Engaging with Our Ancestors

This month I spent so much time deciding how to write a particular column for May that I missed the deadline. There are an infinite number of subjects to write about, but a writer has to zone in at some point and just write the damned thing. But I couldn’t decide how to write it. Which brings me, of course, to the simple subject of humanity.

What you missed last month (unless you didn’t) is the play “Admissions,” put on by Silverthorne Theater in Greenfield. The plot: In 2015 a small liberal prep school in New England is struggling to “diversify” the student body. When the admissions for the year breaks the 20% diversification mark, champaign is uncorked. I won’t review this excellent production, I just want to say how entertaining was to watch on stage a (mostly) white, liberal school with well-meaning administrators struggle to pop their bubble of isolation. By entertaining I mean heart-wrenching, funny, angering, and thoughtful for a person as white as I am. 

Which brings me, of course, to Baptist minister Robyn Henderson-Espinoza*, a transqueer Latinx theologian, who is diagnosed on the autism spectrum…and is from Texas. The description of Henderson-Espinoza is as mind-boggling as the description of any human being should be. What makes it mind-boggling for me is not who Robyn is, but who I think I am and that I think of myself as normal. Well, slightly-off normal. How slightly-off normal depends on who’s asking. Follow?

Think about how the term “gay” has expanded to “LGBTQ2S+.” So the exception to normality is lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transsexual, queer, 2 spirit, and/or plus [plus what?]. Which includes about everybody except heterosexuals. Wouldn’t it be easier to just identify straight people?  Likewise, if our fictional prep school wanted to be representative of humanity, the student body would be overwhelmingly Han Chinese. “Diversity” would be a white school.

Which brings me to the article I couldn’t figure out how to write.

I am part of “Sacred Ground,” an 11-part exploration of racial justice from a faith perspective. I began thinking about how slavery has touched our local history. Robert H Romer compiled a list of the names of slaved people who lived in Deerfield in the eighteenth century, including the names of their enslavers. Historic Deerfield has done research into the history of the people who originally lived on the land, and into the history of slavery there.

My original idea was to use the headline: “Who, Lord, Was My Ancestor?” Then I would just list the names of our neighboring town’s enslaved and enslaving citizens. But is calling African-American slaves my ancestors appropriating black history? Or is it embracing our common history? Acknowledging all our fore-bearers? Irish people of the time were generally indentured workers and servants, an in-between status. My ancestors are not the enslaved… exactly, and not the enslavers… exactly. In the meantime, I wish to print those names for all of us to see. So I will in a following month. I’ll decide on a headline later.

All this is to state the obvious, that “humanity” is not a thing. It is a morphing system of identities, recognitions, bubbles that solidify and are forced to burst open. Humanity is more like ocean waters than like a bunch of individuals bumping into one another. And we will never, ever be able to totally comprehend these oceans, least of all in a column in May. 

Keep swimming. The oceans are deep and dangerous and wondrous.

  • Body Becoming: A Path to Our Liberation, by Robyn Henderson-Espinoza

Note: As I am writing this the day after deadline, my personal editor has not been able to clarify any confusion in this column…which is especially unfortunate for this one.

Mourning the End of the War on Christmas

The Right’s War against the War on Christmas seems to be losing. No one seems to care anymore that we say “Happy Holidays,” “Seasons Greetings:” those omens of coming End Times. They’ve shifted their sights onto the War Against Elections. Which makes me miss the War on Christmas. 

As late as 2019, the Washington Post was assuring  their readers that, “Anybody who wants to say ‘Merry Christmas’ is legally permitted to do so.” But nobody cares anymore. 

Remember Megan Kelley and the ‘Santa Claus Is White’ skirmish? Those were the days. Little did I realize it was laying the groundwork for a renewed, re-weaponized, all out attack on black people voting, black people in general.

The study of TWOC (The War on Christmas) should be required in schools (Critical Christmas Theory). For instance, I only learned this year that Santa Claus was introduced by Jews to suppress the true story of Jesus’ birth. Who knew? This laughable bomb was thrown by Gerald L. K. Smith in 1966. 

