A priest and performer considers religion, the arts, and the often thin space between sacred and secular, church and culture, pulpit and pew.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Jonathan Daniels & Ricky Byrdsong: When Will We Learn?

On the feast of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, I offer this reflection from a sermon I preached on July 4, 2009. The text was Mark 6:1-13. So many other such incidents, too many incidents, have occurred since that time. When will we learn?

On Independence Day weekend 1999, as I was preparing to enter my final year of seminary, I was working the Friday night shift as on-call chaplain at Evanston Hospital.  As I was about to retire for the evening in the chaplain’s room when I was paged by a nurse in the Emergency Room.  “Would you please come down here?” she asked.  “There’s been a drive-by shooting in Skokie.”

I’ve never followed basketball much, and we had only lived in Evanston for two years at that point, so the name Ricky Byrdsong was not one that I recognized.  I was only aware, when I arrived in the ER, of a distraught African-American woman who could not understand why her husband had been gunned down randomly as he was out walking with his children on a warm summer evening.  Neither I, nor anyone else, was aware that the horror that was to unfold that weekend was only just beginning.  I was struck by the fact that this woman and her young son, who had been with his father and had witnessed the shooting, were surrounding by whites: a white doctor, white nurses, white police officers, a white social worker, and me. 

And as she did her best to encourage her son to cooperate with the police detective while shielding him from the pain and shock they were both experiencing, Mrs. Byrdsong kept repeating over and over that she couldn’t understand why her husband had been targeted.  “He’s not a drug dealer,” she said over and over.  “He doesn’t do drugs.”  I thought about the assumptions many of us make when we hear the term “drive-by shooting”: we may think of innocent victims caught in the crossfire; but we also think of gangs and inner city violence and illegal drugs and other sorts of criminal activity; we think about people not like us.  And I remember thinking at the time that I couldn’t imagine that a white woman in a similar circumstance would feel that she had to make such excuses or such denials for the benefit of the hospital staff, so ingrained are those stereotypes about drive-by shootings, and also, of course, about race.

We were told at the time the Mr. Byrdsong’s injuries did not appear to be life-threatening, so I left her in the care of her own pastor, who had just arrived, and excused myself.  About 3:00 a.m. I responded to another page from the ER nurse.  “You’d better come down here again,” she said.  “The ‘drive-by’ died.”  I returned to the Emergency Room and discovered that in addition to the attacks on Mr. Byrdsong, there had been shots fired at Jews in Rogers Park as they walked to and from Sabbath services.  An Asian-American couple had been fired on here in Northbrook.  Police were looking for a light blue Ford Taurus, but had not yet found it.  I attended to Mrs. Byrdsong, her family and her pastor as best I could, and they left the hospital. 

As Saturday morning dawned I drove home to our family’s apartment on the Seabury campus. I turned on NPR’s Weekend Edition, only to hear Scott Simon telling the nation about a tragedy I now felt a part of, albeit a very small, insignificant part.  A young man named Benjamin Smith, a disciple of white supremacist Matthew Hale and his World Church of the Creator, had gone on a shooting spree that we would soon learn was not yet over.  Police still did not know the whereabouts of that light blue Taurus; was Smith still in the area? Our young daughter was upset by the events and terrified at the thought that such a man might still be nearby.  I wanted so badly to tell her that people like Benjamin Smith don’t go after blonde, fair-skinned, blue-eyed children like her; but I knew that if I used race as an excuse not to worry or fear while others were threatened and suffering, I could not face my friends of color, as well as my Jewish and gay and lesbian friends.  I later learned that one of my seminary classmates, a young African-American man, had taken the elevated train from the city to Evanston late that night and when he heard the news reports about the shootings had sprinted the entire 2-1/2 blocks from the station back to the seminary, all the while fearing the sight of that light blue Ford Taurus.  I cannot imagine what that kind of fear must be like.  And of course before the weekend was over, a Korean student would be shot to death in Bloomington, Indiana; and Benjamin Smith, finally caught and cornered by police in Salem, Illinois, would take the coward’s way out, committing suicide rather than allowing himself to be arrested and brought to justice.

 It’s been over a decade, and I can still recall nearly every detail of that weekend.

When Jesus sent the apostles out two by two and in the process of proclaiming the Good News, and asking all to repent, and spreading God’s peace, we’re told, the disciples “cast out many demons”.  We may think of demons as Satan’s minions, ugly, violent, tempting us to give in to sin; we tend to personify them.  But the demons we face seldom present themselves that way, and that makes exorcising them all the more difficult.  Demons like racism and xenophobia and homophobia need to be “cast out” just the same, but they are still very much with us.  Freedom to act on our fears and prejudices in violent and threatening ways is not a freedom guaranteed by our Constitution.

I think about the ethnic prejudices that still manifest themselves far too often in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  I think about the deplorable way so many Muslims in this country were treated after 9/11.  I think about the murder of Ricky Byrdsong.  I think about our Church’s own saint of the civil rights movement, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a young white Episcopal seminarian gunned down more than forty years ago while protecting a young black girl from a gun-toting, white racist Alabama shopkeeper who was acquitted of his murder by an all-white jury.  I think about all these tragedies and so many more, and I wonder when it will ever end.  And then I think about our own sending out, every week, and the power we have to effect change in the name of the gospel: power we are reminded of and sent out into the world to use in the name of Christ to live out our baptismal vows by speaking out against prejudice and hate, by challenging those who practice the kind of habits that wound the psyches and often the bodies of our neighbors.  Strengthened by Eucharist and by the Word and by the strength of our Christian community, we do have the power to begin to effect that kind of change.  In the name of Christ, and in thanksgiving for the blessings of freedom, we can do no less.

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