Gun Shots

I live at the corner of 31st and Franklin. Last Saturday as my wife and I rode motorcycle to Albuquerque, NM, two people were shot in my neighborhood. According to my neighbors dozens of shots were fired. carThirty six hours later on Monday Rita and I were getting ready to go to Ross; I needed a new shirt. As usual I was taking my time getting ready. Just as I found the car keys, gun fire starting ringing out again. At first I thought it was firecrackers. From my perspective the rapidness of the firing was faster than even an automatic gun could shoot. I was wrong. Within minutes the streets were blocked again. When things like this happen in our neighborhood there is a period of everyone hunkering down in their homes, followed by a slow gathering of people on the corner. These gatherings are an interesting mixture of folks. First come the younger people, followed by the men. Then the mothers and grandmothers looking for their children and grandchildren, making sure everyone is safe. Finally, the news reporters.

After about 25 minutes of standing around and watching the police run back and forth looking for the shooter(s), the crowd started to dissipate. Before long it was just me and a couple of neighbors.

Before long one of men says, “You know the shooter ran into that house.” He points to where the shooter ran, and was probably still hiding.

My response came instinctively, “Well why don’t you go and tell the police where the shooter is.”

At this point it is important to note that I am white, the majority of the responding police officers are white, and the man I am talking with is not white. It is also critical to state that this man demonstrated no animosity toward the police. He was respectful when questioned and never said anything derogatory about the police. If anything, he was grateful with their response.

So his response to me was not what I expected, he turned and looked me in the eye, and said, “I have lived in the neighborhood for 16 years and I want to going on living here for at least another 16, so I am going to mind my own (expletive) business.”

For the past number of days I have not been able to let this conversation go. It says something about my privilege to just assume I can inform the police about someone or something in my neighborhood and assume I will not suffer from any possible repercussions.

My neighbor had no vested interest in letting an armed person run around the neighborhood. For him reaching out to the police and pointing something out was even more dangerous. He felt no assurances that he or his family would be protected if folks found out the he squealed.

Moments like the one I just described are very difficult for me. I didn’t ask to be white and I cannot stop being white. It almost feels wrong to talk about a privilege I have because of my birth parents. Until I, and people who look like me, fully own that we live in a culture that values whiteness above all else, we will not be able see the kingdom of God lived out.

Observations from the mall

This past Saturday evening I spent some time on Denver’s 16th Street mall.  By nature I am a people watcher and in Denver there is no better place to go and observe humanity on a summer evening than downtown’s outdoor pedestrian mall.  I wasn’t disappointed.  There were families eating out, couples dressed in formal wear heading somewhere important, people lined up at the Cineplex, pan handlers, street musicians, break dancers, buskers, the guy on a 5-gallon pail warning everyone about sin and hell, and a group with “mission Denver” t-shirts singing praise songs. As my wife and I strolled up and down the mall, we would stop from time to time and observe the activity.  A guy in a strait jacket had a huge crowd around him and just down the street the break dancers had an even bigger crowd.  There is something about watching someone spin on their head that is memorizing.

What I also noticed is that no one even glanced at the preacher on the bucket.  And it seemed that people went out of their way to avoid the praise singers.  I wasn’t terribly surprised that people sidestepped the preacher; his style was plain annoying.  But the praise singers sounded pretty good.

I am pretty sure that a least some of the people on the mall last Saturday would have defined themselves as Christians.  Why didn’t anyone stop?  What is it about public displays of faith that make even Christians feel uncomfortable?

I sort-of get why no one listened to the preacher.  He had reduced Christianity to eternal punishment.  When Christianity becomes nothing more than a stick with which to beat people, it ceases to be good news.  A faith that is only about hell and how bad I am doesn’t line up with the message of Jesus.

The praise singers’ message wasn’t as in your face.   They sat in a tight circle, maybe as a way to support each other from possible heckling, but it also made them unapproachable.  Their music was chock-full of “churchy language;” interestingly enough many of our church songs don’t make much sense outside the context of church.

One of the favorite new words of church people is “missional.”  If you don’t have an exact definition of this word, don’t feel bad.  No one does.  It is a word people of faith have coined to describe any effort designed to bring new people into the church.  Other similar words or phrases would be invitational and seeker-friendly.

