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The Faith of Jo

May 26, 2016

Do Lord, oh do Lord, oh do remember me.

As the group gathered in a circle before me sings out the children’s Sunday school song with more gusto than usual, I cannot help but think how appropriate a selection this is for our morning worship.

The worshippers are all in memory care, suffering from various stages of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Yet God does not forget. And so there is hope to be found, even here.

Do Lord, oh do Lord, oh do remember me.

It’s not the same today, though, because Jo is not in her usual place. I look all around. Maybe she is seated at a table in the other room. But I don’t see her. I lead the singing as usual, read stories from the Children’s Bible and say a few words about God’s love – but I am distracted.

Has Jo died?

It happens so often.

But not Jo. Please, not Jo.

What a terribly selfish thought. How could I not be overwhelmed with joy that this faithful woman has finally been allowed to claim her heavenly reward and to escape the ravages of Alzheimer’s?

Jo is my mentor. She discipled me. She taught me most of what I know about doing ministry with Alzheimer’s/dementia patients.

When I first began having a twice-monthly worship service here a few years ago, I tried to preach a sermon like I was speaking from the pulpit on Sunday morning. Looking back on it now, the folly of it almost makes me laugh.

Then Jo showed up and kept yelling in my face that she could not hear me.

She did this every time, until I finally gave up and formed another plan.

Which is what I needed to do.

Now we tell stories and sing and pray – and sometimes we have communion or do anointing with oil. But we always sing, especially children’s songs and the old hymns. And we always talk about the love of God.

Jo was suspicious of me in the beginning. Once, as she glanced in my direction from the back of the room, I heard her say, “I do not like that man.” So I decided I should try to keep my distance for a while, not wanting to cause her any undue alarm.

Then one day, she simply started praying for me.

I found out that’s what Jo does. She may not recall much about her life, but the staff tells me she served as a missionary. And I can see it in her. She still always carries her leather-bound, King James Bible. When staff or other patients are not doing well, Jo puts her free hand on them, and holding the Bible in the other, prays. She encourages those around her, telling them they are loved and appreciated.

At some point, without warning, her attitude toward me seemed to undergo a major shift, and she began encouraging me, too, and telling me how she looked forward to my visits. I don’t know why. Maybe she appreciated that I am still willing to learn.

I always look forward to seeing her.

Recently, she would grab me by the arm, pull me close and say in a hushed voice, “You love Jesus! I love Jesus too!” And I would say, “Yes, Jo, and Jesus loves you very much.”

I don’t know how many times Jo has said something that changed my day for the better by making me more aware of God’s presence. Once she informed me suddenly during our service that she was going to meet Jesus soon – and, having learned not to dismiss those kinds of declarations – I listened. She began to say more. “I don’t know who else I am going to see, but it is all right, as long as I see Jesus. Is there anything wrong with that?”

And I said no, there is nothing wrong with that.

But it wasn’t Jo’s time then. And now is not her time either. I took aside a staff member as soon as worship ended today, and I asked, with trepidation, “Where is Jo?” Turns out, she moved to a memory care center in another town, to be closer to family.

I hope that will be good for her.

Selfishly, perhaps sinfully, I’m not sure how I will get along without her.

Do Lord, oh do Lord, oh do remember me.

 

 

 

A Psalm of Getzandaner Park

May 4, 2016

The Lord is my shepherd.

So says the gravestone by the path that stands in the sunlight as I emerge from the tree-shrouded tunnel.

It is a new day.

To my right, the ghosts of Richards Park are presumably at play, quietly, undisturbed by a solitary walker or the intrusion of hundreds of silent granite sentinels. I imagine that the field waits for some secret signal to erupt with the voices of decades past – cheers, talk of springtime, baseball and love – a full-throated celebration pouring forth from within the painted walls and beneath the grassy infield, where they have been held in trust.

My stride quickens and slows again as I read words from distant years etched in heartache: Budded on earth to bloom in heaven. Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Gone but not forgotten.

