I remember that

lucy-mcbathLucy McBath finds joy in her calling to make her son’s death have meaning. But the scars of her sorrow still show every time she speaks. 

 

News headlines flash at you and disappear, like an oncoming driver flicking his bright lights. Then sometime later the story beneath that headline is resurrected. You meet someone who brings it back to life and you think, “I remember that.”

Only now, it’s real because you’re talking to the person involved. It’s not ink on a page. It’s a voice in the ear, a person in your eye.

I met Lucy McBath in New York City this week. She’s the mother of Jordan Davis, the young man who pulled into a gas station Nov. 23, 2012 in Jacksonville, FL playing his music too loud for the pleasure of Michael Dunn.

Dunn asked/told Davis and his companions to turn down the volume. Davis, as a 17-year-old kid would do, got his back up and they had words. Dunn got a gun from his car and shot it 10 times into Davis’ car, striking him three times and killing him.

Davis was black. Dunn is white. But they both bleed red. The difference is that Dunn’s blood is still in his body in prison somewhere. Davis’ was spilled out onto the parking lot and his car seat.

It’s dangerous to be black in America.

Of course, I’ve just returned from the conference God and Guns 2016 at Riverside Church in New York City. So my nerves are raw. I’ve been illumined to the underlying causes of much of the gun violence in this country. (I’ll soon post stories at BaptistNews.com. There I covered them straight. Here I’m talking more from the heart.)

In New York I met Lucy McBath, Jordan’s mother. As soon as she started telling her story, I thought, “I remember that.”

But now, instead of a flashing headline, her story is meat and bone. She has dedicated her life to ending gun violence in America so that Jordan’s life and death will not have been in vain.

Addressing conference participants, McBath said change will not come if we wait for someone else or some other time. She quoted President Obama, who said, “We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for.”

McBath is the Faith and Community outreach leader for Everytown for Gun Safety, a fairly new organization with chapters in all 50 states that sprung up after the Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown. Their goal is “common sense reforms to reduce gun violence.”

“Ninety-one people each day will continue to die if people of faith are not engaged in saving lives,” McBath said. “It must be our task to usher in a nationwide moral movement against gun violence.”

She reeled off the statistics that any advocate will have at the tip of her tongue:

An American is 25 times more likely than in any other developed country to die by gun violence:

52 percent of women killed by guns are killed by their intimate partner or family member;

Easy access to firearms plays a major role in childhood death;

More than 21,000 people each year kill themselves with a gun;

The presence of a gun in the house greatly increases the chance that a domestic argument or a period of depression will turn lethal.

“After Jordan died I questioned the absence of the faith community,” said McBath, a devout Christian. “Their silence troubled my spirit. Where were the pastors, the ministers, the reverends and priests abiding by the Word of God to challenge the ethical and moral violation of the sixth commandment, ‘Thou shalt not murder?’”

McBath is dedicating her life to reducing gun violence so other boys like her son, and the sons of Sandra Rougier and Natasha Christopher and the students of Newtown teacher Mary Ann Jacob who all testified at the conference can live in a time and place without fear of being gunned down in the street.

I remember that.

Soon

(From 1987 to 1999 I wrote a monthly column in the publication of Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina, where I was director of communications, called In a Word. This piece is reprinted from a 1997 column, written while my oldest son was getting ready to leave for college)

Shuffling down the hallway in the early morning, the glistening blue of Nathan’s freshly polished truck in the driveway arrested my sight through the window.

The little truck represents a promise I made to the kids that if they ever earned a full college scholarship, I would get them a vehicle to drive to school. Nathan did his part, and will be playing basketball for UNC Greensboro this fall.

I stood with my arms across my chest, watching the rising sun lay dappled ribbons of light across the pickup, and I pondered sadly the thin week that stood between that moment and Nathan’s departure to write a new chapter in our family’s life.

That evening my wife and I visited a young couple who were still doey-eyed and dopey over their eight-day-old baby. We toured their new house, admired the baby’s room, and talked of the tremendous emotional highs and lows that lay ahead of them through their daughter’s growing years.

It’s a brief journey, I said, from the hospital to college. Nathan’s leaving has taught me the shortest measurable unit of time is the moment between the delivery room cry, and the dorm room good-bye.