The impulse to be public with our faith is good.  I am just not sure that preaching from a bucket or singing to no one in particular should be on the list of strategies.  When Jesus talked about what people of faith needed to do he spoke of giving glasses of water, clothing the naked, and visiting the prisoner.  James talked about looking after people in their distress.  John went so far as to say that you cannot claim to be a Christian without loving your fellow human being.  The public implications for this are seismic.

Can you imagine people of faith saying I will not harm my fellow human being?  What impact would this have on the military industrial complex?  Or what would happen if people of faith started visiting prisoners?  Would we start to gain a perspective on how the judicial system is tilted against people of color?  What would happen if we took seriously the plight of people in distress and didn’t stop at the border?

If people of faith took seriously the call to be public, our world would change.

Another version

Yesterday I woke up to the news of another shooting.  According to the reporter a deranged man had stabbed his mother and then was shot and killed by the police.  Since these stories have become commonplace, I quickly forgot, went out from my run, had breakfast, and hurried to the office for a meeting.  During the meeting I left my phone on the desk.  By the time the meeting was finished there was an urgent message.  “Glenn, did you listen to the news this morning?  It was Paul Castaway; he was the man who was shot.”  Officially the victim’s name had still not been confirmed, but unofficially his friends had confirmed everything.  By early afternoon the news media had caught up and officially confirmed that Paul was dead.  Within hours, the official version of the shooting and what others are saying are not the same. Even with conflicting versions of the story I worry that what people are going to remember is that Paul was a deranged person of no real consequence.  Ultimately his death would not be a great loss.

Paul does not deserve to be defined by a single story or event.

I first came to know Paul during the summer of 1995.  He was a member of the West-Side Drug Free Youth Team.  Anyone who participated in DOOR in the mid 1990’s would have heard Paul’s story.  He grew up in a home where alcohol and drug abuse was common.  As a member of the youth team, Paul was determined to break the cycle.  Every Friday Paul came and spoke to groups about his desire to end this particular cycle of abuse.

During Paul’s senior year in high school he and nine other classmates when on a trip to California.  It was one of the ways La Academia, an alternative school and ministry of the Denver Inner City Parish, celebrated high school graduation.   I was asked to be a chaperon.  For 10 days Paul and I roomed together.  During that trip I got to know other versions of Paul.  He was someone who liked to have fun; teasing and pranks where common, never from a spirit of meanness.  It was Paul’s way of saying he liked someone. One of the highlights of this trip was our day at Disneyland.  It was the year that the Indiana Jones ride opened.  We stood in line for over an hour, 10 high school seniors and me. The other chaperon had no interest in upsetting his stomach!  During the seating process the person in charge of the ride tried to direct me to the next car.  It was Paul who said, “Oh that white guy, he’s with us.”  It was Paul, an 18 year-old, Native American Westsider, who reached across all kinds of cultural and social divides and chose to include me in his world.

By the early 2000’s Paul and I began to lose touch.  Graduation took Paul out of my day-to-day world and my job began to shift from a Denver to a more National focus. Occasionally I would hear something.  The news wasn’t always good; breaking the cycle of alcohol abuse became overwhelming.  Paul started drinking and eventually ended up living on the street.  I remember seeing him at a Denver Inner City Parish event in the mid 2000’s.  His youthful mischievous eyes had been replaced with a hollow defeated eyes.  He still knew how to be a friend and still wanted to break the cycle.

More recently Paul became a father.  He loved his son, but his fight with alcohol meant that he didn’t get to spend nearly enough time with him.  I can’t help but wonder, what is it going to be like knowing you father was killed by the police?  Will the police reach out to him?  How will this boy overcome his demons?

I wasn’t there Monday morning when the chain of events that led to Paul’s death occurred.  I do know that Paul was much more than a person with a knife.  He was someone who knew his demons and tried hard to get past them.  Like most of us his story is one filled with both success and failure.  I suspect that there are many former DOOR participants who are better people for having heard Paul’s story.

Paul was also a person who knew how to reach across racial and cultural divides.  Yes, he made fun of me for being white and Canadian, but he also sat with me on the Indiana Jones ride.

Paul was also a dad who loved his child.

This week I have been reminded in a very personal way that this epidemic of devaluing, particularly of men of color, needs to stop.  Choosing to take a life, whether you are standing your ground or as a peace officer, needs to be eliminated from the list of options.  All of us are more than a bad moment and none of us deserve to be sentenced to death, especially when there are other options.

Is it possible for us to get to a place where the cost of taking lives is simply too high?