taking the words of Jesus seriously

The below excerpt is taken from Rev. Charles Howard’s forthcoming book The Bottom: A Theopoetic of the Streets, releasing next month. 


I have always been enchanted by lines that are gray

sfumato blurred borders between the now and the not yet

the real and the surreal
the hyperreal
the imagined.

Some realities are self-constructed presenting what we want others to see.

Susan Howatch calls these “Glittering Images.”

Some realities are projected onto others disallowing them to be free.

My father called this being Black in America.

And some realities are not yet.

Our children will call that home.

What follows is a true story

or it could be
will be

I write it in dust on the ground

like liberated poetry

And I give it all away
like fire giving warmth
fire giving light

fire burning a palace to the ground.

Everyone has a burning bush moment.

Yet very few of us pause
remove our sandals
and look into the fire.

Fewer still listen to the call
coming from within the miracle.
And it is the rare individual who overcomes themselves

and actually answers it.

The desert journey from enkindled calling to liberating plagues

must be trod very carefully
while dancing freely.
My feet have walked this path

burned from the sand

bloody from the stones.

Migrated from careless personal ascent

to careful anonymous descent.

I write this in story
in song
in graffiti

in poem

in prayer

I write it in dust on the ground

like liberated poetry
And I give it all away

that you may find the flame in your own life and follow its call.

That you will go out under the humble veil of anonymity and

shake down the walls of whatever Egypt you’re living in.
That you can help

people (and perhaps yourself) cross into freedom in small or big ways.

And dance by the sea.

READ: 1,000 Tongues, and the Job of Telling the Truth

Reflections from the Bottom

All liberating efforts—whether undertaken by activists, politicians, scholars, or artists—must be simultaneously grounded in both a “concrete now” as well as the beneath-the-soil “not yet” seedling. It is both historical and constructive — something like the perennial flower whose past deaths are as integral to the story as its future blooming. It is a chronologically and existentially liminal space—something akin to Pac’s Rose that Grew from Concrete.

When thinking of the liberative task, I first look to the brilliant Stephen Ray’s articulation of one of the goals of Black Liberation Theology as being a “reconstruction of the center.” This alludes to the painful reality that people of African descent (or ascent as the great James Spady would say) have for too long in too many places navigated life from the margins of society.

Our experience is marginalized, and we exist in the margins of influence and control far from the center. Yet, we seek not to displace the existing white (male, straight, Christian, able- bodied, cis-gendered) power structure, but rather to introduce other marginalized voices into the center as well. A theology of the bottom continues that project (while adding in class, economic hierarchies, and literal physical spaces) and asks that those on the top in the high-rises and high towers—those in the center—descend to the street and to the margins to work for change from there.

About The Author


The Rev. Charles (Chaz) Lattimore Howard, Ph.D., is an Episcopal Priest and The University Chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania. He has served in both hospital and hospice chaplaincies, and as a street outreach worker to individuals experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia. His writing has been featured in such publications as Black Theology: An International Journal, Daily Good, Sojourners magazine, Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal, Chronicle of Higher Education, The Huffington Post, The Christian Century, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Forward, and Slate. He is the author of five books including most recently "Pond River Ocean Rain," a collection of brief essays about going deeper with God, and the forthcoming book "The Bottom: A Theopoetic of the Streets." He shares life with his beloved wife Dr. Lia C. Howard and their three daughters.

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