Last week I stood on the front porch of a little beauty shop in Jasper, Texas, talking to a Baptist minister. It’s notable and unusual that this happened. I am white, he is black, I’m an outsider, he was born and raised here, I’m Presbyterian and a female minister-something his tradition doesn’t allow. The porch we were standing on was part of an effort to provide healing and restoration to this blighted neighborhood.
There had been a rash of arson fires last summer. A church was burned just down the road from my home. While it had been previously understood to be a black church and witnesses said they saw a white man leaving the back of the church as it went up, somehow these facts became muddled as the investigation continued and maybe the church wasn’t really a black church anyhow. The arson is now broadly assumed to be a symptom of black on black crime, just like the beauty shop on which porch we stood. Just last week a local black man was sentenced in the murder of Alfred Wright, a man who was found in the woods with his throat cut but who’s death was determined to be drug overdose. There’s just a lot of fear and resistance out here. People don’t want to ‘stir up trouble.’
But, here I was, in the middle of a black neighborhood, standing on the front porch of a beauty salon that had been rebuilt after the arson fire, chatting with a handsome black man about life, God, grace, and the need for change. Across the street was the Moore Chapel, an AME church that had welcomed me on a couple of occasions as I sought to include them in our work. Always gracious, always kind, we had talked about doing a pulpit swap but hadn’t gotten around to it.
We had held a party on the beauty shop property a couple months prior. The reggae band Idiginis had come up from Houston. We had advertised on the radio, and put up flyers, but the turnout was pretty low. That is except for the people on the fringes, the kids who were pulling up chairs on the curb, the ones playing in the trees on the edge of the property, the cars slowing down as they passed, then stopping on the curb to listen and covertly sip a beer. “They’re just afraid,” one of the neighbors told me, as we cleaned up the party. “but they’re listening. They see what you’re doing.”
I have learned that it is not enough, in Jasper, to say you want reconciliation, to share stories or march on MLK day. In Jasper, you need to do something to make people’s lives better. You’ve got to be willing to go into those places where you are the minority and sit with the discomfort of that. You need to walk the talk. Over this last year I have been incredibly blessed as I and our church have earned trust in the community. I have been stopped in the bank, at Lowes, at the grocery store, at Walmart, and been told that what we are doing is making a difference. People have volunteered their stories, sharing from the heart. It has been an incredible gift.
I walked my friend to his car and he handed me his card and then his personal number. “You call me when you get to Oregon,” he said, “I want to know you’re OK.” I gave him a big hug and promised to call. I’ve only been here a year and I have to move on, I have to move back home, but in that year I have seen healing happen. There is considerable resistance to talking about race, to stirring up trouble, but there is also healing happening in big and small ways, all across Jasper. I can’t help but wonder what we might have accomplished if we had more time. What I know today is that although there is fear and resistance, and a lack of trust, if you show up consistently and do the work, change will happen. I will be keeping this community in prayer as I go forward and yes, I will call when I get home.