A teenage boy, Trayvon Martin, was killed a month ago in Florida. Since then his death has heated up the national news and sparked highly emotional questions, comments, protests, prayer, rallies and vigils. We’re angry, lamenting and mourning. In our hearts we know something is wrong and we are acting for peace.
Last week a teenage boy (my student’s good friend) was shot in the park near our school. He was playing basketball on a beautiful sunny day. Just like Trayvon’s story, there have been no arrests, no explanations, and he isn’t known to have been doing anything wrong. The innocent victim, 15 years old, died later that night in the hospital. Unlike the story of Trayvon, no national outrage erupted. This mindless death happened quietly and has caught little attention. I can’t find any news stories about what happened and my student casually shared the news with the class. His casual manner alarmed me but it made total sense to him. “We’re used to it, Sister,” he said.
It is dangerous to be a teenage boy. It is hard to cope with violence and injustice. It’s not surprising that young people turn numb.
Our school serves all African-American teenage boys, one of the most vulnerable populations in our country. It is one of three schools in the nation founded particularly for that purpose. My students are teens, just like Trayvon. They eat skittles and drink ice tea, wear hoodies and talk on their cell phones to girls. They love playing basketball in the park on beautiful days and avoiding homework. They’re typical teenage boys.
My students know that they are vulnerable to being misjudged simply because they are black teenage boys. They have to be careful about where they go and what they do. They know that their appearance causes people to be suspicious of them for no right reason. Their parents warn them about this and it is something that they have to learn how to deal with as they become more independent.
My students should not be in danger for being who they are. No one’s safety should be at risk because of where they are and what they look like. Even though humanity keeps messing things up, our hearts know that this is not OK.
…For they broke my covenant,
and I had to show myself their master, says the LORD.
But this is the covenant that I will make
with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD.
I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts;
I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives
how to know the LORD.
All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the LORD,
for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more. -Jeremiah 31:32b-34
I love my students dearly. They impress me daily by their brilliance, hard work and strong faith. They have taught me much about the realities of inner-city life, African-American urban culture, hip-hop, sports, slang and social justice. I have learned about life on the margins from my students and this has brought me closer to Jesus. My students have taught me new dance moves and beautiful new songs.
It is somewhat ironic that I teach all African-American boys in a big city like Chicago. I am a white woman from the farming hills of Northeast Iowa. I don’t think I spoke to a black man until I went to college, only because I didn’t have the opportunity. I dreamed of being a missionary in Africa when I was a little girl but people kept telling me that I didn’t need to go so far away to do God’s work. To my surprise I ended up teaching on the south side of Chicago and still feel like I am half a world a way from home. (But I am only a five hours drive away from where I grew up!)
It’s not easy serving in a culture not my own. I don’t always understand the things my students say and do, and they don’t always understand me. Although the diversity is a challenge, it is more of a blessing. When we unite across difference in action, learning, and peacemaking we build the kingdom of God.
Next week I will embark on one of the greatest experiments in my career as an educator. I am leading a service-learning trip to my home. I will bring eight of my students to Northeast Iowa and they’ll spend a week learning about rural life and social problems by visiting and helping at places like farms, parks, schools and food pantries. We’ll pray through Holy Week as we journey together. They’ll get to meet teens who are very different than them and understand more about humanity.
The service trip will be interesting and amazing. We’re really excited about the inevitable adventures and fun. I am thrilled and honored to be able to do the work of bridging cultures and opening others to Truth. I have faith that God will be doing great things in our hearts and we’ll all grow in our knowledge about the law of Love and peace. God will do the teaching and I’ll get to witness.
It’s true that teenage boys don’t enjoy the same freedoms that I do and they aren’t always safe. Yet, I have hope. They’re willing to be brave and go new places to grow in the truth. Together, all humanity is learning the truth.
The truth is, God’s Law is about love, peace and justice. God’s law is written on all of our hearts.
This is one of my favorite songs that I learned from my students.