Counting and Community Gun Violence

This past Thursday, June 2, would have been Hadiya Pendleton’s 19th birthday. She was killed before her sixteenth in a Chicago park on January 29, 2013 – making news at the time because she’d just returned from performing in Obama’s second Inaugural Parade.

That spring, Hadiya’s classmates at King College Prep started a nonviolence effort, known as Project Orange Tree, in her memory. That evolved into #WearOrange for Gun Violence Awareness Day, now observed nationally on June 2. In the spirit of this awareness day, I offer a glimpse into the world of Hadiya and the three friends who were with her when she was shot,  taken from a 2013 Chicago Trib article:

Kyra

The next day, Kyra was back in gym class. As always. The teacher was taking attendance. As always.As he proceeded through the alphabet toward the P’s, she wondered: Would he call Hadiya Pendleton?

When he didn’t, students cried.

…And like the rest of Hadiya’s friends, Kyra counted the Tuesdays since Hadiya died.

Tuesday, week one.
Tuesday, week two.
Tuesday, week three…. ….

Danetria

…For years, [Danetria] had fought depression.

“If you do run away,” Hadiya promised, “you can come to my house. I can tell my mom the whole situation, and she’ll understand.”

With Hadiya gone, Danetria wondered, “Who am I going to talk to now?”

….A month after Hadiya died, Danetria turned 16. It was coincidentally, Tuesday, week four. No balloons, no sweet 16 cake, just a quiet birthday dinner with [her boyfriend] Lawrence and his mom…. ….

Klyn

…Over the next few weeks, [Klyn] wrote letters to Hadiya in a notebook.

One day, bored in math class at [her new school], she was writing a letter when she started to cry.

“What’s wrong?” her classmates asked. If she were still at King, she thought, they’d know.

She wrote letters to the two young men charged in the killings, too. She told them she feels bad for them, bad that they have been so warped by a system that would make them think killing was OK.

She never sent the letters, and she lost the notebook, but it felt good to lay her anger and confusion out on the lined pages.

The Tuesdays passed, her loneliness didn’t…. ….

Conclusion/Citation

…[The three teens no longer saw each other regularly when they met up in spring 2013.] It was, coincidentally, the 13th Tuesday after Hadiya’s death, but they don’t count Tuesdays so much anymore. They count months. Monday made three months.

— Jennifer Delgado, Bridget Doyle and Mary Schmich
much more in the thorough Tribune article, including video links

The article’s time-counting motif seems fitting for the period of the Omer, when we enumerate the days and the weeks between Passover and Shavuot. June 4, for example, was 42 days of the Omer, making six weeks. Some would also call it the day of malchut b’yesod — translated as something like “nobility in bonding” — based on a mystical counting system.

Similarly, the losses associated with Hadiya’s death were reckoned in small and large ways – in gym class and in long-term desolation — as well as in ways harder to express.

“That bullet did a lot more than just kill my baby,” Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton has said.

But we can also count the ways, small and large and harder to express, that Hadiya’s bright spark continues to inspire conversation and thought, prayer and action. The toll of shootings like Hadiya’s — psychologically, economically, educationally, and otherwise — is staggering. But the blessing of her memory is enormous, too.

Learn More, Connect

Remarks given at Temple Micah (DC), June 4, 2016
See also 2013 post and yahrzeit remarks 2014
Visit Hadiya’s Promise for more on the Pendleton’s work
See “OrangeOut: Race and Gun Sense” for more on Project Orange Tree and the need for community-sensitive responses to gun violence
See also  Community-Sensitive Gun Sense
Resources: Holistic Approaches and People of Color

The Most Dangerous of Dualisms (Beyond 30)

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No one knows for certain what the ancient rabbi meant when warned his fellow mystical travelers against saying “Water! Water!”:

When you reach the stones of pure marble, don’t say, “Water! Water!” As it states, “One who speaks falsehood shall not endure before My eyes” [Psalms 101:7]
— Babylonian Talmud, Chagigah 14b

The speaker, Rabbi Akiba, is one of four who “entered Pardes [Paradise],” the only one who “entered in peace and departed in peace.” His instructions are understood as pre-trip warnings to other other three.

Some explanations for Akiba’s words liken pure marble to the place where upper (divine) and lower (mundane) waters meet, arguing against attempting to divide divine and mundane. Many teachings focus on dualisms, warning against dividing God into Light/Dark, Good/Evil, etc.

But Michelle Obama spoke, back in April 2013, to what I consider the most dangerous dualism of all: allowing some of our citizens to grow up “consumed with watching their backs” while others grow up enjoying a city’s riches.

Boundless Promise Lost

I wrote then:

Accepting such a state of affairs implies two sets of rules or, worse, two sets of expectations for human beings. This is tantamount to bowing to two gods.

