Here in a Baton Rouge hospital with my dad this past day, I’ve had more than a few casual conversations in the past couple of days with African-Americans in the hallways and cafeteria. I don’t think a single one failed to include some mention of Jesus, and how blessed we are, and how we pray to him to help our loved ones get well, and so on. It made me think about how much I love living in the South, where this kind of thing is normal. And it made me think even more about how enriching it is to share the South with black folks, who aren’t the least bit ashamed of or self-conscious about talking about their faith.
That might sound condescending to you, but if you’re a Southerner, and a Christian, you know exactly what I’m talking about. I think about the black nurse whose name I never knew, who came to my aunt in her final agonizing hour on this earth, stretched out on the rack of cancer and screaming in pain. The nurse called through the swarm of fear and pain and spoke the name of Jesus. It calmed my aunt, who died peacefully, serene. Even Christian white people like me would be reticent to be so open, or simply to talk about our faith with strangers as if it were a normal part of life. It is a normal part of their lives, and our lives, but, well, I guess it’s a cultural thing. I wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about my faith with such emotional openness unless I knew I was among other Christians. That’s not how many African-Americans in the South are, and seriously, I rejoice in that. It is a blessing to me, and an encouragement in my own faith.
I had a conversation in the hallway outside my dad’s hospital room with Mary, a Southern Baptist hospital chaplain. She is an older African-American woman. We talked about Jesus. When we walked in to pray with and for my dad, she asked me to lead the prayer. I was so touched, and thought yep, she’s my mother and my sister.
This made me think about the photo above, which Erin Manning e-mailed the other day, saying that she wishes it were the image people were thinking about when Ferguson came to mind. The image you see above was broadcast on CBS News, but the original shot itself — which surely has to be the Photograph of the Year — comes from AP photographer Johnny Nguyen. Here’s the story behind it. Excerpt:
At the Portland rally was 12-year-old Devonte Hart, who stood crying out of sadness over the events in Ferguson. He was holding a “Free Hugs” sign.
Portland Police Sgt. Bret Barnum saw the boy’s sign and asked if he could have a hug. The boy gave him one.
Devonte’s mom Jen Hart was there and wrote on Facebook that it was “one of the most emotionally charged experiences I’ve had as a mother.”
“He trembled holding a Free Hugs sign as he bravely stood alone in front of the police barricade. … After a while, one of the officers approached him and extended his hand. Their interaction was uncomfortable at first. … [Then] he asked Devonte why he was crying. His response about his concerns regarding the level of police brutality towards young black kids was met with an unexpected and seemingly authentic (to Devonte), ‘Yes. *sigh* I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’ The officer then asked if he could have one of his hugs.”
Now, I have no idea if either Devonte Hart or Sgt. Bret Barnum is a Christian. But I do know that millions of us Americans, black and white, are Christians, and because of that, and despite of our many sins and failings, ought to be finding ways to live up to the love shining through that iconic image above. Funny how just walking around the halls of a hospital in the American South can work on your heart.