Rev. Janet Maykus
“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
As I write this, in a few days time, Christians the world over will gather to be marked with ashes of last year’s palms and be reminded that regardless of nationality, race, sex, gender, education, mental ability, and/or size of bank account we all are but bits of stardust.
Some wonder if this is morbid. I think not. Without this annual reminder of our place in the universe I fear we might forget that we are not God. This simple, if somewhat messy, tradition helps us remember to be thankful….for everything. Without such a reminder we might forget that as wandering bits of formed dust, we are called to love one another, to forgive one another, to care for one another because God loves, forgives, and cares for each of us.
A long time ago, I was the minister to migrant farmworkers for the North Carolina United Methodist Migrant Farmworker Ministry. I drove around eastern North Carolina in a van that had only second and third gears looking for migrant camps. Between 150,000 and 300,000 migrants pass through North Carolina each year doing back breaking stoop labor picking vegetables and fruit. They made their way up the east coast beginning the season in Florida and ending in Maine. They then worked their way back down the coast harvesting crops that had been planted earlier in the spring or summer.
I did whatever needed to be done. I took people to the doctor, helped women put together layettes for newborns, led worship services, and helped with a summer school for the migrant children.
Someone told me they’d seen some children out on a farm during the school day. If I could find where those children lived, I could tell them about the school and arrange for the school bus to fetch them. I took off in the baby blue Econoline cruising around Faison, Spivey’s Corner, Calypso, and Newton Grove looking for those girls. I found them on a farm near Mt. Olive. There were three of them, 9, 6, and 3 living in a converted pig barn. It wasn’t as bad as some of the places in which I found people, except for the cow that lived in the same yard as they, who had an abscessed eye with a profound odor.
Their mother and her boyfriend were gone sun-up to sun-down picking cucumbers. My blue van attracted the attention of the farmer, but when he learned who I was he was happy to have me visit the girls.
I returned to see them at least three days a week. I brought sandwiches, drinks, toothbrushes, toothpaste, hair brushes, pretty clips for their hair, and all the materials they were missing by not attending the summer school.
The oldest told me about their lives. They had come from the state of Washington where their mother and her boyfriend picked cherries. She didn’t know why but in the middle of the night, their mother woke them, put them in her boyfriend’s car, and they drove all the way to North Carolina where they found work. As days passed and her story grew longer, I learned why the adults had fled in the middle of the night. The boyfriend continued to abuse the oldest of these three darling girls; she made certain he stayed away from her sisters.
I reported this to the county social worker assigned to the school.
A few days later I returned to the farm. When I turned onto the path toward the pig barn, I saw the owner. He had a shotgun. I stopped the car and rolled down my window. He cocked his gun, held it to my nose and said, “I think you’ve done about all the good you’re gonna do around here preacher girl.”
When the parents learned a social worker had visited the girls, they loaded them into the boyfriend’s car and took off in the night.
Seldom a week goes by that I don’t wonder about those three girls. I have their photo in my jewelry box. I pray they have grown to be fine young women. I pray they eventually escaped the predator in their lives. I worried about them for years wondering if I had made the right decision in telling the social worker. Then, many years later I sat in a room with a few hundred people of all walks of life who were marked with the ashes of last year’s palms. I saw all of us as grains of dust forming that cosmic body of Christ, and I was filled with hope. I knew that wherever that family ran there would be some other “preacher girl” who’d been marked by those ashes; someone who would love them, someone who would seek justice for them. Otherwise this stardust is just dirt, and that’s not what we’ve been promised.
With reverent thanksgiving I know from dust we come and to dust we shall return.