Friday, March 23, 2012

So Why am I More Afraid of My Neighbor? And What Congregations Can Do

The man’s voice on the phone responded when I asked, “Who is this?”
“Who are you?” I said. I had just rung the number of my husband’s cell, the cell he had a half an hour before said he had misplaced. So I had tried to “call” the phone, both of us hoping the ring would tell Burton where it was…in his car, or in the parsonage where he was staying as an interim pastor.

But the person who called back said he was “Adam.” He said he had found the phone in a parking lot. It made sense. Burton had been at Northeast Iowa Community College where he teaches just that afternoon before he drove to Waterloo, Iowa, where he is serving a parish. “Adam” could have picked it up and taken it with him. But why had he not turned it in at the school? I didn’t ask. I simply asked where he lived and said I would come and retrieve it.

Of course. I would go to Adam’s house and pick up Burton’s phone. No problem. So, why was there even a slight hesitation of fear? Because I have been surrounded by news of Trayvon Martin, murdered by a self-appointed neighborhood watch person. I care. I care very much. I have long been aware of the “mother’s talk” that African-American women give to their sons when they reach a certain age because they know they are not safe being black on the streets of the United States of America.

I care about those sons. Those sons are my sons. When we lived in inner cities of Detroit and New Haven we organized people to not be afraid of one another. We did not arm them to kill each other. I care.

And yet here I was, at least slightly hesitant to go to Adam’s house, a stranger’s house. The irony of course is that as a white woman, benefiting from white privilege, I am much more free to walk or to drive around town, in little danger of being shot. But, you see, violence is contagious. How far have we come, down the road of suspicion of the stranger? The man who authored the “Stand Your Ground” Florida bill, the first in the nation with about 20 states following suit, believes to this day such laws have saved lives. (In fact, there have been many, many more people killed by guns.) They are needed, he says, because this is a more dangerous world. So the argument goes. We need to arm more people because there are more people with guns. And then, when we have more people with guns, more people will need guns to defend themselves. That’s why I am more afraid of my neighbor. We, collectively, are collaborating in suspicion. And those who are “guilty” by virtue of “walking while being black” are by far the most vulnerable of all, so much so that most often it does not even make the news.

But this time it did! Rep. Corrine Brown, at the large rally in Sanford, Florida, last night, said, “I want an arrest. I want a trial” Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton said, “Trayvon is my son. Your son.” His father, Tracy Martin, earlier in the day walked the sidewalk where his son last walked and mourned this young man. You see, Trayvon, at age 9, had pulled his father from a burning house, saving his life; Tracy mourned the fact that he had not saved his son’s life. But how could he know he would be shot on his way home from the store?

So what can congregations do? Close our doors or go out together into the community? Draw inside and become gated communities or open wide the gates and proclaim new life in the One whose resurrection we will soon again celebrate?
We are called to create safe, trustworthy environments where we can be different together. Those are my words for setting a teaching and learning environment in the classroom and they apply to the neighborhood, to the community and to the globe. We don’t need guns in the classroom. And we don’t need to teach each other how to stand our ground. We need to teach and learn how to set hospitable spaces, to trust, to know about each other, so we do not need to be suspicious.

This means that faith communities will need to work hard--very hard--with other faith communities, with neighborhood groups, with police forces, school districts and with any one and any group or coalition, not just after a tragedy, but before. And it can be done. Not community watches with self-appointed vigilantes with guns, but communities of people. We are commissioned to build communities that are safe for everyone. Take back the night. Take back the day. Come outside and know each other. No more, “Get back from the window, they all have guns out there.” This mission of faith communities together will not be easy because of how far down the road of suspicion and violence we have come. What can your congregation do? First, talk together. Then, empower one another to act, right in your own neighborhood, and also at the local, county and state level legislatively. Go outside, walk around. Who is there? Who is not there? How can we be and become communities of people who know and trust and work together for justice? At times like this, and all of the time!

I don’t want to be afraid to go to a house to pick up my husband’s lost cell phone. Oh, I know how to take precautions. We did when we lived in the inner city. I do here in Dubuque. But I didn’t want to be afraid tonight, as a testimony to the freedom from fear that we need to provide for everyone. I could have called a friend to go with me, but I decided to go alone. I wrote down the address. I did call Burton at his church 75 miles away and told him where I was going and when I would arrive and he asked that I call him when I arrived…sensible things.

I found the house and went up to the door. The barking dog didn’t know me. But a smiling old gentleman came to the door and handed me Burton’s phone. “I went out to pick up my grandson at the Community College,” he said. “Tonight when the phone rang, I didn’t know what to do, but Adam did.” “Thank you for calling me,” I said. “Thank you for finding my husband’s phone.” “Thank you” …thank you for so much more that I didn’t say, for his smile, for being my neighbor across town on a street I had not been on before. We did not have to kill each other. Thank God.

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