By Suzii Paynter
Someone recently gave me a book titled Seven Thousand Ways to Listen: Staying Close to What Is Sacred. The book is based on the fact that there are 7,000 languages in the world and equally as many ways to listen.
After the August 9 tragedy in Ferguson, Mo., I was surprised to learn that Tarryl Daniels of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship staff is from Ferguson. Just a few weeks prior to August 9, Tarryl had driven his mom to resume her residence in Ferguson with his sister.
Tarryl, if you haven’t met him, has that crisp edge of military discipline. He came to CBF after military service on three continents with top security clearance. As the news cameras covered his Ferguson neighborhood in the background, I found myself listening to Tarryl in a new way.
“Growing up, I never felt the sting of racism in Ferguson,” Tarryl told me. “I didn’t really encounter racism in the military either. Racism did, however, confront me as I drove through the rural South, traveling from one military base to another.”
Listen… Tarryl said that watching the police in their protective gear at the edge of the Ferguson mall brought back memories of his time in the military.
“It reminded me of my first deployment to Kosovo,” Tarryl said. “I was part of a peacekeeping force and we were in protective gear. The crowds threw Molotov cocktails, and we received small arms fire.”
And what of the position of parents? Tarryl is a dad to two young boys.
“They listen to me say, ‘Be careful. Be courteous to everyone,” Tarryl shared.
Tarryl’s sons are young. Other CBF staff have more difficult conversations with their teenage and young adult children.
Listen… “I tell my sons that they cannot expect that other people will automatically think they are as great as they are.” “I teach my sons how to drive, how to parallel park and also where to put their hands when they are stopped by the police.” “I tell my son to keep every receipt so no one can accuse him of shoplifting.”
Listen… Roger and I also have a son. We have never had these compulsory conversations. Our son has moved through life without the necessity of cautionary parental coaching, not because he deserves this immunity, but because it has been given to him by his culture and time.
I am reminded of Harry Potter, who was bequeathed a Cloak of Invisibility that made him immune to imminent danger. The Cloak of Invisibility gave him a possibility of escape. Harry Potter had his own roots of suffering and, because of the gifts of generous love and loyalty, he became a good steward of the power of the Cloak of Invisibility. He opened it wide and encompassed others in its privileged safety.
Listen… Is there a parent among us who hasn’t wanted to wrap the mantle of safety around our sons and daughters? Ferguson is bringing us together across lines that might otherwise divide. No one asks for tragedies, but from the painful realities of division, we can be awakened to the parameters of our own Cloaks of Invisibility. We are moved to act in reconciliation and compassion. We are moved to a stewardship of listening and sharing.
I am reminded of the scene when Jesus felt the touch of a woman in a crowd and said, “Who touched me?” Jesus saw her and heard her and healed her for a new day. I am sure the stewardship of his power in service of her needs was the most meaningful sermon of the day. We can respond by truly hearing our colleagues and sharing, parent to parent.
CBF churches in the St. Louis area like Kirkwood Baptist Church have been involved with Riverview Gardens school, carpooling children and preparing and delivering meals, in addition to their Covenant of Action partnership with nearby African-American churches.
At the New Baptist Covenant luncheon this summer in Atlanta, 40 other churches committed to seek racially-reconciling partnerships. Being a missional church begins with people forming together in Christ who listen beyond divisions and walk a new way. I am grateful for the leadership and voices of CBF colleagues around Ferguson and the staff here in Decatur.
We will keep listening, praying and supporting the cause of racial reconciliation.
Suzii Paynter is executive coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. This column first appeared in the October/November