Brown and Bubbles: Why Ferguson and Wilmington Are Alike

“Hey, Bubbles has a gift for you. He’s been looking for you, since you saved his life,” my neighbor said casually. I was somewhat surprised; Bubbles (not his real street name) was a young man whom I met while administering first aid for an injury sustained on my block. Bubbles had a critical wound to his chest, and though there was a crowd of people surrounding him when I arrived, the only emergency personnel available was a single police officer in a T-shirt and a Kevlar vest that was trying to apply pressure to the wound. I tore frantically through the medical kit I got on e-bay, pulling out some topical thrombin bandages to stop the bleeding and trauma shears to expose the wound. That was about all I did: nothing particularly heroic or even advanced compared to the paramedics who arrived about ten minutes later. In fact, the police were among the quickest and most helpful responders, clearing the area and assisting in stabilizing the wounds. My role was fairly minimal in comparison.

So it completely surprised me when my neighbor then said, “Yeah, you definitely saved his life. The police, they would have just let him bleed to death there.” He paused, then to drive his point home, he said, “They wanted him to die.” Continue reading “Brown and Bubbles: Why Ferguson and Wilmington Are Alike”

Brown and Bubbles: Why Ferguson and Wilmington Are Alike

Violence In the City: Stories of Three Women

Now Absalom, David’s son, had a beautiful sister, whose name was Tamar. And after a time Amnon, David’s son, loved her. But he would not listen to her, and being stronger than she, he violated her and lay with her. — II Samuel 13:1, 14

Now Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the women of the land. And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her, he seized her and lay with her and humiliated her. — Genesis 34:1

Two women. Two stories. Similar plots. Tamar and Dinah. They were beautiful young women living in ancient times, in a culture where men dominated. Lusted after by wicked men, perhaps with an accomplice or two, they were horribly raped and then shunned by their attackers. I can imagine their tears and nightmares continued for nights on end. Both their fathers remained silent and did nothing to console or protect their broken daughters. Because of the times, no one would marry them because they had been defiled. Finally, following the rapes, their brothers carried out twisted justice that only further scarred their already shattered reputation. And then their stories end.

The same rush of emotions flood over me as I read each tale: inexplicable evil, no one to speak up for them, and justice carried out wrongly. We do not see the lives of Tamar and Dinah unfold, but we see just enough to know that God cares. He has allowed their stories to be written down and passed on for thousands of years so that we would know they are important to the story of Christ redeeming a very fallen and broken world. He has heard their cries and He hears ours, too.

Thankfully, we have the privilege of knowing another story. There is a third woman whose name is Mary Magdalene. We don’t know Mary’s childhood or her whole life story, but I can only imagine she was abused as well. She had seven demons in her. She was known as a prostitute, self-mutilator, and participant in countless other sins and erratic behavior. She was a social outcast. Nobody wanted to be her or around her. Until Jesus came along. He cast out her demons and changed her into a different person. If he were speaking to her, he might say something like this:

Fear not, for you will not be ashamed; be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more. For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. — Isaiah 54:4–5

Jesus deals gently with Mary Magdalene. He welcomes her. He listens to her. He heals her. He protects her. He exalts her. Out of all His disciples and followers, she is the first to witness His glory after His resurrection (Mark 16:9).

Time after time in the Bible, God empowers women with these tender words. Mary Magdalene is not the only one, He also changes the lives of many others: Ruth, Esther, Anna (Luke 2:36–37), the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1–26), the woman who washes Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36–50), and the women who assist Jesus in His ministry (Luke 8:2–3), to name a few. They are evidences of the glory He receives through the actions of those who have learned to trust him.

Jesus extends this work of healing into the lives of His people today, as countless men and women can identify with Tamar, Dinah, and Mary Magdalene. Maybe you can, too. Especially in cities like Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Camden, violence is rampant and starts in childhood. Screwed up family systems place children in abusive situations. Violence is demonstrated in the form of bullets. Police action may not change the circumstances and may feel more like the enemy than safety. Numerous times I have driven down Collings Avenue in Camden to see grade school or middle school children yelling, fighting, or hitting each other. Their mothers are sometimes standing in the background cheering them on. My own story isn’t the same as Tamar or Dinah or bullied school children, but life hasn’t been easy either. I’ve had people hurt me, and others who haven’t helped me like they should have done. The same pattern of inexplicable evil: no one to speak up for them, and justice carried out wrongly still happens.