He also supported the Nazi Party, and that’s the point. 

The TWOC was, I thought, laughable, but now, as with many things, I see the evil under what previously seemed simply ludicrous. Since the Imaginary War on Christmas began, we have had the deadliest attack on the Jewish community ever in the United States, and Nazis marching in Charlestown chanting, “Jews shall not replace us.” 

TWOC was a colorful scab over ugly wounds. 

Our Ashfield Churches will celebrate Christmas soon. We will hear again how God was born as a baby, in a tiny backwater to an unmarried Jewish woman. This God has not yet learned to walk; he is carried by his parents for safety to a foreign land. We see pictures of their journey on Christmas cards, banners, and children’s drawings: an iconic symbol of family, dependency, and exile. When he grows up, he will show us how to end the War Against Each Other, and trusts that we will carry through with it. Humans and God are in each others’ hands. This is the story we take joy in this winter, wondering what kind of God this is: one who puts faith in us.

This month we declare an end to the war on each other, dress up like Santa Claus, share gifts, greet all with whatever greeting will share joy. Fulfill the joyful hope of the baby God.

Season’s Greetings! Happy Holidays! Merry Christmas!

Tend the Fire

“The fire shall ever be burning upon the altar; it shall never go out” (Leviticus 6:5)

My fingers and toes are cold now, sitting in the kitchen, and it’s only September 22nd. I do not enjoy winter. Do not tell me to learn to ski; I almost went flying off a cliff the first time I tried. My winter hobby is searching for the warmest affordable clothing possible. That and the other inconveniences of the cold seasons keep me occupied.

But there is a sharper coldness surrounding us. Engaged with the world, we are forced to breathe it in, watch it, listen to it. And you know, there are few things colder than hate. Dante knew. He told us that as Satan beats his featherless wings, he creates a cold wind that freezes the ice around him. We can feel it.

In my kitchen I read articles that write with revulsion about  conservatives, Republicans, gun owners, and Joe Biden.  Mocking dismissal of anti-vaxxers has become a necessary component of conversation. I’m considering sitting on a FRTA bus and  yelling, “COVID is a hoax!” just to see what would happen. Dare I? Will police be called?

Most of us do not harbor that much ice. However, l do find cold shards popping up from my warm heart. For instance, I enjoy a good, witty attack on Mitch McConnell. That is not an especially freezing cold shard – maybe a Popsicle type of cold. However, cutting blades of shards lurk around inside my head.

More than my fingers and toes, keeping my heart warm requires some effort, especially during these times. The best method for keeping it warm is being with other people. Alas, COVID is not a hoax. We measure how far apart we stand from one another. Anyone we meet, friend or foe or dentist, may infect us with a disease. That’s new. How can we stay warm?

Tending sacred flames is an ancient skill. We use them to honor fallen soldiers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. At the Koysan Buddhist Temple in L.A. a flame was brought from the torch at the Hiroshima Memorial Park in Japan. The Cherokee people brought coals from their original seat of government to relight the flame. The ancient sacred fire of the goddess Brigid in Kildare has a long history of being extinguished and then lit again. The Holocaust Memorial Museum cares for a flame to honor the victims. Candlelight vigils for justice, for shooting victims, for the missing, are innumerable. Tending to these flames is considered an honor. Caretakers protect the warmth. We gather around them.

We’ve got a sacred flame in our hearts which requires tending. The archaic meaning of the word “tend” is “listen.” When you feel the cold, listen, tend the flame, create the warmth.

But I still refuse to ski.

Truth, Justice and the American Way

“What should I write about for the Ashfield News?” I asked Jeannine. 

I was thinking: snow, ordering seeds for the garden, not being able to have dinner with friends, etc.

“TRUTH!” she called from the kitchen.

Well, that should be easy.

Mind you, she had been listening for days to the pre-game and post-game commentary on the impeachment trial. Not to mention the trial itself. From what I heard, TRUTH was on trial for its life, or for its place in our public life. 

