Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Pastoral Letter on the August 24th shooting at Kingdom Authority Church in Rockford

On August 24th, 2009, Mark Barmore, a 23-year-old African American, was shot and killed by two white police officers while inside the House of Grace Day Care run by Kingdom Authority International Ministries Church in Rockford (a predominantly African American church a mere two blocks from my congregation). You can find basic news coverage of the incident and the controversies that have arisen in its wake at the website of the Rockford Register-Star:

The following pastoral letter was distributed to my congregation's whole-church email list and copies will be made available at worship on Sunday.

August 27, 2009

Dear Friends,

By now I suspect most all of you have heard or seen coverage of the shooting and death of Mark Barmore at Kingdom Authority Church this past Monday afternoon. Because of how this incident, and the reactions and controversies surrounding it, affect all of us in the Rockford community, I have had a growing sense of obligation to share some of my own reflections.

As some of you may know, Kingdom Authority is a predominately African American congregation located less than two blocks from our own church facilities, in the 500 block of North Court Street. Many of us regularly drive by the brown-brick building on our way to-and-from Second Congregational, and Kingdom Authority’s pastors, Melvin and Sheila Brown, have been involved in past conversations around neighborhood concerns. A tragic incident like this anywhere in our community has deep impacts, but I know that I, for one, am all the more conscious of it given that it happened ‘in our own backyard’.

I do not presume to “know the facts” about what happened any more than you probably do. As the media reports show, the various accounts from the police department and from persons present at the time of the shooting do not all agree with one another. Ultimately, it may never be possible to establish an account of exactly what happened that will be completely beyond suspicion by some in our community.

I had the opportunity to attend a good portion of yesterday afternoon’s press conference at City Hall along with First Presbyterian’s pastor Bob Hillenbrand and Emmanuel Episcopal’s rector Pamela Hillenbrand. As media coverage indicated, the press conference did not provide as much in the way of answers as it did serve to highlight the variety of emotions and reactions flowing through our community.

I may not have any answers about “the facts”. But I have been impacted by the strength and emotion in the reactions around our community, and as I have thought through others’ reactions and my own, a few reflections have come to me:

First of all, regardless of the precise details, Monday’s incident was a tragedy. It is always a tragedy when a death occurs through the use of force. Mark was a real human being and child of God, regardless of the particularities of his life journey. I have been greatly disturbed to read comments posted on internet news article feedback boards that say he “deserved what he got.” No one deserves to be killed. Even when a police officer does engage in ‘justifiable’ self-defense and rightly takes actions they think necessary, nevertheless a life is ended and that is cause for mourning. Furthermore, not only were Monday’s events tragic for Mark and his family, but also for the police officers involved, as they must deal with their own trauma and emotional strain.

Second, real people are hurting with real pain. Of course, it goes without saying that Mark’s family and friends have been thrown into the pangs of grief. But there are also the day care children and others in whose presence the shooting occurred, and they have the emotional effects of that to process. Then, there is the community of Kingdom Authority, who must cope with their own sacred space being the location of such a tragic occurrence.

But the impact and the pain of this event reaches farther than that. This event has again brought to light the tensions and distrusts between police and other authorities and the racial-ethnic communities of our society, a dynamic that is not unique to Rockford. Sure, it is true that relations among the various racial and ethnic groups in our country have improved in our time, but that does not erase overnight the long histories of systemic injustices that certain communities have endured at the hands of those in power. Even as injustices and prejudices decrease, building trust is a much longer process that requires hard work. The reactions and controversies over Monday’s shooting clearly show that those bonds of trust are still lacking in our community. Without that foundation of trust, events like this cause perceptions and suspicions that lead to a pain that is very real to those experiencing it. Regardless of whether we agree with someone’s perceptions of a situation, we must all realize that the kind of pain that arises from those perceptions is no less ‘real’ than other kinds of pain.

Third, race is undeniably a factor in this whole situation. Let me be clear: I am not saying that race was a motivating factor in the actual shooting. But it is very clear that race is playing a large role in the reactions and controversies that have arisen since Monday’s events. Racially-biased accusations are now being flung about by people in both the white and black communities. Regardless of the motivations and justifications of any of the parties involved, it is hard to miss the imagery of two white police officers chasing a young black male and shooting him in front of mostly black day-care children—and hard to deny how this image could stir up memories out of the long history of racial discrimination in our country. Again, I am not saying that race was a motivating factor in the actual shooting, but as I said earlier, the emotion and pain that come out of perceptions (accurate or inaccurate) are just as real for those experiencing them as any other pain.

Finally, all that has happened makes it clear that we still have work to do. As I mentioned, this week’s events have made it clear that relationships and bonds of trust between various parts of our community are missing. Thinking of our particular context here at Second Congregational, I am aware that we sit no more than half-a-block farther away from Kingdom Authority Church than we do from, say, Court Street United Methodist—and yet the difference in our relationship and knowledge of those two congregations is tremendous. Relationships and trust-building are two-way streets, and we must re-commit ourselves to making sure that we are doing our part. We cannot expect trust when relationship is lacking, and we cannot expect real relationship without the hard work it takes on all sides to make it happen.

“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me…” Our whole Rockford community finds itself in a dark valley this week. Neither answers nor healing will come overnight. But indeed, we are assured of God’s presence with all of us as we journey through this moment. But in that assurance, we must also hear God’s ever-present call to stand in solidarity with those who are hurting and in pain. We must hear the apostle Paul’s reminder that “the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body,” and that no part of the body can say to another part that “I have no need of you.” We are one body in Christ with all our Christian sisters and brothers across this whole community—and, you might say, one body in community with all people across this region—one body regardless of race and regardless of perspectives and perceptions about what occurred this past Monday. As a Christian people, part of that one body in Christ, our call is to be agents of mercy, understanding, and reconciliation—a long and hard journey, but the only one worth taking.

Yours in the journey,
The Rev. Matthew C. Emery

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