Cursing a Vigil

Cursing a Vigil

It was a vigil. A candlelight vigil for a seventeen year old black young man who was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer.

The week after the verdict came back guilty in the officer’s trial, a friend of mine hosted the vigil at her small church in the Norwood Park neighborhood on Chicago’s northwest side. Her church is part of a coalition of churches in the area who came together to promote racial justice when a woman with a Puerto Rican flag on her shirt was harassed at a local park. They wanted to remember Laquan McDonald as more than a symbol, and stand with his family and friends in their grief at his loss.

No verdict can bring him back.

The church where the vigil was held meets in a train station in the heart of the neighborhood. It’s a lovely spot in the center of a small park filled with trees with a picturesque wrought iron fence around it. I arrived early and was startled to see bright royal blue plastic bunting tied to every post in the fence and an apparently semi-permanent sign firmly attached next to the sidewalk that said “Blue Lives Matter.” I wondered if all this was normally there (it wasn’t), or had just been put there because of our vigil (it had). As I walked up the path to the train station, every tree was wrapped in the blue plastic bunting.

It wasn’t subtle. Far from it.

Laquan McDonald had just turned seventeen when he was killed. Raised mostly by his great-grandmother until her death, he’d talked of becoming a nurse. He was back in school and had a part-time job learning to rehab properties. He liked working with his hands. He loved his little sister fiercely.

He was like my brothers, yours kids, our nephews – if they had the early childhood trauma of a mother struggling with addiction and abusive foster homes, if they grew up in a violent neighborhood with poor schools and few opportunities where people survive by self-medicating with readily available street drugs, if they had the symptoms and struggles common to those who suffer with PTSD.

His family loved him like we love our kids – by age five he was living with his great-grandmother, with a large extended family nearby. His mother worked to get her life on track and built a loving relationship with her son. His family misses him – like we would miss our kids.

In the face of obstacles I can barely imagine, Laquan was a kid trying to survive and find his way to a good life.

We met to remember Laquan, to pray for his family, and to pray for change in the system that resulted in his death.

And that was something part of the community could not stand.

When we walked outside with candles lit, the men (I saw no women) gathered along the edge of the small park began to yell. “SHUT UP, B****!” I heard that more than once above the blare of truck horns. They’d lined the block with trucks (some had more signs) and set of all their alarms. It was meant to be threatening, and it was. Particularly to the handful of black women who drove in from their neighborhoods to join us.

I kept wondering, what are these men so afraid of?

When I listen to friends who are concerned that “Blue Lives Matter,” they are worried that we are minimizing the risks police officers take in the course of doing their jobs. But our society clearly believes that the lives of police officers matter. We protect them with body armor and armored vehicles. We give them weapons to use and latitude to use them – batons, Tasers, guns. And when officers are killed in the line of duty, we honor them with funeral parades, salutes, and memorials.

(Where are the memorials for young black women and men who should still be alive?)

In the only interview he has given, the officer who killed Laquan McDonald said something that gave me chills. He said, “I might be looking at the possibility of spending the rest of my life in prison for doing my job as I was trained as a Chicago police officer.”

It’s something I’ve heard again since the verdict in interviews with other officers and representatives from the Fraternal Order of Police.

It’s part of the reason for our vigil after the verdict.

I suspect it’s a large part of the reason those men yelling expletives at us are so afraid.

Norwood Park is 80% white (down from over 90% in 2000) and home to many of Chicago’s police and firefighters. They see a colleague convicted and going to jail for doing what they consider to be his job, and it scares them.

The power to kill makes them feel safer (and we wonder why gun violence is so prevalent on Chicago’s west and south sides), and that power is being threatened by outside accountability and consequences.

And so they cursed a prayer vigil. They beat their chests and roared their roars and blared their horns and tied their blue bunting in a message that could not have said more clearly, “Our lives matter more than Laquan McDonald’s.”

Which is why we must continue to insist – Black Lives Matter, too.

Laquan’s life mattered.

Advertisements

Feeding the Lions

Feeding the Lions

Several years ago I had the opportunity to accompany a class of seminary students on several field trips to meet ministers working in different ways on the south and west sides of Chicago. They were eye-opening days, and I came away with a deep respect for the people in these communities and the pastors who work with them. It changed the way I listen to the news, the people I follow on Facebook and Twitter, and the assumptions I’d always had about violence in “bad” parts of town.

There are few things that make me angrier on social media than people who live in the suburbs and across the country saying something along the lines of “If ‘black lives matter’ so much, why aren’t these people doing anything about black-on-black violence? Just look at Chicago! Where are the protests about that?”

