What does it take for a young person to turn away from “death dealing ways” and “choose life” instead?
In the summer of 1996 a young man found himself standing in a courtroom, holding a 4-page letter he had written in pencil to read to the juvenile court magistrate. In the months prior, he had stolen a car, gotten in numerous fights, done a lot of drugs and cut off an ankle monitor to flee probation. In his letter, Jerry described his life and the choices he had made to lead up to this point. He went on to say he had found a school community he was willing to try, to turn his life around. “Don’t send me to prison,” he pleaded, “Send me to Eagle Rock … I can choose my future from here.” The judge listened and granted his wish.
2 years later Jerry found himself standing on a stage in a gym, accepting his high school diploma, with feelings of pride, accomplishment and purpose, and a sense of hope. He had reestablished a relationship with his parents. He had discovered a gifted artist within himself, capable of painting stunning murals and bringing beauty into the world. He had found a moral compass within himself as well, able to discern right action from harmful action, and the will to act on what he discerned. He had found his way. He had chosen life. https://mobile.nytimes.com/1998/07/05/magazine/the-high-school-at-the-end-of-the-road.html?referer=http://eaglerockschool.org/about-us/history/
For every “Jerry,” there are countless more. Some like Jerry find their way; others don’t. And in losing their way, they literally lose their lives and take others with them. In our city of Baltimore as of today, there are 200 homicides on record for 2017, most of them from gun violence, and 34 in the last 30 days http://data.baltimoresun.com/news/police/homicides/.
As Baltimoreans and as Christians, followers of “The Way”, we ourselves have a choice before us. Do nothing? Accept this as “just the way it is”? Or do something …
Next Wednesday August 2, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development will gather at 6 p.m. in Darley Park at 2300 Harford Road. There, BUILD will hold a press conference to launch a campaign of action and call upon our mayor to work together with BUILD and our city’s public officials, to address Baltimore’s epidemic of violence with real and specific action steps. A group of us will be participating from Redeemer.
Will you join us?
I’ve been wondering about what constitutes citizenship, and I posed the question to the group at “Let’s Talk About it,” a couple of weeks ago. To what or to whom do we pledge allegiance? Are faith and citizenship at odds? What are the rights of a citizen and what are his/her responsibilities?
Aristotle defined the citizen as a member of the ecclesia, the assembly, who shares in the administration of justice. Jefferson spoke of “citizen farmers” who gain their dignity from the land and have a civic duty to aid the state and resist corruption. De Tocqueville in Democracy in America saw jury duty as the best context for learning citizenship and marveled at the new country’s deep respect for the law. American citizens, he wrote, brand law breakers as outcasts and have the ultimate power to change any law they dislike. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution asserts that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” Citizens are given the right to vote in this country, based on a deep belief in representative democracy, but what is the engaged voter to do with the fact that so few people exercise this right and responsibility?
And as people of faith, is our primary allegiance to the state or to our creeds? Are we citizens of a country not of this earth, and if so, what are the implications for creating community here and now?
We had a lively discussion, and when I talked about it later at home, my wife Sarah recommended an article by Eric Booth, “The Citizen Artist: A Revolution of Heart with the Arts.” Booth is a celebrated arts educator (Juillard, Stanford University, Kennedy Center), an author, and actor who has written about El Sistema, a global movement for social change through music. Booth redefines art as any work created with heart and raised to its highest level of expression (a symphony or concerto, sure, but also “the art of bricklaying,” “medical arts,” or the art of setting a beautiful table or creating something extraordinary in a work setting or lifting a conversation to a higher, creative place); artists as anyone engaged in this heart-work, and the work of real citizenship as fostering transformative relationships. You can’t do art as outreach, Booth says, and expect any lasting change to occur; rather, artists and community members together define goals, chart a path to achieve them, and describe what success looks like when you get there. A new commonwealth is created in the process, characterized by habits of citizenship: humility, empathy, honesty, and a commitment to forge authentic connections.
Booth is writing primarily to musicians, but I think his work can guide our thinking as people of faith, who find their identity in service. We are called to serve the people of Baltimore as fellow citizens of God’s commonwealth, and community will begin through listening to each other to define goals and the path to reach them.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11: 28-30
One day last fall I picked up Grace’s book bag and couldn’t believe how heavy it was. With its textbooks, notebooks, regular books, binder, laptop and power cord, it felt like a load of bricks. “Honey, your bag is too heavy!” I cautioned, “Do you need to carry all these books? Can’t you leave some at home or at school? “
Whether or not you have a teenager, or lugged around your own heavy bag in school, each of us knows what it’s like to feel burdened and heavy-laden. It may be concern for a person we care about. It may be the weight of grief and loss at the death of a beloved one. It may be anxiety about a situation at home, at work, at school; in our community, our nation, our world. “Be kind,” ancient and modern philosophers have said, “for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle you know nothing about.” Battle or burden, the idea is the same: part of being human is knowing what it feels like to be “heavy-laden” in some way.
