A few weeks ago our congregation began a new program called “Creative Arts and Sacred Story.” The program brought together adult and youth artists from our congregation, Shir Hadash Synagogue, and Pathfinders to study sacred stories to learn more about forgiveness; stories like Joseph’s brothers beating him and leaving him for dead and then his reconciliation with them years later. Now the adults will work independently to create art reflective of the struggle with forgiveness. At the same time the youth will work with Tia Richardson, an artist-in-residence at Plymouth, to create a collaborative mural about forgiveness. At the end of June or early July we’ll have an art show to share what we’ve made or written about forgiveness.
The creative arts program forced me to think about my own artistry. One night we talked about Jacob and Esau. Those two brothers struggled constantly; in one story Jacob got Esau to give up his inheritance for a bowl of lentil stew. So for that night’s discussion I made a spicy lentil stew - and I made some more for our potluck. The room we gathered in was filled with the aroma of coriander, cinnamon, turmeric, cumin. And I realized, of course, that my art form is food. When our group comes together again for an art-show, mine will be an art installation - setting the table of reconciliation.
So with my mind stayed on food and forgiveness, I turned to our familiar Psalm, “The Lord is My Shepherd.” As I prayed these familiar words my mind kept pausing on the line, “you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” This week I began to wonder about those enemies. Is the person facing threats from enemies, similar to the danger faced in the darkest valley, eating a meal while wolves stalk? Or does God host the person in front of the enemies, a kind of vindication of a person once bullied, a dramatic turnaround in circumstances, in which the bullies watch their victim be celebrated by God? Or does the Psalm imagine something else altogether; does God’s hospitality extend wide and deep enough to encompass one’s enemies, a table set so extravagantly that everyone can find a place at the table of reconciliation?
How we hear that verse - “you prepare a table before in the presence of my enemies” - may tell us something of how God’s grace works in our lives.
I thought of this question of forgiveness and grace last weekend while riding around Milwaukee with several police officers. The ride-along took place on Friday afternoon and lasted into early Saturday. It began with lessons at the police academy on the use of force and practice with simulations and weapons. The simulations felt incredibly real, unfolding in seconds, and in none of them was I able to react in time to save my own life. I fared better at target practice given that I’ve never fired a weapon as an adult.
Then I rode along with a squad car patrolling some of the most violent areas of our city. The night ended with the SWAT team and a ride along with the police inspector, who provides top level coverage of all major incidents in the city. I went home after spending a few hours at the scene of a motor vehicle accident on the far north side of the city. A woman, driving 85 miles an hour and weaving between lanes, struck an on-coming car with a family of four. The force of the crash killed her because she was not wearing her seatbelt. The father in the other car went to the hospital, badly hurt, but the mother and young children escaped serious harm. The accident happened at a point in the road between a church and a cemetery. The scene confronted me with God, the Shepherd of Life, and the reality of death, the darkest valley.
The next day I realized the stress of it all. I had a headache that wouldn’t break and a neck sore from all the tension I carried for ten or eleven hours the night before. But more importantly the experience gave me a chance to think about forgiveness and grace; or at least the need for it.
The unit I rode along with included officers who focus on our most violent neighborhoods and a tactical unit. I came back to the station from a squad car ride-along to find the SWAT team suited up, checking weapons, and stocking the armoured vehicle. A call had come from West Milwaukee of a hostage crisis; the SWAT team mobilized to help its neighboring force. Things were happening fast. (One cop had ordered Jimmy Johns but now couldn’t wait for delivery.)
I rode out to meet the police inspector and his counterpart from West Milwaukee as they coordinated the operation. According to the hostage call, a man had taken two teens hostage in a white SUV. He demanded $5,000 from one of the parents. Two previous scenarios like this had turned out to be hoaxes, but one elsewhere had been real and the hostages killed. The police could not take a chance; a tremendous number of resources were mobilized.
At the command center - a circle of cars in a Target parking lot - information began flowing in. Officers had identified the SUV from video where the hostages were allegedly taken; police across two cities were on the lookout. Additional officers were pinging the cellphones of the teens, allowing officers to focus on an ever narrower area.
Then word came in: the SUV was pulled over without incident. It was a hoax. All three teens were simply trying to get money for drugs. The police inspector, tense from the situation, cursed colorfully, then realized I was standing next to him, “Sorry pastor.” I wasn’t offended; instead I thought of the parents of these teens, parents whose children tried to extort money from them. It made me want to curse; and to grieve.
The teens who faked a hostage crisis were headed to jail. Their parents undoubtedly faced shocking new information about their teens and the depth of their addictions. In that moment the Psalm sounded like a plea, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of the brokenness of life.” A plea for parents stunned by the depravity of their teens, a plea for teens overwhelmed by their addictions, a plea for police frustrated by the pointlessness of it all. God’s grace does come into all their lives, even if not yet realized; God’s grace comes when we need to find a way to forgive and to find a way to ask for forgiveness, preparing a place at the table of reconciliation.
