Giving Thanks for a Particular Black Panther

If you have been reading my blog over the last few weeks you know that I have been attending the trial around the killing of Ahmaud Arbery back on Feb. 23rd in 2020. It’s been a long and circuitous road for justice in the death of this twenty-five year old man here in Glynn County, which includes the town of Brunswick and the island of St. Simons.

I am writing this on the eve of Thanksgiving. In my family, our tradition was to gather in a circle and share what we are most thankful for in the past year. As a teenager, I always hated it as someone would go on and on about something, and then I would be thankful that certain someone had finally stopped talking. But that would not be an acceptable entry on the McBrayer/Galloway Thanksgiving Hit Parade. So, I would have to scramble like Fran Tarkenton to make something up that would make my mama happy, and make her thankful that she birthed me, sorry soul that I am.

My own family doesn’t go for the formality but shares impromptu thanks during the course of the feast. Last year, we sat at distance, and faced one another, a safe six feet away, breaking up our usual adult/kid segregation at the long table. What happened, to my surprise, was one of the best conversations I think I have experienced, with both laughter, deep-dive conversation, and surprisingly intimate sharing. Beat the hell out of “I am thankful for my new lawn mower, or Green Egg.”

This year, with Covid somewhat at bay, and booster shots in arm, I’m not sure of the configuration, but I’m betting on a good exchange.

I will be sharing an experience that surprised me in the context of this trial.

I have noted the neighborliness of the gatherings that took place during the course of the trial, as this community came together in formal vigils sponsored by the clergy of the area. It grew in numbers as Rev. Al called on black pastors to come to Brunswick. I ran into a number of old colleagues from Atlanta and from the Candler School of Theology. It had a “homecoming” feel with back slaps, stories and lies told, “hugging one’s neck” in true Southern style, and exchange of concern for the outcome of the trial and beyond. But while that was enjoyable and edifying, it was not THE surprise that made me grateful.

The surprise happened on the one day that the Black Panthers showed up, the New Black Panthers as they were billing themselves. The air got tense as these black men dressed in black military clothing, carrying AK-47 assault weapons, came into the courthouse square. What had been laid back, suddenly took on some anxiety and urgency as the precarious peace seemed to be threatened. I joked to a black priest friend that there was nothing like a black person carrying an assault weapon that will motivate gun control among whites. Truth and humor are both close to the bone, and my way of dealing with my anxiety.

In a particularly powerful moment, the Black Panthers brought in a casket with the names of people who had been killed unjustly. In the casket was a black figure with names on it such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Emmett Till, and now Ahmaud Arbery. It is a shocking symbol that rocked the soul of people who had lingered in the pastoral setting of the park. It was an existential reminder that would not be denied by pious prayers and platitudes. It reminded me of the injustice and systemic issues that still plague our country today, that systemic reality that we seem so resistant to face head on. And the death of Ahmaud was a most recent victim. That’s what this trial is all about.

It was a tense morning that flooded into the afternoon. At some point, I stood to begin my walk to my car to attend to a phone conference with a pastor that I coach each week.

My walking is problematic as I live with a torn quad tendon. Two surgeries a couple of years ago did not repair my knee, so I now walk, slowly, with a cane. In my home, on flat land, I am slow but tend to do okay. The geometry of the triangle, two legs and a cane, that my physical therapist taught me, makes it possible for me to move forward relatively safely.

On this day, the cool weather, combined with sitting too long, made my forward walking problematic. The undulations of the grounds, and the uneven concrete blocks made for a harrowing walk. At one point, I became anxious as I felt like I might fall, Suddenly, someone at my side, grabbed my elbow to give me some help, as he provided a fourth point of contact for my movement. I turned to my side to see what kind soul was trying to help me.

It was a Black Panther.

He asked, “Do you need some help?”

“More help than you got! But thanks for the assist. You saved me from falling. Thank you.”

We exchanged looks, feeling each other out. And then we both smiled.

It was a kind of Flannery O’Conner moment of revelation for me. It broke through the persona of a Black Panther and a White Priest. Something deeper than adjectives or nouns roared into the present moment, or as my teacher, Howard Thurman, would say, the Eternal Now. There was a recognition of our common humanity, a connection that was more than skin deep. And in this historic context, it moved me. I would dare claim that it connected me to the Spirit that connects us all. Rudolf Otto called it “the numinous”. I call it “holy”.

When I got home later that night, my thoughts turned to Black Panthers as I stared at my journal. Oddly, the movie, The Black Panther 2, had been shooting some scenes on the riverfront just across from the courthouse a few weeks back. Odd synchronicity or mere happenstance? Free association sent my mind to another connection, unexpectedly, but right on time. My sense of humor brought the scene from the movie, Forrest Gump, to mind as Forrest apologizes, “I’m sorry I had to fight in the middle of your Black Panther party.”

But these two distractions could not take away the accidental meeting I had with a real Black Panther and finding a caring human being who disrupted my category in which I had filed this person away.

That was the gift of these days gathering under the moss-draped trees in the courthouse square. Encountering people of different backgrounds, race, class, faith, orientation, and sensing a connection of neighborliness. I wonder where this type of “meeting” happens in our world in which we choose to segregate into “sameness”.

We talked, we listened, we cared for one another, we laughed, we cried, we shared silence. This sense of connection is what our country is missing and threatens to tear us apart, as Forrest would say, AGAIN!

Maybe Forrest’s mama was right all along: life is like a box of chocolates, or a bunch of Panthers, or Baptists, for that matter….you never know what you’re gonna get!

Postscript: The verdict came in after I finished writing this. The joy in that gathering was deep, as justice came down like a mighty river for Ahmaud. My friend, Mrs. Annie Polite, was on national television proclaiming that she had faith that God would see a way through all along. I can learn from a Black Panther and an old educational activist who teaches me about faith. In fact, I can learn from anyone if I simply pause and take the time to listen deeply. That’s on me. And it’s on you. Truth is, it’s on us.

So, I guess I know what I will be saying I am thankful for tomorrow on Thanksgiving Day. I know that makes my mama happy. And that will make for a fine Thanksgiving here in Glynn County, Georgia. Blessings.

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