The term “prophetic voice” always comes alive for me when I am able to speak with the Reverend Moses Sowale of Grace Chapel in Brockton, MA. I knew when I began ECM’s Lent story collecting campaign that I wanted him to be a part of it. When I invited him to share one of his stories, he said that making the time to write would be challenging for him, so I had the fortune of Facetiming with him on March 1. This piece is an adaptation of our conversation.
Caroline Weeks: The season of Lent is often one of self-examination. Is there anywhere you feel called right now to examine yourself? This doesn’t necessarily have to be a self-effacing thing.
Rev. Moses Sowale: This Lent, I have been reflecting on a poem by Alan Cohen, called “They Are Singing Your Song.” It has themes of being known, self-examination, self-awareness - a theme of identity, of discovering who you are, apart from expectations, approval, and what you are labeled as. We don’t know who we are, we have been subjected to stigmas, stereotypes, all forms of conjectures - many of us want people to know us but we don’t know ourselves.
When we look at the last words of Jesus on the cross - “Father, forgive them, for they do not know [what they do]” - I am reflecting on our ignorance. What is that costing us? Father, we don’t know ourselves and don’t know others - it brings fear, suspicion.
In the Old Testament, the reason Pharaoh oppressed the Israelites was that he did not know these people, he was afraid they would become so great they would take over the land. He called on his counselors for suggestions, and they called for him to kill the Israelites - kill all the males and let the girls live. The root of all this was ignorance. The Book of Exodus opens with “There was a king who did not know.” Ignorance precedes fear, precedes oppression, precedes insecurity, because we don’t know - we’re scared.
When Jesus said his last words, even when he was talking about himself, he was also speaking for me. He spoke to our need for creating room for our own ignorance of ourselves and ignorance of others about us. True salvation, true liberation, can’t happen until we understand two things: forgiveness, and to know and be known.
CW: That rings very true for me. It reminds me with attitudes we’re dealing with around immigration right now - there is a inability to see on the part of legislators and American citizens, to really see our immigrant neighbors and who they are. In your own life, where are you feeling known or not known?
MS: I feel the young people know me. For instance, my son was being interviewed, and the interviewer asked him what he would do if he had a lot of money, if I had a lot of money, and he told them I was going to build a beautiful city for young people. He knows the passion of his father. I sometimes feel people in authority, parents, clergy, they don’t understand, they don’t know. We have this cloud, this veil, that is keeping us from knowing what we should be doing, where we should put our resources. We are clouded by fear, distracted by degrees, power - we become short-sighted.
CW: And it sounds like you know them! Why do you think feeling known and seen is so important to us?
MS: The need to be known is deep. Some people are looking in marriage, in friendship, in food, in shopping, in substances - to fill that vacuum. But we cannot. All we are really looking for is someone who knows us. I want to share the poem I mentioned with you.
See, when the child does anything that is wrong, any misbehavior, any bad pain that is against the norm of the society - the village doesn’t believe in punishment, they believe that they just need to remember who that child is. They bring the child to the village square and sing to them.
That to me sets the parameter and radius of my purpose in life - I want to know Caroline. I want to know her for who she is, and after I know her - I want to remind her of who she is when she has forgotten. The Islamic religion says that human beings are forgetful beings. We often tell our friends, remind me to buy this thing in the grocery store. We are forgetful beings. What we need are people who remind us who we are - there will be no need for competition and fear of our neighbors.
CW: And I want to know you, Moses. I think this is especially poignant right now, as I was saying earlier with immigration, but also in our personal dealings with each other, across political lines and in families.
MS: We don’t even know ourselves. We are all victims of this ignorance - this lack of knowledge, of true identity, is an epidemic that we all need to humbly confront. I have a supervisor who has helped me with the word “confront,” they say “carefront.”
In my Nigerian culture, there is a saying: “A mother is gold, and a father is a mirror.” When the mother dies, the precious gold is gone, when the father dies the mirror is broken.
I realized about 90% of the children I work with don’t have their fathers in their lives - whether he died, is incarcerated, or just doesn’t care. [...] And then there was an epiphany of my own life - I don’t even know my own father. My father died when I was three months old. But this proverb made me think differently about it. How do I know who I am if I don’t have a mirror? Where do you turn to when your mirror is broken?
There are 2 places to turn to: one, when I look at my children - they show me who I am. The second place to turn to is to turn to God - he is our heavenly father. If we can get closer to him and look inward, we will see who we are. And we can discover our old song, and teach our friends how to sing our song to us. Rather than expecting people to love me and respect me - do I love myself? Do I respect myself? To know me means everything - my darkness, my light, my beauty and my ashes. How do I get the courage to embrace all of who I am?
CW: That has been something so challenging for me recently. How do I know who I am? Why do I think so poorly of myself so often? Who or what is telling me who I am right now? Why do I believe that more than I believe what God says about me?
MS: Sometimes during Lent, the self-examination is about examining how sinful and bad you are - but I am turning that around - what is good, what is unique [about you]? Can you imagine that there is no other fingerprint than yours?
The first mention of knowledge is in Genesis chapter four, after the fall. God said, and Adam knew his wife - it meant a sexual relationship in that place. It occurred to me that after that first mention of knowledge there was conception - but you know the word of the scriptures are not to be read literally, you must look for what God is really saying. God is saying for us to conceive - to discover the creative nature of God. Not on the physical or casual level.
It is my prayer to first forgive like Jesus did, and then to know and be known.