St. Francis and Ferguson, MO

I played baseball for a high school that had mostly black students. The sophomore class, of which I was in at the time, had a majority of the white students. I was part of a class of students that was bused to different schools in the Monroe, LA area to assist with integration.

Baseball was about the only sport I could play with any degree of competency, and I thought about playing for Neville High School, even though I didn’t attend there at the time. It was understood that players in their 10th grade year could play for NHS if they chose to do so, because that is where most of the sophomores went at the end of the year.  I remember being aware that Neville had seven seniors and two juniors in their lineup, and didn’t think I had too much of a chance to get any playing time. So, I decided to do something which was very unusual for a white athlete to do: I played for Carroll High School.

It was a unique and sometimes difficult experience, being a white player on that team. I remember the baseball coach at Carroll informing me that I would be the “white Jackie Robinson” and to consider what that might mean. I remember being introduced at the school assembly and the murmurs from the students, and the principal asking them to support this team and its players. I really wasn’t thinking of making such a social or political statement as a 16 year old. I just wanted to play baseball. Still, the social and racial overtones in that public school district became evident to me through the season.

I remember traveling to Grambling High School, and while arriving on the bus, seeing students and other players pointing at me. It was like they had never seen a white person on their campus before. Maybe that was the case. But, I never felt threatened by being there. I just had to overcome the unusual sense of being different and having some spectators staring at me and bringing it to my attention. It was more difficult playing our district schedule, against other high schools with people who knew me. They wondered what I was doing and some openly criticized me for it. They used a few select adjectives and monikers during the games too.

I’ve thought about the people of Ferguson, as everyone else has, and have a deep sadness at what is being portrayed. There is the terrible loss of an 18 year old’s life, and the expectation and hope of his having made a positive contribution to his community and world. I understand he was enrolled to attend college. I also think about the police officer whose life has also been forever changed, and wondering what the grand jury will do as they review the evidence. The world is watching to see how this unfolds.

There has been so much written and said about Ferguson, and no doubt there will be more. I did not realize that 50 of the 53 police officers on its force were white. That will have to change. Still, my initial thought is that I hope and pray that the rush to judgment can be avoided. I hope and pray that threats of violence and actual violence can be avoided, and that in fact justice can be blind in this case. I hope and pray that the facts and situation can be considered for not only the Brown family, but also for this police officer. I hope and pray that leaders who are close to the situation will rise up and call for peace and justice for everyone concerned.

Many people have already made up their mind about this case. This is disturbing to me. It also bothers me to see the incredible police presence at the protests, and the escalation of rhetoric from those who aren’t witnesses of what actually happened. If you want to hear some of that, you can go to YouTube. And I don’t think all the violence at those protests are coming from residents of Ferguson.

I’ve come across a few balanced editorials about Ferguson, and think this is one of the better ones I have read. It comes from a minister of a CBF congregation in the St.Louis area. This tragedy is going to take a while to sort out. No matter what happens, that young man won’t get his life back. But, how things are settled and the process may have a profound impact on the future of Ferguson and our nation.

I don’t pretend for a moment that playing baseball and being close to black players and coaches for that year makes me an expert on race relations. But, it did put me in a position to listen and learn from a different perspective. It has helped me to understand a little bit about the anxiety and fear that come from stereotypes and a lack of communication. It also informed me that friendships can be made regardless of a person’s color or economic background. We didn’t win many games that year, but I still have good memories of that season. I think playing together as a team made us winners of another more important type.

A few words of a prayer by St. Francis come to mind: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  I am not naive enough to think that simply asking for peace and justice will be enough, but that is a good starting point. In times like these, we need to use as many (wise) words as possible.

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