From Exile to Hope: [Your name here]

From Exile to Hope: [Your name here]

April 13, 2023

[Your name here]

By: Rev. Lee Roorda Schott

“[Mary] turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ 16Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher).” 
— John 20.14b-16

At Easter we almost always hear John’s telling of the resurrection: the risen Christ, calling a distraught and distracted Mary back to herself with the simplest of words:  “Mary.” Jesus, who has just been through hell (!), stands on that dew-damp grass, containing all the glory of the mighty God. And he offers Mary the plainest of gifts—her name. Mary.
And it changes her. “I have seen the Lord!” she’ll say to the disciples, within the hour. She might equally have been said, “I have been seen by the Lord.” Jesus gave her the gift of hearing her own name, spoken in his beloved, deeply familiar voice—one that had been lost but now, amazingly, is heard again.
The old hymn has us sing that “Jesus” is the sweetest name we know, and it is a great melody and a great hymn.[i] But “Jesus” is—for most of us—at best the second sweetest name. As Dale Carnegie famously put it, “a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important word in any language.” Have you noticed?
I was in college when I first really glimpsed the power of naming properly. In those days before texts and e-mail, I had dialed up a guy—Randall Crow—whose name was on a sign-up sheet for a committee I was leading. He picked up on the second ring and answered, “Hello.” “Hi, is this Randy?” I asked. And without missing a beat, he replied, “Yes, this is Randall.”
His voice conveyed no annoyance at me having taken such a liberty with his name. But through that whole call, I was thinking to myself, “He wrote Randall on the sheet. You could have called him that.” If he was the kind of guy who wrote “Randall” but wanted to be called “Randy,” he could have said so when I called! But by my inattention, I missed the opportunity to honor the name of his choosing. 
Randall went on to become a valued member of that group and a good friend. And I never called him Randy again.
I’ve always been rather grateful for that ever-so-understated lesson. It made me more attentive to the ways people introduce themselves, and how they pronounce their own names. There’s a lot to keep track of! I’ve been in churches with two women named Joan; for one of them, it’s one syllable, and for the other, it’s pronounced “Jo-ann.” I have two clergy colleagues with the name Andrea. One says her name Ann’-dree-a and the other Ahn’-dree-a. Just like there’s an Ed’-gr and an Ed-garr’. I’m grateful for those who will correct me when I get it wrong. It seems like a small but respectful thing I can try to do for those around me—to call them by their name, their way. It’s a small gift I can try to give.[ii]
As important and sometimes complicated as all this can be with familiar names in one’s own language, this business of naming takes on a cultural overlay in our increasingly diverse society. Not only are parents adopting unusual spellings of familiar names (Jaxson, Khloe, or Cydnee, for instance), but we are going to meet people whose names are simply unfamiliar. During the years I spent serving a church inside the Iowa women’s prison, I worked hard to remember and use the names of women who would attend worship or other programs. I found myself uncomfortably aware how much easier that was with familiar names (Amanda, Lisa, Katherine) than with ones that crossed a cultural divide (Marhia, Gabrieona, Chasity), where I needed to learn not just her face but the nature of her name itself.
I recently met a woman wearing a nametag that said “Zsuzsa.” She spoke her name to me, and I had to ask her to repeat it. She smiled and said it again, a little more slowly. “Zhu’-zha,” and she said it a couple more times as I stumbled through it next to her. Then she said, with a rueful smile, “A lot of people just call me Susan.” Her name isn’t anything close to “Susan”! Zsuzsa’s experience testifies to how defiantly mono-lingual we Americans are, and resistant to using people’s actual non-Eurocentric names. 
I was surprised when this question of names came up in a recent month-long online program I attended on the subject of shame and racism.[iii] Writing to a very diverse audience of BIPOC and white participants, on Day 9 Christena Cleveland quotes a portion of a poem by Thich Nhat Hanh

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up
and the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.

And then she offered these questions for reflection: 

(A photo with words that read Day 9 Reflection Exercise. Do you know your true names? If yes, describe how you know them and what it feels like to possess your true names. How does your possession of your true names foster a sense of worthiness and belonging? If you don't know your true names, describe why you don't know them and what it feels like to be deprived of them. How does being deprived of your true names inhibit a sense of worthiness and belonging?)

