Months ago, while my mind and heart were whirling after moving from rural Wisconsin to Chicago, I attempted to run a simple and quick errand: buy some shampoo. Another sister went with me, and we carried along a short list of things we needed for our new household. At the store, we found little of what we were looking for, even though the store bore a familiar name and allowed the expectation. I scanned the shelves for the kind of shampoo I like, but all the bottles were unfamiliar and unaffordable. Disoriented and overwhelmed, my body tensed with frustration and disgust. This store didn’t have anything I wanted.
In another aisle, I complained to the sister with me. And then, a man approached us, his face looking stressed. He mumbled a request. “Can you help? Can you help me buy some laundry soap? And a few other things for my family?” I barely understood him. I thought, “Why don’t people just name what they need? Why don’t people speak clearly?” I asked him… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
I have asked my good friend and occasional Messy Jesus Business contributor, Amy Nee-Walker, to share her perspective on the recent events in Baltimore for our readers this week. Amy and her husband Ted presently live in the Jonah House community in Baltimore with their one-year-old son. Here are her responses to my questions.
What would you want young people to learn from the events in Baltimore in the past week?
“Observe without judgment” is a phrase commonly used in meditation. One is asked to observe–while withholding judgment–his or her own self: thoughts that run through the mind, sensations being experienced within the body, feelings rising to the surface. It is only through observing without judgment that we can begin to have a truer, fuller sense of what is happening and attain a state of peace and wholeness in body, mind and spirit.
I would like for myself, and others–young, old and in-between–to take hold of this concept and to extend it beyond the self. What I want people to learn about what has been unfolding this past week in Baltimore is not exact. I am still in the process of trying to understand and sort it out and respond appropriately myself. But I think, if nothing else, I want people to look and to listen and to do this without judgment. I want people to learn to not just perceive what is happening but also to seek to discover why it is happening; not stopping at the easy answer that some news outlet, or peer, or even parent, is waiting to feed you. If you can begin by observing without judgment, you will learn to ask questions that don’t have assumed answers already attached.
In terms of asking the deeper question, I would also like to share some words from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. Words that my husband Ted and I were recently reminded of and have continued to contemplate as events unfold:
As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent…
… I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
It is my view that these triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are the deep and wide-reaching roots that are fueling violence, not just here in Baltimore but throughout the country and the world. That is something I would like people to examine in their own lives and communities as I intend to examine it in my own.
What do you think the rest of the world doesn’t know about Baltimore?
Having lived only a year and a half in this city, there’s a lot that I don’t know about Baltimore! Living here has been a continual educational journey. This is a city with a very complicated past and present. I wonder whether the rest of the world knows that preceding the death of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore City Police Commissioner and the Department of Justice were in the midst of an investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department. In 2014, The Baltimore Sun released a long-researched exposé outlining cases of police brutality in Baltimore. Attorney Bill Quigley sums up that report well in two sentences. “Over $5.7 million has been paid out by Baltimore since 2011 in over 100 police brutality lawsuits. Victims of severe police brutality were mostly people of color and included a pregnant woman, a 65-year-old church deacon, children, and an 87-year-old grandmother.”
For those who wonder why there is so much tension between protesters and police, I hope this shines some light. For those who think the only reason someone might resist arrest is because they are a criminal, I hope this helps them begin to realize there are times when people evade police not because they are afraid of getting caught in wrongdoing, but because they are afraid for their life.
But I also think the world does not know enough about the positive, creative ways that people are trying to take back their streets from the rioters who trashed them, the wayward pockets of police who torment them and the political leaders who frankly didn’t seem to give a damn about this particular neighborhood until it hit national news. First of all, most of those taking action are advocating for peace and collaboration–some who want to have the opportunity to mourn and grieve for the loss of their friend, son, and brother–Freddie Gray. And there are many who want to both confront the oppression they have experienced for generations as well as show there is more to this city, and more to these neglected neighborhoods, than crime and destitution.
What do you love about Baltimore?
One of the things I love about Baltimore is how easily identifiable it is as a city, it is itself and nowhere else (unless you go to the inner harbor which, sadly, has become a cookie-cutter middle class shopping district with the usual chain stores and restaurants). The city strikes an awkward balance between crowded row houses and expansive green parks and forest space. It is teaming with locally-owned businesses, a love of fried fish and crabs, pockets of incredible historical sites that include civil war memorials as well as the birth places of Billie Holiday and Edgar Allen Poe. And there are many community-based initiatives from planting trees and community gardens, to providing after-school activities, to street festivals and art fairs.
But more than that, I have been so moved by the hospitality, kindness and humor of the people we have encountered. We help with food distribution for those needing grocery supplements, and though the people come here in deep need they also come with great patience as we bumble our way through the long line of recipients. They come with a generous interest in us and a concern for one another; sharing when they’ve been given more than they need, bringing things back for neighbors and friends who couldn’t make it down themselves due to illness or other impediments.
