Jonathan writes a monthly update called ‘Turning Again’ to friends and supporters of School for Conversion, a non-profit organization that works to promote community and reconciliation from the Walltown neighborhood of Durham to NC prisons to local churches and communities around the world.

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Turning Again–April

Last week I was in a hurry to get from one meeting to another, walking down the street in Walltown on a beautiful spring day. The trouble with being in a hurry in a place where you know everyone is that, well, you can’t really be in a hurry. Curtis waved from his porch and we exchanged greetings. I noticed in his slow and exaggerated movements that he’d already started drinking for the day. For a guy like Curtis, a self-prescribed six-pack is sometimes the only pain medicine he can afford.

I didn’t stop to ask Curtis what was hurting him that day. But I didn’t have to. He was determined to tell me whether I wanted to hear it or not.

Four doors down a neighbor on the other side of the street called me up to his porch to see something he’d been working on. I took a look then told him I needed to head on down the street. By the time I got down his front stoop, Curtis was stumbling to catch up with me, already yelling.

“I see how it is… You don’t have any time for me, but you can stop and talk to him.” I apologized, told him I hadn’t realized he wanted to talk. What’s on your mind, I asked.

The spirits in his system prevented Curtis from finishing all of his sentences, but I put two and two together as he gave it to me straight. Curtis doesn’t like how the neighborhood is changing. He doesn’t like the new house we just built because he sees it as part of a conspiracy to take over the neighborhood that he’s always called home. Rental agencies are fixing up their units and raising the price. Developers are flipping houses and selling them to the highest bidder. “Man, this is my hood,” Curtis said. He was mad, but he was also about to cry.

Truth is, I was too. Because as much as I’d rather not be yelled at, I worry about these things too. I hate that Curtis feels so powerless. I hate that, however skewed his perspective may be, Curtis sees me as just one more white man who’s done him wrong.

I went on to my meeting that afternoon. Curtis sobered up, and next time we saw each other we exchanged our normal greetings. But I haven’t been able to shake Curtis’ cry because, somehow, I think it’s become my cry to: what will save us from our history of division? How can we build up our neighborhood—our state, our nation, even—so that it’s good news for everyone, especially for guys like Curtis?

“Out of the depths I cried to you,” the psalmist says. And I have been learning how important it is to join him there—to see how God shows up in our deepest darkness. The questions is not, How can I help Curtis? It’s not even, How can I mend the divide between us? No, the question is how can I hear in Curtis’ cry the cry of our God for justice?

The good news is that the same God who cries out with Curtis is also bringing justice to us all, even if we don’t want it–even if not in the ways we expect to receive it. Septima Clark, the great teacher of the Citizenship Schools that were so central to the Civil Rights movement, has been teaching me by way of her memoir, Strength from Within, how this work of education that we do here at School for Conversion can be part of bringing the justice God cries for in the peculiar way of Jesus. “I had to learn,” Clark said, “that my job wasn’t to teach the people some things they did not know. My job was to help them see how they could learn to stand up for themselves.”

No, a white guy like me will never overcome the powers of racism and poverty in a place like Walltown. Bu that’s not what we’ve been called to do. Instead, we carve out a little space for Curtis’ daughters to see their own beauty and power in the Walltown Aspiring Youth.

But is that really enough to overcome the power of all that divides us?

Again, the psalmist: “My soul waits for the Lord, and in his word I put my trust.” Even when we can’t see it, we remember the promises of a God who can make a way out of no way. “He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.”

Peace and all good to you this Holy Week,


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