I remember the day Pete (one of the eldest gang leaders, not his real name) sat on top of me, pinned my arms with his knees, the crotch of his nylon basketball shorts within inches of my face. He shouted out to the other gang members loitering in the living room, “Should I rip one?!?,” meaning let gas fly in my face. Everyone immediately burst out laughing. Pete was a huge man, not cuddly or cute, but a generally mean person who probably weighed over 300 lbs at about 6 feet 5 inches tall. He had a sick sense of humor. We understood him sort of like a “shot caller” for us young gang recruits. We all looked up to him and, between each other, vied for his approval. But when I found myself beneath him, laying powerless on the floor, I just wanted to go back to my privileged cocoon in White suburbia.
I told myself to look serious and unfazed coming into his apartment that day, “Don’t say anything stupid. Just be quiet. Look people in the eye and laugh at what Pete says.” But all this surface-level self-talk was a complete facade. I almost immediately felt panic begin to rise in me. On entering his sparse apartment, Pete first wanted us to see his thick wad of $100s bills, probably from casino tips and drugs he sold. He then brandished a semi-automatic assault rifle. In spite of my best attempts to project a fearless persona, I probably could have jumped out of my shoes if anyone poked me. I could feel the stress chemicals coming out of my skin like little air bubbles exhaling the message to others: here’s a weak person to toss around and entertain yourself with.
I now know this is what fear looks like. It’s like a Big Man passing gas in my face. It’s me struggling to get up, but having no strength compared to this giant on top of me. It’s like having guys who I call friends revel and laugh at my weakness and humiliation.
Fear seems to have two biologically imbedded responses: fight or flight. Despite my attempts to look tough, I mostly tried to retreat inside, to not let the emotions show. Instead, I silently imagined my growing anger giving me super powers to fight like Jet Lee or the meanest version of Tony Montana. But, when it came to the gang, I never managed to challenge my bullies. I was happy that my old friends outside of the gang now saw me as powerful just because I hung out with them, so I told myself maybe it would get better over time if I laid low and held on. Of course it didn’t get any better, but much, much worse.
The truth is, I love Pete. He is a wounded man. I can feel that today more than ever. He did things to me and other victims that were just messed up. Even now my anger can well up. But I also see him as he is, the waywardness and all. I look into his life and somehow find a humble man. Whether it is truly Pete or not, I don’t know for sure. And yet I want my victims to see me that way too, to show me the same mercy. In fact, isn’t this reversal how the rulers are brought down low? Isn’t this hand of grace how the rich get sent away empty? Isn’t this complete release of vengeance how the hungry are fed?
Ironically, my secret fault was that I needed a friend. I was too afraid to admit that to myself, much less to Pete and a half dozen other gangster youth. Perhaps I wouldn’t have known what to do if I had actually found someone I could lean on. But it strikes me as a worthy secret to tell everyone now, something I would have never thought of back then.
Each person’s story has the power to offer liberation for someone else: Mary’s song, Jesus’ lament, Burley’s vision of community, even my own retelling of life beyond my bullies. These stories speak about God’s strong arm reaching into the world and turning things upside down. By telling the public what happened—in real honesty with hope—the Spirit gently aims us all back to God, the only One whose “judgments…are true and righteous altogether.” Yes, we know that some may try to discredit our hope, but others will finally imagine it for themselves: if it can happen for her, it can happen for me. Those who resist the call to bear witness and repent very often have no idea who will save them. They feel a deep alienation from the King whose ear is curved to answer the cries of the poor, the afflicted, the insignificant, the excluded and left out.
What secret faults do you want cleansed? What stories do you need to tell? What can make a person truly happy even if the world is falling apart?