Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Manger of.......Charleston

I saw the manger of Bethlehem once. It was located in downtown Charleston.

I was the pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church, on Wentworth Street, in the historic area of the peninsula. The church was two large buildings- a sanctuary and a fellowship hall, connected by a small hallway in the back of the church. There was a tiny alcove between the two buildings. That was where Engadi slept during the winter.

Engadi was a homeless man who lived on the streets of the Holy City. I met him shortly after I became pastor there. He knocked on the door of the church, I answered, and found a man about my height, very thin, with wiry hair that reminded me of the Afro I sported back in the 1960’s. His clothes were dirty, and he had a small cloth bag on a strap slung around his shoulder. He stuck his hand out and said in a strange accent, maybe Pakistani, “You are the pastor?” “Yes, I am. I’m Mike Henderson,” I replied, taking his hand. “Ah, Henderson,” (and that was what he called me from that day on), “I have a question.” He pronounced my name “Hin-dah-sahn.” He pulled out a worn Bible from the bag, opened it to one of the prophets, and asked me, “What does this mean?” I invited him to step into the fellowship hall. We sat down at a table, and began to talk. He did not take much of my time, then stood, thanked me, shook my hand, and walked out. That was the beginning of our friendship.

I found that during warmer months he slept around the corner, under the bushes at Trinity United Methodist Church. When the temperatures dropped, he moved into the alcove at Centenary. It was more protected from the winds. I tried to get him to go to one of the shelters, especially in the winter. But he refused, saying he did not need it, and that others could have his place. I do not know why he was homeless, and he was evasive when I asked about his past. He was well-known on the streets of Charleston. He would take magic markers and color small streaks in his hair. When I spoke of Engadi, everyone knew who I was talking about.

Engadi knocked on the door about once a week. He would always have a question related to what he was reading in his Bible. “Henderson, do you think Jesus really meant it when he said you needed to sell everything and give it to the poor in order to have eternal life?” “Henderson, why does David say he sinned only against God when he sinned against so many people?” “Henderson, what does it mean to worship in spirit and in truth?” I had many good conversations with Engadi, ones that made me think.

The good people at Centenary knew he slept in the alcove, and never asked that he leave. He kept his sleeping bag and few possessions stashed in the rear, behind a propane tank. He never left trash, and the alcove did not become a gathering place for street people. The church members began calling it Engadi’s Nest. Engadi was never there during church times, but whenever the church would have a meal, they would always fix a plate or two of food for him, wrap it up to keep it warm and safe, and place it in the alcove with a thermos of hot coffee. The next day the thermos would be on the doorstep, with a note saying thanks written in magic marker on a scrap of paper. On particularly cold nights people would go by to make sure he was warm, taking extra blankets, coats, and hats.

I learned some unexpected lessons from him, too. He began to use the magic markers to color all of his hair in bright hues. Streaks of blue, red, orange, yellow, green covered his head. He began to look more than just homeless. He began to look like he was mentally ill.

“Engadi, you’re scaring people,” I said to him one Sunday when I ran into him after church. “How is that, Henderson?” he asked. “The way you’re doing your hair. It makes people think you are crazy.” “I am not crazy,” he said. “When I do this, it makes me invisible.” “Now you are crazy,” I said. “I can see you.” “Yes, you can. But nobody else can.” “What do you mean?” I asked. “Come with me and I’ll show you.” We walked across the peninsula to a large and rather affluent church and stood across the street from it as people were leaving. “You stand here,” he said, “and watch as I go across the street and become invisible.” He walked across the street and stood by the gate as worshippers were leaving. I watched as a few hundred worshippers walked out and passed by this strange man with dirty clothes, multicolored wiry hair, and cloth bag slung around his shoulder. He just stood there. They walked by, none of them making eye contact with him. Not a word was spoken to him. When they were all gone, he walked back across the street. “See, I am invisible.” “Engadi, maybe they were just scared of you,” I offered. “No,” he said. “They did not see me.”

