Remembering Rodney Sisco

I believe too much in invincibility, but death comes anyway. Sometimes it is inescapable. Sometimes it is unexpected. Always it hurts.

His name was Rodney.

It hurts to see a man so full of love taken away. A man who had impacted my alma mater for three and a half decades, resolving conflict, bringing people together, listening to everyone who came into his office, establishing a space for us students in the Office of Multicultural Development (OMD), caring for students and especially those of color.

He was only in his fifties, but cancer doesn’t care.

Rodney Sisco.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought my future children might know and be blessed by him, this man who so profoundly shaped my life through the OMD. The classes and generations to come, what will they do without him to guide and support and influence and stand up for them?

Rodney Sisco, husband, father, mentor.

He was a gentle man, well over six and a half feet with a huge heart to match. He gave great hugs, and despite his busy schedule, he worked to create times to meet with me in his office when I asked. He had an open jar of candy on his center table and photos of his two sons and his wife covering his desk along with a few geeky trinkets. He was warm and welcoming. He was someone we could trust.

He was a gentle man.

Rodney Sisco, Director of the Office of Multicultural Development.

His skill set was expansive. He was one of a handful of people on campus certified in conflict resolution. He directed the OMD from a small corner office to the central space it is now and worked for the benefit of students, showing what a black man can achieve even at a PWI. He was intelligent, articulate, thoughtful, engaging, patient, gracious, and visionary. We needed him.

Dear Rodney.

He mediated for the whole campus, interacted with most students of color who attended Wheaton College (IL), and spoke life into all the individuals he met. Over the years, he must have impacted many thousands of people. I know I would not be the woman I am today without his influence.

