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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Proceeds from Jonathan’s writing and speaking go to support the work of SFC. You can also donate to SFC’s ministries online.
I don’t like busy. I don’t like the way the ads tell us to both hate busy and be proud of it at the same time. I don’t like how busy engenders self-importance and diminishes attention to things that happen slowly, like growth and joy and life. On principle, I refuse to be busy.
This means some things on my to-do lists don’t get done. But I reassure myself that I’m just a human being. We all have our limits.
Even still, busy creeps in. On our long journey toward beloved community, we’ve recently hit an uphill climb here in Walltown. Years of grumbling about policing in our neighborhood coalesced into a community-wide conversation about a year ago. The people who’ve been most directly affected took the lead, and our conversation turned toward action. Since mid-fall we’ve had a campaign here in Durham to change police policy. (For the back story here, you can read my open letter to our police chief.)
This campaign has moved forward, as all efforts do, alongside everything else in life. SFC continued our important education work with youth and adults. I published a book, we made a 21st-Century Freedom Ride, and Rutba House has been building a new house just down the street. (Almost done, by the way. We’ll have a “come and see” day in the spring!) But the intensification of this campaign alongside everything else has given busy a place to slip in.
Just last week, I was downtown late one evening for a hearing before Durham’s Human Relations Commission. I watched as mothers took the time to share their lament with the commission, helping fellow mothers and fathers feel the agony of a parent who knows her son can be snatched up by the police and marked like Cain with a permanent record. I felt their power as they asked the commissioners to listen closely to a report about how police policy has led to extreme growth in our carceral system, creating pipelines from neighborhoods like Walltown to a prison industrial complex. I gladly stayed past the planned finish time to watch the scales fall from commissioners’ eyes. They wanted to know more. They wanted to understand how we can change this terrible reality.
But it was late when I got home, and I’ll admit that I’d forgotten I told Lil’ Frank from down the street to stop by so we could go over his college application essay. Busy slipped in, and I kind of wished he had forgotten too.
But he hadn’t. He had a draft that he wanted me to read, so I sat down at the kitchen table. I sat down because this is the same Lil’ Frank I met when he was seven, charming everyone with those bright eyes. It’s the same Frank who came to this table when he was ten and asked me to help him write an essay about why he had the best grandmother in the world so he could win the diamond necklace that the jewelry store was giving away for Mother’s Day. The same Frank who, when he won it, came back to say, “Thanks. I couldn’t have done it without you.”
I was remembering all of this as I read his personal essay, recounting the struggles he’s faced and how he realized that he was a leader in his community. “When I was in middle school,” he wrote, “I saw how many of my peers were getting involved with the police. So I volunteered as a defense attorney for Teen Court, a diversion program that helps teens avoid a criminal record that could follow them for the rest of their lives.”
We talked about structure and grammar for a few minutes, and Frank revised while I ran upstairs to read my kids their bedtime stories. But when Frank was done and the kids were in bed, I told Leah why I’d had to stop after the story about Teen Court to wipe the tears from my eyes. Because Lil’ Frank had seen when he was twelve what it took years for me to see—what we’ve spent months trying to communicate to our police and city officials. And seeing the problem, Lil’ Frank had done what he could to address it.
That, he said in his essay, is what it means to be a leader in your community.
Up against powers like race and class and busy, I’m glad to have leaders like Lil’ Frank to follow.
Peace and all good,