J. Jioni Palmer is one of four participants in the Collegeville Institute’s Emerging Writers program for 2020-2021. You will be seeing regular essays from him and the other three members of this cohort over the next 12 months.
For much of my adult life, I was estranged from the faith of my youth.
Growing up, I attended a Lutheran church where the pastor connected the many liberation struggles sweeping the globe during the 1980s with the ministry of Jesus. He taught me to see Jesus as a radical opponent of oppression and marginalization who challenged the power structure and inequalities of his time and was executed for doing so. There was never any doubt where he would stand on questions like ending apartheid in South Africa back then or mass incarceration in the U.S. today.
But as I entered the world as a young man, I became estranged from Christians and Christianity, because what I saw in practice was foreign to me: a faith more focused on the hereafter than the here and now. There was plenty of talk about a God who saves people’s souls in the afterlife, but where was the God who sets people free from all that relegates them to the margins here on earth?
Or in the words of that great Jamaican poet Jimmy Cliff: “Oh, they tell me of a pie up in the sky, waiting for me when I die, but between the day you’re born and when you die, they never seem to hear even your cry.”
Hearing the cries of people yearning to be heard and wanting to tell their stories led me to journalism and then to public service. But it was when I was working for the Social Security Administration, a government agency committed to providing aid and comfort to the elderly, infirm, widows, and orphans, that I began to realize my political and social ideologies as an adult were rooted in the religion and theology of my youth. It was then that I became curious about the faith that had shaped me, a curiosity that eventually led me back to the pews.
While I have only recently become familiar with the work of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, the faith that was instilled in me as a child was imbued with what they call the principle of proximity. As Stevenson said recently, “It’s actually in proximity to the poor that we hear things that we won’t otherwise hear, that we’ll see things we won’t otherwise see.” That is to say, the Jesus I knew did not teach, preach, and heal from a lofty perch but rather engaged in a ministry that actively engaged the men and women who were not supposed to be seen nor heard.
“It’s actually in proximity to the poor that we hear things that we won’t otherwise hear, that we’ll see things we won’t otherwise see.” ∼ Bryan Stevenson
My faith formation was first nurtured in a little church in West Oakland, California—not far from where the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was founded. We not only prayed for the people of Namibia and Azania, we had assistant ministers on staff who shared their horrifically dehumanizing experiences of life under apartheid. Their very presence was a living testament to the same eschatological hope that assured the early Christians a kingdom of peace and justice would prevail on earth. Yet when I left the sanctuary and stepped onto the streets outside the church doors, I immediately saw signs of life on the margins—homeless people pushing shopping carts, sex-workers looking for business, and discarded liquor bottles.
While what I encountered on each side of the threshold between sanctuary and neighborhood appeared to provide contrasting experiences, together they served as the foundation of what I now understand as the importance of the principle of proximity. It would have been easy for my pastor to preach against the profanity of the world from his sanctified perch in the pulpit. Instead we were called to do the more difficult and uncomfortable task of responding to where we had been placed—willingly or not—in the vicinity of those who were living on the margins. To practice justice and mercy.
When I left the sanctuary and stepped onto the streets outside the church doors, I immediately saw signs of life on the margins—homeless people pushing shopping carts, sex-workers looking for business, and discarded liquor bottles.
I’d be lying if I said I was aware of this as a child or even a teenager—heck, I’m still trying to make sense of this as a man, husband, and father in his mid-forties. But I know this is where the seed was planted.
As a reporter, I learned that in order to be good at my job, I had to observe and listen. At times I found this a difficult task, especially after being raised in a household where I always offered my two cents, whether asked for or not.
However, I learned that the more I kept my mouth shut, the more I learned. Listening gave way to seeing. I became much more attuned to the non-verbal communicating people do. I even noticed that in group settings there is as much—and in some cases more—non-verbal communication as verbal. But watching and observing wasn’t enough. I had to place myself as close to the action and the people I was covering as I could.
To understand, as best as I could, what the people of New Orleans were enduring in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I waded in the waters of the Treme neighborhood, traveled Canal Street by airboat, and slept outside the Superdome with military personnel. I ate the MREs (meals ready to eat) provided to those who were displaced and received a DPT (diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus) shot at a FEMA field hospital.
Living with the people of New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of the devastation they suffered was hard for me. This was the birthplace of my maternal and paternal grandparents and great-grandparents, who more than fifty years earlier fled the Gulf Coast with the hope of a better life in Northern California. I had always wanted to visit this ancestral ground, but I never imagined it would be under such circumstances. The sacrifices they made allowed me to live life a little further from the edges of society they were so desperate to escape. It can be hard for those of us with privilege (even if it is not as much as others, it is more than many), to witness the hardships of others.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, particularly within my own personal context as a married, middle-class, college educated Black man raising two Black boys. At night my sons go to bed with full bellies and a home their parents own. They’ve never had to wash their clothes in the bathroom sink and pray they aren’t still damp the next morning when it is time to get dressed for school. I’m glad these and other experiences are foreign to them, but I pray their distance doesn’t breed aloofness to the sadness and suffering threatening to suffocate so many others.
It can be hard for those of us with privilege … to witness the hardships of others.
I want them to be fortified in an understanding that the faith we practice, the faith of our ancestors, is rooted in a faithfulness to a God of justice and mercy who calls on them to act on that faith. To act not for the sake of what might happen when their souls go to glory but for their own lives, the lives of others and for lives yet to come.
I don’t know how this will be manifested when they enter the world as young men, but I trust a seed has been planted.