A few weeks ago I was punched in the face so hard I have no memory of the blow. One moment I remember seeing an angry, drunk, and grieving friend of a homicide victim charging toward me, and the next, I was on the ground spitting out pieces of my teeth. I was confused. My jaw ached. I pushed myself up from the sidewalk and tried to piece together what happened. My skin felt hot from the adrenaline pulsing through my body. There was commotion all around me and all I could think of was, “How can I get out of here?”
A little over three years ago, Marjie and I moved to inner-city Oakland. Both of our lives were marked by experiences with God in an urban context and we pursued God into the city. These last three years we have experienced great joy, incredible community, and the hard reality of life on the other side of the poverty line. Never more than in the last few weeks has that reality really hit home.
While we live in relative comfort with a nice home and all of our needs and many of our wants fulfilled, we have chosen to be a few steps closer to solidarity with the poor around us. On September 23rd, 19-year-old Jesse McKissick was killed in a drive-by shooting three blocks from our house. Jesse was the 103rd victim of homicide in Oakland, and the fifth within a quarter mile of our home this year.
In an effort to show our support and to stand against the senseless violence in our streets, Dan, my Pastor, and I went to a street-side memorial for Jesse. With a slightly suspicious look on their faces, friends and relatives asked us what we were doing there. We said that we were from the church down the street and wanted to pay our respect to the victim and offer support for the family. The family members thanked us for being there.
We lit candles and placed them amidst the numerous liquor bottles and other candles placed in a small semicircle on the sidewalk. Hanging on the wrought iron fence was a board on which people had written messages and posted pictures of the victim and his friends. Others had written messages on white t-shirts which also hung on the fence. Dan and I reflected on the situation as we looked at pictures of Jesse.
One friend of Jesse’s seemed to be taking the loss particularly hard. He was drunk and went between crying and talking loudly about the night that his friend was killed. He then walked out into the street and threw down his empty liquor bottle. The glass shattered and spread out across both lanes. He was yelling and cursing and stopping traffic.
After about five minutes he caught sight of Dan and I, and started running down the sidewalk towards us. He first chased Dan and then turned toward me. I started running but found myself blocked in by a few cars. While running away I turned and tried to say, “We’re just paying respect to your friend.” That’s when he hit me.
I am okay now. My teeth are temporarily fixed. I spent the following day in bed with a severe headache, but was fine after that. I did hurt my knee when I fell on the concrete sidewalk, but it causes only mild discomfort and pain.
A few days later Marjie and I heard a loud crash in front of our house at about 8:30p.m. Charging out the front door I saw that a car had slammed into my truck which was parked in front of Marjie’s car; both vehicles were totalled! I also saw the driver of the car running down the sidewalk away from our house. It turns out the driver was drunk and had been in an altercation with some neighbors across the street before driving straight on into our cars. He got away and both of our cars were rendered useless.
I wish I could say that everything is fine, and I’ve worked through all of this—that I have forgiven both of these guys and am at peace with the situation. The truth is I am still angry. I find myself indulging in fantasies involving getting out the door a little sooner and being equipped with a baseball bat. I have no desire to move away from Oakland, nor am I fearful in my day to day life.
But my heart has grown hard. I find that I lack compassion. I see the issues and troubles that plague our city and community and I don’t care like I used to. As time goes on I am getting in touch with what I am feeling (this usually takes me a while). I have become more and more aware of the condition of my heart. But Jesus is good. I am working this out. Please remember me in your prayers as I press into God in this situation.
Josh Harper is InterVarsity’s regional director of urban ministries in Oakland, California. Many staff live in circumstances that are sacrificial and challenging. You can make a direct financial donation to support InterVarsity’s urban outreach in the San Francisco/Oakland area by following this link.