When I was pregnant with my son, Eli, we were on WIC; a food assistance program for pregnant mothers and infants. It is a wonderful program but can be complicated when it comes to shopping. More than once a long line would form behind me as the cashier examined my grocery selection and compared it to the approved items on the WIC check. I would turn to the line that had formed behind me, mostly women, all African-American, blushing and apologizing. Not once did I get a rude or impatient comment; more often I would hear, “that’s all right Honey, we’ve all been there.” Similarly, when we started going to a local church where we turned out to be the only white people, we were afraid of being seen as interlopers. Instead, we were quickly and warmly embraced, invited to events and meetings and welcomed to return. Since his birth, our son has been cooed over and doted on wherever we go, even when he tackles the other children with his overly-enthusiastic hugs and kisses. “Don’t worry about that,” one mother said to me. “That just shows he’s loved and loving.”
These are not aspects of Baltimore likely to be recognized by folks who drop by the Inner Harbor for seafood, or who have formed all their ideas of the west side of the city (where we live) through watching The Wire, but to a young mother and new folks in town, it means the world.
What’s the story the media isn’t covering?
I think we can agree that the media loves bad news. For some reason, bad news is what gets a majority of us to tune in. Because of that, most of the reports on what’s happening in Baltimore, beginning with Saturday’s largely peaceful demonstration, flash images of smashed cars, burning buildings, looting stores. In fact, when everything is calm or when groups are gathering for prayer or just standing and talking, even “live” reports will flash back to images from earlier in the week that are more dramatic and scintillating. I don’t want to indicate that the damage done has not been real and impactful. Many of the people who came to our food pantry the day after Monday’s riots were saddened and frustrated by the damage done to their streets and businesses. One man commented that he doesn’t know where he will get his elderly mother’s medication now that all the nearby CVS stores have been looted and subsequently closed. Another said he lost his job, one of the few available in this area, because the building was burned down A friend reports that in their zip code, unemployment is at 50 percent (8.4 percent city wide). Several of the men commented that they didn’t leave their houses, not because they were afraid they would get hurt in the riot, but because they were afraid of being accused of participating in it just by stepping outside.
But there is so much more happening! Because schools were closed, the high school drumline (which we hear practicing almost daily from our house) marched through the streets with the school’s cheerleaders dancing before them. Churches held outdoor prayer services (some in front of their own buildings, others surrounding those places that had been burned down), seeking to bring healing to a traumatized space. Local clergy are meeting with local gangs, discussing ways of reaching out to the community and beginning to work together to seek not just calm but real enduring peace. Throughout the week our local Josephite church, Peter Claver, has been a hub for organizing–to meet the needs of people lacking food or other resources, to help with neighborhood clean up and to engage in the more long-term work of confronting social structures which are precariously imbalanced.
How has living the Gospel been a messy experience for you in the last week of your life?
Probably that hardest thing for me living in the midst of Baltimore’s present turmoil has been fielding the reactions of those who live outside of it. I guess that belies my privilege in that, because I have a car, I am not cut off from access to food, toiletries, or medications when drug stores and convenience stores in the neighborhood are burnt down. And frankly, because I am white, I am not afraid of being falsely accused of participating in destructive actions or being badgered or beaten by law enforcement.
What I do struggle with (as someone with a network of friends and family who have widely disparate takes on world events as well as philosophies of right living) is trying to bring a balanced perspective and to reveal what may otherwise go unseen. I think those who very sincerely and understandably want to be on the side of the oppressed are quick to rationalize and validate any actions. This is also true of certain forms of violence (such as property destruction)– long-suppressed reactions from people who have experienced many painful forms of violence throughout their entire life–even the lives of the generations preceding them. On the other hand, there are those who want, without question, to dismiss and criticize any behavior that is disruptive, uncomfortable or that defies their sense of what is appropriate. They are quick to have a scathing review of unruly protesters yet are ready to ignore the economic and social violence that has been far more enduring and harmful to peoples’ lives.
I find myself truly challenged to live my own exhortation to “observe without judgment.” I am challenged to observe what is happening on the streets, first with curiosity and compassion, before slipping into criticism and assumptions whether I am observing protesters, police or politicians. I am also, and perhaps all the more so, challenged to observe the comments and viewpoints of others that are pouring in with patience and humility, looking to the Spirit to help form my response and not simply relying on my reactive feelings. This is a struggle for me as I feel very deeply the turmoil of my community (even as I am aware of my own status as somewhat of an outsider); tucked away in this 22 acre-cemetery of which we are stewards, where the sounds of helicopters and sirens compete with the song of birds enjoying the shade of our blossoming apple trees.
I am coming to a point where I find the need to quiet my own roiling thoughts and emotions, my fast-forming opinions and judgments. Coming to a place of inner stillness, I ask myself to imagine “Where is Jesus in all of this?” With that question, lines of police in riot gear melt away, a disinterested mayor takes the backseat, burning buildings fizzle out. With the question comes tears: tears of a devastated mother who lost her only son, a mother who is representative of many and yet who is deeply immersed in her own very real and individual loss; tears of Jesus as he holds her grief-stricken body in his own wounded arms and mourns a multitude of violent deaths and broken hearts and the loss of even one precious child.