A voice inquires of me, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

I have no answer, other than I do find life here. It is a different kind of life – a conundrum that is elusive and yet as real as anything I have ever experienced.  I find it in the trees and the dewy grass and the sound of cardinals and mockingbirds that can be heard, yes, at other times but only in fullness here, on certain days, when the air is cool and the sun is not fully up. Life comes to me as I breathe in and breathe out and my steps become more rapid. Sometimes in the overwhelming stillness and motion come names – prayers for the people I love to the God who invented the morning and could not be contained by a tomb. And sometimes what comes is silence.

Nothing to think about.

Nothing to say.

From darkness to light, back to darkness. Back through the leafy canopy, my feet hit the trail faster and faster. The pavement is hard. The water flows around me, gurgling on my left and then my right.

Water is life.

Creation.

Baptism.

Acceptance.

Promise.

Freedom.

I am suddenly back where I started.

The day begins.

The Lord is my shepherd, today, tomorrow and forevermore.

A prophet and a priest

January 16, 2016

By the measure of a lifetime, I only knew Keith Wright for a moment.

On Nov. 14, 1992, Keith married Kerry and me on a warm afternoon at Faith Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas. He was to retire in a matter of months and said then that he expected ours would be the final wedding he would perform.

It was years before I realized his gentle manner and firm convictions served as my introduction to Presbyterianism and the beginning of my own path to ministry of Word and Sacrament.

As time passed, I wondered about him. Finally, in March 2014, I did a Google search and found that he was serving as the parish associate at University Presbyterian in Austin. I could not believe it. I shouted to Kerry, “Keith Wright is still doing ministry!” I decided I should let no more time pass before telling him that things he had done years earlier had made a difference in my life. I sent him this email, with the subject line, “Thank you for your ministry”:

Dear Rev. Wright,

You won’t remember me, but I believe my wife Kerry and I were the last couple you married at Faith Presbyterian Church. The date was Nov. 14, 1992. 

Many times over the years I have contemplated writing you. The main thing I have always wanted to say is we are still very happily married, and your ministry has made a big difference in our lives. Thank you!

Kerry (Haglund) was a member at Faith at the time of our wedding. I met you at a counseling session. That day, you asked Kerry to name something about me that she loved, and she said that I cooked breakfasts for her. You told me not to stop doing that once we were married! Great advice! You also described the possibility that marriage could be continually life-giving for the two of us – that we could really thrive together. This, you said, was your wish for us. I was 28 when we were married, I’m 50 now and more cognizant every day of the great gift of our union and the joy it continually brings to our lives.

I remember  being nervous during the wedding rehearsal , asking you where I should stand, and your reminding me whose day it was. You said, “It doesn’t matter where you stand. It’s not about you!” Ha! Of course, you were right. 

I did not know then that pastors also went to wedding receptions but there you were. I believe it was there that you suggested to me that we start our marriage off right by attending worship the next morning. We did, and I think you were quite astounded! I say  that because at the end of the service, you asked us to stand with you in the Narthex and allow the congregation to congratulate us. As the last handshake was given, you leaned over and told me that you had always asked couples to start their marriage by coming to worship – but that we were the first ones to do it! 

I remember those loving people filing by who so graciously grasped our hands, asking us about our plans for the future and wishing us well. You must have many wonderful memories of the significant times you spent in the lives of those folks. 

Kerry had a UCC background when she first found Faith Presbyterian. I was a lapsed Baptist. When we moved to Amarillo shortly after our wedding, we looked for and found a PC(USA) church, St. Luke, which became our family. Eventually, we moved to Grapevine, where our faith was nurtured at First Presbyterian and continued to grow. 

More than a few times, I have thought back about the day Kerry and I sat in your office and thought we had a chance to make it together. We now have a 14-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter to keep us on our toes, and we still grow closer as a couple and a family. Of course, we have had some difficult times along the way, but in the long view those times have been overwhelmed by joy.

You were my introduction to the Presbyterian Church. Several years ago, I began making my exit from my first career in journalism and entered the Presbyterian Studies Program at Brite Divinity School. Kerry and I both felt my calling, and it was confirmed by our faith community. So we moved forward together. I was ordained as a teaching elder in 2012 and called as the pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Waxahachie. Kerry, who had a very successful journalism career, is now a free-lance writer and a pastor’s wife. 