He did begin to let the colors fade, and hopefully, become visible again.

It was on a cold, wet day the week after Christmas that he knocked on my door again. “Henderson, I just want to wish you a merry Christmas.” “Thank you, Engadi. Let’s go get some soup and a sandwich.” In all our time together, Engadi never asked for anything. But he would accept gifts when offered. We walked to the small diner at the end of Wentworth. I order the food and coffee, and we sat and talked for a while about our hopes for the new year.

After the meal we walked back towards the church. He had other places to go, so we wished each other a merry Christmas and happy New Year, hugged and walked our own ways. Suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and Engadi was holding out his gloves to me. They were old, ratty, and the fingers were worn through. “Henderson, I want you to have these,” he said. “Engadi, I can’t take your gloves.” “No. I noticed that you do not have gloves. I am used to the cold. You are not. Please take these. They are my gift to you.” So I took the smelly old gloves and put them on my hands. “Thank you, Engadi.” “You are welcome.” We hugged each other again and walked away. As I passed the alcove, Engadi’s Nest, a blast of cold icy wind hit my face. My eyes teared up from the wind, and as I looked into his nest, I swear by all the angels in heaven, it looked just like a manger.

I hope that the wind blows in your face this season, and you see something you did not see before. Or Someone.

Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Dylann Roof and The Death Penalty

Dylann Roof has been convicted of all 33 counts against him, including the murder of the nine people in the Bible study group at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston. This is not surprising since he pretty much said, “Yep, I did it.” He hoped to start a race war. So far, he has been unsuccessful. Now it moves to the sentencing phase. He plans to represent himself there. He did that for a while in the first part of his trial. I suspect he will once again call for the lawyers. The big question is, will he receive the death penalty for his heinous crimes?

Many of my friends who will read this will immediately say that he deserves to be put to death. I agree. He does. But I am not so sure it is the best thing. I usually oppose the death penalty. I say “usually” because there have been some instances where I have thought otherwise.

In Roof’s case, I think it would be a less wise decision for many reasons. But I must say from the start, I have no feeling of pity for him. Nor do I harbor hatred, as strange as it may seem. To hate another person gives them power over your life, and he will have none over mine. I read of a Jewish rabbi who survived the concentration camps of Germany. After he was freed, he immigrated to the US. He said in an interview years later that before he left Germany, he had to forgive Adolph Hitler. He said he wanted nothing of that man coming with him to this new country. So he had to let it go. I want none of Roof in me.

Here’s what I think the death penalty would and would not do.

First, it would make Roof into a martyr for the white-supremacy cause he espoused. We have had these race based hate groups with us since….well, forever. They were very evident up through the 1970’s, then went into hiding for a while. They are coming out from hiding now. Some have had victory marches since the election. (This is not a statement about our president-elect, but it is about some of the groups who support him.) Roof’s death by the state would elevate him in their hearts and minds. It would give a face to their cause that they could rally around. I do not want him to become a martyr. I know some will say that by putting him in prison for life, with no chance of parole, would do the same. And while it is possible that it would elevate him in their minds, it would not be as great.

Roof’s death would not ease the pain of those who lost loved ones, or the three survivors who were terrorized by it. In cases of the death penalty before, family members of victims rarely, if ever, feel good about the death of the perpetrator. Some have expressed relief when interviewed immediately following the execution, but years later still find their lives haunted by grief. As one said, “It wasn’t enough.” It never will be.

Nor would it ease the pain and anguish of the African-American community, though if he is not executed we can expect to hear a lot of “if he had been black, he would have been dead by now….” kind of argument. There is much to do in our continuing journey towards unity and reconciliation. Another death will not move us forward.

