Sacrifices For the Soul
Nestled along the eastern corridor of Pennsylvania are some of the finest colleges and universities in all of America: Lafayette, Villanova, Penn, and Lehigh. The latter is where I attend my first leadership conference as a junior in high school the very same day as the winter dance. A lifetime mentor of mine, Mr. Jo-Jo Herndon, invites me to the workshop as he is set to deliver his own workshop, which I myself would go on to do at colleges all across America.
The highlight for me on this day at Lehigh is the workshop with John Annoni, author of From the Hood to the Woods, a real-life story of how Annoni, troubled Allentown youth, finds solace in the woods next to his house and grows up to create Camp Compass, giving the next generation the very getaway he lurked for as a child. I win a drawing at Mr. Annoni’s workshop and am invited upfront to choose a prize from an entire smorgasbord of items: t-shirts, CDs, mugs, and more. I look around a bit before settling on From the Hood to the Woods. “We’ll talk after,” I am told.
The night of the very same day as the leadership conference is supposed to be a fun time at my high school’s first-ever winter Snowball dance. Yet I sit in a chair in the corner of the cafeteria, trying to decipher all of the lifelong changes that just took place inside me, giving the vibe to my friends that I must have smoked marijuana prior to coming to the dance. “I had a friend in high school always go out with a bottle. Everyone thought he was drunk. He finally told me that it was just water the whole time — but that part I wasn’t allowed to give away,” says Mr. Annoni.
In March of 2019, a Celebration of Life is held for my mother’s father in Boyertown, Pennsylvania. I walk into the church yielding a handmade bowl of tabbouleh. I still to this day cannot understand how church outings are packed with hamburgers, hotdogs, macaroni salad; all that American culture stuff that Jesus would have never tasted.
I dang near drop the tabbouleh on the floor as I look over and see Jo-Jo standing over by the food station. I had just sent him and his wife a card in which I reminisced on the times he had taught me to mow the lawn, took me to that leadership conference years back, and all the lessons I took from his children. Seeing all the sacrifices the Herndons made as I was a child prepared me to fully understand the meaning of sacrifice, it put me in a position in which when I see sacrifice with my own eyes, the bells ring and the memories click. I am not expecting to see Jo-Jo this morning, and as I walk and my hands shake I reminisce on all those lifelong sacrifices with my soul singing out I’ll never be more loved than I am right now.
On July 20, 2018, on a beautiful sunny summer’s day at the American Club of Coplay, my aunt and uncle get married. It is on this very day that I meet most of my biological family members for the first time. There is an uncle who says, “I remember holding you in my arms when you were a baby.” There was a first cousin once removed who said, “I hate your mother,” who isn’t legally my mother due to Joe Biden’s Mass Incarceration Bill amongst several other complexities. And then there were some people with who I am not biologically related yet still changed my life forever.
On July 22, 2018, Saquon Barkley signs a 31.2-million-dollar contract with the New York Giants, including a 20.76-million-dollar signing bonus with 15 million paid out immediately. Flash-forward seven months and he is winning Rookie of the Year, a testament to the fact that every penny in his contract is well deserved, with the overall figure possibly even being too low. Flashback two days and his mother is cleaning off every table at my aunt’s wedding all by herself.
At the end of every event there comes that awkward time when foods and items must be put away. And it all doesn’t just magically get put away — people must put these foods and items away. “Are you seriously telling me you don’t know how to wrap the cheese up properly?!?” Emily Gilmore once yells at her servant whilst yielding all her wealth and privilege.
Most of us don’t have the same luxury as Mrs. Gilmore. We are working (76% of us) and middle-class (23% of us). We don’t look on as our servants clean up after us, sipping champagne and dancing the one-two step until the floors are polished to a sparkle. For most of us, the end of an event brings up an awkward time in which we can either choose to help with the cleanup or just outright leave. Oftentimes comes the “oh don’t worry about that, I’ll take care of this” from the event staff and catering company. For those who are not coughing up the change for such insurance and are a la Nova Bordelon, “making comfort food for those who need comfort, with our bare hands” sans American Express, bare hands are needed for the cleanup.
I stand in complete shock when I watch Tonya Johnson walking around with trash bags and cleaning off the tables one by one all by herself. The bells are ringing and the memories are clicking. Her son had just been picked second overall in the National Football League draft two months ago. In two days, he will be signing his rookie contract. In seven months, he will be declared Rookie of the Year. In thirteen months, Stephen A. Smith will name him the number one running back in the National Football League and in September 2019 the two of them star in a Campbell’s commercial. But here she is cleaning off tables at my aunt’s wedding. I am walking from one end of the ballroom to the other when I see this going on and I stop. Frozen. Unable to speak; unable to move.
