A Word from Our Pastor 2015 September

As I write this, there are continuing demonstrations and violence in Ferguson, Missouri, commemorating the anniversary of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer on August 9, 2014.

Eyewitness accounts differed as to what events led up to the shooting, but Brown was unarmed. The officer, Darren Wilson, was never indicted for this shooting. This year, in the midst of both peaceful protests and civil disorder, an 18-year old man was shot and wounded by police a few days ago. The protests in Ferguson that began a year ago have brought into the general public view instances around the US of unarmed African American men being killed by police before they have been accused of a crime, and also the deaths of others, African American men and women, under suspicious circumstances while in police custody. There is no question that police have a difficult job to do, and that they risk their lives every day. However, there is also no question that police subject African Americans and other minorities to excessive force, too often resulting in grievous injury or death. Further, police are rarely held legally accountable for these deaths. This is not news to African Americans, who always have been aware of the dangers of contact with police. However, for many of the rest of us, this problem challenges us to investigate the condition of police-community relations in our own neighborhoods. As Christians, we are called to be concerned about the “least and the lost;” in this case, those people who are most at risk in interactions with police.

While some would like to say that racism is no longer a problem, these events that affect African Americans more than others make it clear that racism continues. As a way of focusing our thinking and feeling about racism, we have had a watched a series of films together on Friday nights. The first film was “Bad Day At Black Rock,” a Spencer Tracy film from 1955 that is not well known, even though it is a very good film. Spencer Tracy’s character steps off a train in Black Rock – the first visitor they have had in four years; it is set right after WWII, in 1945. Immediately, the men of the town (there is only one female character) are very hostile to the stranger. Eventually, it is revealed that Spencer Tracey has come to town to give a service medal to a Japanese American farmer. The farmer’s son had saved Tracy’s life during the war in Italy, and Tracy wanted to award the medal personally. Tracy’s visit uncovers a secret – that several of the men had gotten drunk after Pearl Harbor and went to harass the Japanese American farmer. They set his house on fire, and when he ran out, one of the men shot him. He was buried in an unmarked grave, and the townspeople have colluded in covering the crime up. The men who committed the crime are determined to kill Tracy, as well, so that their crime will not be discovered.

One of the most important questions that the film raises is about moral choices: that is, what side will you take? Will you allow evil to go unchecked, or will you take a stand (risking your own safety) to do the right thing? Or, will you watch from “the sidelines” because you are apathetic or aren’t willing to figure out what you should do? In “Bad Day at Black Rock” there are characters who will do anything (including murder) to keep the crime a secret; there are several who say they are “apathetic” or too old and therefore did nothing after the crime was committed; and others who see that if they continue to cover up the crime (by murdering Tracy), more evil will result.

The same question faces us today: when we see that something is wrong, what side will we take? Standing on the sidelines is not a satisfactory answer when people are suffering. So, as the impact of racism hurts our African American brothers and sisters more than anyone else, what shall we do?

In “Bad Day at Black Rock” there is a quote attributed to John Wesley hanging on the wall (you have to be very observant to see it):

“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

Again, what shall we do? (More about this later . . .)