Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage (Psalm 105:1-19) transports me to the coalfields of War, West Virginia, where a diverse group of young people are dancing the night away in the gym of an old condemned school building that had been renovated into a community center. The center houses Big Creek People in Action, an organization designed to help restore life to a community ravaged by floods, mountain-top removal coal-mining, and bad politics. I was there with a group of college students on a service trip, and the dance was part of the deal – having our college students mixing and mingling with local high schoolers, encouraging them to stay in school and make good decisions. I was in the kitchen next to the gym drinking coffee with the matriarchs of Big Creek, Frankie and Marsha, when we heard a commotion from the gym, lots of hooting and hollering. We went in to check out what was happening, and saw the dance floor cleared except for one lone student, one of our African American women, Tamara, who was out on the floor in her baggy pajamas doing a perfect impersonation of MC Hammer, to the absolute delight of the coalfield kids who sang/rapped along to U Can’t Touch This.
So how did the Psalm get me to that place? Verse 15, where the psalmist lays out a backbeat for the voice of God to rap, “do not touch my annointed ones, do no harm to my prophets.” That is to say, when it came down to the covenant people getting to the land of milk and honey, the neighbors heard the commotion, too – u can’t touch this. But what also strikes me as a parallel between the worlds of Canaanland and the coalfields is the ironic juxtaposition of opposite sentiments. No sooner has the “no touching” mandate left God’s mouth than we hear the line about prophet Joseph being sold as a slave, after God brings a famine to stop the flow of milk and honey in the land of promise. The captors bruised the seer’s feet with shackles and his neck with irons, until he prophesied what was going to come about. So, what exactly is it that you can’t touch?
The matriarchal Big Creek People prophets helped me figure that out. Here they were, in a land that had once flowed with timber, coal, and natural gas, but, like the land of Canaan, the Big Creek community was now famished; with their famine caused by continuous extraction of the land’s treasure. And in the midst of that famine, Frankie and Marsha were seeing something unimagined on the horizon; a new community, rebuilt with hope and perseverance and sweat and tears. These prophets of possibility had resilient spirits that could not be violated, even by the violence of bulldozers and wildcat miners and corrupt politicians who kept shackling their feet and putting their necks in irons. When it comes to the spirit of these mountain women, the psalmist poet is right – u can’t touch this.
I saw some of their dream being realized that night, as coalfield kids learned to dance like MC Hammer. I tried to get Tamara to teach me, but some things are out of sight even for the prophets. As I remember it, she told me something like, u can’t teach this.
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