In many ways, you started me on the road to returning to church, and ultimately to becoming a teaching elder. We are thankful to God for your ministry. As a pastor now myself, I realize that it is rare to get to hear about a positive impact made on a life. Your faithfulness has made a big difference to the two of us, and I thought it was time I told you so. Kerry and I hope and pray that your retirement years are blessed, filled with joyful moments.

In Christ,

Matt Curry

Two days later, I heard from Keith:

Matt,

You were very kind to send me this email and let me know that I played a significant part in your marriage to Kerry back in 1992. I am so glad to hear that you and Kerry are still happily married and the proud parents of two wonderful children. I am also pleased to hear that you not only made your way back to active membership in the church but that you became a pastor as well. That is great news! 

My hope for you and Kerry is that you will steadily learn to love each other more and that you serve each other faithfully. I would warn you, Matt, that ministry can demand a lot of your time and energy and I hope that you will always conserve some of that time and energy for Kerry and your children. I would love to have a picture of your family if you could send one. 

My wife, Mona, and I celebrated our 59th wedding anniversary on Jan. 21 of this year. Unfortunately, she has Alzheimer’s and is now living in an assisted living facility. I get to see her frequently but Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease that makes it difficult to remember the many events of the past. So, I would wish you not only a close relationship for many years but also good health. God bless you in the years to come.

Keith

I was struck with sadness over the illness of Keith’s wife. And I noted that he was still providing pastoral care to me, counseling me two decades later to keep paying attention to my wife and family and not to become overwhelmed by the demands of being a pastor. And he gave us a blessing for the future.

I responded:

Dear Keith, 

We were overjoyed to hear from you but saddened to hear about Mona’s Alzheimer’s, an illness that has also taken a toll in my family. You both are in our continued thoughts and prayers. 

I deeply appreciate the wisdom of your advice concerning how the demands of ministry can affect my marriage and family life. 

Here are two pictures: one with you, from our wedding album, and the other  from our spring break vacation in Arkansas this last week. 

Kerry is as beautiful as ever. You may or may not notice that my appearance has changed – a little. 

Blessings to you and yours, 

Matt

Keith wrote back:

Matt, 

Thanks for refreshing my memory by sending the pictures of yourself and Kerry and the children. I must say that the picture taken in Arkansas does reveal a considerable change in your appearance. Actually the preacher standing between you and Kerry does not have black hair anymore – he now has white hair. Guess we all change as time goes by. 

Keith

This week, I enjoyed  spending time with other pastors attending a conference at Mo Ranch. One evening, I was talking with our worship leader, Judy, and discovered that she was from Austin. I took the opportunity to ask if she knew Keith. She replied, “Yes, he was a friend of mine, do you know that he died a year ago?”

I did not know. Keith had died at the age of 83, about 10 months after I first wrote him, following a brief illness. Survivors include his beloved Mona and their children.

Judy enjoyed hearing the story of our showing up for church the day after our wedding, and she shared that Keith had continued to his dying day to be enthused and invigorated by ministry, taking up a new cause in advocating for the Charter for Compassion, encouraging people to work for a world where everyone is treated with dignity and respect. Judy said that while ministers are rarely able to be both priests AND prophets, Keith managed to do it.

The next day, as we finished our week of meetings and gathered for communion, Judy gave the message: a story of joy and uplift from a book written by Robert Fulghum. As we prepared to share the bread of life and the cup of salvation with one another, she turned to me and said the book from which she read had been a gift to her from Keith. He was ministering to me still.

 

 

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Wednesday Night

September 10, 2015

Children running back and forth, smiles spreading across the room like wildfire that cannot be contained, as if anyone would want to contain it!

A brief moment of Thanksgiving for the return of a holy time. Then more running, and laughter and stories begun again and remembered.

Disconnected notes from an old piano, summoning the people from a rich history to the promise and commitment of a new season.

Plates loaded down with chicken and dumplings, and friendly offers to pile more on from faces filled with the unmistakable joy of serving.

Laughter rising from the Undercroft and from the Parlor, along with conversation and prayer as people gather with open hearts and open minds and open Bibles.

From above, the rumble of music and praise and celebration and thanksgiving. The Holy Spirit is rattling this old building. Life and Church. Sounds of worship, and sound teaching. Laughter, praise and love reunited in grateful symphony.

God is here.

