To the Boy that Killed My Friend

To the boy that killed my friend,
I don’t hate you.
For months, yes, I did in my anger and grief.
I yelled at you, cursed you, sometimes I still do
when I cross that fateful Marshfield street.
For a year I tried to understand you,
I tried to imagine your grip on that trigger
and how you slept that night with sounds of sirens
rushing past to clean up your mess.

But whenever I imagined
all I could see is him.
A kid.
Facing the barrel of a gun
held by another kid.
Not in this country, you’d think…
not here, you’d think.

To the boy that killed my friend,
I don’t pity you.
For months, I wished his same
lonely, fate upon you
hoping you get what you “deserve”
but who truly deserves that?
Through eyes engulfed by tears,
I’d cry aloud for vengeance, for answers.
Yet, silence remained.

But then I remembered
that blood
that blood that now has been washed
clean from the street
will remain with you,
stained into your conscience.
For you must now live regretfully with something
more painful than death’s immediate relief.

To the boy that killed my friend
I do not fear you.
Maybe once I shivered at the dream
of your all-too-steady trigger finger
pressing again, again, again.
And then silence.

But that has stopped and all I can see
is you, or how I imagine you
a trembling child as fearful as he is feared
holding a gun bigger than his own hand
hoping his purpose, his meaning, his life
will come with each consecutive shot.

To the boy that killed my friend
I do not know you.
Maybe I could assume or guess
that you didn’t look much different than him
but I don’t know that.
You live only as an idea, a representation
of life’s quick cruelty and evil, uncontrolled.

But that’s not who you are.
And I don’t know who you are.
I know you have a mother.
I know you have a name.
I must believe you have experienced love.
And for a year I have tried to see you,
understand you as more than just this choice.

To the boy that killed my friend,
I don’t blame you.
For too long I have hated you.
I have seen you as other, evil, worthless
but I can no longer hold that excruciating hate within me.
But instead each day I must let go
and live forever in his memory instead of my pain.
I hope that this moment has defined your life
not so you live in fear and shame
but that you hold precious each breath and hope for change.
For you deserve this hope, this chance
because my friend can never have it again.

To the boy that killed my friend,
I love you.
Not out of my own will or choice
for with those alone I have hated you
but because in moments like this there’s nothing left
nothing left but to recklessly love in hope’s that
things will change and that you will be the
last
the only
boy that will ever kill my friend.


Please read my original poem dedicated to Omar here: https://mackenseycarter.com/2013/09/04/omar/

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Why Do We Say “Classrooms Can’t Make Men”

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Teach a man, he’ll conquer the world.
What if this man must conquer such world to be taught?
One child in a classroom.
One plus one does not equal two.
As his stomach grumbles with only remnants of last night’s frozen dinner.
“Something ain’t” not “something isn’t” right
As his deep, muddy eyes strain to see scrawlings on the not too distant chalkboard.
Lincoln was Martin Luther King Jr. on that morning at Gettysburg
As he tries to remember the winter morning he last saw his daddy
but can only see those flashing lights
The classroom bleeds onto the streets.
Teachers become brothers.
Grades are issued with the finality of a bullet.
Yet if only this young man could conquer the world.
A world that provides the lessons he must learn to survive.
Then maybe, just maybe the classroom would teach his brilliant mind

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.

“Get Over It Already” and Other Harmful Christian Messages

As a painfully awkward and overly sensitive child, I was no stranger to irrational fears, worries and anxiety. In fact, I often carried with me a long list of the many social situations to avoid for they were all sure to be ways that I would die a slow painful death by humiliation. Don’t worry this list was entirely comprehensive including everything from slipping dramatically on a poorly placed banana peel to calling my second grade teacher “mom” in front an entire class lacking the psychological development of the empathic response [and yes both of which have happened to me]. Although in some ways it may be obvious, being this type of child was only made more difficult by my parent’s choice to attend one of the largest mega churches in Orange County. Therefore, I not only had to deal with negotiating a vast social obstacle course during the week at school, but my only time of refuge, the weekends, ended in a near panic attack inducing obligation to not only socialize for one’s own good but also by doing so show that somehow one was a ‘good’ Christian.

Like most quiet children, I learned to cope by clinging to the few friends that I knew at a church of thousands and sitting in the far back corner praying the whole time that I would somehow be ignored by the overly-aggressive ‘church welcoming crew.’ I’m sure if you have been in a church at least twice in your life you have encountered this posse. Well I had gained a myriad of techniques to avoid the social advances of this well-meaning, but terrifying group. I had found my own way of still enjoying my time at church without having to cross off anything on my ever-growing humiliation list. That is, I avoided this until around 6th grade.

