Sermon by Katie Mulligan
preached at St. Bartholomew Lutheran Church in Trenton, NJ
Thank you for your hospitality and generosity of spirit.
Today's sermon is for Radazz Hearns.
Today's sermon is for our community of Trenton and Mercer County.
Today's sermon is for all those who long for a better world.
It’s been a quiet month since I last was with you. Another whole lazy month of summer gone by, and here we are at the end of August. School will start in 2 weeks for most of our children. Since I saw you last there has only been one murder here in Trenton, Mr. Leon Boota McClendon. I attended his funeral with great sadness. I give thanks for more than 30 days of a break in such violence.
Since I saw you last my youth group had a pool party at the pastor’s house, splashing in the cool water on a late afternoon, chaperones and parents sipping sodas and grilling burgers while counting heads in the pool. 1, 2, 3…8, 11…wait, where’s our littlest fish—oh there she is, popping up in the deep end. We took pictures of the students jumping into the pool, catching them mid air, shrieking with joy. There was ice cream and brownies. It was a good day.
It’s been a warm summer, hasn’t it? With long lazy evenings. The sun has been setting around 8:00, and then as the air cools slightly, dusk falls around 9:00. Teenagers all over town have been hanging out late, walking home from friends’ houses, sitting on front porches, popping down to the corner store with whatever change they can scrape up for a soda or an ice cream. And of course, mischief and hijinx, getting up to what kids get up to these days—I’m not naïve. A long, lazy summer, time to fill, boredom to relieve. Yes, summer vacation hasn’t changed that much since you were a child.
On August 7, a Friday night—my son’s 16th birthday, in fact—a group of three boys were walking down the street on the west side of Trenton at 10:30 at night. It had just got dark an hour before, and they were out, like many kids are that time of night on a Friday. As they walked, an SUV approached,
pulled a u-turn, and three people got out of the SUV and came toward the three boys. One of the boys ran and two of the people in the SUV shot the boy while he was running away.
They shot him 7 times in the legs and pelvis. The bullet in his pelvis is still lodged there. But Radazz Hearns lived. He is home now, recuperating.
The newspapers picked up the story slowly. Another black boy shot in Trenton—this is hardly news at this point. And thankfully he didn’t die.
The people who shot him were a county sheriff and a state trooper. They shot that boy 7 times. At least 3 additional bullets were fired, 2 lodged in nearby cars. One bullet entered a nearby home and came through the bedroom of a young girl who was sleeping. Fortunately, the bullet did not hit the sleeping girl.
At first the paper reported that the 14 year old boy, Radazz, had turned and shot at the officers. A few days later they reported that Radazz had reached for his waistband. A few days after that, an attorney for one of the officers stated that Radazz’ hands were in his pocket, which indicated he must have been armed. Finally, the attorney general has released a statement saying that Radazz pointed a gun at the officers while he was running, and that the officers felt an imminent threat. The officers claim they were justified in this shooting because they were afraid.
A gun was finally retrieved from the crime scene, 12 hours after the shooting. I am skeptical. I have questions. There are not a lot of answers being provided.
What I do know is that I spent the next several days after the shooting…August 8, August 9, August 10…asking around, trying to find out the name of the boy who was shot. My own students are 13, 14, 15 years old. Many of them live near enough to where Radazz got shot. Many of them walk around at 10:30 on a Friday night (as do my own children at times). All of them have walked down the street where Radazz got shot. Most of them were indeed probably out that night, perhaps on a porch, perhaps at the corner store, perhaps walking with friends. I spent 3 days tracking down my students to make sure it wasn’t one of them who got shot. I was worried sick.
Sometime on Monday or Tuesday of that week, a day or so before our pool party, I heard the child’s name was Radazz, and I knew he wasn’t one of my students. But I felt no relief, because he could easily have been my student, and my students could easily HAVE been or still COULD be Radazz.
There is no peace in knowing that THIS time the child that got shot is someone else’s student. There is only the growing certainty that death stalks my students here in Trenton, and the increased urgency and determination to teach them how to LIVE and THRIVE for whatever time we all have here on this earth.
I am called at this time in my life to help students live and thrive in a place and time where they can be shot by police—by plainclothes police in an unmarked car. I am called to teach my students how to love life when on any given Friday night an unmarked police car can roll up on them, officers can jump out, and the best case scenario is these young boys are questioned, detained, searched for the crime of walking while black. Worst case is you get shot.
