Thomas Merton, the famous author and monk, had a revelation of God at Fourth and Walnut in Louisville, so I shouldn’t be surprised to have a similar experience a few blocks away.
The afternoon sun beat down on the group of 75 people huddled around the portable cross on a pole at First and Broadway that serves as our rallying point for No Murders Metro.
It had been some weeks since we’d stood to pray and grieve on a Sunday following a murder in our city, as has become our custom. The welcomed break from murders had been broken by two killings within a few short days.
A few hours earlier I had preached to my largely Anglo congregation about putting on the “whole armor of God,” and the battle we wage in making peace and in living for God.
Theory became practice, as I saw the battle up close and personal that afternoon.
The majority of those gathered outside Thorton’s were close friends and family of the murder victim. Many wore T-shirts bearing a photo of the murdered 30-year-old black man. A few in the crowd wore the subtle symbol of their gang.
These are some hardened young men. Most stood stone-faced. But a few wept openly for their dead friend, as they stood next to his grieving mother and father.
A West End pastor seized the moment: “I know some of you are tempted to do something crazy, to go out and get revenge. But Jesus is here to call you to a different direction– to leave it in God’s hands. And today I want to invite you to give your life to Jesus.”
I squirmed. I know I’m a minister and all, but what was he doing turning this moment into a street revival? How could he expect to reach any of these hardened, angry people?
As cars roared by, the pastor roared on, and God’s Spirit roared in.
These young people, male and female, needed a picture of a more excellent way. Revenge, violence, hatred, machismo masking fear and hopelessness would never get them what they most deeply wanted and needed. So the pastor invited them to do something different–to follow the way of Jesus.
Granted, “Jesus” is used to beat up on lots of people. His name is too often used to denigrate, divide and demonize. I know He is trivialized and touted in ways that turn people away in droves.
But the pastor competing with the traffic noise at First and Broadway wasn’t speaking of this kind of Jesus. He wasn’t promoting Jesus as a magic “get-out-of-hell-when-you-die” pass.
This was no “we’re-right-and-everyone-else-is-wrong” recruitment into the army of the self-righteous. Rather, he was offering a different Way. Follow the Way of Jesus: Trust God with this problem. Let God give peace in your heart. Release your anger and desire for revenge to Someone truer and wiser. Follow this hard, but universally real Way by following Him.
We concluded with the Lord’s Prayer, as is our custom. I heard this prayer as never before. “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” was more palpable and life-giving than I ever dreamed.
Joe Phelps is pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., and one of the organizers of No Murders Metro.
A minister in Louisville, Kentucky, for 21 years as pastor of Highland Baptist Church, Phelps is now Justice Coordinator for Earth and Spirit Center. He leads, along with Kevin Cosby, EmpowerWest, a black-white clergy coalition calling for recognition, repentance, and repair of injustices to black Louisvillians.