Thursday, April 26, 2007

Light amid the darkness

I have a rather unusual background. My father was an Irish immigrant and mom was raised in a rural part of central California - that's not the unusual part.

My father was an engineer at Chevron for thirty years, and mom was what they used to call a "homemaker." That also is not unusual, at least for my generation (I was born in 1962.)

What is unusual, at least for white Americans, is where I was raised: in Richmond, California, in a neighborhood that was situated between two housing projects (Kennedy Manor and the Easthill projects, for those who know the area.)

I will talk in a bit about some of the dark events that haunt me from that time and place: that is not the theme of this Post, though. The theme is actually a favorite passage of scripture:

"A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

I want to tell you what it is like in some of the poorer and more violent parts of this country, but I want you to remember:

"A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

I grew up watching television that had a mysterious lack, to my naive young eyes, of people that looked like my neighbors. Adam 12. Bewitched. Ed Sullivan. The Andy Williams Show. Or if they did appear, they were in either stereotypical roles like the Buffoon (Flip Wilson) or the Token (Mannix's black secretary).

I was perplexed by this omission. Everyone I knew - friends, enemies, the fathers and mothers in the neighborhood - was black. My teachers were black (mostly). All of my classmates were black. We were Catholic, and went to Mass in Berkeley (at St. Joseph the Worker parish). There, there were a mix of '60s Catholic radicals (think Dorothy Day), and recent Mexican immigrants. Again, minority white.

Life in my neighborhood could be quite rough - rough enough that I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, from some of the incidents there. Ray, my best friend, was murdered. When I was 9 years old, I was taken into a backyard and (literally) whipped. I was good friends with a couple of kids down the block, whose father was a boxer. I endured some absolutely savage beatings (many) by his sons in their garage. My youngest brother, when he was about 4, was grabbed in an alley by some high-school-aged boys, and dangled screaming over a fence, on the other side of which was a German Shepard snarling and salivating.

Please, I beg you, do not look away.

Because "A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

When I was 12, my father threw me across the room, and my head smacked the corner post of my bed. I bled for a few minutes, ran my head under the bathroom sink to wash the blood out of my hair, and went to my sixth grade class. There, for one of the few times in my life, it got to be too much, and I suddenly wept in great gusting sobs. Some of my classmates laughed, but I realize now that by doing so they were running away from the pain we all shared, the pain that I was unable to keep myself from openly expressing.

"Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

That afternoon, I walked across Richmond (there is a God...) to the police station. I'd watched Dragnet, so I knew the police would be interested in child abuse. So I marched in, and prepared to give a sober, just-the-facts-ma'am report in my best Jack Webb imitation. Behind the counter was a pretty police woman, and her smiling eyes were the kindest I had ever seen, eyes that said, "I'm here for you." Jack Webb was suddenly forgotten, and she was confronted by a 12 year old who was crying so hard he was unable to speak.

She took me into the back, and handed me off to a policewoman who worked with CPS (Child Protective Services) cases. The woman took my report, and afterward, when I mentioned that I liked Dragnet, she gave me a tour of the police station: introduced me to some of the other officers, took me by the watch commander's desk, showed me the holding cells, etc.

Then, she took me by the criminal files, and showed me a few of them. "Here's one. He was first arrested for burglary when he was 14, then...let's see...stole a car when he was he's waiting trial for Armed Robbery. Oh, and this other file...really sad...guy had a breaking and entering charge when he was just 13 - imagine that - and now is in San Quentin for manslaughter..."

What she was doing was showing me in the most vivid way she could, "I know your life is hard, but don't go this way. Don't end up like these boys." I got the message.

"A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

I attend a Survivors of Urban Violence group, and have heard many stories similar to mine. One woman lost both of her grandchildren to murder. Despite, or maybe because of, the pain, she spends every free moment doing her best to mentor the kids in her neighborhood, working her tail off in diversion programs etc. Like me, she has refused to believe that murder, that hatred, that retaliation is all we can expect in this world.

"A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

Hers is in many ways a lonely and thankless quest, and yet she works, even though her soul is all but crushed by grief. She works because she hopes, in spite of all the evidence that confronts her every day. She deserves every bit of help she can get, every word of encouragement I can give her.

My life could have gone in many directions, mostly bad. That I did not is evidence that there is a God, and as a result of a few people who lit the darkness, like the police women, like the camp counselors at the day camp I went to for urban kids, like the kindly, elderly neighbor lady next door who took me in sometimes and told me what a wonderful young man I was, and how she knew I would grow into someone really special. (To this day I have a special place in my heart for old black ladies. They rock!)

The wounds I describe still bleed (I cried a bit writing this diary) but I survived. I am here, and getting more whole by the day (though sometimes I wish life had a fast-forward button). And hear this: I forgive the ones who caused me pain. I love them unconditionally, I pray that they may find wholeness, despite their own darkness. They were in worse pain than me.

I'll close with a quote from Martin Luther King which seems apropos. I think especially of the woman I described who is working in the ghetto, despite her weariness, to be a light shining in the darkness.

“Then the Greek language comes out with the word, “agape.” Agape is more than romantic or aesthetic love. Agape is more than friendship. Agape is creative, understanding, redemptive good will for all men. It is an overflowing love that seeks nothing in return. Theologians would say that this is the love of God operating in the human heart. When one rises to love on this level, he loves every man. He rises to the point of loving the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed that the person does. I believe that this is the kind of love that can carry us through this period of transition. This is what we’ve tried to teach through this nonviolent discipline.

So in many instances, we have been able to stand before the most violent opponents and say in substance, we will meet your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because non-cooperation with evil is just as much moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Threaten our children and bomb our homes and our churches and as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hours and drag us out on some wayside road and beat us and leave us half-dead, and as difficult as that is, we will still love you. But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.”

Dr King is almost 40 years in the grave, but it is truer than my own existence:

"A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

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