It must have happened eight or nine years ago. One particular day about midway through the decade we spent in that southside Chicago neighborhood.
I know this because my firstborn will soon turn eleven, but that day her stout little legs just managed to reach the sidewalk. We were sitting with my husband and a friend on the front steps of our apartment building.
Our little girl hopped up and ran a short burst down the sidewalk, and I heard him. Our friend. He had his eyes on our daughter when he whispered to my husband,
She isn’t afraid of me.
And I heard his surprise and his pleasure.
Our friend was black, and I wish I could say that I didn’t understand his words. That it took me a moment to grasp what he had said. But I understood instantly, and instantly I was ashamed. Ashamed that what should have been a given, a starting point, was, instead, a gift.
It would be simpler if I could say that our friend did not deserve fear and end my story there. If I could outline in a few easy words the injustice of a culture that perpetuates the association between black men and danger. Because it is deeply unjust.
I could remind you that he was our friend. I could tell you that he wrote poetry and loved his children, and we could share the satisfaction of our outrage.
But the full story is more complicated.
Yes, he was our friend, but he was unemployed. He was sometimes homeless. He was a recovering drug addict, and he had only recently been released from prison.
And now when I tell you that he used to hang out with my husband in the living room while in the kitchen my daughter and I filled a bag with food for his children, you might wonder if we should have been afraid.
When I am feeling especially desperate I tend to pray this: Jesus, where are you?
I pray these words as if I don’t know the answer, but today I am remembering the answer he has already given. In Matthew 25 he tells us where to look.
If you are seeking Christ look for the one who is hungry. The one who is thirsty. Listen for the stranger knocking at your door. Watch for the criminal, the one who is or has been in prison.
In other words, searching for Christ is anything but safe.
Our king has aligned himself with the suffering, and suffering is messy. Wounded people can be explosive and ugly in their anger and in their pain.
They might say hurtful things.
They might even throw Molotov cocktails.
My Pennsylvania neighborhood is peaceful and green. I am sure Jesus meets with me here. I am convinced he makes a home with us even on ordinary, suburban streets.
But I am sensing an invitation to travel somewhere else. To a place where suffering is no longer polite and hidden but erupting in deeply messy ways. Perhaps it is only a figurative journey, a journey I will make in my thoughts and prayers and in my storytelling, yet I still hesitate.
I hear Jesus speaking the words he once spoke to Thomas. I hear him saying Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side.
I always imagined it to be a straightforward request. Reach out. Touch. Now I see that in reaching out we might be carried farther than we ever intended. Our reaching might draw us right out of our circles of peaceful green and on toward wounded people in troubled places.
Not because we have solutions. Not because we know what to do. Or even what to say.
Only because we are following a wounded Lord. And we want to be where he is.