Joining the March
A few weeks ago, women who have suffered the worst heartache imaginable – the death of their children got together in Washington DC (http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2015/05/09/million-moms-march-demands-end-to-police-brutality-and-racial-injustice/27038289/). These are African-American women whose sons have been killed by the police. The trend is terrible and obvious – unarmed young black males are killed by law enforcement when the situation could have been deescalated without injury or loss of life. This is systemic racism.
These moms, wrapped in grief, gathered to lean on each other’s shoulder, to cry and pray together, and to march up Pennsylvania Avenue to the department of justice (http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/million-mom-march-in-dc-draws-hundreds-demanding-police-reforms/2015/05/09/4f5fa952-f501-11e4-bcc4-e8141e5eb0c9_story.html).
Joining this effort was a first of a kind experience for me. Part of white privilege is the reality that when you live in the middle class, you have education and a good job, and you have no need to fear how the police will treat you, you can just ignore the systemic racism in America. You don’t feel it. So, I have spent time turning a blind eye. But the increase of violence and the climbing number of unarmed black kids killed by police is something I can no longer avoid. I never should have in the first place. I have an adopted son who is black and it horrifies me that I will have to teach him how to act around cops in a way my dad never had to teach me.
I want my son to know I care. I thank God that my boy has awakened me to something I should have cared about all along. I went on May 9, and I marched. I intend to do more. And as a pastor, I intend to bring my church along. But for me, May 9 was to time to add my own feet to the walk and it was a time to observe and learn. I saw a lot.
First, I saw what happens when an event is not well organized. One of my friends who is black and who usually informs me about protest movements did not even know this was happening. Nor did most of Washington DC know. If you were not on Pennsylvania Avenue between 4th and 9th streets, you would have missed this entirely. As we walked by the Newseum, I saw far more people on the streets as tourists doing what they might do any Saturday in DC. That this event was happening and that Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and the rest have died appeared to mean nothing. People of all races went about their normal lives, mildly inconvenienced by the commotion on Pennsylvania Ave.
Second, I looked around the crowd of marchers (a few thousand people, not a million), and I saw a group of people whose lives are in many ways unlike mine. Obviously I am not a woman, I am not black, I am not the mother of young black men, and my children are all alive. I lacked shared life experiences with those leading the march. I felt like the outlier in the crowd. There were people from the Nation of Islam. I don’t fit that group and they wouldn’t want me. There was a group of Episcopalian clergy. I most closely identified with them, but they are DC Episcopalians. I am a Baptist from North Carolina. One of the speakers was a woman from the Green Party.
I have no affiliation with any of these groups. There were groups holding up banners for the Unitarian Church. I am neither Unitarian nor Universalist. There were groups of Lesbians. I am straight and male. There were people filtering through the crowd selling Socialist newspapers. I did not bump into any Southern Evangelicals.
In a crowd where I was in the extreme minority, I had the opportunity to experience up close how others experience and think about the world. I did not mind being unlike those around me. What bothered me is that no one like me cared enough to come. Where were my peers? Where are the white, evangelical Christians? Our cause is Christ and He identifies with the ‘least’ in society. In the word ‘least’ think least advantaged or least recognized. The ‘least’ are not lower in value than anyone else, but they have been devalued by those in society who hold power. Jesus locates himself with those at the bottom of society’s ladder.
If we evangelicals want to see where God is at work and join Him then we need to go where the hurt is greatest. Is any hurt greater than losing a child and knowing it is the police who took the child’s life? This ought to matter to people who do what I do, who live where I live, and whose lives look like mine. Why did my peers, people like me, completely ignore this event? That really bothered me and continues to bother me. Evangelicals want to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, but we stop short if it feels different from what we think we know. That is not good.
After my observation about the lack of organization and my observation about how most people did not care about this event, a third observation is about myself. As the crowd marched along, they shouted over and over “I believe that we will win.” And they chanted other slogans. I figured out that I am not a stand-in-the-crowd-and-chant type of guy. I half-heatedly tried to join the chanting, but I found it weird. I began analyzing the slogan. Who is “we?” And what does it mean to “win?” I found it noisy and unproductive.
I allow that I could be way off base. But I just do not see what it accomplished by walking and chanting. I don’t want to be a voice in the crowd mindlessly repeating a slogan. My position on this may be critiqued and I invite that. Here I am simply sharing an observation about my own make-up as a person.
