Minister William Brown

God’s witness that evening two and a half years before had been Minister William Brown, a one-time African Methodist minister and bearer of a doctorate of religious studies from God’s Holy Power Seminary in Ednoc, Georgia. Alice was not impressed by the credentials, but hers was a deep-seated religiousness, one fed from the sense that a connection to the universe was possible; she felt herself a member of the community of those who could recognize this connection and who were, therefore, not dependent upon an earthly authority to bestow legitimacy. Minister Brown had been recommended to her by someone her mother knew in Georgia, and when she heard that he was touring with a special message for white America — that is, outside the African- American community — Alice took this to be an important opportunity.

The minister was pleased to accept the invitation but told her that spreading his message was a financial burden God told him would have to be borne by those chosen to hear it. Alice arranged for a special collection at her church, which to no one else’s surprise fell flat. It looked like the evening would have to be cancelled, or the minister’s generosity tested, when a silent donor was able to put funding worries to rest. That donor was not Gary; you can guess who it was.

She organized the evening with a certain fear: would the Caucasian core stay away and confirm the minister’s suspicion of indifference? A liberal periphery existed at her church, and the whole crowd showed up that night — mostly white, but with some exemplary specimens of other minorities — along with the usual busy bodies and hangers-around. For Alice, the relief was palpable. When she called everyone in to sit down, it was with a sense of pride at the turn-out and the general un-self-conscious mood. Minister Brown bestowed upon her a look of gratitude commingled with surprise.

Alice read stiffly from a card while the minister stood behind and to the side of her, shifting his weight like a cowed tiger, waiting for a signal to strike that he never expected to come. But it did not take long before Alice turned to him and bade him to speak to the assembled congregation. The minister gave her an effusive thanks, with a broad smile that did not diminish when he turned his attention to the audience. Sitting there, one might question whether that indefatigable smile was genuine, given that it didn’t shrink one iota when turning to the task at hand, a difficult subject, one fraught with recrimination and distrust. The smile seemed even to grow, and he seemed every bit a man in his element, yet less as someone who cherished his own voice or who spoke in order to hear the thunderous applause as his voice ended, but one who spoke because words and ideas filled him — and sought release.

“My dear ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for the invitation to come to your glorious church and reception hall, to speak with you this evening. I am a simple man, you will see. I do not come this evening to lecture, or to inform, or to persuade. It is not my place to question you, or you, or you, about your past, or to place my past before you like an accusation.

“I am descended from a lineage of slaves. How many generations of slaves, I do not know. I do know that my great grandmother was born into slavery and her mother before her. Perhaps three generations before, perhaps ten. But my parents, and their parents before them, were born free men and women. They had their own homes, and they went to work daily, and came home in the evening to relax and replenish themselves in the bosom of the family. My family life was very pleasing — we shared our love through song, through teasing and play, through sitting together, listening to the radio or reading a book aloud. This was a good life, and I think God every day for the memories and the strength that it has given me. — Let me hear you say Amen!

“It is not my past that we are here to discuss today, dear parishioners. It is not your past, sir, whether or not that may include injustice from a mightier hand than yours. Each one of us bears the marks of Christ; for each of us, our sufferings are a test of our spirit, of our faith and of our humanity. I do truly believe that God tests no one greater than his or her spirit is able to bear — I do believe that — and that means that we have great spirits, yes, Lord almighty, how great is the spirit of some of us. Yet God would have us not dwell on this suffering; he would have us leave the contemplation of the vale of tears and return to the garden, where there is work to be done. We must tend to the future.

“I am here, then, ladies and gentlemen, to tend to the future. It is true that I am concerned about my brethren, the young men of African descent among us here in America. But I hope that we all share this concern for the future, a shared future that is cut from whole cloth. The future is a place, a garden, from which grows the young sprouts of youth, at first unconscious and unable to explain to themselves how they got there, but quickly learning to copy, to emulate those who have planted them. The rebellion of youth is nothing more than a show, I hope you understand that. The youth are an expression of the contradiction we all express about ourselves to ourselves — and so to our youth. They grow up recognizing our contradictions, but not how deeply, how completely they have absorbed the content, the rules, the makeup that drive these contradictions. They may seem to break free of the contradictions, sometimes, but they only remake these contradictions anew. You cannot reinvent what it means to be human. We are there in them, no matter how they would spit in our faces, Lord have mercy.

