by Mary B Thorpe
A question: who do you hang with? The people you choose to be in relationship with? The ones who are in your FaceBook feed, your favorite lunch dates, the ones who were a part of your Thanksgiving celebration this week?
Perhaps a more interesting question might be this one: Who do you think you hang with?
There are moments when I like to think I hang with the bright people, the good Christians, the creative ones, the witty people, the generous givers, the sharp ones who can turn a phrase into a wickedly funny pun at the drop of a hat.
Why? Is it because it may make me feel like I’m all those things, too?
(Well, I’d like to be all those things except for the part about the puns. I have no gift for that. My husband and his older brother can churn them out like chocolate candies on Lucy Ricardo’s conveyor belt, but me? No gift for that.)
But I’d like to believe that I am smart, witty, creative, good, generous, so thinking that I hang with people like that makes me feel better, because, after all, if I weren’t like them, they wouldn’t want to hang with me, right?
Perhaps this whole train of thought just gives you a headache. Let’s try another angle.
Here in Virginia, folks rarely say “who do you hang with?” Instead, I’ve frequently heard this language: “Who are your people?” That’s a question about lineage. Are you a Carter? A Lee, a Berkeley, a Tyler, a Rolfe? Are you a Randolph, or a Byrd?
Membership in particular bloodlines confers a certain privilege, a certain status. Those who can identify their people that way seem to have credentials that may give them cachet in some circles.
Who are your people?
I can think back to Thanksgivings past where my beloved dear people were gathered around the table. Most of them have gone on to another banquet table now, one that surpasses anything I could serve. But I look around that table in my memory, at my people, and what do I see?
No Carters. No Byrds. No Lees at this table.
I’m hanging with an alcoholic truck driver, a neurotic schoolteacher who was nearly beaten to death by her brother, the paranoid schizophrenic. I see a lonely Catholic priest, an exhausted shop owner, two first cousins who married who might in some places be considered guilty of incest. I see a cop with a sixth grade education who married a teenager 30 years his junior. I see an angry woman who beat her first child and adored her second.
Sounds like a soap opera, right? My people, the ones I hang with, even though I might not always admit it.
But I love my people, mostly, even though they’re not necessarily described by that list: the bright people, the good Christians, the creative ones, the witty people. Some of my people were wickedly smart but were unable to access the education to turn their brilliance into a more comfortable life. Some of my people were victims of circumstance but did the best they could for those whom they loved. Some of my people did very bad things and felt incredibly guilty about it. Some of my people did good in very quiet, almost invisible ways, at the margins of society, in the muck underneath the shiny places. Some of them knew me and loved me. Some of them formed me only through the stories about them that were conveyed around the table. Their stories are braided around my heart, thorny parts cutting into it and soft parts shrouding it.
Our people, those whom we hang with, say something about how we choose to live our lives.
It’s hard, I know. I’d rather look bright and shiny, and not have to make hard choices. But some among us have thrown down the gauntlet, daring us to make a harder choice. They’re usually not bright and shiny, at least not in the conventional way.
Consider Dorothy Day, for example. She died on this day in 1980. She was a wild girl, born in Brooklyn, radicalized in her late teens, converted to Catholicism in 1927 subsequent to an abortion and an unhappy marriage. She had always been oriented toward social justice and activism. This found a deeper outlet in the founding of the Catholic Worker Movement in partnership with Peter Maurin in 1933. This movement was deeply influenced by Communism, which drew fire from more conservative wings of Christianity. Her communist principles alienated some in the church; her religious fervor alienated some in radical circles. Her pacifism troubled still others.
Yet her voice, always a strong one for those on the margins and underneath, remained powerful. She spoke out as a pacifist, as an advocate for those who suffered oppression, as a passionate interpreter of the Gospel of Jesus who cares deeply for the poor.
She was not bright and shiny. She was a sinner – aren’t we all? She made many missteps, as my beloveds around the table did. And yet, because of the choices that Jesus made, to be a servant-king who died on the cross, she made hard choices to speak for those without a voice.
You can argue with her politics. You can point a finger at her troubled personal life, and it was mightily troubled. But there were choices that she made, in advocacy, in deep devotion to Christ and all God’s beloved children, in her desire to bring peace and justice to a troubled world, that are brighter and shinier than anything you can imagine.
I’d like to think that I’d hang with her. Probably not easy, though – she was a notoriously tough cookie and, frankly, she scares me a little. But I can imagine her being willing to hang with me, being willing to teach me to be one of her people, for the love of Jesus Christ…if I were willing to choose it.
We choose whom we hang with. We choose our people. If Jesus Christ has chosen us, what does that suggest about whom we can and should choose?
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The Rev. Dr. Mary Brennan Thorpe is Canon to the Ordinary for the Diocese of Virginia, a wife, mother, grandmother, iconographer, writer, knitter, and lover of opportunities to see old things in new ways. Her prior career as a lobbyist has caused some to wonder if she has gone from the profane to the sacred as a form of repentance. She blogs sporadically at Rev Mibi, and is in the midst of writing two books.