It all went dark. My eyes instantly began burning and my throat felt like I swallowed a flame. I was able to open my eyes just long enough to see a hand reaching out for mine. Rachel, a young African American whom I befriend on my walk toward city center, had one hand covering her eyes and the other reaching out. I grabbed on tightly and assured her I was here.
As my vision cleared up, I clung firmly to Rachel’s hand, silent, and scared. She and I stood there watching just several feet away from the first of several tear gas canisters were shot. Although silent, I knew that both of us were now thinking that we cannot leave.
I’ve seen this image before, however from the comfort of my own home. I would read through Twitter and Facebook during previous protests around the country. I would lose words and feel sad but understood how thankful I was that all of it went away for me as soon as I set down my phone or turned off my computer.
Now, the riot police are just a few feet away, face to face with those frustrated with the injustices in our society.
I look into the face of Rachel, into the faces of all those protesting for their voice to be heard. I can’t even imagine to begin to understand their pain. I can’t understand what it is like to live in a system of oppression for so long.
I look into the faces of the police, beyond their masks. As they stand shoulder to shoulder, shield to shield, I can only assume that many of them are thinking about their families at home. Will they ever see them again?
What do I do? What is my role in all of this? I’m angry, frustrated, sad, and hurt. My heart aches for humanity. I’ve followed Jesus for so long that I should have an easy answer. I don’t.
But there I stood, hand in hand with Rachel. Just an hour ago she was a stranger. After the tear gas, she became my comfort. Part of me wanted to run. Curl up in my bed and resume my experience via Twitter. But something urged me to stay. It was this moment that I truly realized that there is something greater than myself. There is something greater than fear. There is something powerful in being present.
I can no longer be the white man speaking with certainty and absolute truths about the experiences of others. But in this moment, I can be the non-violent human, standing side by side with another human, seeking justice in order to reach peace. I can be present. I must be present.