Morning Liturgy

Call to Worship

Just down Ridge Street, only a couple blocks from my house, a trio in neon orange vests semi-circled near heavy machinery. An orange sign propped atop the sidewalk informed me that road work was ahead. A line of orange cones cut into the paved lane, requiring drivers to creep through the tight squeeze. The youngest of the three gripped the T-handle of a jackhammer, steel driver resting ready on asphalt marked with blue spray-paint lines where the steel would bust the ground to smithereens. He clutched tight, but too tense, like a little-leaguer with his bat before the first pitch on his very first opening day.

The other two encouraged him, “Hold that big button now. Be ready.” One of them fired a growling generator, and the man clinching the steel watched me out of the corner of his eye, not wanting any strange faces to interrupt this moment he’d probably been dreaming of for years. I’m familiar with this fantasy, steering a wild jackhammer, blasting concrete and rock until nothing’s left but rubble and exhausted energy. I know what it is to be on the verge of sheer joy, sweaty palms and excited, taut muscles, ready.

Music

Is it blasphemy to say The Band did “Atlantic City” better than The Boss himself? A strong mandolin makes everything better.

Passing the Peace

The one fellow who refuses to look me in the eye continues his bulldogged persistence. Several weeks ago I thought we had a breakthrough, but apparently I only caught him when he let his guard down and allowed his eyes an inadvertent glance as I brushed past. In this sacred environ, he is the equivalent of the bookish man who refuses to surrender his one spot on the pew and who will walk out at 12:01 if the service has not concluded. Thankfully, there’s also a young newcomer who walks peppy and every single day tips his baseball hat at me when he says hello, like he’s the sheriff and I’m one of his townfolk.

Silence

Some mornings, I listen to one of Krista Tippett’s interviews. She always posts the edited version (the one produced for broadcast) and the unedited version (the complete feed, without any doctoring, thus including hiccups and technical snafus and rabbit trails that will surely never see the light of day). Perhaps my favorite part of the unedited track is the long pauses, the silences that make their way into a conversation that is real, not scripted. These silences come when you are not trying so hard to sound smart but rather to listen well, to be present with the one sharing your conversation. If there is a word I think we need to use more, it’s pause.

Blessing

Me to Wyatt and Seth: I love you. Have a great day. I’ll miss you.

Miska to me: I love you, beloved.

Eugene Williams

The first time I met my eighty-one year old neighbor, Eugene Williams, he said, “You know, you and me – we’re making history.” I was hooked. A few days later, I was back on his front porch, sharing pizza and Orange Crush with him and his wife Lorraine. Eugene shared tales of segregation and injustice, stories of my neighborhood. He told me how he was the third black to move on that end of the street – and how most of the whites quickly evacuated. He shared how he refused to use the cup labeled for “colored people” that hung above the water fountain at the old silk mill.
I walked into a world I never knew. I heard stories of my town and the way things once were. But more than anything else, I made two new friends.

Mr. Williams, a Charlottesville native, was born on Dice Street in 1928. Eugene has lived through much: a country clawing its way out of the Depression, WWII, segregation, the monumental Brown vs. Board of Education decision. He has seen many cycles of Spring and Fall in our city, many versions of city government, many people moving in and out of his town. As I’ve discovered, Mr. Williams has made many, many friends – he is beloved by many people from many walks of life.

And Eugene Williams should be much loved here – he has helped to make Charlottesville a better, more just place to live. When Charlottesville schools refused to desegregate (as did many Virginia public schools), Mr. and Mrs. Williams’ third-grade daughter, Scheryl, was bussed to one elementary while their white neighbor girl attended another. Eugene would have none of it – and he and his wife, along with a few other families, brought suit. Eventually, Scheryl arrived at Johnson Elementary, although unfortunately with a police escort. And again, when his fellow citizens needed an affordable place to live, Eugene risked most of his (and his wife’s and brother’s and sister-in-law’s) savings to purchase and renovate 21 properties that provided 62 affordable housing units for those needing a place with dignity to call home.

Mr. Williams would be the first to tell you there is more to be done. However, because Eugene Williams put his shoulder to the work of forcing Charlottesville schools to desegregate and because he put his money and reputation on the line to address the need for affordable housing in Charlottesville, all of us who live here receive the benefit. We owe Eugene Williams our thanks. Thank you, Mr. Williams. Thank you, neighbor.