I never expect truth, the whole truth from any government; government just isn’t suited for it. In 1970 the U.S. kept reporting that we were not bombing Cambodia, a neutral government. Simultaneously, Quaker doctors and nurses were returning home, coming to churches to tell us about deaths and injuries from the bombings –  one tiny example.

Then there are the bedrock lies: we are not racist country, anyone can get out of poverty if they work hard enough, “we” civilized the wild west, English is the official language of the United States, and so on. These bedrock lies require upheaval just to nudge them off their pedestal. 

The torture Jeannine watched, live, was the transformation of a one-off lie by a corrupt official – the election was stolen – into a bedrock lie, accepted by an alarming number of Americans as TRUTH, a truth worth storming the Capitol for. The truth about the justice of our election system deserves a few books to sort through; nonetheless, the consequences of this lie is immediate. 

Of course I have my own lies of various kinds: years ago, a co-worker at World Eye Bookshop would buy books and put them on the bottom of a grocery bag so his wife wouldn’t know how many books he bought; I buy books on Kindle so Jeannine doesn’t know. (Cat’s out of the bag now.) 

And I have my bedrock lies, the ones below the top crust of soil that are exposed only after much digging, or by sudden self-awareness. For instance, at another job, a black student on a bowling-scholarship told me he was studying to be a doctor. I was surprised. That instant, my own race and class prejudice was revealed. I was shocked at myself. It took a while for me to take it in. The trouble with uncovering bedrock lies is that the revelation is so humiliating when they are exposed. Thus the bedrock lies are so much more difficult to find, and then face. 

For people like Jeannine, watching a roomful of powerful people doodling on iPads instead of facing truth and facing themselves, was horrifying. So many Americans read, learn, listen, in order to expose the lies within that keep us from being free. It was like watching a precious gift being thrown in the trash.

Dan Berrigan once said about Dorothy Day, “She lived as though the Truth were actually true.”

I looked online for an appropriate quote for the wall over the U.S. Senate Chamber. I found one, reportedly from karma,

“I saw that.”

Church Grim Seeks Ashfield UCC Job

Application for Employment, Ashfield UCC


Church Grim

Application for position as Church Grim at Ashfield UCC: Resume

I have 237 years, 8 months, 4 days experience as Church Grim in churches all over Europe and the United States. [A full resume will arrive in two weeks in twelve boxes via FedEx.]  You will note that I have served as interim Grim for many other types of religious buildings. 


301 c.e. – 941 c.e.  Assistant Church Grim, Etchmiadzin Cathedral, Vagharshapat, Armenia

I jump to my very first job as a way to shorten your reading time. This is where I began training and learned many of the skills I can offer to UCC Ashfield:


-Keep unwelcome visitors away (I understand this skill will not be needed very often at UCC.)

-Circle the building every night to protect from any Brownies who wish to irritate you, i.e. picking pockets, leaving dirty dishes, souring the creamers, deleting files, stealing water bottles, etc. 

-I would pay particular attention to the Brownie charged with turning on the furnace during silent prayer and the singing of Pace Deum

-I also deal with Monsters. I have certification in Non-violent Monster Overcoming. 

-I usually don a big, black dog as camouflage, but I understand you may prefer a cat, as your previous Grim worked for you as a cat.

-I can assist Judy Haupt refilling tissue boxes and hymnals after services, though my skills in this regard are shaky.

-I can assist Chris Haddad in cleaning up your messes, though he works during my sleeping times, so don’t fire him.

-Dust the organ pipes

-Sort letters for outdoor pulpit (though my alphabet skills could use improvement)

 -Theater skills: I have overseen Passion Plays, Christmas Pageants, and starred in Morality Plays and Mystery Plays (in costume of course), but real live theater is a passion for me and I  would assist in any way possible after Virus restrictions are lifted.


1945 (beginning of construction) – 1986 (construction completed.)

