It is hard to go out of town when you’re clergy. I was at a church leadership training learning how the church and its pastors can be more engaged and involved in their surrounding communities when what seemed like all hell broke out in mine. On Tuesday, from my hotel room in Indianapolis, I learned about the protests in Charlotte over the death of Keith Scott. A close friend texted me until 2 am with a play-by-play of what she was witnessing out there in the University area as the protests turned to riots. Her job required her to be present and she held out as long as she could. She said she was getting used to the tear gas. She was trying to duck the various objects being thrown and covered her head. The texting continued until 2 am. The protests (now riots) hadn’t stopped, but her ride home was coming for her. The next morning, I learned I-85 had been blocked with fire at about 4 in the morning. What was happening to my city?
The next day was a blur. I learned of the death of one of the nicest people any of us might ever meet, Jane Parke. I became numb. Useless, really, at the intense training event. My morning got taken up with arrangements and changing of plane tickets and lining up musicians and talking with family. The news was my city–CNN, MSNBC, CBS–brought right into my hotel room hundreds of miles away. I was raw, emotional, and overwhelmed. It was all too much. That night, more protests. And this time, I watched them on Facebook. My clergy friends and colleagues walked that night in an attempt at bringing a peaceful presence to what had been chaos the night before. Some wanted to show solidarity with hurting people. Others wanted to be there for police as well as protesters. Still others wanted to bear witness, since the media reports seemed not to tell the whole story. And my friend texted me again about what was happening to her. The protests were peaceful on Wednesday night, until they weren’t peaceful any more. A man named Justin Carr was shot, right near where colleagues of mine were marching. After that, there were the strange events in the parking lot of the Omni Hotel. More tear gas, said one colleague, for what seemed to him to be no reason. Clubbing of protesters, said another colleague. I wasn’t there, so I cannot bear witness except to their words.
Since those two nights, there have been many other nights of protests, peaceful protests. The National Guard was called in, and there was a curfew. Helicopters traversed enough of the city to hover over my own neighborhood as my husband walked out the front door to try to see what all that noise was about. It has been a surreal time. Eventually, the curfew was lifted. I had an opportunity to march with colleagues on Sunday night. It felt good to be with my friends who had poured their lives and their hearts into Charlotte’s angst for the past number of days. One of them said, “Where have you been? I’ve been wondering! Have you been out of town?” Yes. Yes, I was.
Our challenges haven’t left with the curfew or the National Guard. Challenges that have always existed have only become more obvious from the recent events happening in our city. Our city has had a disparity between rich and poor, between black and white, for more years than any of us has been alive. We just did a really great job of glossing over it and pretending the gloss was the reality. We live in a city that has an epic lack of trust among various groups. The city that made school desegregation “work” went right back to segregated schools as soon as the court order came through calling busing unconstitutional. The city that has had multiple African American mayors and police chiefs (including our current police chief) and city council members still cannot seem to reckon with its deep seeded biases. The biases are in the air we breathe. They make our coaches/teachers yell more at the kids that aren’t white. They make our bosses hire people with white-sounding names. They make us worship in clumps of whiteness and blackness. They make us follow a pattern that says a child growing up in our city, if poor, will always be poor. It is near impossible to break this mold . . . Unless the mold has become intolerable, that is. So, I wonder. Has it?
I attended a forum last night at our McGlohon Theatre about our city and its challenges. It was called, “A Public Conversation on Building Trust: Where does Charlotte Go From Here?” Some of the most profound statements last night came from civil rights lawyer James Ferguson, II, of Ferguson Chambers & Sumter, P.A. He said, even though a judge decided in the late 1990s to lift the court-ordered busing and allow schools to return to neighborhood schools, people living in Charlotte could have demanded something different from our leaders. People could have said, “We refuse to go back to the way things used to be–no matter what the court decided.” They could have sought a different criteria–economics, perhaps–to make sure schools were going to be at least more diverse than neighborhoods would mandate. But the reality of that time was a community being told to revert to an old model and sheepishly agreeing to it. As intolerable as segregation had been for us in Charlotte for generations, it wasn’t intolerable enough to be completely dismantled. So we’ve had segregated schools (80% or more of the student body either completely white or completely people of color) for the most part, segregated neighborhoods, and segregated churches. As one of the community leaders explained parents having “the talk” with their black sons about how to behave when a police officer pulls them over or questions them so that these sons have a better likelihood of living through the encounter, two of the women on the stage reacted almost involuntarily. The white woman shook her very slightly head from side to side, almost as if saying, “This should never have to happen. White children aren’t given this talk.” The black woman nodded her head slightly, almost as if saying, “Yes. I know all about this.” The lead up to the death of Keith Scott and the events that followed have been a long time coming.
It is hard, when you’re clergy, to leave town. You never know what might happen when you’re away. It turns out, terrible things happen right under your nose, too.
–Rev. Jolin Wilks McElroy, Pastor, First Christian Church, Charlotte, NC