That Could Have Been Me

Update: I originally wrote this in reaction to reading a few posts via social media that seemed to indicate that “good” minorities don’t have to worry about situations like the Michael Brown tragedy happening to them. Many have also said this about Trayvon Martin and other situations that have arisen in the recent past. I did not expect much of a response because I rarely blog and don’t have much of any platform. A few things I’d like to clarify: First, my goal is not to suggest malicious people commit racial profiling. In fact, I hope you realize that profiling is often a passive action done by people with good intentions. It’s still wrong.  Secondly, I have a lot of respect for police officers. I think that they’re good people who are trying to do a difficult job – especially our local cops. I don’t tell my story to make police officers look bad; instead, I’m trying to illustrate what someone who looks like me deals with, regardless of status. While my experience was certainly the most humiliating of experiences, I’ve been profiled by teachers, by store owners, by fathers of romantic interests, etc.  All have stung deeply.  The point in writing this is that racial profiling is something I face every day, and most of my white friends don’t. Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many suggest that because I’m educated or carry myself respectably, I don’t have anything to worry about. That’s just not the reality I’ve experienced.  I wrote this in the hopes that a few Facebook friends would read this and maybe change their minds about the reality of racial profiling because they had a personal connection to it. 

Recent days have reminded me of something that only a handful of people know I’ve experienced. For the sake of the many people who swim in my social media circles who seem to think minorities must do something to provoke suspicion, I thought I’d share my experience in the hopes that it may raise awareness to the reality of racial profiling. Profiling isn’t something that happens to “bad” black people; it’s something that happens to ALL black people.

When I was 17 years old, I was walking on West Fourth Street to my job at the Weis Markets on Third Street. It was a fall day, so in addition to my pants and Weis polo, I was wearing a hoodie. I also had headphones in my ears, listening to music on my walk. I can almost guarantee it was one of my friend Lucas Carpenter’s early albums. I may have even been singing out loud. I’m prone to do that.

As I walked near where the former Annunciation church is, I noticed a police car pull over next to me as if parking, but didn’t think much of it. Why would I? Suddenly, someone grabbed my arm and I was spun around face to face with a police officer who was yelling at me for not cooperating. I apologized and explained that I must not have heard him with my headphones on. I was asked a series of questions that made me wonder if I had done something wrong.

Where are you coming from? My house over on First Ave.

Have you been in such and such vicinity today? No, I just woke up and have to go to work.

Could anyone verify? No, my dad is fishing and my mom and sister are out.

I was told that a crime had been committed in the neighborhood. The delivery of that information felt like an accusation. I was asked my name and if I could produce identification to verify. I was ushered to the police car and asked to place my hands on the car and spread my legs. It’s then that I noticed that a second police officer was a few feet away in my peripheral with his hand in a ready position on his belt. I honestly can’t tell if he was ready to stun me or shoot me, but I was already worried, so I kept my eyes averted from his direction and did what I was told.

The next few minutes were the most humiliating moments of my life: At just before noon on the busiest street in my hometown, I was frisked and searched against a police car.

It may have only been a few moments, but it felt like an endless parade of cars drove by. I kept wishing I could be inside the police car instead of stretched against it because of how guilty I must have seemed.

He found a box cutter and some cash in my pocket. Why are you carrying a weapon? I use it to cut boxes at my job in the stock room. Are you planning to buy weed? I hoped to swing by Comic Castle after my shift and buy some comic books. I was asked for my name again and told to not move. The first officer walked around to the other side of the car and got into the driver’s seat. I remained prone against a police car, freaking out and wondering what I did wrong.

After a few minutes, the officer exited the car and told me I could go. The second officer eased up, letting go of the weapon he had been prepared to use on me, if necessary. No explanation. No apology. For some foolish reason, I asked if I could have my box cutter back. It finally dawned on me to show the Weis insignia on my polo underneath my sweatshirt to corroborate my story. He handed me the blade and told me to stay out of trouble. I sheepishly apologized to the two officers. For what? I don’t know, but it felt necessary.

Shaken, I continued my walk to work. This is before I owned a cell phone, so I couldn’t talk to my parents about my experience right away. By the time I returned home, I had convinced myself that the cops were just doing their job – they were just out looking for bad guys, and of course a physically imposing, hooded person walking down the street may be suspicious. Still, the humiliation of the experience has left it crystallized in my mind. It wasn’t until years later in college that I read an article in Sports Illustrated about racial profiling and realized what had happened to me.