Jesus is a sound sleeper

June 23, 2015

A sermon delivered June 21, 2015, at Central Presbyterian Church-Waxahachie by the Rev. Matt Curry.

Psalm 9:9-20
Mark 4:35-41

In 1988, my mother was away on a trip that she had been planning a long time, and I was home with my Dad. For some time he had been experiencing some health issues for which we had no answers.

He began to notice that when he got up from his recliner, he would careen to one side, and it seemed to be getting worse. I noticed he had trouble signing a check. His handwriting was shaky and tentative. My mother was still away when we received the news that my father was suffering from a brain tumor that in months would end his life.

That was a difficult day, of course, and it was followed by what I remember as a very dark, lonely night. I was wide awake. I had lots of questions running through my mind, and plenty of fears. Those thoughts tormented me for most of the night. But my father did not let his new reality overwhelm him – at least not to the point where it prevented him from resting. As I thought about what his news meant for the future, the unmistakable sound of his snoring traveled across the hallway from his room to mine.

I worried, while he slept.

In the years since, I have been accused by certain members of my own household of being a fairly sound sleeper myself. There have been times, for example, when I have awakened from a restful night, and the first words I have been asked are, “What about that storm last night? Did you hear that thunder? What about that lightning” and “the dogs were going crazy weren’t they?” And I will have to respond, “That what, and the what and what? Sorry, I was asleep, did not know anything about it! I missed it!”

And not everyone is entirely happy when I miss all the excitement – apparently, excitement is meant to be shared!

Of course, to be honest, though I am able to sleep through thunder and lightning, I have been less successful in sleeping through the storms of life. Worry holds me captive from rest on more than a few occasions, and frankly, it is not always over life and death matters. Sometimes it is related to a relationship, or when I was in seminary, it could relate to an important final exam. Sometimes I know that I am being kept awake by something that is really not worth losing sleep over, but as I think about that, I only lose more sleep. If you share this problem with me, know that at least we are in good company. Even the Apostle Paul lamented that I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

I am not the sound sleeper that my father was — and apparently, nobody can sleep like Jesus.

Jesus was very tired after a day of teaching parables: the parable of the sower; a lamp under a bushel basket; the parable of the growing seed; the parable of the mustard seed. He spoke the Word to the people through parables, as they were able to hear the Word. Privately he explains everything to the disciples, and that must have been exasperating, because they often just do not get it. We affirm that Jesus was 100 percent human, 100 percent God. In the fullness of his humanity, he must have been really tired when evening came – that was a lot of parables to explain, after all – and so he and the disciples finally decide to retire for the night, leaving the crowds behind. They head out in a boat to the other side of the water. But a great windstorm arises, according to our NRSV translation.

Other translations refer to a fierce gale of wind, or a violent windstorm. This must have been a very serious storm because, remember, there are people on this boat, experienced fishermen, who know what it is like to deal with bad weather on the sea. And they are concerned. Waves batter the boat and break over the boat, quickly filling it with water. As the disciples grapple with this grave situation, the one whom they follow is sleeping on a cushion in the back – nice and comfortable. The disciples are frightened, and certainly they must also be angry. And if they even had time to think, perhaps they are thinking something like this: We are trying to bail out this boat, perhaps we will survive if the waves don’t tear our vessel apart – and here is the so-called captain of our ship, at rest. And someone probably said: Wow, Jesus is really a sound sleeper. That man can sleep through anything!

Jesus is not stirred by the terror of the moment; not by the crashing waves; not by the storm all around them; not by the violent tossing and turning of the boat; and so finally they go and shake him awake! Do. You. Not. Care That. We. Are. Dying!

And I think they raise a pretty good question.

Why is Jesus sleeping when the storm is at its peak?

I have been hearing that question a lot lately. When an armed white racist walks into Bible study in a historic black church and kills nine people – in a church, at Bible study – is Jesus asleep?

Is God on vacation?

For others, this, along with the continuing epidemic of hatred and gun violence, is further proof that there is no benevolent, supernatural being overseeing the world. This is not a new concern. Check out the trials and tribulations of Job, or read Lamentations or the Psalms. The psalmist writes that my tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, Where is your God?

Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?

