Long ago, I was talking to an inner-city pastor (a priest, actually) in Denver who made a very interesting, insightful and depressing observation about his work. One thing that African-American clergy in major cities have to live with is the reality that — as a rule — there are only three things they can do that will ever be seen as newsworthy by their local news media. They can:
(1) Make a political statement of some kind. Everyone knows that African-American church life centers on politics, way more than on the Gospel.
(2) Start some new and innovative form of ministry to the poor, which would be seen as newsworthy because helping poor people is really all about politics (as opposed to obeying the clear call of scripture). See reason No. 1.
(3) Preach in the funeral of a person, the younger the better, who has been gunned down in their neighborhood.
I added that the clergy person could, of course, commit some kind of crime and that would be considered newsworthy. We both laughed, sharing rather tired smiles. Yes, that would be newsworthy, too.
I thought of that when working my way through a stack of newspapers after returning to Baltimore after a few days on the road. The first story that grabbed my attention was a perfect example of African-American Church News No. 3, complete with an agonizing, and appropriate, does of pull-quote-worthy “theodicy.” For an update on the meaning of this theological term, click here. Here’s the top of that Baltimore Sun story, including the crucial leap to theodicy:
Craig David Ray and his cousins believed they were beating the odds. Growing up in Baltimore, they knew many young black men who were gunned down or sent to prison. As they entered their 30s, Ray and his family members were thankful for their health and welfare with each passing year.
“That’s behind us,” cousin Larry Barganier said he told Ray not long ago as they talked about the family’s good fortune. “We beat the statistics.”
But the gray coffin cradling his cousin on Wednesday was a cruel reminder that the “streets are cold,” Barganier told mourners at Ray’s funeral. Authorities said Ray, 34, was shot to death, after he called the police on a Westport neighbor who refused to turn down loud music. He was trying to rest before his shift as a Maryland Transit Administration bus driver.
Ray’s death left his family grasping for meaning. He was steadily building his life, they said, planning to get married. On Feb. 24, the night that he died, he was at his girlfriend’s house watching her kids.
“Why couldn’t God stop this?” the Rev. Samuel Ray, an uncle, asked. “He couldn’t. There’s some things God doesn’t give us the answer for. That doesn’t mean we lose faith.”
Now this is, in my opinion, a rather well done story in this tragic genre. I was struck, over and over, by the connections between this young man and elements of both the church and civic establishment.