A Picture of Ferguson, Missouri

You have probably noticed there isn’t one.

I looked for a picture of Ferguson that didn’t have police lined-up across from citizens or chalk outlines of bodies on the asphalt or clever protest signs. I grew tired of looking.

I simply wanted to write about Ferguson and its struggles with words that would provide the space we all need to grapple with the problems and handle the results of confrontation, death, peaceful demonstrations, riots, prospects of grand jury indictments. And the incredible sadness of a community where the pictures are all of trouble.

And, I wasn’t hoping to show a peaceful Ferguson in an effort to downplay all that is at risk there today. I was hoping to show a town much like the towns we know. Towns not caught in the public spotlight. Places where mistakes are made and bad things happen, but we have a sense that, overall, people are trying to do the right thing. I was hoping that there was a time when Ferguson was like that.

From what some would say, there may not be a picture of a truly peaceful Ferguson in recent history — perhaps decades. I don’t know. I don’t have enough information.

I read a blog post earlier today that said I shouldn’t write anything about Ferguson if I was going to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t have enough information.” But I don’t have the information that can positively place blame on one side or the other. I don’t know what the outcome should be.

So, here is what I do know.

  • It is a shame whenever anyone’s life is taken by violence, whether justified or not.
  • Minorities, especially African Americans, are involved in confrontations (often deadly) with police at a much higher rate than white Americans.
  • To some degree, that higher rate is the result of personal and institutional racism. (Sorry, I don’t know to what degree. I am not smart enough to read and interpret all of the statistics. But I’m not dumb enough not to understand the implications.  If you are offended by my use of the word “racism,” I apologize for making you uncomfortable. But, it’s an accurate word. Discrimination based on race is racism. Our systems do discriminate.)
  • People across the ethnic spectrum misbehave and make mistakes.
  • It is not wrong to enforce laws for the good of society regardless of a person’s race or the color of their skin.
  • It is wrong to hand out justice inconsistently based on race and skin color.
  • Because of past history with our justice system, many of our friends and neighbors who are not white will not trust an outcome by that system — in Ferguson or elsewhere — if it does not result in an indictment against the police officer. Their experience makes the system suspect.
  • If the system is corrupt, it needs to be changed. If people are corrupt, they need to be replaced.
  • This is a horrible situation.
  • We each — every one of us — need to find one piece of holy, common ground to start the conversation and the healing.

And that is where most of us will say, “I don’t know” how to find that one piece of holy ground.

Let me offer this.

Find one person who does not share your racial background. Sit with them and talk quietly about this. Listen. Don’t expect to solve all of the problems. Do expect to discover holy ground. Don’t make it your job to persuade the other person. Do make it your job to understand the other person. If your relationship permits, pray with the other person. If you don’t have a praying relationship, pray that you will.

If you can’t do that, please pray that others can have the conversation.

And while the blog post I read earlier tells us that we should be ashamed to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t have enough information,” I can’t be tagged with that shame as long as I am listening and searching for the answers. With understanding, we come to that place of knowing.

We should pray for hundreds of thousands of these conversations. Even if that quest for holy ground only saves one life . . . even if it only helps one individual make a better decision, it will be worth the effort. I know that it will do far more.

I can guarantee that the holy ground discovered will be exponentially larger than that small stretch of asphalt in Ferguson where tragedy occurred. Even if we don’t know — and may never know — the full story of that tragedy.

Who are you listening to today?

One Year of “Only” Memories

I’ve been at that stage of life for a number of years when it seems we are too often saying our last goodbyes to people we love. And we often acquiesce into the rhythm and relationship of “only” memories.

Joe Cope Veteran

One year ago today, I was in a meeting in Austin when I received a call from my brother, Carl. My dad, Joe Bill Cope, had passed away earlier that morning following months of illness and decline. Although I regretted being hours away, I was happy for him and his eternal victory.

Through the next few days, weeks, months, and now, one year, my mom and my entire family have walked that road of being without. But, I feel certain I can say for all of us that Dad left us with far more than memories.

I don’t just remember his smile, his voice, his words of advice, his hands on his golf club, and his laugh — sometimes at jokes he couldn’t really hear. I can see his smile, hear his voice, his advice still stops me in my tracks and redirects me, I can smell the grass on the fairway and see his ball shoot out (usually skimming the fairway grass), and hear him join us soulfully with his incredible sense of humor.

It’s been a year. But far much more than “only” memories.

Love you, Dad!

Day 12 – Re-entry

Boarding our red-eye flight from Nairobi to Amsterdam brought a sense of relief. Our team of peacemakers was tired and we were eager to see family and friends back home. Yet, our relief was not about our re-entry to our own lives and routines. No, we were just pleased to finally be beyond the checkpoints and into a series of flights and layovers that would be routine.

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Well, that didn’t quite work out.

That first leg of our flight was uneventful with the excellent level of service we had come to expect from a KLM-Royal Dutch Airline crew. Polite, helpful staff, clean airplane, and excellent dining. Most of us tried to follow the advice we had received to “sleep on the first flight — stay awake on the second” in order to ease jet lag on re-entry. Well, let me put it this way. I followed the advice. The rest of the team managed to get seats in pairs. So, it’s possible that they decided that this ten hours was better spent in conversation. The German guy next to me simply put his blanket over his head before we left Nairobi — a pretty clear signal that we wouldn’t be talking.

