Preaching truth in the Mississippi Delta

Sr. Joann Blomme sits with a girl outside the Tutwiler clinic. (Jeremiah Loch)

Editor's note: This is part of a series of columns by the Dominican Sisters Conference that hopes to open Global Sisters Report's readership to a conversation on truth.

And Jesus said, "I'm telling you the truth; we speak of what we know and what we have seen."

Processing my recent 29 years in the Mississippi Delta, I have come to believe that the truth found in the stories of people's lives here, now, today, made my years there some of the best in my life.

People's stories invited me to the deep truth about the connection, understanding and bonding which is part of the human heart. Truth became a search for kinship and respect — heart-touching, cherishing moments for which everyone's heart longs. These were mutual, awesome experiences met with tears, smiles and the unexpected. Imagine not even a small crevice for judgment of "rightness or wrongness," "better or worse!"

It is "what I know and what I have seen," in Mrs. Smith's pain, Willie's grief, or Tony's exploding joy. Truth was the human longing for connection, the fusion of one life with another: in an encounter that brought hope where it was dim, love where it was not felt, or peace that says, "I am somebody."

A farmer told me, "I never went one day to school. But some educated people forget they should help put the uneducated like me on the 'top shelf' with themselves."

Or Mrs. Jones' comment: "I felt connected right from our first meeting out in the hot sun! You seemed interested in me and I don't know why!"

Lady B. (Joann Bloome)

To hear the call of the human heart in another person came to mean hearing truth. It put my hand on the doorway to peace, comfort and understanding in someone's life, when "we are as fully in God's presence as we shall ever be" (William H. Shannon, from a 1994 pamphlet on praying). In the presence of another's truth, one can feel its impact. But then, the choice: to let it draw out the best in you — or harden one's heart into judgment, criticism or ignoring the call for response.

I returned to see Mr. B. a second day because I was concerned he was ill. As I was about to leave he grasped my hand; with a quivering voice and in Mississippi idiom he said, "My heart is pressed that you cared about me enough to come back."

Lives twice blessed, truth told, connection felt, a touch of new life returning, the Gospel come alive. Our life stories hold the path to peace, love and kinship, or when unanswered, isolation, disconnection, even pain.

Sometimes people's stark honesty brought their truth in the open — no mistaking its call.

M. Harris: "Sometimes I go to the front door just to see if anyone is passing by because I know they will wave."

Mrs. L.: "Before you leave would you hug me?"

Or the 6 yr. old who knocked on the window:

"Billy, did you want to see me for something?"
"Sure."
"What did you want, Billy?"
"I just wanted to see you again."

These became truth-in-the-raw! Calls of the heart.

We are drawn into the sanctuary of people's lives, into their stories, their truth, and are summoned to "hear the music before the song is over," as expressed so well in the last line of the poem, "Slow Dance." This very moment will never return. Should I answer?

Tutwiler Clinc (Joann Blomme)

One day I interrupted a woman's "story" and truly missed her truth at that moment, but I thank God she jolted me upright to "hear and feel" what was underneath.      

Maybelle to me: "Will you drive my birthday gift to my house?"
"What birthday gift, Maybelle?"
Maybelle: "You know you never forget me."

(A debate ensued and we talked about those who ask for their own gift! Finally Maybelle spoke the truth I missed beneath her request.)

Maybelle: "People ask because they won't ever get anything from anybody else. And they know you are always there."

I felt the warm connection, the respect and kinship — right here, right now, no big ritual, no right or wrong! The power of one small gift and what it represented: dignity, worth and relationship.

Heart connections can seep through when people are at their lowest.

M.L.: "When I don't see someone for a while, I miss their space. I have little things I want to talk over, and when I don't see you, I lose those things and new ones come up and those other things never get fixed. It's like … it's like I'm not important anymore."

Or Ms. S. seeing the pile of twisted tin after the fire: "It's so hard to be poor. You can't even say 'I'll do with what I've got' because I haven't got anything."

As I turned to leave, her words burned into my being: "I knew you'd be by to see me. I knew it. Thank you."

Sr. Joann Bloome with a young patient at the Tutwiler Clinic (Marilyn Pierson)

Jesus said, "I'm telling you the truth; we speak of what we know and what we have seen."

The stories from people's lives here, now, today, brings new life to our founder Saint Dominic's call to truth. These "people encounters" made my years in Mississippi some of the best in my life.

[Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Joann Blomme has been a Racine Dominican for over 50 years. She has an M.S. degree in educational psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and recently completed 29 years as a mental health counselor at a rural medical clinic in Tutwiler, Mississippi, which is staffed by local women as well as an intercommunity group of sisters.]

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