“It will be okay.” That will not cut it.
As an urban missiologist, I have been following our nation’s politics and civil unrest with sadness and wonder as to how, I, as a Christian, can present a fitting witness to the grace and mercy of our Lord. What words do I have for those who are genuinely mourning, afraid for their children’s future, and unsure about the safety of their streets? “It will be okay.” That will not cut it.

Personal Experience
I witnessed and been a victim of law enforcement, which is the reason I found myself as a refugee in the USA. I remember 1974, when I was a freshman in high school in Asmara, Eritrea, when students walked out of school to demonstrate the Ethiopian government handling of the famine crisis in the country. The government was tone-deaf and failed to understand the real cause of the brewing civil unrest. The Eritrean Liberation Movements understood the times and captured the hearts and minds of young Eritreans. The military also started demonstrating and demanding salary increases. The military finally ousted the emperor, and the civil unrest was about to escalate into a full-blown war for independence of Eritrea.

The new Ethiopian military government was even worse than the emperor was; it tried to suppress the Eritrean movement by military force and in February 1975, massacred more than 500 young men and women in Asmara and its surrounding villages. The whole country was terrorized, and the conflict got to a point of no return bloody war.

At that time, I found myself stranded in a boarding school in Asmara as a 16-year-old boy. My parents were worried not knowing if I was still alive and survived the massacre. By God’s grace, I was able to escape the city and the massacre and go to my home village. The memory of the emotional reunion with my parents is seared in my mind: I can still remember it as it just happened yesterday.

After the massacre of February 1975, thousands of young men and women joined the Eritrean Liberation Movements and took arms against the Ethiopian Government. More than 65,000 Eritreans and an estimated one million Ethiopians died in the war for independence that ensued. The Eritreans brought a formidable government, which is almost 20 times larger than Eritrea, to its knees. Eritrea separated from Ethiopia. The conversation now is only if leaders have listened.

I entered the USA on June 23rd, 1987 as a refugee. Dropped in New York City, a city that is imposing and overwhelming to a new immigrant, I walked downtown Manhattan with keen interest. However, for the longest time, I moved to the other side of the street whenever I saw a police officer coming towards me or just standing on my side of the street. I saw a person in uniform as a threat and not someone to be trusted.

Moreover, I was angry at those in uniform, because I did not see any difference between them and those who caused me to flee a country I love and a family I cherish, with no hope of seeing them again on this side of heaven. So it did not seem okay at that time for me, and if someone was to tell me that it is okay at that time, I would respond, “You have no clue.”

Race Relations and Life in the USA
It did turn out to be okay at the end. My life changed dramatically in the last 33 years in the USA. I find myself a middle-class person living in a middle-class community. I do not have direct experience as a person who lives in poor neighborhoods anymore. However, I can just imagine the fear of those who are victims of police brutality, whose children have been wrongly killed or incarcerated and are afraid of their children will ever come home safely every time they step out of their doors. What answer will I give them? “It will be okay.” That is not cutting it.

I posted a statement about the news cycle on my Facebook page recently to observe how my friends would react to it. The reactions I got are expressions of disgust from those who are on the side of the protestors, and rage from those who are on the side of “law and order.” Some were angry with me for being soft on law and order and some think that I am judgmental of the authorities; there were some strongly voicing their disapproval of how the authorities are handling the unrest. Feelings on both sides are raw and strong which makes it harder to listen to each other. All of us seem to engage in a zero-sum argument.

To be sure, I do not support rioting and looting and oppose it in the same way that Martin Luther King Jr. did in the 1960s. However, I cannot also help myself but ponder on what Dr. King said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Leaders must understand the times and listen to the cries of the marginalized; the price for not listening to them is too high, it can bring a nation to its knees and leave lasting wounds.

The real Issue
Nevertheless, I cannot breathe is the voice of someone who is silenced on this side of heaven forever and that seems to be forgotten in all this chatter. In my short encounter with my FaceBook friends, I was hoping that the reaction would be a unanimous condemnation of the death of an unarmed man because of police brutality. I was alarmed that my good Lutheran brothers and sisters seemed angry with me for even questioning the President of the United States, for whom I continue to pray regularly and honor as one given the authority by God.

The real issue here is sin. We are all sinners. We contribute to any conflict or human suffering around us by our actions or inactions (Rom 7:23-24). Like the Scribes and Pharisees, we are quick to point the finger at someone else rather than ourselves. We may condemn the action of someone but fail to look at our inaction. Listen to Jesus’ words to the Scribes and Pharisees in John 8:7 – “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.”

I remember once engaged in a heated Eritrean community gathering in St. Louis, Missouri when I was at Concordia Seminary in the late 1980s. People were angry and going at it over current Eritrean politics. Finally, after the meeting ended, I spoke to one of the leaders about the disagreements. His words to me were, “Yohannes, the way to resolve it was by saying ‘I am sorry.’ Saying ‘I am sorry does not cost you a dime but saves you so much including heartache’”. The instruction of ancient wisdom inspired by the Holy Spirit says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger,” Prov. 15:1.

This reminds me also of Jesus’ words on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do,” Luke 23:34; He then took his last breath because of the excruciating punishment inflicted on him on that cross. That last breath taken by Jesus of Nazareth is the last breath taken because of my sins and the sins of all humanity, including our national leaders.

I encourage the readers of this blog when life seems unbearable, all you see around is turmoil, and feel that you are suffocating to death, to remember the life-giving last breath taken by our Lord on that cross. Because he lives, even in the midst of the harshest conditions, or physical death, we will never say, “I cannot breathe.” That is worth proclaiming to a world that seems to have lost its way.

Some suggestions for groups and congregations:
1. Take time to understand the plight of the marginalized, the poor, and those that are hurting. A good book that can be helpful is a book by Bill Ehlig & Ruby Pane entitled “What Every Church Member Should Know About Poverty.”
2. Conversations devolve into shouting because of the noise that muffles the message. Reach out to those that are culturally, socio-economically, and ethnically different than you are. Listen, listen, listen for understanding; this takes time but is worth it. We have to take the time to understand before we can be understood.
3. Seek organizations that do cultural competency training. One or two leaders from a congregation can take the training, and they then can train the congregation in turn.
4. Cultural differences do cause communication breakdowns; however, if they know you love them, people are resilient and do overcome cultural blunders. Love covers a multitude of sins.

By Rev. Dr. Yohannes Mengsteab
Mission & Ministry Facilitator, Area B