What we see: Prayer in a time of violence

Peace of Christ

Peace: Wednesday Noon Prayer Intention

by Melissa Borgmann-KiemdeVisitation Companion

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?

Ferguson: A grass-roots level perspective

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.

Honoring life: memorial site of a young person who died from gun violence in north Minneapolis.

Honoring life: memorial site for a young person who died from gun violence in north Minneapolis.

***

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. 

Seeking Solace in the Incarnation

The Christ Child, from Sandro Botticellis Madonna of the Pomegranate.

The Christ Child, from Sandro Botticelli's "Madonna of the Pomegranate."

by Melissa Borgmann-Kiemde, Visitation Companion

Her job is to stock shelves. Fill in the cans of Starkist and Campbell’s and Ivory dish soap when they get low. Or maybe his gig is to check people out, scan bar-coded grocery items, weigh cabbage and tomatoes, and bag purchased supplies so they travel home gently in their sacks to a wanting family. But on Monday morning in St. Paul, this clerk (was it a woman or a man? or a whole team of cashiers?) was held up at gun point in the grocery store a few blocks from my home. An attempted robbery during this Advent season.

I keep thinking of this person, unsure of their gender, but keenly connected to their humanity. I wonder: was she afraid? Did he tremble? What ran through her mind when the barrel of the gun came up to her face? Where is he now? How is this person fairing?

***

On Friday people all across this nation were tuned into the horror of one gun-related atrocity. As a plugged-in-people, we couldn’t escape the events of December 14, 2012, when a 20 year-old man opened fire and killed 26 children and adults at Sandy Hill Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. We became a more consciously aware vulnerable nation.

This robbery at the local grocery store, just blocks from my home, had nothing in common with the event in Newtown, CT, save that a gun was involved and that the bearers of those guns are now both dead.

Both incidents leave me feeling very vulnerable — wide open, raw, and a bit afraid. I don’t like being afraid.

***

It’s Advent. It’s a season when God is born among us; he takes human form and enters this world as the Christ Child. He becomes one of us: vulnerable, human, small — perhaps, sometimes, too – afraid. A week from today we celebrate Jesus’ birth, recounting his humble entrance as his earthly parents lay him to rest in a manger.

Can you see this baby? His writhing olive-skinned limbs? His swaddled form being snuggled by first-time mother Mary? Can you smell his new sweet scent and imagine all that perfumes the air on this night? How fragrant is the hay, are the sheep and cattle? What stirs in the heart of Joseph as he first sees Jesus? What instincts kick in as this babe is born in the open air, outside the confines of home or assigned health care?

It’s this vulnerability of our God that makes me weep. It’s this incarnation that gives me comfort. I must admit, as a grown woman, as a seeker of love and tranquility, a significant part of me wants to crawl in alongside Christ and snuggle in. I want to lie right next to the babe, Jesus.

As we count down our days to Christmas and hold open our hearts to the miracles and mysteries of this season, it is my prayer that in our vulnerability we recognize the Christ child. It is my hope that in the midst of headlines that might be wreaking havoc on our sense of security as a people, that we seek solace in the God that is right next to us; that we know we are not alone.

Peace be with us.