“This is what the Lord says:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
mourning and great weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.” (Jeremiah 31:15)
“Why do you want to do this work?” This has been a driving question in my life and work the past year. I have answered in a million different ways. Each time a forgotten memory of my past bubbling up to my mind. These stories, the fruit of seeds planted years ago. Many times we are unaware of how a moment will shape us. In asking and answering this question I have been forced to connect back to my story in surprising ways. What has lead me to this work is not as simple as I thought. Thousands of moments have pivoted me towards this life. Each one of these moments shaping me in ways I am still adjusting to. One of the moments I have shared often came the summer after my freshman year in college.
It was summer time and I remember hearing about a shooting the night before and that somebody had been killed. A few hours later I would hear the name of the victim, I was shocked to know it. Darryl was a teammate of mine. We played basketball together at CC. His funeral was going to be at the church I attended from time to time. The church that day was the fullest I had ever seen it, standing room only. I found an open spot against the wall over to the side. I held myself up against the wall, feeling like I shouldn’t be there. I didn’t know him that well. We hooped together for a short time, we shared a few laughs, had a few mutual friends but felt like this wasn’t my loss to grieve. I think this is a part of our broken nature. We feel like we must earn the right to grieve a tragic loss. We shouldn’t grieve tragedy unless it is extremely close to us, as if our humanity is not enough for us to feel empathy for one another. Darryl was 19, the same age as me when he was murdered. I remember the t-shirts made for him, the tears that were shed for him that day. While the pain in the room was evident, the shock of a 19 year old being murdered was not. This was not unusual here. There were more funerals to attend that summer. The murder of a 19 year old black child was not tragedy here, it was life.
I couldn’t shake this feeling and remember thinking this cannot be right. It is unacceptable to live in a world where this is normal, and whatever I did with my life it needed to have something to do with helping change this reality.
My time in ministry has shown me that sadly this story is all across our country. In so many of our communities the question isn’t do you know anyone who has been shot but how many? While in Oakland, at a community peace event I was participating in, a question was posed to the young men in the gym “who knows someone who has been shot and killed?” All hands went up and stayed up even as the number climbed up to five or more people. While in Benton Harbor there were several shootings and each of the youth I worked with seemed to have their own tragic experience with violence. During my time in Miami I have sat with mothers, fathers, family and friends who have all lost someone because of gun violence. Given these realities, hopelessness often seems like the answer. However our faith communities cannot accept this as truth.
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth? (Luke 18:1-8)
Why do I do this work? It is an opportunity to fight against the narrative of hopelessness. An opportunity to come together as a community and be strong with and for one another. Monday night was our Nehemiah Action, our largest gathering of the year. One of the greatest showings of hope and action from the faith community. We work throughout the year to prepare for this moment. This moment where we stand in front of our officials, and like the widow in the text above, ask them to grant us justice against our opponent. What we wanted on Monday night was a nationally proven gun violence reduction strategy to be implemented in the County. Because of the faith community’s persistence, this strategy has budgeted for nearly $2 million a year and the necessary community partners are working together instead of separately. On Monday we wanted a deadline for implementation, in order to make sure that not another day is wasted. We fell short of that commitment but we will keep coming back, because we know how important this work is. We know we cannot allow 19 to be a normal lifespan for so many of our young people.
Why do I do this work? I do this work ultimately because I believe the words of Jesus. I believe if we keep crying out God will answer us. I believe God is a God of justice. I do this work ultimately because I want to be on the winning side. I do this work because I look forward to the day when the loss of a 19 year old to gun violence is inconceivable, in all of our communities. The question is not can we win but can we keep showing up? Many leaders I have spoken with have complained that we keep doing the same thing. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. It does sound crazy but it also sounds like persistence. It sounds a lot like the widow in the parable. Jesus points the question back to us, will we be worn out by hopelessness or will we wear out our officials with a faithful persistence for justice?