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Rev. Gwen Thomas

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Our Souls to Keep

Posted: 06/19/2012 10:35 pm

"I pray the Lord our souls to keep...."

I read a theory that suggested that memories and intrinsic responses to certain surroundings and circumstances are actually passed down through generations of peoples and groups and somehow become a part of the very make-up or genetic code of individuals in that group. Even things that don't seem to be linked to biology or DNA somehow become embedded in the psyche of all who share a lineage and culture. I believe this theory. Recently, I have noticed things about my group--- African Americans that I think support it. In particular, I believe there is a collective response-- and in some extremes a deep pathology--as it relates to violence.

On June 7, 2012 I witnessed such pathology up close and personal. I attended a funeral at Victory for the World United Church of Christ in Stone Mountain, Georgia, where I serve as an associate minister. It was the funeral of a young man who had been murdered in retaliation for a burglary and assault that he had committed against his killer's mother. The funeral ended with a double homicide and two others wounded.

As I sat on the pulpit looking out at the gathering mourners, I was identifying with the wailing mother and father's massive grief. I was particularly identifying with the mother. As the mother of a young African American man, I realized I could have been in her place looking down on my son's dead body.

My attention shifted soon shifted to the others coming to cry, reflect and celebrate the memories of 19 year-old Ryan Guider. Three of the Pallbearer's wore all white linen clothing. One of them had on a headband that said "R.I.P. Sosa". Then about 20 other young people filed in wearing t-shirts with Ryan's picture that also said "R.I.P. Sosa". I knew immediately that these youth represented his family of choice--most like a gang. Some of them put items inside the casket. Some kissed Ryan and gave him some sort of salute. I still didn't think that the scene would end with all of us scattering and taking cover and police bursting into the room where some of us were hiding, guns drawn saying, "Down on the ground!" Before they could comfort us they had to make sure we weren't suspects. It was all very scary and somewhat surreal. It was extremely sad.
In my own aftermath of the incident I have been very grateful that no other lives were taken and no one else was hurt. I am also clear of the importance of merging religion with social justice issues. Jesus and justice must be inextricably linked. Victory for the World church is now considered "ground zero", in addressing gang violence and the perils of African American youth. I see this church and other Black Churches as the perfect catalyst to deal with all the violence that plagues us. This includes not only gang violence, but bullying of LGBT persons and child abuse masked as good discipline.

I also believe we have to address the trauma that causes us to act out our collective pain by harming each other. I am committed in my work as an activist and a preacher to creating safe and sacred space to have direct and honest conversations about the issues that cause us to go from simply being a community that is oppressed, to people are sometimes oppressors, with purpose of finding solutions.

If we don't consider evolving in our parenting styles and discipline methods, we may perpetuate the notion that violence is the logical response to perceived wrongdoing. If we don't validate and affirm all types of Black Families and relationships, we can cause harm to people deserve to love who they love and have equal protection under the law. If we don't ensure that our children are taught good values rather than simply get an overabundance of gadgets, toys and technology, we risk more youth being drawn to drug-dealing and robbing because they believe the should get what they want by any means necessary.

The body, mind and spirit respond to the effects of injury or illness with complexities. In the similar ways, I learned via my undergraduate psychology degree, the human mind comes up defenses and buries memories to protect a person from mental and emotional trauma. We must change our cultural response to the lynching, rape and degradation of our history. We must use the tragedy at Victory and others like it to remember the strength and wisdom of our ancestors. Let's take a collective sigh. Let's breathe and remember the spiritual leaders and peace warriors who have gone before. I am praying the prayer of my childhood: "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep." Let the souls of Black Folk be kept.

 
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