We are reeling from the news of a young man whose death, initially ruled as an accident in July 2011, occurred as he was being arrested and was sitting in the back of a squad car and began gasping for air. The police officers did not respond because they assumed that the young man was “clowning around.” By the time they did respond, it was too late.
The young man had died.
The death has now been ruled a homicide by the medical examiner and four police officers have been charged with murder. The mayor and the police chief in a news conference described the day when these officers were charged as a sad day for the city. It is another wound in a city and in a community where the lives of the poor do not seem to be valued and where it is so easy to explain the violence that happens in poor communities as a matter of course.
I have been watching the mother of Derrick Williams as she has come before the camera in recent days and the community that has been touched by this tragedy.
It is another wound on top of so many other wounds that on many days feels like an insurmountable weight and so the words from Jeremiah come to mind: “My joy is gone. My grief is upon me. My heart is sick. Hark the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land. Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her king not in her? Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”
We stand as faith communities in the midst of those who cry deep cries and God calls us to be attentive. We may not have all of the answers or all of the resources we need, but what we do have is faith in a God who can bring life out of death.
It is that faith that brings us each day to embrace and to walk with those whose joy is gone and whose grief is ever before them. And having said that, what follows is a description of what happened on Wednesday, the 10th of October, where many come and they often bring some of the deep wounds that I have alluded to and that the prophet Jeremiah was well aware of.
Is there no balm in Milwaukee? Is there no healing for the people who live there? Each day, in spite of the piling on of wounds, I answer with a resounding yes, yes. There is a balm and the many who come through the doors of Cross Lutheran Church have found a source of strength and a lightening of the load.
Another amazing and powerful day.
Among those who came through the line for the meal, every face had a smile.
Cynthia was present after a long battle with cancer. She was worried that her chemo would cause her face to spot, but as I acknowledged how good it was to have her back with us she said with a beaming smile, “It’s good to be home.”
There were a few new faces as there are every week.
Every face was a welcome face; every person present mattered. There were 50-plus individuals present for the Bible study. What I keep being aware of is that God is doing something in people’s lives. I see people who are on a marvelous journey of finding their footing again and who are taking new steps even if the steps are tentative.
I see hope being born and individuals who are overcoming some hard and painful stuff getting stronger. I don’t see victims or people who want to take the easy way. I see a community that has found community in this ministry that is about helping people to rediscover the beauty, the power and the dignity that God has placed in each one of us.
I was privileged to sit for a little bit in the job-training group that is so ably led by Michael Adams, our jobs specialist. He has been working for the last several weeks with five individuals preparing for not just getting a job but retaining and being successful in the job.
Michael said to me, “Pastor, we’ve got three people who are ready and tomorrow we are taking those three people to Gibb’s Cleaning to put in their applications for work.” Bill Krugler, who is a member of the jobs task force, Michael and I will be there for moral support.
I keep reading, perhaps as you do, about all of the things that are wrong within the city of Milwaukee. I keep hearing and reading all of the negative things about black males and the challenges that they are up against, and yes, there are challenges, but today again I sat in the Men of Faith Group. Twenty-five men filled the conference room. I merely sat and listened to the power and the brilliance of some of these brothers, and I was visibly moved, not just by what they shared, but by the love and respect that they showed for one another.
If you hear what seems to be a broken record on my part, it is because God calls us to be concerned for those who have been at the bottom — God calls us to be a voice for them until they can find their voice. I celebrate and give thanks for all of you who get this and who walk with us as we seek to bring the good news of God’s love and light. Keep us in your prayers. In the power and the hope of the resurrection.
Ken Wheeler is a retired pastor. He most recently served at Cross Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Milwaukee, where he is now the director of the Bread of Healing Empowerment Ministry. He served 18 years as an assistant to the bishop of the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the ELCA.