Belated Lenten Reflection [Rewind]

While I’m a little late in the liturgical season for this post, I wanted to share a reflection I wrote last year during my time working at an after school program for middle school and high schoolers.  I wrote and read it for a Stations of the Cross event that my service program, Amate House, hosted last Lenten season.  I was assigned to write a reflection based on the station, Jesus is Judged by Pilate. 

The chief priests with the elders and the scribes, that is, the whole Sanhedrin, held a council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate questioned him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He said to him in reply, “You say so.” The chief priests accused him of many things. Again Pilate questioned him, “Have you no answer? See how many things they accused you of.” Jesus gave him no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed…Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd released Barrabas…and handed Jesus over to be crucified. (Mark 15: 1-5, 15)

Failure. Dropout. Criminal. Gang member. By the time he was fifteen, he had been labeled every single one of these. I met this particular young man on my very first day at the Teen Center.   As I took deep breaths to calm the insatiable butterflies in my stomach, he came over to me, stuck his hand out in order for me to shake it, and introduced himself with a half smile.   After knowing this young man for only thirty short minutes, he had already managed to share with me many of his past struggles and his ambitious hopes for the future. Walking away from this encounter my first day, I realized that my work at the Teen Center would be much more than merely supervising an after school program.

Almost every week, it seemed like this kid came in to the Teen Center with a new crisis or life-altering event to share with me. Over the past eight months, he has faced more challenges than most people can even begin to imagine. Just in this past year, he lost his childhood friend to gang violence, was arrested for an extremely serious offense, and learned he would be a father at age nineteen only to find out a few weeks later that his girlfriend had had a miscarriage. And now him and his family have been homeless for over a month, the six of them living with different family members and friends in small one-bedroom apartments. But he perseveres. While looking at his story one can begin to see why his identity has been so tightly entangled with his mistakes: failure, dropout, gang member, criminal. Many people have given up on him and told him he is not worth it. But, even through all these challenges, I could never get the memory of that enthusiastic young man that I met my first day out of my head. I realized that while he may have come to me looking for answers and advice for the problems he faced, what he actually sought from me was an acceptance he had never experienced. He wanted to be able to admit to these mistakes without worrying that the person listening would condemn him, judge him or abandon him. He wanted to be seen for who he is: an incredibly joyful young man with a huge heart and unstoppable goofiness, who has a love for writing poetry, who would do anything to protect his three younger siblings, and who cared enough to make me feel comfortable on my first day of work. He was asking for freedom from these negative labels and low expectations that seemed to continuously define his life. Not until recently did I realize that I have some small power to help him find that freedom.

Pilate was also in a position of power. Power to change the outcome of the story. Power to save a life that was hanging in the balance. Power to stand against the accusations of the crowd. No, unfortunately, I do not have the power to dramatically change the outcome of any of my teens’ lives or make certain life altering decisions for them, but I do have the power to stand against the accusations and judgments they have heard from parents, teachers, and peers their whole lives. I have the unique power to choose to see these young men and women as more than charity cases and delinquents. To choose to speak out louder than the crowd, which shouts of their worthlessness and inevitable failure, and refuse, unlike Pilate, to be a passive observer to such violence. Because if I don’t, then these young men and women may also begin to see themselves as nothing more than criminals, dropouts, gang members, and failures instead of the reality, that they are leaders, artists, role models, and survivors.

The Cup of Endurance, It Surely Will Spill

“There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”  As I read these words that Martin Luther King Jr. wrote decades ago from the Birmingham jail, I couldn’t help but think of their continued relevance today.  Racism, racial inequality, and even institutionalized segregation continue to plague cities throughout America, especially my beloved city of Chicago and yet many times when these issues are brought to the surface, by brown, black, or even white organizers, we are told to stop being controversial or “playing the race card” or, most outrageously, that this country has moved beyond racism and, for some extreme few, even beyond any discussion of race.  Well I think the time has come and “the cup of endurance” is surely and swiftly spilling over in neighborhoods were the hope of getting out of the cycle of poverty has yet to be seen or experienced. 