Jesus knew this. So when we hear his invitation to “come and rest,” we, or at least I, hear a voice of empathy and compassion, spoken with the authority of one who knows about what he speaks from having lived it. This invitation is not simply to put our feet up and get some vacation time in; it’s an invitation to something deeper, fuller and liberating.
But how is it, exactly, that putting on a yoke (a what?) can be restful in a deep, full, liberating way?
For our spiritual ancestors, the ancient Hebrew people, “yoke” was associated with the Torah: God’s 613 “Do’s” and “Don’ts” on how to lead a righteous, holy life. A masterful teacher with laser-like focus, Jesus distills their essence for his students to digest and embody. Love your Creator. Love whom your Creator has created: those whom you encounter as your very self.
“Learn from me, the Master of Loving and Living,” Jesus adds, “not like a student in a classroom but like an apprentice in the field of life, by doing alongside and following me. And not just on clean and beautiful streets but also and especially in alleyways, soup kitchens, opioid clinics and halls of justice, loving and fighting for those who cannot fight for themselves.”
“Bind yourself to me — of your own free will — with the yoke of love, trust, obedience and faithfulness. Shadow me. Mirror me. Imitate me. Follow me. Side by side, yoked together, let me guide you. Paradoxically, you will find rest for your weary, burdened self, as we go about tilling soil for God’s Dream to grow, together.”
This is how oxen were trained, back in Jesus’ day. A young, inexperienced ox was bound to an experienced, trained one; the rookie learned from the veteran by being yoked to him and following his lead. “My yoke is easy,” Jesus says, meaning: My yoke is well-suited and well-fitted. My yoke is crafted by the Master Craftsman. My yoke fits like a piece of clothing perfectly tailored for a human being. Because I know. Because I have walked the way that you walk. Because I have lived it.
I once heard a woman tell the story of her deepest sorrow, her greatest pain, her heaviest burden, one she carried with her every day of her life. But each time she walked into a person’s home to care for him or her (she was a caregiver), for the time she spent in that person’s home, she was able to lay her own burden down. She was able to forget her deepest sorrow for a while and to focus on another human being: bathing him, dressing him, listening to him, attending to his needs.
Christianity at its best, after all, is not a theoretical religion; it is not mere talk or ideas about love. It is practical and practiced, enfleshed and embodied. It is loving through acts of kindness, doing justice, showing mercy that we are saved, not by earning salvation but by living it.
It is the Way to lighten our load and to liberate our burdened selves.
I met some heroes this 4th of July.
Jack runs a non-profit devoted to work-force development. He helps hard-to-employ individuals—because they’ve been incarcerated, or lack a high-school diploma, or just never had a consistent adult show them the ropes—and connects them to potential employers. He assists both sides of the equation, charts achievable steps toward success, counsels and cajoles and congratulates. “It’s two steps forward, one step back” on the best days, he says, a lot worse on others, but after 20 years he’s still committed.
Hannah is a social worker whose patients have suffered traumatic brain injuries. “I meet them in the first few hours after they come to the hospital,” she told me. A lot of her patients are quite young—the victims of accidents or violence—and though they have significant medical issues, “they are kids, so they have all the stuff to deal with that any teenager faces.” She spoke with affection about both the patients she serves and her team at the University of Maryland, the challenges of the city, and how to help it heal. She and Jeff, married for over two decades, parents of three children, bright eyed and quick to smile, admitted that a lot of nights they have to paste their broken hearts back together after work.
Matthew came to Baltimore 14 years ago for a one-year intensive Master’s program, and never left. “I was burned out by my work as a designer, and Baltimore seemed like a good place to re-connect theory with practice.” He had been flying at 20,000 feet and he “wanted to get grounded in relationships with real people and their real problems.” Now he teaches students from all over the world who want to help their cities work—teaching them to listen for what residents need and want, crafting visions that come from the ground up on projects as varied as transportation, green space, housing and employment. “There’s a lot of space to try things, fail, and start again in Baltimore,” he said.
Imani teaches yoga in a variety of places—in homes, in a borrowed studio, in the park—to a variety of people. Some are harried professionals, some are seniors slowing down, others are disabled or challenged by the difficult hand that life has dealt them. Ted works for the FBI, Carlos at the Pentagon. Andre rehabs historic town houses. Kim and her husband are nurses. Wyatt bends metal into stair railings and art. Sam tends a tiny park tucked within an alley, where arsonists burned a row of houses in the 1970’s.
I doubt any of these folks would call themselves a hero—they are just going through their daily rounds, raising kids, tending elderly parents, going to work, sitting on the stoop, getting out from behind their doors and into each other’s lives. Their commitment to building a community in Baltimore is palpable. They reach beyond themselves in small ways and big ways, and step by step, something happens. Eboo Patel, author and activist, once said, “We are each other’s business,” and I felt the gift of that on our nation’s birthday this week.
What makes a country strong? The fabric woven by intimate contact, needs spoken and gifts shared, people offering their lives to each other. It happens block by block, across divisions of race and class and gender and age… two steps forward and one step back, with grit and grace and gratitude. Each of us is called to build it. I am so thankful to be on the journey with you.