Because we have the privilege of seeing how Jesus works in the lives of His people in the Bible, we can know that He will do the same for us. In fact, He gave the ultimate sign of love: He gave up His life for us.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. — Romans 5:8

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. — Colossians 1:13

I can assure you that healing does happen because it’s happened to me. My story has moved beyond any horrific circumstances. Through His great love for me, He has completely changed my life, made me a new person, and still blesses me far beyond what I could ever imagine. He can, and will, make an addendum to any harrowing tale: continued grace, continued healing, and a story to be continued.

Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. — Philippians 1:6

“Where, O death, is your victory?

Where, O death, is your sting?”

But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. — I Corinthians 15:55, 57

I would like to thank my friend Reverend Matthew Fisher for his preaching every Sunday night and encouragement in writing this blog post. You can listen to his sermons at www.villagepca.org.

Violence In the City: Stories of Three Women

Despair

“He wasn’t a big time drug dealer or anything, you know? He didn’t have anything worth taking. I knew him.” My neighbor stopped for a moment, clearly shaken and deeply unnerved. “Why did this happen to him? We grew up together…”

His voice faded and we sat in silence. It was twilight in summer and one of those ordinary and warm and therefore active evenings in the neighborhood. I watched as people roamed up and down the street, meandering without any goals or focused ambition, simply enjoying the night and occasionally tossing my neighbor a casual greeting. He is typically gregarious and outgoing, the life of the party at nearly every party, but in those moments he barely responded.

I had come home from a long and late shift in the hospital, a place where it is not unexpected to spend time with those who are dying. I have gotten used to sitting in the silence and humidity of grief. And so I found myself listening to my neighbor tell me the story of a young man who had been shot to death in what was rumored to be an unusual mugging. I was listening to my friend as he struggled with the arbitrariness and injustice of the event, which was not uncommon.

And I was shocked. Not because it had been the third homicide in Wilmington in two weeks, but because he himself had been mugged at gunpoint around then and yet all he could talk about was how disturbed he was about the death of someone who was, at best, an acquaintance.

“I just don’t know. This world… it’s crazy. I don’t want to be here any more…” I could hear the hesitation and weight in his voice. He had welcomed me to the block, took me in like a friend, talked about me like family, and yet even so, the same neighborhood that had brought us together was, in its unpredictability and volatility, now threatening to tear us apart.

What is it like to live in the inner city? It is intense and very much like residency life in the hospital. It is about making faster friendships and deeper loyalties than you thought possible, with people whose very lives can end in a single bad night. It is a life that is difficult for spectators to understand, and therefore one that they may feel entitled to pity or to mock. And it is like work never leaves me alone, that all the joy and grief that comes from living as if your life depended on living and doing things together can come to such a senseless end…

No wonder we sat in silence, watching the electric street lights wash away the fading day.

memorial
Street memorial. Christe eleison.

Despair

Do Not Fear the Nephilim

HDViolence

[This is an Editorial Note from the upcoming issue of Health & Development on violence from CCHF. It is a publication with an august history, and we are humbled to make some contributions from this blog. More to come.]

So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” – Initial report of the spies in Canaan, Numbers 13:32–33

I grew up in the suburbs and had never seen or heard a firearm discharged. That changed once I moved into inner city Wilmington. Here, gun violence escalated enough in 2012 to earn the city a top ranking as “worst place to raise your children” by Parenting Magazine. When I first moved in, our block regularly listened to gunfire at night. Neighbors, patients, and friends have told me accounts of being shot in the face, pistol-whipped, and threatened at gunpoint. My most reliable and informative witnesses have been children, a fact that continues to disturb me.