Why didn’t someone warn me about that when Nathan constantly wanted me to throw a ball, ride bike, shoot baskets, play with Legos, and read, read, read to him? Or when he fussed with his siblings on long drives? Or when he consumed the month’s grocery allowance in a week?

I confess to lunacy, actually having hoped some trying moments would pass quickly. I thought “how long?” when I cringed with him in the bathroom, trying to peel a gauze pad from the back of his 7-year-old thigh. He’d hit a bump, got tossed from his seat and his knobby bike tire rubbed off a 4-inch diameter of skin, two layers deep.

Like a fool, I put gauze over the open, oozing circle. Two days later we had to soak him in the shower to peel off the pad. I still hear his screams.

“When will you have it, dad?”

“Soon,” I said.

When he entered the Optimist oratorical contest I promised to help him edit his speech. Caught up in other work, he pestered me about when I could help him.

“Soon,” I said.

As he grew, and the family grew and my job grew, but the hours of my day stayed forever stuck on 24, “soon” seemed a reasonable answer to his requests. When could I help him memorize his play lines? When could I show him how to change the oil in the car? When could I take him practice driving? When could I talk to his teacher about math? When could I teach him a hook shot? When could I help him paint a 3-point line around his basket in the driveway?

Soon.

I don’t worry as much as their mom when the kids are out with friends. But now, watching the blue hue lighten with the rising sun, I remember once waiting through the interminable minutes for the clock to lift its heavy arms to curfew hour. With a shudder I feel the terror that grips a parent when the appointed hour arrives, but the child does not. Tingling ears measure the speed of every passing car, listening for one to slow, hoping the next one is his.

Yawning and stretching, my wife came out of our room, looked at the clock, and asked when I expected Nathan to be home from his early workout.

Soon.

Today she looks at his empty place at the table, walks past his room devoid of trophies, pictures and inspirational posters, marvels as the pantry shelves stay full like the widow’s oil lamp after Elijah’s promise, and pats the washing machine at rest. She cries, and asks when I think Nathan might come home for a visit.

I put my arm around her, look out the window where his truck used to sit, and say, “Soon.”

 

Healing power of the right word

I suffered a pretty awful accident May 14 while following my grandson on a mountain bike down an open, sloping field on his parents’ property.

We’d been tooling around for an hour, just enjoying a simple ride on a perfect spring day. Who needs a helmet for that? Well, Grayson wore his because he told me, “Safety first.” I should have listened.

He led me to the top of the hill, launching from his uncle’s driveway down through the field. I took a moment to soak in the sight and relish the feeling. His joy was palpable.

He was out riding with his papa, atop the freedom of his wheels and the thrill of a downhill slope. Giving myself just a moment to appreciate the scene, I took off after him, cutting a new path to the left of his line.

A lip at the edge of the field dropped several feet. I intended just to ride it down, hanging on tightly to reach the broader, softer slope. I didn’t see the hole at the bottom until it was too late. In an instant of clarity my brain registered, “This is not going to be good.”

My front wheel hit the hole and the bike stopped dead. I kept flying and landed on my head.

Grayson ran back up the hill to see if I was all right. “No, Grayson, I’m not all right. Go get Nana.” I felt like someone had hit me in the head with a 2 x 4 and that I’d lost six inches of height from having my spine compressed.

Within moments Nana pulled the Subaru into the field beside me. She sent Grayson to his uncle Bubba’s house at the top of the hill for a towel to stop the bleeding and for an additional hand to get me into the car. By this time I’d surveyed my extremities, all of which functioned, so I knew long term I would be fine. But, oh, I hurt.

Later tests would reveal fractured skull, cracked vertebrae, bruised spleen, lots of abrasions and cuts that required 10 staples to close. But for now there was just lots of activity with the other grandkids and Bubba and his wife, Sonya while we debated calling an ambulance.

In the midst of that hubbub I heard the sweet voice of 7-year-old Grayson saying, “It’s my fault. I should have told Papa about that hole.” I reached for Grayson’s leg and told him never to think that. He bears no blame.

But during the next 15 hours in two emergency rooms and calls back and forth among family, I kept hearing that Grayson was feeling responsible. That is a heavy burden for a bright, sensitive seven-year-old. It saddened me that he felt that way.

