The Radical Act of Cultivating Love

When I was in the eighth grade in 1968, I had the only fist fight I have ever had in my life. I started it, but for the life of me I cannot remember why.

It happened after football practice. I was the quarterback of my team. One of my teammates, Ben, had been a Pop Warner All-American football player when he was 12. I guess that put a chip on his shoulder. For some reason he irritated me.

We were both new to the private school we were attending. I don’t know what got into me, but one day we started arguing in the locker room. I thought I was Muhammad Ali and put up my dukes. What was I thinking? I hit Ben in the face. It didn’t seem to phase him. My hand was hurting. Others stepped in and broke it up. That was it.

I immediately felt ashamed, but others who didn’t like Ben started patting me on the back. I was a hero. Of sorts.

Is my middle school altercation in the boys’ locker room an anecdote for how violence begins?  What is it that makes it acceptable? Can we just blame TV and the movies?

I have never known anyone who experienced true, life-shattering violence who was glad for the experience. Violence changes you. It makes you afraid. It makes you angry. It makes you want to build fences, to run away.

Fear sometimes leads to buying a gun. To moving to the suburbs.

I recently was told by a friend that he and his wife are moving to either Northern Ireland or New Zealand because those are the only places they believe they can be safe from ISIS. Violence and fear lead us to doing dramatic things.

But fear of violence cannot rule our lives. While we know that violence is all around us, we also know that there is no where we can truly hide. No place is safe if what you mean by “safety” is the state of being impervious to hurt and pain. Pain is lurking at any moment.

The only way to confront violence is with courage born of love. Violence can bring any of us to our knees, but seeking to experience love no matter where it leads is the only way to live. The New Testament tells us over and over and over to “fear not.” Jesus does not intend this to be simply an inspirational intimation. It’s a mandate. If we’re going to stand for righteousness, love, equality, and nonviolence, we must put our own fears aside and depend on God to guide us.

Saturday’s mass murders in Orlando do not mean that nowhere is safe; it means that all of us need to lead lives born out of love and its accompanying fearlessness every day because we do not know what will happen next. It means that we live in a broken world that needs our light now more than ever, that we must advocate for the oppressed and the hurt. We must stand in solidarity with those in the shadows and denounce violence. We’ve always been called to create the change we want to see in the world, but with acts of dehumanizing murder such as these becoming more and more frequent, that call is even more urgent.

I have not seen Ben in 40 years. If I did see him, I don’t know if he would remember the day that I hurt him, but even if he didn’t, I would tell him I am sorry for fighting with him and hurting him. Knowing that the kind of violence I enacted on him so many years ago is within me scares me, but it makes me focus even more on the need to cultivate love.

Planting Apple Trees While Bullets Fly By

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.

Planting Trees

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.


PP30

pineapple

peppers

PP8

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”.