Climbing Bryan’s Mountain, 2020


This isn’t a picture on Bryan’s Mountain (Bell Rock), but another place in Sedona: Red Rock Crossing, what some have said is the most photographed spot in Arizona.  You can see why.  That’s my son Aaron looking up at Cathedral Rock, and grand daughter Grace looking my way as I snapped the picture.

A few days earlier, on June 14th, she was the second grand child to climb Bryan’s Mountain and visit his tree.  I’m so looking forward to having the other five do that soon, though for Adderly, the youngest at almost two, that might be a few years off.  And just like last summer, it was a while before I climbed the mountain myself—though for far different reasons than last year’s.  We arrived on May 6th, but it was over a month before I went to the mountain for the first time on June 8th.  Because of the Covid-19 crisis, the Bell Rock trail was closed until May 15th anyway, and then on May 11th, the day after Mothers’ Day, my Linda fractured her ankle, falling on a new trail we were hiking, the Transept Trail, one of the ones that remained open because it was new and still not crowded with people.  We were almost finished coming down when she slipped on loose earth, bending her right ankle behind her as she fell.  At first we thought it was just a bad sprain, but when we went to the Sedona Medical Center the doctor on duty said right away, before any x-rays, “Oh, it’s broken.”  Linda got called a real bad ass for hiking out the last quarter mile.  Two days after surgery she also found she had lost her job at the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, one she dearly loved and was so great at. That put the fractured ankle in perspective.  As the pandemic has put many things in perspective, upending the worlds of so many.

As did the killing of George Floyd.

In early February, I spoke at the Laity Convocation of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church.  The theme was Unpacking Racism, and I said that IF we worked diligently on anti-racism we might see a less racist U.S. in 40 to 100 years.  One other panelist said that though he respected me, he thought I was being too optimistic.  I was.  But the protests have given me some heart.  Though very little new has been said that hasn’t been said for many, many decades—even for nearly 200 years—at least people seem to be listening, finally. White people talk more about white privilege and systemic racism than they ever have, so I feel more confident.  Yes.  Forty to 100 years.  It takes that long to dismantle systems of oppression and really turn peoples’ souls around—IF we work at it hard.

BryTree2The pandemic, racism, my Linda’s fractured ankle and job loss—all were swirling round in my head when I climbed Bryan’s Mountain for the first time this year.  Naturally, so was the family foundation Rick and Desiree Guzman started as a living memorial to our family’s youngest son, Bryan Emmanuel Guzman.  It started with just one building named Bryan House, serving five refugee families.  When it grew to become Emmanuel House, it grew to serving 25 families. When it merged with the Joseph Corporation to become The Neighbor Project, we lost the names tying it to Bryan, but it jumped from serving 25 families to over 100, with 200 now clearly in sight.  That’s been nearly 14 years of hard work getting families into their own homes.  Though all its clients aren’t Black, many are people of color, and home ownership is one of the most efficient ways possible to close the racial wealth gap, a gap contributing immensely to the reason racism persists….

These thoughts stopped suddenly when I reached the top of my climb and turned right. About 40 yards ahead was Bryan’s tree, a small pine we put some of his ashes under a month after his death.  As I approached, I saw it was brimming with pine cones, more than I had ever seen on it.  Nothing lasts forever, and sometimes pines produce more cones when they’re under stress, perhaps even as a sign they’re dying.  But a “stress crop” preceding death is often accompanied by other signs:  yellowed or dried out needles, for example.  I didn’t see any of these.  In fact, the tree looked healthier than ever, and a bumper crop of cones on a healthy-looking tree could just as easily mean it had a great year.  Too early to tell—which makes the tree’s status a fitting metaphor for these times—but let’s hope it’s the latter.  Let’s hope I get to lead all the grand kids up to a vibrant tree.  With everything so topsy-turvy, hope is what we cling to.  And the memory of Bryan’s life, too, with or without the tree.

When Aaron came up there with Grace this year (he’d been there before), he took the most beautiful pictures of the tree ever.  They made the tree immortal in the way art can.  Here’s one of them:


  This post is part of a series called “Climbing Bryan’s Mountain.” Go to its Lead PostIn 2016 Bryan’s living memorial, Emmanuel House, was named one of the “Top 100 Most Innovative” social change organizations in the world.

