Where Bravery is Needed

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It was a drug-related shooting. That’s what the paper said the next day. A twenty-two year old black man, shot in broad daylight. Drug-related. As if that explained it away. As if the killing of a twenty-two year old boy could ever make sense. As if he never had dreams or hopes or ever fell in love.

We were invited to an awards luncheon that day, my co-workers and I. Our team had been nominated by one of our patients for a prestigious award from the hospital where we work. We had to travel off-campus for the banquet, so we carpooled and dined on salmon, potatoes dauphinoise, and chocolate swans. We didn’t win the award but we returned to work feeling valued and full. As we walked the block from the parking lot to the hospital, we noticed there were several police cars outside of the Emergency Room, which we must pass to get to the staff entrance. As we approached, we saw there were groups of people—all African-American—in clusters around the entryway. They were varied ages; beautiful doe-eyed women held babies on their hips, gray-haired grandmothers wept on the sidewalk, young boys stood, hunched—hands in pockets. There were so many, they spilled out onto the street, standing and peering expectantly into the glass doors of the hospital. A young man leaned up against the sturdy brick of the building, sobbing uncontrollably.

We trespassed through the scene of this tragedy, silenced by grief. I passed within a breath of that weeping young man. I wanted to wrap my mama arms around him, bear up the pain just a little. Instead, I walked silently by, climbed the steps to the second floor, closed my office door behind me, gripped the edges of my desk and let tears come.

What can be done? Children are killing children. Blind to the sanctity of life, their hearts turned to stone by too many ugly days, too soon. I walked through that grieving throng, a witness.The next day was Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. And the front page of the newspaper read, “Drug-related.”

That evening, we took our son shopping for a new pair of shoes. We were getting ready to take him back to college—he needed some winter walking shoes. We went to the mall to make a night of it. When we entered the shoe-store, my boy and his dad headed over to the brown suede, heavy-tread section and I made a beeline for four-inch heels and wedge booties.

There was one other woman in the store with me—a black woman (“I’ll be sixty-two this year,” she told me) who was surrounded by a gaggle of teens. The kids kept flocking to her and then dispersing. Finally, she and I were left alone to try on shoes. Her smile was so lovely. I could feel her goodness (“I inherited two children about ten years ago, one with special needs,” she told me). We tried on steep wedges together, discussing the dangers of walking. We laughed and she never stopped smiling. I felt like I was shopping with a sister.

What is so difficult about love? What is so exceptional about seeing beauty in someone who looks different than I?

The Triune God delights in the diversity of the three-in-one. The diversity of this world is a direct reflection of the beauty of God. Belden Lane says,”The Trinity delights in all its varied communications of itself, seeing it’s beauty replicated in every species. Each one turns God’s beauty back onto its source, sharing in the dance of desire from which everything comes.”

Lane was referring to variety in nature to make a case for more responsible ecology; but if all of nature glorifies the Creator in this way, how much more does the diversity among the cultures of human kind—those very creatures extolled as bearing the image of God?

I wish this story had a different ending. I wish I could say I wrapped my arms around that weeping young man and my embrace was welcomed. I wish I could say there haven’t been several more shootings on that same end of town. I wish I could say I asked the lovely smiling woman in the shoestore her name, took her number, or even a selfie to post on Facebook later. But life has these invisible lines we rarely inconvenience ourselves to cross over, doesn’t it? And it is inconvenient, frightening even, to enter into another’s world, to let myself be vulnerable to rejection. I know it’s much more complicated than having courage to put myself out there, but how much of the way things are might be changed by the bravery of an embrace? By taking the time to truly connect with a stranger? By letting someone know I see the Holy in them?

Maybe not much, but I want to find out. I’m praying for another chance. And for courage.

West Virginia Morning: Lifting the Small Voice

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In the mornings, my injured foot screams against movement, complaining with every bit of weight it carries. Yesterday, I returned to work and donned real shoes for the first time since the sprain. I did well walking the hard floors of the hospital all day, or so I thought, until this morning. So it’s more ice for me, foot up, and sulking. I am a poor patient.

We are tumbling back into the chronos time, jumping into the calendar days, and with each sinking of the sun the light-soaked sea seems a distant memory. Some things do not wait for us to catch up.

Last week when my family was slowing by the sea, a very disturbed young man entered a church in South Carolina and, after sitting with a group in Bible study for over an hour, shot and killed nine people. This terrible news came to us late by today’s standards—we were partially unplugged as we opened our hearts to leisure and to each other. But the next morning, my mother-in-law texted us a picture of Bonnie, who stayed with her grandparents while we were away. She wanted to show us how our girl was keeping their cats in check. In the picture, Bonnie stands guard before a cat-occupied chair. Behind this silly scene, the television. And on the screen are pictures of the nine individuals killed in that senseless attack.

I couldn’t breath when I took it in.

The rest of our holiday was tainted, the dark whisper of death shadowing each moment. How dare we frolic in the sun, laugh as ocean waves lap over us, toil through shells and sand—when individuals and our nation were hurting so? It all felt so frivolous, yet … I held each moment all the more tenderly for my breaking heart.

And so we have realized that all our knowledge, all our perceived progress, all that we think we know about race relationships in this world can turn to dust in our mouths in an instant. We have been naïve in the desire to believe love has conquered and all is well. We are left bruised and bewildered.

Where do we go from here? How can anything I say even matter?

Before we left on holiday, I finished up some editorial work for The High Calling on an upcoming theme called “The Power of Empathy.” I read so many resources about empathy when preparing my editorial summary. One of the best was Brene Brown’s TED talk on “The Power of Vulnerability.” In it, she gives four qualities of empathy:

  1. The ability to take the perspective of another person.
  2. Staying out of judgment.
  3. Recognizing emotion in other people and,
  4. Communicating this recognition.

Brown says, “Empathy is a choice and it’s a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with you I have to connect with something inside myself that knows that feeling.”

My voice is but a small one. One white woman who knows so little of how to love through a mess like this. Yet, it’s important for me to speak, it’s important for me to communicate that I recognize how broken this world is, how sorry I am, how helpless I feel. It’s important for me to speak against this terrible violence, to wonder with the many what can be done. I am trying to look at the world through a different perspective. I will keep trying. It matters.

Christian Wiman speaks of “life as landscape” or “resume.” We all long to look back on our existence as a whole and name our impact on the world. But, he says, this isn’t the best way. Life is incremental, he says, and we can never “really see this one thing that all our increments (and decrements, I suppose) add up to.” He goes on to say, “We are meant to be a lens for truths that we ourselves cannot see.”

I want my life, my words, to be a lens for truth.

If you are struggling with what to say and do, you may want to read this post from my friend Deidra. We must join hands and speak. As writers and storytellers we have a unique position of influence. Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes says, “Stories set the inner life into motion.” The stories I share here are meant to bring unity, to shine light on beauty, and awaken in each reader the awareness that we all share certain qualities. But also to celebrate our differences without judgment. Natalie Goldberg says, “We walk through so many myths of each other and ourselves, we are so thankful when someone sees us for who we are and accepts us.”

This is a good place to begin. Again. And again. One increment at a time. Being a lens for truth. Letting our stories move people to action, even small ones.

We move forward in this hard place. Together.