Baltimore and Building the Kingdom of God

Baltimore and Building the Kingdom of God April 29, 2015
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I don’t know what is happening in Baltimore.

I’m not sure anyone really does…

We all see the events in those streets from the lens of our life experiences. That is why my social media feeds are filled with opinions that differ radically from one another. I see the truth in all of them.

I don’t know what is happening in Baltimore.

But I do know that when I traveled as a child with my family to Arizona the wait staff at a restaurant tried to seat my black cousins at a table in the back of the restaurant, away from the rest of the family.

In high school I went to a party. The host of the party told a series of jokes that involved lynching and a smattering of the n-word. Almost everyone there, even the punk rockers, laughed.

When I was in college, I volunteered as a tutor in one of the Philadelphia-area public schools. There was only a handful of white students in the entire school. I ran copies of assignments on doled out paper because the books the students used were so old they could barely read them.

After college, I taught third grade in an inner-city school in Miami. One day, I was cleaning my classroom after school with three of my students. One girl with a slight frame and tight braids told me she called 911 when she was four because her brother was shot dead in the street outside her house. Another girl told me that she saw her uncle shot to death because the neighbors thought they were playing music too loudly. I turned to the last student with questioning eyes and she began to tell me about the time she saw her dad hold a gun to her mom’s head.

I didn’t want to get a cell phone when I first started teaching. Then someone was held up on the corner outside my classroom less than fifty feet from my kids. I bought a cell phone.

One of my students called me late at night crying. His mom was at work and someone kept knocking on their door. He was alone.

Once a student called me a “cracker.” The word flowed out of her mouth with ease. When her grandmother showed up to talk to me about it, she said she had no idea where the student learned that word. When I looked into her eyes she looked away.

I gave a lesson once and incorporated the idea of going to the beach. After a few minutes I looked out at blank faces and asked these children who lived twenty minutes away from the beach, “How many of you have been to the beach?” Two students raised their hands.

One day at show-and-tell, one of my students brought a picture of his dad. His dad was in prison. The boy was embarrassed. One student said, “Man don’t be embarrassed, we all know people in prison. My dad’s in prison.”

My students were very frank about white privilege, if a little misinformed. I was the only white person some of my students knew. They assumed I was rich. One student asked me with a mixture of reproach and wistfulness if my house looked like the houses on television.

Every day I taught in the classroom I felt a deep sense of urgency to teach my kids to read because I knew that illiteracy would make them much more likely to dropout and possibly end up in prison.

My students are grown up now. They are at the age when they should be entering college. But it’s likely that a lot of them did not graduate high school, and most will not be going to college.

And that’s not because my kids aren’t smart enough. It’s not because they are lacking life, energy and creativity. It’s not because they did not have people who cared for them. It’s not because they were lazy or unmotivated.

My kids are not going to college because their schools were not as good as the schools in affluent neighborhoods. My kids are not going to college because violence infects their streets. My kids are not going to college because of poverty and broken families. My kids are not going to college because when they walk down the street people see “thugs” and “hooligans” not scholars.

My kids are not going to college because we all are not working hard enough to create the world of equality that our faith demands we work to build.

So, it doesn’t surprise me to see the violence in Baltimore.

None of it is defensible.

But neither are the reasons my kids aren’t going to college.

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  • I have a special attachment to Baltimore. Although I’ve lived just about my entire life in New York City, when I was a little boy (I think it was in fourth grade) for whatever reason I became a fan of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team and for forty something years I’ve stuck with them through thick and thin, and there was a lot of thin. I’ve been down there to watch a few games. It’s a good city with good people. It breaks my heart to see this.