Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman. In the last few weeks it appears that hardly a person in this country isn’t talking about them. The tragic incident where Zimmerman, a white/Hispanic adult on neighborhood watch, shot Martin, a much smaller unarmed black teen, has saddened us all and enraged many of us. I don’t know all the facts, nor seemingly does anyone else, but opinions are flying around. What is clear is that the facts I do know don’t add up. All I can do is add my voice to those who call for justice authorities to get to the bottom of this.
Christians, for the most part, have not weighed in on the matter. One excellent exception is John Piper. You can read his thoughtful comments here. For me, the most powerful impact coming from this story is that of the hoodie.
I work nights in a retail store. While I am never alone in the store I am often apparently alone, with another employee not in the public area and not visible. Having hoodie-wearing young men come in is a nightly occurrence.
These young people, black, white and Hispanic, all enter the same way. They walk with a stride that could easily be called a swagger. The hood is up and pulled forward, making their faces all but impossible to see. They tend to keep their heads down, and their hands in their pockets. I saw an ad for a video game called “Assassin’s Creed” that features a man, a killer, dressed in such a way. It is clear that these young men enjoy affecting a style that gives the appearance of sinister.
But what does that style say about them? Nothing. Over time I have come to know some of these young men. The vast majority are there just to buy a snack or two. Yes, one or two tried to steal beer or cigarettes but this is a tiny minority. In six years none have ever threatened me. And yet, every time I see one come swaggering in with his hoodie up and hiding his face, something inside me goes on watch.
The lesson I’ve had to learn, and I’ve had to learn it over and over, is that no matter what my “danger” senses tell me I need to show grace. I may have no control over my visceral emotional reactions but I have total control over my actions. These are young men for who Christ died and whom he loves. They are young men who need to see me, not as a cranky and judgmental old white guy, but as someone who treats them with respect.
Is it possible that some night one of these young men will be there to do harm? I don’t fear it but I suppose it is. But which error would be worse? To over-react to a young man who was there to do no harm, and was just wearing a hoodie? Or to suffer harm myself while showing grace and respect to him?