When I was 16 years old, I lived in the city of Detroit. My parents were committed to the city. We worked in the city, worshiped in the city, and lived in the city. But my parents did not believe the Detroit public schools were an option for me and my brother. So when I was 4 years old I was bused and car pooled to a suburb of Detroit called Grosse Pointe Farms. I received an excellent K-8 education but the Grosse Pointe Academy wasn't the greatest place to go to school. My brother was 4 years behind me.
I obtained a driver's license at 16 years old and it was my job was to pick my brother up from school. I was running the carpool one day when I was spotted by a Grosse Pointe police officer. He and I locked eyes and he whipped the U-turn and started following me to campus. I picked up my brother and our neighbor and was headed home when the children told me they wanted to stop and get some candy.
I pulled into a drugstore parking lot, sent the children to shop and started backing up to go home. Before I could get out of the parking space, the officer used his cruiser to block me in. Trapped, I began to think of my parents.
When I received my driver's license they sat me down and said, “Alex these are the things you need to know if you are going to drive in Grosse Pointe.”
“Oh,mom and dad, this is 1990. We're past all of that.”
As the officer walked slowly toward the vehicle with his thumb on the holster I was thankful for their counsel. I sat up straight put my hands at 10 and 2 o’clock on the steering wheel and told the children in the back seat to make no sudden movements. Rolling down the window, I found an agitated officer, “Step out of the vehicle!” When I complied, asking “What did I do?", the response was, “Turn around and put your hands on the hood.”
He frisked me for weapons, demanded paperwork and went back to the cruiser. Returning, he said, “You fit a description. We've been looking for someone. A bank has been robbed across the street and we thought you were our guy. But you're not, here is your paperwork. Have a nice day.”
He jumped in the cruiser and drove away, leaving a sixteen year old and two seventh-graders shaking like leaves. When I got home I told my brother not to tell. He didn't but our neighbors went home and told their parents everything. Their parents called my parents and my parents sat me down.
“Alex, why didn't you tell us what happened?”
“I was embarrassed and ashamed and afraid. I didn't want to talk about it.”
That day a light switch went off in the back of my brain: stay out of the suburbs. After high school I picked a big city and never looked back. Over the next 20 years I lived, worked and studied in Washington DC, Baltimore and Chicago. We returned to the city of Detroit to marry and start a family but avoided suburbs as much as possible.
Things were working well until a church called me as their pastor in 2008. We moved to a suburb of Lansing called East Lansing, and began living in a suburb, of the suburb, of East Lansing. I was excited to be a pastor but after three years of suburban living, there was a problem. I was physically ill but doctors told me there was nothing physically wrong. It was stress.
I began to pray and the Lord revealed that my stress was related to fear. The socioeconomic status and race of my ex-urban neighbors mirrored families in Grosse Pointe Farms. When I saw the police, I felt like I was 16 years old again. I was frightened. The Lord heard my cry.
“I see you’re afraid of the police."
"Do you fear Me?”
“I fear you above all Lord. You are my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear?”
“If you believe Psalm 27, I want you to get off your knees, go to the police station, knock on the door and make some friends.”
I avoided that assignment for over a month. When it was evident the request was not going away I went and obeyed. Meridian Township police offered to let me do a ride-along. I could ask the officer any question I wanted. Nothing was off-limits. I signed the waiver and crawled into a cruiser with an officer who was 6’-3”, 340 lb. We began to patrol and my nervousness was crippling. About 11:30 at night he set a speed trap in a rural area. I am the grandson of migrant workers from Alabama. The last place I wanted to be was under a tree, in the dark, with a man with a gun in the country. We began to talk and the officer shared his pain.
He was a 17-year veteran, with a wife and two children. His wife wanted what my mother and father wanted: To send children to private school. To get the tuition he had to work overtime. Normally rookies sit in the dark because the graveyard shift is least preferred. He was working because he needed the money.
When he got home from the shift at 4 am, the children were asleep. When they got up to go to the fancy private school, he was asleep. He had worked several shifts in a row to get money for children he never saw. He hated it, thought the public schools were fine, but his wife wanted private. So he bit his tongue, pulled the shift and suffered.
“Why don’t you find another job? You’re missing their childhood.”
“I want another job. I don't like this one anymore. All I do is walk into people's nightmares over and over again. I can't fix what's the matter with people. I have high blood pressure, I'm overweight, and my doctors tell me the stress is no good for me. But if I get out now I don't get my pension.”
Joe's plan was to hold his breath another 8 years and hope nothing happened to his marriage, his parenthood, his career, and his health; hope nothing happens on any of these emergency calls, hope that he's not ambushed; hope that he gets to 25 years and the pension so that he can go get a job he really wants.
“Joe, I'm here because I'm scared of the cops. I’m still working on that but I don't need to be afraid of you. I need to be praying for you. What you’re describing is horrible.”
“I'd love some prayer.”
“Okay let's get at it.”
“You mean right here?”
“Yes right here Joe. I'm a preacher from Detroit and I like to hold hands when I pray.”
After a long silence, Joe said ,”Ok.”
There was a shotgun between me and Joe. I reached around the gun, grabbed Joe's hand and said, “Lord this is my neighbor Joe he's going through and he needs your help. Please help him in Jesus's name.” I put his hand down and we kept talking, forming a mutual understanding.
He took me home and I thought that was the end of it. In prayer I heard the Lord say, “Go do it again.” Obeying the Lord opened an incredible adventure in my life, resulting in a ministry to first responders as a chaplain.