Come By Here, My Lord

Come by here, my Lord, come by here.
Come by here, my Lord, come by here.
Come by here, my Lord, come by here.
Oh Lord, come by here.

It is a Sunday afternoon in late September, and the famed Chicago wind is still hot this far west of Lake Michigan. I am pulling up to the school where I teach in my standard-issue Jesuit Toyota Corolla so I can get some grading done before Monday hits me like a pile of bricks.

My parking spot is across the street from Moore Park. It’s a smaller version of the typical West Side park – swings, slides, basketball hoops. Usually on a Sunday afternoon Moore Park is packed, the basketball court a vibrant stage; the energy as amped as the volume. I’m used to that kind of energy. But that’s not the kind I’m seeing today.

People are everywhere, but this energy isn’t fun, it’s frenetic. Police cruisers are pulling in at high speeds, one after the other, lights flashing, sealing off the area. People are running, eyes wide. My thumb hesitates to punch the orange latch on my seatbelt. I have no idea what is going on.

But I need information. So I slide out of the car toward the ice cream truck parked curbside. It’s run by Tee-Tee, she’s posted up in that spot – her spot, next to the basketball courts – every weekend selling hot chips and ice slushes. She sees everything on this block.

As I stride over, I can hear Tee-Tee’s voice high and tight, describing to the clientele how, not five minutes prior, a young man had ridden up on a bicycle, pulled out a pistol, and opened fire into a bunch of kids. I hear tell how a little girl has been shot in the ankle and hauled into one of the ambulances. As we listen, the ambulances are pulling away. We listen to Tee-Tee talk over the sirens. I’m poking at my raspberry-lemonade slush, confounded – Why is a kid shooting up a public park? – when a young lady runs up to Tee-Tee, out of breath. “Baby what’s wrong?” Tee-Tee asks her.

It’s only after that question that I realize that I know this young lady. It is Jamani;1 she’s a senior at my school. Always mellow, always cool, Jamani is the kind of almost-adult that, when she sees me, smiles, and says, “What up Mr. Peters!” But now she is frantic, wide-eyed, and her voice is uncharacteristically clipped. “My little sister is in the park,” she yelps, “I told her to stay in the house! Have you seen my sister?” Jamani knows about the little girl being shot and she’s desperate. I have no idea what to say. We are all looking at Tee-Tee. “I told her!” Jamani screams. “I told her – don’t go out in that park!” She is crying now. But I have brain freeze in my throat, and I think it’s in my heart too.

It’s Tee-Tee who breaks the tension, “Baby, I don’t think your sister was with that lil’ girl who got shot. I saw the whole thing.” Jamani’s eyes are wide as she listens, but she only pauses for another moment before hustling off in search. We are quiet for after she leaves.

“Praise God, no one was killed,” Tee-Tee says.

Come by here, my Lord…

***

It is Friday afternoon and not even a week has passed since Jamani was crying and Tee-Tee was giving us the scoop in Moore Park. Tomorrow it will be my birthday, and I’m excited because, after parent teacher conferences, I’ve rallied some colleagues to celebrate. And we need it because – as every teacher knows – the pace of the fall is exhausting.

I know I spent the better part of September waking up before 5 a.m., hustling to school, greeting the 1st shift maintenance crew, putting the finishing touches on a lesson plan, running to class, then to meetings, and then to class, and then, and then, and then… Until it’s 11:00pm and I’m standing in my room holding a toothbrush and looking at my severely balding head in the mirror and hearing the voice of a sophomore I teach say: “Mr. Peters, you lookin’ scraggly. Why don’t you just shave yo head?” Because I can barely muster the energy to brush my teeth most nights, Marquan! I hear myself think. Teachers need a Friday night, too, and I’m excited.

But as conferences wrap up a pall descends on the gymnasium. I have no idea what is going on but bodies suddenly seem harried; colleagues are having hushed conversations. Word slowly matriculates, and it is this: one of our busses has been caught in crossfire. The bus had pulled off the expressway to avoid the thick traffic until, less than a mile east of school, a bullet ripped through a front window, grazing the bus driver’s head and exiting through the roof. The students have been evacuated and shuttled to safety. Our bus driver is almost to the hospital. I hear the words, but it does not seem real.

We mill around the buzzing gym for too long until, finally, an email arrives. Please do not to speak to the media, it asks us, please leave the school premises quickly, it says, and please pray for our students and their families. Need it or not, we will not be celebrating tonight.

(Later – at home, watching the national news – I find out that our bus driver has been released from the hospital. His injuries are only minor.)

