This story was written by William Stringfellow in My People is the Enemy, pp. 145-149. On a day when the Christian scriptures read during worship in churches all across the world focused on life’s victory over death, I thought this story appropriate. It is lengthier, but so worth your time. For the Spirit of Life in Jesus Christ sets us free from the power of sin and death. Thanks be to God!
“Lou Marsh died in New York City at ten minutes after nine on the evening of January 9th, 1963.
At first his death was not much noticed, although it would have been, had not the metropolitan newspapers been struck at the time. Not that Marsh was famous in a way the world would necessarily remember him, but his death was one of the more shocking homicides in memory, even in New York City. If there had been newspapers, at least the tabloids, in their own way, would have celebrated Lou’s death.
Lou worked for the New York City Youth Board, assigned to one of East Harlem’s juvenile gangs — the self-styled Untouchables. I remember suggesting that he apply for such a job, and later wrote to the Youth Board authorities recommending him for it. When he decided to take the job, he called to tell me of what he hoped to accomplish.
Lou was beaten to death by four guys. He had somehow persuaded the gang — the Untouchables — not to go ahead with a rumble to which they had committed themselves against the Playboys, another gang in the neighborhood. Some of the older boys — alumni, so to speak, of one of the gangs in question — wanted the issue between the two gangs to be settled in the traditional way, according to the canons of gang society, by a rumble. They resented the fact that Lou mediated the dispute, or at least accomplished an armistice. Evidently they were humiliated that the younger boys in the gangs followed Lou’s counsel rather than their own. So they ambushed Lou and beat him savagely. He lived for two days in the hospital, unconscious. Then he died. One doctor told me that the damage to his brain was so severe and gruesome that if, by some chance, he had survived, he would probably not have been able to function in any ordinary way as a human being. He most likely would have been grotesquely invalided, living on as a vegetable.
Lou died, it seems, an awful death, but a death that was apparently somehow better for him and for those who loved him than mere survival would have been.
Among those who knew of Lou’s death, but did not know Lou, there were easy, stereotyped reactions. Mayor Wagner observed that this was the first time in fifteen years that a Youth Board worker had been slain in the line of duty, and said that he was outraged. I am afraid that Lou would have been more amused than anything else at the Mayor’s vague promises to do something about the situation. In his own way, Lou was often quite cynical, but he certainly believed that the Mayor was far more so.
And, of course, there were cries for violence, to answer the violence of Lou’s death. One neighborhood newspaper carried the news of the killing, and then editorialized that what was needed was more police, perhaps some extra squads specially trained in guerrilla warfare, to rout and destroy the gangs.
No one realized better than Lou how shrilly inadequate such responses were. He knew that the violence of gang society erupts from the deep frustration of kids who have gone through their whole conscious lives without homes, without fathers, without love, without much of anything. They could hardly have told themselves how much they had suffered, for they had endured by themselves, outside society, without the care of another human being except for the other guys in their gang. And except for Lou, or someone like him, who happened to come along once in a while.
Lou, who had been involved earlier in some of the sit-ins, knew that violence cannot absolve violence, and he knew that the peril to everyone — not just to the gangs — of the police becoming an occupation army in the slum neighborhoods is greater than the danger to him or others in gang warfare.
Besides, Lou knew what it means not to be loved by anybody and what it means not to be loved by everybody.
Lou was a Negro.
He was from a fairly poor family living in the North. He had to save on sleep and work incredibly hard — usually in menial jobs — but because he was intelligent and sensitive, he managed to get a very good education. When I first met him, about five years ago, he was a seminarian at Yale, one of the handful of Negroes who have made it that far. But he grew restless with his studies at Yale; perhaps he felt somehow guilty about being in such a place as Yale Divinity School at all, while his folks were still where they were and while his people were still where they were in this country. For a time, after he left seminary, Lou, in a terrible way, hated the fact that he was a Negro. It was more than feeling sorry for himself; it was as if he complained about his own creation, as if he was rejecting his own birth.
It seemed to him, for a while, better not to live than to be a Negro in America.
After leaving New Haven, he moved to New York City. To act out his resentment, he virtually dissociated himself from bourgeois white society, drifting about the city, unable to look for a job, living on borrowed money, and, it seemed, borrowed time, staying sometimes in flophouses or on the streets.
As he would say himself, he went through the whole bit.
But then, at last, he understood that all this was some variety of pride, that he was indulging in his own self, accusing and condemning himself, punishing and rejecting himself especially for being a Negro; expecting and even, in a way, wanting to be confirmed in this by the rejection of others. Then he realized that he was engaged in suicide.
That was the moment — when Lou was in Hell — in which he knew, I think for the first time, that he was loved by God. That was the event in which by the power of God in the face of the fullness of death, Lou was emancipated — set free to love himself, to love others, and to welcome and receive the love of others. That was the time of Lou’s salvation, the time of his reconciliation with himself and with the rest of the world.
What followed was more or less predictable. Having been so intimate with the presence of death in his own life, but having beheld the reality and vitality of the Resurrection in his own life in the same event, Lou was free to live for others.
So that is what he did.
He took this job with the Youth Board and soon was so preoccupied in caring for the kids in his gang that he forgot himself, so fulfilled in his love for others that he lost his self-interest, so confident that he was now secure in God’s Word that he was not afraid of death.
He was no longer afraid to die the way he died. He knew about the real risks of his job, especially the way he was now free to do his job. The way he died was surely no surprise to Lou. Not that he sought such a death, or any sort of death, any longer, but he was ready to die and was without fear of death. He no longer was in bondage to the alienation of men from each other. He was no longer a pathetic, partisan, professional Negro; he had become a man. Nor was he any longer an imitation white man, a Negro received nominally into white society, as at Yale Lou had been, but never welcomed as himself; he had become a person. Lou himself had been reconciled, and so his own existence and life could be, for the first time, not just a symbol of grievance and protest — as valid and needed in American society as that may be — but more than that, a ministry of reconciliation. He had become so free that he could give away his own life freely — and surely that is the secret of reconciliation in Christ.
Lou Marsh, when he died, was ready; that is, he had already died in Christ and so was without fear of death. That is the freedom the Resurrection bestows upon men.
That is the only way to die, which at the same time means that this is the only way to live.”