In the spring of 2018, I venture off to a conference filled with internationally renowned lawyers at the Eagleton Institute of Politics. Oprah’s lawyer, Sue Underwald, tells the story of when her firm had just received Oprah’s account. She conducts all of the initial research and ensures that her firm will meet all of the filing deadlines. When the time comes for representatives of the firm to fly to Oprah’s house and finalize her merger with Discovery Communications, the firm’s partner brings Ms. Underwald and an older lawyer into the office, asking the gentleman when he will be prepared to fly to Montecito.
Underwald is shocked. This is her account from a meritocracy standpoint, yet she wouldn’t even get the chance to meet with Oprah. When the gentleman walks out of the meeting, she looks the partner in his eyes and asks how it could ever be possible that she could have been looked over for this.
“Honestly, I didn’t even think of asking you,” he admits.
Underwald annunciates the fact to all of us sitting at the conference that within our careers there will often come times, for some of us many, that we must demand a seat for ourselves at the table if we wish to receive a share of the crop yield.
A couple of weeks after one of the biggest upsets in Underwald’s career, the partner brings her into his office and says, “Hey. Do you want to meet Oprah?” Her demanding a seat at the table had paid off.
Chief District Judge Freda Wolfson, who just so happens to be the only Democrat that George W. Bush allowed to retain her seat during his presidency, tells a story of her mother migrating all the way to America from Poland to give her children a new life, sacrificing herself in a country whose language she couldn’t even speak. She goes on to teach herself English by sitting down and reading the newspaper every morning.
Wolfson points out that lawyers make more money than judges, and civil lawyers much more, however, her passion has always been on the bench.
When it came time to put her children through college, she and her husband choose to sacrifice their passions and take up temporary careers as lawyers in order to afford their children’s better futures. “Really?” the other lawyers on the panel all gasp in unison. Really.
A New Jersey Gubernatorial candidate is another speaker at this conference. He marvels at the crowd size which includes some standing room only. “Don’t these people realize we’re a bunch of lawyers?” he asks.
The eldest lawyer at the conference hails from New Hampshire and graduated from Columbia Law School. He exclaimed that he is positive that his hometown in New Hampshire admired him when he was a child because he never ended up dead on the side of the road. “Most people where I come from never make it out of New Hampshire.”
As a lawyer who enjoyed a lengthy and successful career, aspiring lawyers often come up to him seeking advice and answers to their questions.
“People ask me, ‘what makes a candidate stand out?’ I like people who were recently waiters and waitresses.”
I couldn’t believe what I had heard. Although I shouldn’t have been surprised at all. The ‘elites’ often track down the most intelligent citizens in the most public offices. When being vetted for the Central Intelligence Agency, Valerie Plame is a retail associate at a clothing store.
“Lost in a world where he belonged, he knew he had to return to the unknown.”
— Mark Patrick, Last Day
I remember the first words I ever hear Tonya say in person. She walks up to the front of the aisle after all the guests had arrived at my aunt’s wedding saying, “Alright everybody. Please put your phones on silent.” I remember the first words her daughter speaks to me as well. “How do you know my name?” she asks when I walk up to her and say, “Hi, Shaquonna.” How do I know your name? “We’re friends on Facebook.”
The first words Saquon says to me while we are both students at Penn State is something along the lines of “I don’t know you,” after I tell him my aunt and his uncle will soon be getting married. His response is both deliberate and respectful. How could I expect anything else when some of my own cousins didn’t even know who I was?
During the wedding reception, my cousin Jakyi asks me, “What’s your name?”
“I’m Kordel,” I answer.
“Cool, I have a cousin named Kordel.”
He gasps. He then runs to my aunt, hollering and pointing towards me, “Mom! Look! Kordel’s here. He’s right over there!” and it is as if within those footsteps I finally figure out who I am.
The officiating pastor of the wedding, a cousin of many in attendance, emphasizes the importance of love during the ceremony.
“Love never fails,” he says. It is something said so often but at this moment something clicks. If anyone ever failed me, they never loved me. There are people who never told me they love me, yet I know they do because they consistently refuse to fail me. Then there are people who say they love me, yet I know they don’t because throughout all their constant I love yous they continue to fail not me but us and they know who they are, and it is sad. And sometimes the failure is downright calculated.
**THE LIMIT DOES NOT EXIST**
Shortly after the pastor leaves time flies by, the wedding is soon over, and the cleanup ensues. As I stand frozen watching Tonya clear off all the tables, I think back to the conference several months ago when an elite lawyer says he will only hire a candidate who was recently a waiter or waitress, and it clicks. When Tonya stands up, tells us to silence our phones and when she says, “I know” in the Campbell’s soup commercial, she is doing something that elite lawyers do: commanding a stage and inheriting God-given confidence. When she is wiping down the tables, she is doing something that both lawyers and waitresses do: make sacrifices.
