Maybe she saw this in my eyes; maybe my body language gave me away… I knew I was never going to see them again, and as a grown man, I experienced the desire to cry from outrage a sense of waste, but then so much more than this, justice lost. I wasn’t that strong, and at this very moment, I conceded to myself I was at my most vulnerable, wanting to give up. Yet; I did not know, God was doing a new thing in me.
It has always been my assertion; anyone in our society should be able to walk down the street without issue. This should be the freedom guaranteed to every living being. Why is it then; in some place’s a person gets mugged, another person is fearful, and even animals run when they encounter other animals or people? (Rhetorical)
If its ok with you; the reader, these are a few stories, and experiences, which made this Social Justice thing, jump out and a little bit more real for me in my life.
She was there in a flash, (emphatically demanding to know) what’s wrong; what happened? I was sold out in a heartbeat; maybe three or four heartbeats (probably because he was as scared as I was). Did I just kill my brother.
“She”, my mother listening to my brother’s gasps for air - for breath. “Sean…. (Gasping for breath), hit… (more gasping), me! (my brother declared), at the very same time; (ironically) sentencing me to the wrath of my mother.
We had an apartment in North York - (Toronto – Ontario - Canada) a TV but didn’t yet own a car. Weekends were filled with watching tv and in the 70s wrestling was big. As the youngest of three siblings my brother only 363 days my senior, loved to practice on me. He went in on me; headlocks, gut shots, big arms to the back, I almost always felt at risk.
I begged; pleaded for him to leave me alone, then it happened, out of nowhere a shot to the gut and he was winded. I got him; at 5 years old, I beat my older brother, this once, it was no victory as you will see. He was winded; gasping for air, making that whooping crane sound, the one we have all heard at some point in life when “She”, my mother heard from the other room protective instincts kicking in, as her child in danger needed her.
In the Caribbean; we use the term “Licks”, to describe when our parents discipline us. “Man you gonna get some “Licks”. With the reaction of a Third-degree black belt; I now got some licks from my mother, in phonetic fashion. What… (Hit) Do… (Hit) You… (Hit) Think… (Hit) You… (Hit) Are… (Hit) Doing! I didn’t get a syllable out; much less a word. That day my brother and my mother gave me the licks of my life…. And yes, after ten minutes my brother was fine. Me not so much, to the point, I remember this like it happened yesterday. So, I gotta ask you; what kind of justice was that?
In grade seven; my brother and I travelled to and from school together for lunch. Sometimes he got there first, other times I did. On one occasion; I got home and finished lunch first, he was still using the stove to cook, and I wanted him to hurry up so we could go. I walked around the house; and each time I passed him, gave him a what’s for to the shoulder. To be fair; he warned me several times if I did it again, he was going to knock me out. Well the third time was a charm; and he chased me out of the house.
To this day; I don’t recall my brother turning off the stove, or locking the door but the house didn’t burn down so I think were good on that front. My brother was quick; but so was I. As he ran, I ran. When he got tired and stopped, I stopped. When he started up again, so did I, all the way to school. When I finally got on school property, I jumped over the imaginary line and proclaimed, “No fighting on school property”. He promptly knocked - me - out. There were rules; and he just broke them, (You’re not supposed to fight on school property) I wondered, where’s the justice in that! This was the day I realized my brother does what he says.
And so it goes with life. We have many experiences which challenge what we know to be true, what is right and wrong, and our sense of what’s fair. We all have our own barometer about these things, and this is truly what I believe makes our society great, how we interpret and engage at life with each other.
Skipping forward at 38 years old, I found myself in Calgary; staying in a shelter, I wondered what I did to deserve this. I wondered out loud to God; really is this your plan. It was the winter of 2008 and I left Ontario for the dream of riches in Alberta, finding more trouble than I read about or saw on tv.
