They Called the Cops on Me
I was putting door hanger flyers on doorknobs in the Bloomfield section of Pennsauken this morning. The streets were pretty deserted. At 9:30 am most people had already left for work. A few retirees were giving their spring lawns their first mow. And I was walking the relatively sprawling neighborhood (in comparison with my West Philly row house roots) being a menace to society, apparently.
All of a sudden two police SUVs rolled up to the corner I was on. Three officers hopped out of their vehicles responding to a call someone had made about a suspicious person “looking confused and walking up and down the street.” I turned on my charm and, let’s be real, my whiteness and smiled at them, unthreatened.
I said, “I’m not confused. I know exactly what I’m doing. I want everyone in this neighborhood to know about my church, Circle of Hope. I’m the pastor.”
One of the officers spoke into his shoulder walkie-talkie, “It’s a pastor handing out flyers for his church,” apparently calling off the SWAT team or something. The officers took down my name, address and phone number which I gave to them without protest. Though, thinking back on it, I probably had at least a little reason to protest.
“Should I not do it?” I asked with only a little guile
“No, no,” said the senior officer, “You got to remember, this is Pennsauken. You walk onto someone’s porch and they’re going to call us. There are a lot of break-ins around here.”
I was Up to… Good
In some sense I WAS trying to break in. Hanging flyers on door knobs is mostly an excuse to pray that God breaks us into relationships with people we don’t already know. It’s very unlikely that someone is going to get a Circle of Hope flyer on their doorknob and come to a Sunday meeting. It’s a big leap. They have to be looking for us already. There’s no way a piece of paper can do much more than tip an already weighted scale or break an already over-burdened camel’s back. The Holy Spirit has already been casing the spiritual house of the person who will eventually respond to one of our flyers.
It was kind of exciting to be a part of something so potentially dangerous. Our immediate neighbors are so suspicious that they called the cops on me. Some folks are so not ready to let us in that we will probably never know them. I guess that has to be okay, but it’s telling–it’s really hard for us to break in to relationships that don’t exist yet. The Holy Spirit is going to have to break down some barriers. We’re going to have to do a couple of things that are so strange people immediately assume menace.
Dan McGowan and I recently read the book of Acts together and we were, again, blown away by the crazy stuff the Holy Spirit had to do to bust the earliest version of the Jesus movement out of the tiny confines of its original context. Great resistance required great response from God. The power of our movement is still dependent on God breaking in to new places. Of course, there was evidence even in my mostly lonely walk through Bloomfield that Jesus was already there. Blessings in gardens and elaborate devotions to Jesus’ mom. Even after my run in with the 5-0, and maybe more so because of it, I am hopeful that Jesus might want to use me and Circle of Hope there. But I don’t pretend to know how. That’s why I think the arbitrary dissemination of flyers on a few blocks in Pennsauken is a good use of my time. I’m like that crazy farmer in Matthew 13 that sows all over the place, even in places where folks are closed off by fear. And for good reason, the world is full of suspicious people, and we are fed continuous stories that fuel our fears.
But if the Holy Spirit whisked Philip from some desert road south of Jerusalem all the way out to Azotus (Acts 8), someone might just be whisked across Rt. 130 from Bloomfield to meet with us on a Sunday on Marlton Pike, right? Here’s hoping (and praying–I pray a lot when i do this sort of thing.)
But What if I Were Brown?
One last thing that must be said, of which my friend Matt who works as a corrections officer was sure: If I were not white I would not have been able to be typing this for you now. I’d be tied up in some bureaucratic detention process at best or, at worst, in the hospital. You might think I am being sensational, but I believe this. I definitely wouldn’t have been so bold as to insist that the officer keep my flyer because he was invited too. I’ve heard enough stories from brown skinned people to know that the fear that precipitated my encounter with the police would be exponentially amplified if I myself were brown skinned. I have not been abused by the police, ever. I have not been fed infinite images and stories of people who look like me as mostly criminals. From square one, it was laughable that me and my flyers were any sort of real threat.
I kept walking the neighborhood for another half hour. I was deemed as not dangerous. I doubt someone who looks different from me would be allowed to continue menacing, scouting with the Holy Spirit for spiritual break-ins. I can’t help but imagine that the officer would be touching his gun when he met me. And if I didn’t have a generally positive experience of the police, a story not commonly afforded to non-white people, I can’t help but imagine myself in that situation feeling completely threatened. I imagine I would be scared for my life. But I wasn’t. I was fine. That’s hard for me to deal with.
So We Have to Pray
So I’m praying for more than just Circle of Hope in Bloomfield. I’m also praying, as we all need to every day for the overwhelming power of racism in our cities and towns. There is never a headline that goes, “White guy sorts out misunderstanding in 30 seconds, carries on with his Jesus business.” But there is often, so heart-breakingly often, a headline like this real one from this month: “Police Fatally Shoot a Brooklyn Man, Saying They Thought He Had a Gun.” Please don’t parse the details of that article–it’s just a recent example in a slew of way too many. Praying about impossibly consistent imbalance in policing outcomes is similar to praying for new relationship in a world closed off by fear. They both inevitably bump into danger, resistance and, often, despair. Can any barrier be broken? Can any stronghold–can racism–be torn down? Jesus’ hope in our circle of hope helps us to believe in God’s “yes” to these questions, no matter how shut the way appears. Will you join me in praying this week?