When Racial Conflict Hits the Neighborhood

Brad M. Griffin | Apr 2, 2012

My neighborhood made national news this week. Not really in the way you hope your neighborhood will make national news.

Within two blocks of home last weekend, a 19-year-old black man was shot and killed by police as he and a 17-year old accomplice fled the scene of a burglary. Both were unarmed. On Wednesday the police arrested the 911 caller for falsely declaring to the police that the kids were armed. Fingers of blame are pointing at the caller, at the police, and at the young men.

Ill be honest; we were fairly disconnected from this for most of the week. We heard the helicopters and sirens, but they are pretty typical in our neighborhood in the evening and we didnt look into it. A neighbor forwarded the report to us Sunday (as we were headed out of town), which claimed that the boys were armed. Only as the week went on did the rest of the story emerge in ways that have raised the emotions and racial tensions of this community. By Thursday the LA Times, NY Times, and other news outlets picked up the story.

Given the alleged burglary, this is a very different situation from Trayvon Martin. Nevertheless, the proximity to that case and already-raised awareness of interracial tension has caused comparisons to the young man who tragically lost his life two weeks ago as he carried a bag of Skittles home from the store, wearing his hood up in the rain.

There are no easy answers here; these are complex situations. Each one colored by issues of race and socioeconomic class. Ironically, Im aware of my own ability to remain somewhat removed from the conflict, while also being aware that my 17-year-old black neighbor two doors down doesnt have the same luxury as he walks the streets on spring break this week. I worry for him and for others who may get caught up in the tensions as they rise in the community.

I was helped last week by a local neighborhood ministry who forwarded us an email they sent out to their volunteer mentors. One part of their advice was to take advantage of Spring Break week to get away for a day or even a few hours with their mentee if possible. Take a small group to the beach, or even just to the mall. Get them off the streets for a while and create a safe third space in which to process their experiences. At a community meeting on Saturday it was interesting to hear the police chief explicitly asking local churches to be involved in helping create peace in our neighborhoods and helping create communities free of fear. The city is looking to the Church to be good news in tangible ways.

In the midst of this, Im also reminded of a few resources weve created in the past thanks to the help of our trauma specialist Dr. Cynthia Eriksson and our urban ministry practitioner/scholar Dr. Jude Tiersma Watson. In particular, the article Your Pain: Six Lenses to Help looks at ways we might respond to pain and suffering through the eyes of faith, and this interview with Cynthia on strategies for working through the vicarious pain we experience in ministry when others go through trauma. Also this three-part audio series gives tips for helping kids process traumatic experiences.

To be sure, this is an open-ended story, one thats tied up in generations of injustice. But I bet students around you, wherever you live, are processing one or both of these nationally-publicized events. As you talk with them, you might find help from these two quotes from our work with the Deep Justice in a Broken World project a few years back, both from interviews. First, Efrem Smith:

To say you dont see skin color is unhealthy, but to attribute everything to skin color is just as unhealthy. I think multiple ethnicities, cultures, and languages are opportunities to see the creative power of our loving God. At the same time, if everything is attributed to race or ethnicity, then we build stereotypes by believing, All White people think like this, or All Black people are like this. Those stereotypes begin to fuel prejudice.

And Lina Thompson:

I think that the degree to which we have meaningful relationships with people who are different ethnically and culturally is the degree to which meaningful conversations about race can take place. I cannot limit myself to people just like me.

As we go about our week, may we heed that advice to not limit ourselves to people who are just like me. When we do we just might find greater understanding and a glimpse of Gods heart for peace in our neighborhoods.

Brad M. Griffin

Brad M. Griffin is the Senior Director of Content for the Fuller Youth Institute, where he develops research-based training for youth workers and parents. A speaker, writer, and volunteer youth pastor, Brad is the coauthor of over a dozen books, including 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Faith in an Anxious World, Growing Young, several Sticky Faith books, Every Parent’s Guide to Navigating Our Digital World, and Can I Ask That? Brad and his family live in Southern California, where he serves as Pastor of Youth and Family Ministries at Mountainside Communion.


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