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Unpacking Racism: Taking Risks To Let Strangers Become Neighbors

RaceConvo4This article is part of a series of posts based on the 2020 Laity Convocation of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Go to the Lead Post in this series.  Below is the presentation of JUDY SIABA, who moved from Mexico with her mother and three siblings to join her father, who had come months earlier with six other airplane mechanics for a job in Lansing, IL.  A Methodist pastor helped him find a place for his family in Chicago’s Hegewisch neighborhood.


“Living in a mostly Polish neighborhood at the beginning meant that the kids on the block at first did not play with us. Our landlady was Polish and would start speaking to my mom in English and switch to Polish without realizing it. This at the beginning didn’t matter to my mother because she spoke very little English. I did not have the privilege of going to a school with ESL classes. It was learning English through immersion and help from my older brothers who had been attending an English school in Mexico. I don’t know if you lived in the late 1950s but if you did you might recall the cowboy TV programs and movies and how Mexicans were depicted. Well, it was not in a very good light. Even in the Lone Ranger, his partner who was Native American was given the name of Tonto, which in Spanish means silly, fool, stupid, idiot, moron, dummy. It took us a while for the neighbors to see we were like them in many ways. We had the same needs, (home, love, food, friends) we worked hard, helped others. By the time we moved to Rockford we had become part of the community. Our neighbors risked and got to know us and developed a different view of Mexicans.

“In Rockford I was blessed to attend schools that were integrated. My sixth-grade class consisted of students with Lithuanian, Italian, African American, Mexican and Caucasian backgrounds. It was a different world than Hegewich. The church we attended in Rockford was Broadway MC. This congregation was special in that it welcomed a Japanese/American family and my family. During my years there they also welcomed with Sabia-Fearopen arms a Filipino pastor and an African American pastor. It was during my years there that we had a very progressive pastor who provided us with racial experiences. He took the senior high youth into Chicago to attend an Operation Breadbasket gathering. He also took us in to Newberry Center in the Maxwell Street area in Chicago to spend the night with kids from the center there and experience their changing neighborhood. Later several of those kids came and spent a weekend in our homes and worshiped with us. Another memorable evening was when Rev. Shive had three Black Panthers come for a potluck and share with us their work in the neighborhoods in Chicago to make it a better place. I was learning that we are all God’s children and that the church was working at bringing God’s children together. I was being exposed to many different cultures and justice issues. My church was being God’s hands and feet.

“I had learned about racism all around me, but it had not hit me until right before I was married, a pastor parish committee was ready to stop the student appointment of my then Fiancé soon to be husband,  just because of his name. Fernando. They had not met us yet but were ready to tell the D.S. that we were not welcomed. Being singled out or turned away by society is one thing, but when the body of Christ turns you away, that’s when it really hurts. I need to explain a bit about this one-year appointment. The congregation was a small Norwegian American congregation of mostly older members. Their kids had moved to the suburbs but always returned to an annual homecoming concert. Their neighborhood was changing as more and more Puerto Ricans were moving in. They were afraid of change. They did not know the culture or language of the new neighbors. Fear can keep us very isolated. Shortly after we had left the church trustees rented the apartment that had been empty for several years to a Hispanic man. The congregation had experienced a different culture through us, and their fears had subsided…

“I was raised to always be proud of who I am and whose I am. Because of that I have also taken advantage of my ethnicity when it has provided opportunities to serve beyond the local church.

Unfortunately, the Northern Illinois Conference is not given the opportunity when electing General Conference and Jurisdiction delegates to be truly inclusive.

“It might be interesting to look back and see the order of election of the delegates. Who are the first ones elected and who are the last. Please take note that this has been the experience of a Mexican woman. I know that if I was male some of my experiences would have been different.”


