Often times we think that we have to walk into the sanctuary, sit two rows back from the altar and just wait for our “aha” moment to realize what our purpose is, but that isn’t always the case. On March 5, 2015, I loaded two overly packed suitcases into one of three vans and headed thirteen hours down the road to Selma, AL for what I didn’t realize would be a defining moment in my life. We were headed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday—one of the most important moments in civil rights history—but little did I know, God had something greater in store for me.
Leading up to this trip my daily prayer had been that God would give me the courage to “step off the boat” as Peter did.
I prayed to be strengthened in my faith enough that I wouldn’t sink. Sunday after Sunday before leaving for Alabama, I would show up to church expecting to be encouraged and inspired to take that first step, but I’ve come to find out that sometimes we have to be removed from our comfort zone in order for God to reach us.
Well, that weekend in Selma, I was most definitely reached.
The story of Bloody Sunday goes that the original “marchers” set out to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and then on to march to Montgomery, AL, to obtain their right to vote. Once they began crossing the bridge, however, they faced a sea of police officers who would eventually attack them in a manner that will never be forgotten.
This knowledge felt really overwhelming as I prepared to cross the bridge – to walk where they walked, not knowing for certain what they were walking into.
At first, I thought I have never had to feel what they felt.
I grew up around police officers who cared about me. A lot of my family were police officers, so I never had to fear the police the way marchers in Selma did. In fact, I have never felt afraid walking the streets of Third Ward, here in Houston where I grew up, the way I would feel afraid walking in River Oaks, a more affluent neighborhood.
We were always taught that you should not go to River Oaks and ride around playing loud music. We were always taught that that was not a neighborhood where you wanted to drive around after dark if you were black. We were taught that if we did that, we would definitely be stopped by the police.
At the time, in middle school and high school, we weren’t really afraid of being shot and killed, we were afraid of being stopped and harassed. Back when I was younger, there was not the media attention being brought to the killing of unarmed black men, and so I was more concerned that they would bother me than kill me.
I wasn’t afraid of the police officers that I knew, and I wasn’t afraid of the police officers in Third Ward. As long as I fit in, I felt safe. But I knew that if I went to another neighborhood, where I did not fit in, I would be likely to be profiled.
It was not so much that I was scared of the police, so much as what could go wrong if I was stopped by the police.
So I was taught not to put myself in situations where I could be stopped. I think every black man is taught that you already have one strike against you—simply being a black man. So you’re born with a strike.
When Trayvon was shot, I was pissed off. I did not feel like he had done anything that would cause him to be killed. He did not deserve it. That changed everything for me. That is when I started to be more cautious myself. When I saw police, I tried not to seem nervous, not to tense up, not to do anything to draw attention to me.
But it was more than the police. I had to learn to be careful about what neighborhood I was in and how the people around me perceived me. Because Trayvon was not even killed by a police officer. It was bigger than that.
This year, things changed even more.
Now we have videos and witnesses. The world has started to see the proof that has always been there of what all black men are experiencing. They can’t ignore it anymore.
I have always wanted to do something for my community but wasn’t sure what to do or how to do it or if it would even matter. So when I told everyone where I was going, and that I was going to Selma, everyone around me wished that they were going. I knew I needed to go for them, for all of us, and to set an example of standing in the gap.
Each year that the bridge is crossed, it is crossed for a different reason, but every year it is important. We cross the bridge not only in memory of what has happened but in recognition of what is happening now. We still have bridges to cross before this journey ends.
Being not only black but gay and black, I feel like I have lived with two strikes against me.
If I am not disrespected for one, I am disrespected for the other. Dealing with the sacrifices I have made to be a part of the movement, I worry about whether I will be received.
A friend told me recently that I will be hated by the world for being black and hated by the church for being gay. I was numb to it at first until I processed what she said.
Growing up in the church I did, St. John’s Downtown, I never felt hate for being black or gay, but I realize that my calling will take me beyond my church to other communities and not all churches will be like mine. Not all churches will be a place where it will be safe to be me.
Not all churches will be places where I can feel comfortable.
I wish I could get people who condemn gay people to understand that Jesus advocated for those who were treated as inferior, more than he advocated for those who were accepted. Jesus himself was not accepted. No one has the right to deny me the access to faith.
I wish I could get people to see the shoe on the other foot. How would people feel if they were told God could not love them?
I do not feel like we have made as much progress as we think we have since 1965. It is a lot of the same things, it just looks different now.
But I have to find hope.
Without the hope that things can change, where would we find the motivation to try to help that change come?
That is what kept people going in order to make progress in the small differences we see: being black and being able to go into places we could not before; being gay and not going to jail for it.
So I keep my eyes and heart open to hope. I get hope from my godson, from the fact that he loves you no matter what. He doesn’t see any difference as something that would make someone not worthy of his love.
I get a lot of hope from my church, a place that does not judge you for what you look like and who you choose to be with. I got hope the other day when a young woman walked up to me in a nail salon and said thank you for all you are doing.
When I stood in Selma, and saw the Bridge in front of me for the first time, it signified a connection between a struggle and hope.
As I took my first steps, something began to change in me, and as I actually took the physical walk across the bridge, I realized why God had called me to this place.
My prayers had been answered. Like Peter, I had been encouraged to step off the boat once I put my luggage on that van and set off to a place I was reluctant to go. My walk across the water was different from Peter’s, however, because when God called me to cross that bridge, it signified the connection between struggle and hope.
I could now see and feel what it was like to change the world like those people in 1965 did. God met me on that bridge and revealed to me that the time has come. It was as if God spoke to my heart: “It’s time to take this back home with you, this is your ministry: go back across that bridge and bring people back with you.”
Show them how to connect their struggle to hope. Show them how to believe that things can and will change but you just have to endure.
From that day forward I will continue to stand by the saying that God will meet you where you are.
God met me where I was, introduced me to my calling, equipped me with the people I need to walk with me and fight with me against the injustice that plagues this country. God gave me the tools for my journey.
Since that trip, each and everyday God has been revealing more and more of my purpose to me. AlI I had to do was take the first step trusting and knowing that God is walking beside me every step of the way.
Originally published by Reconciling Ministries Network; Photo provided by Rhys Xavier Caraway