When you read the headlines of another man of color being shot, killed, arrested, or imprisoned, unfortunately we tend to not even think twice about these instances because this devaluing of black men has become the tragic norm.  The chilling and piercing words of MLK Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail remind me that this norm has a historical foundation that far extends my own lifetime.  My question is, what will it take for this issue to change? Maybe Sharon Welch is right when she writes in her book After Empire that those of us that work for peace and justice are “content to denounce the structures we see causing harm,” but are unable to use “creativity” to imagine a tangible world that functioned any differently. The fact very well may be that even myself who is dating a black man, has a black nephew, and calls myself an activist for racial equality can’t even imagine a real, tangible world outside of the “tout autre,” or ideal, that would include structures that would fully foster racial reconciliation and equality.  While I think that theory could very well be true, since it is easier to critique something while leaving no suggestions for future action, I do not know if that was is holding our country back from racial equality, which has improved only slightly from when King wrote his iconic letter.

What I see as one of the major setbacks in reaching a more racially just society is the apathy, indifference and even discomfort of a growing majority of Americans, even those working within the church and community organizations to have hard discussions of racism of the past and present. King calls the “white moderate… the greatest stumbling block” for the cause of racial justice at that time and I would echo King’s point for the present situation. In fact, it has gotten even worse in some ways because racism is often hidden within institutions and structures as opposed to the obvious segregation.  Therefore, this increased subtly has allowed a growing indifference or even refusal to acknowledge the issue to fester within the American public. For at least those on the extreme ends of this dialogue of race are within the dialogue, but those that fall somewhere in the middle would many times prefer to end the conversation altogether because they prefer, like King states, “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”  For, I believe, it will take living and working within such a tension for real change or advancement to begin happening.

Justice will begin once all parties are engaged in a conversation and understand the impact that such conversations have on themselves and fellow human beings. Just like Alice Walker spoke of in a short video clip of everyone needing to allow one’s identity to be molded by a story different than white privilege or middle class success, like indentured servitude or working class poverty, in order to even begin to understand the history and perspective of people of color in America.  Do not get me wrong, having such conversations will take perseverance and determination. This open dialogue about race and struggle will force people to be honest about bias, privilege and prejudice, which can be extremely uncomfortable and vulnerable, but King preaches that such “injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.” For no human should be forced, like many black Americans both today and in the past, to accept despair and hopelessness as his or her lot in life. My prayer for this continued work for justice is that we all would begin to live uncomfortably within a healthy tension not necessarily for the end goal of destroying all racism (which would be the ideal, obviously) but to recognize more and more each day that we are united in our humanness or what Welch calls the “the ‘vibrantly imperfect’ possible.”

Omar

Every time I try to write this my hand won’t let me
won’t let my pen solidify in ink, which seems more permanent now than ever,
the fact you are no longer here.
Each word I try to suppress like the tears that I won’t let myself cry for you
but as my pen now confesses the truth that we all know
tears fall with aimless rhythm.
And I finally let myself cry
because you were a child
because you were a child
because you were [in some ways] for a year my child
———————
I wouldn’t let myself write for each word etched into
the tightly woven fabric of a page
felt like drops of your blood now forever confined within the concrete
the asphalt, black as death.
———————-
No I won’t let myself write because it can’t be real
but every time I pass that corner I’m forced to remember
It is reality. For this whole city. It is reality.
You are gone, ok? You are gone.
———————-
But I won’t let myself think of your face
the one that looked at me most of the time with the
assuming suspicion of an outsider.
It takes all of me not to wonder
if those same eyes that once looked at me
stared down the boy that held that gun.
———————
But I won’t let myself remember you that way.
You were a boy full of promise with a smile that everyone
everyone, felt like they knew.
Yet, you were the streets that raised you
and you learned too soon from that unforgiving parent that
a young man of color must put on toughness and resolve
in the same swift motion
that he instinctively lifts his hand to his hat
tilting it ever so slightly to the appropriate side
because a mistake with either instinct
summons a most definite punishment.
No, but you didn’t deserve that life…
No boy, no child ever does.
————————–
I won’t let myself believe differently
I do believe though that with these streets as your parents
like any obedient, loving child
you would have died
you did die
for them.
just like your brother that night
raised by the same streets would kill for them.
Your harsh and unrelenting parents
these concrete guardians
would be proud
but if only you were here to see it.
See, that’s the problem…
You gave your life to these dark streets,
your blood flows through the cracks in the poorly paved asphalt
your brothers mark you as a local hero
but, see, the problem is next summer
this memorial will be paved over fresh.
Fresh for a new boy’s blood to be offered to these streets
———————-
But I will not let myself forget you, brother
for when blood is shed
and at too young of an age
there must be more to the story
we must stop paving over the memorials of these boys
because I know one day in the place where the
bloodstained asphalt is the darkest
a flower will sprout its way through an unseen crack
And I won’t let myself stop looking for this hope
———————-
I saw a boy walking the other day
and I thought it was you.
Before I said anything, I slammed my lips together
so that my voice couldn’t form your name
because I remembered, it’s real…
you’re gone.
As I watched, the boy walked across that same
fatal, fateful street
your street
and with each step he took I prayed
that those feet would tread respectfully on that pavement
aware of any sprouting flowers
hopes or dreams
for on it Omar Castel, forever a dreamer
lost, gave, lived his precious hope-filled life.
RIP Omar Castel (1995-2013)

