Seven missed calls.
My phone had been on airplane mode for the past two hours with the Interstellar movie score blasting in my ear.
I sat in a closed off study room in the library.
My paper that I had put off for way too long was still not quite complete but I had to head home.
Isaiah, one of my best friends had blown up my phone.
I hit call back as I walked out to my car.
“Zaya- what’s up man – what’s going on ?”
“Neil- where have you been man – do you know what happened?”
“No, what’s up?”
“Cossi got shot, man-
Cossi is dead,
Officer Bossick killed him”
I tried to breathe – but it felt like I was sipping air out of a straw.
Cossi was a childhood friend of Isaiah and me.
We all grew up together, not always in the same circles but always in ear shot of each other’s lives. Even after high school graduation the previous year we had stayed in touch off and on.
So many thoughts swirled in my head.
What about Dad?
“Cornelius – you there?! Did you hear what the fuck I just said?!”
“Yeah- I just – what happened man?”
“I don’t even know man but there are news reporters all over on 19th “
This is crazy. This can’t be real.
For the past three years I had stayed abreast to the police shootings happening all over the country and now it had hit not only my city but someone I knew.
“Neil- can’t believe this. This isn’t happening man. Not Cossi- not like this – who deserves to lose their life to public execution in the middle of the street ?”
“No one man…”
“Exactly – I gotta go man- I got to connect with Deyah we gotta organize something man”
Deyah was part of the movement and Isaiah had spent both his Spring and Summer breaks traveling to St.Louis, New York, and Baltimore to work alongside other advocates in other cities. He would always travel because he needed to be where the struggle was -where voices and bodies were needed most. Now out of the blue, he didn’t have to go far.
I hung up the phone and made my way home. Muscle memory set in quick because as I pulled up in the driveway I realized that I had just driven nine miles without recollection of any stop lights or pedestrians or anything for that matter- my mind was all a blur.
I needed to talk to mom and I especially needed to talk to dad. He and Officer Bossick were part of the same unit and I needed answers. People needed answers. He wouldn’t be home for several hours, though.
As I walked into the house perceiving it’s quiet and emptiness rather quickly – I realized that mom must be in the garden. Sure enough, I caught a glimpse of her through the bamboo blinds of the kitchen window working amidst the tomatoes and sweet potatoes.
I took a deep breath- finally able to really breathe. I needed to stay in this moment.
I needed to watch my mother and be mindful of this space in time that was a semblance of normalcy.
Maybe I wasn’t ready to know what happened.
I watched my mom.
Rose mahogany kissed skin.
Deep swarthy hued micro curls – full and thick exploded into a halo-like crown on her head.
This was my mother- the beautiful Phoebe.
Sweet Phoebe to many
Pastor Phoebe to most.
I slipped open the glass door …
My mom turned around and walked towards me embracing me sensing what must have been a bewildered look on my face.
“I know baby,” she said..
My comfort of my baby boy is what I have at this moment. Lord knows I don’t have the answers but let me just hold him here close.
Hold him close, hold him tight.
Look how the sunlight is falling on his hair- dirty blond strands -reddish golden against the light. His hair is so limp and straight just like his dads. Oh, when will he be home? What must be going through?
“Mom, what’s going on?”
“Your guess is as good as mines, your father should be home in few hours- he has to stay after to be briefed.”
“Were you out here doing your prayers?”
“You know how I do- knees to the ground, hands in the soil, heart open to God releasing it all to Him, taking in His presence around the garden as I go”
“This neighborhood, our city, our church- we gotta stay together throughout this; hard conversations and difficult times doing life with one another are ahead”
My mom was right.
Our neighborhood and city were pretty diverse and our church reflected that.
She was purposeful in ensuring just that.
Purposeful in cultivating an ethic and nurturing an environment that allowed diversity to be the norm.
She wanted our place of worship to reflect the diversity that God had caused to emerge within humanity.
At least, as much as was demographically possible for our area.
Black, White, Latino, Asian…
Not just ethnic diversity but socio-economic, ability, and age diversity as well.
This was her dream that sprung from her faith growing up and found fertile ground while in seminary. It took seven years to reach a place where that dream finally became a reality.
She always went against the grain.
Becoming a Lead Pastor of a church.
Falling in love with and marrying a white man.
Having the courage to do church differently than most.
When over ninety percent of North America’s churches were almost entirely homogenous to one particular ethnic group she sought to have a church that was the exact opposite.
“Viola is devastated, absolutely devastated- no mother deserves to lose her child like this- I spoke to her earlier and I’m going to spend the coming days with her and her family as they make funeral arrangements”
I listened as my mom talked about her hope for the next few days,
Preparing for the funeral.
Helping our neighborhood heal.
The sermon for the coming week. There was a lot ahead.
I started to think about the future. What the killing of Cossi by police meant for our city. The national eye would be on us now. Our city that had a small town feel with big city options. Start-ups and Fortune 500 companies were here. Craft breweries, art districts, urban gardens, a ton of restaurants, and coffee shops. Belt lines next to waterways. Gentrification was a reality here just like other cities around the country.
