it seems to work okay on various larger devices/screens (iPad mini pictured).

For those who have purchased and/or read and/or shared responses to the paperback version, thank you so much for your support of this project! For those who have been biding your time in the hope that this announcement would eventually be made, apologies for the long wait, and happy e-reading!!

AT_Kindle_text