I will never have to ask “Why?” or “How?” Saquon Barkley got to the NFL and became the number one running back in the league after one season. I had seen with my own eyes the sacrifices that paved the way. At this wedding, we are standing behind the scenes of one of the biggest stages in America.
The home Saquon Barkley bought for his parents has proven to be a humble oasis for many friends and family members. None of us carry the burden of looking towards sacrifice to hide from mobsters, but there are equalizing stories that can be shared.
On Easter Sunday 2018, two days after my aunt’s birthday, I walk into Tonya’s garage carrying my aunt’s leftover pork when Tonya is walking out on crutches. I am shocked and confused, worried something deeply terrible had happened.
“What happened?” I ask.
“I had surgery,” she says.
“Oh,” is all I can mutter as my tongue can’t seem to stumble upon the correct dialogue.
Later that evening, she huddles over the stove and fills everyone’s plates up with comfort food. I can’t hand her my plate, I stand there dearly wanting some of the collard greens that are right in front of her, but it just didn’t feel right while she is on crutches to walk up to her and tell her which food to get me. This was a level of sacrifice I have never seen before, and my brain doesn’t quite know how to decipher it all. I couldn’t help but wonder, had I seen these types of actions much earlier in life, might I turn out to become a completely different person? It can never be too late in life to have a soul renewed.
Watching all of Tonya’s sacrifices firsthand led me to recall the times my family was homeless after my parents’ divorce. If not for the sacrifices of Dave and Gail we would have had nowhere to live. During this time, Gail teaches me the craft of scallops wrapped in bacon, a dish that I teach my cousins the very same as my mother’s father’s Celebration of Life, where I run into Gail. The scallops are like the lost little children and the bacon the sacrifices of all the elders saving their lives.
Thanks to Saquon Barkley and his mother Tonya, my little cousins are now able to run around and explore their futures in a home where you can feel wholesome and whole. My little sisters, who themselves have been thrown in and out of the foster care system, now know not simply that such beautiful houses exist but that they themselves can walk inside and be greeted without wondering if they’ll get taken away or kicked out. My littlest sister had a name for me the first time I met her: Man. I speak with Jo-Jo before church one day in Reading informing him of this. In a quick and direct response, he tells me, “Because you are a man.”
The first time my mother kicks me out of the house I am sent to live in the home of a family from our church after I call them saying no, everything is not okay. It is an extreme sacrifice on their part with five children already in the mix, but they are prepared for the challenge, nevertheless. Spiritual healing will ensue, and generational shackles will begin to break.
I am in their kitchen one day when I see a text float across the screen of a phone. I turn my head the other way but then I see the message has my name in it I begin to pay attention, I’m seventeen. “Hey. I heard Kordel has been staying with you. Is everything okay?” The text comes from Pastor Tracie of Life Church — Reading.
I am confused when reading that text, not quite sure which emotions one would normally encounter in such a situation. However, I now find the emotional context of that text message quite clear: love. I now understand all of the love that went into the typing of that message and the difficulties that may have been involved in getting their finger to press “send.” Years after the text is sent, I walk up to the Pastor thanking them for it. “It must have been seven years ago now.” The immediate response is, “It hasn’t been that long, has it?” indicating Pastor Tracie has been keeping track of my life story the entire time, even better than me.
“Don’t be afraid of memories. The past is just our yesterdays.”
— Mark Patrick, Last Day
I am in ninth grade sitting in my bedroom playing Madden when my mother stands in my doorway and the words “Kordel, I quit my job today” slide out of her mouth like butter. I sit with my face in a glare attempting to decipher what the future would hold for our family, unable to show any emotion at the time. I sit crumbled by the realization that I may never become the son my mother wants or needs me to be.
Lake Wynonah, Pennsylvania. This is the land my mother takes my siblings and me to upon her divorce. A calm and tranquil getaway, there is not much to do other than sit in quiet and rank the local whoopie pies from best to bestest. One night I cannot fall asleep — no, many nights I cannot fall asleep — I am a huge fan of melatonin. One night at Lake Wynonah I cannot fall asleep, and as I walk around the house I see that neither can my mother. “Kordel, look, deer!” I look out the window, it’s around 2 AM now, and I see these mystical creatures so full of life full of spirit full of energy. To look at these deer that some would kill and be filled with an immediate emotion of love is akin to my mother adopting me, taking me in, and loving me even when I don’t want to be loved or don’t know how to be loved. Those deer… out in those woods… all alone… their heroes died all alone… they’ve been the archer… they’ve been the prey… who could leave them… who could stay… help me hold onto you….
