The day prayers set off the hospital fire alarm

Some memories blur over time. Others, like the hospital visit with Nee-gon-we-way-we-dun (Clyde Bellecourt, Jr), still ring the fire alarm.

Photo of Clyde F. Bellecourt, co-founder of the American Movement (AIM) and the Legal Rights Center.

I had come to visit Clyde — Nee-gon-we-way-we-dun (“Thunder Before the Storm”) — in the cardiac care unit after he had suffered a minor heart attack. It had been Clyde and the Legal Rights Center (LRC) Board who invited me to step in as LRC’s interim executive director. LRC and I were in the same boat: our boats were sinking. I stayed at LRC for the next seven years.

LRC is the creation of Black and American Indian community civil right leaders as an “outside the system” community-based public defense corporation belonging to, managed by, and serving low-income African-American and American Indian defendants in the courts of Hennepin County.

I had been in Clyde’s room in the cardiac care unit no more than 10 minutes when an Anishinabe Midew arrived to offer prayers for healing to Gitche Manitou (the Great Spirit). She brought sage and sweetgrass, the herbs for ‘smudging’ in preparation for prayer. Smudging serves the purposes of cleansing, keeping evil away, and providing a spirit of calm and peacefulness.

The Midew had, of course, come with matches to bring the herbs to a smolder to create the smoke for smudging. She lit the match, and the smoke triggered the hospital fire alarm throughout Hennepin County Medical Center. The alarm stopped a few minutes later when an attending nurse smelled the sweet smell of smudging, and sent the word that stopped the alarms. We never did get to the prayers.

If we had gotten beyond the preparation for prayer, the Midew would have offered something like this Ojibwe prayer for the healing of each other and the healing of the planet:

Grandfather,
 look at our brokenness.
 We know that in all creation
 only the human family
 has strayed from the Sacred Way.
 We know that we are the ones
 who are divided
 and we are the ones
 who must come back together
 to walk the Sacred Way.
 Grandfather, 
 Sacred One,
 teach us love, compassion, and honor
 that we may heal the earth
 and heal each other. 
 (Ojibwe prayer)

The Legacy of Thunder Before the Storm

Clyde is gone now (RIP), but his legacy will live on. Though he could not end the racism or heal America of the trail of broken promises, he did what a human being is called to do. Because he did, his thunder is still heard. Professional sports teams no longer bear the names or wear the logos that dehumanize America’s first peoples. Although fans of the Cleveland ‘Guardians’ (MLB) and the Washington ‘Commanders’ (NFL) may not know or care why, when, and how their teams took their names, those who know will not forget the persistence that blew away the insults. Soon no one will remember, with a chuckle, the day preparation for prayer set off the fire alarms. No one will know that security systems can’t be smudged.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, host of Views from the Edge, Author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), writing from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, December 19, 2022.

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