As you well know, you are eighteen now because you often remind me of your adult status. In turn, I always remind you: “Since I’m still paying the bills, you get to hear my two cents.” We just finished our fifth youth mission trip together. It will be your last with your church friends, but I still have at least two more to go with Lauren. She will get her letter in two years. The idea to write this came to me when I was gleaning the field in Maryland. I had never gleaned before, and did not really even know what it meant, but it was a powerful experience. The solitude of that field allowed me to write this entire letter to you in my head as I settled into the meditative motion of pulling leaves from the collard and kale plants and stuffing them into bag upon bag.
I may let up a bit on telling you what to do, but I think there are some valuable things we have learned from these trips together and in fact, from our walk of faith together that started with your baptism. I am not going to make you feel guilty for not going to church in college because I did not attend church regularly in college. I want to leave you with something that you can read back upon when you feel the need for a Mama’s guidance, not just in the next four years, but in the next fifty.
When you are sick of school and the thought of studying for one more test drives you crazy, think about children in third world countries around the world, reading by candlelight, with outdated textbooks and limited school supplies, thrilled to get an education. Picture a little Afghan girl, maybe one with eyes like your sister who risks her life to attend school. Study for her.
If you ever find yourself complaining of the college dorm food or your future wife makes squash casserole (remember that fun meal?) and watermelon (please, I still do not think you are allergic to it), think about what we learned this week: Many families in your own country have to decide which child eats for the day and which child has to wait until the next day. When people tell you that there are jobs available if these poor people want them, tell them to try to provide for a family from minimum wage for a week. Think of the women in Haiti who eat clay to get enough calcium for their unborn children. Eat your mystery meat or squash casserole for the hungry.
When you are feeling that your way of worship is the only way, go sit through an African- American church service where sitting solemnly in the Presbyterian way is “weird” or attend a Quaker service where there is no worship service and the silence is completely deafening. If you feel Christianity is the only way, go have lunch with a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Jew, or even an atheist. Remember what the Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu doctors did for your Dad. They were doing God’s work, too. In fact, if you ever have preconceived notions of a minority group, racial, religious or cultural, you will only be able to drop your prejudices if you connect with people. Step out of your comfort zone, listen to every voice, and learn a new perspective.
When your back aches from a hard day of mowing and pulling weeds in your lawn on a Saturday, after you have already had a long work-week, reflect back to the day of gleaning the fields. Picture a migrant family, working 12 hour days, seven days a week at minimum wage, moving their family from place-to-place to find more work and facing discrimination wherever they stop. Suck it up and keep moving. Show gratitude for the luck that fate bestowed upon you by just being born into a white, middle-class family.
When you are feeling that your boss is not giving you the recognition you deserve, remember Mrs. Boyd. At 86, she has worked to get fresh fruit and vegetables to poor families in Washington DC since the early 1960’s. The working poor cannot always afford fresh produce. She does not expect recognition or appreciation in return. She does it because it is the right thing to do. Humble yourself and find self-satisfaction in your career, but remember that what you do for a living should never define you.
When you think your kids are acting spoiled or unappreciative, maybe take them on a mission trip or plan some regular volunteer work as a family to help them discover the gift of service. In fact, the secret is to start it when they are very young. Have them learn to sit quietly through a church service. Take them gently by the ear if necessary (it didn’t hurt you), and remind them to respect others’ rights to worship in peace, and it’s best for them to learn at an early age that the sun doesn’t rise and set on their rear ends. They also should learn that sometimes wisdom comes to us during the quiet times. Love them fiercely. Parent your kids with passion.
If you feel you are lost at any time in your life, maybe give faith a chance. Faith is the stuff that lies beyond the scientific and mathematical theories that you will learn. There are some great intellectual minds that make room for it in their lives, but you will meet plenty who want proof. There is no proof. That is what faith is all about. Even if we are all wrong, it will nourish your soul and enrich your time here on Earth.
Gleaning the fields goes back to Biblical times. As you now know, it is the process of picking up whatever is left behind in the fields by the farmer. Some of it not needed and some not up to market standards. The collards and kale we picked provided nourishment to someone who we will never know. I did some thinking on that day in the field and I wonder if you did, too. Do we leave behind people to rot in the field? Do we say: Why should I go and fix a house for this woman in Jacksonville who might not take care of it, any way? Why pull weeds and mulch a shopping center in Anacostia when you will never set foot there again? Why feed the recovering drug addict who doesn’t work and doesn’t really meet “market standard?” You never know what a single act of kindness might do for someone, and I hope you have learned over the years that God’s children are always worth it. Glean as may fields as you can, my Aaron.