I was sitting in McDonald’s with my first Bible-study leader when I told her I didn’t want Jesus in my heart. I was in my first year at the University of Pittsburgh and she, her last. She was gorgeous to me, even exposed to the fluorescent light rattling around us, but she spoke like the incarnation of a Hallmark card, which both aggravated and saddened me. I told her I wanted God out there doing something, nodding to the street beyond the glass window. Why confined to a heart? She tried to defuse a look on her face by sipping on coffee that tasted like ash. I, embarrassed (whether on my behalf or hers, I did not know), began alternating peeling my bare legs off of the plastic booth to fill in the silence between us. Until finally she said, That’s where you’re changed, pointing to her heart not mine. And I didn’t have the courage to say, I like my heart just fine. She motioned toward our fluorescent canopy and back to her chest. For eternal life, God looks to the heart, she said. And I couldn’t tell her I had no desire to live forever.
As someone who is made of more doubt than faith, I find that Christians tend to want to talk to me about salvation. They seem quite concerned with the future of my faith, but they make the mistake of showing little interest in my present conditions. If asked to choose, I want a God who is someplace. Not just in “the heart,” but God standing on Fifth and Lothrop — God beyond the glass. I don’t just want to be rescued; I want to be taken someplace safe and good.
I think of Abraham’s descendants leaving the promised land and being forced into bondage. God didn’t raise up Moses just to free them from Pharaoh. They were liberated to somewhere. They left their chains and began making their way back home. What healing can manifest when place is restored, when those once dislocated from their home are delivered into it once again. It seems to me God’s promise was always a place. A liberation born of location.
And such a freedom does not unfold in a vacuum but stretches out through those who have known a place before us.
This is what they don’t tell you. You might think Abraham’s promise from God begins with him, but before Abram, there lived a man named Terah. Terah took his family and set out toward Canaan, but for reasons unknown to us, he settled somewhere along the way and never saw the end of his journey. Yet, years later, his son Abram would, by the mouth of God, set out on a journey to a promised land, a land we now know as Canaan. Abram’s promise did not occur in a vacuum. Whether he knew it or not, it remained connected to his father’s journey. Our question is not only What is this place to me? but also What has this place been to those before me and those who made me?
I do not know from where my ancestors were abducted. I cannot tell you what the air smells like there. I don’t know what sound the waves and soil speak. These things were stolen from me as they were from them. I think it is one of the deepest evils to become a thief of place, to make someone a stranger to their home, and then mark their relationship to the land by bondage instead of love. To steal place has less to do with power than with hatred. How much must one hate oneself and one’s life and one’s own land to run around chasing everyone else’s? I used to think colonization was about ego, and maybe it is. But maybe it’s not that the oppressors think they’re worthy of more but that they believe their present self is, in fact, worthless. It’s the work of people incapable of perceiving their dignity without attempting to diminish someone else’s. It is no surprise to me then that these same powers, in the end, care so little for the land they are desperate to conquer. It was never about love or curiosity or care but a violent act of self-soothing.
I am mystified when I read stories of enslaved people who liberated themselves with the hope of owning and caring for their own land someday. Didn’t they hate the cotton that pricked their bloodied fingers raw? Wouldn’t they have cursed the sugarcane as they sliced through it again and again, feeling their lower backs gnarl? They gave their bodies for a place that didn’t belong to them and to which they did not belong. I could understand if their bondage and demonic tethering to such land would drive them to a hatred of it. In mystery, it seems many found glimpses of freedom in it. Love, maybe. I am learning from this.
I hope God really is preparing a place for us. When God talks about getting her house ready, is she expecting us all at once? Does she have a gate, and if so, does she keep it open all through the night? Maybe there she will tell me the secrets of where I come from. She’ll pull me into the kitchen just before grace and whisper all the secret things once stolen from me. All the places that I’m made of and don’t yet know it. There I will learn the site of my soul. And we’ll saunter back to the banquet fuller and more whole than I’ve known.
From “This Here Flesh,” by Cole Arthur Riley. Copyright © 2022 by Cole Arthur Riley. Excerpted by permission of Convergent Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.