On the morning of Sunday, May 31, I was bad.
I did not Zoom with our Sunday school class, nor did I tune in via uStream for our church service at 11.
Instead, I was in our son’s backyard.
Along with one of his friends, and our daughter-in-law’s father, we had been recruited to put the finishing touches of assembly on a swing set.
Just in case you don’t know, swing sets aren’t simple swing sets anymore. They are now elaborate play sets with all kinds of bells and whistles.
The assemblage requires at the very least an on call consultant who has the ability to interpret the very simple instructions and drawings in the very thick manual. In this case, our son was lucky, the consultant was his very capable wife, who at least read the manual.
I confess, I was tardy in arriving, but I did bring along the requested tools—a sledge hammer, 8 foot step ladder, and a drill.
My assignment was to figure out the linkage for the three swing options. The results were simple—I failed. But, after staring into the instruction page for 3 hours, 44 minutes, and 17 seconds I finally figured it out.
Turns out, my son, who I still love dearly, gave me the wrong pack of caliper clips for my assignment.
While I was staring into that instruction page, I took a phone call from my friend, Katie Gooch. Katie is the Director of the Pace Center for student ministries(Wesley Foundation) on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).
Katie’s programming is housed in the former Pace United Methodist Church at the corner of Pine and Franklin just across from Richmond’s Monroe Park. Unfortunately, Katie was calling to give me some discouraging news. Her building had been a target from the demonstrations related to the protests of George Floyd’s death.
Out of the blue, a few years ago, I was asked to serve as the property chair for the Board of Higher Education for the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church. I basically was given the responsibility of keeping an eye on the Wesley Foundation properties on college campuses across Virginia.
I knew the Pace building well, and I listened intently as Katie walked me through the damage. We talked, and she sketched out a game plan for securing the building. Her plan made sense, and Katie promised to follow-up as she organized her plan.
Without too many more hiccups, the play set came together. The final finishing touches were tweaked, and of course the final seal of inspection and approval came from, Josie, our soon to be three year old granddaughter.
Just as we were breaking for lunch, Katie called again to let me know that a team was assembling at Pace at 1 p.m. If I was available, she requested that I bring an extra step ladder and head down to assist.
With the play set christened by Josie, I departed for Pace.
I drove down Patterson Avenue, and then hooked a left on to Monument Avenue via North Thompson Street. It was a beautiful blue sky afternoon, perfect temperature. I saw people on the grassy medians of Monument sunbathing, some strolling with their dogs, and others just sitting in the sunshine.
The deeper I drove down Monument, the more the traffic increased. And then, as I started to encounter the Civil War monuments, I saw what was creating the stir—the monuments had been severely defaced by the actions of some of Saturday night’s protestors. I did not stop and gawk, but the messages and damage was significant.
Monument changes to Franklin after the last statue, and at a house of worship further down Franklin, I noted plywood being installed over windows. Not sure if that was a preventative measure or responding to damage.
I reached Pace and found a place to park along Pine Street. The crew was already busy cutting plywood. Twelve windows had been damaged— nine along the back alley, and three facing Pine Street. It appeared the protesters picked up anything loose and hurled that object toward the windows.
Luckily, none of the stained glass windows surrounding the Sanctuary were damaged. But, it took the volunteers quite a bit of time to gingerly remove the sharp edged shards from the old metal window frames.
There was a bit of graffiti spray painted on the alley side brick wall. I’m sure attempting to remove it will be painful.
But, maybe in some respects, the Pace building was lucky. Ask the loading dock area of the VCU high-rise dorm that sits beside Pace. The dock and lots of its receptacles for removing trash and other items was torched. I mean in some instances melted to the ground.
Katie asked one of the volunteers to paint some kind messages on the plywood. Offering Pace as a source of help and hope for the community during this tragic crisis.
A group photo was taken of the COVID-19 masked volunteers. Katie and her property manager, Jean, worked out an additional security measure for the front doors. And then, I headed back home with no intention of working my way back along Monument.
It has been a few years, but I have never forgotten this quote in the Richmond Times-Dispatch when former United States Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, spoke at the Richmond Forum. Gates told the audience: “The United States faces threats from extremists and unstable regimes around the world, but it’s the nation’s own political incivility that poses the gravest risk.”
America has been an imperfect union for too long. At this stage of my life, I would not call the state of our union sound. And, if I am truly honest with myself, our union has never been perfectly sound. There has always been something gnawing at our veneer.
We are a spiraling mess. We are a country more capable of hurling astronauts into space than we are at solving years of social injustice, unrest, and our own incivility.
I am a part of that spiraling mess.
I haven’t tried hard enough to fully comprehend and understand what is like to be an African American in our country.
And I haven’t tried hard enough to apply in my daily living the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Jesus told the questioning lawyer how to live his life. Follow the example of the Good Samaritan in caring for your neighbor—“go and do likewise.”
When have I truly gone and done likewise?
When have I truly been the one who initiated mercy in the moment of crisis?
When have I advocated for justice, mercy, and understanding?
I think God will be disappointed in my answers.
Fear has kept me in my silo.
Fear has prevented me from going out and doing likewise.
But, fear did not prevent the Good Samaritan from showing mercy.
Because the Good Samaritan at that very moment of decision grounded his actions in these words from the Bible: “love your neighbor as yourself.”
In the movie, The Green Book, I’m not sure which screenwriter Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, or Peter Farrelly wrote this line: “It takes courage to change people’s hearts.”
Those words ring true to me.
God’s disappointment in me is really aimed at my heart.
And his real question for me is very simple.
In turbulent times, do I have the courage to change my heart, but also to help people change their hearts?
Heart changing isn’t easy.
Heart changing is grounded in: “Go and do likewise, love your neighbor as yourself.”