Real Mission: Educated, Part 2
One of my big goals with this blog is to chip away at all the stuff we have built up around the word “mission”, and the title “missionary.” Like the “E” word (Evangelist), being labeled a missionary is something with which most Episcopalians find extremely uncomfortable. I think that is because we have conflated “missionary” with “colonizer” as we have comingled “Christian” with “white supremacist who loves America, maybe more than Jesus."
In order to reclaim and reframe those associations, I try to help people see the efforts in their lives as mission work. I asked Ms. Nelson Linck:
Slane: Have you ever thought of your teaching career as missionary work?
Nelson Linck: Definitely! You know, my mom was a missionary for The Episcopal Church! She was in Haiti for five years. So, I grew up with a missionary.
Turns out, Debbie’s life is deeply rooted in the mission of the Church. Her parents, born in the early 1920s, were from Memphis. “Momma was a cradle Episcopalian and daddy was a Baptist.” They met at LeMoyne-Owen College. Her father, drafted to WWII during his studies there. Her mother stayed behind and continued her education. After graduation, she went to Union Theological Seminary and Columbia College in New York and received a dual masters degree. Debbie’s mother actually got her Masters of Divinity, but she was never ordained. She told Debbie she never wanted to be a priest, she just loved the Church.
From New York she went to Haiti and served as a missionary there from 1943-1948.
Nelson Linck: She was this little, tiny, slight thing with dark, dark, dark brown skin and she just gets on this boat and goes. And I’m thinking, “what in the world possessed her?”.
In 1945 when the war had ended, her father went back to LeMoyne-Owen College and finished his courses there on the GI Bill.
Nelson Linck: My dad left Memphis and came to St. Louis to go to medical school. He was going to be a surgeon, and he had an uncle here who was paying for his education. He was, of course, at Homer G. Philips here, because that is where Black doctors went.
In the course of her father’s studies, his uncle died, and without a benefactor to pay for his schooling, he could not continue on the path to becoming a surgeon, but instead became a medical technologist.
In 1953 her parents were married at All Saints Episcopal Church in St. Louis, Missouri. This parish then served as Debbie’s childhood church until the mid-1960s when Debbie’s mother and the priest of the church had a falling out over the faithful engagement of Civil Rights for their community.
Nelson Linck: Mamma had a commanding presence, people just liked being around her. She was like that sage kind of person that people gravitate to, and he didn’t like that.
At the age of thirteen, Debbie’s parents moved their membership to Christ Church Cathedral, St. Louis, and she has been a member there ever since.
It was there, at Christ Church Cathedral, where Debbie would later read the Holy Scriptures at both my wedding and my ordination to the priesthood.
Hearing the story of Debbie’s past reminded me of a lesson I learned in Kindergarten, famously summarized in Robert Fulghum’s poem All I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten. Fulghum writes:
Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
Debbie’s mother’s story is a part of her missionary story. She finds comfort and ease with the association because her mother was her example of a missionary and her story was not about dominance, or about “wining souls for Christ.” It was about following the urging of the Holy Spirit to step outside of one’s self, to follow Jesus outside of her comfort zone and discover the beauty of humanity, to behold what we were meant to be.
Nelson Linck: I grew up with a missionary, with a person who was very, very active in the Church. Daddy later became an Episcopalian, but he never did get used to the music. He came to church with us because he loved my mom, and he loved Jesus, too.
The roots go down, and the shoot springs up, and because we’re all like that, our conversation soon turned to a vocation that we share. Motherhood. The garden we water daily, even when we feel in drought.
Slane: What was it like being a young working mother with two kids in tow and trying to do all of that? Trying to impact a generation.
Nelson Linck: People treated my kids differently because they were pretty. Isn’t that awful?
Slane: They learned something else about the world there. Didn’t they?
Nelson Linck: They sure did.
Slane: It’s almost as if we are always learning something, even if we don’t mean to. The world will make us learn things, you know, about the way the world works.
Nelson Linck: My kids were smart, so they were in the gifted program. There weren’t any other Black kids. So, then it was: where do I get my kids some Black friends? What do I do about that? But then, you kind of learn, as a parent, your kids gravitate to like people. Kids don’t care about Black and White. They care about truth, and kindness, and honesty.
I guess that’s why Jesus tells us that we must be like children to enter the kingdom of heaven. We must be like the sprout we were before the world sprayed a bunch of pesticides on us.
Nelson Linck: I let my kids identify themselves. At one point, Peter identified as Black. That was it. He was into every Black thing you could think of, except clothes. He’s always been a Birkenstocks and sock boy. I told him, you know, Black people don’t do that. They’ve identified as Bi-racial and Multi-racial. But people just look at them and they decide what they want them to be.
Nelson Linck: When they went off to college and they were filling out all the paperwork they said to me ‘what should we mark?’ I said, what do you want to mark? It’s their game. It’s not your game. And since they made the game up, you play it how you want. You be whatever you want to be.
