Last Friday, I met a young man who was on a long walk out at the Navarino Wildlife Area. I actually met him twice. The first time he was looking at his GPS device. It showed him a blue blob that is the 80 Acre Flowage he had just walked by and another blue blob that is the Hansen Flowage just south of where we met. But nothing else. No trails. No buildings. No roads. Just blue blobs on a green screen.
The second time we met, I was eating my cheese and pickle sandwich. He wanted to talk. He wanted to know if I had been out at Navarino before. He couldn’t believe there was nothing but green on his GPS screen. (He was young.) You know from walking with me that there are lots of things not on GPS devices.
He wondered where I had been, and I told him I had been walking on the berm around the Wolf River Flowage west of Highway K and that there are four trails that lead there from where we were. Though not one of them is marked. I realized at that moment how difficult it would have been to try to explain how to get to the Wolf River Flowage from where we were.
We’re on familiar trail in our social order. More African American people are being killed in our streets. More Americans of all colors are angry about it. Some are non-violently protesting. Some are not. Some are angry at the protesters. Some are angry at the police. There’s no clear path to peace. Like trying to explain how to get to the Wolf River Flowage, getting from where we are to peace isn’t something someone can just explain. Like a lecture of some kind. For me to get that young man out at Navarino to the Wolf River Flowage, I’d have to walk with him. And to get to peace in our land, we need to walk together. We need to walk together in protests, sure, but more than that, we need to understand the depth of the tragic kind of existence our African American brothers and sisters endure in our country.
But we don’t walk with them. We don’t know anything about their lives. We don’t know what it’s like that African American parents have to tell their kids to be careful when they’re running down the street. Just this morning, there was a story on the radio about an African American member of his high school track team who was out running when a car cut him off and a white woman ran the window down to ask him if he had just robbed the store down the street. We don’t know what it’s like to be an African American parent who has to have “the talk” with their kids about being careful when stopped by police. My parents never sat me down for that talk. But an encounter with the police is too often so dangerous for African Americans, that this “talk” is “normal” and necessary. Too many unarmed African Americans have been killed reaching for their license in their wallet. Or shot in the back running away. Or lying on the ground under police officers, begging to be able to breathe.
We’ve called the Armed Forces out to do battle against our own citizens before in this country. Weapons won’t solve this problem.
Only just truly walking together. Until that happens, we will not be on the path to peace.
How does that happen? The last GIFT service honoring Dr. King is a tiny example of what it means to walk with people of color, to actually listen to their stories: how a white customer wouldn’t touch money a black person touched; how people of color are followed and stalked by police, because they’re suspicious looking; how they’re watched like hawks as soon as they enter stores. At the GIFT service, we heard about all those ways people of color are assaulted every day. Not in New York City or Alabama. In good ol’ Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Were you there?
That GIFT service would have been one small opportunity to walk with people of color in Green Bay to learn it’s not Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. GIFT is a pretty un-organized consortium of interfaith religious leaders. It can’t do everything. But every year at our services honoring Dr. King, at least we do something.
When I was a kid working in my dad’s store, “the talk” my dad had with me was an order to keep an eye on African American people to make sure they didn’t steal. Though it doesn’t seem to affect us white folks much, this is the truth about the soul of our country. As Jim Wallis put it in the title of his book, it’s our Original Sin. Too many of us have been instructed to distrust and even despise African American people who, in baptism, are our brothers and sisters. When families are torn apart, it’s a long, long road to peace. We pray every week to our Father in heaven that his will be done here on earth just as it’s done in heaven where people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” sing for joy together (Revelation 7:9) Martin Luther says: “We ask in this prayer that it be done also among us.”