Although I would love to write about Tuesday night’s conversations, there is something far more immediate in my mind and heart — fear.
I live in a blue-collar neighborhood with the majority of my neighbors being South Asian with a few African Americans and a few token whites. My wife and I have lived here for four years now and habitually complain only of the traffic driving into and out of town, as Atlanta boasts some of worst traffic in the country, but that all changed yesterday afternoon.
Yesterday, at approximately 2pm, after the local public high school bus dropped off the neighbor hood kids, a fifteen year old Pakistani girl walked into her home to find a large black male in her kitchen in the act of robbery. She was assaulted, bound, and raped with a bag over her head and lacerated in the face with a knife. She was released out the front door as the man ran out the back where there is a small wooded area that goes to the street. By three o’clock, she had been rushed to the emergency room, several police cars had surrounded this corner of the subdivision and K9 police were tracking in the woods behind her home. The suspect has not been found.
This all occurred two doors down from my house. While the heinous crime was being committed, I was sitting in front of my computer working on a graphics project and was finally stirred by my dog growling at the commotion going on in front of my house. I stepped out to see half the neighborhood around the perimeter of yellow police tape “Do Not Cross” that began from my next door neighbor to three houses away from my house. All the details were relayed to me in gruesome, unflinching reality by high school students whom I had become acquainted with by playing driveway basketball over the four summers I had spent in the neighborhood. Her house was the one in the middle. She had come running out of her house with blood coming from her face. It took the police twenty minutes to get here and the ambulance another ten after that. The police were questioning neighbors or on their phones as women in saris watched on just outside the flimsy yellow ribbon.
Alarmingly so, this horrible crime brought out news of other recent break-ins and assaults. Just two nights earlier, two doors down on the other side of my house, a burglary had occured. In fact, when I spoke to the woman who lived there with only her high school daughter, I discovered that she had been robbed four times in the four years she lived here. Two weeks earlier, another woman had been assaulted at 8am in her home. Five incidents had happened in the neighborhood in the past two months all told. And whatever anxiety had been hopeful before was now flowing freely in the streets. “What is the management company doing?” “Why don’t we have a neighborhood watch program?” “How much is a security system?” “They should be a gate and a barbed wire fence around the front and the back!” And slowly, like dye spreading its icy fingers further into the water, the fear began to spread. I had no idea whether I should tell my wife or not.
I did. That evening as we sat nervously eating dinner, acutely aware of certain windows in our living area not being dressed, a knock came at the door. It was the police and this was a decidedly different feeling from watching a drama on TV. The suspect was a large man and was believed to have committed all the acts in the neighborhood. It is likely that he may live in a nearby apartment complex or in the neighborhood himself. Because of the escalating violence, it appears that he is becoming more bold and brash and apparently breaking in, not for theivery, as his winnings had been small, but for sport. He was out “just to hurt people”, the police warned my wife and me on our front porch.
My wife and I had recently dipped into our savings to paint the house and get it ready to sell, going even as far as to install a kickplate and a satin nickel finished front door knob. When I spoke with my manager at work, he half-joked, “Good luck selling that house. It’s all over the news.” My heart fell at the thought. We may not be able to move out now — who would want to live under this dark cloud? The phrase, “the poor are a city without walls”, slipped into my mind. The arguments that I had heard of those living in the ghetto — “they should just move out and make something of themselves” in a blink of my mind’s eye fell like cards. They can’t move because no one would want to move in.
Last night, we set the alarm and deadbolted the front and back doors, vowing to install the blinds the following day in our dining room, which for four previous years seemed to bring so much light into the house, now only made our lives a virtual television set for anyone who had the diabolical inclination to sit and watch. And then it dawned on me, this is what it’s like, to live in fear. I know how to respond to the environment, racism, and poverty but this was altogether new for me — this was senseless and yet calculating evil. This is what some people live with all the time, I thought. And suddenly, I realized what an idol security had become. Everything suddenly looked unbelievably fragile to me and a sense of worry and low-grade panic seemed to set in. Even though I could acknowledge that every day, week, month, year that we had lived there in safety was God’s providence, I couldn’t help but to be overwhelmed by fear. Forgive me, God.
I had to work from home today again. This time the police were overtly at every intersection and cul-de-sac, but still every brisk breeze that pushed the branches of the tree out a little further made me uneasy. I met another victim in the afternoon who shared with me that she had been the first to be assaulted at 3am in January and she still had trouble sleeping at night. As a man, it made me angry and upset that he would paralyze the whole neighborhood this way, and I told my wife that if someone were to break into our house, I’m not sure if I could show him mercy — that if I had a gun, I would have no regrets unloading an entire clip into him. That if I could, I would make sure he couldn’t move ever again. Work out my salvation with fear and trembling, indeed. I have nothing in my house that even resembled a gun. I couldn’t even find my pocket knife tonight as I looked around. I hated him for having ruined a young girl’s life and attacking other women and robbing from homes that were two doors down. I don’t know a Christian response for this.
I know how a Samaritan acted for the dying and the robbed, but not to the criminal. I know to reach out to the fifteen year old and her family. I know to reach out to my neighbors and work for a larger sense of community. But while I find the effects of violence something I can deal with, I don’t know how to react to violence itself without a visceral response. The only example I know of, from Jesus, is to forgive the criminal and even receive the violent act, but I don’t know how to accept this. This is a new uneasiness for me and I see that God has exposed something that I didn’t know I had so much of inside me. I have loved my life too much perhaps, but I can hardly bear to give it away to some violent lunatic who prowls these streets.
It is a new tension in me where God is showing me “the other side” and the unfamiliar, something I believe he is causing in me to stand up in with neighbors and community that I must stand up for. Prayer is different when it is so immediately invested in the people two doors down. Some of the Psalms read so differently when there are really people who would seek to consume you. I can see so clearly that we have been held in the palm of God’s hands, I have to learn to trust that is true now and tomorrow as it has been. How can I be afraid only when I have only discovered a reason to fear? Those reasons had been there all along. Sin and fear is always crouching at my door, not two doors down.
Grant me a courage and a faith oh God that would not wither in fear but stand on the rock of who you are and made me to be. May our community see that you are good and my wife and I will fear no evil because you are with us and always have been. Thank you for opening my eyes that so many people live in this fear. Let us shine for you in the midst of this.