The blanket did come off the German quite rapidly when we touched down in Amstersdam. And I heard more words from my seatmate in 10 seconds than I had in 10 hours. German words. Although I’m pretty sure they weren’t nice German words.

2014-10-01 08.39.04Of course, almost everyone came to attention at that moment. Within seconds of touching down, the 747’s brakes malfunctioned and locked on the right side of the plane and we rapidly came to a stop, nose and right gear off the runway. (Later we would learn that the captain accomplished a heroic feat in keeping the plane upright.) Our great crew put us all at ease and we watched from inside as fire trucks, ambulances, and light trucks began to surround us.

2014-10-01 08.39.16Thankfully, no one was seriously hurt. We began the slow process of deplaning, boarding buses, and making the 15 minute journey to the terminal. The flight attendants, ever friendly, invited me out on the stair platform for fresh air and to shoot a few pictures while Aaron, Betty, and I waited for the last buses.

We had a 5-hour layover, so none of us were concerned except . . .

2014-10-01 08.42.45Did I mention that Betty and Robyn were leaving us in Amsterdam and flying to London to attend a special event honoring Nanon Williams, Betty’s co-author of The Darkest Hour? So I probably didn’t mention that their layover wasn’t as long as ours, did I?

2014-10-01 08.41.38Nevertheless, the dynamic duo did make it on board a plane bound for Merrye Olde England, without bags, of course. And the rest of us took advantage of our remaining layover to charge phones, grab a bite to eat, and stand in line for the ever-present security checkpoint.

The last leg of our journey into the United States was uneventful. I watched 3 movies in a row, ate the two meals that were served, and walked the aisles to stay awake. I was determined to conquer jet lag.

Leaving the plane in Dallas, we made our way through passport control and down to baggage claim. Because of the mishap in Amsterdam, there were no bags. But the KLM agent we contacted had documents waiting for us. Aaron, Allison, Dan, and Malcolm would need to return to DFW for theirs. Mine would be flown on to Abilene.

So, we said goodbye. Hugs and a few tears. Then, we parted.

Re-entry. Initially it seemed it involved a few plane rides, gathering our belongings, and a short drive home. But in the ensuing weeks, we found it was much, much more.

Re-entry came to be about a far different worldview from that we had experienced in Rwanda and Kenya. Re-entry surfaced as a longing and loneliness for the new African friends we had made. Re-entry became a complicated attempt to extricate ourselves from the daily lives and routines of our life-long partners in this adventure.

Africa Team

Photo: Betty Gilmore

Betty, Robyn, Allison, Dan, Malcolm, Aaron, and I had formed a bond that was stronger than any of us had anticipated. We had become brothers and sisters in a very special calling.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” Matthew 5:9.

The Darkest Hour: Shedding Light on the Impact of Isolation and Death Row in Texas Prisons (Dallas, TX: goodmedia press, 2014)

This well-researched and powerfully written book does shed light on the lack of effectiveness and humanity of our Texas “corrections” facilities. Little is done to “correct” or rehabilitate while much is done to humiliate and to devalue a growing prison population. Betty Gilmore and Nanon Williams bring clear voices to this conversation. They are voices you need to hear.

Day 11 – Connection

After a day of safari and a welcome break from our constant schedule of trainings, Tuesday, September 30, 2014 was our last full day in Africa. We were excited to be with the children from Made In The Streets Ministry in Kamulu, Kenya. And, for all of us, there was a real belief that a special connection would be made during these final hours.

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2014-09-30 00.00.24At 8 a.m. on school mornings, the children gather for chapel. Twenty minutes of energetic singing and our team was ready for the day. I was asked to speak to the group and I spent a few minutes sharing scripture from Romans 8 and detailing how, even in the most difficult of times, God stands with us. We felt a connection with these children.

Video: Aaron Horn

The children were dismissed. The faculty and staff remained for a few announcements and prayer. Then we were off, splitting into three teaching teams to bring some basic conflict resolution concepts to these teens from the streets of Nairobi.

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Photo: Aaron Horn

IMG_1335Betty and Aaron were dispatched to work with the oldest group — the ones spending their days at the Skills Center learning a trade. Allison and Robyn volunteered to take the youngest group while Dan and I worked with the “in-between” students. Even though Malcolm and Aaron had a wonderful experience with the group on Sunday, we were all a little anxious whether the lessons we had planned would connect — culturally and through an interpreter.

IMG_1340Thankfully, the connection was made! The human spirit naturally wants to find ways to bridge gaps and build relationships. And that is exactly what we experienced in these classrooms.

But we would see a connection in another way, not just once, but twice, that day.

IMG_1344In preparation for our trip and our time in Kenya, each team member had spent time researching our host organizations. Robyn excitedly told us months ago that she would be sponsoring a child at Made In The Streets — one of the tiny ones, a child of a child. And Malcolm, shortly before we left the United States, made final arrangements to sponsor one of the new boys, fresh off the streets of Nairobi.

I wish you could have been there when Malcolm met Samuel and Robyn met Dennis. Connection takes on all new meaning.

IMG_1350And connection is what this whole trip was about. Meeting new friends. Helping others find ways to connect and reconnect. Making reconciliation a center piece in our lives. We couldn’t have had a better day.

#SMURwandaPeaceMission2014