Slane: That is amazing to me that you allowed them to self-direct so much on that. When I was a kid in school, and we started standardized testing, I remember very distinctly my dad sitting us down and saying to us ‘girls, those tests that you are taking in school are going to ask you what race you are; and when you are filling in those little bubbles, you don’t just mark White. You fill in that little bubble that says Other, and if there’s a line, you write Greek.
That was my dad. He has never wanted us to lose our Greek identity, our heritage, our roots.
That is something amazing I have discovered in these past few years of more deeply discovering what it means for me to be a White woman in America today. At some point, my dad chose, or society chose, to see my dad only as White. The blanket of snow that covers a multitude of identities. There were a lot of ways for my dad, and our family, to benefit from just being White. But I knew deep down, it hurt to lose that part of himself. I think that is why he told us to fill in the Other bubble.
Two of the great sprouts rising from the complicated soil of racial injustice in America are my two little boys, Constantine and Aristotle. As far as we know, they are mostly French, German, Irish, English, and Greek, but their names carry the legacy that my dad never wanted me to forget. We’re not just White. We are complicated. The fertile soil filled with all sorts of things that make us grow or feed us toxic junk.
Nelson Linck: That’s the thing about race. You have to navigate it differently at different times of your life. You’re always learning, from your parents, from others. You’re always growing into yourself.
Nelson Linck: I wanted to go back to your question though, about mission work. You asked me, did I ever view this as mission work? And in many ways, the answer is yes. I am on a mission to teach. That is what I was meant to do. I learned a long time ago that teaching was not my job; it was my calling. I’ve known since I was thirteen that I was going to be a teacher, just like you wrote in that little book when you were in first grade that you were going to be a priest. I was going to be a teacher.
One of Ms. Nelson Linck’s favorite lessons that she teaches children is the story of Ruby Bridges. In her lesson she tells children of Ruby’s deep desire to learn, and in order to do that she needed to be able to go to school. As we all know, this terrified some White parents so deeply to their core that they kept their own children at home, away from the thing that was different from them.
Nelson Linck: When I teach that story, kids always ask me, ‘well, how did the White kids learn?’ and I tell them ‘They didn’t, because they were at home.'
Slane: That’s what I’m trying to teach, too! If you just stay at home. You’re not going to learn anything. That, for me, is the root of being a missionary. Being rooted and grounded in love and knowing that you have to go outside of yourself if you want to grow.
Nelson Linck: We’re lucky, you know. We get to give people the counter-narrative. We get to give people another way to think about this.
Slane: Where do you think that comes from?
Nelson Linck: I think it comes from our faith. You know, earlier you asked me, ‘how does religion play into all of this?’ You know, that took me a while to mesh. I had to figure out how to mesh together being the good church lady with being a teacher. The foundation was there; but I had to figure out how to mesh those so that I could be one person. I had to be committed to fairness and truth and truth-telling at school because that’s what I learned at church.
Nelson Linck: I also learned about consistency from church. Kids need boundaries, and it turns out, so do adults. Some of the parents thought I was too strict, but I knew that these kids were coming from all different experiences. Some had parents that were alcoholics and addicts, there were several divorced families. I remember thinking, ‘that is something I can give these kids…consistency. I can be the same every day. Something they can count on.
The Scriptures rang in my head.
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. -Hebrews 13:8
Turns out, Scripture was integral to Debbie’s mission work as well. In her public-school classroom, in tiny print, up high, near her class telephone were two little prayers that she read from time to time when she needed strength for the journey. Separation of Church and State be damned. The truth is, you can parse a person. All that we are is present wherever we are.
If you separate the petals from the stem, the whole thing falls apart.
Nelson Linck: There was a balance always, but it was always centered on God.
Let nothing disturb thee.
Let nothing affright thee.
All things are passing.
Patience obtains all things.
He who has God, has everything.
God alone suffices.
Nelson Linck: Eventually it all meshed, and I knew that I had arrived, when at the end of the school year, one of the mothers of one of my students said to me, and, you know, we weren’t allowed to talk about religion at school, she said to me, ‘you know, I’m so glad we got you, my son did so well in your class, and felt so loved, and we were just so fortunate to get a good Christian teacher.’ And I was like, that’s it. There it is. She felt it.
Slane: I cannot tell you how grateful I am that you were my teacher and continue to be. I’ve learned so much from you, beyond Kindergarten. Did you ever imagine that one of your students would grow up to be an Episcopal priest?
Nelson Linck: No. No, but I’ll tell you, one of the most amazing experiences of my life, one of the most amazing things that has ever happened to me was when you gave me communion. I didn’t think that would ever happen, and it did, and it was beyond wonderful.
I really do believe that the Holy Spirit led me to her, so that she could be my teacher. So that she could plant the seed that would one day grow into what you’ve read here today.
People are beautiful and complicated. Meant to grow, to be rooted in the earth, but ever reaching toward heaven.
Ms. Nelson Linck taught me this. Turns out, all you really need to know, you learn in Kindergarten.
Click here to see a beautiful example of root and shoot, check out Debbie’s latest project, the authorship and illustration of a new children’s book on Absalom Jones, the first Black priest in the Episcopal Church.
Tags: Real Mission Blog