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Black. So much power, such varied power, in the word and the images and reactions it evokes.
My first teaching job was with third graders on the edge of the Navajo Nation. There were three brothers in the class, and the oldest, Benny, had dark brown skin. Some of the other children, when they thought I wasn't listening or didn't understand, called him Zhínii, the Navajo word for African Americans. It was pejorative, and the act was bullying. I witnessed Benny's hurt from day to day.


My partner at the time was a Black woman, and we talked about how I could intervene. She suggested I read the class a 1969 picture book, Black Is Beautiful. Each page displayed a beautiful B&W photograph of something black—a blackbird, black puppies, black jelly beans, a young Black girl in dress-up, a black butterfly. Accompanying the photos were short poems about the beauty of these things.
I thought it was a good idea, a way to start a conversation with the class. I always read to them after lunch, sitting on a stool made of an upturned bucket fastened to three wooden legs. I began reading, but a few pages in someone began sobbing––Benny. I knew immediately that this had been the wrong strategy. I stopped reading and put the book down. I decided that what I needed to do was lay down the law. "Black is beautiful," I said. "Everyone who is Black is beautiful. But Benny is not Black. He is Navajo, like most of the rest of you. He is brown and beautiful. If he were Black that would be beautiful, too. But he's not. And you may not call him Zhínii. It's a mean name, and it has to stop. You are not allowed to use it." I never heard it again, which doesn't mean it never happened other places.
A few days later, Benny and some other kids hung out in the classroom after school, which they did often because they were boarding students. Benny came over to my desk and stood next to me, chatting about ... just stuff. Then I noticed that he was leaning into me, resting against me while he talked.
I look back at so many incidents of my teaching career, even some of the later ones and think about what I could've done differently. I ask myself why I have so many better ideas now than I did then. There were so many teachable moments I missed. I think about how much more I might have helped those students understand about prejudice, racism, bullying, kindness, acceptance.
Black. A word that evokes baseless fear. The color given to death and mourning in the Euro-American world. The color of conscience. The color of restfulness. Of power. Of velvety softness. Of beauty. Black is beautiful. Black is.
The word black was brought to Words from Friends by Wayne Dale Matthysse. who is the cofounder of Partners in Compassion and has been a father to the fatherless in New Mexico, Honduras, and now Cambodia at Wat Opot Children's Community . 

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Photo courtesy localwiki.org 



This column first appeared in the May 1, 2021 Gallup Independent. Published here with permission.


Most often I drive in silence, the better to see the surrounding landscape. This time, going through the gold rock canyonlands between Dulce and Chama, I switched on public radio. To my delight, I heard a program I used to listen to regularly—Peace Talks Radio. The show that day was about community food projects in West Oakland, California and Santa Barbara-Martinez Town in Albuquerque. Both communities had become food deserts or food wastelands, as a result of development projects surrounding them. Most small groceries had gone out of business, and there were no full-service supermarkets. People subsisted to a great extent on fast food because it was cheap and available but also notoriously not nutritious. The speakers effectively made the connection between food insecurity and community breakdown and violence.
Then they described projects designed to involve community members––youth, elders, and everyone in between––in such things as gardening, cooking classes, farmers markets, and mobile food units. These mushroomed into increased involvement in local government and networking among local groups. Addressing food-insecurity empowered neighborhoods in unexpected, inspiring ways.
Then the interviewer asked if there had been resistance from naysayers who had their own reasons, as strange as it might sound, to be against healthful, affordable food. Was there a struggle to get people to become involved in the projects? One person from the community said that some resistance came from thinking that healthful food wouldn't taste good. That's where cooking classes and community picnics came in. Steamed broccoli might sound boring to someone used to enjoying fatty foods. But what if it were presented with toasted sunflower seeds and chunks of garlic, maybe a little soy sauce and lemon juice? Oh! That tastes good! Others, working three low-paying jobs to survive, might be too tired to cook. How about communal cooking and sharing? How about quick but tasty ways to prepare foods ahead of time? What if the food came to your doorstep in a mobile unit?
While the stories and ideas about changing food-insecurity gave me a lot to think about, what struck me most and stayed with me when the program faded into static as I drove deeper into the canyon, was an additional response to the question about sceptics. The interviewer asked, "Did you need to convert people?"
The speaker laughed. "You don't have to convert anyone," she said. "Just do what you do and be happy and joyful about it. The key is not to just 'do what you do.' The laughter and happiness and the good feelings you get when interacting with people you love––those are what draw people in. You can't evangelize and try to convert because then you get into a belief war."
This response went far wider and deeper for me than the exciting ways community was being restored and how food wastelands were being transformed. I thought of how we humans quickly want to share with others when we encounter something that we find to be good. But so often we go past sharing; we try to evangelize, to convert others to our way of thinking, our way of believing, our way of living.
We mean well, usually, when we do this. We love what we have found and how it is making our life better. It seems logical that, of course, it will make everyone's life better. And then, so very often, we get what the person on Peace Talks referred to as a "belief war." The people we want to convert to our experience have their own experiences, their own beliefs, and they don't want to be coerced or cajoled or even frightened into following our way of thinking or acting. Conflict, often heated, ensues.
But what about this other way? Doing what we do––whether it's eating vegetarian, celebrating Ramadan, going to a Christian church every Sunday, following traditional Diné ways? That's the first step––doing what we do. Doing it wholeheartedly because it does us good, and it does the world good.
Then the second step, the key––doing it with happiness, with joy. There will be some people who want to come along with us. They will see that doing what we do brings us joy. They will want some of that joy. They might ask, "Where does all that joy come from? I want some too." In a way, we have converted them, but we have done it through attraction. It may even spread because others find it good. And still others will go on with their own practices and beliefs. And there will be harmony and peace, no belief wars. No need to convert. Do what you do with happiness and joy.