Church Grim, Hallgrimskirkja, Reykavik, Iceland

My last term of employment was overseeing the construction of their cathedral. Though many Icelanders think it is ugly, I like it.

1986 – PRESENT Sabbatical

Salary requests: access to left-over coffee hour snacks, permission to ring bell at random times up to three times a year, accommodation in the bell tower, permission to listen to Rev. Jones’ sermons (best since Meister Eckhart in my opinion).

I look forward to serving as your Church Grim.

Please respond by letter to Under Popcorn Machine

Thoughts of a White Person Living in a Mostly White Town, Going to a Mostly White Church

While driving last week Jeannine and I saw a black woman walking down a street in Goshen. We both whipped our heads around. A new neighbor? When did she move in? Is she just visiting?

Goshen’s population is 98.8% white people. A couple of years ago it was 99.02% white, so someone must have moved out. Ashfield is 96.2% white. As only 1068 people of any kind live in Goshen, our population is easily deduced with one drive around town. When we first moved up here in 2004, we overheard someone at the local restaurant (we have one) say, “Yeah, you know, the Jewish guy.” So we must have been somewhat culturally diverse back then. 

My Mom told me the story of my first seeing a black person. We were on the subway going somewhere, circa 1952. I was a toddler and she had me on her lap. A black woman sat across the aisle from us. I stared intensely at her for a long time. The poor woman was getting annoyed. Mom kept trying to distract me. Finally Mom turned me around on her lap. I just turned my head and stared at the woman over my shoulder, which made things worse. “I was so embarrassed,” my mother said each time she told the story. “That poor woman.”

Now that I am tottering because I am old, I am still whipping my head around. Then, I was raised in a mostly Irish enclave, now we live in a mostly Yankee WASP enclave. I bring all this up because, once again, blacks and allies in the U.S. are fighting for civil rights in the streets. As always, they are fighting for all our humanity. After all my travel and moves, and people I’ve met, friends I’ve made, here I am up in the hills, feeling apart from the continuing Civil Rights Movement. 

In 2013 I wrote a column called, “I Hope They Think I was Racist.” As time progressed, I thought, our understanding of race and justice would have evolved to the point that offenses invisible to me, would be clear and unavoidable by the time my niece was an adult. She is an adult now.  I have learned a lot; our nation as a whole, apparently, has not learned much. Even equal access to voting seems to be as hairpulling-ly frustrating as it was in 1952. Despite the Voting Rights Act, because of the repeal of the Voting Rights Act, because we haven’t learned a damned thing. 

In Be the Bridge: Pursuing God’s Heart for Racial Reconciliation, Latasha Morrison writes from her experience being the only black person working in her white church in Texas. She realized she was probably the first black person her coworkers had worked with. She began working with them to understand the racism they were blind to. They formed “Be the Bridge” groups, now meeting across the country. In September I read the first section: “The Bridge to Lament.” Already she’s illuminated my views on how I snap judge people, specifically black people. And my views on the necessity to lament. My next charge at racism will be to read this book and take it to heart.

We were having a nice Thanksgiving dinner in 1967 at my parents’ place in Connecticut. Unfortunately, the conversation went askew and politics arose. Almost 200 race riots had erupted in cities during that very hot summer. My relatives did not take kindly to black riots and said so. Suddenly, my usually soft-spoken mother stood up, furious, raised her hand and said, “If I was black, I’d be at the front of the crowd with a brick!” and went to get more mashed potatoes. 

Saturdays, I’m holding my Black Lives Matter sign on Rte. 5.

What’s Faith Got to Do with It?

By the time you are reading this, things in the U.S. political world will be different than it is today, October 23.

  1. Donald Trump won the election, or
  2. Biden won, or
  3. votes are still being counted, and/or
  4. Democrats won the Senate, or
  5. they didn’t, and probably
  6. lawsuits concerning vote counts are flying across the nation.

And whichever combinations of the 6 possibilities is true in November, we are probably thinking: What now?

When churches ask ourselves how to engage in the coming political century, I hope we can be the source of the energy of Ahimsa: Nonviolent Witness.

