I imagine him standing at his kitchen sink. Maybe he’s stirring up a glass of orange juice to go with a late morning lunch –something to satiate his thirst before he has to go to work. From the kitchen window of his garden level apartment he sees a police officer shoot a young man running the other direction. It’s noon on Saturday, August 9, 2014, and the community of Ferguson, Missouri, is about to change. This citizen, who goes by the name “Bruh” @TheePharoah on Twitter, has a literal grass-roots-level view of his neighborhood –just beyond the barred windows of his home. In a moment of social connectivity, he documents this experience from his perspective.
I try to imagine the night Toua Xiong was killed delivering pizzas in north Minneapolis. What it would have been like had I been standing at my kitchen window looking out and seen the teenage boy shot. Or the moment Chris Dozier’s life came to an end in an alley off 14th and Plymouth. Or the late afternoon Marcus White was got caught in crossfire near West Broadway and Dupont. Or the evening Quincy DeShawn Smith’s life came to an abrupt halt in spite of police intervention. As former students in my 10th grade English class at North High, these young men’s deaths come to the fore and evoke my prayerful attention whenever headline news and social media report on gun violence in our world.
What does a witness to gun violence experience on a visceral level? On an intellectual, emotional, or spiritual level? What does he or she internalize in the aftermath of such a violent encounter? How does our prayer take shape in the wake of violence? How do we pray for survivors of such traumatic events — and the victims and perpetrators themselves?
Each Wednesday, the Sisters devote their noon prayer to peace in the world. They pause at the lunch hour to remember God’s grace and goodness and love pouring out for all of us. As they chant the psalms, they hold the root causes of violence in their hearts, and give voice to personal intentions of people suffering and struggling to find peace. They seek to transform the world through prayer.
This past week, our noon liturgy in the Fremont House chapel was blessed by a few new guests that rounded out our prayerful pause. The Sisters sat in their usual chairs, as Roselaine* — a friend of S. Mary Frances’ who works for the Minneapolis police – sidled in beside me on the bench, followed by Jermaine* and Denzell* – two twelve year old boys we know from our neighborhood gardening evenings.
My heart was near to bursting at the outset. The configuration of pink and brown-skinned people convened in the chapel choir stalls enacting a centuries-old ritual of chant and silence moved me — especially in light of recent headlines reporting racial injustice and dehumanizing circumstances in our world.
I prayed for Gawolo, a former northside Teen Group participant I knew who had posted on Facebook that he was down in Ferguson, Missouri. I prayed for all those marching for human dignity and justice. I prayed for Roselaine, and her counterparts in our local police force as they go about their work of keeping safe the community. I prayed for “Bruh” in Missouri and his Twitter followers; I prayed for the officer who shot an unarmed Mike Brown. I prayed for my former students whose lives had all come to an end because of a fired bullet in the hand of an an angry person. I prayed for all who witness, wonder and grieve.
It was after prayer, sitting on the front porch enjoying jelly toast, chicken salad and lunchtime conversation, that Jermaine spoke up –and my intentions for peace continued.
“I’ve seen someone get killed,” he said. The 12 year old boy, just days shy of starting sixth grade, sat squarely in the white whicker chair and shared his first hand experience witnessing gun violence.
He told us: It was broad day light. Near a corner store. Bullets passed him as he walked along the sidewalk. He described a man grabbing him and pulling him down – out of the way of the gunfire.
My eyes went to Jermaine’s. His direct, unabashed, unwavering, piercing brown-eyed gaze. I took note of his friend Denzell’s floor-directed stare. I wondered about what all these young boys’ eyes would see in their lifetime.
These stories of death, of witnessing violence, of being privy to gunshots and brutality – as part of everyday life, I want them to stop.
My prayer continues.
*names have been changes to protect the privacy of the persons.