In the few days since Rodney has passed on to be with The Lord (he died on 30 December 2018), I have seen testimony upon testimony about his life and the positive impacts he left. We will remember him well. I pray his legacy will encourage thousands more to come.

~~~

To those of you who would like to be taught by him even in his passing and learn more about his life, here are three of the chapels at which he spoke:

Peace.

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View from Buena Vista. PC: KSB

Three uplifting lessons from 2018

It was at a prayer vigil around the turn of year that I received my words for 2018: delight and grace. Around me echoed free-form, one voice prayer and worship, church members both walking in large circles with their eyes closed as they spoke with God in Swahili and slumped against the wall as they struggled to stay awake. I decided to express myself and not worry what people might think, so I joined in. Thus came the words delight and then grace, and on a later day, “Look up.”

DELIGHT

These kids brought me so much joy. This pool day was especially fun. Photo belongs to KSB.

These kids brought me so much joy. This pool day was especially fun. Photo belongs to KSB.

In 2018, I remembered those words regularly. I took delight in the little things, like pine cones, which I found so beautiful. Spaghetti, too, and dancing in the kitchen while cooking, often brought me delight. And of course, I delighted to spend time with my friends, the kids.

Delight finds beauty in things, and for me those were often simple things. But more than a smile, delight is a deep kind of joy, a desire-being-fulfilled kind of joy, an I-want-to-be-with-you-always-because-you-make-me-smile kind of thing. Sometimes it’s a moment; sometimes it’s a relationship, as with the kids; and always it is excited and joyful.

Delight also comes with the freedom to express yourself, because why does it matter what others might think? More likely, they’ll find your joy infectious, and even if not, your joy can continue.

GRACE

The beautiful Sault family in our house. Photo belongs to KSB.

The beautiful Sault family in our house. Photo belongs to KSB.

Grace is another word for “gift,” which, side note, is the meaning of my Swahili name, Neema Zawadi (translated Grace Gift; my friends in Goma, DRC, named me a few years back). I found everything to be a gift this year. Honestly, the year started out rough and held many unexpected challenges, some frightening, some difficult to bear, some enduring still. But the year did improve greatly over time.

Some of the gifts I was blessed with were the Sault family and their home, where I lived for the second part of the year. I was blessed with the gift of dear friends as well, for which I am extremely grateful.

Grace also travels with forgiveness. This is something I am working on as I realize new people I need to forgive as well as the grace I need to have for myself.

LOOK UP

My friend Ed, whom I had the pleasure of visiting when some friends flew me out to my college town. He knows the value of this lesson as well. Photo belongs to him and me (KSB).

My friend Ed, whom I had the pleasure of visiting when some friends flew me out to my college town. He knows the value of this lesson as well. Photo belongs to him and me (KSB).

Finally, God often reminded me to “look up” this year. Most often this was a message of hope and confidence.

It translates to something along these lines: “Look up, for I am the lifter of your head. You don’t have to make yourself small or hide because of shame or embarrassment. (Remember, grace.) You are significant, and people want to see you thriving. Be confident and lift your head. Look up.”

I especially took these things to heart as a woman growing in my faith and learning about expressing myself with confidence.

Be confident and lift your head.

 

I do not yet have any distinct words or phrases for next year. Usually I discover a theme as it happens, like God’s faithfulness that was so evident during my senior year of high school, though it has always existed and continues to impress me today, or “abundance,” which described my first time in Goma and the riches, beloved-ness, and fullness from that experience, though I did not put the word to it until I was about to leave the Congo. But I am glad that God blessed me with the words in advance to guide me, focus me, teach me this past year.

All I know so far is that 2019 will contain challenges and suffering but that God will be with me through it. I’m not claiming any false blessings of a million dollars or some new car. He hasn’t promised me these things, and I won’t claim a false Facebook prophecy that declares them to anyone who finds it appealing.

Yet I can take courage in God’s constant presence through the Holy Spirit and in the knowledge that despite any troubles, no matter how severe or long lasting, Jesus has overcome the world (John 16:33).

Praise God for His Holy Spirit!

Have a blessed new year.

Snow in Colorado, PC: Brian Lindell

Do They Know It’s Christmastime?

Every December, people around the US finally allow themselves to listen to Christmas music, joining the few of us who believes in the extension of the beautiful season. Yet with the introduction of this wondrous genre to public radios comes the airing of one particularly degrading song.

