Robert Cotton has died. I called him Robert “High” Cotton. You probably know the phrase “being in high cotton.” It means doing well, flourishing. You might not know (I certainly did not) that the term originated in the pre-Civil War South. “High cotton” meant the crops were good and so were the prices. “High cotton” likely did not mean much to those who actually did the backbreaking work of planting, weeding, and harvesting the cotton. Certainly the slaves who worked the cotton fields never enjoyed the fruits of “high cotton.”
Robert was a descendent of slaves. He endured another type of slavery. He had worked hard in his life and yet was on the streets for many years. He experienced the multiple indignities of being Black and poor and no place to call “home.” He never had much in the way of “high cotton.” We talked one day about “high cotton.” He said he spent most of his life in “low cotton.” He liked being called “high cotton” though, because he said, “If I’m ‘high cotton’ I must be pretty good.”
Robert often rode his bike to Manna House. He was one of the regular bike riders with a few other guests, including Reggie a good friend. Robert would trick his bike out so that it was quite fancy looking, a “high cotton” kind of bike.
Robert died alone in his boarding house room. He had a heart attack, Reggie said. “They found him on his knees, like he was praying.” So far no family has been found, though Reggie continues to look.
I believe Robert is in extremely high cotton now; a place called “heaven.” The high cotton there is not the result of slavery and Jim Crow, new and old, but of Gospel liberation. It is the high cotton of the Gospel.
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” For years I have heard that statement as the priest put ashes on my forehead. These days I sometimes hear the priest say “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Both statements are fine.
The first is a humbling phrase. It is a reminder of our shared mortality, and this should spur us to compassion and justice as we are all in this brief life together. Even those in high cotton come from the earth and return to the earth.
The second, “Repent and believe in the Gospel” is also a call to compassion and justice. Out in the cotton fields there was a song the slaves sang, “Everybody talkin’ ‘bout heav’n that ain’t goin’ there.” The slaves knew the truth of the Gospel “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21-23). Or as the song says, “Well I read about the streets of gold, And I read about the throne, Not everybody callin’ ‘Lord, Lord,’ Is gonna see that heavenly home.”
The Gospel of Jesus announces a different order than the order of racism and slavery that produced the phrase “high cotton.” This different order of the Gospel, the “Kingdom of God,” means no slaves, no restriction of high cotton to the wealthiest. This different order demands reparations so that justice can be restored. This different order of the Gospel brings good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed and jubilee—the year of the Lord’s favor in which all debts are forgiven and land is redistributed (Luke 4:18-19). High cotton for all. Robert “High” Cotton has entered into that promise. Those who take the fruits of high cotton off the backs of slaves need to repent and believe in the Gospel if they hope to share in that promise.
“Repent and believe in the Gospel.” We can work for the Kingdom or against it. Ash Wednesday reminds us to make the choice for the Kingdom while we still have time. “High cotton come on earth as it is in heaven.” Robert “High” Cotton rest in peace.