As my wife and I prepare for our upcoming move, we’ve been taking lots of time going through our things. It isn’t always easy to parse through the mementos by which you mark your memories. Of course, there are the things that seemed to mean a lot years ago that mean nothing now–a middle school trophy, a baseball card that you thought you’d use to retire early (That is, before the steroid scandal became front page news), a newspaper clipping that someone laminated and gave to your mother. And of course, there are the family heirlooms, the treasured toys, and the tattered book that meant so, so much once upon a time.
One of the things I put into the goodwill pile is a gift from my sister, given 15 years ago. It was a travel wallet: the kind you strap around your waist and wear beneath the waist of your pants to elude pickpockets. I was preparing for a semester as an intern at the Quaker Peace Centre in Cape Town, South Africa, when she gave it to me. She had recently returned from her first trip to Ghana and had used something similar, and obviously, highly recommended it.
That wallet accompanied me on all but my last two trips abroad. Though completely intact, it was a little worn, and the elastic had given out so much that the belt hung all the way down my leg and would stick out of my pant leg, dangling just above my shoe.
But even after replacing it with a fancier, even more secure wallet from R.E.I., I kept it, mainly because of a note stored in a small pocket in the front.
My semester in South Africa happened because of a grant Vanderbilt Divinity School received from the Luce Foundation, focusing on the impact of globalization on theological education. While three of us were selected to spend the semester as interns in different organizations, a larger group made up of VDS students and some other folks spent two weeks as part of a traveling seminar, meeting activists from the anti-Apartheid movement, politicians engaged in building the new South Africa, leaders in private enterprise (Ask me sometime what it was like to visit a certain diamond company). It was a diverse group, but the person who sticks in my memory the most is the author of that note, a grizzled, retired prison chaplain named Bud.
Bud had joined the trip with his roommate from seminary days. Both retired, they decided to join this two week trip then spend a week driving up the garden route. On the first night of the trip, when those of us from VDS met Bud on a hotel shuttle near Laguardia, we developed a quick impression and opinion: Bud talked too much.
We were all very tired, and all very anxious and excited about boarding the plane the next day, and Bud had an abundance of stories and questions for us. His exuberance in getting to know us all began to get on many a nerve. We wondered if we had the patience to deal with him.
But once we hit the ground, we began to see what a treasure Bud was. His questions, we soon discovered over meals and drinks, weren’t pushy and probing. They were instead the sort of questions that sent you deeper–not only into your thoughts, but into your very heart. Bud’s eyes perpetually twinkled–one second he’d gesticulate wildly at the beauty of South African topography (we did lose him when he wandered around Table Mountain one afternoon), the next he’d ask you a direct, warm, “how are you?” and the next, he’d tell a dirty joke.
One morning, our group was visiting a South African prison. We were going to meet with guards and inmates, and learn about a program that focused on restorative justice and reconciliation among the prisoners. Before the meeting, there was a tour that was designed to take us into the prison, including a couple of overpopulated cells of current and former gang members who were participating in the program. As we waited, understandably anxious, by the secured doors, ready to enter, Bud approached another member of our group, a young woman who was looking particularly uncomfortable about this part of the trip. He raised his finger, as if he were in a pulpit (which, as a retired prison chaplain, one could say that was exactly where he was), but then, with a gentleness I can’t say I’ve seen since, said to the woman (and a few others of us in earshot): “Your memory verse for today is I was in prison, and you visited me.”
The woman, who knew well this saying of Jesus, let her shoulders relax–if only a bit. She nodded, grimaced, and leaned a bit on Bud, who touched her shoulder with an almost holy lightness, and gestured for her to walk through the entrance.
As our trip neared its end, our group was hosted by my semester-long placement, The Quaker Peace Centre. It was there that I experienced the ministry of Bud’s kindness. From the moment we walked onto the grounds of the Peace Centre, I was excited. It was just the sort of opportunity I had hoped for. The diverse array of people working there, from Muslim accountants to Pentecostal Peace Educators to a very Quaker director, were amazing, the work seemed fascinating, and even the Centre itself, a house transformed into an office, surrounded by mango trees at the end of a quiet neighborhood street, captivated us all.
As we spent some time in conversation with the folks from the Peace Centre, Bud, who was seated next to me, began to look around excitedly. He grabbed a pen, scribbled a note, then passed it to me, silently gesturing that I read it. I did, then nodded, then quickly stuffed it in my travel wallet. It read:
We release you from the bonds of our fellowship and commit you with joy to the service of God and neighbor through the Quaker peace center. We confidently trust that you will enrich the service of that organization as you have enriched our fellowship the last two weeks. We commend you to the one who can both stay with you, go with us and be everywhere for good as we trust you will commend us.
It was such a kind, spontaneous gesture. The words, simple as they were, and who knows, maybe a stock blessing he used all the time in his work as a chaplain, meant so much at the time, and have continued to. That’s why the note stayed in my wallet and went with me every time I traveled internationally. That’s why I tell you this story now.
Like a number of you, I’ve been watching the coverage of Pope Francis’s visit to the United States. While I am encouraged by the administrative reforms I see Francis making and regard them as a sort of necessary, bureaucratic path toward justice, I keep a critical eye on what I see as pretty conservative theology, though one tempered by a true impulse to be welcoming, hospitable, and affirming of the humanity of all people. Pope Francis’ presence–the gentle welcomes when children approach, the pastoral nudges in his remarks to US Lawmakers, have made the two weeks during which Bud served unofficially as chaplain to our disparate crew come back even more sharply. There are many people who have been important influences for me in my pursuit of my call to ministry, from intellectual heroes to role models from my growing up. Bud’s note serves as a sort of icon for me–a placeholder for their presence, and a reminder of the two weeks when I really learned how justice, kindness, and humility intertwine.
It is now nestled in my newer, fancier wallet, ready to head out on the road with me–perhaps out of the country again, one of these days, but for now, it goes with me to Tennessee, where I know I will need the words, prayers, wishes, and presence of the great cloud of witnesses that travel with me, some of them grizzled and grey, always ready with a touch of wisdom or a good dirty joke.