Ballantyne, North Carolina. The Charlottean district is upscale, diverse, highly-skilled, highly educated, and home to Elevation Church. I drive into Charlotte for the second time, but the first time alone, in February of 2021 with a goal to never ever return. Days before, my dreams are infiltrated leaving me feeling violated. The dream consists of myself and someone else from Elevation Church driving around in an apartment complex parking lot and soon being attacked by a mad man wielding a gun. Out of nowhere, blue and white and red police lights flicker all throughout the dream. Dozens of police officers pull out their guns, pointing them towards the assailant forcing him to run away in fear. We are able to drive away safely in the car, and as I look back at the police officers I see faces of safety. The dream ends with me running to my mother saying, “We were driving home from Elevation Church and someone pulled out a gun on us. They’re calling it attempted murder.”
Less than five days after this dream appears in my mind, my manager comes into the office and asks if I take a certain interstate to get to work.
“No. Why?” I ask. Their face shows signs of deceit.
“Something about a parking lot.”
“What?” I ask, stunned and confused, as I had a murderous dream in a parking lot only days before.
“I don’t know. Just something about a parking lot.” They run away, as if hiding something — as if knowing something.
This is the very last red flag I can take. I said to God right then and there I needed to leave this company. I was not quite sure how I would survive once gone but I knew dark spirits are plaguing me and it must end. That very same day, the company’s Vice President gives us a call over Zoom informing me that in lieu of a two weeks’ notice we will part ways then and there. I could absolutely not stop smiling during the video call.
Three days after the Zoom call, I drive into Charlotte to sit down with the Vice President and get some more answers. As I drive down the interstate I pass “Adopt a Highway” signs laced with the company’s logo before I even make it to their headquarters. I’m never coming back to Charlotte I tell myself. After the meeting, I drive past the largest most unpleasant tent city I have ever seen. I ponder how the city with one of the most important churches in the world, Elevation, could be facing such inequality issues. Where are the helpers? I sit in my car angry, thinking that the next Sunday may end up being my first and last time at Elevation Ballantyne.
Throughout the middle of the worship experience, I am struck with the realization that this may not be my last time at Elevation Ballantyne after all. Jenna Barrientes leads the church through the song “There Is A King” which contains the lyrics “Every trophy will be laid down at His feet.” That line right there has me standing in my own tears. Just two days prior on Friday, I have my final meeting with the company at which I tell clients, “You could even place your trophies in these display cabinets!” This company consistently states they are the best, better than everyone, going around buying and selling absolute gold. This company is not the best — Elevation Church is the best. (This company is currently looking to bring their clients into Ballantyne as they realize Elevation attracts the best. But Elevation fights demons, too).
After the experience, I attend the Volunteer Orientation in search of someone looking to make a change regarding the tent city filled with homeless people in Charlotte. I run into Shawn, who tells me she went to the tent city the day prior handing out blankets. I ask her if she knows the song with the line “Every trophy will be laid down at His feet” and as I am speaking with her, Elevation Worship begins to play “There Is A King” again.
We walk out of the room and watch Elevation Worship sing this song on the screens before going back into the auditorium to watch the song be performed live again. After all this, I am completely filled with emotions. The last words she says to me on the first day I meet her are, “Are you okay?” Truly I wasn’t. I have never been treated so well before. After all that I have been through, I never expected to be treated with such dignity and such respect. God is laughing at me — this definitely will not be my last time in Charlotte. In only a few weeks, I am in Charlotte getting baptized — hoping — praying that I never again have my dreams infiltrated.
On Friday, March 21, 2021, I am back in Charlotte attending a special service at Elevation led by Pastor Robert Madu from Texas. I run into a church leader, and tell him that the same reaction his wife first had of him is the same one I had — and it wasn't a positive one — but it wasn’t my voice either. “The enemy may have been trying to prevent the two of you from getting married,” I tell him, in some of the most sincere and deliberate words I have ever used to form a sentence. The grand goal of our enemy is confusion — utilizing spiritual warfare to hide and scutter the sacrifices for the soul.
After the service, I stand in the parking lot on the phone with an Elevation volunteer trying to convince me to move to Costa Rica with him. I look over and see Chris Brown, leader of Elevation Worship walking to his car.
“Chris!” I shout, as if I know him, bells ringing and memories clicking. He squints at me a little bit as if to check to see if we might have met before. He smiles, and waves. “Hey!”
“Have a great day!” I reply. It isn’t a simple coincidence bringing us together that day — it is the grandest sacrifices of all Jesus Christ himself made for our souls — the everlasting veil of protection placed over us via grace, through his death on the cross and resurrection on Resurrection Sunday. May I never lose the wonder of this Gospel mystery… May I never lose the wonder of this Gospel mystery….