If you’ve lived in Boston for even a little while, and you own a car, chances are you’ve had the perilous experience of driving on the Jamaicaway, a road that was built long before every household had 2 cars and one of them was an SUV. Just getting on the Jamaicaway from any feeder road is an adventure, especially at rush hour. And having the fortitude to do that requires something of us that is not in great supply these days. Before I heard Liz Walker speak at Sacred Threads last Tuesday night, I would have said that what we need more of is patience. Lots of it. But now, I know it requires something much greater than patience. It requires grace.
Liz Walker is a former WBZ-TV Boston anchor and award-winning journalist, who is now a minister and a preacher at the Roxbury Presbyterian Church. When she began her Sacred Threads talk last Tuesday night by talking about the challenges of getting onto the Jamaicaway, I wondered what that had to do with grace. Of course, I KNEW what she was talking about; I used to live on the Jamaicaway where a regular sport was watching the daily accidents, yet I still wondered: “Why is she talking about THIS? Isn’t she supposed to be talking about grace?” And then, it hit me, how the challenge of getting onto, and driving on the Jamaicaway, is a perfect metaphor for discussing the topic of grace. Let me tell you why.
As Liz says, “the Jamaicaway is not a gracious road.” What getting on to it and driving on it does, however, is force you to find a place within you where grace exists and let that grace take over instead of all your instincts to push forward, edge out the cars around you, and drive in attack mode. Anne Lamott says, “Grace is not something I DO, or can chase down; but it is something I can receive, when I stop trying to be in charge.” To find grace in us, no matter what we are doing (like driving on the Jamaicaway), Walker tells us to do just that- to let go and stop trying to be in charge, so we can receive grace. Let the anxious drivers go ahead, stop trying to be first, and even bless them as they go. A tall order on your best day, but that’s what grace is all about.
Liz Walker will tell you she’s no saint and she still isn’t always able to be gracious. Few of us are. But, a powerful conversion experience opened her eyes to the need for grace in all of our lives. That happened on a series of trips to South Sudan with a group of Boston humanitarians. It was 2001 and she felt “called to do something else” other than TV news; she thought the trip to South Sudan would yield a good story and might just guide her on a new path. It turned out to be much more than that. She went there to cover a story as a “removed” journalist, but she left “touched by grace,” realizing a removed stance from the world’s stories was no longer acceptable for her. Walker says, the lessons she learned in South Sudan were all connected to grace, so she continued to visit there for eleven more years, each trip deepening her commitment to and appreciation of the power of grace in our lives.
On one such trip, the group’s luggage was lost. They were left with no tent, no food, no supplies, no water. Word about their misfortune quickly spread throughout the village and people started to arrive with “gifts” for them; brightly colored cloth to wear, hand hewed cots for sleeping, pots of goat to eat, and children brought sticks for them to brush their teeth. As Walker says of that experience, “the people in South Sudan had nothing, but they were willing to share everything. They had nothing materially, but everything relationally. In that moment I realized that although we came to save Africa, Africa saved us through God’s grace.”
Walker says she now understands that grace is much more than a prayer before meals or a disposition to be generous. Grace says, “I need to lean on you and you need to lean on me.” It’s the kind of love reflected in Martin Luther King’s philosophy about love and forgiveness, and practicing it takes courage and risk. It’s like the Ubuntu concept of Bishop Desmond Tutu that says, “I can’t be my best unless you are your best.” It’s “I’m going to love you not because you love me back, but because you NEED love.” By their actions, the South Sudanese women showed her exactly what grace in action looks like and she wanted to take that with her and live it and reflect it in her work.
Walker is fond of quoting Anne Lamott’s statement that, “Grace meets us wherever we are, but does not leave us where it found us.” Grace met Liz Walker long ago in Alabama, came with her to Boston, to television news, to the Harvard Divinity School, to South Sudan and now has taken her to Roxbury Presbyterian Church where she works each day to help break the cycle of violence, build relationships, and pray for forgiveness, grace and love, which, she says, “is not innate. It has to be learned and unless you have a model for it, you don’t know where to begin.” So, she’s trying to model it.
Back to the Jamaicaway, Liz says like most of us, she hasn’t mastered being in grace all the time yet. But, when attempting to enter that busy road, she tries to be conscious, patient and remember what the Sudanese women taught her- “that there is no us and them, only US.”
Frederich Buechner says, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” We are all glad that the deep hunger in Boston and South Sudan was the place where Liz Walker found her deep gladness, and she heeded God’s call. She is a passionate human being who has chosen to live her life as a testament to the powerful need we all have for grace in our lives. And, I for one am thankful.
Pamela Econoply Woodnick