Bart Campolo on Fear and Bitterness

Oct 20, 2009 at 11:40 am

It is Sunday night, and I am suddenly awake at the crack of too-close gunfire. I creep to the window without turning on the light, more curious than afraid until I remember I don’t know if my daughter and her friends are home from their movie. Looking out, I see three men spread out in the backyard we share with our neighbors, one moving slowly past the patio furniture where we had a child's birthday party that afternoon, the other two crouched by the trampoline my son and his football buddies slept out on last week. Strangers in our space, clearly visible in the moonlight, probably carrying guns.

My wife, Marty hands me a phone and the 911 operator keeps asking how many, what color, how old, how many shots, until I hiss at her to hurry up and send a car because they're still out there, calling back and forth to each other, pointing at the apartments on the other side of our back fence. They move into the side yard, where they regroup for a moment, and then they walk out our gate and down our front steps, cross the sidewalk past three women they seem to know, and get into a gray, late-model sedan parked behind our minivan, where my daughter was supposed to have parked. God, don't let her come home now, I think, as I keep narrating to the 911 lady, both of us knowing the information doesn't really matter. The police always come too late. Sure enough, the gray car slowly pulls away, coming to a maddeningly full and legal stop before turning the corner and blending back into the city night. The three women’s loud voices trail off in the other direction. It is quiet again. I am not afraid anymore. I am furious.

Those lousy ghetto bastards—my exact words at 2 a.m.—brought their ignorant violence into our yard on purpose. They weren't running away from anything. They had a plan. They brought an audience. I don't know their names, of course, but I know them just the same, because once they get that careless, they are all the same. Before I can stop myself, I hope aloud that they drive themselves off a bridge before they make any more babies. Across the room, Marty wonders aloud what happened to the kind and hopeful man who brought her to this place four years ago, in the name of Love. Finally, we turn on the light and call our daughter. Until she gets home, there is no use trying to sleep.

Hours later, everyone else is safe in bed, but I am in the bathroom, sitting, thinking, wishing I could pray. Beside the tub, Marty has left a book of poems. Reading them, I gradually forget who and where I am. And then I find this:

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn,
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
To buy me, and snaps the purse shut,
when death comes
like the measle-pox

When death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:

what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
And I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
And each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth

When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it is over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

And suddenly, just as suddenly as those gunshots awakened me, I too don’t want to end up simply having visited this world, or even this neighborhood. I don’t want to end up angry or bitter. No, I want to believe in my heart that each life, and each name, and each body is indeed something precious, both to God and to me. I want to remarry amazement.

I sit alone for a long time, silently thankful for Mary Oliver, the poet, and for Marty Campolo, my conscience in many ways, and for Grace herself, who gives us all our second chances, and then I go back to bed. Tomorrow is Monday, and we in the fellowship will be eating our supper together.

I wrote this up the day after it happened, early in the summer. Honestly, two days after that, life on Hemlock Street went back to normal, which is to say, life for us and our friends here went back to being pretty terrific. We might be more fearful if such thugs came that close again, or if they were aiming at us, but they haven’t, and they aren’t, so we’re not. If you really want to scare us these days, forget bullets and focus on that force of evil which truly threatens to destroy the good life we share here in Walnut Hills: Bedbugs. Think I’m kidding? Read next month’s letter.

BART CAMPOLO is a veteran urban minister and activist who speaks and writes about grace, faith, loving relationships and social justice. He's leader of The Walnut Hills Fellowship.