Instead of answering their question, Jesus responds by demonstrating his command and control over the elements. The wind ceases at his word and the conditions become overwhelmingly calm. And now he has two questions for them:

Why are you afraid?

And …

Do you still have no faith?

And it does not say in the text, but I wonder if he then went back to the stern of the boat, found his cushion and continued with his nap – because Jesus was apparently very good at sleeping soundly.

The disciples, however, are still restless. Even now, at this point in their journey together with Jesus, they wonder just exactly who this is whom they have followed. They are filled with a great awe, this translation says. Literally, the original text says they are filled with a great fear – even now, after Jesus calmed the storm, or perhaps BECAUSE he calmed the storm. They have a glimmer of understanding when it comes to this matter of faith but it is not a fully resolved matter for them. Jesus’ power over the wind and sea leads to more questions. And ultimately, the Gospel of Mark repeatedly directs those questions to us: Why are we afraid? Do we have faith? Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?

Sometimes Jesus falls sound asleep. And maybe that is so his followers will learn to rely upon their faith that God is in control, even in the height of the most disastrous storms. Jesus’ ability to rest in the midst of trouble is not abandonment. He never leaves them in the boat to fend for themselves. You know, I guess he could have said I have had it with you guys, got out, and walked his way across the water over to the other side. But he does not do that. He stays with them. His restful sleep in the back of the boat is not due to his lack of concern, as the disciples initially suggest, rather, it is a sign of his complete and obedient faith in God. It is not only faith in Jesus that saves – but the faith of Jesus by which God has claimed us. It is a faith that stands in stark contrast to the worry of fishermen tossed around on a boat or a seminary student who tosses and turns in bed all night.

God vindicated the faith of Jesus by raising him from the dead, and it is in the very midst of the harsh realities of our world that we are called to consider who he is to us.

Fred Rogers, the children’s television personality and Presbyterian minister, said that when he was a boy and would see scary things on the news, his mother would say to him, Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping. And so, Mr. Rogers would say, even in the midst of disaster, he remembered his mother’s words and was comforted by realizing there are many caring people.

When my father was diagnosed with his brain tumor, it felt for a time as if God had abandoned us – but I don’t think my Dad ever felt that way. If he did, he never expressed it. I came to see Jesus in my father’s ability to do the best he could with the news he had been given, and to hand the rest over to his Lord, even to the extent that he could sleep soundly at night. Not only that. I saw that Christ was present in the people who came from the church to our home to kneel with my Dad and me and pray. Those same people stood with our family in the difficult days that followed.

Yesterday at Joshua Chapel AME Church here in Waxahachie, clergy and parishioners from churches throughout the city joined our sisters and brothers to share our love and concern for them, as well as for Charleston, S.C., and for our nation. Some of you were there, too, and your presence in that prayer service made a difference.

On the day of the tragic shooting, many understandably asked, “Where is God?” If you watched the arraignment of the young man arrested for this crime, then you heard families of the victims say words like I love you, I forgive you, I encourage you to repent and give your life over to Jesus and be saved. Only God could do something like this.

Where is God? From across our nation and in our own city, the answer has begun to be heard: God is in the helpers, in those who are praying and responding, in those who are mourning with those who mourn and in those who are standing up to say they will do whatever it takes to make our society a better place for all of God’s children.

We live in difficult times – times that call for taking a stand and making a difference. Make no mistake about it: It takes faith. When gunmen are entering churches and killing worshippers and shooting pastors, we each have decisions to make – questions we must answer for ourselves. To choose fear is to align ourselves with powers and principalities that are the rulers of darkness in this world.

But we are Children of the Light, already claimed through the obedient and complete faith of Jesus. If he is asleep, it may be only so that we will wake up and do his will in the world.

Why are we afraid?

Do we still have no faith?

Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?

Let us pray:

Gracious God, in the midst of a chaotic, broken and sinful world, sometimes it seems as if you have abandoned us. Help us to remember the faith of your son, which claims us, and the commitment of the prophets to justice, reconciliation and peace. Give us the strength and the audacity to stand with Christ and to share his love, even when waves are swamping the boat. In the name of the One whose trust in the sovereignty of God produces restful sleep – even on the tumultuous sea – AMEN.