There are a lot of questions about what happened that night, and we may never have answers. But chief among my questions is how do I teach my students to live fully, to love fully, to find joy in a time and place when their blackness is considered a threat? How do I teach these children to get up every day, go to school, study hard, learn a trade, play music, write poetry when every day their poverty and geographic circumstances condemn them to constant police surveillance and suspicion?
I am afraid for my students. I am afraid they will not grow up. I am afraid they will grow up angry and bitter and damaged by a system that labels them as evil, dirty, broken, and dangerous because they are black. I am afraid they will be killed (either slowly or quickly) by a system that justifies its violence toward these children because of fear.
“I was afraid for my life, so I shot him,” goes the refrain of almost every police shooting. Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot 18 year old Mike Brown, summed it up perfectly for all of us: “He was a demon, a monster with terrible resilience and incredible strength. When I grabbed him the only way I can describe it is I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan…that’s how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm.” A Hulk Hogan with demon eyes, said Darren Wilson, 6 foot 4 man, while holding on to Mike Brown, another 6 foot 4 just-barely-man.
Oh, I have no doubt Mike Brown was angry (and scared). I have no doubt Darren Wilson was angry (and scared). I have no doubt on Friday August 7 that Radazz was scared out of his mind. I have no doubt the officers were pumped with adrenaline even before they hopped out of their unmarked SUV to confront these three boys walking down the street. I have no doubt everyone is angry and scared now.
Heck, I’m angry and scared. I’ve been agitating on behalf of Radazz Hearns, pressing for answers, pressing for an independent investigation of this incident, pushing for people to care about what happens to this child beyond this moment. Yes, he is home recovering, but he has also now been charged with 3 felonies, including 2 weapons possession charges and one aggravated assault charge. When he is better, Radazz will have to turn himself in or face arrest. There is a long road ahead for Radazz and his family. And that long road stems from 3 boys walking around their neighborhood at 10:30 on a Friday night. What will happen to him? I am indeed angry and scared. Radazz was not one of MY students, not before August 7, but he might as well be one of mine now. I have questions and my students need those answers. How are we to live in the face of fear.
The Bible tells us a little something about that, doesn’t it? We have before us in today’s scripture a template for how to face a time of fear and persecution. Let me read it to you again.
Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. I will teach my students that, yes I will. Be strong in the one who created you, knowing that no matter what people may say about your dark skin, your kinky hair, your beautiful bodies and faces, no matter what they say about how you speak, how you dance, how you sing, no matter what they say about how you dress, no matter what they say about how little money you have, no matter what they say about your mother, your father, your brother, your sister, no matter what, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power—this God who created you, O Beautiful Black Girls and O Beautiful Black Boys. Know that you are beautifully and carefully made to be fully who you are—this is what scripture tells my students in a time of fear and persecution.
Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places.
Oh yes, this scripture has a Word for my students. Put on the armor of God—of this God who made your beautiful and sacred bodies—put on the armor of God so that you may stand against the wiles of white supremacy in this country. Our struggle is not against a flesh and blood enemy, but against the hearts and minds of those who would see black children, black people as automatic threats. Our struggle is against those who would intentionally or complacently choke off economic opportunity to black families in Trenton, creating strangling suburbs of prosperity while the poor are drained of life and hope in the city. Our struggle is against those who would read this story of a 14 year old black boy shot in our city and say, “Good riddance to another thug.” Yes, let us put on the armor of God, for it has been offered to us freely. That is what I will teach my students.
Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. I will stand with Radazz Hearns as he tells the truth about what happened that night. I’ll hold on to the breastplate of righteousness as I insist that unmarked cars with plainclothed police officers should not be rolling up on our youth at 10:30 on a Friday night. Yes, I will teach our children that they have the right to walk our streets without fear, and that if that is not currently possible, then we must, absolutely, agitate for their safety.
As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. And if you’ve been following along since the 60s, you know that without justice there is no peace. No justice, no peace! go the chants in the streets—I will teach my students those chants too. What shoes will make us ready to proclaim the gospel of peace? Walking shoes, my friends. There is a lot of work and a lot of miles to go before we have peace in our streets. Put on those walking shoes—the ones you can go a mile or two or seven.
