Anniversary of Theft

My wife reminded me that it has now been one year since we were last broken into. She was partly reminded of this because our car was broken into last week, an incident in which only a cheap phone charger and several quarters were taken. This occurred despite having moved to a “nicer” area of the city, one in which we easily enjoy walks in the park and Greek festivals and fancy burritos. It is a neighborhood where we can walk freely, a stark contrast to our old one where I whimsically described myself as sticking out like a Chinese thumb on a black man.

Continue reading “Anniversary of Theft”

Anniversary of Theft

Advent and the City

We stared at the piece of plastic and sank into the futon. Positive. We were sure of it even as our minds struggled to grasp the enormity and totality of its meaning. Positive. Were we ready for this, for anything? Positive. We were going to be parents.

Continue reading “Advent and the City”

Advent and the City

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

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

Shootings and Samaritans

[Originally written for the ESN blog. Mainly recycled material.]
A good question
A good question
I found out about the Newtown shooting while working in a pediatric clinic. In between seeing children with sore throats and rashes and sniffles, I would hover over the computer and read more about other children torn apart by gunfire. I found out about the Boston bombing while working a long shift in the hospital. While examining patients in their rooms, I couldn’t help but sneak peeks at their TV sets as the chaos unfolded. Often, I simply stopped what I was doing and watched the news alongside them in silence. We would shake our heads together in grief and disbelief, and I felt stunned by the juxtaposition that there were those — patients and healthcare staff alike — who could be working so hard to overcome an illness at the same time that others were eviscerating those who were perfectly healthy. It was a deeply disturbing day.
On Mother’s Day, at a parade in New Orleans, three men walked into the crowd and began firing. They shot 19 people, two of which were children, three of whom were critically injured. One of the gunmen is still at large. However, no city was shut down. There has been limited media coverage of the event, perhaps because it was the third holiday this year in which the city saw gunfire into crowds. When I read this news, I posted a link to it on facebook and then promptly forgot about it until sitting down to write this post.

At what point does violence and the corruption of the sacred become something acceptable or even normal? I heard an interview/conversation on the radio between two mothers from Massachusetts: a mom from Newtown and a mom from the inner city:

Gekas said that when you look at her son, Alex, in profile, he looks like 19-year-old Dzokhar Tsarnaev, the young man who was the target of the police search.

Gekas later [said] that when her son came into the kitchen and announced that he was walking to a friend’s house, “I flipped. I told him he was in ‘mommy lockdown’ and he wasn’t going anywhere.”

Gekas’ husband convinced her to let Alex leave the house, but he first gave his son the same warning that black inner-city teenage boys hear about how to behave when confronted by police: Don’t run away, keep your hands visible, don’t reach into your pockets.

“I don’t normally have a fear of police, and I never have thought to instruct my son like this,” Gekas said. “But he has grown six inches in the past year and he’s looking like a young man and he does wear kind of baggy clothes.”

When Gekas told her brother about her fear, he said, “Now you know how it feels to be an African-American mother… That’s what [they] worry about all the time.”

“My immediate reaction, was, ‘No way. They can’t feel this way every day’,” Gekas said. “There’s no way someone could live like this.”

“Welcome to my world,” Tina Chery told Gekas…

Chery is an inner-city mom, and 20 years ago her 15-year-old son was killed when he was caught in the crossfire of a gang shooting as he walked to an afternoon meeting of Teens Against Gang Violence…

While the lockdown in Newton and other Boston suburbs lasted 24 hours, for urban mothers and families in high-crime areas, it’s a stress they deal with every day.

“It’s a chronic impact,” Chery said. “You’re hearing gunshots. You’re hearing the crime, the homicides, the unsolved murders. There’s really not much time to take it in and go through that grieving process.”

I was recently at a conference of pediatricians in Washington, DC to discuss gun violence. We were preparing talking points for future meetings with Congress members, planning to advocate for better firearm safety (something I thought to be a contradiction in terms). However, I felt very uneasy. In the nation’s capital, it seemed like appearances and impressions meant everything. Everyone seemed immac­u­lately dressed and my scuffed shoes and worn belt felt out of place among the polished lob­by­ist briefcases and horn-rimmed hipster eyewear.

I made some phone calls to friends from the city, people whom I had come to Washington to represent. All of them were ded­i­cated to work and life with kids in the inner city. I asked them to tell their stories, and here they are:

“Yes­ter­day, I heard gunshots outside the office, the after­school camp where the kids were coming.”

“This past week, a student… he came up to me excitedly and said, ‘I just saw a shooting! Down the street! People are running ’ I asked him if anyone was hurt, and he said he didn’t know. Then he went back to playing basketball, as if it was something normal, but I know it’s not… it shouldn’t be some­thing that’s just nor­mal. He’s ten years old.”

“I asked the kids to do a watercolor of things that they were afraid of. I didn’t tell them anything else, but they started to paint pictures of guns, and of blood spurting out… they’re in 1st to 5th grade.”

“How many of them have been affected by guns? I can’t think of someone who hasn’t had someone in the family or a friend get shot.”

“Two years ago, I was walking down the street and got robbed at gunpoint I still get paranoid when walking down the street, and I grew up here.”

“We had a young mother, 19 years old with two kids. One day she picked them up from daycare and took them home… and found a dead body in the backyard who had been shot. She hasn’t let her kids play in the street since, and it’s been years.”

“The person who taught me to read got shot. He was just sitting in his car…”

“Guns are just a part of these kids lives.”

“There was a 14 year old who used to come to camp; he went ahead and shot his friend over some fight over a girl. Now he’s in jail…”

“The kids are afraid to walk home from the bus, or the park, or out on the street because of guns.”

“One time I heard gunshots just around the corner… I was having to tell kids to get inside because someone’s been shooting a gun down the street. The older guys were standing outside… they’ve seen this play out hundreds of times.”

These stories came easily from people who were far too comfortable telling them. If there was any silence on the phone, it was because I was at a loss for words.

How modern is the parable of the Good Samaritan? It struck me, there among the hallways and seats of power, that it was less of a parable and more of an anecdote. For how many of us have driven around “those areas” of the city, have bought houses and built churches and gone to university and eaten in restaurants that benefit from urban industry while tactfully avoiding its geographic centers of decay? Really, who are our neighbors? And have we simply moved, physically as well as symbolically, in such a way as to make the answer more convenient and palatable to our consciences?

As I stumbled for appropriate words to say over the phone, my friends helped me close such a casually horrific conversation with this question:

“Can I pray for you?”

I am still struck by this out­pour­ing of grace that seemed so coun­ter­in­tu­itive at first. To them, and to me, true power and life does not come from a gun or a sword or a pen or a suit. It comes from obe­di­ence to a simple series of commands: do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. If this means we lose our lives that we may find it, then we do so gladly. If it means we speak unpop­u­lar truth to over­whelm­ing power, then our feet should only ask for the direction to go.

I am not writing a proscription for a mass migration by Christians into the inner city (though perhaps we should!) But what I am wondering is how we, as Christian households and academics, can seek to be a humble neighbor and witness to those around us that do live among threats of violence and fear. What Newtown and Aurora and Boston have taught us is that we are all neighbors and ought to act accordingly.

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” — Luke 10

Shootings and Samaritans