Young working professionals lived next to generations of African American and Hispanic families that had been here long before all the change. Most often in underserved areas that existed in pockets along the margins of our staggered urban sprawl.
How would our city respond to this? What would the days and months reveal? The years teach much what the days never knew they say.
Deyah’s image popped up on my screen along with two others. We were all in different parts of the country. The four of us had done this so many times in the past -Google Hangouts just like this. I’ve traveled around the country and worked alongside them with other advocates in those same cities.
I looked intently at the screen as Deyah moved around a bit before speaking
“Isaiah, how are you holding up?”
“It’s so hard, I’m still in shock, I can’t wrap my mind around this. It’s like this weight in my gut that’s nauseating and this heat keeps washing over my head”
“Be sure to take care of yourself, take care of your health, there’s a lot of work to be done”
“Yeah, you’re right”
“Do you know when the press conference will be?” the screen shifted to Thomas as he spoke.
“Sometime within the next hour, I think,” I said.
The screen shifted back to Deyah “I’ve watched this video of the shooting over and over and it’s so disheartening- nothing was warranted, nothing was provoked – I can’t imagine how they’re going to try to justify this”
“Yeah, I couldn’t watch it more than once, Cossi didn’t do anything…”
The screen shifted back to Deyah “ Take some time before tonight and clear your thoughts, I got the word out about the protest at the Police Station and the Press conference, we will start tonight and try and build momentum moving forward”
“Isaiah, see if you can get your tweets to trend locally about the protests – stay on top of it and respond to as many people as you can, we will help you as well”
“Cool, yeah I got like twenty people on board so far tonight and more keep hitting me up”
“What do you need in terms of supplies?”
“I think I’m set, to be honest- I know a few people said they’d make their own signs and I still have supplies on hand of my own”
“Alright- were you able to meet up with the woman who recorded the shooting?”
“Yeah, I spoke to her and she’s coming tonight too..”
So many cameras.
How long has this press conference been going on?
I want to be home with my wife.
I want to see my son.
How is Cornelius holding up with the loss of his friend?
What was Bossick thinking?
I know he didn’t wake up this morning thinking this would happen but my God man…this kid…this kid is gone…
I shift the weight of my legs as a cramp tries to creep in. A few others in my unit stand at attention in front of the barrage of the camera crew as our Chief of Police takes questions.
Soon we are dismissed and the reporters slowly scatter.
My hope of going home soon evaporates, though. There are protesters right outside.
My voice shakes. Get it together Isaiah, I’ve done this plenty of times. Why am I nervous? Is it because I’m leading this time?
Yeah it is.
I got this.
The fire in my belly is relentless.
This is for Cossi.
For his family.
For the many in the neighborhoods of this city who could face death by the fear and hatred of men who abuse their power and have no regard for black life.
Forty-seven people stand at my back and by my side.
The energy of their solidarity gives me life.
Assuage my fears.
So fucking tired of this shit!
When will people see?!
Why don’t people get it?!
Why do our lives have to be subject to your fear and ignorance?
Does your heart beat mean more than mines?!
Your privilege over my pain!
Your abuse over my right to exist and be!
You don’t fucking care!
WHY DON’T YOU FUCKING CARE ABOUT US?!
You can play judge and executioner and not think twice about ….
Deep breath….time to speak…I grab my bull horn and the rage shakes my throat and my voice, our voice find its release….
Three days had passed since Cossi’s death.
Three days of protests at the police station.
Three days of news stations crowding our streets.
Three days of seeing social media react in a fire storm.
Today was Sunday.
I was down stairs below the sanctuary in the kitchen helping prepare our communal meal.
Every Sunday after service our church shares a large meal – not just for our congregants but also for the homeless of our city.
They come in and sit along side us.
Every Sunday, without fail for seven years this has been our tradition.
Anyone from the neighborhood is welcome really.
There’s always a full house.
This part of my mom’s vision has proved to be a catalyst in terms of the depth and bonding that everyone shares after our time of worship.
This Sunday was unique, though. There was a sense of anguish, hurt, and loss in so many people.
A collective grasping for meaning in trying to make sense of it all.
Yet there was also hope. Hope that despite the polarization narrative that was being shaped by the media and forced on to the national conscious- here we were – our little church of 470 people in our little neighborhood in our little big city – standing against the grain and choosing not to turn in on one another.
Choosing love- even in the disagreements, or if not disagreement- to love even in the hurt.
My mom’s sermon was on sitting with the pain.
On waiting with God while we waited for Him.
On being the answer to the prayers that we gave – by saying – I will answer the hurt of my neighbor by helping them heal, by loving them well.
She also- as always – emphasized how the vision behind our church’s diversity was more important now than ever.
I sure hope there is enough food. There are at least one hundred fifty more people for the meal than usual. Fix it Jesus.
Oh, here comes the reporter. I’m so glad they are covering the work our church is doing. Maybe it can cast a more hopeful spot light on our city and for the nation.
