Last month I watched the events in Jena, La., unfold with particular interest. Jena is hometown to one of my aunts. I have friends from college and in Louisiana life who grew up in Jena and who have family living there now. I was born in Alexandria, about 30 miles away.
The events in Jena are not remote, but reflect the experience of real people living in real time, people who have a mix of backgrounds, emotions, points of view and hopes for the future.
In trying to interpret the national, and international, convergence on this small town in central Louisiana, I was discouraged and encouraged at the same time. The events, real and perceived, motivating the focus on Jena are not unlike events that, sadly, do occur in towns and cities across our country.
I do not believe such conflict is the norm but, whether it is the covert practices that “encourage” a Jewish family in Connecticut not to move into certain upscale towns or neighborhoods, the assumption that a person with olive skin and black hair should be treated, by default, with suspicion, or the overt hatred of racial slurs, symbols and violence, God must surely weep to see these signs of humanity and society unredeemed.
At the same time, as is often the case, hearing and seeing the witness of local people who live and work everyday in Jena, people who can be trusted to be who they say are–like Pastor Eddie Thompson, of the Sanctuary Family Worship Center–talk about the gathering of churches that met at Jena’s First Baptist Church, uniting across racial and theological differences, the night before the major rally that attracted national attention, creates hope and affirms the truth that God is still present and working in this world.
Interviewed by major news media, Pastor Thompson affirmed the reality of churches coming together on behalf of the peace and wholeness of their town. In one interview, on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” he affirmed the attitude of care represented by those churches and their people.
“We came together as churches, and what we need is to listen to that 12 percent [of our community that makes up the minority],” he said. “If 12 percent of our family says we are having a problem, then we are having a problem and we need to open up and we need to listen to one another.”
Another article focused on the actions of students the week before the mass protest. Principal Glen Joiner described the attitude he observed through the actions of many of his students at Jena High School. At the recent homecoming game, he was encouraged by seeing his students of all races sitting next to each other at the game. After the game, black and white players held hands and prayed.
And so the world is not quite so neat that one side can completely divide and demonstrate against the other. Indeed, the notion of “sides” betrays a lack of understanding of the complexities of human behavior and trust in the possibility God created within human beings to overcome their personal worst and the negative witness of the darker regions of human behavior within communities.
In the midst of every intense situation, just as is needed in the midst of quiet conflict, grief, despair and times of hopelessness, the “creation waits with eager longing the revealing of the children of God” (Romans 8:19), those children who have heard the Good News of Christ and his cross, who have come to value each person as beloved of God, and who will wager the costly risk of living the Good News, as well as talking about it.
In the congruence of this kind of living witness, the grace of God shows itself to be the hand of kindness which overcomes violence. So is the promise of God’s word. So is the witness of God.
Pastor of Freemason Street Baptist Church in Norfolk, Virginia.