57“But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.”
With a quick glance at Taina’s bushy hair, one knew they had entered a wholly unique experience. As other students sat awkwardly on secondhand office chairs, Taina perched herself high against the opposition, sitting like an 8th Street Queen, atop one of the secondhand computer desks. The African, the Arawak, and the Taino all met at the center of Taina’s cute, baby-like face. But one should be warned that her charm and her bushy ponytail belied her true nature as a warrior queen. Taina was determined to stay one step ahead of a system determined to vanquish all within her realm and to hold them under the grip of common ghetto oppression.
My first encounter with Taina was on a North Camden street corner as I waited to pick up some young people for a field trip. I saw her, bushy ponytail in full display, running all activity going on at the corner. I thought, “Look at this cute little brat, out here bossing all the thugs around.” The brilliance I suspected that day was confirmed when she joined our alternative education program. Taina possessed the distinct qualities of Camden’s warrior class: a piercing street apologetic, an anger born of the crisis state within the immediate environment, a determination to hustle into survival, and a fervent longing for something real. These street soldiers are known for their keen intuition, smartly tuned BS detection skills, and their insistence on justice. With them, one had better come with the correct story or risk accusations of fakeness. Sitting atop the secondhand desk, Taina was about to unleash the real story on the local Libertines gathered in opposition to her.
Libertines were one group identified as having seized Stephen, the central character in our reading today from Acts chapter seven. The Libertines have only one biblical mention: a sect comprised of Jews carried away as prisoners of war who had been emancipated. They resettled in Jerusalem and built a synagogue there. Though still clutched within the tortures of Roman imperial domination, the Libertines embraced an illusion of being “Freedmen,” as their name indicates.
Such illusions of freedom, surviving within systems of oppression, are established upon carefully fabricated stories that seek to obscure and misemploy details of an authentic narrative. An authentic narrative threatens the comforts earned within sacredly held illusions. False notions of reconciliation, inclusion, acceptance, fairness, and fraternity are all put at risk as the true story spills out from boldly inspired lips. This was the Libertines problem with the Stephen and his detailed retelling of God’s redemptive history with Israel and its culmination in the person of Jesus the Christ. Stephen’s reliance on God as the only refuge for Israel, and Jesus as the path to redemption, certainly threatened those reliant on systems of power, domination, and empty religion. They seem to echo the call of those in the Prophet Isaiah’s time who urged him
“Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions.”
– Isaiah 30:10
But Stephen, like the truth-tellers throughout history, would not speak of inauthentic pleasantries. He spoke of God’s work from below, through Jesus.
“When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord”
– Acts 7:54-57
Taina sought neither pleasantries nor illusions as she listened to Camden’s Libertines. These were the officials who had gathered, attempting to sooth tensions after an incident between the police and a fellow student. The student was pencil thin and no more dangerous than an average canary. Yet, he had been harassed, abused, and arrested by burly police officers for the mere crime of waiting outside the corner store as his cheesesteak sandwich was being prepared. The police brass and police chaplains gathered there to proclaim a narrative of good policing and neighborly relations in a city known for rampant police corruption and abuse.
Taina would have none of this and, rising from her secondhand throne, she challenged Camden’s Libertines, first recounting the many incidents of police abuse in her neighborhood and then declaring, “Some of your policemen run the drugs in our neighborhood. You want to know their names?” With this, the police chaplains’ faces turned red and their teeth gnashed. Some of the brass ran to quiet her while others yelled “Woooo, Woooo, Heyyy, Heyyy,” in attempts to drown out the authentic narrative. If Libertine eyes had the striking force of stones, Taina would have met the same fate as the martyred Stephen. In some ways, her continued isolation, alienation, and targeting cloak her in daily-lived martyrdom.
“In you, O LORD, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me.”
– Psalms 31:1
The witness of the martyrs should move us to respond within the systems we live among. In a world where social climbing, compromise, and adoption of false notions of peace and righteousness seem the safest route to success and abundance, I find special beauty in those spaces where God is working to provide refuge for the challenge of an authentic and life-changing narrative. Would that we worked with God to create such spaces within oppressive systems where the voices of the martyrs and the street queens can speak the truth to the powers on behalf of the powerless and survive the stones.
Friend of Street Psalms
Founder and Director, Watu Moja