Just two days ago at this hour, I was in the midst of an 11-mile journey for John Crawford. Led by young people of color, 85 of us marched through suburban and rural Greene County, Ohio from the Beavercreak Wal-Mart, the site of John Crawford’s death at the hands of police, to Xenia, Ohio, where the special grand jury would consider an indictment of the officers. What was Crawford’s “crime?” Carrying a toy gun around Wal-Mart while talking on a cell phone.
During the march, there were moments when I felt like we had gone back in time, to days of struggle in the rural South, pushing for black lives to matter in this country, from accommodations to the ballot box. Things were different, I thought. Fifty years ago, marchers had a legitimate fear of sniper fire. Buses carrying freedom riders were attacked and firebombed with impunity. Surely times have changed.
Today the grand jury in Ohio announced there will be no indictment of the officers. (The Justice Department later announced it is launching an investigation into the shooting.) The Wal-Mart surveillance video is now public, and it reveals how quickly Crawford’s life was taken. The special prosecutor, in quotes about the case, seems to have not pushed very hard for an indictment. So another black life is lost under absurd circumstances, and the system communicates yet again that black lives don’t matter.
As I reflect back on the march a few days ago, I realize that as a white man, I may not be afraid of a sniper’s bullet or attack. But my young friends of color cannot miss the message of John Crawford III, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, and so many others. They do live in fear and anger and deep sadness.
And so I’m left to conclude that on Wednesday, Sept. 24, we marched 11 miles backward as a nation.
We are walking backward in this country when it comes to truly valuing the lives of young people of color. With this grand jury decision, it feels like we walked back to the days of Jim Crow and lynching and segregation, back to a day when black lives truly did not matter, back to the day of the “Not Guilty” Emmett Till verdict of 1955.
As a pastor and follower of Jesus, my hope is that at this moment, in the wake of Trayvon and Ferguson and yes, Beavercreek, the church will not walk 11 miles backward as well.
I hear so often from fellow white evangelicals that they regret and lament our silence and complicity during the horrors of Jim Crow. We lament that we were AWOL during the Civil Rights movement. We lament our horrific record on race. And we go to conferences and read books on racial reconciliation and the multi-racial church, wanting to atone for past sins. I even co-authored a book of repentance and lament called Forgive Us to acknowledge our historic failings.
Well now is the time. These are the days. If the white church, and particularly the white evangelical church, fails to show up now, to put down our books on racial reconciliation and go into the streets arm in arm with young people of color, then we should stop having our conferences and writing our books.
If we don’t show up now, we should stop pretending that we really care about the experiences and lives of people of color who are in so much pain right now. We should come out and say that we really don’t care that our society has claimed open season on young people of color. We should acknowledge that the church really cares about pleasant cross-racial conversations without tension and without truth. We are not so interested in the flesh and blood struggle for justice.
But there is a different path we can take.
We can refuse to walk 11 miles backward.
Instead, we can walk forward in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who feel so isolated and afraid and angry right now. This is our time to follow the way of the cross, and to put our hearts, minds, and spirits on the line for the sake of love and justice. This is our time to be the church in solidarity with young people of color.
This is our choice: 11 miles backward or 11 miles forward. I pray that followers of Jesus choose to path forward.
Troy Jackson is Director of Ohio Prophetic Voices, and was formerly senior pastor of University Christian Church (UCC) for 19 years. He is part of Sojourners’ Emerging Voices project.
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