Earlier in the evening I rode along with two motorcycle cops. Thankfully they switched to a squad car to show me the city they know. (It would have been too butch to fire pistols and ride motorcycles all in one day). We stopped at Clarke Street School. Mike and Carl were on the scene where Sierra Guyton was killed in the crossfire of rival groups; they were first to her wounded, dying body.
We talked through the scene and then went on to other homicide scenes such as an arson the night before which intentionally killed Michea Sampson and Dontray Jones. We also went to Hopkins St, where Shanice McClain was killed in much the same way as Sierra Guyton. Two teenage girls got into a fight. They escalated the fight by calling in their boyfriends, who arrived with guns and began shooting. Shanice McClain was visiting a friend, but died caught in the animosity of strangers.
It was the same week which saw Archie Brown Jr. die after he accidentally struck and killed a toddler who ran into the road. The little boy’s uncle came out of the house filled with anger. Despite Archie Brown pleadings for mercy, the uncle shot and killed him. During the shooting he also struck his nephew, Rasheed, who died later of his wounds. The uncle, on the run from the police, committed suicide when he was found at a hotel in Illinois. One death was an accident, but what do we say of the rest of them? Tragic. Senseless.
All these deaths are linked by a common thread: uncontrolled rage, anger turned to death. And, once unleashed, that rage took in bystanders like Sierra Guyton and Shanice McClain and engulfed family members like Rasheed. Such tragedies happen when forgiveness and grace do not abound in our lives.
And so we need to pray, “prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Such a prayer seeks God’s vindication, that God will preserve the person who feels surrounded by enemies, that God’s vindication and not our revenge will rule the day.
This is not an inner city problem alone; we all need to cultivate forgiveness in our hearts, to make space for God’s grace to operate in our lives. The inability of an uncle to forgive turned violent. But we can hear the same anger in other hearts. I was taken aback last month to hear of a Wisconsin pastor who posted threats on the website of a blogger. The blogger wrote critically of the police. The pastor responded by threatening her with gang-rape. How much do we need God’s grace if even a pastor threatens such violence? May God’s grace prepare our hearts to sit at the table of reconciliation.
Mike and Carl made several traffic stops during the ride along. Each time they suggested I get out of the car so that I could hear the interaction. But at one point we drove up to a stop sign. At the other corner was a teenage driver with another teen balanced on the front hood of his car. The police blocked the car’s forward movement and told me to remain in the backseat, where I could listen through an open window. I could tell the situation made them nervous; it did not feel good.
Mike talked to the driver; Carl to the other teen. The teen who had been on the hood of the car seemed edgy, as if he thought of running. I listened as Carl talked him through his anxiety. He gave a couple of names until finally settling on his real name. The driver didn’t have a licence nor title for the car. When Mike ran the plates and the vin number of the car they didn’t match. But neither vehicle came up stolen; and the driver mostly showed up in the system for his many absences at school. The driver seemed honest when describing how his brother fixed cars and swapped together parts, including plates, so he had something to drive. Mike took the plates, but otherwise focused on talking to the driver about the dangerous way he was driving.
In a time when tremendous attention focuses on police-community interactions, I saw an everyday traffic stop that didn’t escalate nor end in an arrest for teenage foolishness. Instead, Mike and Carl de-escalated the anxiety of the teens. It was how I would want my kids treated. And the two teens didn’t play games, but spoke honestly to the cops. It’s the lesson I try to teach David and Tomas.
We pray that God will prepare a table before us. But we also ought to pray for those who work to set the table, the people whose actions and grace in the midst of tense moments keep emotions from escalating, the people throughout our community who act in quiet ways to practice forgiveness and grace, those that keep us from dividing the world into us versus them, splitting the community into friend and foe, the ones who help God widen the table of reconciliation.
In the background of my mind on my ride along was a comment I heard from a youth at Pathfinders. It’s actually the reason why I formed the “creative arts and sacred story project.” Pathfinders’ staff were concerned about the prevalence of weapons in the lives of youth; as part of their work they surveyed youth about issues of safety. One youth explained matter-of-factly, “If someone messes with me, my family expects me to hit back harder.” A parental expectation of escalating violence? We’re standing in the need of grace. Not just a youth at Pathfinders, but all of us struggle with the practice of forgiveness.
We need to pray, “O Lord, you prepare a table before us.” Wolves stalk, brokenness abounds; we need the grace to forgive. “You prepare a table before us.” May grace overwhelm hearts filled by anger; may we seek God’s vindication instead of our own revenge. “You prepare a table before us.” Bless those who work for forgiveness, whose actions and words cultivate reconciliation, those moments of grace which happen every day.
Alleluia and Amen.