Thursday, August 14, 2014

The More Things Change... The More They Don't

The above photo is not from Alabama in the 1960s.  Instead, it is from a few days ago in Ferguson, Missouri, the sight of another incident of an unarmed black teenager getting shot to death, this time by a uniformed police officer.  The details of what exactly happened last Saturday afternoon that led to this shooting are sketchy at best.  The one thing that is not up for debate: an 18-year-old boy named Michael Brown, on his way to see his grandmother, was gunned down in the street even though he had no weapon.  And a community, and a nation, are rightly outraged.  A crowd began forming to protest, chanting "Don't Shoot!" with their arms raised over their heads as apparently Michael had done.  No doubt someone in Michael's family had taught him as a young black male put your arms up so the cops will see you are unarmed.  This is the real world for our African-American children in this country: their families teach them how to respond when stopped by the police.  It's right there along side how to ride a bicycle because it is such a common day occurence.   In Michael's case, not even his training to raise up his arms could protect him from getting shot to death.

The situation has been tense with barking police dogs, armored SWAT teams, and officers in riot gear.  There have been some blow-outs with protestors getting shot by rubber bullets and one night the news was filled with images of looting.  The Missouri Highway Patrol has been called in to take over the policing duties in Ferguson.  Meanwhile, the officer who shot Michael Brown remains anonymous.  There is fear that someone might retaliate by killing him.      

This evening, my friend the Very Rev. Mike Kinman was one of the adults marching with the youth of Ferguson and the greater St. Louis area.  Happily he reported on Facebook that the youth were leading, and the police, this time the state troopers, had actually come together with the protestors and were talking with people.  Even though the crowd had swelled to 2,000, everyone was respecting each other, and the march to the police headquarters was proceeding peacefully.  Mike's description is reminiscent of a story told about the man who is today's "Saint of the Day" in the Episcopal Church calendar: my New Hampshire hero Jonathan Myrick Daniels.

The above photo IS from Alabama in the 1960s.  Jonathan Daniels was a seminarian from the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, MA, who went South and stayed to work in the civil rights movement there.  Daniels marched, he tutored black children, and was known for making some of the good white Episcopalians of Alabama uncomfortable when he would bring African-Americans along with him to church.  What made me think of my friend's description of things in Ferguson tonight was this account from Daniels' diary, a story that is one of my favorites about this hot-headed Yankee:
After a week-long, rain-soaked vigil, we still stood face to face with the Selma police. I stood, for a change, in the front rank, ankle-deep in an enormous puddle. To my immediate right were high school students, for the most part, and further to the right were a swarm of clergymen. My end of the line surged forward at one point, led by a militant Episcopal priest whose temper (as usual) was at combustion-point. Thus I found myself only inches from a young policeman. The air crackled with tension and open hostility. Emma Jean, a sophomore in the Negro high school, called my name from behind. I reached back for her hand to bring her up to the front rank, but she did not see. Again she asked me to come back. My determination had become infectiously savage, and I insisted that she come forward--I would not retreat! Again I reached for her hand and pulled her forward. The young policeman spoke: "You're dragging her through the puddle. You ought to be ashamed for treating a girl like that." Flushing--I had forgotten the puddle--I snarled something at him about whose-fault-it-really-was, that managed to be both defensive and self-righteous. We matched baleful glances and then both looked away. And then came a moment of shattering internal quiet, in which I felt shame, indeed, and a kind of reluctant love for the young policeman. I apologized to Emma Jean. And then it occurred to me to apologize to him and to thank him. Though he looked away in contempt--I was not altogether sure I blamed him--I had received a blessing I would not forget. Before long the kids were singing, "I love ---." One of my friends asked [the young policeman] for his name. His name was Charlie. When we sang for him, he blushed and then smiled in a truly sacramental mixture of embarrassment and pleasure and shyness. Soon the young policeman looked relaxed, we all lit cigarettes (in a couple of instances, from a common match, and small groups of kids and policemen clustered to joke or talk cautiously about the situation. It was thus a shock later to look across the rank at the clergymen and their opposites, who glared across a still unbroken "Wall" in what appeared to be silent hatred. Had I been freely arranging the order for Evening Prayer that night, I think I might have followed the General Confession directly with the General Thanksgiving--or perhaps the Te Deum.

Daniels also was gunned down, on the front porch of a store in Hayneville, AL, on August 20, 1965.   He took the bullet meant for a young black teenager named Ruby Sales.  The person who shot him was a special deputy named Tom Coleman.   Coleman was tried for manslaughter and acquitted by an all-white jury.  Daniels death, protecting an unarmed African-American girl, raised the sin of racism and the need for the church's involvement in social justice to a new height.  Clearly, looking at today's world where unarmed black men are getting killed by the police, and there seems to be a shocking lack of the respect for the dignity of every human being, the church needs to stand with the oppressed and demand better of those who are charged with protecting and serving all the public.

And so we pray...

O God of justice and compassion, who put down the proud and the mighty from their place, and lift up the poor and afflicted: We give you thanks for your faithful witness Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who, in the midst of injustice and  violence, risked and gave his life for another; and we pray that we, following his example, may make no peace with oppression; through Jesus Christ the just one: who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  

And we add: 
God make speed to save us.
Lord make haste to help us.  

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