Tim Harvey on serving people who fall through the cracks
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Jada Williams addressed the Gun Violence Prevention Commission in Roanoke, Virginia, with a conviction formed from tragedy and tinged with the tiredness of someone who has labored long with little to show for her work. Speaking in an unremarkable City Hall conference room, she had come to tell us the story of her teenage son, Jamal, who was the innocent victim of a gang-related shooting during the summer of 2021—a tragic situation of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The shooting left Jamal with significant, long-term disabilities.
In the months following the shooting, Jada barely left Jamal’s side. Her fierce maternal care, however, came at a high price. Caring for Jamal meant quitting her job so she could be at his bedside. Quitting her job meant spending the savings intended to purchase a home for her family. Spending her savings meant being unable to afford rent, so now she and her family, including three other young children, live in the basement apartment of a church member’s home. At times, Jamal’s needs were so demanding that her other children spent the weekend with their teachers.
Our commission’s agenda this particular evening left us mired in the data of gun violence, assault and murder tabulated into neat statistical reports and identified by colored dots on a map of our city. The poise and determination in Jada’s voice, however, reminded us of the deadly importance of this work. What might have been most striking about Jada’s remarks that evening was that she was not angry with us; in fact, she expressed deep gratitude for this voluntary effort.
But Jada was determined to be heard. Since that night when her family’s life was changed forever, Jada has tried everything she can to get help. She has visited every social service agency in our city seeking assistance with housing, nursing care, and support for her children. In every instance, she has come away empty-handed. It turns out that our city has an abundance of agencies that exist to aid persons in all kinds of circumstances—all kinds of circumstances, it turns out, but hers. Everywhere has Jada turned, it seems that she doesn’t quite fit the mission of the agency or purpose of the charitable organization that otherwise exists to provide assistance of one kind or another.
She came to the commission to insist that as we seek solutions to prevent gun violence, we not neglect to find solutions for victims of gun violence like Jamal, persons who fall through the cracks of the social safety net after news coverage moves on to the next story.
Ministry beyond the congregation
The Roanoke City Council appointed the Gun Violence Prevention Commission in the summer of 2019 to study the rising levels of gun violence, identify its root causes, and create meaningful opportunities for positive, non-violent living in our diverse city. Our nine-member commission is made up of social workers, mental health professionals, and clergy.
Like many cities in America, incidents of gun violence in Roanoke have increased over the past 10 years. And while we are each horrified by the long litany of mass-casualty shootings plaguing our nation, the type of gun violence we are working to reduce is gang-related with a deep taproot in the soils of poverty, racism, and the so-called “urban renewal” movement of the 1960s–1980s. Many of the housing projects and neighborhoods where gun violence is concentrated are the product of this triplet of urban brokenness.
I sought appointment to the Gun Violence Prevention Commission out of the commitment to peace and nonviolence I’ve learned as a lifelong member of the Church of the Brethren—one of the three “historic peace churches”—and my 18 years of pastoral leadership in Roanoke. The six Church of the Brethren congregations in our city have a long history of ministry with our entire community, an emphasis that has continued as incidents of gang-related gun violence are increasing in the high-poverty, historically Black northwest quadrant of our city.
My congregation finds great spiritual value in our outreach: we tithe our congregational giving and designate much of that money to non-profit organizations that provide housing, counseling, and medical care to persons “in need.” Beyond our tithe, we regularly offer our time and talent to a non-profit organization that builds beds for children who do not have them. We eagerly support our denomination’s disaster response programs through special offerings.
But two things are clear. The first is that ministries like these have a real impact and address a significant need. The second is that charitable giving has not yet touched Jada in a way that will change this new trajectory of her life.
Jada’s story offers a difficult combination of two uncomfortable facts that seem to be contradictory, but actually combine in a difficult truth: the social “safety net” is only barely keeping her head above water. Yet Jada did not come to the commission to ask for assistance. Even after she learned I am a pastor, she did not ask if my congregation could help her. Jada is simultaneously appreciative of the many who have helped her and is still struggling to keep her life together. All she insists is that our commission be aware of the people who are falling through the cracks and do something about it.
An uncomfortable confession
As I drove home from our meeting the evening Jada spoke, it occurred to me that I have the privilege of choosing how to respond to people like her. Do persons in my White, middle-class, suburban congregation have any obligation to Jada? We share a faith, a city, and a common humanity. Each Sunday in worship, my congregation seeks reconciliation with God and one another by confessing that “we have sinned against [God] in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”
Could the struggle of Jada’s family be something we have left undone? A challenge with a familiar liturgy is that repetition leaves us deaf to our words, granting us the privilege of keeping a deeper significance of prayer—and the people and circumstances it represents—at arm’s length. What would we learn if we asked God to show us what we are leaving undone? How can we translate these words into action and, in so doing, “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” in a way that impacts a struggling neighbor?
Such prayer might cause us to reconsider the meaning of “neighbor.” This is the issue at the heart of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, a story so well known that the phrase “Good Samaritan” has long been part of our secular vocabulary. Jesus tells this story in response to someone who asks, “Who is my neighbor?” In a story of persons who either do or do not assist a man badly wounded in a robbery, we find that being a neighbor means personally entering someone’s suffering. The Samaritan man who provides assistance is held up as a model because of involvement that comes at great personal and financial cost. His direct intervention sets the wounded man on the road to recovery, an intervention that comes while others were so busy with religious obligations they had no time to be curious about a man who had been left for dead.
Jada’s story presents some difficult questions for us. Repenting of things left undone should not cause us to overlook the good work we are already involved in. Financially supporting those who serve our community extends the reach of our congregations and strengthens our neighborhoods in significant ways.
What our repentance offers here is an invitation to go deeper, recognizing that healing the brokenness in our communities will involve a costly personal involvement. It might begin with a partnership with a congregation across town, where we show up and earn the right to hear stories like Jada’s, while learning of both the beautiful and broken places in neighborhoods we rarely visit. It might mean investing our time and talent in ministries and programs that others are sponsoring, providing both assistance and encouragement for those already working on the front lines of brokenness. It might mean having our preconceptions shattered and our hearts touched about what life really looks like for neighbors we have not yet met.
We live in a time when it is popular to blame others for the things they have done. But a commitment to public ministry challenges us to consider the things we have left undone: thinking about people and situations we’ve never thought about; seeing people we prefer to overlook; challenging ourselves to invest our faith in a compassionate neighborliness that walks long, costly roads with people like Jada for whom there are no quick answers.
Tim Harvey is the pastor of Oak Grove Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, Virginia.
Tim's other work on Foreshadow:
The Comfort that Comes to Those Who Mourn (Non-fiction, May 2021)
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