Do They Know It’s Christmastime,” a well-meaning song written by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure and sung by a variety of British artists in 1984 under the name BANDAID, redone several times by contemporary musicians on behalf of different causes, plays consistently on every variety Christmas station. While originally meant to address a famine in Ethiopia, it gives no further thought to the lives or beliefs of Ethiopians.

The song does not consider that maybe this country where Orthodox Christianity has existed for thousands of years, before the Anglophone world had heard the good news, does indeed know and celebrate Christmas. They follow this calendar and celebrate it on 07 January.

Perhaps if Geldof and Ure had taken time to speak with Ethiopians or the other Africans the song “covers” and ask the question in the song’s title, they could have written a better song that did not degrade so many humans while intending to help.

The original lyrics read,

…But say a prayer, pray for the other ones
At Christmas time, it’s hard, but when you’re having fun
There’s a world outside your window
And it’s a world of dread and fear
Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears
And the Christmas bells that ring there
Are the clanging chimes of doom
Well, tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you

Well, that’s grim. “Dread and fear,” “doom.” Thanks for highlighting the growing African economies in nations such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt, Ivory Coast, Libya, and Rwanda. Thanks for praising the countries that had gotten on their feet after colonists like Britain itself finally gave them independence a mere two decades before the release of this song. Thanks for giving a shout out to the music industries that were beginning to take hold in places like Kenya. Thanks so much.

And “thank God it’s them instead of you”? That strikes me as heartless. But let’s continue.

And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time
The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life
Where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow
Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?

You’re literally lumping what is now 55 different countries into one and saying the geography and situations are all the same. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, we have a lot of jungle, for example. And lakes. A massive river. An ocean port. Farms and corn and fruit trees. And mountains – with snow (though that’s the only place you’ll find it in DRC, which sits on the equator).

Also, why is snow a necessary indication of the holiday? Christmas originated as a celebration of King Jesus being born in what is now the West Bank, Palestine. Though snow plays a role in many Anglo-phonic songs about the holiday and indeed in my own life as someone originally from northeastern USA, it was not originally part of the picture.

Moreover, “they” do know it’s Christmastime. In Congo, a 95% Christian country, we don’t celebrate in the same commercialized way the US or probably Great Britain does. It is more minimal, in that we don’t tend to give gifts and don’t propagate the Santa story. But we do expect the holiday to come every December. We have our own Christmas songs that church choirs do. We go to church on the holiday to celebrate and hold all-night prayer vigils. So to answer the question once more, yes, “they” know it is Christmas.

In 1984, the songwriters were addressing the Ethiopian drought but then sweeping the rest of the continent under the mat of their ill-spoken words. You can’t do that. There’s too much diversity on the continent and even within the countries that compose it. And to only show the “dread” and “doom” of a place or places is not a healthy way to call people to your cause because it denies the humanity and life within those places.

Not to worry, though. Maybe this was just written…and sung by over 40 artists initially…and redone four times, most recently in 2014… simply because everyone was too cold and grumpy. Check out a solution for this below and consider some better ways to communicate your cause here. Finally, petition your local radio to stop playing versions of the BANDAID song and others like it. Peace.

 

PC: KSB

Evangelicals embracing diversity – it’s a thing

Live in harmony with one another…If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  -Romans 12:16a, 18, ESV

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. -Psalm 119:13-15, NIV

PC: KSB

PC: KSB


Norma took the stage, her voice shaking as she shared her story.

Through pauses and tears, she told the group about growing up as a migrant worker, not fitting in with her Texan friends because of her Floridian accent, and experiencing microaggressions because of her brown skin. She joined the church in Denver, thinking it a safe place, but still did not fit in. Her stories of regularly being tailed while grocery shopping, for example, are not believed.

This she shared on stage in front of the church itself. Norma pleaded to be believed and understood, said her Latina sisters there felt the same way, and called for unity. Being in a white space can be exhausting when that means people cannot relate to you, or when they question your experiences.


Our church is actually very multicultural,

especially for an evangelical church – that’s why I love it and why I want to share about it with you today. The worship team is equal parts black and white with one or two Asian or Latinx musicians completing the group. Mixed race children zigzag around the aisles after church while their parents mingle.

Yet many people in our community still feel as if they cannot fully be themselves or be known and believed.