On Monday morning I decide to scrap my lesson plans for the week, to process the trauma instead. I am perched on the edge of a desk, my roman collar stretched tight across my neck, when a student says, “You telling us that we shouldn’t live our lives in fear, but I’m afraid.” Her eyes flick between her desk and my face. “That coulda been our bus!” she says, “that bullet coulda hit one of those kids or killed that bus driver.” “Yes,” I say quietly, “It could have.”

Six months later – months filled with counseling, prayer services; forums with local law enforcement to help our students and ourselves process the shooting – I am talking with a colleague. She still gets sick to her stomach, she tells me, when she remembers calling our students’ loved ones to tell them about the shooting. “I was on the phone for four hours,” she says. Four hours, I think. Four hours of inducing shock and then disbelief, distress and then anger, details and then dismay – with maybe little comfort thrown in besides. No wonder you still get sick to your stomach.

Like Tee-Tee said: Praise God no one else was injured on that bus.

Come by here, my Lord, come by here…

***

It is mid-May, and the light at the end of the school year tunnel is at last shimmering down the hallways. I am sitting at my workspace, in the Ministry Office, in front of my all-too-familiar laptop, when an email arrives. Yesterday evening, it informs me, one of our juniors was playing basketball in the park near his house when gunshots rang out. Antwan was shot through the leg. Crossfire again. I sit at my desk, my hands on the keyboard, and read.

“Thankfully it didn’t hit any bone or ligament,” it says, “No one else was injured. Antwan has been treated and released. He will be on crutches when he returns to school later this week.” The email is succinct, helpful, and mundane. I am profoundly sad at its tone.

I have known Antwan for three years, since he walked through our school doors as a bright-eyed, smiley, uncharacteristically-polite freshman. I taught him as a sophomore and witnessed his attitude shift to something more… aloof. As I sit at my desk in the Ministry Office I remember him – remember how once, when I gave the class an assignment, he smacked his teeth and put his head down. When I asked him if everything was all right he raised his head just enough to non-angrily mutter, “I just don’t care about school anymore, Mr. Peters. That’s all, I just don’t care.” He sounded equal parts jaded and sorrowful.

Which is exactly how I feel, sitting at my desk, when I think about how Antwan was in the wrong place, at the wrong time. When I think about how all these shootings are becoming routine here on the West Side of Chicago. When I think about how we talk about them like we’re sending emails. Jaded and sorrowful, succinct and mundane – about the bullet ripping through a young man’s calf muscle.

Like Tee-Tee said: Praise God that neither Antwan nor one of his friends were killed that night.

Come by here, my Lord, come by here,
Oh Lord, come by here!

***

Fr. Joseph Brown, SJ is one of my mentors. He is the kind of man who can weave Kendrick Lamar into the fabric of a classic Negro Spiritual. The kind of man who can make the moniker “Child of God” sound like a warning. Aside from being a professor of Africana Studies, Fr. Brown writes a blog called The Sankofa Muse. The word Sankofa is derived from a Ghanaian word meaning “to go back and get it.” This, as Fr. Brown has taught me, means that we must know where we come from in order to know where we are going.

In the spirit of Sankofa, he teaches his students – he has taught me – about origins, history, roots; about the “Gullah” people from the coastal islands off of South Carolina. He teaches his students about the Gullah because they need to know. He taught me about them because I need to know. I am teaching you about the Gullah for that same reason, because you need to know.

As Fr. Brown tells it, the Gullah are called the Gullah because that’s how the word “Angola” sounds when it’s spoken with a heavy African-Creole pidgin. Angolans, as you may know, derive from the Yoruba people in West Africa, which is now part of present day Nigeria. Like so many they were ripped from their native soil, trafficked in slave ships across the Atlantic Ocean and transplanted as property to work the plantations of the American South. Thankfully, in the ships and in the fields, Gullah spirituality was as strong as their accent. And during the long years of their enslavement they sang a song based on the second chapter of the Book of Exodus. This is what that Book says:

A long time passed, during which the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their bondage and cried out, and from their bondage their cry for help went up to God. God heard their moaning and God was mindful of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God saw the Israelites, and God knew…

The Gullah knew that God was mindful of them as well. And they knew it not just in their minds, but in their bodies and in their songs. They knew it in their tears and they knew it as they cried out “Kum-ba-ya, Lord! Kum-ba-ya! Someone’s crying, Lord, Kum-ba-ya! Someone needs you, Lord, Kum-ba-ya! Kum-ba-ya, Lord, Come by here!”

