What I think about on Columbus Day
I don't usually think about Christopher Columbus on Columbus Day. On Columbus Day in 1992 in South Bend, Indiana - a little boy named Columbus Coleman was shot and killed. I tell you that story to tell you a story about what I learned about being a pastor out of the death of 7 year old Columbus.
Two young men were running through the neighborhood. They were shooting at each other. They missed. Columbus Coleman was playing in his grandmother's front yard. It was the middle of the afternoon.
The next evening there was a community meeting at Broadway Christian Parish, in the sanctuary. Columbus was killed just two blocks away. The sanctuary was packed. It was standing room only. And it was painful. The police chief got up and said, "I'm afraid to sit in my police car in this neighborhood." The Mayor had said in the paper that morning "he [Columbus] was in the wrong place at the wrong time." Really? His grandmother's front yard in mid-afternoon? It seems like the two young men shooting at each other were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But I didn't only learn that night what not to say. People expressed fierce anger. People expressed grief and sadness. And for the first two hours it was pretty unproductive. But then the television cameras left. Then the conversation really happened - as people embraced around the room and stopped yelling at each other.
A parent came to see me and told me that she was concerned about trouble that her son was starting to get into and wondered whether the church could give him a job in the summer. But that's another story.
This is a story of what ministry looks like. It is a story of people showing care for one another. It is a story of people coming together and deciding to try and take some action so that their community would be safer and healthier for everyone. That was 18 years ago.
Here is what I learned from that. We could have done better. We could have been wiser. We could have been more trusting and open to God's grace. Really.
I learned some things that evening. The neighborhood organization got re-started. Kick started you might say. It lasted for several years. But it found itself easily co-opted by the efforts that the city officials thought would be a good idea rather than what the citizens and neighbors of that community wanted to do. There's been a lot of brick and mortar work in that neighborhood. Real infrastructure improvement. There's a fire station now. A park that had been a refuge mainly for people who were dealing and using drugs was replaced (nearby) with a park with the newest and best equipment. A new boys and girls club replaced the old one that consisted of four concrete walls and no windows. New houses were put up - both small condos for low - income folks and nicer large homes for middle class folks. The YWCA put its gleaming new building and programs in that neighborhood. The fire department put its newest station in that neighborhood. The new juvenile detention center was built in the neighborhood. All this in the 10 years following Columbus Coleman's death.
But here's the thing - I can name for you way too many of the young and old who have died in that neighborhood and even in that new park since those improvements were made to the community. Every year that the congregation has done it's annual Stations of the Cross Walk there are always murders to observe on the walk. The improvements weren't bad. It's simply that city officials and the rest of us mistook brick and mortar work for people work. Or as an old Pentecostal minister would say, Rev. Doris Danner - who laid hands on me at my ordination - "we're always putting the cart of materialism before the horse of the spirit."
One of the things that I love about John Wesley -- and that I'm challenged by -- is the way in which he approached everything from health to economy to education to theology. He was seemingly unintimidated by any of these areas. He would experiment to see what would work and what wouldn't work. You can see that even in the formation of his class meetings and societies.
One of the things I despair of most among my United Methodist sisters and brothers (okay, mainly among my brothers) is that we seem a lot more willing to engage on issues of theology than on issues of practice. For Wesley there didn't seem to me to be an either/or between works of piety and works of mercy. We spend a lot of time (in meetings, at annual conference, and even on blogs) debating the nuances of theology, but very, very little debating the effectiveness of our works of mercy - and developing innovative new efforts and then learning from them.
So - as I have reflected on what happened in the wake of the death of Columbus Coleman I find myself, every year on Columbus Day, challenged to see the new world that is before me. It's not really a new world - it's the new eyes I have to see it with - or attempt to see it with. That is to say - Gospel Eyes.
I want to work with other Christians, other citizens, and other neighbors, to engage us to put as much effort, money, and material - behind investing in the actual gifts of the Spirit in the lives of people, the people of our neighborhoods - who are treated as empty vessels, as we put in the bricks and mortar and new playgrounds that make up the communities of which our congregations are apart.
Right now the development corporation in the neighborhood around Broadway in Indianapolis is working on "pocket parks." I need to be wise and thoughtful about how I talk with the folks I know involved with that effort to encourage and turn their eyes to an investment in the neighbors even more than an investment in the parks (which wouldn't leave out the parks from happening - it's just that there is much more investment spent on the parks).
There is too much of the "if you build it they will come" mentality at work I am afraid. We don't like complexity these days. In fact, I have a letter from the editor of the Indianapolis Star telling me that the issue of poverty is too complex an issue for them to take on. I just don't think that's true. And I think one good gift we can give as Christians is to challenge that view.
I call out Columbus Coleman's name and remember him every year - because it is easy to forget the toll across the years of lives lost...so many more than necessary. And we Christians in our neighborhoods can make a difference. If we would only pray and get together with our neighbors - and act like people of faith who see the presence and power of God alive, not in the brick and mortar, but in the lives of the people around us.