I grew up in a middle class, blue collar, moderately diverse, neighborhood where many of my friends had a different skin color than me. I didn’t really give it much thought. It was just life, and friends, and “What are we going to do after school?”
That all changed in May of 1992. I was spending the night at a friend’s house. Summer break was within view. Freedom was in the air.
The next morning the mood drastically changed. I got a phone call from my mom. She told me that my brother’s best friend Eric had been shot. I assumed he was in a hospital healing, because that’s what happens when good guys are shot. They survive.
Eric was a gregarious, popular young man at our local high school. He and my brother had been close friends for a few years since his family first moved to an affluent neighborhood on the other side of our town.
I remember Eric’s smile. His laugh. The way he tried to encourage me on my birthday earlier that year when I was having a bad day. I remember his sense of humor, how he lit up our house whenever he visited.
I remember that he let me borrow a sweater (he had a rather large collection) for my freshman winter dance. I rocked some kaki pants and a cardigan, thanks to Eric. I remember the evening when my mom and Eric walked around our block several times as she shared her faith with him.
The fact that Eric was African American was never a barrier or even an issue in our home. Like I said, that was something I never thought about. But looking back, just because I didn’t have to think about it, didn’t mean Eric didn’t. That’s part of “white privilege” that I haven’t always considered.
There are things I don’t have to think about, but that doesn’t mean everyone has the same experience. For some, this is a daily reality they cannot avoid thinking about. I can’t project my experience onto others. I’m learning, trying at least, to listen to the experience of others that I might better understand.
I’ve never written or talked about this publically before. It happened 25 years ago this month. In some ways I still don’t feel ready to commit this to print. But I want to remember Eric. His life, and the events that ended his life, are a part of my life now. They have shaped me in certain ways that I’m still learning about.
Part of the reason I haven’t written anything before is because it involves criminal charges and a court case. I think it’s more probable that I haven’t written because it’s so personal. But I think about it often, particularly when I hear of someone or a group of people downplaying the significance of conversations about racial diversity and equality or treating it as something trivial, or a thing of the past, or clearly not something we should be concerned about in the church.
I’ve seen it first hand. As teenager, I saw it firsthand. Here’s what it looked like from my vantage point.
Eric was shot. He was shot by a white teenager. That evening he and a few guys he never hung out with somehow ended up at a family farm of one of the guys he was with. They were there to do target practice. Not only did Eric not hang out with them normally. Eric was not the type to go to the country at night to shoot guns. Nothing about the details of that night make sense to me.
They described in court that they decided to play a prank on him that night. He had fallen asleep in the back of their vehicle. They planned to wake him up by firing a single shot into the ground then point their guns at him and say “It’s time to die” before firing an empty chamber at him. They opened the door of the vehicle and enacted their prank.
But one of the guns had two rounds of ammunition in it.
Eric was shot. He died. When I first got the call from my mom I assumed he was in the hospital. That’s not how it happened. His body was discovered where these young men left it, at the lake on the north side of our small town.
Writing this is hard.
It’s hard to remember those days.
I’d rather remember Eric by his smile not his death.
It’s painful to think about how the young man who fired the loaded gun was only given eighteen months imprisonment, probation to follow, and a $500 fine.
Our town erupted. I became acutely aware of racial tension, maybe for the first time in my life. After the sentencing, things got so bad our school closed for a couple days as leaders tried to figure out how to care for students and navigate a path forward.
I write this to remember. But I also write this to instruct, myself, maybe others who will read this and think about how we all find ourselves in very fallen and messed up world with a fallen past and a fallen present. We don’t all share the same experience. We need to own up to that and learn to listen more. But as Christians, one thing we all share in common is a perfect future.
But we’re not there yet. We can’t live as if we have in any sense arrived. And as we long for Christ’s return we’ve got to find a way to do a lot better of a job caring and listening and loving.
We have to refuse to treat issues of race and equality, of privilege and discrimination, as if they are trivial, or peripheral, or a thing of the past, or something that doesn’t happen in the church or in religious organizations. Apathy and denial won’t make things any better.
I know that I’m probably pretty clumsy in this conversation. I’m sure I’ve omitted things I should have included, here or elsewhere. I’m sure I’ve said things that would have been better unsaid. But I’m not going to let my clumsiness keep me from speaking. Simply being quiet isn’t the answer.
So, I’m committed to do what I can, as little as it might be, to be a part of what is sure to be a painful, sensitive, awkward, potentially glorious, conversation about how we might do a better job as the body of Christ, as individual parts within that body, to make some progress of “being one” like Jesus prayed for us so many years ago (John 12:20-23).
I’m longing for a day when Jesus comes to put an end to this curse. The risen middle-eastern man, Jesus, who claimed to be the Son of God, who was vindicated by the Spirit, who ascended into heaven and intercedes before the Father on our behalf, will come to gather his church from every tribe, nation, and tongue. He won’t undo ethnicities. He will gloriously and eternally unite them around his throne.
Until then, I remember.
And I long.