When the Games Stop // A letter from Pastor Mike

Brothers and Sisters of South City Church, I wish this was a letter celebrating the beginning of the end of racial tension in our country.

Or at least, I wish this letter was about enjoying baseball. I love baseball, I bleed Cardinal red, I wear Cardinals gear. I wish we could live in Busch Stadium. Then we’d need only to go home to be entertained, cheer the Cards, or jeer the Cubs, and eat expensive snack foods. But we don’t live in an entertainment center. We live in Saint Louis. We live in Ferguson. We live in Baltimore and Nepal, in Chibok and Garissa.

I expected Baltimore to explode a long time ago. This is the city where NBC filmed “Homicide: Life on the Street” and where HBO filmed “The Corner,” and “The Wire.” These gritty crime shows depicted a city where joblessness, neighborhoods in transition, drugs, crime and questionable police actions were a formula for great entertainment. But while the rest of the United States was being entertained by NBC and HBO, there were people in places like Baltimore’s Sandtown area that were dealing with these realities every day. While there are some differences between Ferguson and Baltimore, especially when it comes to the larger area that Baltimore authorities have to cover, there is one basic sameness; Blacks in Ferguson, like blacks in Baltimore, like blacks in most US cities, do not trust the police. They know that not every police officer is racist or even close. This mistrust and resentment is not so much towards the individual cop as it is the systemic racist force that police departments sometimes reflect.

We’ve all heard about or witnessed the aptly labeled atmosphere of “negative trust” in our communities. Not only do many non-white civilians find it difficult to trust police, police often find it difficult to believe civilians who say “we are pro-accountability, not anti-police.” We must acknowledge this lack of trust, and the history that led to it, in order to live in a way that builds trust and affirms good communication. This means saying the hard things that help us to learn from our past. This means condemning injustice, death and division even when speaking up is difficult or unpopular. I must condemn the actions of the men and women who vandalize their neighborhoods and taunt law enforcement. It pains me that people label all of them as thugs or reduce them to the media portrayal of their actions. But sin is sin. And we must condemn the damage and division taking place around the country.

We must also condemn the division caused – and the damage done – by the vague communication, race or class driven bias, and dehumanizing actions of authorities. When members of our community suffer at the hands of people in power, we all suffer. When those who seek answers are treated as if they will never be heard, we have all been ignored. This too is sin because dishonesty is destructive. As one group controls access to information that would serve to shed light on a suspicious death, those left without answers live in a debilitating culture of deceit in which attempts to control are prioritized over invitations to converse. It is painful when some people have authorities labeled as totally corrupt and it is frustrating for me to hear comments about dismantling police once and for all rather than advocating for better training, healthy rapport, and support for good officers. But these difficulties do not impact the value of – and desperate need for – clear communication. We must demand answers in spite of these difficulties – in all respect and humility – because only right relationships will bring justice, which is critical to a governance of peace.

The Baltimore Orioles’ Chief Operating Officer, John Angelos, took a risk and spoke some difficult truths quite publicly. He surprised many on 22 April when he voiced his concerns over Twitter. Here is a portion of his statement:

“That said, my greater source of personal concern, outrage, and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night’s property damage nor upon the acts, but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle-class and working-class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the US to third-world dictatorships, like China and others; plunged tens of millions of good, hardworking Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American’s civil-rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of ab ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state. The innocent working families of all backgrounds whose lives and dreams have been cut short by excessive violence, surveillance, and other abuses of the Bill of Rights by government, pay the true price, and ultimate price, and one that far exceeds the importances of any kids’ game played tonight, or ever, at Camden Yards.”

The postponement of the Chicago White Sox and Baltimore Orioles baseball game at Camden Yards makes us ask: Why do protestors – and sometimes rioters – try to shut down or disrupt major sporting events? I would suggest some reasons: they know wherever large groups of people gather, there will be a lot of press coverage and police protection and therefore an opportunity for the whole world to see and hear them. There is also the message that “we are tired of games.” Therefore, Camden Yards is a prime platform to project the message that “we want answers and justice.” I believe black folks are tired of cities paying more attention to their sports teams than they do to joblessness, bad housing policies, racial profiling, abusive policing, increasing incarceration rates amongst blacks, and a justice system that tends to favor whites. These expressions of frustration are never intended to affirm the destructive opportunists who seek to do harm rather than plead a righteous case, and we must keep this in mind when we hear reports of dangerous distractions. The message is clear still: people of color have long been deemed unworthy of equal treatment, and there is no tactic, no plan or scheme that can be crafted to hide this fact.

Last night the Orioles did not play for public safety reasons. But John Angelos’ statement brings a different reason to light: the Orioles, and the city of Baltimore, actually have no time to play games. The Church has no time to play games when it comes to representing Jesus. This is real life for the Church and we must have an answer and be involved in our cities without avoiding hard conversations. It feels easier and more comfortable to focus on things that entertain us, but this will only bring more pain. If we live to play games, we will kill our communities. Ferguson is now not just a suburb of Saint Louis, it is a term of comparison that refers to any metropolitan area soaked with the kerosene of racial tension, hate and mistrust that explodes, often because a police action has struck a rock with a flint, and the city explodes.

Sisters and brothers, there are going to be explosions. Though Jesus is bigger than even the most devastating explosion, there will be explosions. We at South City Church must remember that while we are called to enjoy our lives and celebrate the grace of the Gospel, this calling is not a game. The celebration of God’s grace is a lifesaving lifestyle. It is a sustainable witness that both demands and inspires transformation in our community. When we are faced with an explosion, we can testify of the God who humbled himself and entered into the chaos, and we can follow his example. When we learn to stop playing games, we might learn to truly delight in each other, which brings a deeper joy than any pastime – and will serve to enrich the enjoyment of the pastimes we already love.

Pray for clergy and congregations to respond in faith and courage—to get on their knees and then get into the streets and engage people. Pray for me and the leadership of our church that we will be patient, prayerful, and righteously proactive. Nobody loves baseball more than I do, but sometimes it is appropriate to postpone the game.

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