At the “place of pure marble” — where the Torah tells us all humans are in God’s image — we must acknowledge that “every single child in [Chicago or any city] has boundless promise no matter where they live.” Failing to do so is blasphemy of the deepest kind, it “speaks falsehood” that cannot endure before God’s eyes.
— from Fabrangen Havurah‘s omer-counting blog, 2013

Meanwhile, Chicago, my first hometown, has lost so many to street and police violence, as has DC, my adopted hometown of 27 years. Losses across the country mount at a rate so high as to be numbing.

And this does not even begin to address suffering of, and long-term affects in, communities experiencing grief upon grief. Nor does it approach the dual reality Mrs. Obama described in our mutual hometown:

Today, too many kids in this city are living just a few El stops, sometimes even just a few blocks, from shiny skyscrapers and leafy parks and world-class museums and universities, yet all of that might as well be in a different state, even in a different continent.
— Michelle Obama, April 10, 2013

BlackSpring-HiRes-476x500
As discussed previously, this week’s attribute, Hod, is associated with empathy.

But the literal meaning of the word is “Glory.”

May the energy of this attribute impel us, finally, this week, to see that this dual existence is incompatible with God’s glory and “shall not endure before [God’s] eyes.”

The war on Black people in Baltimore is the same war on Black people across America. Decades of poverty, unemployment, under-funded schools and police terrorism have reached a boiling point in Baltimore and cities around the country.

This past winter our people were presented with hollow reforms. This spring we present to the world our visionary demands. Demands that speak to a world where all Black Lives Matter.

This will be our #BlackSpring.
Ferguson Action

We counted 30 on the evening of May 3. Tonight, we count….

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Stragglers on the Road Away from Bondage

Remarks before Mourners’ Kaddish, Temple Micah (DC)
Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath (March 13-16, 2014)

Hadiya Z. Pendleton lived in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago, my hometown, not far from where I lived for several years and where friends still live. She liked Fig Newtons, my favorite snack when I was a teenager. She and I both visited Washington, DC, while still in high school — I was part of Washington Workshops Congressional Seminars, and she performed in Obama’s Inaugural parade. Both of us participated in local anti-crime initiatives: “Operation Whistle Stop” in my case; and a “Think Smart” anti-gang video in hers.

“Hadiya Pendleton was me, and I was her,” Michelle Obama said last April. “But I got to grow up, and go to Princeton and Harvard Law School, and have a career and a family and the most blessed life I could ever imagine. And Hadiya? Oh, we know that story….”

Hadiya Pendleton was gunned down on January 29, 2013, shot to death in a public park because, from the back, she resembled someone associated with a gang. Hadiya never reached her 16th birthday, which would have been June 2, 2013.

While there are obvious differences between my life and both Hadiya Pendleton’s and Michelle Obama’s, my reaction to Hadiya’s death was similar to Mrs. Obama’s. She rightly points out how just a few urban blocks can mean the difference between a life rich in possibility and one circumscribed by need and loss. I would add that we cannot allow those few blocks – or even a few miles – to insulate us from our neighbors’ grief.

Since last January, the District of Columbia has lost ten teenagers to gunshots, but I do not usually hear their names read from this bima [podium]. I know many who mourn for young people killed on DC streets, but my own children graduated high school without losing an immediate friend to that plague, and neither child remembers the frequent gunshots of their toddler years, so they grew up without that fear. The relative segregation of our lives mean that many of us here today are not directly touched by the violence that robs too many of our neighbors of childhoods. But Judaism forbids us from standing idly by the blood of a sister. And Shabbat Zachor [Remember!], just before Purim, calls us to remember the threat of Amalek, who attacked the hungry, weary stragglers among the Israelites in the desert (Deut. 25:17-19).

In Chicago, DC, and other cities, whole neighborhoods like Hadiya’s have become stragglers on the road out of bondage, filled with youth who are hungry and weary and, all too often, vulnerable to attack. Until all teens like Hadiya can safely hang out in the local parks, we have failed to blot out the name of Amalek.

Hadiya’s life teaches how much can be packed into just a few years. Her death reminds us of the fragility of life at any age, but also of the duty of elders to protect our youth. So, last year, I acknowledged Hadiya Pendleton as my teacher and recited mourners’ kaddish for her. In consultation with Rabbi Lederman, I chose to speak about this Fig-Newton-loving, civic-minded young woman today (March 15), instead of on her yahrzeit which passed a few weeks ago. We thought that it would particularly honor her memory to speak her name on a Shabbat set aside for Gun Violence Prevention.

May the memory of Hadiya Pendleton be for a blessing, and may that blessing include a renewed commitment to make our cities safe places where all young people can thrive.

Honoring a Teacher: Hadiya Pendleton

Hadiya Z. Pendleton liked Fig Newtons and performed in a drill team that participated in Obama’s 2013 Inaugural parade. She lived in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago, not far from where I lived for several years and where friends still live, not far from the Obama family home. She never reached her 16th birthday, which would have been on June 2. She was gunned down on January 29 [2013], in a public park at 45th & Drexel, apparently caught in a gang-related shooting.
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