It was 5:30am when all 9 of us in the house woke up to the desperate screams of a woman being beaten. At the sound of her screams, I grabbed my phone, dialing 911 as I staggered to my window to see where the yelps were coming from. I gave a groggy report to the dispatcher, along with my name, and we hung up. She assured me she’d send someone right away.
I laid back down in my bed, but it wasn’t long before I realized I could not wait for the police. In previous years, when I have called the police about violence on my block, I’d been told that if there wasn’t a weapon the police wouldn’t come. Thinking about that track record and the continual screams from the woman, along with the man’s constant demands: “Give me my $20! Give me my $20!!” I had an idea.
I grabbed my housecoat and glasses, and on my way out the door, I grabbed a $20 from my wallet, and in my bare feet I walked across the street.
The next 5 or 10 minutes have already become JUSTembrace lore.
It turns out I knew the man doing the beating, and when I approached him, he was startled enough for the woman to get out of reach and scramble to put her underwear and pants back on – which had evidently been stripped from her in the beating. In between striking her and threatening to kill her, he tried to hug me, tell me he loves me, and even spoke about how his deceased parents raised him to respect women! “And I do!” He screamed at the woman before she’d gotten up. At one point, he reached past me and struck her one more time. Our faces were inches apart. I saw the snot running down his lip and smelled the alcohol on his breath. Looking at his face, I felt the desperation of a man in need of control. Being that close to his humanity in that moment was in some very strange way, a sacred experience. I touched his face and said, “look at me. You have to stop. Here’s $20. Leave her alone.” As he slowly backed away, threatening her viciously, he promised to give me my $20 back later.
Eventually he left the area, she went in the building, and I walked back to our home where the 8 remaining people were praying in their beds, peering out windows, or standing in the yard. What a weekend to have a house of guests!
I found out quickly the next day that the dozens of windows facing us from the building across the street were full of onlookers as well. A girl in her nightgown giving a dealer $20 to stop beating a woman is evidently not a common sight around here.
To be honest, it took me the entire next day to find peace over my role in that altercation. I couldn’t shake the fear that my friend and his victim felt like I gave him $20 so they would shut up and I could go back to sleep. Why hadn’t I said something really deep and profound? Why didn’t I show any compassion to the woman once she was off the ground? What should I have done differently? To complicate matters, I couldn’t even process my personal experience because I was so concerned about the trauma my guests might have been feeling. This is not the kind of thing that happens in the suburbs where they are from, and I did not want them to feel unsafe here. More than that, I wanted them to see the humanity of the situation, but I was concerned that was asking too much. These folks had come to JUSTembrace to learn, and this was not part of the planned curriculum.
In processing with these visitors the traumatic experience we all shared, to my joy and comfort, they spoke great wisdom and spiritual understanding over the situation. From their bedroom windows, they saw and heard a miracle of love and friendship. They didn’t hear an annoyed neighbor trying to get peace and quiet so she could go back to sleep. They didn’t see an angry dealer upset that his use of excessive force had been thwarted.
In a neighborhood full of onlookers, they saw a young woman in a housecoat waving a $20 at a man to get him to stop beating a woman. They saw the hard earned trust that I was given by my violent friend and that I assumed in stepping in in the first place. They saw the disorienting power of gentle touch in violence. They helped me to see my instinctual behavior as the fruit of ownership and love for my neighbors.
When one student, struggling to find the words, finally said; “I’m still processing, but I see this as a gift.” I knew immediately that was how I wanted to see it too! Instead of viewing this as a threatening situation for guests, it really WAS an opportunity for friends of JUSTembrace to see the fruit of rooted friendships among those society has outcast and the Church often just serves or avoids all together.
At church, just hours after the violent experience outside our home, the pastor preached on the person of Paul. Paul has long been one of my favorite people in the Bible because of the transformation he experienced in his conversion. Paul went from enacting great violence against Christians to being the most prolific church planter in the early church! It was a perfectly timed reminder of the great hope we should have for the violent in our communities – but also for the violent within us. One of the reasons I live in this neighborhood is because I believe that here there are men and women that God will use to build His Kingdom on earth of whom the Church is terrified. I believe there are men and women in my community that the Church hides from and avoids. I believe it for two reasons. First, I do it too. I cower and I hide. I judge and I withhold grace all.the.time. The second reason is because I’ve felt fear and distrust from the Church. I’ve heard messages of condemnation that have led me to feel unqualified for ministry – even dangerous. The truth is though – for the Gospel to be Good News – it must be Good News to everyone: to the drug dealers and pimps in my neighborhood and to the sinful woman I am daily.
When Paul met Jesus, he was radically changed – but it was the community of faith that had a hard time welcoming him because of their fear. First, a man named Ananias argued with God when He told him to go to Paul (Saul):
Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.
Then, it was the community of faith that rejected Paul, and a man named Barnabas who stood up for Paul:
When he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. He spoke and argued with the Hellenists; but they were attempting to kill him. When the believers learned of it, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.
My prayer is that the JUSTembrace community offers a continual invitation into the Kingdom of God to our neighbors, and that we are poised and ready to take a role like Ananias when God speaks to us. Furthermore, I pray that we work diligently to make space for the voice and leadership of our neighbors with “scary” pasts who know Jesus intimately from their transforming encounters with Him!
If you are a member of the Body of Christ, and you are reading this, I urge you to ask God to allow you to see the potential for the Church through those you are afraid of or have given up hope on. Let’s not allow our fears or the realities of violence to keep us from having restored imaginations as we look at the broken lives around us. What God did in Paul’s life is the fullness of what He longs to do in all of our lives. As we submit to that – let’s be a people of hope and restoration – stepping in to disrupt the violent realities around us from a place of hope and anticipation!