Father’s Day post: Building something that will last

June 20, 2015

Witness to Grace

Every Father’s Day, I remember ‘The Bus House.’ And every day in between, I miss the presence in my life of its determined builder and caretaker. (This was first posted here on Jan. 12, 2012.)
—-

From our big picture window, the skinny white building at the end of the gravel road looked like a sentinel, standing at attention against the backdrop of a cold, gray Texas sky.

Bundled in my winter gear – the ski mask reminded me of Dr. X, one of the bad guys from the “Championship Wrestling” show on Friday night – I trudged the quarter-mile route carrying my metal, Charlie Brown lunchbox and perhaps a few worries over what the new school day would bring.

The path ended at the cattle guard, which lay between two handsome red brick pillars. Just this side of the last barrier between our farm and the road to town…

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Why I went to McKinney and what I saw there

June 10, 2015

Last Sunday after church, I was scrolling through Twitter when I noticed the hashtag #McKinney. Not knowing what I would see, I clicked onto that now viral YouTube video.

You know what I saw:  a foul-mouthed white police officer chasing black teenagers in swim suits, pulling his gun at one point and forcing a girl’s face into the ground and climbing on top of her– behavior the McKinney police chief now acknowledges as “indefensible” and clearly “out of control.”

I am thankful to God that officer did not kill anyone. We would be having a far more troubling and sorrowful conversation today. As tensions escalated – mainly his –  who knows how close he came to opening fire on what was, at most – depending on whom you believe – not much more than an unauthorized pool party.

So, on Monday, I went to McKinney.

In order to explain why I went, I must also tell you how watching that video made me feel.  As a father, I felt physically sickened by the level of violence used on children, many of whom, it turns out, may not even have been involved in the incident that prompted police to arrive in force to the Craig Ranch subdivision where this all took place. And I wanted to cry for this community and for our country.

I could not sleep Sunday night, and I knew if there was a protest on Monday, I had to go. It is not my community, so it is not my place to tell them what I think should be done. But I just wanted to walk beside those parents who were feeling grief over what happened. And I remembered that Dr. King said “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Just as I did not know what I would see when I first clicked on the YouTube video, I did not know what I would encounter at the protest march in McKinney.

What I saw was hundreds of people from different races, backgrounds and religions calling for justice and fair treatment for all of God’s children.  I saw protesters escorted safely and respectfully and without interference by McKinney police.  I heard speeches from people representing various groups and political perspectives with very different ideas about how to work for justice. Many voices were gathered at one large, diverse table.

I saw hundreds of marchers and only two counter-protesters, one of whom held a sign that said “I support the police!”  Many of the marchers would have agreed with that statement. They spoke of their frustration as taxpaying McKinney residents who would rather feel protected by police officers than fear them. One marcher held a large sign that said, “Lord, heal our nation.” Others said they are thankful for officers in their community – especially the two who grabbed at Eric Casebolt when he pointed his gun in a fit of rage. The protesters also expressed a deep and heartfelt connection to tragedies in Ferguson and Baltimore and other places where black lives have been shattered under the color of official authority.

The spirit in that rally Monday was positive, energetic, and it was not mean-spirited or ugly. Not from what I saw. I only recall one sign that made an offensive statement toward police. (By the way, it was held by a white person).  A group of young African-Americans near whom I was marching “self-policed” our group as we wound our way through the narrow streets of Craig Ranch. They sternly ordered marchers to stay off homeowners’ lawns and to stay either on the sidewalk or in the street!

I drove home that night with hope – though I also remain troubled. I am worried that the resignation of a single officer will lead officials to consider this a “solved” problem instead of engaging in real dialogue on race within their community.  I appreciate that a number of officers perhaps acted appropriately – at least one was an example who certainly shined by comparison.  But I wonder: Why didn’t officers forcibly detain Casebolt at the scene before this situation worsened? And what about the white civilian who is walking around aiding him in his abuse of children? Why would that man take part in promoting the indefensible actions of an out of control officer? Why would anyone? It occurs to me that  “supporting the police” is a dangerous mantra to follow if you mean support must come no matter what they do.

I wore my clerical collar to the march. A white, college-age man asked to take a photo of me with another pastor so he could show it to his mother – who is also an ordained minister but did not attend the protest with him. These young people, black and white, give me hope for the future.

march mug