I’d rather be wanted for murder than not wanted at all. “
I have worked at helping to shape policy at the local, state and national levels. I have testified before city councils, state legislatures and congress. I’ve testified primarily about the structural externals that hobble so many Americans , millions of whom are ground down by poverty, poor schools, ill health, lack of access to child care and pre-school education and constant exposure to fear and instability in violence-ridden neighborhoods.
I have helped to craft and pass legislation. Yes, good, absolutely necessary, and I continue to advocate for more. But the older I grow, the more I think we who focus on policy walk right by the basics, or rather, THE basic: the aching need for every human being to be needed, to be seen as precious, lovable. A juvenile accused of murder once expressed it to me in these unforgettable words: “Commissioner, I’d rather be wanted for murder than not wanted at all.”
Who is there in a broken, terrifying world who says, “I love you; I will not leave you?” Not many. Relationships are messy: parent/child, employer/employee, counselor/client, teacher/student, spouse/spouse, spouse/ex spouse, and so on. To claim another as “mine” is brutally tough because those who feel unloved will push you away, afraid you will leave them as has everyone else in their lives. It is easier for us to focus on the externals rather than to help give an individual a sense that he or she is amazing, has potential, will not be left alone even in the middle of the mess in which they find themselves. Deep down each of these individuals is dying for a relationship, some literally, and Isaiah gives each of us the essential commission: “O Israel, do not fear, for I have redeemed thee. I have called thee by name. Thou art mine.” This, to me, is the very heart of theology AND social policy.
Kevin Grant, formerly a street worker who now runs the street worker program in Oakland, California, is often found in the street at 1:00, 2:00, 3:00 in the morning dealing with his “loved ones,” those living in Oakland’s roughest areas, those about to victimize or be victimized. “Why don’t these youth take the services offered them – educational help, entry-level job offers, counseling?” I once asked him. “They’re scared,” responded Kevin.” They need support and they’re too proud and scared and tough to admit they’re scared. We’re conduits of trust. People have given up on them. They’re veterans of every service out there. Nobody walked with them and stayed with them at night when they were scared or drunk or couldn’t figure out how to read the text or fill out a driver’s license application.”
Someone sent me an old Hasidic tale after a speech I gave in which I referenced Kevin’s search for his “loved ones.” A rabbi asks his students, “How can we determine the hour of dawn, when the night ends and the day begins?” One of his students suggested, “When from a distance you can distinguish between a dog and a sheep?’” “No,” came the answer from the rabbi. “Is it when one can distinguish between a fig tree and a grapevine?” ventured a second student. “No,” replied the rabbi. “It is when you can look into the face of human beings and you have enough light in you to recognize them as your brothers and sisters. Up until then, it is night, and darkness is still with us.”
How many kids out there are unseen and unclaimed, without a name or one they are not happy to claim? Who will love and claim them? Families can and do, of course, if there are families. The faith community also does this in baptism: “You are Juan, Brian, Edna, Maria. We welcome you as a member of this community. We are here for you.” But unclaimed, who will? Gangs have filled some of the gaps, excellent at “claiming” the Kevins, Ednas, Brians, Marias, re-baptizing them as “Popeye . . . Hawkeye . . .High Boy . . . Needle,” real names from Los Angeles gang files. Where were we when given names became objects of shame?
Brandon Lee Vega offers another possibility as a young spokesperson for Youth ALIVE, a remarkably successful program in Oakland which engages youth who have been deeply involved in the juvenile justice system to be part of violence reduction/neighborhood improvement strategies. In significant trouble as a teen Brandon, said this in a letter he sent before Christmas to Youth ALIVE! supporters. “When I got out, Youth ALIVE! came into my life. I see my case manager Jesus Martinez a lot. He’s committed to it. He says, ‘Bro, I’ll see you on Wednesday,’ “and he’s there on Wednesday. (Even if I’m not.”).
“Even if I’m not.” Who shows up? Who says, I will continue to see you as worthy, even if you don’t show up.
It’s not that policy makers or those working on the street neglect the other work. It’s where we start: “I have called thee by name. Thou art mine.” That’s the starting point. Then after that, “Okay, let’s work on getting you back into school.”