Not only had puberty reared its ugly head escalating my awkwardness to dangerous proportions, but also my church decided that this was the right time for children to publicly declare their “relationship” with Christ. Seems a little fishy since most of us could barely form relationships with our peers, but you know the God of the universe…cakewalk. Anyway, being a good evangelical teenager, but mostly being one that wanted desperately to avoid standing out from the crowd obviously my only choice was to get baptized. [Yes, funny how the way to fit in during junior high was to attend church as much as possible. Trust me, this is why I will continue to have years of therapy.] But, sounds easy enough, right? Well, if wearing an oversized shirt and standing in a kiddie pool in front of all your friends and family while being dunked forcefully in not-so-warm water wasn’t enough social torture, try giving a speech beforehand.

Yes, you read that right. A speech.

Sorry, had to pause for a second to do my breathing exercises because just thinking of this moment gives me all-too-familiar panic symptoms. As if the baptism was not enough, my church required that every teenager that wanted to be baptized give a five-minute speech outlining their ‘testimony,’ which for those of you that are not familiar with Christian-ese means telling your life story of how you “got saved” essentially. Alright, this must be some cruel joke, I thought! Not only do I have to get dunked in water in front of everyone but I also have to pour out my whole life story for a crowd of a couple hundred junior high students.   Looking back on this decision, I must have been having an out of body experience because there is no way that I would have willingly agreed to something like this, but two weeks later I found myself anxiously awaiting my turn at the mic with my typed speech in one hand and my list of humiliation in the other, which now had the words testimony starred and circled in red ink at the top.

Looking back on this event, I’m always struck by this unusual phenomenon that I’ve experienced in churches long after this one moment in junior high. Something about hearing a ‘testimony’ of a person that has struggled, despaired, screwed up BUT, by the ‘grace of God,’ made it through the storm and now lives a cookie cutter, joyful life is intoxicating to many Christians. We ask people to stand in front of a crowd of people, mostly strangers with the exception of a cordial smile each Sunday, in hopes that their story will be a Hollywood-type of redemption narrative. A story that truly proves to any doubters in the crowd that no matter what type of despair you are muddled in now, only with a few prayers and some sort of eternal hope in God your life will be a fairy tale. And if it does not turn into this fairy tale ending, if you find yourself lost in despair without a way out, then that just means that you must trust God more and we would rather you wait until you get out of that despair to tell your story, for there is bound to be a happy ending in their somewhere.

I’m sorry if this is sounding rather cynical, because that is certainly not my intent. I also do not want to make light of the many rather miraculous testimonies of redemption and healing that I’ve heard over the years. But, returning to my junior high self preparing my testimony, I was convinced that I had to somehow wrap up my story in a nice bow in order to show that God was somehow present in my daily life, which honestly, in my actual experience, was pretty miserable. God forbid I would admit that in front of my church-going friends, though, in order to face the barrage of answers about finding the deeper meaning or the silver lining in my own struggles. No I didn’t want that, so I got through my testimony ending it with a rather trite statement that was probably something like “and now I can find joy in my relationship with Christ,” whatever that means. When on the inside I had to find a way to deal with my own years of depression, doubt, and self-hatred.

My struggle with depression did not end in junior high; in fact, it is still a constant presence in my adult life. Years of counseling and medication have helped, yes, but I am not naïve in thinking that I have seen the last of this familiar foe. I did not know how to talk about my depression when I was younger, because so much of my life at school, at church and with my friends was about putting on a happy face so that I could move past my troubles, because the only way to move on is to ignore any negativity right? I couldn’t give my real testimony when I was in junior high because it would have included my anger, despair and doubt in God without a perfect resolution or feel-good ending. Luckily I’m not in junior high anymore and my faith has changed and grown along with my understanding of myself.

Moving beyond depression is not the end goal for me anymore, because when I’m honest with myself I know that will probably not be possible for me. My purpose isn’t to find the light at the end of the tunnel, because in my experience I have found peace and connection with my understanding of God in the darkness of the tunnel, not the light. Hope and depression are not opposing forces. Hope for me looks like accepting my own darkness and living there with the realization that in despair redemption is a constant reality.   I believe, though, that redemption does not mean overcoming depression in order to be made new, but instead redemption means embracing my fragile state and reaching out to those stumbling along with me in the darkness. Depression is isolating, I mean, it’s not exactly something people like talking about in casual conversation. In my most depressed states, the last thing I want to do is build some sort of community. I want to yell at the world to get out of my face and be alone in my pain. And trust me that is definitely necessary sometimes; I’m not always the most loving person to be around those days.   But in those times when the people closest to me, often those that have also experienced these days of darkness, force me to be my most real and honest self with them—even if that just means giving me coffee and sitting in an understanding silence—I find hope and redemption through community. If I were to simply ‘move past’ my depression or pretend like it’s not a constant reality in my life, then I would miss this opportunity for raw human connection. That is God to me.

