I met the man when he asked me for a drink of water after I had just slurped down the last of my bottled water.
“I’m sorry, I don’t have any water left,” I said
”That’s ok. How are you today? What are you up to?” he asked.
“I’m fine thanks. I’m waiting for my mother to get here on the bus from St. Cloud.” I stepped closer to the man and bent down reaching out my hand. “My name’s Renée. What’s yours?”
“I’m glad to meet you, Moses.” As our hands met, he looked skeptical for a second, then asked,
“Are you really?”
“Yes, I am. What are you doing?”
“I’m waiting to catch a bus to Chicago.”
“Do you live there?”
“No I’m going to see my boys. Where do you live?”
“In Minnetonka. How many children do you have?” His face lit up like a Christmas candle and he grinned, “Three, but two of them live in Chicago and I can’t wait to see them.”
“How old are they?” I asked sitting down on the sidewalk next to him.
“Eight and eleven.” He smiled again with the obvious joy of a father.
“How often do you get to see them?”
“Not very often.”
When I had first parked my car on the street a few feet from where Moses was perched on the sidewalk and walked the block to the Minneapolis bus terminal I had noticed a tall policeman with broad shoulders parked on a bicycle about 90 feet from Moses. He seemed to be keeping an eye on the mostly black people milling around the area. None of them seemed intimidating to me or bent on causing harm, but as I passed the police officer and said, “Good morning, how are you?” he didn’t look at me but answered tersely, “Fine mam.” He seemed to be on alert and wary. When I arrived at the bus station and found that my mother’s bus was going to be a half an hour late I had returned to my car to clink a couple more quarters into the meter. That’s when Moses had asked me for a drink of water.
As Moses and I visited, our conversation moved quickly from the superficial to the profound. At one point Moses gestured to the area around us and said, “We could make a documentary about the things that happen here. Things that people seem not to know about.”
“What do you mean? Can you give me an example?”
“See that policeman over there ? What do you think he’s here for?”
“To enforce laws, I guess.”
“He is hired to enforce laws on people like me with black skin,” Moses said and he stretched out his hand towards me. “Now, I understand that people are killing each other, and we need the police to mediate the madness. But when you give someone a badge and they believe they are the authority they are likely to abuse that authority.”
“I hear what you are saying, Moses, and I admit that I can’t even imagine what it is like to be black, what it is like to be you.”
“The abuse and killing has to end,” Moses said forcefully. “We have to stop now.”
“I couldn’t agree more.” I said. What do you think about the killing in war?”
“The United States has got to bag it up! We had no business being in Iraq and we have no business going around the world using our military might for our own greed. We’ve got enough problems here at home.” He paused for a moment in deep thought. Then he learned forward closer, looking me straight in the eye. “There is a right way to treat people, and a wrong way to treat people. Which way are you going to treat people?”
“I’m going to try…”—he cut me off abruptly and said uncompromisingly, “Which way are you going to treat people?”
“The right way.” He nodded.
“Much of the problems in the world are about people wanting more than their neighbor,” he continued.“It’s greed, you see, because I don’t have your blue car. Because I don’t live in Minnetonka. It’s greed all of it, and everyone is sick with it no matter rich or poor or what the skin color. The madness is about greed.”
“I think you’re right,” I said.
As our conversation paused, I took in the goodness of the moment. After several days of rain and grey woolen skies, the morning was silky with light and a soft breeze caressed our skin and like a child’s chuckle seemed to float wherever it wanted. I didn’t think of it then, but in retrospect I see now what a cheap answer I gave to Moses’s question about the purpose of the police officer. Technically I had answered correctly; “to enforce laws” would have passed as an answer on any standardized test. But thinking about it now, another answer comes to me. We hire the police to enforce fear. Anyone may feel fear when the police are around, or pull in behind our car on the highway. “What am I doing wrong?” we may wonder. So what must it be like for those whose skin color is not the same as the majority of the police and the politicians, for those who are stereotyped as takers, as lazy, as unambitious, as thugs, drug dealers and criminals? We may like to think that we are so-called “color-blind” in this country, but there is no such thing. When Moses stretched out his hand to me, without being him, I already knew that he is seen as more likely to break the law than me. However, when I had reached out my hand to him when we first met, it wasn’t because I was there to help him. I was extending my hand as a beggar, because I know that I’m the one that needs help. I’m the one who in spite of having all I need one hundred times over still takes more. I’m the one that lives away from the materially poor in a mainly white suburb where if many of us saw one or two black people dawdling on the corner we would call the police—to enforce our fear. I may not live in a visibly gated community, but the gates in our minds are locked, surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by vicious dogs of fear. We don’t need God to protect us because we trust in violence. We buy guns and make laws to jail the poor while we are in fact the criminals whose greed and self-preservation has no boundaries. We are poverty stricken and ill from persecuting God in our neighbor if he tries to take such piddly objects as cell phones, entertainment systems or cosmetic jewelry.
“Moses, I’ve got to get my mom in a minute, but I want to know if you’ll come to my church and speak sometime? We need to hear from you.” Moses looked taken aback. But before he could speak, suddenly, abruptly the police officer skidded up on his bicycle and dismounted.
“Alright sir,” he said to Moses. I’ve been watching you. We need to talk.”
“I haven’t done anything sir, I’m just sitting here with my friend.”
“I need to see your i.d.” the policeman said sternly. “Give me your i.d.”
“But what have I done? We’re just having a conversation.”
“I see that, but you have an open beer next to you. It’s illegal to have open alcoholic beverages on the street, and I think you know that. Give me your i.d.” Moses pulled out his wallet, took out his i.d. and handed it to the officer who then spoke to me,“Are you with a church or anything?” he asked.
“I’m waiting for my mother to arrive on the bus from St Cloud and we started visiting,” I said motioning to Moses.
“So you’re not here to solve any problems?” The question confused me and I was wondering if he would ask for my i.d. After all, Moses and I were in the neighborhood for the same reason, the bus terminal. But before I had a chance to answer he turned to Moses again.
“Moses, instead of taking you to jail, I’m going to give you a judicial,” he said while writing on a form.
“Excuse me, officer, could you please explain to me what a ‘judicial’ is?” I asked. “I’m not familiar with that term.”
“I’ve given him a date in two weeks to show up at city hall. At this hearing they will see if he needs help getting off alcohol or any other addictions.”
“Could I attend?” He shrugged, “If you want to.” He handed the form to Moses and told him to sign it, and Moses complied. Then the officer gave him a copy of the form, picked up the beer and walked away with it, returning seconds later to clean his hands with an antibacterial wipe. I turned to Moses. “Moses, what if I came to the judicial and we talked about you speaking at my church? I really want you to come. Maybe my pastor will attend the hearing too.”
“I don’t need to go to a judicial,” he said angrily.
“Think about it Moses, just think about it. I promise I’ll be there.”
I didn’t tell him then, but I am not going to the judicial for him, but for me. When you find the teaching, follow it.
* * *
*Not his given name.