His execution, while satisfying “the state”, would not deter further acts of this kind. When averaged together, states without the death penalty have had a lower amount of murder than those with the death penalty for the past twenty-five years. And the difference is increasing. The difference in the murder rate between states with the death penalty and those without in 1990 was 4%. In 2016 the difference was 25%. If the death penalty had any effect on murder rates, we would see that. It does not. Years ago I heard one very popular radio preacher, in speaking about this subject and of the impending execution of a convicted murderer, say “Well, it will stop him from ever doing it again.” True. But the chances of him murdering someone in prison are extremely low. Almost nil.

Now, what do I hope in this case?

The dark, evil, vengeful side of me hopes that he’ll be put into prison for life, with no chance of parole, never seeing any more of the outside world than he can see through the bars in his window. The reason is this- (unfortunately, but it is true) most of the people in the prisons in South Carolina are African-American. The very ones he wanted to start a war with, and the ones who he killed. I can’t imagine the terror he would have to live with day and night forever. I lick my lips with vengeance on my mind, and laugh evilly with the thought of it. Which, in some strange way, makes me just like him as he held his gun in front of those people studying the Bible. I have to admit it in order to get it out of my system. I do not want him or anyone making me into a person I abhor.

I know there are some people who say the Bible supports the death penalty, and argue forcefully for it. They are right. The Old Testament has the death penalty for the following (there are more, these just stand out):
·         Murder (Exodus 21:12-14Leviticus 24:17,21) (that seems obvious)
·         Attacking or cursing a parent (Exodus 21:15,17) (our teenage population would go down dramatically)
·         Disobedience to parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) (there go the younger children, too!)
·         Kidnapping (Exodus 21:16)
·         Failure to confine a dangerous animal, resulting in death (Exodus 21:28-29)
·         Witchcraft and sorcery (Exodus 22:18Leviticus 20:27Deuteronomy 13:51 Samuel 28:9) (own a Ouija Board? Sorry, got to kill you.)
·         Human sacrifice (Leviticus 20:2-5)
·         Sex with an animal (Exodus 22:19Leviticus 20:16)
·         Doing work on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:1435:2Numbers 15:32-36) (there goes all of the people working in the restaurant business, along with about a zillion others)
·         Incest (Leviticus 18:6-1820:11-12,14,17,19-21) (does that include cousins?)
·         Adultery (Leviticus 20:10Deuteronomy 22:22) (Donald Trump, you’re outta here)
·         Homosexual acts (Leviticus 20:13)
·         Prostitution by a priest's daughter (Leviticus 21:9) (it’s tough being a pk!)
·         Blasphemy (Leviticus 24:14,1623)
·         False prophecy (Deuteronomy 18:20) (bye-bye all you forecasters of political events!)
·         Perjury in capital cases (Deuteronomy 19:16-19)
·         Refusing to obey a decision of a judge or priest (Deuteronomy 17:12) (you better listen to the preacher!)
·         False claim of a woman's virginity at time of marriage (Deuteronomy 22:13-21)
·         Sex between a woman pledged to be married and a man other than her betrothed (Deuteronomy 22:23-24)

Here’s a list of where the New Testament specifically endorses the death penalty:

Some will contort New Testament writings, and even the teachings of Jesus, for the death penalty. But that’s what it is. A contortion.

The better angels in me, though, have another hope. What would it be like if he was converted, became a Christian? I’m not talking about “jailhouse religion.” I’ve seen enough “conversions” there to question most. (But, who other than God, knows the human heart? Sometimes conversions among those not in prison make me question.) But, what if he truly was converted, saw the damage that he had done, the hurt and the pain not only to the families and victims, but to our society as well? What if he began, from his own cell, to do the things for bringing people together? What if Jesus actually changed his life, and he began to live it out? There have been other folks who deserved the death penalty whom God used. The apostle Paul comes to mind.  Perhaps God would use him from the chains of prison to speak to others, and lead them into new life. This may or may not happen, but if he is executed, it definitely will not.

During all these months since the massacre I have prayed for the families, prayed for the survivors, prayed for our state and country, and prayed for Dylann Roof. Like me, they are all part of this world whom God loves, and for whom Jesus bore the death penalty on our behalf.