I thought this abrupt transition from suburban tranquility to the urban warzone was simply my own experience in changing geography and socioeconomics. But perhaps these perspective shifts over the past two years also reflect the national one. As the fundamental character of American society has changed, so has the scope of gun violence. Inner cities such as Camden and Detroit implode while small towns like Columbine, Aurora, and Newtown wish they could have remained relatively anonymous. Though we are stunned, we are no longer surprised by stories of mass shootings in malls, naval shipyards, elementary schools, or theaters. For better or for worse, our collective experience in gun violence has been diversifying.

While assembling these narratives on violence, there were a number of things I found disturbing. Some of them were to be expected: descriptions of fathers bleeding to death on front doorsteps, of teenagers shooting and being shot, of muggings and mourning mothers, of impromptu first aid hastily applied to street battle victims. What I did not expect was how casual and plentiful these narratives would be. Descriptions of horrific events used plain language and simple wording, typically sounding understated and almost flippant in comparison to how graphic and traumatic the actions themselves were. And I did not have to search far to find these stories; in fact, they were commonplace.

As the reach of gun violence has broadened and deepened, we might have expected to find ourselves unified in thoughtfulness and purpose. Yet somehow, the issue of gun violence remains difficult to talk about in both the national and the personal discourse. Somehow, it remains intrinsically and increasingly polarized and fragmentary.

Gun violence will never become something “normal,” even as our world becomes more saturated with it. As disparate socioeconomic groups are brought into closer proximity through urbanization (and gentrification even), so will the victims of gun violence. Though the narratives here are overwhelmingly about experiences with inner city gun violence, many were written by people who grew up elsewhere. To this extent, they collectively serve as bridging perspectives that contextualize otherwise sensational stories. Donovan Lloyd shares about his experiences growing up in inner city Wilmington, Delaware. Angela Strange describes her life as a “street momma to all the hustlers and gang members” in a particularly violent section of Washington, DCDeborah M, a healthcare worker in North Philadelphia, writes about the goodness of life while living in a neighborhood rife with community violence. And Joey Patrick relates his own transformation in ministering to both a victim and a perpetrator of gun violence, all from his own front porch.

What is most unifying about these narratives is that they are fiercely and deeply centered on community and Jesus Christ. They are less about guns than they are about people and neighbors and street blocks. They are stories by those who have followed the call of the Lord into these communities plagued by gun violence, drug trafficking, and other “Nephilim” in Canaan, a land filled with threat and intimidation that seems to devour its inhabitants. We might have expected their stories to sound like the Israelites:

Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” – Numbers 14:6–9 

And yet the accounts that emerge here are exceedingly good. They are stories of redemption, hope, and purpose even as they are characterized by trauma. They provide a much-needed perspective about what it is like to live in the midst of a violent world and to embrace it lovingly, willingly, and without fear, characteristics that are scarce in the heated political discourse. Please read and share.

And Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes and said to all the congregation of the people of Israel, “The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.” – Numbers 14:6–9

Do Not Fear the Nephilim

Dinner Table Story

“Today my patient came in looking a bit depressed. According to routine, I asked if he had any changes in his medical history. He stated that he was ‘zoning out’ because he had just witnessed something he shouldn’t have. My concerned but nosy self asked him to elaborate. He explained that his neighbour had been shot in the face a couple days ago. He was only 17. My assistant Googled the story. He was actually 18.

(Our patients are always in the news, or at least know the people in the news. Except these things usually aren’t news stories, just teeny weeny crime notes.)

My patient didn’t know why anyone would commit such a senseless crime. I asked if his friend had any enemies. My patient replied that he didn’t, and repeatedly insisted that his friend was a good person. He didn’t deserve to die. We talked about good people, bad people, sin, the gospel, human need for a Saviour, forgiveness, God’s justice, why bad things happen to good people, what God says in Psalms and Proverbs about wicked people, the purpose of suffering. Finally he reluctantly shared that his friend was killed over a girl, who was only 14 years old. She perhaps felt disrespected, then told her boyfriend, who probably sent someone or went himself to kill him. I encouraged him to continue being a good neighbour by being there for his friend’s family. Even though he was upset and feeling powerless, it would still make a difference to his family that he cares and remembers their son. I read him a Psalm in Spanish of King David complaining about his foes. He told me he didn’t go to church because it made him feel like a hypocrite. I told him he should keep going to church because it’s full of hypocrites. Which is why we all need God. Or something like that. I offered him a Bible. He asked if I thought it was a good idea for him to take it. I told him that I thought every household should have a one. He told me that he didn’t read. So I asked how he made it through high school if he didn’t read, then I quickly wished I hadn’t asked that. He affirmed that he did know how to read but he couldn’t read very fast. I told him that if he practiced more, he would get faster. He accepted the Bible. We prayed together.”

