Column by Mary Lee Talbot
To change the world, follow Jesus’ commandment to love.
“How many of you know what the number 46664 stands for?” asked the Rev. Karyn L. Wiseman at the 9:15 a.m. Monday morning worship service. Her sermon title was “Bountiful Barns,” and the scripture reading was Deuteronomy 28:1-14.
The number was the prisoner code for Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. He was prisoner number 466 of the year 1964, hence 46664. “For 27 years he was called by that number, defined by that number, limited by that number, but he knew he was more than that.”
Wiseman went to South Africa with a group of pastors and students to learn what life was like under apartheid. She described the hierarchy of privilege with whites free to go anywhere they wanted, living in communities surrounded by razor wire to protect them from other South Africans. Other people were labeled Indian, Colored and Black and restrictions got more severe for each group.
Black South Africans needed written instructions with directions of where they were going and a pass just to get to work. If they forgot the pass, they were turned around at a checkpoint and sent home.
In her visit to Robben Island, Wiseman saw the cell where Mandela lived. “It had a mat on the floor, a pillow, a table and a wash basin. He was sent every day to a rock quarry to break up rocks. But in their free time in the afternoons, Mandela would sit in a grape arbor in the common area with paper that he and other prisoners had scrounged and he would write. He was protected there because the prison guards would not go there. He hid his writings in the arbor.”
Wiseman sat under the arbor to write about what she was experiencing, but she could not write a word. “I have been a writer all my life and I wanted to record my thoughts and feelings, but nothing came. I walked out and a friend said, ‘Did you get anything done?’ and I said no. He told me to go back; I did and started free writing.”
She continued, “I have never had the law stacked against me, except for my sexual and relational choices. I am white, well-educated with lots of titles in front of my name. For the first time I felt a sense of connectedness to a history that was overwhelming. I had entered a different world.”
Wiseman reflected on her experience of communities surrounded by wire and townships where the same scars still fester from apartheid. As a tourist, she picked up stones from the quarry where Mandela worked and saw the cave in the quarry where he wrote during breaks. An African American participant in the group said to her, “It’s not that much better at home.”
Growing up in West Texas, Wiseman said, “we considered Catholics a minority, there were a few Latinx people and some Black athletes in school. In the ’60s, someone told me about riots in the cities and someone even told me about Stonewall when I was 7.”
Wiseman’s mother was a teacher. The local school board in Levelland, Texas, under orders to integrate the schools, decided to send one white teacher to the predominantly Black school and one Black teacher to the predominately white school.
“That was integration. The board even told my mother that she would have to get my father’s permission to teach in the Black school. She told them, ‘You offer me that job now or I won’t take it.’ As I grew, I began to understand things,” Wiseman said.
When she got to seminary, she was in a United Methodist polity class. The professor put out a handful of jelly beans during the class devotions. The green jelly beans represented creation, the yellow ones royalty, red the blood of Christ, white the purity of those washed in Christ’s blood.
“That left the black ones, representing evil, destruction and sin,” Wiseman said. “No one was eating the black ones. I met a friend during the class break and I asked if he was going to say anything about the racism in the class. He said, ‘Why should I? You figured it out.’ The professor clearly didn’t have a clue.”
She continued, “Black hat equals villain; white hat equals hero. This was the first time I was living in a diverse community and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s what you hear, white is good, black is bad.’ Many people say they don’t see color but they are not honoring the person.”
As Wiseman thought about Mandela, she told the congregation that the United States has come so far in race relations, but not nearly as far as we need to go. She cited the Black and Brown people who have been killed because of the color of their skin. She recalled, in the past year, Kaylin Gillisk who pulled into the wrong driveway and was shot by the owner of the house, and Ralph Yarl who was shot when he went to the wrong house to pick up his brothers from daycare.
“How do we as a nation move forward when we are in so much pain?” Wiseman asked. “With new laws restricting voting, food deserts, homophobia, classism, how do we change the dynamic?”
She illustrated her answer with a story of her mother’s time teaching in the Black school. For the first six weeks of school, the children did not talk, as hard as her mother tried to get them to speak. One day, a girl put her pencil down and it rolled off the desk.
Wiseman’s mother bent down to pick it up and the girl hurriedly said, “Thank you.” Mrs. Wiseman asked, “Why did you wait until now to talk?” The girl said, “I thought I was going to get in trouble; I never talked to a white lady before.” That exchange changed the dynamic of the class and the children began to talk – Mrs. Wiseman had a good year with them.
In the scripture reading from Deuteronomy, God made a covenant with the Iraelites. There would be bounty, full barns, plenty to eat, if the people followed God. “ ‘If’ is said three times in this passage,” Wiseman said. “The Israelites will be a chosen people if they follow God’s commandments.”
She continued, “I have trouble with this ‘if’ because the covenant is not between equals. I don’t think God set up the rules so that ‘if’ you do this, you will get that. I don’t think God works like that. There are 613 commandments in the Hebrew text.”
Wiseman suggested the way to move forward, to change the dynamic in the world, is to call attention to the laws that bless and restrict the ones that harm others.
“We have to work for voting rights. We always have to see color; if we don’t, people will continue to be ‘the other,’ ” she said.
Jesus gave a new commandment – to love one another. “Jesus did not say ‘if’ you love, but ‘when’ you love, the world will grow and nurture those who are left behind. When we follow Jesus’ commandments and love one another, that changes everything.”
The Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, senior pastor for Chautauqua Institution, presided. Kriss Miller, the host at the Quaker House, read the scripture. The prelude, played by Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist, was “Andantino,” from Sonata No. 1 by Florence Price. The Motet Choir, under the direction of Stafford and accompanied by Nicolas Stigall, organ scholar, on the Massey Memorial Organ, sang “For the Beauty of the Earth,” by John Rutter. Stigall played “Let his work your pleasure be,” by Dan Locklair, for the postlude. Support for this week’s chaplaincy and preaching is provided by the Robert D. Campbell Memorial Chaplaincy and the Jackson-Carnahan Memorial Chaplaincy.