“I want to tell you five stories today, five tales that will be both familiar and strange, comforting and a little uncomfortable. I hope that you will bear with me and listen to the stories in the spirit that they are told — as witnesses from the garden, from that whole cloth from which we are all cut.”

I have to tell you that this is a shortened version, edited not out of disrespect, but because I would have to work a lot harder to recreate his Georgian voice and mannerisms in order to make sense of it all. The real point emerged now from a side door, quite unexpectedly: five young African American men enter, swaggering, shuffling and strolling with five distinct vocabularies of confidence, as if they were in five different neighborhoods or cities or countries, and simultaneously projected here. The audience suddenly found itself in different situations as well: a cough over there, a number of chairs squeaked as legs were adjusted, and heads bobbed and weaved as they gathered a look. Palpably, one could say, the looks communicated: We didn’t bargain for this; this is not what we signed up for. Who are these men?

Minister Brown held up his hands: “Now, friends, before you jump to any conclusions, I just want to tell you that these are five volunteers whom I have gathered from your own community. These five young men were invited here today to provide an illustration for my five stories. But you should understand that they are not the source of the stories. These are five generous young men who have given of their evening for the simple reward of a hearty thank-you, and a pizza and cola.”

The five, who had been loosely coached and were visibly unpracticed, stood in an uneven line behind the minister, some closer to one another and one a bit too far in front. The minister moved a bit more to the side and made a sweeping gesture to encompass all five. “Please remember that the stories I’m about to tell are not their stories. These five young men were selected at random, and not for their particular dress or manner. They are just illustrations for us tonight, not personifications.

“The first tale belongs to Wallis Branford, known to his friends as Wall. He is not tall or strong or imposing, so you may wonder how that name stuck. How it stuck? Like many other things — spit wads, dirt clods, the impression of a ring on the flesh of the cheek. This is a young man who has had to endure much. He has his friends, but he has made many enemies over the years — more than he can count, actually, many more than can be accounted for by his will to antagonize others. What is it about him that leads to such animosity? Well, Wallis?”

He turned to look at the first boy, standing ahead of the others, with his legs apart — almost bowed — in a broad stance and his arms crossed across a Chicago Bears jersey. He had a weave that kept his long hair close to his head, a gold chain with a heavy gold cross, and a single diamond in his left earlobe. His face was smooth, rugged and dark skinned, almost to a shimmering black, against which, beneath a whisper light set of spectacles, the whites of his eyes gleamed and the irises glowed. This was a well-to-do and stylish young man, someone with self-assurance and a swagger of success. This was not Wallis.

“Uh-h-h-h-h,” he said, as if he wasn’t going to respond, but then he let drop the pretense and took a half step forward: “At my home it’s just grandpa and grandma. Mom’s in a half-way house or jail or a crack house, I’m not sure. Grandpa and grandma do the best they can for me, and they tried to raise me with values, like, it doesn’t matter what your clothes are, you wear them with dignity and hold your head high. You don’t want to turn out like your mother, they say. I nod. But the fact is I’ve already turned out like her. I can’t smell a thing because I sniffed so much glue. A doctor said that my head is slow because I used to play in the window sill where the paint chipped. At school the teachers just look at me and don’t even mind when the other kids pick on me. I’m a lost cause, one said to me. Well fine — ”

“Wallis!” said Minister Brown with emphasis. “Wallis — found an outlet, all right. His neighborhood was full of them. He knew which doors to knock on so he could tell them that he was ready for anything. Now, it didn’t start right away. Some of these men had little brothers, who told them stories about Wall. He had to earn their confidence, and suffered many humiliations over the days and months it took. But finally, he got his chance and proved that he was completely fearless and absolutely without scruples — qualities that can be quite valuable on these streets. He found himself in time a trusted lieutenant in a drug dealer’s army.” The minister looked over his shoulder at the still defiant Wallis figure. “He even stayed away from the stuff, because, for him, belonging, really belonging, to this savage group was worth more than any escape from reality. He is finally home, even if grandpa and grandma won’t see him any more, and even if his mother lies in suspended decomposition on a mausoleum slab.”

