I’ll keep the admiring list short this week – just one link that I think is worth listening to. It’s an interview with Rev. Willis Johnson of Ferguson, Missouri. His church is just one mile away from the location where an unarmed teenager was shot and killed this week by a police officer. The interview came about after this photo taken by Trymaine Lee was published in the Washington Post.
Photo by Trymaine Lee, source.
NPR tracked down the older man in the photo and interviewed him here. Johnson’s words from the interview in italics below.
I listened to it for the first time yesterday afternoon, and the audio was posted last night. There were so many parts of this interview that touched and reverberated with me.
But by the grace of God go you, and me.
The events in Ferguson this week have brought a lot of emotion to the surface for me; they’ve also brought something that feels a little like a slideshow – snippets of moments spent with my father that carried such weight with me at each instance that they must have somehow merged into this collective memory. Most were small moments, and unplanned. Many occurred when I was a much younger, and our family was traveling, like the time we stopped at a tiny, rural gas station, and my dad brought me back around the corner of the building to show me the vestige of a “colored” sign above one of the toilet doors. I remember him telling me about the framed and mounted maps hanging in a bank once that weren’t even trying to be subtle about the boundaries of neighborhoods where loans were granted or restricted based upon the race of the applicant. We’ve sat together as visitors on pews where he’s leaned in close to one ear and whispered shut.your.ears, which of course meant I listened even more closely to the words and began to develop the ability to listen to the unspoken words just below the surface, words attributed to a God far different from the one I thought I knew.
When M and I were engaged, my parents invited us to vacation with them, and we took a day trip down to the Everglades. On our way back to our rented place, a bright yellow sports car sped past us at a ridiculous speed – we were in the right lane and my dad had the cruise control set right at the speed limit. This car was flying. Within seconds we watched a police car on the opposite side of the highway cross the median, lights on and sirens blaring. We knew exactly who his target was…except he pulled up behind us and forced us to the shoulder. It took twenty or thirty minutes of very tense conversation (as others conducted extensive background checks) to finally convince the officer to let us go. He simply would not admit that there was a chance that his radar that clocked a speed of 120, 140 – I can’t remember – could have registered that number just as the yellow car passed our meandering sedan. But he finally relented, and my father remarked to us as we drove away that we were in the wrong place at the wrong time, but with the right color skin. It was not a flippant remark, it was a conversation, and my father peppered my childhood with those kind of conversations. Rev. Johnson talks about the conversations his father had with him as a child – conversations he is now having with his own son and daughter. His emotion as he speaks of this touches me – for him, it’s not a dialogue restricted to a small group of people. It’s a conversation that everyone should be having.
It’s that way for all of us…if it’s not touching you, if it’s not personal, that’s where there’s a problem.
It’s been an open conversation in my family my entire life, and it’s a conversation I continue as often as possible with my own children, with others, and with myself. My father’s frequent response to those that prefer to stand at the sideline and cast aspersions on others suffering from various fates that they must certainly deserve is to say But by the grace of God go you, and me. I’ve heard it dozens and dozens of times. I could be you, you could be me, you are my brother.
In addition to the myriad of things that have occupied headspace and heartspace this week – school transitions to middle school and kindergarten, a birthday, navigating a new season of grief minefields, schedule shifting and long and unfamiliar commutes – the events in this city have been heartbreaking and frustrating. Earlier this week, I attended an open Board of Alderman meeting for work. It was in another inner ring suburb, but this affluent community boasts neighborhoods with a very high percentage of owner occupied homes on large, leafy lawns. For four hours I listened to residents stand up and argue and debate various items on the agenda – many related to architectural style and neighborhood cohesiveness. They used words like “shocked, horrified and sickened” to describe their reaction to a 3600 sf house that was permitted to be built upon a lot that they were convinced could surely support a larger one.
The meeting was open, and everyone was afforded the opportunity at the microphone to speak their views. It was hard not to listen to the passion and fervor and downright anger expressed over matters that seemed rather trivial and arbitrary to me and wonder how a room could be packed full of residents with four hours available to argue about siding and right turn lanes and the number of garages on a house when their neighbors’ voices were being pushed down the street and the sidewalks by SWAT teams. One resident equated the debate over an amendment to a city ordinance related to the Fair Housing Act as an open invitation for high density, multi-family housing. Who will fill these places, he asked, because he wasn’t aware there were any low income people residing in his community? He ended his free ability to speak at the microphone by threatening a future where his enclave was taken over by others, and he called out Ferguson by name, as if there was any doubt in the room who the “others” were.
People who are hurting, need to be affirmed in their hurt. People who are angry, need to be affirmed in their anger.
I have written about this topic before – about where we live, and the perceptions others have about this place. I was never so glad to leave that room and head home to my own street, committing myself to keeping the conversation going. We have to be able to talk of these things. We have to be able to talk about them at work and at school and in church and with our neighbors. We have to be able to talk about them in our homes or on our sidewalks or even on our streets. Sitting in that board room was a good reminder to me. Our family lives and works and learns and worships and plays in areas of this city that are very diverse; these choices lend themselves to more dialogue and less fear. But these are the exceptions to the rule, and I’m not granted a free pass here.
It requires, by every means necessary… to bring about the sense of awareness, the attention that will allow people…to expedite and encourage us to some point of… not only reconciliation, but resolution and resurrection, because we have to live when everybody else goes, and leaves this place.
We want the cycle to stop.
Rev. Johnson talks about being fortunate enough to have the means and the outlet to process these feelings – he often runs, and as I ran yesterday through the park I connected to what he was saying. I often say that I feel lucky, and I use it to describe the way I am able to connect to support systems as needed. That image above seems to imply that the young man is the lucky one, encased in the arms of man who is protecting him and encouraging him. But Johnson indicates that he needed that kid as much as the kid needed him – that somehow he was lucky that they found each other in that moment. I feel lucky that I was able to listen to him, and that he lives in this place, near me.
Please keep listening.