“Can I help you?”
I opened the back door and saw a man standing by our garage, rattling the doorknob and trying to get in.
“Can I help you?” I said again, cautiously.
He turned slightly toward me and mumbled a few words. It was hard to understand, but he said something about trying to get home.
“That’s my garage, not your home. Can I help you? Where do you live?” I asked from across the yard.
The man, elderly, confused, and cold (it was Minneapolis in the winter, after all) said, “I don’t need no help. I’m just a little lost.”
“Ok,” I said. “Let me know if you need me to call someone for you.”
He muttered something, wandered back into the alley, and was on his way.
Not long after, I heard a commotion and flashing blue lights flickered through the front windows. I looked out and two doors down, there was the same man from our back alley. Only now he was laid out on the ground, surrounded by officers who were calling for medical attention. I stepped outside to talk with the officers and see if I could help. Apparently, he approached the front door of our neighbor’s house and rattled the doorknob, much like he did at our garage. Our neighbor opened the door, punched him between the eyes, and sent him flying backward. He fell off the front step and cracked his head on the frozen concrete walk up the hill to the house.
The police identified him and got in touch with his family. He really was lost. His family had actually been looking for him. Their best guess was he got off at the wrong bus stop. He had memory issues. He was likely scared, lost, and confused… trying door after door looking for his home. Instead, they drove him off in an ambulance.
When I first saw him, I was startled for sure. We lived in a rough neighborhood where bad things happened often. My heart jumped when I opened the door. Fear is a natural first response when you see someone where they don’t belong. Plus I had actually been robbed several times in that neighborhood. At first, I thought I was catching someone in the act. Still, do you know what never crossed my mind even once? I never wished I had a gun. I never thought, “Hey, I should shoot that guy!”
By the standard of some, I would have been well within my rights. He was trespassing. He was trying to “break into” my garage. It was the middle of the night. It was in a bad neighborhood. He was black.
I talked to my neighbor that night as I had many times before. He was a nice guy. We weren’t friends, but he was always friendly when he saw me. He said to me and he said to the officers, “I didn’t mean to hit him so hard. I feel bad. I hope he’ll be ok. I just saw this black guy at my door and thought he was trying to break in or that he was going to do something crazy.”
What made this elderly, confused, freezing-cold, paper-thin man so threatening?
Today, 23 years later, along with countless others I lament the shooting of a 16-year-old black teenager in Missouri. He too was confused and rang a doorbell. He rang the wrong doorbell at the wrong house. He rang the wrong doorbell at the wrong house and got shot for it.
Would my son (who turns 16 next week and who is white) be facing a lifetime of recovery from the physical and emotional trauma of being shot if he had been the one to ring that bell? Most likely not.
People of God we have work to do.