Are we doing good deeds out of compassion, or a selfish need to prove something to other people with photographs?
Right in the heart of downtown there’s a beautiful park. It’s lined with large palm trees and banners heralding the amenities of city dwelling–shopping, dining, and the San Jose Sharks. The light rail system chimes on either side, picking-up and dropping off Bay Area denizens all over the valley. Across the street to the west, a post office. And to the east, a swanking athletic club. The moderately sized park is set just a block off of downtown’s main thoroughfare.
A few weeks ago I drove right by the park. Did I mention that St. James Park has a shameful stigma throughout the San Jose area? Just months prior to my quick drive by I got to talking with this couple. We hadn’t met before so we naturally chatted about where we lived. They were from south San Jose. My family and I live downtown … not too far from the park. When they heard where we lived the next few moments of our conversation became difficult to follow.
After discovery the locale of our residence the husband and wife informed me of a lynching that took place in the park in the early 30’s. Additionally they said they found the prospect of walking by the park at night incredibly troubling. Though there is an ordinance prohibiting being at the park after a certain hour, most of the day St. James is home to dozens of homeless men and women (though they may have said hundreds). I can only guess but it seemed to me at the time as if they were making a connection between the lynching that happened nearly ninety years ago and the homeless “problem” down there today. Like I said, it was hard to follow.
I’ve lived in the area for most of my life. But I had never heard about this incident. I decided to do some digging. Apparently it was four days before Thanksgiving, 1933. Moments after discovering Brooke Hart’s body in the San Francisco Bay news outlets announced a forthcoming lynching in downtown San Jose. Hart was the well known and beloved son of a local businessmen. Many were outraged by his death. His alleged killers, Thomas Thurmond and John Holmes, received no trial or conviction. Nevertheless a mob of locals extracted them from their county jail cell to a nearby park where they were soon killed. Some 10,000 Bay Area residents were said to have been in attendance that night.
This all happened at St. James Park.
As I drove by, with my windows rolled down and Mumford & Sons quietly playing, I saw dozens of people gathered in the park. However the community wasn’t spread out and dispersed in various pockets around the park as they are normally. Instead they were in a line. I slowed down and stopped at a red light near the corner of the park. While I waited at the light I followed the line all the way to the front. It ended at a long folding table. The table was setup on the sidewalk just past the edge of the grass behind a car. A small SUV had backed into a parking spot and a group of men and women were distributing clothes and food from the back. I grinned when I noticed the group donned matching bright teal t-shirts with their church’s name printed on the back in white letters. On the front there was a message which read, “helping where it’s needed most,” or something like that.
I thought to myself … “go team!”
But just as soon as I began celebrating the tangible benevolence of my Christian bothers and sisters, I saw a man step away from the group. He was wearing one of those teal shirts. And he had a camera. He flashed a few pictures and jumped back in to help with the distribution. I felt a strange embarrassment creep over me. I think I even hunched over the steel wheel a bit and grimaced.
The moment I saw the camera flashes, dozens of images flashed across my mind’s eye. Mexico 1997, I was on top of a house I had just helped build for a family in Tijuana and we took a picture. Downtown Denver 2004, I walked with a group of high school students up and down the streets passing out socks and snacks to anyone who would take them, and we took pictures. San Jose 2010, I sat down with a group of friends praying for our city and the people in the park. When a few of those people actually joined us in prayer … yup … I took a picture.
As I sat at that red light, I wondered why. Why do I have a seemingly incurable need to take pictures of my “good deeds”? Why did my teal-shirted friends have the same tendency? Why am I such a spiritual Instagramer? To be totally honest I think it’s because I think the pictures will last longer.
You see, the problem with St. James Park is massive. It’s happened over a long period of time. Slowly but surely the negative and marginalized reputation of the park has become ingrained within the mindset of our city. It has taken nearly a century but we now have an incredible park of which many people are terrified or at best for which we feel sorry, but few have actually ever even visited. And if all visitors do is pass out food, build houses, give socks, pray, and then take pictures have we really achieved something of lasting value? Especially if were not actually visitors, but residents.
Now I don’t fault the couple who first informed me about the tragic events of 1933. Nor do I want to criticize the generous group who took the time and care and intention to love those folks at St. James Park. But I think these summarize two varying approaches to people and places like St. James Park: we either keep our distance or we go take pictures. And even though pictures last a long time, the core issues seem to have an even longer life expectancy.
The stigmas remain.
The needs stay.
And the photographers leave.
The car behind me honked. Apparently my incredibly important reflections were getting in the way of his or her destination. I drove away from the park. While I made my way through the city I skipped through some songs and landed on “Awake My Soul.”
In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die
And where you invest your love, you invest your life
… Awake my soul.
I love that song. I don’t know exactly what the lyricists are getting at, but somehow it resonated with me that day. That’s what I needed. I didn’t need more pictures, I needed to wake up.
I want a faith and a life that changes things–a spiritual existence that doesn’t simply have pictures to prove I did something good once. I want a transformed city that speaks for itself. And I want to live in a place where misconceptions and historical moments don’t cast tragic and crippling shadows over the present and future. I want to wake up. I want my city to wake up. And I think faith can do that. Because true faith can’t be summarized in a flash. Fortunately, it can and should last much longer than that.
As Eugene Peterson puts it, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”
Photo credit: Flickr / κύριαsity