These questions—for me as a white, cishet,[1] privileged person—didn’t exactly compute. But what these questions did—on Day 9 of that program and in the days that followed, in which Christena Cleveland lingered on this subject—was to remind me how much deeper these questions are likely to be for persons whose life and cultural experiences are very different from mine.
And then I came across an article that broke this open for me. Journalist Jean Guerrero writes of how her last name—Spanish for warrior, with its rolled “rr”—was Americanized by her elementary schoolteachers, who compressed its three syllables to two, without vibration: “greh-roh.” Her increasing transition from Spanish to English in identity and language served to isolate her from her family, not all of whom spoke the English that became her usual tongue. Others have described this experience as a “psychological violence of tearing out a piece of [their] being.”[2]
Guerrero goes on to remind us that our “robbery of [non-white] names” has served racial subjugation” and “is tied to worse mental health among Latinos and other people of color.” 
Yet, it’s commonly forced on kids, through “the renaming, denaming and misnaming of students from linguistically marginalized and ethnoracially minoritized backgrounds.”[3]  …”The general promotion of English was rationalized to secure Anglo Americans’ identity dominance, used to develop and maintain white privilege.”[4]
Guerrero wonders whether reclaiming the fullness of actual BIPOC names might help to reverse the racial subjugation they’ve experienced. “What if instead of seeing it as a burden when people teach us how to say their non-Anglo names, we saw it as a gift?... Our names are more than just words; they can forge a more inclusive future.”[5]
Whether it’s Mary in the garden, or Randall on that long-ago phone line, or Jean Gue-rre-ro who writes her personal witness to naming, it matters that we try to get this right. It’s a matter of human dignity to call people by the names that are theirs. (Pronouns, too, while we’re at it.) Dignity. Respect. Wholeness. Love. It seems a small thing to do for such a big impact. “I have been seen,” that person will say, or will know, somewhere in their being.
As we close this reflection, I’d invite you to take a moment to say your own name. [Your name here.] Your true name, the way Jesus would say it. Notice how sweet those syllables are to you; how it holds an echo of beloved voices who have named you, loved you, and called you, and perhaps have done the same with generations that came before. It perhaps holds an echo of voices that have hurt you, betrayed you, left you. It’s almost never just one thing. As you let your emotions surface, let’s hear again those words from Thich Nhat Hanh:

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up
and the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.

In his reflection on this poem, he says, “The title of the poem is ‘Please Call Me by My True Names,’ because I have so many names. When I hear one of the of these names, I have to say, ‘Yes.’”[6]
May that be true for us, too, and for those to whom we give the gift of their actual names.

[1] In case you don’t know (and I’m telling you because someone recently asked me), cishet means cisgender and heterosexual. Here’s an article that unpacks this a bit.
[2] Quoting Rena Grande, from Mexico, of her assimilation into U.S. culture.
[3] Quoting Mary Bucholtz, a linguistics professor at UC Santa Barbara.
[4] Quoting Reynaldo Macias, a UCLA professor of linguistics.
[5] All these quotations are from the article linked above and here,  Jean Guerrero, “Column: For years, I Anglicized my Mexican last name, MAGA trolls inspired me to reclaim it,” in Los Angeles Times (March 24, 2022).
[6] You can find the whole poem, including a recording of the poem and a song version of it, along with some commentary by Thich Nhat Hanh, at this link. Well worth it.
[i] “There’s within my heart a melody,” by Luther B. Bridgers (1910), in United Methodist Hymnal (1989), 380.
[ii] Many people have given me that gift, through the years, with my shift at age 18 from Lee Ann to Lee. I wrote about this some years ago in my now-discontinued blog.
[iii] The course was called Shameless Liberation and was offered during February 2023, Black History Month. It does not appear to be available online at this time, but if you go to Christena Cleveland’s web page, you can sign up for her e-newsletter and be notified of future offerings. She also offers content through her Patreon page. I would commend her work to you if you are seeking to go deeper in the work of dismantling racism in yourself and in our culture.
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