I wish that I could say that I do social justice work because I am a Christian but that’s not the case. The truth is that I grew up in the inner city on Chicago’s South side, and I’ve seen a lot of black people die by our hands and others. When I was around the age of 6, I recall one night when some gangsters ran into my house searching for a family friend who supposedly stole money from one of their family members. They beat him in the head with an iron on my aunt’s bed. There was blood. His nickname was Meatball. He left the house stumbling and I don’t think he made it to the corner before he died on that summer night. I was eating dinner at the kitchen table when this happened and the scene has not left the margins of my mind.
When I stayed on 76th and Stony Island as an elementary school student I remember living across the street from the Black Stones. From what I recall they were a local street gang that occupied that section of the Eastside but they were always nice. They stayed in a yellow house filled with people and everyone knew they cherished their grandmother.
My graduating year in 2008, 34 Chicago Public school teenagers were killed. Though this is a low number today, this was an all time high and some of those students were my classmates. And, one time while visiting my friend in the projects I saw a gun for the first time being toted across the street in broad daylight. The gunman fired into a crowd of people after warning me to go back into the house.
I was not a professed Christian then but did believe in God.
In 2014, I packed my life in a moving truck headed to Alabama from Missouri just days before Michael Brown was killed. I frequented lots of those places that were destroyed due to riots. In fact, I lived a couple blocks over from the scene of the murder. I wondered if Mike Brown could’ve been my brother. At the time, one of them could’ve easily fit his description. As I contemplate the war zones that I’ve frequented, the things that I’ve seen and been silent about, and the thoughts that I struggle to articulate, I can’t help but wonder has this made me believe in God more or less?
So why did I volunteer to teach men inside a prison? Because who else would? I volunteered because I have 5 black brothers who could be any one of the men behind bars. Two of which can easily be targeted because of their build as they migrate in the world. I often hear my mother tell them to be cautious of their size as they wear it like a badge of terror. Their only crime is being big and black. But we are Christians. We even pray in the Holy Ghost.
Just recently I realized that my black body can be taken from me. Yes, me. Educated and Christian. I’ll tell you a story:
One day I was headed to the prison around 7a.m. I had to exit the main expressway and travel along the back roads of Alabama to get to the facility. I always lost cellular service on the way there, which made me nervous because there were lots of Confederate flags. I saw my first real one when I moved South.
One morning, in the midst of the Sandra Bland case, I was stopped by an officer in one of those white towns. I went through a speed trap–one of those things where the speed limit suddenly decreases and if you aren’t paying attention then you’re in trouble. Well, I wasn’t paying attention. In fact, I was thinking about the lesson that I would teach that day, Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940).
When I saw the lights of the police car, I pulled over and prepared to hand over my license and car insurance card. Remember it’s 7a.m. My hands started to shake violently and for the first time I knew what fear of the police felt like. I was unarmed, didn’t have cellular service, and was in a foreign territory though I was an American.
The last thing on my mind was to pray.
The officer’s words shocked me when I rolled down my window. “What are you doing here?,” he asked. To make sure I heard him correctly I hesitated to respond because for the first time I had to account for why my black body was in a white space. Silence.
Silence. Echoing loudly like the time that I didn’t call my white classmate out for saying “Nigger” followed by a giggle. We were talking about William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom.
I regretted being silent in the classroom just like I regretted being silent with the officer, but he had power and I did not. My white classmate had a power that I did not, and a recognition of that caused my tongue to stick to the roof of my mouth. Because, as we know, the spectacle would not have been what either of them did to me but how I responded.
How many times have black people been silent?
I told the officer that I was headed to the prison to teach, which was evident in my bright orange 2x men’s shirt printed with Prison instructor. My hair was braided into two braids and I wore my glasses with no makeup. He asked if I were a student then requested to see my school identification card. He needed more proof that justified my existence.
After he ran my information through the system, I noticed that another cop car pull up and as he exited the car I started to voice record on my phone. Why was this my first response? Why didn’t I tell him that I was a Christian and that I was just trying to do my duty to the country by educating people whom the world had forgotten?
Because in that moment, my faith only mattered to me and I left it on the passenger side of my seat as I reached for my phone.
Too long I’ve tried to separate the social activist work from my walk with God. Too long I’ve tried to silence myself because I felt that Christians were only supposed to preach a gospel that was edifying and ignore the realities of our world. Too long I’ve been blinded by fear and ignorance.
In essence, I taught in two prisons because I am black, I have black brothers, a black father and sister, a mother, and my body will produce more blackness. I do social justice work because as Christians we are called to make a change and not just stay in the pews having midnight musicals. We are called to be the light, the world changers, the history makers, but many of us have fallen asleep. Pacified by a pretty gospel, but that’s not the type of God I serve.
I believe that several of us have failed to build the necessary relationship with God that helps us understand that he is interested in justice.
My social justice pursuits don’t make me any less of a Christian but assist me in understanding why I believe in what I believe.
I think about the public intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates and his current stance on America. If you haven’t read his latest book Between the World and Me (2015) you definitely should. But, Coates laments in several ways that he has no hope for white America. Specifically, he has no hope in change. I find his positioning very valuable and at times find myself wrestling with the same dystopian thoughts, but this is where my Christian walk works for me.
My only hope for humanity is God.
God. Not a white God or a black God, but the I AM.
And, if that means that I have to take up my cross and fight for the cause of my brother then I will. If that means that I have to pray in the schools then I will. If that means that I have to write more pieces like this to draw attention to the fact that some of us have taken the easy way to survive that isolates us from the causes and the plights of our fellow people then I will.
What I’m saying is this…My life has been far from pretty. I come from scarce means. But, I didn’t make it to where I am today without understanding that the environment that I was raised in, coupled with personal intimacy with God helped shape my political outlooks on society.
I have something to say.
In a world where the sacred and secular grow together, I must announce that I am Christian and an activist. Both of them inform the ways in which I process my journey.