Well, I suppose I’ve been living under a rock. Because I recently learned what y’all may have known for months. Earlier this fall, the worship associate from the North Georgia congregation where I was to offer the sermon the following Sunday informed me that the reading I had chosen - the poem known as “An Invitation to Brave Space” - had, in fact, been plagiarized. The poet whom I had originally credited - and many have credited for years - had admitted to plagiarizing the poem from the work of artist and activist Beth Strano.
The poet, Micky Scottbey Jones, had seen online an image of a door painted with powerful words. Inspired by the poem on the door, she tried to discover who had written it and painted it on the entrance to an artists’ cooperative space in Phoenix, Arizona. I don’t think she worked too hard to find out though. Instead, Scottbey Jones added a few lines, inserted the words “brave space,” called the piece “An Invitation to Brave Space,” and presented the work to the world as hers. She has been touring, publishing, and reading the poem as hers for the past five years.
I was floored when I learned this. And was deeply grateful to the worship associate, who was clearly on her research game! Needless to say, I headed back to rewrite portions of the sermon. I had planned to talk about “brave space.” I had planned to talk about imperfection and mistakes and wounds and scars and resilience. And darned if the very story of the reading that inspired me to engage these topics wasn’t an example of all of those things.
Because we do, as Beth Strano says in the original poem, “exist in the real world”
and we do all have the potential to cause harm to others - intentionally and unintentionally
and we do all have the potential to be harmed - intentionally and unintentionally.
The poet who meant well (I think), who inspired many, who invited us into brave space, who helped us to accept our limitations, and move forward together, who told us she had penned a rallying cry for tall-standing, community-building, big-hearted lovers of life and each other....actually hadn’t penned it at all. In fact, she had caused significant harm to another poet, and to the communities of which they were both a part.
Betrayed, ungrounded, angry, and hurt are some of the words that folks used to describe their feelings once this came to light. I think we can imagine those feelings relatively easily. Perhaps we have felt them when someone caused us harm, whether they meant to or not.
Betrayed, ungrounded, angry, hurt.
Can you also imagine the dread that Scottbey Jones must have felt as she toured and interviewed and recited the poem: fear that someone would find out, that someone would discover that these bold words were not hers, were never hers, were, in fact, stolen?
That’s the part that gets me the most: the cowardice of plagiarism, born of a fear that one might never be able to write something as good or powerful as someone else. That one might not be able to be as inspiring. And before you know it, someone has wrapped themselves in lies made in someone else’s image and the fear is: What am I without this? Maybe I’m not enough. Maybe I’m nothing.
This is not to excuse what Micky Scottbey Jones did. It is my attempt to try to understand her choices, to offer her some grace, while we seek to repair the harm. It is my attempt to understand the power of fear as a motivator and the healing power of courage and resilience as an antidote to fear.
I have thought a lot about fear over the past twenty months. Fear has motivated me to feel and do so many things throughout this pandemic. I have felt angry, betrayed, discounted, hurt. I have spoken sternly to strangers, demanded they put on a mask, excoriated them for not wearing one around my baby - who cannot be vaccinated yet and, until recently, could not wear a mask herself. I have avoided places and people. I have used my body as a human shield and ushered my children away from others. I have canceled plans; turned around immediately after walking through a store doorway; masked when no one else did; and stayed in isolation last year over Christmas (my baby’s first), out of fear of getting my husband and children sick when I lost my taste and smell and wandered in the wilderness of mild COVID symptoms for ten days.
We all have stories of what we’ve done out of fear - not just over the past two years - but in our lives before the pandemic as well. Perhaps we gave up something we’d wanted to do - or be.Perhaps we let someone we loved go for fear our love was unreciprocated. Perhaps we never made the phone call to a friend that would have repaired a relationship. Perhaps we never tried something...or never tried it again. Perhaps we didn’t offer useful feedback for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. Or maybe we didn’t protect someone for fear of offending another. Perhaps we were afraid of saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing or being the wrong way. Or perhaps we were afraid something wouldn’t be perfect. Or good enough. Perhaps we were afraid we would get hurt. Perhaps we did get hurt.
The truth is: we exist in the real world, and we all carry scars, and we all have the capacity to wound. We cannot protect everyone from the world.And we cannot be completely protected from it ourselves.
So my question is: how do we accept this fact? And how do we, at the same time, create together brave spaces - bravER spaces - that allow us to build resilience, to respect, honor, and support the resilience of others, and commit to remain accountable to and in loving relationship with each other?
My eldest daughter, Arden, is my greatest inspiration to resilience. (I have her permission to share this story.) Not too long ago, Arden, who is eight, endured 29 allergy testing shots up and down her arms as she was tested for a reaction to insect venom after a pretty scary reaction to a bee sting. Round after round, shot after shot, she wiped her tears and steeled herself for the next prick. I was in awe.
The next day, we stood in line at the pediatrician for her COVID vaccine, and she told them, “Yesterday, I got 29 shots. This one won’t be bad at all.” Tears rolled down my face this time as she rolled up her sleeve and bared her bruised arm so that we might end this pandemic.
Because of the relationship we have built throughout her life, Arden knew, through both ordeals, that I would not put her unnecessarily at risk. Through the profound discomfort of the allergy shots, we would learn information we needed in order to empower her to move more safely and confidently through the world. Knowing this helped her to brave the temporary fear and pain of the shots.
Similarly, with her COVID vaccine behind her, we, together, are able to let go of some of the fear that has ruled our lives for nearly two years. We are all more than ready to focus our attention elsewhere. We could not be more grateful for science and scientists and the healthcare professionals that are getting shots in arms every single day.
Reflecting on her resilience, the line from Kahlil Gibran’s epic poem The Prophet has been echoing in my mind: You may strive to be like [your children], but seek not to make them like you.
I strive to be half as brave and as resilient as my child.
And I pray that we may find ways as individuals, institutions, communities, and as a society, to help us all build up our bravery and resilience. Because, God knows we need it!
I pray also that we continue to find ways to amplify those voices that struggle to be heard, and understand that safety and harm look different, depending on the amount of power and privilege we hold.
And that we may build strong, empowered relationships that enable all of us to feel safe enough to ask difficult questions and have challenging conversations and share ideas that stretch us.
I pray that we will, simultaneously, hold accountable those who cause harm -- whether intentionally or out of ignorance, because of a misstep or even an egregious mistake. May we call those who have caused harm back in (not out) - into relationship and into community.
This is how we will move forward into this new world of ours, working towards and fighting for a world filled with more justice, more equity, more peace for all beings.