These past weeks I have been deeply disturbed by the events in Ferguson and most recently by the decision of a grand jury in Brooklyn to not indict a police officer, who used a banned chokehold which caused the death of Eric Garner. Whether we are aware of it or not — regardless of what we think of these and similar events — each of us is wounded and in pain. No one gets to escape this horror.
In Jacksonville, where I live, communities remain largely segregated. Churches may well be the most segregated groups in our city. The culture here is one where warnings such as don’t rock the boat or don’t stir things up seem to prevail. Peacekeeping wins out at the expense of true peacemaking.
A dear friend and mentor Bishop John Selders (@BishopJSelders) recently shared a photo of a sign that read: White Silence is Violence. I realize that my silence (and that of others) is complicit with a system that is corrupt and broken. My silence refuses to challenge the powers that be. But I also am acutely aware that my silence — whenever I witness injustice in any form and fail to speak up – is also a violence that turns inward, killing me bit my bit.
One Sunday some months ago, after our outdoor church service, a mother (African American, with 3 beautiful children) was sitting on the curb, minding her own business. A police car pulled up and the officer proceeded to grill her for a long time. From a distance, I felt fear (fear for her but also fear that came from not wanting to invite negative attention to our church of mostly poor and disenfranchised folks). I felt physically sick, watching this mother engage quietly and cooperatively (I don’t know if I could have done that, had I been in her shoes). When we were wrapping up our community lunch, she was still there, down on the curb, talking with police, who remained in their car for the entire exchange. When it was time to put away our church supplies, I walked over and asked her if she was okay and when she said yes I left. A week or two later, she came to church again, and I was relieved to see her and her children. She told me the police had been responding to a rumor. To their credit, they went to her home some days later, to tell her that, when they checked out her version of the story, they found all was in order and left her in peace. I told her I should have stayed with her, should have sat with her on the curb. I felt ashamed.
My resistance comes in part from fear but also from inexperience. I feel ill-equipped, much like the girl without hands, who stares at the bloody stumps where her hands once were and weeps. Like her I must allow others to invite me to try something new. I must be willing to try on some ways of being that in the end may not be right for me, but will be of some help temporarily (just as the girl uses silver prosthetic hands for a season). I must trust that over time, if I am faithful in my trying, God will give me new hands. And in the meantime, may I remember that it is never wrong to stand (or sit) with a sister or brother. It is never wrong for us to walk alongside one another.