Whatever the outcomes were this November, there is work to be done. I hope we can commit again to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Six Principles of Nonviolence. 

The crisis that we are enmeshed in now, no matter what happens in November, is the crisis that Jesus faced: justice vs the establishment. Defeating one emperor was not the point, then, during the Civil Rights Movement, or now.

“Indeed, the more we study the Civil Rights Movement, the more the Gospels come alive.” *

  King and Mairead Maguire and John Lewis and probably a few of your neighbors have decided that Gandhi was right, nonviolence (ahimsa) is the way to go.

In The Beloved Community,** Charles Marsh traces the place of faith in the struggle for social justice, and what can happen when nonviolent witness loses its grounding in faith. King learned from Gandhi, who also based this strategy on faith. King’s leadership was based on churches. Marsh believes that when this foundation was lost, the movement moved away from the creation of a “Beloved Community”. How are faith and social justice intertwined?

What exactly is “faith”? Our church has such a wide variety of outlooks, it may seem chaotic. It is not (except sometimes). We read, sing, listen, pray, look for the Sacred Center from which justice and love spring.

I want to write about faith,

faith that I find my way home

as reliably as the way the moon rises

each month,

season after season, without help.

I want to say that I am not lost,

my mind sometimes is lost for a moment,

but I am not, just as the moon rises

each month, season after season.

Curious how the moon, full, new, or sliver,

never hesitates or stops to consider options.

And it is curious how, at times, my mind hesitates,

stops to consider options,

as if there is more than one way home.

Gravity is a faith the moon rides upon,

held close to her home by a steady grip

that guides her through all her phases,

as a mother holds her daughter through

wakefulness and sleep.

Faith is a gravity my body rests upon.

While my mind considers options,

My body stops, waits for that steady grip

to guide me home, where ever that may be.

Alice Barrett, with thanks to David Whyte.

*”The Radical Nonviolent Witness of Jesus”, Ched Myers, friendsjournal.org (2009)

 **The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, from the Civil Rights Movement to Today, 

A Prayer for Clergy Appreciation Month

Thank you.

Gifts in Open Hands

(an improvisation on Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer”)

God, grant clergy the serenity
to accept churches and the people in them
the way they really are,
the courage to challenge them every week
and pray for them every day,
and wisdom that’s based
in nimble and resilient love …

Live-streaming one worship at a time,
zooming one meeting, one visit,
one wedding or funeral at a time,
absorbing anxieties of this coronavirus season,
around illness, isolation,
education, financial well-being,
and the daily risks of essential workers
and medical personnel
while still holding a course for peace,

taking on as Jesus did
the fearsome realities of political life,
believing in reconciliation
in spite of divisiveness,
speaking the Names
and never surrendering truth.

Let those clergy be reasonably happy,
in this pandemic autumn,
(for you are the source of miracles)
and able to point others
to both daily joy and eternal grace…

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Virtual Hugs: Can we survive?

The Human Touch

’Tis the human touch

in this world that counts,

The touch of your hand and mine,

Which means far more

to the fainting heart

Than shelter and bread and wine.

For shelter is gone

when the night is o’er,

And bread lasts only a day.

But the touch of the hand

And the sound of the voice

Sing on in the soul always.

– Spencer Michael Free

The inability to hug each other must be the most de-humanizing caution of this pandemic. So says absolutely every person I’ve met with in the past months: “I hate it that we can’t hug!” Forget masks. Nothing is more dissatisfying than a virtual hug. 

I skimmed Bible sites for thoughts on touch, but most quotes emphasize what not to touch. (Much like my high school teachers told us.) When a woman touched Jesus’ cloak, he felt power go out of him.

My birth family was loving, yet fairly anti-touch. One showed respect for another person by keeping a distance. Only in retrospect did I realize I had absorbed the unspoken rules concerning what distance was appropriate for approaching which category of person: aunt, cousin, friend, best friend, next door neighbor, neighbor two-doors down, unknown relative at a funeral, unknown relative at a wedding, shoe clerk, relative who married someone questionable. We practiced a refined culture of social distancing long before it became “a covid thing.”