Racial profiling is a reality in the United States – and it’s not confined to profiling black people. Hispanic and Arab people are profiled frequently, though the injustice against African-Americans is more deeply woven into the fabric of our country. And yes, racial profiling exists in Williamsport, PA. However, thank God it hasn’t been violent or deadly…yet. When racial profiling is a reality in a culture where police are becoming more and more aggressive and trigger-happy like Ferguson, Missouri, however, you get the Michael Brown tragedy.

What provokes me to anger in this debate is that many people whom I love and respect seem to want to discredit why people would be outraged. Here’s the point you’re missing: That could have been me. If the 17 year old me could switch places and have been walking down that street, what would have made anything different? The 17 year old me would have cut an imposing, suspicious figure on a street. The 17 year old me could have seemed non-compliant due to misunderstanding or just sheer emotions and fear. And the 17 year old, unarmed me might be dead in the street.  The reality of racial profiling in America means that at any time, I may experience suspicion of guilt simply because of my physical features.

You may think that I’m overreacting, but you’ve never had someone yell “nigger” at you outside of your local grocery store. You’ve never been soloed out and screamed at in a neighboring school district for “disrupting a classroom” despite being in a group of 10-15 teenagers. You’ve never had parents forbid their kids from being around you because you were black. You’ve never had to stand prone against a police car on the busiest street in your town simply because you walked down the street.

So please, friends, when you talk about Michael Brown, remember who you’re talking about: Me and everyone who lives in this country whose only crime against society is Living While Black.

 

 

(The picture above is from CNN.)

My Three Daughters & The Other Sister

Lucy was 18 months old when the seeds of our church were planted.

Josephine was born a week after I was licensed to pastor the new church and just weeks before we officially began the work.

Emmaline was born on the heels of the one year anniversary of our launch.

My girls will bear the mantle of pastor’s kid their whole lives. More than that, they will (*hopefully*) grow together alongside their church. In many ways, I’ve seen Josie’s growth and development mirror the church’s: her birth marked our official beginning, she began to crawl when we held our first worship gathering. I pray every day for them to someday know Jesus and love Him. But I also hope that they love the church; and that they appreciate her for all that she is – flaws and all.

So when I read Shauna Niequist‘s ode to the church her birth coincided with (one you may have heard of), my heart filled with joy and hope.

My church isn’t perfect. Sisters, of course, know each other’s faults better than anyone else. But being a sister also means you get a front row seat to the good, the beautiful, the fiercely loving and thoroughly grace-soaked best parts of it all. The view from here is breathtaking.

May my daughters one day share these feelings and love for their Sister, too.

A Tribute

Four days ago, my father died (less than a day after my third daughter was born, but I’ll unpack that emotional wallop another time.)  After spending some time with my three siblings reminiscing about the dad we knew, here’s the way his obituary will read in the newspaper this week:

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Robert Hughes Paul Sweeting, Jr. was the most interesting man in Williamsport. That statement may seem hyperbolic, but to anyone who knew the man known as Butch, Sweet or Bob, it barely scratches the surface.

While countless stories have and will be told about his local legend, we’ll remember our dad for some of his favorite pastimes. He loved biking and he was most often seen riding throughout Williamsport. One story goes that when his eldest son Lamar was born, he hopped on his bike and rode to Mount Union, PA and back just to share the good news with family. He was an avid fisherman and knew the best fishing holes in the region. We once found him knee-deep in the Susquehanna reeling in fish, stubbornly refusing to come home despite a tornado touching down a few miles up the river. His favorite conversations were with his Aunt Mamie Sweeting Diggs, with whom he’d discuss our family history and the Underground Railroad for hours on end because he believed, “If you know where you came from, you know where you’re going.” For reasons beyond us, he had a fondness for Dashikis and fanny packs, and despite our repeated protests, wore them proudly because Butch Sweeting was his own man and did things his own way. Everyone loved him for that.

Butch liked his women as he liked his fish: ones that had some fight in them. He found the love of his life in Cindy Lou Purdy, a pretty farm girl he married and shared life with for almost 30 years. He loved her feisty spirit, striking “assets” and culinary skills matched only by his mother. Between those two women, dad often claimed he never had a missed-meal cramp. Together, Butch and Cindy played hard, raised children and discovered life anew in the gospel of Jesus Christ. For the last 20 years, their passionate faith and pride in their children defined them. Cindy has lived in heaven since 2006, and our dad has longed to join her there. It brings us great joy to know they can now continue their adventures together.

