I am here again at the Abbey of Gethsemani, here in the midst of summer heat and Ordinary Time, here in the midst of rolling Kentucky hills and the fury of live meadows. Here, I tell time by abbey bells, sync my body to rhythms of silence and prayer, and slow down long enough to catch my breath, to feel human again. Here, I watch the sun rise and set, I watch the clouds shift and deepen and flatten like cities, I watch the colors in the sky heat and cool with staggering ease.
Yes, I am here again and I am empty. I spent last week with my hands up, pleading. I spent last week marching through the city, mediating fights, standing in between broken people and broken systems trying to minimize the damage. I held my hands up and placed my body, a tiny shield of flesh, as a sign of peace or truce or love in the middle of so much violence and misunderstanding, in the middle of so much ego, injustice, and anger.
The fullness of summer heat came later this year. It came late but hard. People on the streets are weary and dehydrated, they are tense and angry, their fuses short. So we carry extra water, seek shade, resign ourselves to sweating, listen well, and do the work that needs to be done.
The week began in anger. A procession of over 150 students, advocates, and educators marched through downtown Nashville in solidarity with people in Ferguson, Missouri. That day, as Abraham Joshua Heschel says, “we were praying with our feet.” Yes, our prayers were the rhythmic pounding of soles on concrete while our chanting, our call and response, was lifted in unison: “We are Mike Brown,” “Hands up, don’t shoot,” “No justice, no peace; no racist police.” The liturgy of the day was of blood and mourning, outrage and action, and our sacred procession wove its way around town.
When we got to the Criminal Justice Center for the rally, police officers greeted us with cold water. Not all of us are like that, they seemed to say. The water was accepted and appreciated with a healthy ounce of skepticism. Yes, some of the individual officers are good people, but the system, as a whole, is stacked against the poor, stacked against people of color, and so many abuse their authority, play into that system. To remind us just how powerful that system actually is, the front page story in The Tennessean the next day featured an article on the militarization of our local police force—the tanks, armored vehicles, assault rifles, helicopters, and riot gear they’ve gained in the last few years. Even their kindness is backed by brute force. Yes, the week began in anger. Hot anger. And it rolled on.
On Monday, my heart sank when I found the men who had relapsed in the parking lot of a church. We stood in the shade and talked about their options, talked about trying again, talked about anger. “Jerry” had been reading books I’d given him, books about history, resistance, homeless organizing, and mass incarceration. “I’ve been reading the books,” he said with despair in his eyes, “and this has been going on in the U.S. since before the 1800s… what’s going to change it?”
And then, I saw the cop car pull in the parking lot and a familiar officer climbed out. “You know you can’t be here,” he said to us harshly, his body a broad tower dripping with sweat. “This is the private property of the church and they have a trespass waiver on file. I could arrest you all right now.” This was the same officer who took the ID’s of two people I know on the streets and only gave them back days later after I called the East Precinct hunting them down. “I know you’re an advocate and all,” the officer said to me, “but you can’t be here. Want to meet with these guys? Then do it in your office, they have no right to be here. Neither do you.”
The guys were angry and buzzed from alcohol and when they talked back to the officer, he grew louder, more threatening. I stepped in the middle, facing the officer, hands up, not as much pleading as speaking clearly, firmly, calmly. I knew the pastors of the church who owned the parking lot, we worked together closely. They would not be happy at the officer if he arrested us. I persuaded the men to meet me at another church and the officer flashed his eyes and badge at me, reminding me of his power, a power that comes from the State. I looked squarely into his eyes and stood firm, reminding him of a different kind of power, a power that comes from below, from within.
And the heat and anger dragged on. Wednesday it was the 34-year old man, “Dave,” who had been having seizures and throwing up blood. He was out of his seizure meds and self-medicating with alcohol. As long as the alcohol coursed through his veins, his body was, ironically, steadied. When I found him, he was upright but looked like hell. He was uninsured and had been discharged from the hospital the day before without the care or meds he needed. I pleaded with him to try again, to let me take him to another hospital where he could get care. “I’ll stay with you,” I said. “We’ll make sure you get what you need.”
I met Dave a few months ago and he is only just beginning to trust me. “Dave is always fighting,” the other men told me, and they were right. Trained as a Marine, he knows how to fight and his punch packs a force that makes me shudder. But somehow, he is starting to trust me. “I’m the toughest guy you’ll meet out here,” he told me. I raised my eyebrows and smiled. “Who are you trying to prove that to,” I asked, “me or you?” I told him I thought he fought to prove something to himself and that I saw a seed of something good and tender in him, buried beneath the stone and grit. That is, after all, the most important thing I do—see that seed and nurture it, give it light, help it grow.
