My phone rang. My heart jumped. It was 6 am, and I was on my way to work. Nobody ever called me at this time. When I answered the call, I heard my wife’s voice and realized that something was wrong. She said that her mother had just heard on the news that there had been a shooting in the neighborhood where I worked. In fact, the non-profit organization, Newgate Mission, where I served as executive director and pastor had been named in the news report. Minutes away, my mind started racing. Who was it? What happened?
When I turned the corner, I saw the lights, the yellow crime scene tape, and the crowds. And then I saw that all that was happening centered on the main side door of our building. The victim had been shot on the bench right outside our door. I had never in my life experienced this type of disbelief or encountered emotions of this magnitude. Yet when I parked my truck, stepped out onto the pavement, and began approaching the crowd, I realized that what I was feeling had to be suppressed. My job was to shepherd our community through this tragedy.
My first step was to identify the body, a moment I can never forget. Next, I had to speak on behalf of our neighborhood to the broader community through the media as a people that would not cower in the face of evil acts and respond with the healing power of peace and forgiveness. And then I had to clean up the remains. Yes, even after the police “cleaned up” and the coroner left with the body, parts of Cynthia’s earthly being remained. So I did what I had to do. Finally, I had to figure out some way to provide comfort and consolation.
Cynthia Weaver was a woman of the streets. She struggled with mental illness, drug addiction, brush-ins with the law, physical and sexual abuse, homelessness, and all else that comes with this transitory, indigent existence. Cynthia, or “Baby Angel” as she was often called on the streets, was not an angel by any stretch of the definition. She stole. She sold herself. She used. She fell out from her family after abusing their care for years. However, she had the most precious smile and sweet spirit when out from under the influence of the negative forces in her life and within the safety of a community that truly cared for her. While spending time with our Newgate community, we could always count on Cynthia for a laugh, a smile, a hug, and a genuine inquiry into our individual and collective well-being. Cynthia, though, had been murdered, and on the doorsteps of the place that should have been her safe place. Killed because she would not return a sexual favor to her killer for the drugs he provided her as they both attempted to numb their pain and escape their often horrific reality one of the only ways they knew how to.
Thrust into this situation, emotions tumultuous, mind and heart a wreck, how could I respond in a way that would lead our community away from the destructive responses of fear and hatred? Would I be able to hold it together personally and provide this scared, angry, and deeply violated community the strength necessary? And if so, how?
Two days later I walked with our community through a memorial service and a community-wide prayer walk in response to the tragic loss of our friend, Cynthia Weaver. Not only did our community need to grieve, but we had to respond to the broader community with a resounding message. Our “side of town” had already been vilified enough. We were not a community prone to violence. We were not a community that was inevitably faced with the destructive effects of drug abuse and sexual assault. We were not a community of miscreants and criminals. We were a community of broken people, hurting and wandering and groping. We were a faithful community that would respond with hope, peace, and love. We would not be overcome by hate, but instead overcome hate with love.
Because of this experience, I know more today what it means to be an advocate and defense for the poor. It means I suffer with, I stand up and stand in for, I lead the charge, and I clean up the remains. But even more than that, it means that I allow the strength, beauty, and dignity of indigent persons and communities be the strength I need, give my life meaning and purpose, and allow me to be a part of something dignified and beautiful, especially in the midst of unspeakable tragedy.
To this day I think fondly of Cynthia. My heart breaks for her. But it also breaks for her killer, his family, and the community that was shattered by violence that fateful day. I think of the truth that broken people hurt broken people. And I pray for healing. I hope for hope. I strive to reflect the light of life and love in all that I do. And I invite others to do the same. We are all broken. Some of us hide it well, all of us attempt to escape. Broken people hurt broken people. Yet…
There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.