My friend Bill is a good cop. He grew up 60 years ago in a tough part of Brooklyn and spent his career working in the New York City boroughs and on Long Island. He served in neighborhoods long enough to see their demographics turn over three times, from working class to poor to wealthy hipsters. Over those years he also experienced a shift in how the public he served experienced him, from hero to protector to antagonist, even enemy. The hard-working son of scrappy European immigrants, Bill took a while to register the racism within and around him, but waking up to its perversions changed him and his work. Maybe that was the hardest part of his job, to keep growing as a person while still working within a system that had become defensive and, at awful moments, a threat to the people it was called to protect. But Bill is a deep thinker, who balanced the action of the mean streets with reading and study, which means that as the city and the police work changed, so did he.
We met each other at a new Sunday afternoon service that my church in Cold Spring Harbor held outside: a circle of chairs, some bread and some wine, a scripture story, and a question: How is God speaking to you today? I’m not sure how Bill found our little Episcopal church with its unorthodox liturgy—he was Roman Catholic, newly retired, and happy to spend his days chasing grandchildren—but something led us to each other that first time. Over the months we talked about how the gospel challenged us personally to expand our consciousness, to grow up, to reach out, to risk stability in order to act for God. We connected on the similarities between “the band of brothers” engendered in the boys school where I had once taught and the unity constructed within “the blue line” of officers, acknowledging that each is double-edged. Such an esprit de corps can both call us to our better angels and invite us to hide from our shortcomings.
Then in quick succession, Eric Garner died in a police choke-hold on Staten Island and Michael Brown was shot by an officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Because by 2014 Bill and I trusted each other, he was able to speak frankly about all of the emotions that their deaths provoked: frustration, anger, fear. He chafed at the racial labels bantered about by people and the push to simplify complex interpersonal dynamics with soundbites. He defended the almost impossible task of diffusing a violent situation and wept for the families of the victims. And he resolved to not settle back into his comfortable retirement. How is God speaking to me today, he asked, sensing immediately that his years of tough police work equipped him to soften some hard hearts and settled opinions.
Bill reached out to me this week, after listening to my sermon that asked, “What is your Nineveh?” He wrote, “My self-education about the long history of deep mistrust of law enforcement by people of color has helped inform this retired, old cop of the Herculean effort that is needed to mend that breach and to build trust. Certainly, the current round up of undocumented immigrants fuels the flames of that mistrust. The men and women in blue, in raid jackets, in corrections garb have to work harder at the balance between accomplishing the societal goals that are articulated by our elected officials and still respecting the dignity of each individual… My work on racial justice and reconciliation has brought me to many parishes on a listening campaign… And that has brought me to leading discussions on white privilege with people… It isn’t easy stuff; it isn’t a welcomed conversation in many quarters; it is akin to my own Nineveh.”
He closed his e-mail to me with a blessing that is really meant for the Church of the Redeemer. The violence in Baltimore continues, he wrote, but “in the midst of those challenges, there is a light, perhaps a little light, that shines, and shines, and shines. You all have been called to magnify that light, to tell the next generation… to not give up and not to give in; to turn law enforcers into Guardians… to bring hope when there is despair… to carry the message that a new day has begun.”
God is speaking to us today, because God is always speaking. The question is whether we have ears to hear it. The challenges of Baltimore are our problem. The victims of violence are our neighbors. The folks who struggle with opioid addiction are our children, our co-workers, our friends. An effective police force is ours to call and train and support. Schools and streets that ring out with the joyous voices of children are ours to create. Faith communities that offer rituals, and fellowship, and teaching that take us from death to life are ours to build.
Bill heard something and responded, first as a police officer, and now as a courageous, prophetic teacher. Do you hear what I hear?