Scenes from the aftermath in Oakland:
stories of victims, survivors and healers.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

On the preachers at the funerals of the killed in Oakland

When it comes to stemming violence in Oakland, the preachers at the funerals of the killed are powerless, especially the older ones.

In general, the young men the preachers think they’re speaking to don’t listen.They clap when they’re supposed to, and they say “Amen,” but they shut down when the old preachers, usually the pastor of the church, start saying the same old things, the same things that didn’t change anything the last time. They are unmoved by the preachers’ nostalgic litanies of the comparatively innocent transgressions of their own infinitely distant youths, unmoved by the supposedly relevant lyrics to songs the preachers often admit none of the young people ever will have heard, by the platitudes, by the straightforward begging for reason, by the earnest, plaintive appeals to black pride, to civic pride, to human feeling, to heed the peaceful urgings of Christ.

It’s not the preacher’s fault. I sit there waiting, wondering what they could ever say that might make a difference. Often they appear to labor under the myth of the great speech, the idea that they can inspire with their words and the scriptures a moment of mass, permanent transcendence that will change lives right then and there. Deep down, they must know that what difference they can make will need to be on one young person at a time.

And yet, at the funeral, they have to say something. Some concentrate on lifting the spirit of the family. It’s possible they have surrendered to the reality that a sermon about leaving behind the emptiness of the life of the gun will probably be ineffective, if not completely ignored by those living that life. So they don’t dwell in the plaintive mode. These preachers tend to put all of their substantial eloquence and energy into lifting the spirits of the family with the proposition, put forth at all the funerals of the killed in Oakland, that, if there is any, even scant, evidence that at some time in his life the deceased gave his soul to Jesus, then today is nothing but a celebration of his joyous home-going. He or she, we are promised, is now in a better place than we are. 
Some pastors, even if they understand the futility of their pleas, can’t help themselves: they are sick for their community and they have to try. Here at Velly’s funeral there is a substantial audience of young people coming of age at the grim geographical nexus of our violence that is Bancroft Avenue, Seminary Avenue, and Foothill Boulevard, in East Oakland. 

The pastor has before him a fairly large contingent of African American men just entering the age group of greatest peril: 17 to 34. They’ve got these young people in here, a semi-captive audience, and they are going to give it a go, they’re going to try to find what no one has found before: the words, the word, the one idea, the one tone, the one long-elusive volume, the one inarguable piece of logic, the one laugh line or soaring passage that will transform the psyches and souls of these young men, who are either cynical, or totally disaffected, or overwhelmed with anger, or overwhelmed with fear, young men restrained by the chains of an entire life in which they have seen killing used as, if not the only answer, then a common answer to common problems.    

Early on, while decrying the influence of the Devil, the old pastor recites a passage from the Bible, John 10:10, in which Jesus tells the Pharisees, “The thief cometh not but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come so that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” 

And then he goes straight to the plaintive.

Put down your guns, he says, and pick up the bible. Be a good role model. The Devil is the worst enemy you could ever know. All this killing is motivated by the Devil. Why is everybody drinking tequila? Stop smoking pot. I might expect this killing in Mississippi fifty years ago, by whites, but all this black on black killing is awful. Children should bury parents, not the other way around. Remember what James Brown said: I’m black and proud.

Finally, he tries to quote the 1982 Grandmaster Flash song “The Message,” but he can’t recall the name of the song, the precise lyrics, or who recorded it. “A while back,” he says, “there was a song said it’s a jungle. Something like, ‘It’s a jungle,’” he says, “’you wonder what keeps you from going under.’” Despite the haphazard clues we’re given, everyone knows the song, and everyone seems glad to think about it.
                                                     From Imaginary Pain 
                                                     by J. O'Brien

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