My Column for The Elgin Review
June 10, 2020
In 1989 we hung our baby’s cloth diapers on a clothesline in our backyard on laundry day. Without fail, when Adam’s diapers hung in the sun, our neighbors across the alley lit their trash on fire in a barrel they kept on their side of the alley. Burn barrels were against federal and state laws inside city limits by that time, but in the small, county-seat town a lot of people still used them. “We’ve always done it this way.”
We walked around the block to ring our neighbor’s doorbell to introduce ourselves. They knew who we were. (It was a small town. Everyone knew we were the preachers). Kindly, we asked if they minded not using their burn barrel while the baby’s laundry hung on the line 30 feet away. They said they minded. They burned trash whenever there was trash to burn. They’d “always done it that way.”
The only air-conditioning in our big old house was two window units on the first floor. One hot day our windows were open while Adam napped in his crib in the nursery. The smoke detector went off in his room. A gray stench and haze from the neighbor’s burn barrel filled his room.
“Could we set up a schedule?” We asked when we visited them again. “Would you burn your trash on Wednesday afternoons and evenings and on Sunday mornings when all three of us are at the church?” “No.” they said. “We’ve always burned trash whenever we want to. We’re not going to change how we do things now.”
A call to the police to ask if anything could be done was answered with, “It may be against the law, but it’s the way we’ve always done things.” Attending a city council meeting with a dozen church members who were also tired of burn barrels in town received the same response, “we’ve always done it this way.”
That’s when hang-up calls started in the middle of every night. We had to answer. We were pastors– people expected to reach us in an emergency at all hours. After two long weeks of that, the police called us at 2:30 one morning. Could I meet them at the church? Something seemed amiss. They saw a light flicker inside the building. I dressed, drove to the church, walked around the outside of the building with the officers, unlocked the doors and did a complete walk through with them. Nothing was amiss.
It turned out, one of the policemen working the night shift was our back-alley neighbor’s son. It was the way things were done.
I believe our black, brown and indigenous neighbors who tell us of abuses of power by police in their towns and cities. I believe it is the way things are done. Not everywhere and not all the time, but, when police power was mis-used against me years ago, I lost sleep. Protestors across our country and around the globe are testifying in the court of public opinion telling us that when police power is mis-used against black, brown and indigenous people, far too often, they lose their lives. Too often it is the way things are done and it needs to stop.
Scripture warns against those “who speak peace with their neighbors, while mischief is in their hearts.” (Psalm 28:3b). Those who are sworn “to protect and to serve,” must pay attention to what is in their hearts. Ours will be a better world when that’s the way things are done.
Park Church is worshipping outdoors during the month of June. You are welcome to join us on the church lawn at 9:15 am wearing a mask. I love to hear from you. Beckyzmcneil@gmail.com and 402.540.5615.