Image

Open Mic

The following poem tells the story of a special night on a retreat that I helped lead for middle school and high school students.  Each student approached a solitary mic stand without pretense but with maturity and courage and spoke vulnerably of past hurts, like gang violence, suicide, divorce, and illness.

A single mic stand
Lonely.
accompanied only by a single candle steadily burning
A sea of young faces staring at this lonely mic stand.
waiting for magic.

A boy steps forward.
Silence like that of a funeral procession
Death was present but its close relative dread was no where to be found.
Death was sought.
Not physical but emotional.
Stripping one’s soul, dying to others’ judgments.

A word.
A joke.
Uncomfortabliity.
All palpable.

Stories never told flowed like a treacherous river.
With each confession a new stream birthed from young kids’ eyes.
Then the magic.
Stepping away the boy was now a man.
The, no longer lonely, mic stand had a new companion.

With each child a new burden lay next to the mic.
As each stepped away, heart still racing but the weight gone.
United as the burdens looked similar heaped next to such a lonely mic stand.
Yet no burden the same.

A Second City

A tale of two cities except there’s just one
City streets tell a story but only to some
One child marvels at the lights around him
while others get chills as the nights surround them
People come and people go each day, each year
Unaware of the prison walls that lock some in fear
Freedom, not an unfamiliar sight or fable told
But for those in the second city its something uncontrolled
No visible chains, no locks keep these citizens bound
yet their escape a distant dream to never be found
The same city that imparts hope and opportunity
for the forgotten it provides a desperate, hopeless unity
Citizens of the first city preach to these children to leave
To make something of themselves and just believe
but each sermon leaves these youth still enchained at their feet
With commands to run the race, but do not cheat
If cheating means merely hoping for the day
when the invisible chains will finally appear and fall away
Then cheating is the only way that this neglected city
will see their dead-end wandering as more than just shitty
But, hear this, we won’t stop until it is shown
that through a little invisibility and magic of our own
we can strike down the structures and chains that bind
and leave the tale of two cities far away, far behind.
Only then will the black son of God no longer face Abel’s fate
and maybe then the heart of the unaware Cain will choose to relate
Only then will a child’s prison of great lakes: despair and self-pity
turn this second city of beauty into my city, his city, our city.

Silence

One day.
One day a child.
One day a child in Chicago…
One day a child in Chicago will not fear the streets that birthed him.
One day a child in Chicago will not hope for his 18th birthday but will dwell in its certainty.
One day a child in Chicago will no longer orchestrate a war zone with spray cans.
One day a child in Chicago will be taught dignity, pride and honor in the classroom or the living room instead of the backroom of a closed down store front.
One day a child in Chicago will be able to call this city his home and not his prison.
One day a child in Chicago will hope to look into the eyes of his father instead of merely grasping his memory through a ripped photograph.
Today.
Today is not that day.
Today is not that day in Chicago.
Today a child in Chicago will be shot, beat, humiliated.
Today a child in Chicago will wonder what law he broke placing him within the prison of these city limits.
Today a child in Chicago will cry out to a god that he knows simply forgot about this city just to release the anger of generations built up in his heart.
Today a child in Chicago will be suspended for failing to do homework he was never taught to do in the first place.
Today a child in Chicago will become a man: wielding the tool of his father, carrying the burden of his family, risking his life for his brothers.
Today this child in Chicago shot a child in Chicago.
And today the world keeps turning.
And today the world keeps turning with nothing to say except the whispers of: oh, that’s just how some children are meant to play.