This story of this inner city funeral director in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in a recent Religion & Ethics broadcast, is the heart breaking reality in too many cities. I need to hasten to add it is not the only reality. But it is a serious problem. Do yourself a favor and watch the video.
I was blessed in 22 years as a pastor in one of the poorest areas of South Dallas, to only have to do one funeral for a young man whose death was gang related. I hope I never have to do another. One of my assistants and I attended the wake. We watched young boys and girls coming to grips with death in a way that was unnatural and unnecessary. I walked away determined to make your ministry to youth as robust as possible, to try and provide an alternative vision for the lives of young people and hope for a different type of future. I know we rescued some lives.
But we were only one church. Other churches tried as well. But that was several years ago now. We hear, just like in this Philadelphia story, that violence is going down. Even in our inner cities. There seems to be some question about the degree to which that is happening in Dallas. Whether we believe that or not, we still need to address and attack, if you will, a culture of violence - on the part of youth and adults - that is far too prevalent. It prevents every aspect of growth and redevelopment we hope for in communities of concentrated poverty. But beyond that, it is just wrong.
Poverty is a reason for much of the violence we see. People living isolated from virtually every sign of hope that they can do better and every frustrating enticement for 'living the good life', while at the same time, every opportunity to 'medicate' the frustration through self-destructive behavior. Poverty is a reason for much of the violence we see...but in can't be an excuse! I know that people can live with dignity and self respect, even without much money, because I have seen it and see it still today.
Pastors much preach against this violence. For all my defense of what is preached in the black pulpit, that isn't preached nearly enough. And the pastor in the Religion & Ethics piece is right, most of the one's who either commit, this violence aren't in church. But in so many cases, their parents are, so are their uncles and aunts, their teachers, their friends. It needs to be preached to those who are there. They must join hands with principals, politicians, business owners, parents, guardians and whomever else they can find, to develop solutions to the problem.
But this isn't just a job for Black preachers. All pastors have a responsibility to speak prophetically about and against a culture of mindless materialism, greed, obsessive consumerism and selfishness. We have become a culture that make value judgements regarding character and worth, based on what people have and are able to acquire. And it destroys any sense of genuine community, because we come to believe that the only people with whom we have something in common are those who are able to possess what we possess.
For those armchair theologs, sociologists, and legal experts, who have read articles, books and watched television and think its just a matter of teaching 'values' - we need you too. They need you to become involved - no engaged - in working to end cycles of poverty and violence where you can. We won't end it all. But there's nothing natural about burying a 15 year old whose life ended in a hail of gunfire. And 17 years old is too young for anybody to think there is no other way to live.
This won't stop until adults have decided its time for it stop.
In a few days, we'll be celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life. We tend to forget his militant commitment to eradicate violence and poverty. If we truly appreciate those vital commitments, perhaps instead of singing, 'We Shall Overcome', we similarly devote ourselves and sing, 'We CAN Overcome"!