JUDY SIABA is a member of Euclid Avenue UMC in Oak Park.  Born in Mexico in a Methodist family, she’s been a lifelong Methodist/United Methodist whose passion is seeking and advocating for God’s justice for all people.  As a young adult she joined the United Methodist Women and was mentored by many women in the Northern Illinois Conference (NIC) and North Central Jurisdiction, who helped her develop leadership skills and discover her gifts for mission.  She has served as national vice-president of the UMW, Conference Secretary for Global Ministries, Aurora District Lay Leader, and director of the General Board of Global Ministries, where she first heard of Justice for Our Neighbors.  She has just concluded seven years on the board of Northern Illinois Justice for Our Neighbors, including two years as president.  A music educator in the public schools, as well as in private lessons, she was also employed as administrative assistant to the director of Congregational Development of the NIC, and is currently archivist for the World Federation of Methodist and United Church Women.  She has served as presidet of the North America Area and the Caribbean of this body, and as a delegate to three UMC General and Jurisdictional Conferences.  Married to Rev. Fernando Siaba for 43 years, she and her husband have three daughters and six grandchildren.

  Go to the TEACHING DIVERSITY main page.  For another article focused on knowing your neighbor go to “We Ignore Our Neighbor’s Potential at Our Own Peril.”

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A.K. Ramanujan: A Country You Can’t Reach

RamanujanBorn in Mysore, India, Attippat Krishnaswami Ramanujan (1929-1994) is considered by many to be India’s finest modern poet writing in English, though he went far beyond English, his other writings as poet, scholar, playwright, philologist, folklorist, and translator ranging over five languages: English, Kannada, Teluga, Tamil, and Sanskrit. His books of original poetry in English are The Striders (1966), Selected Poems (1976, Second Sight (1986), and The Black Hen: Complete Poems (1995). His Collected Poems (1995) won India’s highest literary award, the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1999. In 1976 the Indian government honored him with the title Padma Shri, its fourth highest civilian award, and in 1983 he received a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called “Genius Grant.”  Though he taught at Harvard, Wisconsin, Berkeley, Carleton, and Michigan, his home base was the University of Chicago, where he helped develop the South Asian Studies Program and became the William E. Colvin Professor in the departments of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, Linguistics, and the Committee for Social Thought.

Elliptical and intellectual, his poetry resists easy interpretation, but is carefully crafted and full of startling imagery.  David Starkey and I included five of his poems in our 1999 book Smokestacks and Skyscrapers: An Anthology of Chicago Writing, and David commented that like a strider (the water bug in the poem “The Striders”) his poems “often seem to walk on water while drowning in their ‘tiny strip / of sky.’”

A sardonic observer of his own foibles as well as those of his homeland and adopted country, he found fascinating ways of incorporating elements of East and West in his work and, naturally—given the global dimensions of his life—often explored hybridity and themes of travel, migration, and even transmigration.  The poem “In March” begins: “In March I traveled / not by train or bus or plane / but through the bloodstream / warm as the ocean currents / that took Aztecs to Mexico.”  Do such global flows, however, ever allow you to feel truly at home, or even to truly reach that other country you’re aiming for.  Tidy2His wonderful “Sonnet” begins: “Time moves in and out of me / a stream of sound, a breeze,” but is also like “an electric current / that seeks the ground….” And this movement also comes with “misplaced leases and passports,” while “excuses and blame swirl through the night / and take me far away from home.” The excerpt from “Chicago Zen” at left brings you face to face with “what you always knew: / the country cannot be reached.”  Not by jet, and not even, as the poem says near its end, “with a clean valid passport, / no, not even by transmigrating / without any passport at all….”  And even if you kind of get “there,” fear and paranoia might rule the day, so that in his poem “Take Care” he advises people to “Smudge your windows / Draw the blinds” because “All tall buildings / use telescopes.”  “In Chicago,” the poem ends, “do not walk slow, / Find no time / to stand and stare. / Down there, blacks look black. / And whites, they look blacker.”  As much as travel and migration give us freedom to move, they also restrict our feelings of being at home, feeling rooted and secure. And in a poem like “Death and the Good Citizen” the speaker wishes to be truly “biodegradable,” thus participating in the flow of life into death into life, but cultural customs themselves interdict this flow making it a “struggle to be naturalized,” especially “Abroad”—in a strange land, that is—“where they’ll lay me out in a funeral / parlor, embalm me in pesticide, / bury me in a steel trap, lock / me so out of nature / til I’m oxidized by left- / over air….”  We long for free travel, free migration, free flow in the proverbial circle of life, but find restrictions, walls, blockades everywhere: in the material world, in culture, politics, and in our own minds.

  Go to a list of Chicago Writers on this site, and to the Teaching Diversity main page.

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