Dad loved family. He was the son of Robert and Kathleen Sweeting. He was the brother to Deborah, Brenda, Kay Darlene, Monica, Vincent (Crystal), Jeffrey (Patrice), Melvin, Kevin Black and Roberta Black (deceased). He was a cousin, nephew, uncle and friend to countless people who loved him.

Most notably, his spitting image and legacy is passed on in his children: Lamar A. Brown, Justin R. Brown (Celina), Spencer E. Sweeting (Beth) and Latisha I. Sweeting. He was proud to be Papi to nine awesome grandkids: Levi, Ayden, Kamden and Justin Brown, Isaiah and Elijah Keyes, and Lucy, Josephine and Emmaline Sweeting, who arrived just one day before her Papi stepped into eternity.

Robert was a member of First United Methodist Church in Williamsport, a gifted lathe machinist and welder at Lovell & Stroble Machine Shop, and proudly served his country in the United States Navy.

Since January 25, 1952, Robert lived an abundant life. On October 10, 2013, he wiped his feet on the welcome mat of grace. We can only imagine that he’s already trying to show Jesus a thing or two about catching fish.

The Wound

I was invited to write a short story as part of an original collaboration between artists and writers.  Writers would write short stories around a theme, and artists would give a visual interpretation of them.  I haven’t written a short story in over eight years (during my English major days at Penn State), but I gave it a shot.  The theme of the collaboration is “coming of age.”  Here is my submission, called The Wound.

The Boy raced down the steps in an avalanche of anticipation.  Dawn had yet to peek through the kitchen window to spotlight the table, but he was content to eat his Kix in the quiet darkness as he awaited the caper the day was sure to bring.

Noises coming from upstairs made the boy freeze.  He heard the familiar creak coming from the floor above him, and a faint sliver of light could suddenly be seen against the wall of the stairway landing.  In the shadows, the Boy smiled.  He knew these Sabbath traditions well and today, he was intent on being a part of them.

He had won his morning race with the sun with ease and enthusiasm.  When he crawled from his bed, he quickly pulled jeans over pajamas and laced up two shoes he only now realized did not match.  He would need a light jacket, so he quickly dashed to the closet and selected the one he thought best fit the occasion.  He found his favorite hat in the jacket’s sleeve and held it tightly in his hands, his fingers outlining the patch representing his day’s ambition.  

The Boy was ready.

He had long waited for this day to come.  He was old enough now.  In his head danced visions of mud and honor.  The thing he most craved was now within reach.  Today was a day for glory.

Heavy feet now hit the steps.  The Boy pulled his floppy hat over his unkempt hair and bolted into his strategic position between the stairs and the front door.  A large figure emerged into the slowly illuminating room, but blind to the Boy’s presence, moved with purpose towards the next room to assemble the necessary tools of the day.

When the Man returned, he discovered a mismatched reflection of himself.  The Boy wore a toothy grin and victorious eyes, proud that he had made it this far on his own.  His arms bent in petition as the Man sighed reluctantly upon the hopeful Boy.  For seconds, their eyes met and conversed in silence.

Finally, the Man shook his head and with an apologetic shrug, traded the Boy’s desire for a deferred promise.  The Boy’s eyes grew soft and wet, but he remained determined in his disappointment – hopeful in his hurt.  For the Man had bestowed upon him a three word covenant he could hang his floppy hat on.

And the Boy would be ready.

Quotable: Bono

First of all, David’s a musician, so I’m gonna like him. And what’s so powerful about the Psalms are, as well as their being Gospel and songs of praise, they are also the Blues. It’s very important for Christians to be honest with God, which often, you know, God is much more interested in who you are than who you want to be.

6/25/13 Focus On The Family broadcast

 

Quotable: N.T. Wright

The point of the resurrection…is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die…

What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it.

What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether (as the hymn so mistakenly puts it…). They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.

Surprised By Hope

 

 

The Prayer of Saint Patrick

I arise today through the strength of heaven;

Light of the sun, splendor of fire, speed of lightning, swiftness of the wind,
Depth of the sea, stability of the earth, firmness of the rock.

I arise today through God’s strength to pilot me;
God’s might to uphold me, God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me, God’s ear to hear me, God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me, God’s way to lie before me, God’s shield to protect me,
God’s hosts to save me afar and anear, alone or in a mulitude.

Christ shield me today against wounding
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me, Christ in the ear that hears me.

I arise today through the mighty strength of the Lord of creation