I learned and observed other things that Saturday, but here I describe a moment in the walk that I think epitomized this particular problem as it exists in America. The marchers walked to the department of justice at the corner of Pennsylvania and 9th and began shouting demands for justice. I supported this. It is why I walked.
Across Pennsylvania Avenue and back toward the Capital there was an outdoor ceremony going on. There were probably as many people involved with it as there were involved with the march. I think it was a navy retirement ceremony. A lot of naval officers were there in their dress uniforms and the chairs in rows were filled. I stepped out of the march and sat on a wall to take it all in.
I thought, is this happening? Over one shoulder, sailors were seated in uniform in orderly fashion to honor someone who had given a life of service. Across the way, another group of people, a riotous crowd, shouted because young men have lost their lives, killed by people in uniform. Pennsylvania Avenue is wide enough that the two events could happen simultaneously in view of each other without disrupting either.
However, after a while, the marchers decided it was time to head back down Pennsylvania to the starting point, John Marshal Place Park at Pennsylvania and 4th Street. As wide as Pennsylvania Avenue is it is not wide enough for marchers to walk down the middle of the street yelling without attracting the attention of those on the sidewalks. One the walk resumed, the retirement ceremony would be affected. I rejoined the crowd and walked and saw something I could not believe.
As we walked by the ceremony, a small, gray-haired white woman ran into the crowd of marchers. She had on a lanyard. I believe she was one of the organizers of the retirement ceremony. She started running up to people in crowd who were shouting through bullhorns. She was shushing them. She pointed toward the dais where the ceremony was happening and pleaded with the protestors to be quiet. I have never seen anything so absurd. These people were protesting because men in uniform had killed their kids. She was asking them to stop their protesting and quietly respect men in uniform (albeit different uniforms). A group of angry marchers being chastised and shushed by a little old lady; you cannot make this up.
As an aside, I want to at least offer a best guess as to the perspective of this woman. From her point of view, I believe she (and so many I know who share her mindset) loves America. How does she show this love? She weeps when she hears the Star - Spangled Banner. She respects the flag. And she honors soldiers and sailors, men and women in the armed forces. I am sure it was an offense to her that these marchers would interrupt something as solemn as a military ceremony.
But this is the point of disconnect in our country. That woman cannot connect at a head or heart level to the moms who sons have died in Baltimore, Ferguson, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and other places. That navy-loving woman thinks she is America, but this crowd of marchers is an America she does not know. She is completely out of touch with them and does not want to learn. She does not think this crowd has anything to offer.
For their part, those in the crowd are as a distant from her as she is from them. She cannot understand their pain. They don’t understand her love of military (which she would call love of country). Neither group – protestors or the military retirement ceremony – gets the other group. And neither comes close to representing the majority. Who are the majority? It is the crowds of people walking the streets of DC trying to decide if they should visit the Capital or the Lincoln Memorial or if they have time, both.
The majority are the tourists and the DC residents who say, “Oh, a navy retirement ceremony.” And they shrug their shoulders. “Oh, a protest of some kind.” And they shrug their shoulders. The majority of Americans do not want to get their hands dirty or have their lives inconvenienced in the work of fighting for justice and brotherhood and peace.
I hope a prophet will arise. My prayer is someone will stand up, someone who speaks with the power and authority of Moses, of Paul, of Luther, of King. A lot of people admire Mother Theresa. Few join her. Many speak glowingly of Martin Luther King Jr. Few recognize that he is gone and we need someone who will champion the cause of the marginalized people in society as effectively as he did.
The only person I can imagine who might call the world’s attention to the need for justice (and the need for change) is Pope Francis. I don’t know if he is the prophet God is raising for our day. I don’t know if God is raising anyone to speak with such authority that people will hear and listen and heed. I pray that person will arise. Humanity needs it.
For my part, I will preach to the 115 or so people who come to my church each week. I will announce the gospel and include themes of justice. I will name society’s evils and call upon the church to pray. I will continue to march and invite my church to join me. And I will pray. I don’t want there to be any more Michael Browns or Freddie Grays. I pray America will enter a new season, one of uplift, one in which poverty declines dramatically. I pray this will come about. I pray God will show me my part in bringing this about.