Joy was one of those persons whose entire being radiated hope. It was decades ago that she came briefly into my life but I’ve lived from her blessings ever since.
It was the summer of 1983 and I was taking part in an inter-faith pastoral training program outside of Boston. I met Joy the first day of our course during the afternoon small group session. Tall and vivacious she stood out not only because she was welcoming and self-confident but also because she was the only black student in the course. She had a presence that drew respect. On top of this her countenance, her deep smile and easy laughter, aligned with her name. She was simply a joy to be with.
I got to know Joy better on the basketball court. Every afternoon, before supper I’d be on the outdoor basketball court shooting hoops. One day Joy asked to join me and I said yes. Unbeknownst to me she was a great basketball player. Now, she was taller than me, which gave her the advantage, but her skills were far superior to mine. One gets to know a person by the way they dribble, pivot or spin, jump and shoot. Throughout that summer I looked forward to Joy joining me each day on the court where we’d laugh and play together, getting to know each other.
Joy invited me to have supper at her place if I was ever in the city of Boston. I accepted her invitation and so one hot, humid Saturday I took the bus into the city then the subway to the Roxbury area of Boston. Joy met me at the T station and we walked to her apartment about a half mile away. I remember, walking down the street with her, feeling conspicuous in my white skin in the predominately black neighbourhood. Although a little unsettled I felt safe with Joy by my side.
I remember walking up the two flights of stairs to her one-bedroom apartment. Once inside I’ll never forget what I Joy did. She lived on the third floor with all her windows were covered with bars. I thought that the bars would have been enough security, by apparently not. Joy, once we were inside, locked her door with three deadbolts and then placed an iron bar against the door. This iron bar was then anchored into the floor. I never forgot those security measures and the fact that she felt she needed to have them in place to feel safe. A young woman, especially a young black woman, living alone has every reason to be cautious in this world of ours.
That evening was an evening of deepening awareness. Over a delicious spaghetti supper Joy told stories of her life growing up black and female. Stories of hardship; stories of when others had held her up; stories of tragedy and suffering; and stories of how her faith had carried her along. I listened until my heart was almost full. Her stories were quite a revelation for someone like me who’d grown up in small town Ontario accustomed more to religious bigotry and pernicious classism than to the contagion of racism.
Over dessert and coffee, I shared my stories of struggles and challenges; my disappointments and fears; and ways others had helped me on my journey. Joy listened with serenity and grace. We talked back and forth into the late evening. When she finally walked me back to the T station for my journey home I saw the world differently, how injustice and suffering sometimes overflow and yet how grace and hope can sometime mingle within the flowing. That evening marked a deepening in our relationship, a deepening caused simply by sharing stories over a meal.
When we said our goodbyes at the end of the summer Joy gave me a fulsome hug and a wide smile. Then she gave me a card with the image of the Black Madonna and Child to remember our friendship. In the image the Black Madonna stands in the dark with blue cumulus clouds gathering on the horizon behind her as she cuddles her baby. It is a deep and penetrating image, a symbol of maternal hope in the midst of darkness.
Months after receiving this card from Joy I contacted the artist, Earnestine Huff, and I ordered a large framed print of the painting. This symbol of maternal hope has hung in a prominent place within our home all these years surviving many moves and even one fire. Throughout it all the Black Madonna with Child has stood reminding me how Joy deepened my awareness of injustice and the way of hope that can sustain us through the dark of night.