During the month of October, our monthly theme will be Race. In troubled times, it helps to hear a powerful story of hope. Here is one such story as posted on Facebook from my colleague the Rev. James Leach at our congregation in Charlotte, N.C.
Without knowing anything at all, what story would you tell of this image, one captured in Charlotte last night?
With no facts, no information, no larger context, what would you say about the man in the white shirt and cap in the center of this picture?
Is he making matters better or worse by doing what he is doing?
Here’s what I know: I met this man last night as I retreated to a church for solace and safety. As one of many clergy, out in Charlotte’s streets in the effort to be a presence for peace, I was weary and emotionally shaken. I had seen a protester shot right next to me. I had been tear-gassed. And, I had watched the situation on all sides spiral out of control. I was utterly heart-broken.
When I entered the sanctuary at the Little Rock A.M.E. Zion Church where dozens of clergy had gathered earlier in the evening before heading out into the night, the man in this image was standing at the back, leaning over the last pew with his head down. I patted him gently on his back and inquired, “Hey man, you OK?” He lifted his head and with moist eyes responded, “Yeah, thanks for asking.”
Later he approached me in the sanctuary. He thanked me again and then said, “God is using me. I have faith,” he said, “you know the evidence of things not seen.” He expressed his deep belief that, in time, we are going to find our way to something far better. He looked me in the eye and said, “We can’t give up. We can’t give up.”
In a few moments, as I was talking with others, he walked past me on his way out the door. He caught my eye and smiled a big smile, talking a step toward me. We lingered in a long embrace. “You be safe out there,” I urged him. “I will,” he assured me, and, fingering the card I had given him earlier said, “I’ll be in touch.” Maybe my new friend John is right. Maybe faith really is “the assurance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen.”
Maybe we shouldn’t trust our first impressions of what we see. Maybe, when despair makes it hard to see a way forward, we have to renew our trust in what we can’t see. Maybe dawn really is when we can look into the face of anyone and recognize that one as a brother, a sister, a dear one.
You won’t be reading this John but . . . thank you. Thank you for putting your beautiful brown hands around the flickering ember of my weary soul and breathing your gentle words of faith into it, re- kindling its glow again. And, hey, be safe out there . . . please.
Through the miracle of social media and connections all the way across the country, Jonathan Red- fern did read my post and we connected. Here’s the continuation of our story, a miracle of the sort that you’re not likely to learn in mass media reports from Charlotte.
When he was in the church late Wednesday night, Jonathan was moved by our mention of the shooting of Justin Carr and felt called to go to that tragic site to pray even as the unrest raged in the streets. On his way there, he encountered a long line of police in full riot gear facing down a large crowd of protesters. Amazingly, there were two people kneeling in prayer directly in front of the police. (You can still see them in the picture I included in my earlier post.)
Jonathan felt moved to pray with them and knelt to do so silently, his arms resting on their shoul- ders. Overcome, he then rose up and began addressing the angry crowd, some of whom had pro- jectiles ready to throw at the police. He urged them not to resort to violence and insisted that love is the only way. Impassioned with his message of compassion, he began shouting, fist upraised: “Love! Love! Love! Love!”
At that point, two arms emerged from the phalanx of officers behind him and snatched him away. Carried off to the side and handcuffed, he soon learned that he was being arrested on the charge of “Failure to Disperse.” Taken to jail, informed of an October 26 court date, and without resources for bail, he determined that his only option was to remain jailed until his case came up.
He has since learned that an organization posting bond for protestors who have been arrested did so on his behalf. So, at 11 p.m. on Thursday night he was awakened in his cell and informed that he was being released. Back out on the streets, a midnight curfew impending, and confused about what to do, he looked at his messages and read, immediately, my post attesting to his influence on me. He tells me how heartened he was by it.
On Friday of last week, Jonathan Redfern and I reconnected, less than 48 hours after our first encounter. In between, he’d been to jail and I had participated in meetings with our congresswom- an and city officials and had joined in a clergy march to the site of Justin Carr’s murder where we prayed and reconsecrated that desecrated ground.
Jonathan and I had lunch together, participated in lengthy interviews with “Voices of America” and parted as newfound friends brought together in a time of such turmoil.
In the services at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte on Sunday, September 25, we displayed the fierce image of Jonathan leading the crowd in his “Love! Love! Love! Love!” chant. I told of meeting him and how deeply he touched me. Then, to the surprise of our congregation, I called Jonathan forward from the pew where he was seated. The congregation responded with thunderous applause and not a few tears. We stood before them, alongside one another, telling our respective stories. We embraced again as we had done on Wednesday evening, this time professing our love for one another.
If you’re reading or otherwise encountering only the high drama of violence, anger and destruc- tion in conjunction with the uprising here in Charlotte, you’re missing the best parts of this story. The true heart of this community is being opened and bonds are being formed that will enable us to continue our struggle in the days and week and months and years to come. That, frankly, should alarm and unnerve the “principalities and powers” who image that a highly militarized, provocative police force should be adequate to protect the status quo.
As our amazing Chamber Choir sang in our services yesterday: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”
And . . . assuming that he WILL read this post [it is also posted elsewhere] I say to my new friend Jonathan Redfern . . . I love and admire you and thank for continuing to bolster my faith.