I have a book of liturgical prayers written by Beverly Sawyer, who served as an associate pastor at Pulaski Heights Methodist Church in Little Rock in the late 1970s and early 80s. I really appreciate her prayers, for while she used beautiful language, she could be brutally honest about our own feelings, shortcomings and missteps.
I found a prayer she wrote during the Cuban refugee crisis, when about 125,000 Cubans fled their homeland and came to America. Around 25,000 of the refugees were housed at Fort Chafee, about 160 miles from Little Rock. There were tensions and conflicts, and it was not a shining moment for the good people of my home state.
This prayer was written for Pentecost Sunday in 1980 when Sawyer was 27 years old. She died far too young in car accident ten years later. Her book of prayers is one of my treasured possessions, and I continue to be amazed (and sometimes dismayed) at how relevant her prayers still are today.
Here is her prayer, written during the time the Cubans came to Arkansas. Just replaced “immigrants” for “Cubans,” and you could use this prayer anywhere today.
They’ve filled Fort Chaffee with refugees, God.
Cubans, speaking Spanish, saying things we cannot understand about places we’ve never been.
We pick up newspapers, and we don’t know how to feel, as Klansmen march in the same old sheets, spreading the same old hate out of the same old fear.
We pick up the newspapers, and we don’t know how to feel.
We’re not about to don a sheet.
We don’t hate these unknown men and women and the sultry speech.
We don’t hate their desperate quest for a more tolerable life.
We don’t even hate the Klansmen, proud of their ignoble costumes, reviving the bigotry of their grandparents, seasoned with smug superiority.
We do not hate, but we are afraid–afraid of such an influx of people, wide-eyed and Spanish-speaking.
Where will they live?
And where will they work?
How will their children go to school?
Won’t they be resented by the poor?
And how with other racial groups respond as yet another group tries to melt into the pot?
How will we ever understand the Babel of their speech–the words that divide us?
Come, Holy Spirit on this Pentecost Day and work the miracle of Pentecost again.
Make our mouths speak with truth.
Make our ears hear with love.
And make our hearts understand that people are divided by hate and fear, not by speech, or culture, or ideology, or economy.
Give us the gift of tongues–not to babble ecstatic prayer, but to speak words of reconciliation and hope.