We are working on it. We have a diversity committee. We, an evangelical church in a predominantly white denomination, are an example in our intention to be racially inclusive. Though we are still imperfect, the attempts are showing results.

The diversity committee is about two years old, and I have heard women of color say that it has been helpful. The committee is part of the reason why we recently had an untold story event where people of color were able to share some of these microaggressions they experience, and it is why we had a service dedicated to discussing racial diversity.

The space last Sunday allowed for testimony, listening, and lots of applause. The speakers were honest. The message was about unity. You can watch all of the service here. In addition to testimonies, one of the older men who leads worship explained the history of Negro spirituals and shared one.


Unity is important, but we need to dig deeper into what that means.

Harmony, too, is necessary. We do not need to put aside our differences to get along; we need to put aside our division.

A song is made stronger by its different, cohesive sounds – the harmonies. We, as disciples of Christ, need also to embrace who we are and build each other up using our unique gifts. If we try to fit in or suppress the parts of us that have caused us trouble because they stand out, we hurt ourselves and the Body of Christ. We suppress the Spirit within our bodies by suppressing how God made us to be.

Some of those gifts from God are our identity and our very appearance. We are God’s beloved children, designed according to his specifications, just as the Tabernacle was designed with physical measurements for utmost holiness and beauty. Let me share some examples of these gifts:

  • For Sho, it means her dark skin and bald head, her understanding nature and loving spirit. All of that is intentional. She is tall for a reason. She is black for a reason. She is strong, lovely, wise, and holy.
  • For Fabian, it means his ability to speak both Spanish and English, his passion to care for his students and to fight for their best interests, his athleticism and his servant’s heart. He is American for a reason. He is Hispanic for a reason. He is in Colorado for a reason. He is considerate, kind, and intelligent.
  • For Lee, it means his Dragon Ball Z-esc hair, his endless knowledge of everything that exists, and the way he interacts with people. He is Korean for a reason. He is white for a reason. He gets caught on subjects that fascinate him for a reason. He is encouraging, dedicated, and thoughtful.
  • For Djeffrey, it means his big, welcoming eyes and bright smile, his energy, his commitment, his voice, and his body that was made for dancing. He is Haitian for a reason. He is a man for a reason. He is black for a reason. Regardless of how he does his hair or how much energy he has on a particular day, he is serious about people, crazy about Jesus, compassionate, and giving.
  • For me, it means my light skin, my ability to shift between cultures and build relationships, my short stature, and my voice. I am white for a reason. I always seem to be the one who doesn’t quite fit in the crowd, and that positioning is for a reason. I am inviting, knowledgeable, hospitable, and beloved.

David, a Korean-American man who shared his testimony last Sunday, recapped a story where a friend told him not to be “that Asian guy.” He initially agreed with his friend and then thought about it later with curiosity. A woman who shared her story told of the teen girls around her also being told not to act their race.

“Don’t act black,” or “don’t be that Asian guy” is like saying “don’t be the way God made you to be.” It is spitting in the face of God! It is also racist.

God made you in your skin and placed you with your kin for a reason. If you are black, God smiles upon you. If you are Native American, he sees you. If you are Latinx, he is proud of you. If you are Asian, he knows your innermost thoughts and desires. If you are white, he loves you too.


I am proud of my morning church for its efforts to be racially inclusive.

Some ways we can continue to improve are to incorporate Spanish songs into our worship to benefit our large Hispanic population and add some Korean, French, and Creole songs as well. We sing a little bit of Gospel and have recently learned a couple spirituals, but the majority of the worship is still CCM, aka white Christian music. As a white attender, I think we are doing pretty decently, but I know we can definitely push ourselves more for the love of our Body, who is Christ.

Although our church is multiracial and the people on stage represent that, most of the elders themselves are white, and they are all men. Adding more people of color to our leadership (and women, but I have intentionally left gender out of this because that is a different story at our church) will change the way our church is run so that we can grow more harmonious and united and reflective of Heaven.

To other Christians who may be reading this, and church leaders especially, consider taking our model as an example for how to grow your church in the glory of God, and share with me how you have harnessed the strength that comes from the diversity of God’s Kingdom!

Peace.

The Beech Tree

The giggling girl and boy crept up to me as quietly as their childish mannerisms would allow, glancing all about to ensure that the deed they were about to commit in broad daylight would remain unseen. Then they carved their initials in me, a secret sign of their affections, commemorated forever a yard above my grassy roots.

