In Honor of Maya Angelou

In honor of Maya Angelou we are posting the transcript from Frederick Buechner's appearance on the Chicago Sunday Evening Club on October 4, 1992.

I am not going to preach a regular sermon today. Instead, I am going to tell you something that happened to me which really preached its own sermon to me. The older I get the more I find that those are the sermons that really make a difference to me in my life, the ones that God preaches through what happens to us. The event that I am talking about, the moment of grace, has to do with that. A few years ago I was asked to give some lectures in tandem with an extraordinary American black woman named Maya Angelou. Several things that took place then were eloquent with meaning to me and I want to share them with you.

Maya Angelou, for those of you who don't know her, is a kind of renaissance woman. She has done all sorts of things. She is a writer; she has written a number of autobiographical works including one wonderful one called I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; she is a singer; she has been a dancer; she worked with Martin Luther King during the Civil Rights period in the sixties; she has written an opera, etc. At one point, because of economic necessity, she tells how she worked as a prostitute for a brief time. She is a remarkable looking woman; she is my age; she is tall; she is black; she is gorgeous; she has tremendous presence. When she comes in a room, the whole room lights up.

There we were to do these lectures together in San Francisco. We were both there to tell our stories one way or the other. I told some of my story in the first lecture and the same man who introduced me got up to introduce Maya Angelou. He talked about who she was and how she grew up in the little town of Stamps, Arkansas, in the 1930's, the height of racism, segregation, dire poverty, in continual fear of their lives in many ways. After he introduced her that way he said, "She will now tell you her story and you will find it is a very different story from the one you have just heard from Frederick Buechner," i.e., me.

As he said, "She is going to tell a very different story from the one you have just heard from Frederick Buechner," I could see Maya Angelou sitting in the front row shaking her head back and forth.

When she got up in front of the microphone, the first thing she said was, "No, he is wrong. My story is not a very different story from Frederick Buechner's. It is the same story."

I found this terribly moving because in every obvious way you could hardly imagine two stories that were more different. She a woman; I a man. She black, I white. She growing up in direst poverty; I, by comparison, growing up in the lap of luxury.

Yet, she was right. We all do have the same story at a certain level, that is, when it comes to the business of how are we going to be human beings in this world. How are we going to believe in a just and loving God in a world which gives us so many reasons every day for not believing in a blasted thing. How are we going to survive what happens to us, especially very often the sad things that happen to us as children. At that level indeed, we all do have the same story. That was the opening of this moment of grace to me, those words she spoke.

The second one was, as she was talking about this and that, she made a comment that I had never heard before. She said, "You know, in slavery times the slaves were not allowed to laugh in many plantations." There was a rule against it which I had never heard before. You can see why there might have been such a rule -- the fear, I suppose, that if the slaves started laughing, then they end up laughing at the masters or maybe worse than that; if the slaves started laughing, the laughter might become infectious and the master would laugh with the slave. How can you laugh with a person one day and have the person be a slave the next day?

In any event, that was the rule, she said. On some plantations, there grew up a practice among the slaves of dealing with that. When the urge to laugh became absolutely irrepressible, they had what they called "the laughter barrel." At the moment when they couldn't hold it any longer they would, under the pretext of getting something out of the barrel, lean way down inside the barrel and let it all come out. They would laugh and laugh and laugh.

Then she said that the night before there had been a wonderful service -- the thing that began the lectures -- in an Episcopal Church to sort of launch the thing on its way. It was a high church Episcopal service. Many bishops were there, incense, chanting, cloth of gold, beautiful vestments, miters. There was a man holding the silver cross coming down the aisle in front of the whole procession.

She said, "As I watched that, I thought to myself that off of every chancel in every church, there should be a laughter room and at a certain point in these great services, everybody should go off into the laughter room and just laugh and then come back and pick up the silver cross and gold garments and continue the thing on again."

Everybody laughed at that because it was a kind of a joke. On the other hand, it seemed to me there was a wonderful truth about it. In a sense, what do we know about what we are doing in churches, our rituals or our lack of rituals; the way we read the bible in one way at a certain time and another way at another time; in what sense do we think that in some way we have mastered who God is, the unimaginable, the gracious, the glorious, the inexpressible God whom in our little services we do the best we can to describe and react to? In many ways, it is laughable.

