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I’ve never met Chris Schurr, the Grand Rapids police officer who shot and killed Patrick Lyoya. But I feel like I have.
I read the NYTimes profile that pieced together a few small bits from his biography to create a story about him. And I recognized that story: I’ve worshiped at that church. I’ve been on that mission trip. I’ve participated in that kind of Christian formation.
Chris Schurr attended a congregation that is part of the same denomination that claims me, the Reformed Church in America. This means that the RCA – its theology, its missions, its values, its practices – are part of the death of Patrick Lyoya. It’s the part that I am most connected to.
I am a person who believes in the cause of the Black Lives Matter movement. I believe there is racism in policing that has existed from the beginning. I believe that police bias and brutality have robbed communities of color of safety and dignity for generations. I believe that Patrick Lyoya was killed because he was Black. I believe that without the video evidence we would never know it happened.
And if I’m honest, I long to believe that the officer who killed Patrick Lyoya was simply a bad guy. It would be so much easier for me to believe a story of a person who dropped out of nowhere, evil in his heart, ready to do harm. It would be easier because I wouldn’t be able to relate to that. I wouldn’t read a profile of the “killer cop” and see… me.
I know very little about what it’s like to be a refugee: to flee from certain death, to witness wanton violence, to endure years of stagnant suffering in a refugee camp, to resettle in a culture that I don’t understand. And I know very little about what it’s like to be a police officer: to patrol a community where guns are ubiquitous, to be underpaid and overworked, to be subjected to terrifying situations that I’m expected to control, to be under constant scrutiny and distrust.
I don’t see myself in either of those stories. But I know about mission trips to Kenya.
When I was hired as a college chaplain, I was tasked with reimagining the short term mission trips that had become popular for students. For so many white students, the only experience they ever had with a person of color was through a church mission trip. Encounters that were curated, quick, and uplifting. Encounters in which they were cast as the helper, the saver, the fixer, the server. They were the presence of (white) Jesus in a broken (black) world.
We tried to veer away from trips that focused on helping, saving, fixing, serving impoverished people, and instead to offer experiences that opened a student’s curiosity, engaged a community’s complexity, connected an individual’s suffering to the powerful systems that shaped it. The point was to stop perpetuating the idea that charity was the only Christian response to injustice, and instead spark an interest in reforming the systems that make and keep people oppressed. I’ll be honest, the changes to those trips weren’t popular. I suspect the truth is that most Christians actually prefer a simpler story.
But there is danger in our simple story. It’s dangerous to grow our faith around a simple story of blessed and needy, giver and receiver, powerful and powerless. A story like that makes us see the people in a hierarchy, and ourselves at the top: the ones who know and do best.
It’s dangerous to build our ideas of safety around a simple story of victim and perpetrator, good and evil, right and wrong. It forms us to be fearful of one another, to live separated, to create the very walls that Jesus came to break down.
It’s seductive to build a sense of our own righteousness around a simple story of guilt or innocence. If the “killer cop” (or the “criminal victim,” if you’re seeing this story differently than me) is wholly different than I am, I can absolve myself of the reality that I am connected to this tragedy. I will never admit that I have participated in the plot. And I will never recognize that it will cost me something, it will demand something of me, if things are to change.
And, my God, things must change.
Church: the police officer at the center of Grand Rapids’ grief and outrage is ours. He is one of us. Broken and beloved. Shaped, formed, influenced by the stories we have told. May we face the complexity and the grief that this demands. As we cry out for change in police policy, police contracts, police unions, let us not be satisfied with the simple story that shields us from facing our own messy truth: justice demands change from the church too.