The next six hours of my life were spent in the Emergency Department at Vanderbilt standing between Dave and the hospital staff and guards with my hands up, pleading. I pleaded for Dave to unclench his fists, to lower his voice, to breathe. I pleaded with the hospital staff to help him, to be gentle and kind. When the staff felt threatened by Dave, I pleaded with the hospital guard to give him space, to let me talk to him. And when things got bad, I pleaded for the doctor to give us the prescription and let us leave.
Dave had three seizures while I was with him. The first time, his head fell between the wall and a metal hospital bed and I held his shoulders, neck, and head steady with my hands. The second and third time, he rolled to his side and I cradled his head and neck, put my hand on his shoulder, and spoke his name into the seizing abyss of his mind.
When he came out of the seizures, he was quiet, beat, disoriented. Like a child, he reached out for my hand and squeezed it. Within a matter of minutes, however, his anger flared up again like a loose cannon. I calmed him down by talking about fishing, by listening to country music, by looking into his eyes and reminding him that I wasn’t afraid, that I wasn’t leaving. After a traumatic six hours, we left intact, prescription in hand. As we drove to the pharmacy, he began to open up. He began talking about his time as a Marine, his deployments to Iraq.
When I asked him about the status of his discharge, he grew quiet. His tone changed. “When I was in Iraq,” he explained, “I was trained to survive, trained to kill insurgents, trained to shoot. So this one night, we burst into a house. They told us it was where the insurgents were, and when we got there, I just started shooting. I just started shooting and then I looked around… all I could see were women and children and families… and I was shooting them, killing them. I don’t know if they were innocent… maybe they were. I don’t know if they were insurgents. But they discharged me dishonorably for that. And now I’m here.”
And then there was Thursday. I had stopped on Main Street to check on a 70-year old woman and to bring people cold water and clean socks. As a young man rode up on a bicycle, another man in his 40s—“Mark”—stood up aggressively. Before I knew it, Mark had the younger man in a headlock and was tearing at his face. “I’ll rip your face off! I’ll snap your neck!” he shouted. I jumped up, pleading with Mark to let him go, prying my fingers beneath his to loosen his grip. Someone jumped to help me and we somehow pulled them apart. I got the bike off the ground and looked at the younger man. “Take your bike and get out of here,” I told him firmly with fire in my eyes. He listened and left, shaking like a leaf. Within minutes, the police were on the scene and Mark talked his way out of an assault charge. The two had been fighting all week and this was their most recent clash. I looked at Mark and told him he was better than that. “I could have snapped his neck,” he told me. “You’re right, you could have,” I said.
After I broke up my first fight several years ago, the adrenaline that shot through my body in the heat of the moment left me feeling weak and dazed, my hands and legs shaking like crazy. Now, the adrenaline still pours in and my heart still pounds, but my head is clearer, my hands more steady. I don’t always get in the middle of fights, but when I do, I’m not alone. I figure that if someone hits me, everyone else will jump on them and the fight will end. (I certainly don’t recommend this strategy, but with some discernment, de-escalation skills, and a ton of grace, it has worked so far.)
So yes. Anger, hot anger, is coursing through our city, through the veins of students and educators, the police and the poor. And it courses through my veins, too.
When Jerry and I talked in the parking lot before the officer came, he was angry. He was angry and jaded, overwhelmed by the brokenness of our system, by racism, gentrification, and the criminalization of the poor. He was angry about his own brokenness, his relapse, his inability to overcome his addiction. “I’m empty,” he said, throwing his hands up. “Empty and angry.” I told him he had a right to be angry, that I’m angry, too, that anger can be good. He told me that for him, anger is never good. “Do you remember the difference between hot anger and cold anger?” I asked. We had talked about this before. I first read about it in a book on community organizing by Mary Beth Rogers. “Hot anger is the kind of anger that seizes you up, that bounces off the walls, that is wild and burns everything in its wake,” I explained. “But cold anger… cold anger is different. Cold anger takes that hot, wild anger and cools it down so it can be channeled, directed, targeted. While hot anger is destructive, cold anger is constructive, it can be used to create change.”
I see hot anger on the streets all the time. Why was the officer so threatening and harsh to us in the parking lot? Why does Dave always fight, why was he so mad at the hospital staff? Why did Mark nearly snap the neck of another man? Ego. Injustice. Misplaced anger. What would happen if we learned to cool that anger and channel it? What would happen if we stopped fighting each other and directed our anger, our energy, at transforming broken systems, healing broken people?
Several years ago, Andrew came across a conversation that a Native American elder had with his grandson after the events of September 11th. “I feel as if I have two wolves fighting in my heart,” the elder said. “One wolf is vengeful, angry, and violent. The other is loving and compassionate.” The grandson sat quietly and then asked, “Which wolf will win the fight in your heart?” The elder answered, “The one I feed.”
So yes. Let us cool the anger, let us feed the love.