They have no clue how many vigils and protests there are in these communities, or how hard pastors and other community leader work to redeem their neighborhoods. And beyond their ignorance about what is or is not actually happening, they betray a deep ignorance about what exactly these communities are up against.

The racialization of Chicago neighborhoods has a long history marked by racist real estate and lending practices (supported by federal policies), preferential treatment of white neighborhoods and constituencies, and police brutality against black people. Reduced legitimate opportunities and choices creates an increase in illegitimate options, and an illegal, shadow system breeds violence.

Chicago has its own unique factors, but the overall dynamics are no different anywhere else in the country.

Individual responsibility matters. But it isn’t the only thing that matters. Social responsibility matters, too, and sometimes, more.

The Bible is full of this reality. We are called to recognize and help the individual in trouble – someone robbed and beaten and left by the side of the road. But we are also called to care for and support “the poor” – a whole class of people who, Jesus said, we will always have with us.

Can we help the whole class by ignoring the individuals? No, of course not, and that is the pitfall of the distant-humanitarian (or politician or bureaucrat) who is content to support an abstract idea even if (perhaps because) it hides the reality of people’s lives.

But can we help the individual and ignore the whole class? Yes, and many of us do it every day – some because the problem of the class seems overwhelming and unsolvable to them, and others because they refuse to believe the class even exists. To these, there are only individuals who are poor, no class of “the poor” or “the oppressed.”

Both are ways to avoid social responsibility.

Social responsibility recognizes that, while individual have real choices, the choices available to any given individual are shaped and limited (or expanded) by societal (social) forces beyond their direct control. Social responsibility recognizes that “status quo” societal forces are perpetuated by default by those individuals who are unaware or in denial of them, in addition to those who are consciously complicit. And social responsibility recognizes that it is individuals, aware and choosing to work together, who can change the possibilities for a given disadvantaged group of people.

One of those field trips I went on took us to a rally of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition on Chicago’s Southside, and after the rally we had a meeting with Rev. Jesse Jackson. That meeting was not what I expected. We didn’t meet a politician or public persona (though he is both of those), we met a pastor. “We need your help,” he told us. “When these families lose a child, and they don’t have a church, we’re the ones they call.” We don’t have enough pastors for them – there are too many families and too many funerals, he told us.

But we need to do more than bind up their wounds, he continued. The church is good at binding and healing wounds, but we send them right back out for the same lions to keep devouring them. We’ve got to deal with the lions, too.

I haven’t used quotation marks because I don’t pretend to remember his exact words that day, but I will never forget what he told us, or the pastor’s heart he opened up to us.

Individuals need their wounds tended, and that is our responsibility. But it is also our responsibility to fight against the lions that savage their lives.

There’s more than one way to fight those lions – racism, sexism, economic oppression, discrimination against people because of who they are or who they love. But we will never defeat them if we cannot even acknowledge they exist, and if we cannot admit the many ways we have knowingly or unknowingly fed them.

For some of us, those lions are harmless pets, or mythical monsters, or species that are rare and exceptional to encounter. Some of us even see them as protectors against the pests that would destroy our hard work, like the mousers on the great-grandfather’s farm. We see them as essentially separate from ourselves, rather than as extensions of our lives and choices.

The truth is harder. It requires us to accept a responsibility that is both individual and social. And that responsibility requires a response.

Obscene Generosity

Obscene Generosity

God loves with obscene generosity.

The lengths God is willing to go to, the depths God is willing to stoop to – time and time again it baffles, even offends, those who think they know God. Ninevites are loved, prostitutes, pagans, drunkards, adulterers, murderers, idolaters, terrorists. The wrong people. The wrong kind of people.

Whatever else they are or were, they are other. Outsiders to whatever inside we’ve laid claim to. Normal; perverted. Legal; criminal. White; black. Civilized; uncivilized. Smart; foolish. Spiritual; worldly. Clean; dirty. Legitimate; illegitimate. We’re right; they’re wrong.

Yet God forgives them and blesses them and talks to them and hangs out with them. God likes them.

And it kills us. Because we want to believe we’re special.

And we are.

But so are they. They aren’t like us and they are special. Those other people who missed the boat, who get it all wrong, who mess up and hurt other people and make bad choices. (Or just choices that aren’t the ones we’d make.) Who are for whatever reason just the wrong people.

We want a “but…” on that. But…they repented. But…they changed. But…it wasn’t their fault. But…they were deceived. But…they learned. Maybe they did or do or will or were, but that’s not the point of why and how God loves.

