I hope today can feel like a new day. I am up early, blinds drawn, sipping coffee from my favorite mug, the sun peeping over the foliage outside my window and landing on my tired face. I slept fitfully last night, woken by sirens and the sound of a helicopter hovering overhead. I wondered who they were looking for, whether that person was afraid and if they needed somewhere to shelter.
Shelter is such a simple yet powerful word. It is what we have been doing for three months now in the face of a virus. It’s what we stand under to protect us from the rain, wind, sun as we wait for a bus to take us where we need to go. It’s an act of kind offering to let someone into our homes when they are in need – come in, be warm, have my friendship.
I was moved by the story of Rahul Dubey, a DC resident who was sitting on his stoop on Monday night when protesters were cornered, police advancing on them from either end of his small street. He didn’t just watch – he saw their plight, the fear in their eyes as they contemplated their fate in the hands of police officers after the curfew had fallen – and he acted. He opened his home to 70 strangers. He gave them shelter. He ordered pizzas, he helped them to wash the tear gas from their eyes, they no doubt left the next morning rested and ready to continue their mission.
Shelter isn’t just practical – it’s emotional and spiritual. I’m sure his actions gave those 70 young people hope; hope in the inherent goodness in most human beings, hope in solidarity, hope in how society can be.
When I myself have offered shelter my overwhelming emotion has been frustration – that I could not do more. I’ve sat with wives facing demands they cannot meet from terrorists holding their husband hostage, mothers watching along with the rest of us a video depicting their child’s murder, casually and callously uploaded to YouTube by their captors.
What I have come to understand is just how simple yet powerful shelter is. It is the smallest and most heartfelt acts of kindness that are most gratefully received; listening, being present, trying to understand, finding a way to laugh at the appropriate moment to allow a vital temporary release of pent up energy. And asking for nothing in return.
I have found the last few days terrifying, confusing and also uplifting. I watched as protesters of every color, creed and background took to the streets to protest the murder of George Floyd, who died with his neck under the knee of a police officer. They took to the streets for George, for those who died before him, in the hope that no one would have to die or suffer in the future. They took to the streets because they want this to end. I have been moved by their bravery. On Saturday, we stood and watched hundreds of cars drive past our apartment building on the corner of Maine and 6th in SW DC, honking their horns, protesters spilling out of every window and sun roof with fists raised and banners flapping in the wind.
I was surprised by my own reaction – tears formed in my eyes, my arm lifted, self-consciously at first yet with passion and conviction soon enough. In the face of what these young people were fighting for, the very least I could do was raise my arm in solidarity.
I have watched in horror at the violent fringe of riots and looting – the stores in my old home neighborhood of Georgetown smashed, the contents plundered, often discarded on the sidewalk as an afront to the hard work and industry that went into their production. As if our communities weren’t suffering enough after three months of imposed sheltering, small business owners and shop workers about to return to work following the relaxing of lockdown must surely be heartbroken as they clear up this mess with the sound of broken glass crunching under their feet.
These thugs and fools not only bring destruction to communities, they sully the protesters and their cause as so many people fail to distinguish between the two.
And then on Monday night I watched the President send in the military to clear peaceful protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets to make space for him to visit St John’s Church for a photo op holding a bible.
In the preceding speech, he declared himself the President of Law and Order, name checking second amendment rights, threatening to overrule governors by imposing force and declaring a nebulous grouping a domestic terrorist organization.
I watched his speech with terror in my heart; these are the words and sentiments I have heard spill from the mouths of tyrants in “other” countries. With him on my television screen – his bile, hatred and division – my home no longer felt like my shelter.
On autopilot, we put on our shoes and went outside, standing on the same corner we had watched the protests on Saturday. At first we stood in silence side by side. I felt my eyes fill again with tears of worry. I instinctively turned to Paul and asked him to hold me. We stood like that for a long 10 minutes without saying a word.
When we came back in, I reached out to friends; I needed to connect. One immediately replied to ask if we could talk. It wasn’t enough to text, we needed to see one another’s faces, share our feelings, listen, check we really had heard the same thing. “This is what your family fled Poland for in the last century”, I said to her. She nodded slowly and silently. We took shelter in our friendship and one another.
As I lay in bed last night, listening to the sirens and wondering who was out there, who was worried about being picked up, I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach about where this goes, where this ends. I did not feel immediately worried for my own safety, but I had a deep concern about the implications of what I heard and saw on Monday night.
I was reminded of Martin Niemoller’s powerful words:
First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak up
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak up
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak up
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak up
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me
On Monday afternoon, I spent an hour or so collecting together the examples of leadership I’d seen from governors, police chiefs, rappers who gave me hope. Leaders of compassion and connection, using their titles, offices and privileges as a platform for good rather than a barrier to shelter behind. I needed to do this to remind myself of the goodness in the face of division and despair. Erika Shields, Atlanta police chief who came down and spoke to protesters and heard their anger. Genesee County Sherif, Chris Swanson, who asked the protesters what they wanted and when they said “walk with us” he did. Killer Mike, a rapper who cried in pain and told his fellow Atlantans to plot, plan, strategize, organize and mobilze. Atlanta Mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, who talked to her city as a mother and and told the rioters to go home.
There is a reason their words and actions have gone viral – we need them. Just like Rahul Dubey’s quiet act of leadership on Monday night, their leadership offers us the shelter we need right now. Just like him, the shelter they offer brings us hope – hope in the inherent goodness of most human beings, hope in solidarity, and hope in how society can be.
As we wake scared in the night to the sound of sirens; as we watch the news worried about our cities, our young people, our cohesion; let’s ask ourselves what can I do to offer shelter? Shelter – physical, practical, emotional and spiritual – is our most important currency in these difficult times.