~~~

I had the pleasure of knowing many children at that parsonage, from the families who lived there to those who attended church next door, and of course the neighbors. I had a fondness for the ones across the street, whom I could only will love upon from my place in the front yard. I knew they needed the love, though.

Like these young ones, I heard the late-night music of the next-door neighbors, saw their blazing campfires through the hedge late at night—the kids thought it frightening, but imagine me! I can’t move, and I’m made of wood! —and watched many a car use the church lot to turn around when they were misguided.

They were good times.

My leathery grey skin and pointed oval leaves basked in a good deal of sunlight and weathered quite a few thunderstorms as the children rode the rope swing literally to pieces, considered the engraving left by that young couple, and gazed up at my smooth branches trying to discern who I was.

The kids relished the autumn when they could rake up and jump in my fallen leaves. They felt accomplished to gather those mounds of feathery gold and joyful to disturb them into a flurry, a fluff, a frizzle, as one might say. I never quite understood the point, but it made me laugh, and their pride rubbed off on me, for I had given them the gift of those leaves—unlike the backyard oaks who were stingy and held on to their dull brown ones until March.

I was generous. I was a pillar. I wasn’t well known, per se, but I know they needed me. They needed me for play and for shade and for their intellect as they studied science. I helped them with all that as their front yard beech tree.

I’m here still, just waiting for more children to run unto this side of the yard again and entertain me with their antics. They’ll come to rely one me soon enough. Everyone needs a tree like me in order to engrave their legend.

The Three Tree

Second back from the front and about two yards to the left of the church house dwelled the Three Tree. A red oak of aimable personality, it had weathered many storms with a genuine grin and lived to see the joy of the children around it.

The church house, known as a parsonage to many, is what I called our split-level ranch, which the church on the property owned and in which it let us live as my dad pastored when we first moved to North Haven.

Our yard had a good handful of trees, each unique and well loved, and was backed by a small forest. The Three Tree, however, sat much closer to the front, far from the occasional nighttime noise of local crowds at a baseball field a couple blocks away.

One had to walk across the parking lot and into the yard to see the Three Tree, but once discovered, it was memorable due to its three trunks that diverged just a couple feet up from the ground. Ancient and strong, the oak would have been a good climbing tree if it had any lower lying branches, which it did not.

The Three Tree witnessed many adventures from us church kids and was in the general vicinity of the Goliath beetle we once found during a picnic.

Along with the White Oak, the Three Tree bordered the small field on its right; the ramp lined the field’s front while the church’s side garden and basement door sealed the left, the sidewalk from that door heading back towards the house and the Three Tree in completion of the rectangular plot of grass.

In this field, my best friend Annabelle and I played Frank and Joe from the Hardy Boys and foraged for nuts when pretending to be Natives, whose cultures and lifestyles I now recognize we knew nothing about.

(Our state’s name itself, Connecticut, is a mispronunciation of the Algonquian word regarding the river that runs through it, and many places in the state and region hearken back to European colonization and the brash overtaking and erasure of Native cultures there.)

Familiar with its history and its present, the Three Tree looked upon us in kind amusement, a silent but wise presence, friendly as we passed by and game for our attempts at climbing.

We were childish, and it was happy. The Three Tree was childish itself, though not spry like us anymore. Age had made it firm but had not worn down its spirit.

Its three arms opened to the blue sky filled with cumulus puffballs, ready to receive either a child or a thunderstorm and ready to protect its area with its hearty leaves that stayed green through the winter and turned brown and fell frustratingly atop fresh ground each spring.

The church property was neglected once we moved out of state, and the Three Tree’s life cut short with some of its companions years before that, but the memory of this unique red oak, which was at once playful and firm, lives on.


Note:

I am still working on images for this series. Please bear with me and engage your imagination until (and even after) I draw replicas of the dear trees I am describing. I will add them to their respective posts when ready. Thank you.

PC: KSB

Introduction to Memoirs of the Trees, a new blog series

I grew up in New England, surrounded by forests. Trees dwelt in my yard, encompassed our vehicle as we drove around town, sat watch at Sleeping Giant where we hiked regularly, and huddled in New York’s Adirondack Mountains where we traveled some summers.

Apple trees lay below us on Blue Hills Road on the way from Cheshire to North Haven. Above me, below me, and around me in Connecticut were oaks, beeches, maples, and pines of earth brown, spotted yellow, vibrant maroon, and green of all shades. No other region of the U.S. can compare to the diversity of foliage in New England.

Perhaps you have heard of Ents. If you’ve read Lord of the Rings, you know of their wisdom and the histories that lie deep within their hearts in the Fangorn Forest.

In this blog series, Memoirs of the Trees, I would like to share the histories of specific trees whose lives have crossed mine. In this way, I will honor the trees that have impacted my life.

Perhaps the tree will share a particular moment in its life, or perhaps it will describe a stretch of years. Spun from my reality, these stories will include creative elements stretching back into history, imagined occurrences as well as actual connections had with humans.

Enjoy this blog series and take some time to honor the land that has shaped you. Next week will begin the first of many stories regarding trees that I hold dear. Thank you.