An Apology, A Response and A Challenge

We live in a culture where apologies seem rare, where confessing mistakes and saying I’m sorry can be perceived as weakness or lack of competence.  Yet there is a mysterious freedom, a paradoxical strength to be found when we’re willing to get over ourselves enough to do so.

I am writing this piece for three reasons: [1] to make an apology (yes, pastors make mistakes and are capable of saying I’m sorry), [2] to offer an explanation, and [3] to share a bit of my perspective concerning a situation that I have been intimately involved with that has imminent implications on our community.

In January I composed an email to several local clergy in response to concerns being raised in light of an autopsy report of Ferguson Laurent – a 23-year-old black man who was shot and killed on November 3, 2016 while police were serving a no-knock warrant at his residence on E. Lafayette St.  Like many, I was troubled to see the autopsy revealed 10 bullet wounds to Laurent – a detail that seemed to conflict with initial reports of ‘two to three shots’ that were returned on Laurent after firing first at officers.  My email was read at a press conference initiated by several local clergy and community advocates for the purpose of expressing concerns over the report and (quite understandably) pressing for explanations.

A bit of an aside here: It has been mentioned on multiple occasions that we need to be careful to suspend judgement until we have all the facts.  While I agree that in an ideal world this would certainly be the most wise approach – a world where there is complete harmony among government, police and citizens of various ethnicities, backgrounds and classes in a community – the reality remains that the world we live in is far from ideal and has a history.  And that history includes racial injustice, prejudice, abuse of power, and subsequently criticism of authority.  These realities shape our present.  So, we have to understand that any time there is a delay in the disclosure of information, people will naturally fill the voids with their own assumptions and version of the truth. (As I write this, we are still awaiting the results of the SBI investigation.) Agree or disagree, this is reality, and something we would do well to understand and consider.

In my email, I shared how it seemed an excessive amount of force had been returned on Laurent based on the autopsy.  Furthermore, the discrepancy between the ‘two to three shots’ returned and the 10 bullet wounds led me (and others) to conclude that police had failed to disclose certain details and that other officers must have involved in returning fire.  It is here I want to apologize for drawing a premature, ungrounded conclusion that I have since come to understand was interpreted as spreading ‘false information.’ While I consider ‘false’ as spreading lies while knowing the truth, I apologize for my impulsive choice of words.

I apologize to Chief Stokes and our local law enforcement officers for any impression I have given of a lack of support and appreciation. I apologize for how this has in any way reflected on Life Church – a church that is unquestionably for this community.  While I will continue to work to be a voice for justice, reason, healing and reconciliation in our community, I apologize where I have contributed to any further division at a time when we desperately need sound leadership, reason, understanding, accountability and solutions.

Unfortunately, I have found the deeper we wade into these issues, the greater the opportunity for criticism, missteps and misunderstandings along the way.  That is a price we must anticipate and be willing to accept sometimes.  But I’m convinced change won’t happen by sitting back, remaining silent, playing it safe, and keeping our hands clean.  As I often share with our church, I would rather fail trying than fail by not trying at all.

I want to extend a plea here, specifically to our local churches, pastors and leaders – that our community needs us to step up and step out courageously.  I believe the local church has an important role to play in our community in the days ahead as a contributor to unity, reconciliation, justice, healing, and peace. If the local church truly exists for the purpose of blessing our community, imagine what kind of impact we could have together.

Perhaps you are thinking: So who’s side am I on?  Human nature leads us to conclude that in the midst of conflict, we must choose sides.  If you’re for one side, you must be against the other.  I disagree.

So let me make this perfectly clear:

I am for justice, the continued work for racial reconciliation, and the need for understanding and acknowledgement around the ethnic and socioeconomic factors that continue to contribute to the divisions, distrust and challenges we face today.  I am for dialogue that brings all perspectives to the table. I am for listening, not merely for the purpose of agreement, but for the purpose of understanding, because listening to understand leads to compassion. I am for accountability among our community leaders and law enforcement.  Simultaneously, I am for supporting, honoring and praying for those who bear such responsibilities, and when possible, holding up their arms so that they can carry out their duties for the good of all citizens.  I am for those struggling, yet trying to set a table for people to gather around, and I am for those who are skeptical of being at the table due to hurt, anger and distrust.

I’m not for every issue, but I am for people on all sides of the issues. This is not some diplomatic statement, but something that is fundamentally shaped out of my belief in a God who is for, not against us, even when we are hostile towards him. I believe in a God who came to save, not condemn. I believe the cross of Jesus is the ultimate demonstration of this truth, thus revealing how we can be for one another and the greater good even in the midst of our disagreements and hostilities.  I believe in a grace that makes possible what would otherwise be impossible.

Like many in our community, I maintain my own personal concerns over the future use of no-knock warrants, which in the case of Ferguson Laurent put both he and our officers in an unfortunate set of circumstances.

So, why do I care?

I distinctly remember the day of the incident, when I received a call from a friend letting me know that there had been an officer-involved shooting that had resulted in the death of a 23-year-old black man in our community.  The timing couldn’t have been worse considering the cultural-climate, with other officer-involved shootings and incidents of retaliation against officers occurring in other parts of the country earlier in the year.  In response to the growing tension of our cultural-climate, I, along with several pastors and churches in the community came together for the first of several unity gatherings in August of 2016.  The purpose of these gatherings was to bring churches together from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds in a proactive manner to stir our churches to promote peace, work for racial-reconciliation and to be agents of healing and grace through positive community action.  By building stronger relationships among our churches, we hoped to be better prepared to respond well and collectively as the church should such situations arise in the future.  This remains both a passion and dream of mine.  Simultaneously, we held our first officer appreciation event at Life Church to express our support and love for these public servants and their families.

So, when I received the call on Thursday, November 3, I felt my heart sink as the reality set in that something we thought would not happen in Salisbury had just happened.  I immediately went to the hospital to pray for staff and administration who had treated Laurent.  From there, I met Rev. Patrick Jones, a dear friend and fellow-pastor in the community, on E. Lafayette St. where the shooting occurred.  There we spoke with and prayed for family, friends and neighbors of Laurent.  We thanked officers who were on site and expressed that we were there to serve as a presence of peace.  That afternoon, Pastor Jones and I were able to stop by the police department where we prayed for many of the officers who were part of the special response team that served the warrant earlier that morning.

I will never forget the tension I felt being in the middle of the heartbreak, anger, outrage and confusion that I experienced on E. Lafayette St. and the unimaginable burden of reality that was evident on the officers’ faces who had just experienced something they had been trained to do while hoping to never have to carry it out.

In the days that followed, I made several visits back to E. Lafayette St. and the Salisbury Police Department.  A few weeks later, I was honored to serve as an officiant at Ferguson Laurent’s memorial service.  At the same time, I have been part of a church that has continued to minister to the officer who shot Laurent, along with his family.  Why must those things be exclusive from one another?

I have been on both sides. I have been criticized, misunderstood, given the cold shoulder.  I have waded into the tension, and I choose to stay there, because I am for our community, its God-given potential and our future.

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