If there were ever a foolish lover, it’s God. Loving those who turn their back again and again and again. Loving those who don’t get it, who assume they are just that lovable. Loving the selfish, in it for what they get. Loving the hurt and angry, who lash out when you get too close. Loving the ones who push away. Loving the ones who don’t care, who don’t want your love. Loving the ones who are too busy. And loving them all beyond reason or what is reasonable. This is no measured love – it’s impetuous and inappropriate.

It’s just too much!

It crosses all kinds of lines, how God loves. It’s not reasonable. The priorities are all over the place. It’s indiscriminate, wasteful, disorderly, prodigal. It even crosses the lines we understood God drew!

It makes us so uncomfortable. Maybe not in theory, where, after all, we can readily affirm that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son….” But in practice?

Yogi Bera is quoted as saying, “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.” And it’s so deeply true. Theory stays safely abstract – love stays safely abstract. But when we actually see the obscenely generous love of God at work, in practice?

It disgusts us.

“That’s just the easy way.” “Shameless!” “Oh come on, you’re smarter than that!” “I can’t believe you’d even consider it!”

I’ve been on the receiving end of that disgust. I even remember feeling it myself at times, that profound disapproval of others who I believed were foolish at best, defiant at worst.

We don’t want something that’s so easily given. Its “cheap,” we say, “You’re too easy.”

As if God could do anything that isn’t priceless. Some things are of such immeasurable value that they can only ever be gifts.

Surviving Home

Surviving Home

Through the years, as I’ve listened to various friends talk about growing up in abusive homes, often with alcoholics or addicts, I’ve heard several themes emerge.

As young children, these folks adapted to their environments with hyper-vigilance. They observed every nuance of home life and walked painstakingly on eggshells, always bracing for the slightest crack that would set their parent off. In a context where they were supposed to feel safe and nurtured, they were instead defensive and guarded. Survival skills.

They paid attention to every detail, internally charting patterns of response. Avoiding every known trigger of violence.

The thing is, you could never know them all.

No matter how diligently they watched the signs, how quietly they whispered, how carefully they tiptoed around the landmines, there was always something they didn’t see. The explosions still happened.

No home is perfect, but the childhood security that many of us took for granted was never theirs.

As I’ve listened to various black friends talk about their lives in America, it sounds remarkably similar.

Somewhere along the way, they learned to adapt to white America with hyper-vigilance. They observe every nuance of white behavior and walk painstakingly on eggshells, always bracing for the slightest crack that will set us off. In a context where they should feel free to go about the business of their lives in peace, they are instead defensive and guarded. Survival skills.

It doesn’t matter much that I, a white woman, would never call the police because a black teen is hanging out across the street and I don’t think they belong there. They never know what white person will make that call. It doesn’t matter much that my friend who is a police officer works hard to understand the community, counter his implicit bias, and deescalate confrontations. They never know what police officer will pull their gun. Will shoot. Each white person is a mood, a moment, of the whole, and how can you trust the kindness when you never know when the blows will come? And the blows never fail to come. The system ensures it if the individuals don’t.

Like those children in abusive homes who learned to observe their parents closely in order to survive, these black friends know us (white America) and the systems we have built in ways better than we know ourselves. They’ve had to see what we haven’t – their survival depends on it. Ours doesn’t.

Theirs shouldn’t have to.

And like too many abusive relationships, there is no satisfying white America. “If only you wouldn’t misbehave, then we could hear your message as valid!” “But you’re doing so well! What could possibly be wrong?!?!? Don’t be ridiculous!” “It’s all in your head.” “Take responsibility for yourselves!”

A riot is the self-defense of the systemically and systematically abused. The breaking open of those who have been told in so many ways again and again that what they experience is not real, not oppressive, not killing them.

With every police shooting of a black man who is running away, every report of a white person calling in someone who looks “suspicious,” my respect for black Americans grows alongside my grief. The patience they give that we do not deserve. The strength that endures in the face of our ignorance and denial.

We have a lot to learn from people who are under no obligation to teach us.

But first we have to be willing to see ourselves, not as we want to be, but as we are.

Kids in abusive contexts respond in different ways – some hide, some escape, some try to please, some fight back. All ways to try to survive until your old enough to get out (which doesn’t mean you’ll ever stop trying to survive and using the same ways to do it).

Black Americans don’t have that kind of hope. The hope they can have is a hope that things can and will change, and that they can survive until they do.

May God help them. May God help us all.