I was released early the next morning and went home with a neck brace to rest and heal. Grayson’s mom and dad, who had been out of town celebrating their 12th wedding anniversary during all the excitement, brought the kids by the house to see that Papa was OK. I knew I needed to find the right words to relieve Grayson of his self-imposed burden of blame.

His face was so tentative and pained when he saw my brace and he was wondering how I would react now that I was upright. In an instant I smiled big, held out my arms and loudly said, “Grayson, my rescuer! You’re the one who rescued me when you went for help! Thank you, buddy.”

In that instant his face transformed from hesitant to happy, from reluctant to rejoicing, from tentative to triumphant. He went from self-blaming to knowing he contributed to my being OK after a bad spill.

Choose your words carefully. A well-chosen word has the power to heal. A quick, harsh word has the power to destroy, to tear a hole in the cloth of confidence.

I know people who still labor under the self-image an angry parent imposed upon them 50 years ago, rather than with the reality of the bright and beautiful people they are today.   Grayson is young and aggravating sometimes because he is so intelligent and curious and he insists there is nothing he cannot do.

But from this day forth, no matter how many times I huff and puff and say, “No, Grayson, you cannot use the chainsaw,” he will know that on May 14, he rescued his papa.

Hold the Ladder

Hold the ladder

 When I came back from a trip to Bihar, India, I thought I knew that in those dusty villages with dung-daubed mud brick walls lived the poorest people in the world.

Then I went to Haiti after the earthquake.

I was convinced then that in those barren tent cities with no apparent water source, no services and acrid smoke permeating the humid, tropical air lived the poorest people in the world.

Then I heard K Brown’s stories and saw his pictures from Ukraine.

Once more, I knew that in those frigid and muddy streets twisting without rhyme or reason between leaky shelters cobbled together with nails, wire and plastic lived the poorest people in the world.

I think I’m right this time.

After his first trip to Ukraine, Brown, a masterful video story teller, brought home haunting images of the murky, fetid streets and shacks of the Roma village in Mukacheve. Their Ukrainian neighbors consider the Roma, or gypsies, untouchable. But Brown and his team found them so winsome, transparent and hungry that he has become a regular visitor, planning and bringing medical teams and vacation Bible school workers back every year.

So often our mission trips become a four-act play of we go, we minister, we cry, we take pictures to prove we care. We leave behind everything we brought to be distributed among the people because we feel suddenly selfish having extra when they have nothing.

Dana Brown left behind more than her extra jeans. Dana, who assists her husband K on most of his documentary journeys, is the victim of a genetic defect — cardiomushextremis. Basically, she suffers from an extremely soft heart, susceptible to the emotive vibes of the poorest among us, those who feebly cling to life’s fragile fringe.

Dana finds relief for her condition only in ever higher doses of gypsy children, administered through hugs and smiles that communicate more love without words than a common language ever could.

She paints fingernails, holding each little hand in her larger hand, skin on skin, dirt on clean, hope on heart. More than polish the kids want their hands in hers and they run behind a building and scratch off the color so they can jump back in line to have Dana paint their nails — and hold their hand.

Dana encouraged an older woman waiting on the edge to join them. She at first declined but Dana’s disease is communicable and the woman softened. When Dana reached for her, the woman clutched Dana’s hand and touched it to her lips, and cried as if she’d never seen love before.

In discussing the incident K said it is not unusual for a gypsy’s only experience with touch to be harsh, from the scourge of anger or the hard discipline of a parent or spouse frustrated at the impotence imposed by poverty.

“Maybe it’s been a long time since the older woman felt the simple touch of kindness,” K says. “Maybe she has no one who snuggles up and says ‘I’m here simply because I love you.’ The tears mean something. I just wish I knew the whole story.”

K says all the noise and chaos of village life fell silent behind the tableau being painted between two strangers, with a brush of love on a canvass of common humanity. The only sound, he said, was the drop of tears into Dana’s lap.

K is inspired by the faith of gypsy Christians who see the hand of God caring for them in the worst of circumstances. A Hungarian translator keeps going back to the village “because I feel like I’m climbing a ladder to heaven every time I’m around them.”

K and Dana keep going back. They’re looking for others to help them hold the ladder.

(This story printed in the November-December 2014 issue of Herald, a publication of Baptist News Global)