The sadness, and anger, and bleakness surrounding the events in Ferguson, Missouri have me pondering a powerful experience I had many years ago while living in Boston, Massachusetts. It taught me the importance of utilizing that gifted space we all have between impulse and response where we have the opportunity to choose our response. And I realized that it would be a choice I had to make every time, for the rest of my life.
In 1994 we were living in a rented apartment on Massachusetts Avenue in Boston’s South End. It was one of the few times in my life when I’ve experienced, albeit in a very small way, what it feels like be in the minority population. One morning, I had just begun walking the three blocks northwest on Mass Ave to the train station where I caught a ride downtown every morning. Near the first corner, I passed two men talking – one sitting on the steps of a brownstone and the other standing. As I passed, the one who was sitting said to me, “Hey man, can I ask you something?” It was a phrase I’d grown numb to, hearing it somewhere, every day, and almost always followed by, “do you have some spare change?” Often I would stop when I heard that, but this morning I let that numbness, the assumption underlying it, and my being late for the train determine my response. So I brushed it off with a wave of my hand as I continued walking, and said, “sorry man, not today.”
He stood up and let loose a tirade of pent up frustration. WTF! Oh yeah, just another white man with no time for a black man! You think I wanted money, don’t you? I’m trying to help THIS white man here find an address, but you don’t have time for it because I’m black! F*** you! Ouch! I knew I was wrong, but I reacted defensively to his anger, shouting, “you don’t know anything about me,” and after a little more angry back and forth with him, just went on my way. All day I thought about what had happened. I hated the way I felt. There were so many thoughts that came, but the most important one was this: why did I not pause and seek to understand before I reacted?
As I rode the train home at the end of the day, I decided I would try to find this man, and apologize to him. In that last block before our apartment, I saw him sitting at the top of the same brownstone steps where our morning shouting match had taken place. He wasn’t alone. There were four or five intimidating young men sitting on the bottom steps. I asked them politely if I could pass and they ignored me. I hesitated, but I knew I was there to do the right thing, so I carefully stepped between two of them and walked up the steps. At the top, the man looked up at me with that “I can’t believe you’re back here” face. And then I said to him, I’ve been thinking all day about what happened this morning. It made me feel very bad inside, and I want to apologize to you for disrespecting you. You were right — I assumed something, and I was wrong. I don’t believe I’m all the things you said I am, but I understand why you would think that way. You deserve better. That’s what you’ll get from me going forward, and I’m grateful for the lesson I’ve learned.
As I spoke I watched his face soften, and I felt what was left of the anguish inside of me melt away. We shook hands and I truly saw love and forgiveness in his eyes. I saw it so strongly, it made me wonder if he had ever been spoken to that way by a white man before. From that moment on, for the short time we lived in that neighborhood, this man was my friend, always sharing a warm hello when I walked by and giving my young kids a hug whenever we all ran into each other.
We have a desperate need today for more peacemaking, for the retirement of lazy, habitual, community-stifling assumption. We all need to be better at it. But we in the historically privileged ethnic group in America need it the most. Authority everywhere needs a good dose of it. American law enforcement is in critical need of it. How different that day in Ferguson might have turned out if Darren Wilson’s training and his department’s mission were grounded in compassion, patience, and perspective, instead of in the might makes right/iron fist attitude we increasingly see infesting American police departments. Michael Brown might be alive. He and Darren Wilson might even have a chance at being friends.
I know there are plenty of voices that will dismiss the sentiment of this post. Yeah right, that’ll never happen. It’s naive and overly simplistic. It’s not my job to fix other people’s problem. I don’t have time for that. They just need to obey the law. They’ll just dismiss it with the wave of a hand, as they walk right by. But they’ll hear it in church. They’ll consume it in books, movies, and TV shows. Even in our screwy culture, it still lurks there. And they’ll pull it out, now and then, to heal relationships that they truly care about.
Imagine a world where we are never in too big of a hurry to pause, listen, and understand. It can happen.