Job searching, I bumped in to a lady at the employment center who asked me a little about myself. Conversation got to where I was staying; I said my car, I’m sleeping in my car. This wasn’t a big deal to me, I made the choices and was gonna live them out, and if I failed, at the very least I tried. She was a Director; and was aghast that I was at risk, being on my own, sleeping in my car was dangerous, I should stay at the shelter. Let’s be honest; in my head I thought, this is Calgary, I’m the Black guy, people are afraid of me. A day or so later; a man (from Toronto) was beaten, and hospitalized so I thought maybe I should check out this shelter.
Funny Side Note: I was job searching in the city; and went to the passenger side of my car to grab my laptop. When I turned around two bicycles cops had rolled up on me. They asked; “is this your car Sir” … (In my head; I’m like- um.. ahh where did these guys come from). Yes officer do you need to see my paper work? “Oh not at all Sir; this isn’t the greatest area, so we are just making sure everything is good” (Paraphrase). Should I be parking here then? “Oh ya you’re fine here”…. (In my head I’m thinking; but you just said, its not the best area).
Jumping forward; I was job searching; but now at the shelter and also getting to know the shelter staff. I could see from my few weeks there; the staff were on edge. Shelter funding was up in the air, many people might lose their jobs, and a lot of the patrons would lose a place to stay. I met some pretty kool people, and a young guy who mixed music from his laptop. I liked to rap; and wrote a song (Don’t Interrupt Her Flow) for two of the shelter staff, Cali and Chelsea who were going on a mission’s trip. As I got to see what was going on; I realized why I was there, what my mission was, why after all my planning God placed me in this place.
If God is not in your overall language or vocabulary make up; maybe you won’t get this, but imagine you are put someplace you would have never been, through a sequence of events for a reason. Then you find out what that reason is. Then there was more good news; I got a job with the City of Calgary… Yee haw! I worked during the day and started on my mission at night. My friend with the laptop helped tweak and put it all together for me. Then; just before I left the shelter, I experienced a setback that made me just want to quit. It was more a mental than an actual setback but it was, what it was. When we are on our own making our way; the wrong coffee could set us off.
I was saving money from my job with the city to rent a place, (Rent in Calgary ain’t cheap). Before this; I was able to buy a really nice sleeping bag, and as a big guy, this helped me sleep at the shelter which was cool at night. It also gave me a peace that I was moving forward. I kept most of my stuff in my car; and would go back once at night and once in the morning to secure my stuff.
One morning I was speaking to one of the male staff members and lost track of time. It was 8:12 and I forgot to clear my sleeping area by 8am. I rushed back to put my things together, only to find they were thrown out… everything was gone, everything, including my new (very expensive) sleeping bag. As it turns out some of the staff had a few patrons helping with cleaning up. The value of my stuff was lost on the patrons doing a good job of cleaning up, I was furious.
As the day went on; I had been given one possibility of getting my stuff back. We knew it was all in one of the dumpsters in the parking area, but only one person could authorize me going to get it, the Director, and she was away most of the day. In the afternoon; the Director got my message that I wanted to speak with her. She was busy; but finally, at about 2:45pm she came out to talk with me.
Sean; I’ve been looking forward to speaking with you again, how are things going, I heard you wanted to speak with me. Let’s sit down and tell me a bit of your story. We sat and talked for about 15 minutes, she then asked, what can I do for you. I told her my situation. Maybe she could see just how broken I was, how frantic I was, but it’s what I saw in her eyes, and her words that really broke me, a 38 year old grown man wanting to cry.
The Director looked at me; then she said, you know Sean, after hearing your story I want to help you, we can have a staff member go out with you and get your stuff back, I believe this is important. This is when the “but” came in to play(She was diplomatic). The problem I have Sean is this. When I authorize this; everyone one in the shelter will see the precedence, and this will put us in an unpleasant situation, because if this happens again, they will know I did it for you, and will also want me to do it for them.
It was at this point; I knew I would never see my stuff again, it was also where my heart contracted into my soul just a little bit. It took everything within me to say; its ok, let’s leave it where it is.
