There was something on Facebook about a prayer vigil at Bethel AME. It was on Bethel’s page. It said something about someone from some news channel wanting to get more details about the prayer vigil. But there was no public posting about it. I checked my email and my phone. Nobody from church had contacted me about it.
“Have you heard anything about a prayer vigil at Bethel?” I asked Deb.
“No. Why. Is there a prayer vigil?”
For the first time in many years, I felt strange about being white. I’d sort of forgotten about it. It had taken me two or three years. And I hadn’t thought about it since those early years. But now I felt strange again.
I can’t blame them for not wanting me, a white guy, at the prayer vigil but, “If they didn’t invite me,” I told Deb, “I don’t want to go back there.”
“They wouldn’t not invite you,” she said.
The New Yorker had a painting of nine birds flying this week. The spire of a church steeple. A bell tower. I almost cried just looking at it.
I’ve been an AME member for over ten years. When white people ask me why I go to that church, I say I don’t know. But the truth is, I go to that church because I need it.
I was afraid, when I first attended, that the black people wouldn’t want me there. Weren’t there enough white churches in Iowa City? Didn’t I have my pick of any of them? What made me think I had the right to pollute their black worship with my whiteness? But it’s not like that. Mel Shaw, now the founder of a law firm, who wasn’t even in law school yet, gave me a big hug when the time came to greet people. And Reverend Mallet, when I was leaving, stopped me and told me she wanted to see me coming back again next Sunday. And so I did. But now it’s strange.
There’s a video online where family members of the slain church members of Emanuel AME forgive the shooter. He doesn’t look too happy about it. I can’t watch the video for long. Mostly because I’m ashamed. I’m not ashamed that I’m the same color as the shooter; I’m ashamed because I don’t forgive him. Not only do I not forgive Dylann Roof, I don’t forgive Michael Slager, the cop who shot Walter Scott. I don’t forgive any of the cops who shot or strangled or beat all those people to death over the years. Next time someone breaks into my house, reads the tee short, call a crackhead. I know. I know. But still…
I’ve always had a problem with cops in particular. It’s probably because of my mother. I will blame her because she’s not here. And she will never read this essay. And it probably is her fault anyway. She told us kids that we were special. And our opinions were special. And everything was special about us. So, when first and second grade came around and Mrs. Ambrose and then Miss Lynch were always telling us what to do and how to hold our pencils and shouting at us when we tried to share our very special thoughts on whatever it might have been we were thinking about, we realized that our mother had set us up for a fall. All these people not listening. And, at the same time, telling us what to do. It started with elementary school teachers and continued into my adulthood with cops.
When I was in fifth grade, I had little enough experience with cops that I wanted to be one. Not because I wanted to tell people what to do, but because I wanted to ride a motorcycle around and get paid for it. I wanted to be like Eric Estrada and that other guy nobody can remember the name of. They seemed like nice guys. And, like I said, they rode their motorcycles around so I had this idea that the cops and I were simpatico. Until I got older and got my license and started accumulating tickets. I know now that most of the parking tickets weren’t written by cops, but I didn’t really put it together back then. The speeding tickets, however, were definitely written by cops and I hated speeding tickets and therefore, if you will allow me this faulty syllogism, I hated cops. I hated them even more when one of them hit me in the face with his police radio when I turned to see what was happening outside a Boston nightclub called Lipstick. Lipstick was a nightclub where underage kids could get in. It was upstairs from another club which I have forgotten the name of. Anyway, two of my friends were throwing punches and the cops were there and when I turned to see what all the commotion was, the cop considered this an act of aggression and he clocked me with his radio. When I came to, my friends were gone. And so was everyone else. It was just me and the parking lot. I hated the cops for that. Forget about all the nice moments I had shared with cops. Like the time when…I never shared any nice moments with cops. Parking tickets. Speeding tickets. Beatings. They beat up my twin brother for smoking a joint in an alley. And then they threw down on me when I turned to see what was going on. This is the rule with cops: Never turn to see what’s going on. In fact, don’t look at them at any time. One time, at age fifty, while at a stop light at the corner of Burlington and Riverside in Iowa City, I turned to glance at a cop who had pulled up next to me. I nodded to him and then checked for any foot traffic. And then for any automobile traffic. And then proceeded to take a right turn on red, which is legal in Iowa. That’s when the cop pulled me over. The same one I had nodded to. Wrote me a $100 ticket. “They put up a sign yesterday,” he said, throwing his thumb over his shoulder. “You can’t take a right on red here anymore.” I smiled at him and thanked him sincerely. I did this because I thought it might confuse and anger him. He gave me a stony look and walked back to his car.
I know that cops have hard jobs. I know everyone hates them and it must be very hard for them. On the other hand, nobody twisted their arm to become a cop. They did it for a reason. Maybe they liked the idea of a uniform and a pistol. Maybe they wanted to bring symphonic order into a cacophonous world. Or maybe they were assholes to start out with and so they just wanted to further the assholish side of themselves. Put an exclamation mark on it. And become a cop.
So, although it was a blow when all these videos began to surface showing cops beating homeless people to death or shooting black men or strangling to death a guy who had committed the crime of selling individual cigarettes on the street, it didn’t surprise me all that much. I know that if any cop were to answer the question one NFL GM asked the players he interviewed before the draft, “Which one would you rather be: a dog or a cat?” They would unanimously shout, “A dog! A dog for Christ sake!” You never see cats gathering into large groups and attacking other cats. Cat’s don’t do that. But dogs do. I know cops have a hard job because everyone hates them. But they, as a pack, own part of that hatred. It’s not all on us cats.
It’s heavy for me to carry around all this animosity. It’s poison. It doesn’t feel right. Not with the family members in Charleston forgiving Dylann Roof. The man who killed their father. Their brother. Their mother. Their aunt. “What you did hurt me really bad. It really hurt me. But I forgive you.”
President Obama spoke at Clementa Pinkney’s funeral.
“What a good man,” he said. “Sometimes, I think that’s the best thing to hope for when you’re eulogized, after all the words and recitations and resumes are read, to just say somebody was a good man.”
President Obama said that Root’s act of violence “drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress, an act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination, violence and suspicion, an act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin.”
He paused then. Like a preacher. And then, “Oh, but God works in mysterious ways. God has different ideas. (Dylann Roof) didn’t know he was being used by God.”
I can’t even think about it.
The day after the cryptic post on Bethel AME’s Facebook page, another post appeared. There would be a prayer vigil on Friday night. All faiths, all races were invited to attend. “The Doors of the Church,” we read in the responsive prayer, “are still open.” I took a seat next to Portia Byrd, a beautiful, elderly woman who always wears fancy hats to church. She reached over and held my white hand in her black hand. “I love you, Joe,” she said. It was the first thing she said to me. We all held hands when the preacher prayed. And then Michael Hill, who runs adult Sunday school. And then Reverend Verse. And then other people who were called upon to pray for the families of the murdered. And for the community nationwide and worldwide. And even for the shooter. The preacher said that the politicians didn’t understand. There was hatred in their mouths. They spoke of death penalties and revenge. But we know, she said, that our only salvation lies with The Lord. We need to forgive, she said. We need to love. Nothing else will pull us through but love. At one point in the service, when we were called upon, in the midst of a song, to seek out those whom maybe we did not know, those who looked different from us, and to embrace them, I noticed a line of cops at the back. Not in attendance for crowd control, but prayer. They were closing their eyes. Holding hands with the congregants. Praying for folks like me. Who have trouble with the concept of love. Now they had broken away and were embracing the other people who were assembled together in the spirit of love. Embracing the pastor. The assembled congregants of all age, color, and occupation.