I only took my eyes off of her for a few seconds …
It’s so cliché, but so damn true.
This summer was an unusually sweltering one in the Pacific Northwest, and our local splash park offered a welcome reprieve from the relentless heat. Facing yet another 90+ degree day in mid-August, I brought my girls there to fill the post-nap/pre-dinner block of time. They were happily rotating among the splash park, playground and sandpit.
My younger daughter, still beaming from her weeklong reign as the Birthday Girl (“I two! I two!”), was thirsty, so I told my older daughter that I was going to fill up our water bottle. The water fountain is perhaps twenty feet from the splash park. It took me less than a minute to walk to the fountain, position my two-year-old’s fingers so that she could “help” fill the bottle, and look back up to where I had left my almost four-year-old.
… and she was gone.
I scanned the whole of the splash area, noting the rambunctious “big kids” manning the frog squirter, the joyful birthday party at a nearby picnic table, the toddler crying in his mother’s arms. This was by no means the first time I’d ever lost sight of my daughter, so I was confident she would emerge from behind another child or a big water toy. But she didn’t. I stopped filling the bottle and scooped up my youngest. It occurred to me that perhaps her sister had decided to run back to the sandbox, and as I made my way there, I considered potential punishments for running off without my permission.
But she wasn’t in the sandbox … or at the swings … or in the bathroom.
I had now looked everywhere I could imagine her going by herself. Several minutes had passed, and panic was creeping in.
I ran up to the birthday party and asked if any of them had seen a little girl matching my daughter’s description. Though they hadn’t seen her, they recognized the fear in my eyes and sprang into action, each heading to a different part of the park.
I stayed close to one of the moms, clutching my two-year-old and sputtering useless details about my oldest daughter’s swimsuit, as if the tiny cupcake design on the front of it would be the deciding factor in locating her. I was starting to go in circles, looking in the same places over and over again; afraid to stray too far from where I’d last seen her in case she was looking for me too.
I glanced at my watch; I had been searching for too long. At what point do I call the police, if the first hour is so key? Do I dial 911, or is there some kind of hotline?
My thoughts were scrambled. My capacity for rational thought was unable to overcome the horrific “what-ifs” emerging from the periphery of my mind where I, like all parents, try to banish them. This community park is large and uncontained, encompassing not only the splash park and playground, but sports fields, a walking trail, and several open fields adjacent to parking lots. It would be impossible to lock it down.
This is also the park where many of the people experiencing homelessness in our community spend their days. To my utter shame these “least among us,” for whom I claim to have such great compassion, were featured prominently in the horror reel of “what-ifs” flashing through my mind. I could feel myself starting to lose it.
And then we found her.
A woman from our makeshift search party directed my attention to an anonymous dad waving in a distant field. Beyond him … my sweet girl; running happily with her arms wide open and her ponytail flying behind her. We were separated by 200 yards and—much further—by the ability to be turned completely upside down by an incapacitating fear of the worst-case scenario.
She had been missing for a total of 10 minutes.
I have no idea who (or even how many) helped me search for my daughter that day. By the time I reached her, I could barely choke out “thank you” to the people in front of me, never mind the others who had spread across the park. They are nameless, faceless heroes of mine.
I had been right, as it turns out, to relegate those insidious and terrifying “what-ifs” to the fringes of my consciousness. My daughter went missing, but there was no “stranger danger.” The only strangers with whom I interacted were doggedly working to help me find her. This story has no villains: no stalkers, no kidnappers, no opportunistic perverts.
By all accounts, my faith in humanity should be renewed. I should be a more optimistic mother.
Except I’m not.
Ever since that day, I have found myself keeping a tighter grip on my daughters as we walk through crowded areas. I have been looking more suspiciously at almost-certainly decent, help-you-find-your-daughter sorts of people in the park. I have been questioning the presence and motives of anyone who doesn’t fit my image of someone who belongs at kids’ events: young, involved, “vanilla” sorts of people … people like me.
In those ten minutes, the horrific “what-ifs” of parenthood became real to me in a way they had never been before. I began seeing enemies where they didn’t exist. It makes me wonder: What kind of person would I be if they really did?
The expression “there but for the grace of God go I” has really been resonating with me in the wake of those excruciating 10 minutes. If even I—with my privileged life and my happy ending—if even I have become more mistrustful and judgmental of others as a result of 10 minutes of unrealized “what-ifs,” then where but for the grace of God would I be?
If I had spent my life as an undocumented immigrant, or an unwelcome refugee, or an impoverished person of color, would I see the people around me as my brothers and sisters in Christ … or would I see them only as potential threats to myself and my children?
I majored in peace studies, so I can wax philosophical about “unmasking the other” and ubuntu and restorative justice until my lips turn blue. But I have never had to do so in the face of pervasive violence, instability, or oppression. Thanks be to God, I do not have to do so in the face of every parent’s worst nightmare.
But if that weren’t the case? If my worst-case scenarios dwelled not in the fringes of my mind but in my lived experience, would I be capable of the sort of compassion, hospitality, and goodwill that Jesus demands of his followers?
I seriously doubt it.
And so I do the only thing I can: I turn once more to Jesus, and say a prayer of gratitude for His grace, which has truly saved a wretch like me.
Nicole Steele Wooldridge lives in the Seattle area with her husband and two daughters. She hopes that her daughters do as she says, and not as she does … and that her emotional aversion to the local splash park has waned by the time next summer comes around.
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.