Come by here, Lord. Come by here. Fr. Brown says that he considers this song – a song many of us first learn to sing around campfires when we are kids, and then learn to mock as we get more “mature” – the first great text of Black Liberation Theology. Fr. Brown writes:

Theology is the story of God’s intervention in human history. Black Theology begins with trans-located Africans exploding with the insight that if God could ‘deliver Daniel from the lions’ den,’ then why not every man? Finding the initial biblical cry of oppressed slaves and knowing that the groaning of the lately oppressed and abandoned would be heard, the spirit-possessed singing believers – with the sound of their voices – became the Israelites anew. The Exodus story describes the action. The song, Kumbaya, becomes the action. The song is the prayer itself. It possesses the power to make the desire a reality.

It’s ironic that a song of such power has been so badly misappropriated. Knowing this, being possessed by this knowledge, has had consequences for me, though. And now that you know this, it has consequences for you. I have had to learn how to teach people the true meaning of Kumbaya. And now you must do the same.

Because Kumbaya is not a campy folk song. It is not naïve. Kumbaya is simultaneously a lamentation and a hope, a cry of pain and a plea for emancipation. It is a true prayer.

It is the only prayer I knew how to say for Jamani’s panic, or for the bullet-grazed bus driver. The only prayer I knew how to whisper onto Antwan’s bowed head.

***

My most authentic prayers have always come from a place of either great need or great love. There is a harmony between these two places, a rhyme between need and love. It is this: whether in need or in love, I am not in control.

Suffering is a disdainfully common part of the human condition. Women bear children, farmers labor in fields, and patients endure chemotherapy. Sometimes in the midst of suffering, humans cry out to God in desperation. When I encounter suffering, I often feel like I’m wading into deep, muddy water. I cannot see or feel love because I’m terrified.

I know that the Gospels say that God is love, but I have learned that God’s being love does not make suffering any less terrifying. Which is not to say that it is irrelevant that God is love – it is to say that it means something different.

It means that, if I surrender control, there is a chance that love can transform suffering into something bearable. This is, in fact, what the word “suffering” etymologically means: “to bear up under.” In this sense, love is the muddy water, but I no longer have to wade. Instead it bears me up. And in the very moment I am swept up, I float. I am not alone. I am never alone.

My brother once heard a priest he knows say that God expresses love through fidelity. And fidelity, the priest said, “means we stay around even when things get difficult, even when we don’t feel noticed or appreciated.” I think that I am at my best – that we are at our best – when we mirror this type of fidelity to others. When we stick around. Fidelity might not always seem sexy, but I believe that it expresses love as purely as it’s possible for a human to do.

The cancer patient who trusts in their doctor witnesses to fidelity. The farmer who cultivates, harvests fidelity. The mother who labors in delivery, gives birth to fidelity. We cannot survive without love. And we cannot love without staying. And we cannot stay unless we are willing to suffer alongside, to stand by one another in that place of need.

***

It is November, and we are all hoping that the cold fall winds will cool these hot Chicago streets. I am sitting in my office staring anxiously at my to-do list when the door bursts open. Kamyria is balling, and Jazzmyn is shuffling in behind her with a distinctive, “I have no idea what to do” look on her face. Both of these young women have been my students in years past and here they are now, permeating my office with raw emotion and vulnerability.

It’s the tears on Kamyria’s face that force me out of my little world of to-do lists and timelines and remind me to look up, to wonder what is hurting her. I walk over, hand Kamyria a Kleenex, and wait until she can explain. She was in class watching a film on the slave days, she says, and finally the dam broke; she is overwhelmed. Then comes the question for which I will never be ready: “How did the slaves make it, Mr. Peters? Where did they get their strength?”

Sobbing, she continues, “I don’t think I could have made it, Mr. Peters. I don’t think I could have been as strong as they were.” Then she buries her tear-ridden face into my shoulder, and weeps.

I do not know how to answer, not really. It’s only thanks to others – to Tee-Tee, to Fr. Brown – that I know that this Child of God’s question can be answered at all, that it can still be answered by a Gullah song. It’s thanks to my elders that I knew it, but it was thanks to Jazzmyn my student that I remembered it then, as she laid a hand on Kamyria, turned to me and said: “Can we, like, pray or something, Mr. Peters?”

Her question clears the fog that had begun to settle in on me. It is like that rare breath of wind that reaches from the lake all the way to the West Side of Chicago.

So we huddle together. Kamyria and Jazzmyn and me, and Tee-Tee and Antwan and our bus driver, and every single person on the West Side. We huddle together and I pray – to the God of the Gullah, and to the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. I call upon the God of Moses who led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, and the God of Harriet Tubman, who followed that old North Star to freedom from the Apartheid South.

I prayed. We prayed. And God knew.

Somebody’s crying, Lord, come by here.
Somebody needs you, Lord, come by here.
Oh Lord! Come by here.
Oh Lord, Kumbaya.

  1. All names have been changed.

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