A Criminal Like Me

“I don’t like being lied to,” she snarled as she walked past me and back to her car.

The taller woman followed close behind her, repeating over again, “Now look what you’ve done. You’ve made her mad. Now I am going to have to sit in the car with her for the rest of the day. She’s going to be in a bad mood, whacking me and fuming.”

If there had not been an undercurrent of threat in their words, I would have found the whole scene humorous. The pair of them were behaving like some kind of exaggerated – almost to the point of being comedic – good cop/bad cop role playing duo. I would have half expected one of them to say “Who’s on first?” if they had not instead been asking me who they should arrest first.

When I had pulled up and gotten out of my car to pick up lunch from home, I had been a little confused to see an unmarked car “sitting” on my spot. I greeted them cheerfully as I walked across the parking lot, wondering which of my friends they were visiting. Until, that is, the taller one got out of the car, flashed something that looked like a badge and asked me to take a look at a picture.

“Have you seen him?” she asked.

At first I said no. Then she told me it was an old picture, a few years old, and so I looked again. “Yeah, I might know him,” I replied, “but that sure is an old picture.”

“You know where he is? Seen him lately? Know where to find him?”

No. No. No – were my honest replies.

“No worries,” she answered. “We’ll find him. People here ain’t telling us anything, but that doesn’t worry us. We’ll just start arresting people until we find him.”

Things were taking an interesting turn.

“We think he is that guy up there. We think he is just going by a different name. Maybe we’ll go ahead and arrest him.”

No, I told her, that is ridiculous, he looks nothing like him. They are two different people all together. We all know that. She knows that. I know that. The man she was pointing to knows that. He is a really good man, a kind man, an ethical man, I told her.

They went up to the man in question and began to interrogate him about our acquaintance in the picture, whom we had not seen in quite some time. He asked to see their badges and asked for an answer about who they were. The shorter woman showed him an ID in a case, and the other woman showed him a metal star.

He repeated his request to see their official ID.

“Actually, that is why we are here. We want to see your ID,” the shorter woman said aggressively. I remembered their threat to arrest him if they couldn’t find who they wanted.

The thing is, he told them, they did not look super official and he did not know who they were. They did seem to be more likely to be some kind of bounty hunters than police officers.

The shorter one lifted up the edge of her shirt to reveal her gun. “Is this good enough ID for you,” she said bristling.

It was at this point that he decided to let them take a look around, and it was also at this point that I decided I would eat my lunch in the hot Texas sun, with a full view of everything that was taking place.

When they finally left, after treating my friend – an artist and a missionary – like he was a criminal and a liar, they did so with that parting shot, “I don’t like being lied to.”

I realized as her body shoved past mine that I was being called a liar just as surely as anyone else in that place.

I joked with the guys that I hadn’t told them anything. The truth was that I really did not know anything. None of us knew anything. All of us were telling the absolute truth.

We told them exactly nothing, which was exactly everything we knew.

The thought flitted briefly through my mind of following after her and protesting our honesty to these aggressive women with questionable identities and motives; I didn’t like them thinking they could walk in our spot and push us around and then walk out of our spot calling us liars. I thought of telling them who I was, of pulling my privilege card out of my back pocket. Of telling them that I was The Rev. Hannah Bonner. But then as quick as the thought had emerged, it flitted away. What’s the point, I figured, they weren’t worth it. Besides, even if I wanted to appeal to my pastoral identity to create a boundary between myself and these women’s aggressive hostility, it would also serve to create a distance between myself and┬ámy real life, home, and community.

Over the years, I’ve learned that the privilege of feeling as if figures with badges were protecting me was connected to my physical location, physical appearance, existing relationships, and/or whether they saw my community as something to protect or something to protect people from. I have met both types of figures.

My mind returned to the first time I had been pulled over for sticking out in my neighborhood back in north-central Durham. I was just about to pull into the church parking lot where I worked when the red & blue lights went off behind me. The policeman had not been able to tell that I was wearing my seat belt. Perhaps more importantly, I was not wearing my pastor garb; I was wearing hospital scrubs and an old t-shirt, accessorized with a pony-tail and no make-up, because I was coming from cleaning houses, one of four jobs that I had at that time.

I talked to my father, an attorney, who assured me that there was nothing inappropriate about what had happened and I was not being profiled.

When I got off the night shift at one of my other jobs a couple weeks later, however, and a police car followed me down my street and right into my driveway, I knew I had been right. As I stepped out of my car, the officer hit me dead-on with a spotlight, framing my slight silhouette against the light blue wall of the first story of the Isaiah House.

He said nothing, and I said nothing.

I don’t know what I would do if that happened to me now. At the time, however, I was still too naive to be frightened, too new to my understanding of the real consequences of our actions and choices. So I simply waved, got out my house keys, and walked into my house. I knew why I was in that neighborhood late at night, I had figured, so it did not matter why he thought I was there.

I ended up getting my fair share of attention from the police in Durham’s Bull’s Eye during my years there. My presence there, it seemed, could only be explained by less than savory reasons. Criminal activity.

These are the moments when I feel the urge to protest, to claim that I am not the person people assume me to be. But are any of us the people others assume us to be when they look at our bodies through the lens of prejudice or assumptions? Why am I any different?

The thing about pulling out the privilege card at moment’s like this, at waving the “I’m clergy” sign around, is that I become an accomplice in the system of prejudice and profiling by distancing myself from the situation, and saying that I should not be one of the people on the receiving end of injustice, false assumptions and profiling. And if I do that, I don’t need any officer of the law to say that I don’t belong here – I’ve already said it myself.

The moments do come when I will wave the clergy sign, when I do pop the collar in and make a visible sign of my identity. Those moments, however, are on my terms, in God’s timing, when the community chooses or when visible clerical solidarity brings me closer to and not further from my community.

Several months ago, almost a year now, Rudy asked me what I thought it meant to be a pastor. It is a question I will be answering for the rest of my life. Yet, if I have learned anything from the ministerial culture at St. John’s, it is that being a pastor does not exempt you from injustice in the community, it involves you in it.

The pastoral identity does not exist for the benefit and protection of the pastor; to separate oneself from the hardship that the community experiences. The pastoral identity exists for the benefit of the community; to gather the community and help them understand that what one suffers, we all suffer, when we are living as family.

Today, I did not pop in the collar. Because today, intimidation was the name of the game. And I was not playing.

Truth is supposed to be so clean and bright and shiny and obvious. Yet, the truth – if it doesn’t look like we want it to look; if it doesn’t support what we want to hear and what we want to see – then we say the truth is just another lie, told by just another criminal. A criminal like me.

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