Ahmaud Arbery isn’t just another hashtag for me anymore.
Let me tell you why.
I had the opportunity to travel with a beautifully diverse group of fellow young believers to Brunswick, GA last Saturday.
The three and a half hour bus ride up was a combination of nervous introductions, surprising fun facts, hysterical belly laughs, and thought-provoking answers to intensely deep questions about race and reconciliation. It was an amazing learning experience.
We also came up with a tentative gameplan for our time there…time which would include a meeting with the mayor, a senator, the head of the NAACP Georgia chapter, and an undisclosed member of Ahmaud’s family. We decided that three of us would offer some encouraging words centered around reconciliation, mercy, and justice, followed by a group prayer for the family, city officials, and the city itself.
I say tentative because the game changed completely when we found out that the undisclosed family member was going to be Ahmaud’s father.
I was sort of expecting that we would be meeting a seventh cousin thrice removed or something. But Ahmaud’s dad? What in the world can we do or say to encourage him? What if we say something wrong? What if he’s not even in the mood to talk with anyone? I couldn’t blame him for that.
To be fair, these thoughts were mostly in my own head, probably because I was one of the three chosen (or more accurately, volunteered by my wife) to speak on behalf of the group. And I was petrified.
But when we arrived, it quickly became apparent that our words were the least important thing about us being there. What we heard over and over again from those we encountered was that they were just glad we were there. Our presence meant more than our words ever could.
Oddly enough, it felt like they did more of the encouraging than we did.
I was moved by the peaceful yet steely resolve of the mayor and senator, along with the words of wisdom and encouragement from the Georgia NAACP president, who happened to be a pastor. I smiled while holding back tears as I heard some of Ahmaud’s grade school teachers talk about their experiences with him as he grew up. I listened intently as one of Ahmaud’s aunts calmly expressed her justifiable anger at the events surrounding his murder.
And then there was his dad.
There was a quiet strength that just seemed to emanate from him. And it wasn’t faked at all. I could tell that he was still very sorrowful, and yet he bore it with a grace and poise that blew my mind. He nodded in gratitude to the seemingly feeble words of encouragement that we offered, and then proceeded to offer encouraging words of his own.
He spoke so fondly and proudly of his son. “My boy was a good boy”, he said, and you could feel the smile through the Justice for Ahmaud cloth mask he was wearing. He talked about the younger kids in the neighborhood that Ahmaud played with and mentored, and how heartbroken they were when they learned of his tragic death. He talked about some of Ahmaud’s aspirations, and I could tell it hurt him deeply that those were now cut short. But he remained upbeat and optimistic during our brief interaction.
“Not gonna lie, y’all. It gets hard sometimes. Only thing keepin’ me is that Man upstairs”, he said, pointing towards the sky.
After we sang a worship song and had prayer with them, we said our goodbyes to the city officials and family members, and then headed to our next stop.
Satilla Shores. The neighborhood where it happened.
It’s a bit difficult to adequately capture the flood of emotions that we all felt when the bus came to a stop near the intersection of Satilla Drive and Holmes Road. My own stomach was in a knot as my wife and I stepped off the bus.
It was all too real, now.
We spotted a small flowered memorial at the edge of someone’s front yard. It marked the spot where Ahmaud fell down after succumbing to his gunshot wounds. Walking down Holmes Road, I noticed splotches of discoloration on the street that seemed to follow an uneven trail up to the memorial.
One of the others took out his phone and played the video, and we were able to follow in real time exactly the path that Ahmaud ran before he was gunned down in the spot right in front of us. Some of us broke down crying right then and there. Others of us had cried enough beforehand, and stood somberly replaying the events in their heads.
We then gathered together near the memorial and recited the Lord’s Prayer. I think it was so fitting to ask God’s kingdom to come on Earth, in that very spot where a grave injustice had been committed against one of His image bearers.
To go to Ahmaud’s home city, to shake hands with his father, to walk on the street where he jogged his last mile…all of this served to make Ahmaud Arbery more real for me. And I hope it does the same for those who read this.
I also hope that it prompts you to sincerely pray for his family, for the city of Brunswick, and for all of those who are on the frontlines seeking justice on his behalf.
May all of the victims whose names have fueled our continuing fight for justice be more human than hashtag. And may their humanity not be lost in light of the cause.
Father…Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.