A Balm in the Aftermath of Grand Jury Decisions

A Balm in the Aftermath of Grand Jury Decisions

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Dear Pilgrim Disciple,

In this Advent Season I greet you in the precious name of our Risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The Psalmist said: Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me (Psalm 1:4).

On this 5th day of December in the aftermath of grand jury decisions, first in Ferguson and now in Staten Island, I am mindful of the pain and the anguish of the families of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the reality that many Americans stand in solidarity with them. In both instances, an African American man lost his life at the hands of a police officer. In both cases, a grand jury declined to indict the police officer involved in the particular incident that led to the death of an unarmed person. People of faith are left asking the question – Is there no justice in Ferguson or in Staten Island?

The Prophet Jeremiah mourned for his people. He asked the question: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” (Jeremiah 8:22). The Negro Spiritual contends that “there is a balm in Gilead!”

There has been a genuine effort to reduce the divide between the police and the community in New York City and in other communities. It perhaps boils down to a matter of trust. Trust is a matter of mutuality – citizens must trust the police and at the same time, the police must trust the community for which they have policing responsibility. Mutual trust can emerge out of our efforts to foster better police and community relationships. Our local United Methodist Churches can play a crucial role in such an effort to foster better police and community relationships.

First, where we have a congregation present, we (pastor and laity) should establish and nurture a working relationship with the precinct captain or the local police chief. This can be done in concert with our ecumenical partners in the neighborhood.

Second, let’s extend an opportunity for the local police representatives to come to our church to foster better police and community relationships. There must be an ongoing conversation with the police if there is any possibility for developing better relationships.

Third, let’s be sure that we teach our children how to relate to the police who are themselves a part of the community. Such a relationship should be characterized by respect, courteousness and friendship.

Fourth, our congregations must raise prophetic voices in the community and speak on behalf of the poor, the disadvantaged, and minority people who have no voice in the halls of city government, the halls of our schools, or the courts of our neighborhood. Our voice should be manifested in the prayers of the people, in the pastor’s sermons, and in the dialog of our Bible studies.

If we are to have more effective police and community relationships, there are some things that can be done by police departments. First, police officers should not spend all of their time in a car. They need to spend some of their time walking among the people whom they serve, getting to know their names. This helps to build trust. Second, police departments can improve their training programs for new police officers as well as for veteran officers. Such programs need to include diversity training, sensitivity training, cultural awareness training, negotiation skills, leadership skills and listening skills.

Third, it is essential for police officers to be good listeners. Police officers must be able to think on their feet. Some people call this mother wit or common sense. Common sense might dictate that in a particular situation the better tactic would be to de-escalate a nonviolent confrontation rather than to confront and further escalate the situation. Fourth, police departments must be sensitive to people’s needs regardless of their station in life, recognizing that there might be significant distrust present because of previous neighborhood experiences with the police.

In conclusion, there is a balm that can help lead us to a different place in terms of police and community relations in New York City in particular and in the United States in general. I invite all New York Annual Conference United Methodists to engage in a renewed season of prayer for peace and justice. Let us continue to support the peaceful, nonviolent protests. Let us raise our voices and proclaim the name of Jesus who is the prince of peace!

Your Partner in Ministry,

Ernest S. Lyght