Will you weep with me over another life snuffed out too soon? It happens way too often in New Orleans.
Over the past 15 years, I have heard countless news reports of young, black, teenagers shot to death on the streets of New Orleans. On some level, I have grieved over these deaths, but only briefly. It is far too easy to feel a twinge of sadness and hopelessness, before flipping the channel to Jeopardy! to answer questions about LBJ’s civil rights legislation or 80’s love songs.
Eight years ago, I volunteered as a youth baseball coach in the Upper Ninth Ward because I was tired of doing nothing. I was tired of just shaking my head. I wanted to make a difference. I was not prepared for the challenge of that first baseball practice in 2011 and until this week, I was not fully prepared for the implications of caring … of loving unconditionally.
I remember many of the boys I met that first night and I am still in regular contacted with several of the boys from the 9 and 10-year-old Bunny Friend Playground team. One kid – “CJ” – stood out. He was especially tough … especially angry. I was in the outfield supervising as the boys learned to catch fly balls. My son, Jonathan, wasn’t watching and was nearly hit by a ball. C.J. chimed in, “You better watch your _____!”
During one of our games, CJ was hit by a pitch and charged the mound with bat in hand. We got him under control enough to get him to first base. He immediately began arguing with the first baseman. I told him to stop fighting and focus on baserunning. From the stands, Casandra (his mom) yelled, “Listen to your coach!” Before I could even smile about her affirmation, she added, “You can beat him up after the game.”
I love the game of baseball. To me, it is the true “beautiful game.” I hoped to pass on that love for the game. That didn’t happen. The 2011 Bunny Friend Eagles didn’t win many games … we didn’t even get many hits. I was changed by the experience … and CJ played a vital role in my change.
It wasn’t always easy, but we loved CJ and Casandra. Over time, they heard and accepted the gospel. I have never seen a bigger change in two people’s lives. Later, CJ and his Mom moved to the Little Woods section of New Orleans to get away from the Upper Ninth. Due to the distance, they started attending a church in their neighborhood.
On July 5, 2018, I got the news that CJ had been shot and killed. He was only 17 … the same age as my son. I was deflated the rest of the day. Profoundly sad. Angry. This wasn’t some nameless kid. This is someone I knew. Someone I loved. I learned that if you really care … deaths like this really hurt.
On July 14, I attended CJ’s funeral. It broke my heart to see him lifeless in a coffin. It felt so unfair … like such a waste. Regardless of how CJ ended up dying a violent death, I believe he made a genuine connection with Christ and I believe he is currently in the presence of Jesus.
Each one of these boys who has died in our streets bore the image of God. I believed that on an intellectual level before CJ’s death … now it has moved from my head to my heart. CJ is not just some statistic! He was an image-bearer like you and me. The death of an image-bearer is a weighty thing. Can we stop pretending that it isn’t? Can we weep for CJ? Can we weep with Casandra?
Can we weep for CJ’s son? Yes, you read that right, CJ already had a son. I pray that by the time CJ’s son reaches 17 we are doing a better job of protecting the lives of young black men.
It is going to take me a while to come to grips with CJ’s death. So, will you grieve with me? And once the time of grief is passed, will you be a part of sharing the hope of the gospel with the broken and hurting image-bearers in your path?
Photo by Annie Spratt at Unsplash.com.