Saturday, August 16, 2014

Unspoken assumptions

(This post is part of a series of blogs by Canon Chris Harris as he shares some of his experiences during his field study this summer with Episcopal Community Services. Read the whole series here)

I met a gentlemen at ECS the other day and as I normally do, I said something like, “so what are you up to?” His answer surprised me.

“I’m working on my spoken word, “ he said with particular weight and significance.

Well that was unexpected, I thought. Immediately I began wondering, could it be that he really is just working on speaking? After all, the clients I encounter at Episcopal Community Services virtually all suffer from various forms of mental illness. I began to think to myself, can you imagine a life where all you had was your “spoken word?” Or if speaking itself was such a challenge that you needed to work on it and practice? I could start to feel the compassion for this poor man swell within me. What a sweet man to admit so proudly that he was working on the simple act of speaking -- something that we all take for granted?

I was about to just smile and let him be on his way when he continued, “I just gave a performance the other day. Didn't you hear it?”

Huh? Suddenly I realized this might not be what I was thinking at all.

“No, but tell me more about it,” I asked.

Well after talking to the gentlemen for a while, I began to feel pretty stupid. He could talk just fine. “Spoken word” wasn't about him working on taking, it was the name for a performance that he did! Like rap, Spoken Word is a kind of street poetry. According to him, his Spoken Word was a way of offering commentary on life, the news or things he’s seen on the streets. Often it’s just him, but occasionally he has a drummer accompany him. He performs downtown at Horton Plaza but also spontaneously, wherever he finds himself when the spirit strikes him. What’s more, he performs not for himself, but for the benefit of others.  A kind of street angel.

Intrigued, I quickly Googled it and found this on Wikipedia:

The art of spoken-word poetry has existed for many centuries. The Ancient Greeks included spoken-word poetry in their Olympic Games. Similar exercises were encouraged in political and social discourse in what was then an ancient and thriving form of democracy. Modern spoken-word poetry originated from the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance and blues music as well as the 1960s beatniks. The term "spoken word" was first adopted to explain the new art coming out of the postmodern art movement. Modern-day spoken-word poetry became popular in the underground Black community in the 1960s with The Last Poets. The Last Poets was a poetry and political music group that was born out of the African-American Civil Rights movement.

Wow. Now I really felt stupid. Not only was I ignorant of a fairly noble art form with a storied history, but more importantly, I was guilty of harboring some fairly low expectations of the person I had just met. After all, before he explained himself, I was going to let this gentlemen pass by with little more than a smile and some misplaced pity.  This incident reminded me that I probably do this far more often than I realize -- particularly with homeless people. How often had I misjudged someone in the past without even knowing it. How often have I missed opportunities for understanding and connection because of hasty prejudgments? How often have I seen only what I expected to see, rather than what was really in front of me?

And how many times as a result, have I missed an opportunity to entertain an angel unaware?

Chris Harris is Canon for Congregational Development at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral and postulant for holy orders. His passion is helping people integrate their faith and a sense of call into all aspects of their lives -- workplace, finances and relationships -- while designing a life of purpose and mission. He can be reached at or connect with him on Facebook

1 comment:

Simon Mainwaring said...

Thanks so much for sharing this, Chris. I cannot tell you how many angels I have failed to entertain over these 11 years of ordained ministry! The beauty of it, though, is that there is always more grace.
Thank you for being open and so articulate through your blog this summer.
Simon Mainwaring