With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all of the flaming arrows of the evil one. Yes, I will teach my children to make a shield of their faith. 7 bullets will not stop my students from thriving and living and loving. We will keep on, with faith that the Lord will see us through even these times. And that in the midst of all of this trouble and grief and rage, we WILL see times of joy and love and laughter. That will not be taken away from these children with their beautiful black bodies and their intelligent black minds, and their faithful black souls. Yes, their faith will be a shield around them when flaming arrows and bullets come flying at them. Their faith will be a shield around them when flaming words come flying at them. We will hold God to God’s word, written here in the scripture. Be a shield, O Great Jehovah, around these children and their families.
And finally take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. No human words, no human action, can take away these kids’ salvation, nor can human words or action take away God’s Word from them. For these scriptures were written for them too, to be interpreted and lived out through the lens of their lives. And if we white folks don’t much care for how black folks are interpreting and living out scripture, we might ask ourselves what we have contributed to the lens of their lives. Read some books. Know our history. We have, over several centuries, created the oppressive conditions we now have at hand.
And what about for white folks? What about small churches doing their best but feeling small? What does this word have for us?
I want to tell you this morning, if you will hear it, that this scripture is speaking straight into our hearts, addressing a deep fear of blackness and poverty that lingers even now. It is this fear of blackness and poverty that justifies the killing of black bodies. It is this fear of blackness and poverty that turns away indifferently to the violence, and economic injustice that plagues the City of Trenton. If you have ever clutched your purse in fear when passing a black person. If you have ever felt your heart beat faster when a black person got on the elevator with you. If you have ever locked your car doors while driving through a certain part of town. If you have ever looked away from a homeless person on the street and prayed extra hard that they just wouldn’t engage you directly. If you have ever assumed that the black child is the liar because he must just be a thug, a criminal, a gang banger in training. Then this scripture is speaking to you today.
Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Know that you too have been created carefully and beautifully by God and that no matter how hard it is to confront racism and classism in yourself, in the church, in your family, in the world around you, that the Lord will go with you as you do. You may be ostracized by Uncle Joe or Cousin Peggy at the family dinner because you objected to the racist joke they just told. But rest assured that the Lord goes with you in such battles.
Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. We are confronted with the systemic evil of white supremacy and a pick yourself up by your bootstraps economy that leaves black and poor people languishing in the streets. They are literally dying in the streets. Put on the whole armor of God, for we are confronting not only the system, but also our deep and persistent prejudices, the ugliness inside ourselves. This is not easy work, and I’m willing to bet this sermon has roused anger and grief in all of us this morning. But this system we are living allowed a 14 year old boy to be shot 7 times for walking down the street, and we have to confront that or we will die as a people.
Take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. On that last day, when we are face to face with the Lord, we will be held to account for what has been done to our black brothers and sisters. And while no individual here or in the world can fix this terrible problem of prejudice and racism and classism, there is much each of us can do. The Lord will hold us to account for what we have been called to do. I pray that each of us will use the resources the Lord gave us for justice.
Fasten that belt of truth around your waist. Look yourself in the mirror as you wear that belt. Call to mind the truths of your inner thoughts as you think of blackness. And then bathe those truths in love and a determination to put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. Are you going out your door with military boots every day? Take those things off and trade them for walking shoes. I tell you, this scripture is calling to US.
Take up the shield of faith. For as you confront white supremacy in yourself and others, flaming arrows will come your way. No doubt about it, there is a cost for doing what is right in a system that is so wrong.
And go with the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit—the word of God, knowing that no matter how hard you fall and fail—and we will assuredly fall and fail, the Lord will catch you and keep you. As we work for justice and righteousness and inevitable fail to achieve it, salvation comes to us all through Jesus Christ our Lord.
To you who are older and who know your Savior and Scripture so much better than a 14 year old child, I charge you further with the rest of the scripture:
Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints (including 14 year old black children in the streets). Pray also for us, so that when we speak, a message may be given to us to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which we are ambassadors in chains. Pray that we may declare it boldly, as we must speak.
As you go into this week, I pray you take the gospel with you in all you do. I pray that you love as deeply and fully as Christ, who laid down his life on the cross for his disciples, for his enemies, for the thieves crucified next to him. I pray you love like the one who died for Judas and Peter, who betrayed him terribly. I pray you love like the one who created your body and breathed life into you. I pray you love like the one who created Radazz Hearns and breathed life into him.
May we all give thanks that Radazz still breathes among us. May we do our part to ensure no more evil is done.