Wearing gloves severely inhibits fine motor skills. As I fumbled to extricate my Chicago Transit Authority card from my wallet and insert it into the vending machine at the Granville El Station I heard: “A Red Line Train—heading toward the Loop—will be arriving shortly.” The mechanized announcement suddenly instilled in me a sense of urgency despite the fact that I was leaving hours before what was necessary to reach my destination on time.
Carefully and quickly separating softened single bills into the machine—please don’t reject these ragged edges—I heard the rough voice of a woman calling out from behind me, “Hey Loyola!” She was addressing a stout young man with a trim dark beard wearing a bulky Carhartt jacket who was hustling over to the machine neighboring mine. She didn’t ask for money, only recognition from someone she knew.
My mind told me to reach into my pocket and give her a business card indicating the days and hours the community I live with opens our house for showers and meals and visiting. Should I? “A Red Line Train—heading toward the Loop—will be arriving shortly.” I could hear the rumbling of the approaching train. My finger pressed “Vend.” My body turned. My legs jogged up the steps. Without having consciously made a decision, I conceded to habit over responding to desire. I thought I wanted to catch that train, forgetting I wasn’t in a rush. Wants, skimming the surface of our consciousness, are far easier to capture than the desires that swim our depths. I never even saw what she looked like.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the ones we overlook. The thought has followed me around, applying itself to observations and conversations and readings. It interrupted me the other night while reading Arundhati Roy’s captivating novel, The God of Small Things. She writes of an encounter between “Touchable” police, and an “Untouchable” man suspected of a crime. The suspect, Velutha, is sleeping. He is awakened by a brutal beating.
If they hurt Velutha more than they intended to, it was only because any kinship, any connection between themselves and him, any implication that if nothing else, at least biologically he was a fellow creature—had been severed long ago. They were not arresting a man, they were exorcising fear. They had no instrument to calibrate how much punishment he could take. No means of gauging how much or how permanently they had damaged him (293).
They didn’t recognize him. And as cozy as it would be for me to read this and mourn the injustice of caste-based cruelty in India, the ability to overlook our fellow creatures is not confined to any one people or region. It is not a faraway problem. It is close at hand.
Awareness of this welled up a few nights ago as I listened to my roommate read an account of a shooting that had happened in a nearby neighborhood. Three were killed, two shot. One victim was killed by a police officer who was himself injured. One victim was the officer. Information about why these shootings happened, who was involved, how the community is affected were absent. Details about the officer’s history with the force, about the noise and commotion on the scene, crowd out consideration of the human loss. There is no grieving. No asking why it happened, how it might have been prevented.
Why? Perhaps I am jumping to unfair conclusions, but my guess is this: the people who died were not people who mattered. We didn’t recognize them. For two of the men this is quite literally true, at the time of the report, they had not been identified.
As Christians we are called to see Christ in each other. But long before Godself was manifested in the body of Jesus, God spoke these words through the prophet Isaiah, “Do not hide yourself from your own flesh.” This is following instructions to set the oppressed free, share bread with the hungry, invite the homeless into your house, cloth the naked. It is followed by a prompting to “satisfy the desire of the afflicted,” and a promise that when we do these things, “the Lord will continually guide you, and satisfy your desires…” Embedded in my mind is that idea that those hungry, afflicted, naked that we are called to attend to are our own flesh, and the unabashed insight that unless instructed otherwise we will be inclined to hide ourselves from them, from our own flesh.
We have heard Jesus’ word, “Whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.” Can it also be said, in light of Isaiah’s prophecy, “Whatever you do…you do unto yourself.”? If this is true, we are truly a masochistic culture. We are trained into the habit of self-forgetting. It is common, not only to lock the homeless out of our house, but to drive them from the parks. It is acceptable not only to keep our bread for ourselves but also to prohibit the hungry from foraging in dumpsters for food we have already thrown away. It is known that not only are the oppressed imprisoned but they are tortured and maligned. I have spent a lifetime developing habits of avoidance, averting my eyes from looks of recognition with acquaintances, not to mention the stranger on the street, and ignoring systemic issues that seem too big or too confusing to become involved. I have developed a habit of hiding myself from my own flesh. Breaking such a habit requires tremendous intentionality and practice. Fortunately, prophets continue to live and teach another way, individuals and groups; people who are ordinary, and radical.
To be continued…
This week’s guest blogger, Amy Nee, grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida. Experiments with truth have steadily brought her North, through Kentucky, to Chicago where she is currently living and loving at the White Rose Catholic Worker. Her musings are piling up here: amytheshow.blogspot.com. Together, Amy and Sister Julia like to cook, pray, study non-violence, write, garden and marvel at the beauty of God’s creation.