We were standing at the airport in Havana, Cuba, preparing to depart for our return home when our translator, Vladimir, turned to me and asked, “What is a ‘grinch’?” His look of confusion was understandable given he could find no Spanish translation of the word.
In the moments remaining before our flight departed, I told Vladimir the now 50-year-old classic story of a lonely small-hearted curmudgeon who hates Christmas and plots to stop it from coming. When I told the part in the story where, despite the Grinch’s removal of all Christmas gifts, decorations and food, the songs of Christmas were still sung exuberantly on Christmas morning, Vladimir looked at me in astonishment. It was hard for him to comprehend their Christmas morning joy, but I assured him it was true, and that I had witnessed the truth of the story there in his Cuban homeland.
Recently I witnessed, again, this truth found in the classic story while attending the Conference of Black National Churches in Charleston, S.C. With the trial of Dylann Roof happening simultaneous to the conference, I listened with similar incredulity as preachers and vocalists proclaimed praise and rejoiced in God, in the setting where nine church members were slaughtered while praying. How could they sing praise in the midst of such reality?
The reality articulated at the Conference of Black National Churches highlighted the domestic terrorism black lives face daily on the streets of the U.S., the shocking actuality of black children’s names becoming hash tags, the disproportionate killing of black men and women by police officers being recorded, and the similar disproportionate incarceration of black men. And yet this reality does not bring an end to the ability of the black community to sing and rejoice.
At the conference I heard a white denominational leader, John Dorhauer, general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, tell of taking the youth from his white church to visit a black church. There they witnessed the black youth choir’s spectacular singing. Then Dorhauer turned to his own youth suggesting to them that there was no reason why their singing couldn’t match the joy found in the singing of the black youth choir, only to be overheard by the black pastor who protested. There was no way, the black pastor opined, that white voices could sing like black voices, for they had not experienced the same reality.
“Privilege cannot mimic the joy of the oppressed,” one speaker at the conference offered.
Today there are members of the white church who are praying for that same joy this Christmas season as they daily witness, with horror, the makeup of our nation’s next administration, and in my state of North Carolina, witness the power-grabbing actions of our legislature.
May our hearts grow three times like the Grinch’s! May we learn to sing “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” as joyously as the church in Cuba. And may we learn from those who have suffered and endured, how to convert our righteous anger into meaningful action. That is my Christmas prayer.