Memphis’ recent mayoral election in many ways turned on the issue of safety in America. Much of the national presidential debate is on the same topic. People seem to be afraid for their personal safety. It is no longer just war in the Middle East but war just down the street from where I live.
This has become much more real for me through events that have happened at or near Perea, the preschool the Church Health Center has run for 16 years in Memphis’ Klondike neighborhood. Four times since the school year began, our preschool, along with the elementary school where we are housed, has gone on lockdown due to a shooting on or near the school’s playground. I didn’t know about the first two occurrences, but then six weeks ago it happened again.
I rushed to the school as though there was something I could do. John Wayne, I am not. When I arrived, Perea’s principal Alicia Norman calmly explained what had happened. A city-run community center sits right behind the school. During a basketball game, two rival gang members had a disagreement on the court. To settle the dispute, one chased the other out the door firing at him as he ran through the school playground. She then told me about the last episode a few weeks ago when she and another teacher were outside and the bullets went flying past her.
We walked down to the community center and found the one full-time employee. He was nice enough and seemed to fully understand our concern. He then explained to us all the reasons there was nothing he could do.
“If they are not playing basketball, they will be out in the streets taking it out on each other.”
This occurred right after the recent election for mayor. I called my longtime friend AC Wharton, who had just lost his bid to be re-elected mayor. He immediately took my call and swung into action. There were police everywhere. The next day, the chief of police was at the school. A plan was made to erect a chain link fence so that the gang members would be forced to run away from the school, not toward it, if they were trying to escape the community center. We all felt that we had been heard. For a couple of days there were extra police patrols in the neighborhood.
The day after the incident, I bought lasagna for the teachers and took it to them for lunch. Everyone seemed to appreciate the effort and understood there was little else that could be done.
Last week, there was another shooting.
Again, it started at the community center. This time it began with a craps game that went bad. The fence kept those involved from running toward the school, but the shooters got in their car and drove multiple times through our parking lot looking for the person they had shot. When the police arrived, Alicia showed them the bullet casings and drops of blood on the pavement. An hour later, they found the man who had been shot.
I called one of the Church Health Center’s board members, who is now working closely with the new mayor. She listened closely and understood my concern. She pointed out that the police department is woefully understaffed with police officers.
Nevertheless, the next day, an all-seeing police eye-in-the-sky camera appeared in our parking lot. The chief of police was again at Perea. Surely this will be a deterrent to anyone who might be afraid of getting caught. Won’t it? Don’t you think? I wonder how long they will keep it there.
Since the first of the year, there have been 12 murders in Memphis.
I stand behind what we are doing at Perea, and I know our parents are committed to seeing their children grow up to live long, happy, productive lives. Through our work at Perea, we are trying to reverse the statistics that tell us that many of our boys will end up in gangs and in jail. One or more of them could be the target of a shooting or the one holding the gun.
Last Friday, a dozen volunteers from the Memphis Empty Bowls Project packed a mountain of food so that our Perea children and their families could be sent home with healthy meals for the weekend.
The volunteers were so excited about what they were doing for the children. It brought a tear to my eye and I truly had nothing to do with causing it to happen. Our children are so worth loving and they quickly return that love. I doubt the volunteers know about the shootings. If they did, what would they think?
When asked what he would do if he learned that the world would end tomorrow, Martin Luther famously said, “I would still plant my apple tree.”
I intend to stay on top of my friend in the mayor’s office to keep the camera in place. I probably need to bring something other than lasagna for lunch the next time. I also need to find an hour to help with packing the weekend lunches.
When his disciples asked who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus was clear when he placed a child in the center and called all of us who chose to follow him to be like that child.
The name Perea comes from the place where Jesus was when he said, “Let the little children come unto me”.
I think that place could have just as well been named “Memphis”.