Then I went to a college with Jewish students. Everybody was touching everybody. People I didn’t know, wasn’t related to in any way, hugged me. I was frozen in shock for at least one semester. I did manage to hug someone back before graduation.

Now I understand why there are more “Don’t Touch” warnings in the Bible, and not so many “Okay to Touch.” There are Biblical warnings about not touching because the people who wrote it were touching everything all the time! No encouragement needed.

So my life-long ease into the wonders of touching continues. Now I’d say that the power generated from a good solid hug, or back rub, or handing hands, is necessary for physical, mental, spiritual health. I’m guessing that is why we are covered, head to foot, with the sense of touch. Greeting each other from a distance is bad, but not hugging? How can we possibly keep our humanity?

Touch with our eyes. Look deep.

Touch with our voices. Speak gently.

Touch with our sense of smell. Breathe in deeply.

Touch with our ears. Listen carefully to each other. To birds, To music, To silence.

Touch with prayer.

–Alice Barrett

About “Irish Slavery”

This is not a political column. A political column would say:


But I am not a liberal. Holding a sign is necessary, but not nearly enough.

This is a radical religion column.

At issue: There is a section of my ancestral group who makes a big deal about Irish people having been slaves in the U.S. This is not literally true. You can find details in history books, or you can talk with your grandparents, or Snopes.

What gets my goat are white liberals who are outraged that any white person should claim having been oppressed, or who are, in their opinion, exaggerating. As though degrees of hatred and suffering are a bickering point. Thereby ignoring the roots of oppression.

You probably know this: In 1847 a movement called “Irish Lives Matter” would have been revolutionary, and more than a little helpful. The British decided that Irish, being poor and Catholic, were not quite human, and so were free to send in military, steal land, create wealth during the famine, and then they, literally, drove carriages to their estates passing corpses and people dying on the roadsides. Irish lives did not matter. Not because they were Irish, but because the structure required our being crushed, as they were crushing black Africans.

One group of people recognized that Irish lives mattered. The Choctaw people of Oklahoma sent relief money to Ireland during the famine, just sixteen years after white people force-marched them on the Trail of Tears. (This year Irish people sent respirators to Native Americans ignored by our white supremacist government.)

Conservatives use the phrase “All lives matter,” as an excuse to ignore blatant systematic racism. Don’t let them usurp the truth of that statement.

With apologies for those of my ancestral group who see solely through the lens of their own experience, think a minute. Are some trying to downplay the oppression of blacks by displaying their own? Illogical, but probably.  Was there a time when the British should have been confronted with an “Irish Lives Matter” uprising? Yes.

When I see the face of an elder black woman who has battled through hardship and hatred, who has come up loving and strong, I see my grandmother’s face. In that moment, I do not care which woman suffered more. My body aches. What I do know is that  Black people are rising up again against injustice and everyone of us must join together to radically change a structure that depends on the crushing of Black people.

The lesson, as BLM has been trying to make clear, is that Black lives matter right now. The system that requires their oppression needs more than defunding. When that happens, no one need fear that they will be next, re: the wisdom of pastor Martin Niemoller.

These are the things I learned from my family, Jesus, Buddha, from Thich Nhat Hanh, the Choctaw nation, innumerable others who embody the universality of living things. The universality  of suffering, unnecessary suffering. Of the sacredness of social justice.

If you are are tempted to comment that Blacks suffered more, or Jews suffered more, or Native Peoples suffered more, or that group is exaggerating, or this group isn’t suffering as much as it did before, you’ve missed the point.

The impossibility of encompassing it all, comparing it all, doesn’t matter. When humans come together and say, “Never again,” we can rest. And tell each other our stories.

But I’m not holding my breath.

“Kindred Spirits” County Cork, Ireland
thanking Choctaw Nation for famine relief in 1847

[A version of this column appears in The Ashfield News , MA, July 2020.]