On Wednesday Pamela Johnson, the Director of the Jersey City’s Anti-Violence Coalition came to the Episcopal church’s storefront mission in Greenville. The scope of Pam’s work with people who have inflicted or suffered from violence in Jersey City is breathtaking and so is her personal story. A survivor of gun violence, Pam was shot five times while attending a barbeque. Her shooter was caught but never produced a comprehensible explanation for his actions. As more evidence that there aren’t much in the way of good answers to “why?” there’s gun violence in Jersey City, Pam also told us the story of two groups men, (and she describes as “groups” instead of “gangs” because they aren’t organized enough to be the later) who live one block away from each other and continue to retaliate and counter-retaliate over the death of a boy named Bill who was killed fifteen years ago. Pam concluded this story by saying, “And almost none of these kids even knew Bill.”
Listening to Pam felt like trying to untangle Christmas lights. Homelessness or near homelessness, lack of educational opportunities and meaningful work, families torn apart by addiction, misery and hopelessness, it’s all just a big knot. There’s no knowing where one problem ends and another begins.
Monica, the Director of our storefront nodded out the window at the group of young men who are always standing by the liquor store across the street and said “Do you know them?”
“Sure,” said Pam, “They’re all trying to make some money to feed their families. If they make $30 a day selling drugs, which is about all they make, it’s worth it to them.” We asked Pam what we should do and she said, “Invite them for dinner next Friday. I’ll come and we’ll find out what they want. If they want jobs, we’ll talk about jobs. If they want someone to care what happens to them, we’ll care. And if they don’t want anything then we’ll try to find out why they don’t have any dreams.”
When Pam laid out this obvious plan of action the clerical collar around my throat chaffed.
How is it that three years after the opening of the Triangle Park Center I don’t so much as know the name of one of these twenty-something year old men? I see them every week but doubt I’d even recognize them out of context in the supermarket, at the post office or in church. That’s because I might have looked but have never actually seen them. They’re are “the drug dealers”- the reason people don’t come out on the street at night.
Since Pam’s visit I’ve been thinking about the terrible, holy characters in scripture. Abraham abandoned his son Ismael and Ismael’s mother Hagar in the desert. David intentionally sent a man to die in war. Matthew collected taxes for the Roman Empire from his own, subjugated people and probably, like most tax collectors in Roman occupied Israel, lined his own pockets while he did it. And when he was carted off to a kangaroo court to be sentenced to death, Peter denied he knew who Jesus was three times, just like Jesus knew he would.
With no mention of the “good”, Jesus says the “last” will be made first in his Kingdom. If this weren’t so, Abraham, King David, Matthew and Peter’s only remembered names would be “dead beat dad”, “murderer”, “thief” and “coward”. Since there’s ample, Scriptural evidence that God has a habit of making saints out of any random convict you’d find in the county jail, how can “the drug dealers” be a good enough name for anyone?
I wonder what the guys by the liquor store like on their pizza.