by Brenda K. Smith
In February 1999, I was pastor of New Hope Lutheran Church in Jamaica, N.Y., when an unarmed African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, was shot at 41 times by four Caucasian New York City police officers. Nineteen of those 41 shots reached Diallo’s body. The officers thought he was reaching for a gun; Diallo was reaching for his wallet.
Following the shooting, there was great tension in the community—especially between people of African descent and the police.
A meeting was held at our church where members of the community and of congregations across the Metropolitan New York Synod were invited to meet with representatives from the police department to discuss Diallo’s tragic death.
To say that the meeting’s atmosphere was tense would be an understatement. There was yelling, disgusted faces and outcries of: “This would not have happened if Amadou Diallo was white!”
As I sat there and listened to the pain, hurt and anger on both sides, I concluded that the only way we could ever ease this tension was for us to see and appreciate one another’s humanity.
[bctt tweet=”The only way we could ease this tension was to see one another’s humanity.” username=”womenoftheelca”]
New Hope Lutheran Church developed a strategy. Food!
Two of the church’s great bakers and several other members donated food items for what we called our “Police Precinct Goodies Table.”
On holidays, we would go to the police precinct and decorate a room with items and colors of the holiday.
We left lots of baked goods and other food items for the officers to eat, and we left a sign that said, “Thanks to the 113th Precinct for your service in our community” from Rev. Brenda K. Smith and New Hope Lutheran Church.
At first, the officers seemed a bit suspicious of us. My joke was that I thought perhaps they suspected we were putting laxatives in the food!
But eventually our relationship warmed, and connections were made. We invited the officers to our church for various events to share a meal with us. We had an all-night prayer vigil where the new recruits from the precinct came, and we prayed for them. We started a community walk against domestic violence, and officers were there to support us.
I am no longer serving at New Hope Lutheran Church, but the ministry continues thanks to two dedicated leaders who have reached out to an additional precinct in the community.
I believe that seeing the light of Christ in the eyes of the “other” is the start to healing and reconciliation. To do that, we have to offer opportunities to come together so we can see that light of Christ in each other.
The Rev. Brenda Smith is ELCA program director for Faith Practices and Book of Faith. This blog first ran as a Give Us This Day column in the June 2016 issue of Gather magazine. Download Women of the ELCA’s free resource on hospitality.