Dr. Charles Barrett
Brent Staples’ Just Walk On By: A Black Man Ponders His Power To Alter Public Space is a relatively short, yet poignant piece about the realities facing Black men in America. First published in a 1986 issue of Ms. Magazine, Staples eloquently articulates his ability to alter public space. As he recounts personal experiences of hearing the thunk of drivers locking their car doors upon his arrival in a crosswalk; being mistaken for a burglar in an office building; and seeing women with their purse straps strung across their chests bandolier style… bracing themselves against being tackled, however unfortunate, these were lived experiences for Staples, a college-educated, Black man in America. Perhaps even more disappointing, these scenarios and more continue to be true for Black men living in America today. No doubt a sad commentary, Black men, forever aware of their perceived intimidating presence, are forced to accept their uncanny ability to alter the environments that they enter. As a Black man living in America, it is virtually impossible to not, at least once, think about my Blackness—my identity, the essence of who I am—as a burden. But as a Christian, a committed follower of Christ, I must also consider whether my presence has the same power to alter the environments in which I live, work, and play.
The Book of Acts chronicles the birth of the New Testament Church. In chapter 1 (verse 8), Christ instructs his disciples to preach the Gospel throughout the world. In chapter 2, the Holy Spirit indwells, endows, and empowers 120 individuals with the supernatural ability to speak in such a way that people from various ethnicities were able to hear and respond to the Gospel message (verses 1-6). Later in the same chapter (verses 14-41), we read about Peter’s sermon that led to the salvation of 3,000 new Christians. These demonstrations made the apostles—those who literally walked and talked with Christ—quite credible in the community. In verses 12 through 16 of chapter 5 we read about the miracles that were performed by these men through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit operating in their lives. Verse 15, however, is particularly meaningful: As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by.
Like Staples’ Blackness, the presence of Peter’s shadow had the ability to affect change. Not because of his own greatness, but the power of God operating in his life, those who were sick and in need of divine intervention simply wanted to be close enough to Peter so that they could experience healing virtue through his shadow. Friends, does our presence alter public space? Are the places that we visit better because we’ve been there? Are we changing the public spaces of our families and the dynamics of our communities? Does our presence change the atmosphere and lives of those around us?
Without a doubt, Christ remains the most significant change agent in history. Not only is time (BC and AD) anchored by his existence, but his name, Jesus, is also centered on redeeming humankind from everlasting damnation (Matthew 1: 21). By atoning for our sins, his death affords us access to a changed and eternal life (John 3: 16). And as his disciples who have been charged to take on his character, we must also do what he did (John 14: 12). Friends, how are we changing the public spaces that we occupy?
A few weeks ago, I came across a tremendously inspiring article in my Facebook newsfeed. Posted by MRSACKLEY, and especially relevant for my colleagues who are teachers, administrators, and most of all school psychologists (smile) during this exciting time of back-to-school, When God Is In The Classroom was an encouraging reminder that the manner in which we serve our students is a reflection of our relationship with God. Because children were special to Christ (Matthew 19: 14), when we advocate for the provision of their most basic needs, protect them from the evils of injustice, patiently teach them the skills they need to be successful, and instill in them the importance of serving others, we are demonstrating the love of God.
As the presence of Paul and Silas in a Philippian jail (Acts 16) altered the public space around them, may the presence of The Lord not only change us, but the places we go and those whom we encounter.
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