I grew up in a suburban community in South Central PA where I attended school in a township with one of the highest tax brackets in the state. My dad was an avid hunter and fisherman, and he invited us into his joy of the dance with nature, the hunter and hunted. Likewise, my socio-demographic background was made up of folk very much like myself: German, Austrian (often culturally Mennonite) or Anglo; diversity was limited to infrequent trips to the closest urban geography. Harrisburg is not that big, but culturally, was nearly 100% more diverse than my home town: African descent, Latin descent, Asian descent, etc., whereas less than 1% of my suburban home-town was non-white.
Urban Life With Others, 101
About 2 months ago, we attended church at Valley View Presbyterian Church in Garfield, Pittsburgh. Our family just moved into the East Liberty neighborhood, and had just begun the search for a community to commit to. (Since this story, we've begun attending regularly.) A friend of ours is pastor there, while another has just finished interning here for his Masters of Divinity at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (PTS). It was one of about four churches we attended. We happened to be there during a month long conversation about gun violence, gun control, and its effects on the neighborhood, residents, and parishioners of the East End. The church, when regular attenders are all there at the same time, is a beautiful picture of diversity of mostly Black and White folk. Our new commitment has yet to give us the opportunity to enjoy this, but we look forward to seeing it.
During the service, Chad invited those present to share the names of those affected by gun violence. That is, to honor and remember those who had been killed by a gun. It was a hotter Sunday morning, and there were about 50 people in the sanctuary. At Chad's invitation, one by one people began to share of sons, cousins, close friends, popular or respected members of local neighborhoods, etc. Quietly, but with firmness, they shared: To be remembered. Some were sad, but most spoke with a matter of fact-ness that I found hard to process. These fallen ones were almost all youth, and many were the innocent victims of cross fire. Unintended victims of others use of firearms. Out of those 50 present, about 12 people spoke in memory of around 15 loved ones lost.
Someone Else's Story
I had so much difficulty during this service. I wanted it to stop; I couldn't believe so many kept sharing. It was surreal. I was in denial at times, the delivery the victims stories were shared in every day parlance. I wanted it to stop; it was easier being naive or ignorant to the pain I was experiencing, listening to. Never in my life had I ever been subject to the loss of loved ones like this, nor had I ever imagined it for others. This is not my story! I reeled. I was becoming responsible with information I wasn't sure I was ready to hear. Part of my denial, although individual, was carried by the guilt that I have for so long been unable to understand someone with such a different story, one that as a white male, I'm both ignorant of and perpetuate. Part of the systemic racism, I am.
I too, struggled to hold back deep, deep sorrow. Where am I, that these beautiful people live in a place that 30% of those present have lost someone to this utter violence? Where have I lived, that my brothers and sisters, folks with whom I share the commonality of fathers, mothers, children, extended family and friends have been subject to a story of brutality? To mourn the loss of so many, particularly the young, is unfathomable to me.
Living in Someone Else's Story
In the end, this is why we chose this church, and the East End of Pittsburgh. After growing up and living in very homogenous, white places, Megan and I could no longer imagine ourselves in a culture of similarity, of sameness. Our time in Los Angeles fueled this burning in our bellies. We wanted to be in a place to hear other stories, to know more than our own ancestry. Its important for us for our children to know others as well. I don't intend this words for a right to brag, or sound self-important or romantic. In fact, it's hard for me to be here. Culture shock courses daily through my veins. It is our conviction of truth: our family is being killed in the streets, and we don't know the story. We remain ignorant to their culture, their lives. Of course, it's not all death. But with this Sunday came the reality of personal myopia: This is not my story. I need to hear others' stories to be more faithful in my pursuit of loving YHWH, of loving others.
I must listen. And in order to have an ear, I must live in that place where my other family struggles, suffers. They could be my sons, and I want to learn to care for them as I do my boys.