“How come your stories never have anything to do with dentistry?”

“And then I removed his wisdom tooth. The end.”

Dinner Table Story

I have never met Shyheim Buford

I have never met Shyheim Buford, a seventeen year old young man who, by all accounts from my roommate, was a kind and lively teenager, the sort who was and would have been a role model for the younger ones in our neighborhoods here in Wilmington, Delaware. He was even a street leader once in Urban Promise, working with elementary school kids in after school tutoring and activities and joy. It is not an easy thing to develop a good reputation, but that is exactly what my roommate, whose job is working with youth in the city, described about him.

I will never meet Shyheim Buford in this life because he was shot fifteen times to death. According to the word on the street, he was being robbed at gunpoint but managed to knock the gun away and run. He almost got home, but someone (perhaps even more than one) chased him down and shot him to death. They shot him fifteen times, so the story goes though the newspaper only describes four or five. Either way, he died on the scene.

Below is a map of shootings in Wilmington over the past year alone. It is updated roughly once a week by the state newspaper, and this death is too recent to be shown here. It also does not show the two men shot less than 24 hours later around the same block, which occurred despite friends urging on Facebook that there not be “retaliation.”

Even while typing this, I heard a single shot ring out somewhere close enough to take pause. Would I read about another Shyheim in the newspaper tomorrow? Will my own neighbors or friends or my self become a similar statistic some day?

In church today, the sermon was about Jesus’ words on worry:

And [Jesus] said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? — Luke 12

There is a fine line between living a worry-free life and living a fatalistic one. I struggle with the difference every day, bouncing between a hospital where we are resuscitating or pronouncing dead patients on a regular basis and a neighborhood where it feels like more of the same. On many days, I struggle with feeling the victories of “helping” people who recover just as much as I feel the sorrow of “losing” those who succumb to their illnesses. It feels as if I cannot accept the responsibility of one without the other, and consequently I waver between feeling proud and feeling guilty even as I realize that I can never claim full credit for either.

The very next passage of Scripture surprised me, even though I had read it many times before:

Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

What do these words mean to me? It says that what I long for has already been promised: that all of the angst and grief and deep longing for that which right and true is not wasted, but instead deepens my moneybags, the intrinsic capacity of my soul to one day be filled with a future joy that cannot be robbed, murdered or destroyed.

Christe eleison! Shyheim, I look forward to the day when we will become true neighbors at last.

Shooting map
I live somewhere between the numbers 18 and 6
I have never met Shyheim Buford

Kyrie Eleison, Trayvon Martin

Kyrie eleison.

Trayvon Martin

In thinking about Trayvon Martin’s case, I’ve been reflecting on the many facebook posts expressing diverse sentiments including anger, relief, and sadness over the verdict.

Let’s be transparent here. There are instances when a young black teenager in a hoodie will startle, if not terrify, me. In fact, I am often scared to walk down the street of my neighborhood, where (in the past month alone) there have been three shootings in a three block radius.

But I have also learned one very important thing. My best defense is not a gun, but a nod of the head, a wave, or a simple, “How you doing?” This, after all, is the basis and origin of the handshake: the demonstration that we are willing to become vulnerable first, without weapons, in the hopes of peace or even friendship. And if harm should come to us, it is because the God of Angel Armies said it should be so.

Is this being naïve? Perhaps. But the alternative, clearly, does not grace us with better options. Because we have come to know a number of the teenagers (kids, really) on our block now, and we would grieve if any of them came to harm or death, and we would feel outrage if it had been a case of mistaken identity or intent.

So we grieve for the Martin family. Kyrie eleison.

Kyrie Eleison, Trayvon Martin