Long ago, I was talking to an inner-city pastor (a priest, actually) in Denver who made a very interesting, insightful and depressing observation about his work. One thing that African-American clergy in major cities have to live with is the reality that -- as a rule -- there are only three things they can do that will ever be seen as newsworthy by their local news media. They can:
(1) Make a political statement of some kind. Everyone knows that African-American church life centers on politics, way more than on the Gospel.
(2) Start some new and innovative form of ministry to the poor, which would be seen as newsworthy because helping poor people is really all about politics (as opposed to obeying the clear call of scripture). See reason No. 1.
(3) Preach in the funeral of a person, the younger the better, who has been gunned down in their neighborhood.
I added that the clergy person could, of course, commit some kind of crime and that would be considered newsworthy. We both laughed, sharing rather tired smiles. Yes, that would be newsworthy, too.
I thought of that when working my way through a stack of newspapers after returning to Baltimore after a few days on the road. The first story that grabbed my attention was a perfect example of African-American Church News No. 3, complete with an agonizing, and appropriate, does of pull-quote-worthy "theodicy." For an update on the meaning of this theological term, click here. Here's the top of that Baltimore Sun story, including the crucial leap to theodicy:
Craig David Ray and his cousins believed they were beating the odds. Growing up in Baltimore, they knew many young black men who were gunned down or sent to prison. As they entered their 30s, Ray and his family members were thankful for their health and welfare with each passing year.
"That's behind us," cousin Larry Barganier said he told Ray not long ago as they talked about the family's good fortune. "We beat the statistics."
But the gray coffin cradling his cousin on Wednesday was a cruel reminder that the "streets are cold," Barganier told mourners at Ray's funeral. Authorities said Ray, 34, was shot to death, after he called the police on a Westport neighbor who refused to turn down loud music. He was trying to rest before his shift as a Maryland Transit Administration bus driver.
Ray's death left his family grasping for meaning. He was steadily building his life, they said, planning to get married. On Feb. 24, the night that he died, he was at his girlfriend's house watching her kids.
"Why couldn't God stop this?" the Rev. Samuel Ray, an uncle, asked. "He couldn't. There's some things God doesn't give us the answer for. That doesn't mean we lose faith."
Now this is, in my opinion, a rather well done story in this tragic genre. I was struck, over and over, by the connections between this young man and elements of both the church and civic establishment.
For example, that uncle -- the Rev. Samuel Ray -- is actually the pastor of the congregation, the Morning Star Baptist Church of Christ, in which the funeral was being held. I would assume that his quote -- "Why couldn't God stop this?" -- is actually from the sermon in the funeral service itself, which the Sun noted "lasted more than three hours as family members wailed over his open casket."
In other words, there was a lot of content available for this report. Readers are shown the emotion of the event over and over (and that's good), but the spiritual content of the service is rather thin. The pastor asked the ultimate theodicy question: Did he offer an answer?
For me, the story contains a number of very emotional and deeply important questions. The problem is that it never indicates whether the leaders of the service took the next step toward resolving the questions or, and this may have been the case, stating that these questions simply cannot be answered on this side of the grave.
Note, for example, this moving passage:
Family members -- including Ray's parents -- displayed a mixture of grief, fatigue, exasperation and prayer. Ruth Goode, Ray's mother, was held by family members as she leaned over the open casket for several minutes. A young woman stomped and sobbed until she was carried to a pew, where she slumped in grief. Someone fanned her to make sure she didn't faint.
During a song, Ray's father, also named Craig, stood, closed his eyes and raised his hands into the air before using a white handkerchief to wipe tears streaming from his face.
Deborah Ray, Craig's stepmother, read a well-known passage from Ecclesiastes about the different seasons of life that come at times only God knows -- including "a time to be born and a time to die ... a time to kill and a time to heal ... a time to weep and a time to laugh."
Was this Craig David Ray's time to die?
That's the question looming over this service. I find it hard to believe that the clergy present didn't address that head on and strive to provide some comfort. At the very end, yet another member of the victim's family adds one more layer of drama:
The Rev. Willie E. Ray, a cousin who also serves as chairman and founder of Save Another Youth Stop Killing Coalition, a program supported by the city and Urban League, said the best way to remember Craig Ray was to continue telling his story, an example of someone who for his brief life had stood out and survived in a city of frequent violence.
"Craig's life was not in vain," Willie E. Ray said. "He was a martyr."
That's a strong quote. What did he mean? This young man was a martyr for what faith? For what concept? For what ideal?
This is a good enough story to make me want to know the answer to that.