I was born for Advent {guest post}

I've known Ramon Chaparro since high school, when he was the only Afro-Rican in the mega-churchy youth group we both attended, and for as long as I've known him, I've been impressed by his insights into the life of faith. He's been a faithful friend and encourager to me. I specifically asked him to share something for our advent series so that we could all be blessed by his words. Enjoy.

This time of year is always a little strange for me. I grew up in a pseudo-Christian sect (cult?) called the Worldwide Church of God that emphatically warned us against celebrating so-called Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter, which we were told had irreversibly tainted pagan roots. In fact, I don’t really remember hearing stories about Jesus at all until I was a teenager. Throughout my childhood, both the Christian narrative and the commercial trappings of Christmas were mostly alien to me.  The Christmas season had the allure of the forbidden, but it was never very familiar.

As strange as Christmas has been to me, my relatively recent introduction to Advent is coming much more naturally. I still have not been initiated into rhythms of the liturgical calendar and had not heard of the Hanging of the Greens until attending my goddaughter’s dedication in Chicago last weekend. However, I feel a deep connection to the heart of the Advent season because I find I have an unexpected familiarity with the biblical narratives of exile and hope which Advent is attached.

In some ways, it is natural for me to identify with the longing of Israel for a Messiah, for the end of exile. My father’s parents came to the U.S. from Puerto Rico in search of better economic opportunity, an opportunity afforded them by legislation which gave Puerto Ricans access to U.S. citizenship. Nonetheless, to this day Puerto Rico is not free. Call it what you want – commonwealth, territory, colony. The plain fact is that though the people live in the land, the land does not belong to them. The island of Vieques, a popular tourist destination, was used as a naval bombing range throughout years of protest until it was finally shut down in 2003. Now, the U.S. Navy is balking on some of the cleanup efforts. The island has also suffered from the effects of a thriving drug trade which is said to have contributed to 70% of the 1,136 homicides in 2011 (an overall murder rate that is five times the U.S. national average). Increasingly, many of the pristine beaches are becoming accessible to tourists at the expense of locals, as resorts and expensive beach houses proliferate. During Advent, I am glad to hear talk about justice being born in the abandoned places of Empire, but I have not once heard Puerto Rico mentioned in that context. The remnants of my family that still live on the island know what it means to live in exile.

On the other side of the family tree, my mother is African-American, born and raised under the legacy of Jim Crow in Little Rock, Arkansas. On her second birthday, the Arkansas National Guard was deployed by the governor to prevent nine black students from entering Central High School, in defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision for integration in Brown vs. The Board of Education (a defiance which was answered by the deployment of federal soldiers). 13 years later, my mother would briefly attend Central before finding the environment still inhospitable to black students and transferring.

I know that she and my grandparents have numerous stories that they have never told me of what it was like to live in that place, in those times. Nonetheless, there is a palpable pain in their silence. There is also a lingering weariness from the long injustice of living as second-class citizens in their own home, a weariness that gave birth to tears for my grandparents when Barack Obama was elected the first black president of the United States of America. They too know how it feels to live in exile.

As Amy mentioned in an earlier post, the music of Advent in the church is not familiar to me. I have instead found powerful expressions of the Advent narrative’s darkness before the light in the music of Nina Simone. Writing, singing, and performing throughout the Civil Rights Movement, she captures so well the raw emotions contained in the tension of despairing of hope in the face of oppression and violence, and yet longing for freedom with every fiber of one’s being. 

Three days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nina Simone and her band performed a raw, newly written composition in his honor called, “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)” at the Westbury Music Fair (it’s long, but please listen to it in its entirety). She sings:

He had seen the mountaintop and he knew he could not stop,
always living with the threat of death ahead.
Folks, you'd better stop and think because we're headed for the brink.
What will happen now that he is dead?

But, as is proper in any Advent song, her songs do not stop in the despair. My prayer for Advent - for the native lands of my family and the many others in the world suffering under oppression and violence – are the lyrics from Nina Simone’s performance of “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”:

Oh I wish I knew how it would feel to be free
I wish I could break all the chains holding me
I wish I could say all the things that I should say
Say  ‘em loud, say ‘em clear
For the whole round world to hear

I wish I could share all the love that’s in my heart
Remove all the bonds that keep us apart
I wish you could know what it means to be me
Then you’d see and agree that every man should be free

I wish I could give all I’m longing to give
I wish I could live like I’m longing to live
I wish I could do all the things that I can do
Though I’m way overdue, I’d be starting anew

Well I wish I could be like a bird in the sky
How sweet it would be if I found I could fly
Oh I’d soar to the sun and look down at the sea
Then I’d sing ‘cause I know, I’d sing ‘cause I know
And I’d sing ‘cause I know, I’d know how it feels
I’d know how it feels to be free