Minister Brown took a tremendous breath and exhaled in a slow compression of his chest, as if cleansing himself of the contamination of Wallis’s hate. “Beside Wallis,” he began, before he had much wind back and therefore hoarsely, “beside Wallis is another young man from a poorer neighborhood, a respectable neighborhood of single family homes, mostly black for generations but now increasingly Hispanic. The communities do not mix well and turf wars break out regularly. If only they could separate themselves — but the reality is that there is a growing Hispanic population that needs to find a place for itself. The black families that can are moving away. The young man is Chas Wintergard. His father has moved out of the house and neighborhood, but still comes to visit and sometimes spend the night, although he has a girlfriend with whom he lives and with whom he has a new little daughter. Chas is a good son and a good boy. He stays clear of the gangs and drug dealers and prostitutes and those kids who say that school is how the man beats you down and makes you think the least job is just right for you. Chas believes in education, because his mother does.”

The minister turned and signaled for the second young man to move forward. He seemed to be a better match — a heavy-set young man with loose fitting clothes and a somewhat distant expression beneath the expansive jowls and fatty forehead. He evinced much less comfort with this role and looked straight ahead — perhaps a military disposition, although with his weight he represented an unlikely recruit.

The minister may have aimed at this effect. “Chas,” he began, “you’re a fine young man. But tell me something. You seemed to be less hopeful than we are. We’re pleased with how you’ve grown up.”

“I don’t know, sir,” he said, curtly as if replying to his drill sergeant: “if I’ll be able to get out.”

“Why not?” said the minister looking at his audience incredulously. “You’ve made it thus far. You have withstood every temptation, you have a big heart and a loving family. You’re our success story!”

“I wish I could be as positive.”

The minister looked out at his audience and shook his head. “Chas, if you were to tell us what you’ve seen, we could understand better. In fact, there is one ready analogy for the experiences of a young man such as Chas: it is the experience of a soldier in wartime. Post traumatic stress syndrome. By this age, Chas has experienced the murder of two relatives or friends, and probably personally experienced at least one shooting. He knows the risks of walking down the wrong street or wearing the wrong colors. He may walk a younger child to school or to an appointment with the painful alertness of a soldier walking point. He hopes or prays every day that he does not look like a drug dealer or a drug dealer’s little brother. He is a veteran, my friends, as surely as any soldier who has served in a foreign conflict. A veteran without GI bill, support groups, VA hospital or a single claim on the society that has put him on this frontline.”

The minister put his hand to his forehead and looked down as if trying to absorb the anguish just described. The young man, otherwise still, looked briefly at him to see if a signal had been given to step back. Then he continued his royal guard stance.

Minister Brown put his hand down and smiled at his audience. “This is the first point. Not an accusation, not a claim for pity, compassion or understanding. I am not interested in apologies or reparations for the African sojourn in America; I do not seek special treatment for us, or even what you might call an even break. I ask you to see. What we lack — what we all lack, from God’s perspective — is the ability to see the world as it is, rather than as we would have it, rather than in a way that makes sense. The world does not make sense. How could it, friends: how could suffering and anguish and the mundane triumphs of evil ever make sense? But we have proven ourselves to be masters, past masters, of the ability to close our eyes to suffering, to open them to the meaning we want to find. Our own pain makes this almost an imperative. But God would have us feel our pain as we should see the world: as something that does not make sense, that does not tell us what it is. We must abstract from our pain, and distract our vision, in order to begin to see the world as it is.”

He looked at the third young man.