I write this as a plea to churches obsessed with proclaiming and exalting the next encouraging testimony. While showing people that there is a way out is often helpful and uplifting, you might be doing a disservice to many people in your congregation or even in your life that know deep down there is no end to their suffering. That does not mean hope is not present in their stories, but it means that they are seeking deeper, more meaningful answers than ‘well, at least you know that when you go to heaven there will be no more suffering’ or ‘have joy because you know God has a purpose for you.’   They are waiting to hear the church tell them that despair is a normal reaction to this screwed up world in which we live. They are waiting to be welcomed into community that doesn’t force them to have everything together prior to membership. They are waiting for someone to sit with them in their despair with no anticipation that they will move past it soon. They are waiting for the gospel message that even in darkness redemption is happening. They are waiting for the church to truly embrace the messiness of life, mental illness, and doubt without the hopes that sooner or later they will catch the good news fever and never have to bother with any of these temporal struggles again. They are waiting for the beauty and pain of their suffering to be honored without only seeing it as a means to an end or a temporary state to rise above. They are waiting for it to be okay for a confused, nervous, and awkward teenage girl to be able to give an honest testimony that is allowed to end in the unknown, but persistent hope of the gospel. For I know that: “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” and that being saved is so much more than a happy ending, but instead a hope that embraces a brokenheart without forcing it to heal in the same swift way in which it was broken.

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)

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It’s Not Enough

Two young boys playing cops and robbers in the summer heat
How do you tell them it is more than just a game?
The dichotomy of good and bad, criminal and innocent are alive and real.

Sweat pouring down a young mother’s brow in labor
this moment of joy almost overshadowed by the fear in her heart.
Her future filled with conversations prompted by questions of why…
“Why does Billy’s mom not let him come over to play at night?”

It’s not enough to say things have changed.
To raise a fist, post a comment, write a poem.
It’s not enough.

A father fingers a wad of sweaty cash on the corner
waiting for the next round of fiends to pay him for the
single moment of peace he supplies.
All the while his mind ponders the familiar thought
How to teach his son another way of life.

It’s not enough to tell young men the way of their fathers
does not have to be their own.
To speak of education, bootstraps, and potential.
It’s not enough.

Brothers working two jobs, hustling on the side
providing money for their babies and baby mamas
hoping their babies remember their faces,
sweat dripping, wrinkles deepening
unlike their own dad’s unknown, empty silhouette.

It’s not enough to simply hope for men to become fathers.
To theorize about responsibility, parenting style, pride.
It’s not enough.

The smile of a baby born with the skin of his father.
The skin of his grandfather; like any other infant.
Now unaware that this same skin that carries the pride of generations
marks this child as different, other.

It’s not enough to be colorblind.
To claim the skin color of that child does not matter and in the same breath
dismiss the centuries of hurt, pain and journey experienced in that skin.
It’s not enough.

Such skin color reckons back to the generations of survivors.
Men and women born in quicksand with the screams of
“pull yourself up… and quickly.”
the only sound echoing through their conscience.
But they remain. But they persevere.

And each generation of young men playing a simple game
of cops and robbers faces the reality.
With each game, they are rehearsing life
but instead they never choose their role.
BANG!

More Than Conquerors

Teach a man, he’ll conquer the world.
What if this man must conquer such world to be taught?
For a child in a classroom.
One plus one does not always equal two.
As his stomach grumbles with only remnants of last night’s frozen dinner.
To that child “something ain’t” not “something isn’t” right
As his deep, muddy eyes desperate for assistance strain to see scrawlings on the not too distant chalkboard.
Lincoln might as well have been Martin Luther King Jr. on that morning at Gettysburg
As he tries to remember the winter morning he last saw his daddy
but can only see those red and white flashing lights
The streets bleed into the classroom
painting its once white walls red with innocent blood.
Brothers become the only true teacher.
Grades are issued with the finality of a bullet.
Yet if only this young man could conquer his world.
Then maybe, just maybe the world would actually teach him.