Beneath the Surface

As a young boy, I attended summer camp somewhere in the woods of Maine. There was a lake at the camp - it was murky, but it was otherwise an ideal place for swimming. The big kids got to swim in the lake. The little ones had to make do with the shallow pool. I was not going to be stuck with the babies in that pool, so it felt extremely important to me to be allowed to swim in that lake, but I couldn’t. Not yet. One had to earn the right to swim in the lake. The test was swimming all the way across. It was about 20 miles across - or at least it seemed that way to me at the time.


The day arrived for my lake test. The sunwas shining. The air was warm.  I approached the lake. There was almost no breeze whatsoever and the water’s surface was calm and clear, shedding brilliant sparks of the reflected bright sunshine.  And I was terrified.


It wasn’t so much the fear that I might not be able to make it across - I would be accompanied by an adult in rowboat who would pull me out if I got into trouble. That would be embarrassing but not otherwise serious.  The source of my fear was the unknown things that might be below the calm surface of that murky water.


Down there, I was sure there were snapping turtles that could take off a finger or a toe in a single bite. There were undoubtedly fierce water snakes whose venom was invariable lethal. For all I knew, there was some type of fresh-water shark. Who cares if they’d never been seen before - I know they would detect my thrashing about and come in for a bite.


Staying out of the water would have been much easier than confronting whatever may or may not lie beneath.


Just a few weeks ago, something fearsome surfaced from London’s calm surface when riots and looting erupted and spread throughout the city and beyond..


I was surprised. Many people were surprised. Did we not suspect what lay below?


The people who were surprised were the ones who never really have to visit the murky waters of London’s poorer areas, but have privilege enough to sail across and enjoy the smooth, calm surface.


Thousands of young people took to the streets in London and other British cities. The spark for this explosion was the police shooting of an unarmed black man riding in a taxi. The protests quickly turned violent and the violence turned to looting. The looting fed on itself.


And the surface dwellers wrung their hands. Many among them were angry. “What is wrong with these kids?” They asked. “After all, they have had every possible opportunity here in Britain.”  They talked about moral decay. They talked about greed. They talked about a culture of entitlement.  They demanded stricter policing and tougher penalties for all kinds of crime. They clamored for the use of water cannons and plastic bullets on the streets of London.


Others among the surface dwellers said sadly “What is wrong with these kids?” - “it must be the terrible conditions they live in.” “Who can know what monsters afflict them down there in their social housing. Poverty, poor schooling, lack of opportunity - maybe even snapping turtles and freshwater sharks.”


The surface dwellers - those who were angry as well as those who were sad - could only guess and posture about the riots because they had never dared to enter the murky waters and experience what lay beneath.


The words of a well-known African-American spiritual invite the people to “wade in the water.” The song refers to a story in the gospel of John wherein an angel stirs or “troubles” the water. “whosoever then first ... stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.”


What had come over those trouble waters that caused healing. What had been stirred up in that calm pool that could confer wholeness? Why did not the calm waters carry a power that troubled waters did?


We have learned something about the waters in our own land. Things that we can see even from the surface:


We know that ethnic minorities are twice as likely as whites in this country to live in poverty.


We know that 50% of black Africans in this country live in poverty.


We know that fully a quarter of black working age households in this country are jobless.


And we know that it is no coincidence that when trouble came, it was these same people who were heavily - though not by any means exclusively - involved. Why were they rioting? There is no simple answer and certainly none to be discerned from the privileged position of surface dweller. But - in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. -  “ the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.”


Now, I can certainly guess what that kind of poverty does to your soul. I can guess how such a high rate of joblessness affects your view of the society you live in. I can guess what poor schools and dangerous streets do to your ability to generate hope and a vision for the future.


I can guess at the lack of ownership you will feel in a culture that values material goods above all else when you can barely afford to feed your family.


Some of us - including most politicians - can sail across the smooth surface of the water and we can guess what’s going on beneath - perhaps even throw in a few carefully weighted care packages. We might then be tempted to think we understood and that we had done enough. We might be contented with the calmed waters and tempted to forget about the depths.


But if the unrest in our city tells us anything, it is that we must get involved. It is not enough to remain at the surface to diagnose and assist from a safe distance. Getting into the murky waters is where we truly begin to understand. Getting into those murky waters to know and be in communion with those who suffer is when we become human - when we grow up as compassionate and spiritual beings.


I made it across the lake – not without constant fear, but I made it. And that experience changed me.


I have barely dipped a toe in London’s murky waters of poverty and deprivation.


One young man I spoke to had participated in the riots. He initially acted as though he didn’t care about consequence or about anyone else. That façade began to lift as I listened to him without judging.


When I asked what people like me should be doing for him, he was quiet for quite a while. In the silence, I guessed what was to come – jobs, better schooling, more benefits.


When he finally responded, he said “treat us like human beings. Listen to us.” The fact that I had listened to him struck him as a minor miracle – certainly not something he encounters every day.


Now, I need to get in at least as far as my ankles.


It is not enough to skim across the surface. It is not enough to guess at the suffering of those who live with poverty and bear the sting of injustice.


Now, we must listen to their stories and hear of their suffering. We must listen to their understanding and let them lead us all toward a just way forward.


Now is the time to wade into those troubled waters. Now is the time to seek communion with those who live with danger, with darkness, and with deprivation.


“Wade in the water” Wade in the troubled waters. It is only in so doing that we can begin to bring wholeness to our land and every heart.