Yesterday morning I went to breakfast with a room full of people who make me proud to live in Durham. The group was the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham, which is a profound collection of folks who are working diligently to end violence in our town, or as they say, “Our mission is to prevent and rectify the injustice of violence
that segregates our city and diminishes our humanity.” They incarnate that mission statement in some beautiful and meaningful ways:
- prayer vigils after homicides — at the site of the homicide — to honor and publicly recognize the human worthiness of the victim, to comfort family and friends, & to sanctify and bring healing to the site where the violence occurred;
- community lunch roundtables — with presentations from peacemakers and then discussion;
- Friday meal delivery — to the families of homicide victims to offer compassion and companionship; and
- the Reconciliation and Reentry ministry — which seeks peace by building intentional relationships among people of faith and newly released prisoners that facilitate both collective and individual acts of compassion, reconciliation, and peace.
During the course of the morning, we heard from a woman who has spent her life waging peace in our city; a retired navy officer who talked about how his heart had been changed by working on one of the Reconciliation and Reentry teams at his church; a “faith partner” from another R&R team who described how they had helped him as he tried to find his way after getting out of prison; and a woman whose son was murdered many years ago, alongside of a man whom she met through the RCND who was helping her tell her story of grief and reconciliation. Their book will be published this year.
The woman who spoke first talked like a poet. “We must do more than stump our toes on all that needs to be done,” she said. I could almost feel myself trip as she spoke. In our town, 27% of our children live in poverty. One out of four will experience food insecurity in his or her lifetime. Some of our neighborhoods live with unconscionable levels of crime and violence. Our state legislature seems determined to deepen the racial and economic divides that plague us — and I haven’t even gotten out of town.
Then the faith partner spoke, and invoked a phrase often repeated my Marcia Owen, the director: “You can’t escape our love.” Whether we are stumbling to find our place in life, bent over by a posture of pessimism, or tripping over our to do lists, those are words to help us all stand up straight.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint. (Is. 40:30-31)
We live in a society — and a world — convinced of the inevitability of violence. Even as North Korea rattles its sabers, the discussion centers around how to fight back. Congress can’t have a rational discussion about guns because of the fearmongering of those determined to profit by promoting the idea that the only way we can survive is to arm ourselves against one another. The battle of life is our working metaphor.
Breakfast yesterday reminded me that metaphor is an empty and insidious lie. Marcia and the many in our community who are waging peace are telling the truth: love, not violence, is the inescapable force. Love, not violence, will change the world and offer hope and security to us all. Love, not violence, is what makes the walls fall down.
And it happens one conversation, one meal, one visit, one vigil at a time.
As Ginger left the R&R meeting at our church Monday night, she called me to tell me about our new faith partner, who faces a difficult road. “I walked out of the church and saw our sign that says, ‘We welcome all,’ and I got emotional. When we do this work, we are doing the real work of Jesus.” Her words reminded me of something else she said coming out of one of her first R&R meetings, soon after we came to Durham: “If every congregation in America adopted one person coming out of prison, we could change our society.” Indeed.
Thomas wouldn’t believe Jesus was alive until he touched him and we tagged him as a doubter, yet, when we swallow the lie that violence is inevitable in our world and refuse to trust the power of Love expressed by the empty tomb, we call ourselves “realistic.” When we do, we become the church Martin Luther King, Jr. described in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail:
There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.
May we be the “God-intoxicated” ones, those who love tenaciously and specifically, those who trust Jesus wasn’t joking, those who incarnate inescapable love.