I was broken; over a sleeping bag and a few Knick knacks. Mentally speaking it was more than that. It was one step I had taken forward, and like shutes and ladders it seemed I just lost a lot of ground. Our head space in life is critical to our survival, and how (if) we move forward. I told myself; (convinced myself) I would take the loss, and I would be ok.
Over the next few days; I completed my project, and checked in with my friend and his laptop. I went to the local copy store and was able to duplicate a few copies of the cd. I presented it with a letter to different staff members at the MSFS, and the impact was right on point, and much better than expected, mission accomplished.
We live in a reality where; the creator and the created thing, are often at odds about direction, value, and outcomes. The experience life gives each of us; places us at odds with how we think things should be or go. There are winners; which (generally speaking) means we must also have losers. All things being equal; a loser will look at outcome differently than a winner; though both, should analyze from both sides to determine what led to the outcome experienced.
Though I felt I had lost so much; when I completed the cd project and saw the results, I understood why it all had to go down the way it did. It made sense to me (as a trekkie) that one could lose out for the greater good. I convinced myself that this was an overall good outcome, for everyone.
I believe social justice is the equal application of community rules, which allow for equal progress based on shared thinking, resources, and agreement. When these are not present; social justice is compromised. With seven billion people on this planet we have some work to do respective of our shared thinking, resources, and what we agree on.
As we work in our communities; if we believe in social justice, we must recognize where thinking, resources, and agreement are not inline, and adapt, adjust, or compensate accordingly, of course not everyone thinks this way. Type “A” personalities often dominate at the expense of the rest of the herd.
My Time at the MSFS (Shelter) was a glimpse at a group of people living out a model of authentic community service. The trouble was the frame work, or the system in place, did not truly account for the needs of the staff working. On a daily basis; these staff members suffered, because their clients were suffering. The level of transference and counter-transference was high, and the emotions were very real.
In my mind; it is up to each of us to really take a step back and see when someone around us is hurting. It’s not always easy because we are all taught to put on a brave face. We are considered weak if we show too much emotion, or we are encouraged to overcome stuff we face in life, by saying this too will pass. Most of the times in life; it does pass, but we find ourselves transitioning through a duality of living we were never supposed to embrace. We find ourselves literally having two faces. Our strong external face which can’t be fazed, and our soft inner emotional core, we try not to let others see. When we are real; when we are authentic about our community, our tribe, we are intrinsically connected to both faces. We know when to be strong for others, and soft for them as well.
While I had a relatively loose plan in going out west; there was another plan in place to help me see; engage, and impact the MSFS community, so they would be encouraged through a tough season for this group. As I watched different staff members listen to the cd, (Spoken Word) my friend with the laptop helped me mix with some music, I could see change.
The hard face many put on to go to work transitioned to an emotional vulnerability, because someone heard their internal cry for help. It was a recognition that they were not alone. More than this; in a ministry community where service to the broken was the goal, those who became broken as they served, realized one truth, this God they all believed in heard them, was with them, and this gave them strength, it gave them hope.
It was an awesome experience for me; when half way through the recording I could see each staff member put their hand on their hearts, (Because that’s what I asked them to do in the recording) as I prayed for them and let them know they had my agreement in prayer.
Social justice is an abstract thought; this is, until we put it into practice, and see the result(s) in someone else’s life (But also in our own where its most important). With the many rule’s we experience in life; and how they are interpreted by others, we get to learn what it all means to us. We must take the hits; the “Licks” in life, and sometimes take the loss, for our community, our tribe. This is especially true when; we intend to say what we do, and do what we say.
Written by Sean Semper-Whyte
Is an advocate of community; living in the Greater Toronto Region, and has worked in the social services field for more than 12 years. Sean’s biblical perspective; colours his outlook on life, and fuel’s his angst with the human condition. Sean hopes *Blue42 a self-designed *Total community safety strategy will mitigate loss of life during the first fifteen.