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I once recommended the Rudy Anaya classic, Bless Me Ultima, to a friend who considers the entire Southwest her home. She also happens to be an atheist. She quickly said, "Oh, I don't read anything with the word bless in the title." I was taken aback, but on reflection, knowing her, I wasn't surprised, either. I wanted to think, "How narrow!" But I remembered an incident she shares early on with new acquaintances––a painful Christian-school experience of tectonic-shift proportions, something that happened when she was six. I was able to feel compassion instead of judgment. And of course, I have my own blind spots.
In fact, one of my aversions is to the necessity for blood sacrifice in Christian theology, emphasized by some denominations and certain people more than others. There came a Sunday in the church I'd newly joined, when I was asked to serve communion––a ritual I find very meaningful. For me, it signifies, not blood, but nurture and community. I was thrilled to be asked to offer this spiritual nourishment to the people who had loved me back into church. Moreover, this church does not overly emphasize blood.
Before the service, those of us who were going to serve were given a little orientation, because Presbyterians are known for orderliness. Our mini-class involved determining who would stand where, who would hold the bread, and who offer the juice; the handing out of stoles of the correct liturgical color; and finally, we were told what we would say as people came to receive their bread and juice.
The instructor advised, "The Bread of Life for you," and "Christ's blood shed for you." I said, "Sometimes in the church I grew up in," which was actually a bloodier church than this one, "it was said, 'The cup of blessing."
"Oh, I like that!" one of the servers said.
From her response and no one objecting, I thought it would probably be all right to say, "The cup of blessing." But I chose to serve bread because saying, "The Bread of Life for you," didn't require me to make a decision.
"The cup of blessing" suggests a pouring out of goodness, richness, and fullness over us. But the word blessing doesn't quite allow me get away from the blood of it, since it comes from Old English, which in turn came from the proto-Germanic blodison, meaning to hallow with blood, and in the beginning—big surprise—denoted a blood sprinkling on pagan altars. So neither my friend's blind spot about Christian blessing nor my aversion to blood in Christian theology get a pass. What we might both find easier to embrace is how the meaning shifted while still in use in the Old English. It became, not "to hallow with blood" but, "to make happy, prosperous, or fortunate." The cup of blessing.
The word blessing is brought to you by yours truly and by my friend, who shall go nameless.

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Stepping out the door
In the morning
In a shimmering shawl
Of birdsong
Wild with hope
And everything possibile
How will you ever be able
To leave this world
You know you will
And there will be the next thing
The word excitement is brought to you by Sharon Frey Prewitt, who I think was excited about the last election when she sent this word, but she is also a woman who lives her life filled with excitement and joy.

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