Jennifer and I have been talking a lot lately about what the values, guidelines and rules are that structure the life of hospitality we live here in Uptown. I am pretty sure the first time Jenn said the word “rule” I balked and got a very uncomfortable look on my face. Rules were most of what I had to define my life until the last few years as I’ve tried to reprogram my heart to focus on abiding in Christ. The word “rule” has not found a comfortable place back in my vernacular yet.
However, there are rules. There has to be.
* Lock the gate when you leave
* Keep the doors closed when the air is on (I’m not paying to cool off the neighborhood!)
* Don’t give in to a hustle
* Do not drink on the street with the neighbors (that’s also a legal one)
* Don’t buy drugs from neighbors
* Do not purchase alcohol for neighbors
Tonight I broke one of these basic rules, and it was the most loving things I’ve done in three months.
As we stepped outside to walk home from dinner, we saw a bus going on the wrong street and a helicopter overhead. Something was up!!! Of course I was very curious about what this new hullabaloo was all about.
As we rounded the corner by our house, I saw a few of our more notorious neighbors (notorious for their passion when they are in the throws of their addiction and hanging out with others on the street) gathered in a nook near our gate. I excitedly approached them “Do ya’ll know what’s going on?? Who are they lookin for?” One of the three comprehended what I was saying and carried on a little conversation with me. It was nice too because he tends to be the most …. intimidating …. when he’s in a fit of “passion”.
Satisfied with my friendly exchange, I continued to my gate where I spent the next 10 minutes chatting with my next door neighbor Paul, hearing about his trip to Europe this summer and his upcoming trip to India, as well as picking through what’s left of the garden.
Then I heard harsh voices. So I looked.
The intimidating man I had the friendly exchange with just moments before had his hands against the wall I had just been standing by and was being frisked by a police man who was speaking harshly to him. I turned my full attention and watched. My friend was being spoken to as if he were a belligerent child (trust me, I’ve been and spoken to, belligerent children. There’s a tone.)
I watched this police officer frisk my friend with visible disgust. Just the way he treated this person, who’s hands were powerlessly and obediently pressed against the wall was as if he were dealing with a putrid piece of trash he was forced to clean up.
So I continued to watch and whispered to Jen “I would never want to be a black man.”
Soon the cop poured out what remained of my friends beer. That made sense. It’s illegal. It needs to be dealt with. But then…. then the cop went into my friend’s shopping bag and pulled out two more beers. He walked over to the tree as my friend, still obediently spread eagle against the wall, began to protest.
“Sir, Sir! Those aren’t open! Those are mine, Sir! Sir! Don’t pour those out, sir! Those aren’t open!”
The cop looked at him, full of the power of the city of Chicago about him and declared “Do you want a ticket?!”
I knew my friend would be brewing… I knew this was going to get rowdy.
The officer proceeded to pour the beers out by the tree, put the empty cans back in the bag and place the bag in the corner of the building with my friend’s other bags.
Then the arguing ensued.
I struck up a conversation with a sweet old lady who works at the nursing home two doors down as she stopped to comment about our burnt crops (yes, I am a bad farmer). I gave her my purple peppers I had just picked and then I got close and asked her quietly “how do you report an officer for being unjust?” She got even quieter than me and gave me a few tips. It was very helpful.
Once the cops pulled off my friend was free to yell and scream his obscenities. Then he directed his screams to the audience.
Oops. He thought I was just a gawker. He didn’t know my sense of injustice was coursing through my veins. He didn’t know I’d already called 311 but got put on hold. He didn’t know I desperately wanted to hug him – and so he yelled. He yelled and cursed and asked me what I was looking at. Then…. then his words struck home. He began to say how well he treated us. How he looked out for us. How he would never hurt us.
I stepped out of my gate and he walked towards me with his yells. I let him yell. I waited…. prayed for an opportunity to ease his pain. He yelled.
Finally I got out “I agree with you”.
It took him a little bit – I had to say “I totally agree with you” a few times in between being told to go to hell and other assorted things…. but he heard me and he simmered down. He came closer.
I told him it was not cool what those cops had done to him. It was not ok how they treated him. I told him those beers were unnecessarily wasted. Then I asked if I could buy him two more to replace them.
Yep. You are as shocked as he was.
Of course I don’t approve of public drunkenness – I don’t support alcholism – I don’t like the beer cans that are strewn around my house. But to see a man treated like an animal and a child all in one… in the middle of broad daylight for no apparent reason other than to be dominated – well… my heart was broken for him and somehow “I’m sorry they treated you that way” seemed empty.
My friend knows those beers do not condone his behavior. I didn’t even need to scold him. He knows. He knows it was an act of solidarity, of friendship, of compassion. Not because he lost his beers – but because he lost his dignity. And I can’t replace that with a trip to the liquor store. So I did what I could.
Actually Jen bought it – she got her money out faster – in fact, it was her idea I think. Here I am telling her story as if it’s mine. Oh dear…
By the way – Jen is doing amazingly in her new home and new neighborhood. I’m really proud of her and grateful for her sensitivity and teach-ability.
I’ve been trying to explain to her all week why I don’t like rules because sometimes the very rules that we desperately need to keep order and stability can be broken.
Tonight was one of those nights.
I broke a rule… and that’s not all…
(Quick disclaimer: This situation reminds me of the case studies we had in grad school. The “obvious” decision is really not that obvious. It’s gray – so so gray. My actions tonight were not motivated by the rights and wrongs of drunkenness. They were motivated by humanity and compassion. My neighbor knows my moral code – he watches me. He knows how out of character our “gift” was, and I think it had a greater impact precisely because we normally would not do that. It’s a rule. Don’t buy beer for drunk neighbors. Sometimes breaking the rule is the best love choice.)