The most moving thing that happened was when, following one of her lectures, there was a question and answer period during the course of which a man stood and said, "Ms. Angelou, tell us something about racism. Do you find it better than it was or worse? Are you more aware of it on the East Coast than on the West Coast?"

She said, "Let me tell you a story."

The story she told was this. She had been in the San Francisco area ten or fifteen years earlier for the purpose of putting on a Public Television show on African art. Before the show was to go on, she had a call from a stranger who said that he happened to have a collection of African statues of some kind which he thought might be very useful to her on this program and perhaps she would like to see them and maybe use them. Of course, she accepted the offer and saw them. They were indeed just what she wanted. He lent them to her and she used them in her program in very artful ways which were appealing to the man who lent them.

As a result of that, they started a friendship. She got to know the man and his wife. They had dinner together a number of times and got to be really good pals. When the Public Television thing was over, she went back to the East Coast.

A few years later, she returned to the Bay Area and remembering this friendship, she called up the man and said, "It is Maya Angelou. I'm back again. I would love to pick up our friendship where we left it off. I enjoyed you so much before."

He said, "Terrific. Let me tell you a little bit about what I have been doing during the interval." He had been in Europe working with the problems of the American troops stationed over there.

She said, "How did it go?"

He said, "The black troops have a particularly hard time because they are black and there aren't many blacks around. But our boys, also..."

She said, "What did you say?"

He said, "The black troops have a particularly difficult time for various reasons but our boys, also..."

She said, "What did you say?"

A third time she went through it. All of a sudden, as she described it, he, himself, heard what he said and said in effect, "This is the most awful thing I have ever done. I can't continue the conversation. I have got to hang up, to have said such a thing to you, Maya Angelou, 'the black boys, our boys.'"

She said, "No. This is just why we must talk because that is what racial prejudice is. Beneath the superficial liberal utterance, there is the deep, ingrained sense of 'black boys, our boys.'" Nonetheless, they continued the conversation and agreed to meet.

What happened then was she tried a number of times to get hold of them, to meet him and see him and his wife. Again and again, the calls didn't go through. She left messages which weren't answered and finally the whole thing just fizzled out. So that was, in a way, her answer to the question, "How about racism?"

It moved her and upset her and that was the last question she took that day.

The next day, the second set of lectures we were to give, she returned to the podium and said, "I'm sure you noticed that I was moved by what I told you yesterday in answer to your question about racism." Then she said, "A remarkable thing happened as I was leaving the hall. A man in the audience stood up and said, 'Here I am.'"

It was the man she had been talking about. As she said that, the man himself again rose up, a small, white, Episcopal clergyman as it turned out. He walked up to the platform and threw his arms around Maya Angelou and she around him. They embraced one another and they wept. It was one of the most moving moments I have ever been part of in many, many ways.

What makes it so moving? I think that what we saw was not only racial barriers but so many different kinds of barriers that separate us as human beings -- fear, mistrust, misunderstanding, anger, loneliness, the inability to communicate with each other, even those we love the most and are closest to. In so many ways, we move through our lives like lepers, the untouchable ones, the unclean ones, afraid to touch other people's lives and let our lives be touched by other people, ashamed of our own uncleanness, suspicious of other people.

What was so moving was that when that large, black woman and that small, white man embraced, we saw that no one is untouchable, not even ourselves. We saw that as Maya Angelou said, "We all do have the same story when you get right down to what life is really all about." We saw that the kingdom of God, as Jesus said, is really among us, potentially, always, as the capacity we have, as those two people at that time had, to love and to forgive and to allow one's self to be loved and to be forgiven.

When you and I fail to embody what happened at that moment in the church when Maya Angelou and the white man embraced each other, when the church fails to embody that moment, all that we do in church becomes sort of empty, a kind of ecclesiastical vaudeville and the laughter is bitter laughter.

When the church does not embody that kind of forgiveness and love, it becomes in so many ways like a dysfunctional family which consists of sort of a superficial togetherness and yet a kind of inner-loneliness, hidden agendas, ministers who are out to hide their humanness behind their sermons and parishioners who are out to hide their humanness from their ministers.

Where the church does embody what happened in that moment of grace that I have been describing to you, when it does embody that, then the laughter and the laughter room is, of all laughter, I think, the holiest, because we have not only the "good news" but in a sense we have become the good news. Like lepers, we are cleansed by the love of God working among us and within us. That is what healing is about and what wholeness is about and what the church and the kingdom of God are all about.”‹