Suffering and Dancing
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” – Genesis 45:4-5 (NRSV)
Mali Watkins dances in the street in my hometown every day. It’s part of his spiritual practice: with his dance he gives peace to the world.
He is not mentally ill, though he has struggled, like many of us at one time or another. He is a dark-skinned Black man with a diagnosis of autism, high-functioning – in fact, functioning on a higher plane than most.
In May, two days before George Floyd was killed, someone saw him dancing and called the cops on him, concern-trolling that he would get hit by a car because he was in the street. Four cop cars showed up. They cuffed him, put him on the ground, kneeled on him, and broke his tooth in the struggle. Neighbors called from the sidelines for the police to stop, but they said, “We can only evaluate his mental health once he is under control.”
That arrest spawned huge multiracial dance parties in the street. One Mali became many.
I met Mali at one of those dance parties, and we ended up talking for half an hour. His words were sermonic, brilliant, moving, and fluid. I knew I was in the presence of someone anointed by God. His deep, liquid eyes poured love on me. I felt baptized by his being.
I told him how gravely sorry I was that he had suffered. And he answered: “No – no – it all happened just like it was supposed to. It needed to happen for everything else to happen.”
I believe it is dangerous to say that God brings good out of our suffering. Some of us have spent years unbelieving in a God who demands suffering, particularly the suffering of already vulnerable people.
But Mali reminded me that we each get to decide for ourselves if our personal suffering has had a holy purpose.
Joseph was ill-used by his brothers, and yet so much good came of it. He got to decide that his suffering was for a great-hearted and godly purpose, for his own good and the good of others. And his forgiveness was beautiful.
Just like what happened to Mali. He went on to tell me about a piece of the larger purpose that his suffering brought about: Every day for months before his arrest, a man had driven by him as he danced. This man was a city employee, and yet even in his role and uniform he called Mali the N word.
After Mali’s arrest, the news and the video going viral, the man sought him out at a party – and begged his forgiveness. They fell onto each other’s necks, weeping.
God, may we follow Mali’s example and keep dancing. Make us unafraid to suffer, if by suffering, you can save lives. Amen.
Molly Baskette is Senior Minister of First Congregational Church UCC in Berkeley, California, and the author of the best-selling Real Good Church, Standing Naked Before God, and her newest baby, Bless This Mess: A Modern Guide to Faith and Parenting in a Chaotic World.