“Reverend Phoebe, tell us about what makes your church so unique- and how are you all coming together and coping during this time?”
“We’ve been here for seven years and it’s hasn’t always been easy….the only way we can thrive as a community is by recognizing the inherent value of each of our lives.
By embracing one another’s uniqueness and celebrating it and choosing to live with our differences through the good and the bad circumstances we may find ourselves in at any given time.
“Our church isn’t just ornamental diversity- we really are family- we really seek to do life side by side one another, even in those times where we may not feel like it or even when it may not be convenient”
“One of my biggest inspirations for the work that we do comes from a town in Michigan over 150 years ago.
In the town of Covert- blacks and whites lived and worked side by side. Integrated in industry, education, and worship. This was the 1800’s -something like that was unheard of at a time when the rest of the country was living completely contrary to that.
What was it in the hearts and minds of the people of Covert that caused them to live like that?
“How much more so should our lives echo their example today? Especially at a time like this when the racial tensions in our country are so fragile?”
There was an overflow at the funeral for Cossi.
A few thousand had gathered to mourn.
The Eulogy remembered the life of a twenty-year-old young man who was known as an animated personality and a phenomenal jazz artist.
He frequented the nightclubs and restaurants around our city doing solo acts and performing with his quartet.
Once, when he was 17 or so, he and his quartet played for my parents 15 year anniversary- he played Coltrane’s rendition of “My Favorite Things” at my mother’s request.
He was the man of his home- taking care of his two little sisters and younger brother in tandem with his mom Viola as she drove buses for our city.
Cossi was loved.
He was a good man.
He will be missed.
I sat quietly-pensive, next to Isaiah, my younger sister, mom, and dad.
I glanced over and saw other members of dad’s police unit present, sitting with their own families.
What must be going through their minds?
On the way over dad shared with us how he had spoken with Officer Bossick in his home a few days prior. He had been put on unpaid leave and was trying to keep out of public view.
Dad said that Bossick was visibly remorseful but who could tell what was in the core of a man? What mysteries made its abode in the recesses of his own heart?
He was the only one that had to live with the conscience awake to the reality of having taken another life.
Cossi was laid in the grave and people slowly began to walk away after having spoken ineffable, and failing words of comfort to Viola .
I noticed not too far off Isaiah speaking with my mother.
“Isaiah walk with me, how are you doing? How are the protests going?”
“Sweet Phoebe – it’s all I know to do and my heart hurts, to be honest”
“I know baby, God knows”
“I don’t believe in God….
and I certainly don’t believe in a religion that sanctions slavery in its texts and whose followers used it to enslave our people and who still use it today to justify living a life that erases other people through colorblindness and bigotry…….I believe in human agency- God didn’t stop Bossick from shooting Cossi- Cossi wasn’t even a Christian so is he in hell too? He gets shot in this life by a ‘Christian’ cop doing his ‘duty’ and then goes to hell for not mentally assenting to a neatly packaged checklist of affirmation? ..I’m sorry but no- I’m not going to choose the way of peace and forgiveness and misguided prayer while my life can be taken at any moment because of my melanin, because of an entire psyche and system that considers my existence an inconvenience”
“I mean-I just- it doesn’t make sense- so much doesn’t make sense- This world is all I see and I see everything in this world but God. And all the heartache and evil makes me all the more apprehensive in a belief in any God”
“Isaiah, you see how you have such empathy and concern for injustice? You see how your heart burns and ache’s for things to be made right in the world? For a healing, for a reversal of its brokenness? That’s what God is- I think you believe more of Him than you know- there was a theologian named Paul Tillich who said ‘God is the name I give to that which is affirmed in care and concern for the world’…
That’s what I hear when I listen to the earnestness and concern in your voice”
I got to go, there’s another protest tonight”
I watched as Isaiah walked away from my mom. I kept watching as he headed to his car and drove off.
I watched until I couldn’t see his car any longer.
Wondering about the heaviness of his heart.
My dear friend.
What am I to do but fight to understand the messiness of life?
I heard a man, Pete Rollins on a Podcast recently, he said,
“A society that glorifies itself hides it’s darkness, that darkness, in turn, becomes suppressed and eventually explodes and it comes out in a myriad of ways: sexism, violence, racism….
Part of a healthy society is looking at the difficult and dark parts of it’s past history and the present- -to bring them to the light of day- wrestle with them and look at them- and that very act will help heal and help create a healthier society”
yeah….the messiness of life….
My atheist advocate friend who bleeds for justice.
My father who risks his own life and works tirelessly for his community and his family on an all to often thankless job that garners an increasingly bad rep because of the hatred of a few.
My God fearing mother who is also a mother to hundreds of others in our city.
Viola who lost her son and who will never see him again in this life….
A city, my city in the national eye- trying to find it’s way in the middle of a tragedy…..
Recommended Reading: “A Stronger Kinship: One Town’s Extraordinary Story of Hope and Faith” by Anna-Lisa Cox