We pulled into Durham around 6:45 PM, concluding a quick early-May weekend trip to the beach. Stopping off at our apartment complex just long enough to empty the car and change clothes, we left to go hang out with our friend Tucker who was hosting a Cinco de Mayo party in his backyard at 7:00 PM. Luke and I were running a bit late, but not unreasonably so… just the kind of late that allows time for the burgers to finish cooking and be ready to eat by the time we got there.
As we turned onto Tucker’s street in East Durham, I found a parking place in front of the neighbor’s house. I pulled into the spot, put the car in park, removed the keys from the ignition, and waited for Luke to wrap up a phone call with Mom and Dad. While we were sitting there, I glanced in the driver’s side mirror and saw a man approaching the car from behind. He passed my window and got all the way to the front bumper of the car before turning around and approaching my door. Now, Luke and I lived in this part of East Durham for a year, and from that experience know neighbors can be pretty picky about where you park. And I get it… the driveways in this neighborhood are small, and not every house has a driveway. Just look at some of the “Rush Hour” style maneuvering we had to do to park at our house when we lived in East Durham.
Back in our car outside Tucker’s house, Luke and I looked at one another with rolling eyes that communicated something like, “Great… he’s going to ask us to move our car.” But his sudden shift in body language communicated something very different. With a previously undetectable sense of urgency, the man flung the driver’s door open, drew a gun from his waistband, and pointed it at us. “GET OUT OF THE VEHICLE AND GIVE ME YOUR KEYS,” he demanded. We got out of the vehicle, and as we backed away with hands raised, I tossed him the keys and he took off out of the neighborhood.
In the days that followed the incident, Tucker’s friendship was a refuge for us, a safe and sacred space where—after the shock had worn off—we could simply lament together the brokenness of a world where violence rather than love is instinctual. But the responsibility for this violence doesn’t fall squarely on the one man who stole our car. He himself is a victim… a victim of broken communities… of impoverished neighborhoods where gang violence has been a way of life for decades. He is victim to a set of circumstances that make him think violence is the only solution to whatever problem provoked his anger.
We have a responsibility as community to break the cycles of poverty and violence. With God’s help, we—as a community—can transform brokenness into wholeness and abundant life. But how do we do it? How do we transform our communities? How do we turn the world as it is into the world as God intends for it to be?
The Religious Coalition for a Non-Violent Durham is a community that aims to do just that. Founded in 1992, the coalition is a nonprofit, interfaith organization whose mission is to “rectify and prevent violence through intentional relationships that facilitate both institutional reform and individual acts of compassion and reconciliation.” The coalition supports a variety of ministries within the Durham community that invite neighbors to know one another in peaceful covenant, one of which is a prayer vigil ministry for homicide victims. Together, members of the community step into spaces of brokenness and violence, and reclaim them as sites of hope and resurrection.
Upon learning a member of the Durham community has been murdered, members of the coalition go to the site of the incident and invite family, friends, neighbors, pastors, and caring citizens to gather for a vigil to mourn, to acknowledge the dignity and worth of the victim, to recognize the traumatic loss for the victim’s loved ones, and to simply exist together. The beauty of committing to just being there on the street together is that coexistence can reknit—even if only in part—a community that has been torn apart by violence. As Marcia Owen, former Director of the coalition puts it, “being with” is the opposite of violence.
To stand at the site of a homicide—a place that reminds witnesses of the brokenness of the world—while participating in a prayer vigil with victims, gang members, relatives of victims, and relatives of the accused alike is to work toward repairing some of the damage of the community. On street corners around Durham, community members are sharing memories of loved children of God lost to gun violence, and in their sharing, they are brought into the ongoing work of making creation whole. Most simply, it’s Communion—a shalom-making communion that starts with brokenness and transforms it into abundant life... into God’s peaceable kingdom.
Christ invites each to come to the Table as they are: violent, addicted, hung over, poor, judgmental, exclusive, and hungry. Author and minister Sara Miles reflects, “Each of us, at some point, might have been rejected for being too young, too poor, too queer, too old, too crazy or difficult or sick; in one way or another, cracked, broken, not right. But gathered around the Table, we [become] right together, converted into the cornerstone of something God [is] building” (Take This Bread, 139). Spaces shaped by violence and brokenness are the sites of God’s creative activity. These very spaces are the arenas wherein God plays out God’s redemptive work; where Christ transforms brokenness into wholeness and mourning into dancing. These are the very places where God unleashes God’s love. These are the very streets Christ—as God’s love incarnate—walks… to communicate to anyone who thinks he is beyond the reach of God’s love that communion and divine love is for him.
But how do we live without enemies in a world where violence is as prominent as it is? We do so by loving beyond fear; by committing to care for others’ wellbeing, even when those others have wronged us. In the words of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
Jesus is in East Durham. I know because I’ve seen him in the streets at the vigils and in the eyes of a man who was desperate for communion one night in early May. And Jesus is in the broken spaces of your life too, working to reunite God’s people in love and peace.