Thursday, June 10, 2010

one year later

On June 10, 2009, I got a phone call that changed the trajectory of my life's work. An employee of GWU Hospital, where I served as Director of Spiritual Care, said, "Rabbi, you have to get down here. Something terrible has happened."

Earlier that day, a man dressed in a confederate coat had walked up to the entrance of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. A security guard named Stephen Johns saw him and moved to open the door for the 88-year-old man, who then opened fire on the museum with the rifle hidden in his coat. Johns was taken to GWU Hospital, along with the perpetrator, who had been felled by the museum's other security guards.

I was called to the emergency room to attend to Johns' wife. The waiting room was chaotic; in addition to two other chaplains, there was a flood of hospital administrators concerned about this high-profile incident. Meanwhile, Johns and the perpetrator were being operated on side-by-side by two different medical teams.

Family and friends of Johns began to arrive, and they were moved to a larger room closer to the post-operative care unit. It was at that time that I met Pastor John McCoy, the leader of the Word of God Baptist Church and the officiant at Stephen Johns' wedding. A nurse briefed us several times during the course of the operation. In the growing group of family and friends, there was crying, prayer, shock, disbelief, and anger. Then the nurse approached me and said, "Will you come back into the room with me? I have to give her the ring and tell her that her husband didn't make it." Stephen and Zakiah Johns had been married for only a year.

I went into the room with the nurse. She placed the ring in Zakiah's hands and gently said, "I'm sorry we couldn't save him." Another chaplain grasped Zakiah's body so she wouldn't fall to the floor.

Later I walked with the family to one of the intensive care unit rooms where Officer Johns' body had been placed. The initial screams and general pandemonium that had accompanied the announcement of Johns' death had given way to quiet tears. His family then offered their goodbyes.

I walked down the hall with Pastor McCoy. At 6'1", he towered over my petite frame, but we were still eye-to-eye. I was reminded of another traumatic racial injustice of my past. On November 3, 1979, in Greensboro, N.C., my childhood friend was shot in the head by a Klansman during a protest rally on behalf of the textile factory workers. Paul Bermanzohn survived, but five other young people lost their lives that day in what has come to be known as the Greensboro Massacre.

Fifty-one days later, I was fired by GWU Hospital.

The days that followed the shooting left me in tears and occupied by nightmares. Flashbacks to my childhood sitting in my parent’s kitchen among the survivors of Hitler’s war caused painful screaming in the middle of the night. My energy diminished as I carried myself through a robotic day. The tension rested in my back. My walking was compromised.

One night, after a fitful start to my sleep, I went and sat in front of the computer. I wrote down all that I had been thinking. In the morning, I sent it to a colleague. He suggested I send it to the editor of the "On Faith" blog at the Washington Post. With a click on the computer, my story was published online on June 25.

My back pain increased. I went to see my orthopedic physician who prescribed a week’s disability for rest and relaxation. “You are coming out of a traumatic experience, and you need peace and quiet. All your stress is in your back.”

When I returned to work, I was suspended and then dismissed ostensibly because of the article I wrote about the incident that dark night. But I believe I was let go because of my outreach efforts to the African-American community. My desire was to offer spiritual care to a diverse and multi-faceted community at the hospital, specifically recruiting African-American chaplains for the African-American patients of the D.C. community. My campaign for equal pay as a female chaplain probably didn't help either.

It's been a year since Stephen Johns was murdered. I've lost the illusion that things have moved forward in terms of the racial integration in this country. I've lost my naivete about ethical behavior in the workplace. I've lost a job that provided me with meaningful work. I feel in some ways that I lost my identity -- the status I had in the community because of my job -- not to mention financial security. I feel I was betrayed by people I trusted while I remained loyal to the mission of the institution. Loyalty is not a two-way street.

I gained a friendship with a contemporary African-American pastor. The relationship offered me spiritual succor in a difficult time. I gained a new self-identity, one of empowerment instead of victim, in the face of discrimination. I gained a new perspective about my calling to do inter-religious work. I realized what a strong support network I have; I felt at times that I was being held up only by the nurturing of my friends. I am grateful for everyone who encouraged me and then supported me in my effort to right a wrong.

“You did the right thing, Rabbi. I am proud of you.”

I have no regrets about speaking out in the many ways that I did (about diversity, about pay-based gender discrimination, about Stephen Johns). My true nature is not one of antagonism, but in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

1 comment:

Rachel said...

Having gone through a traumatic experience myself this past year, your words hit home for me. It was a hopeful message despite the disillusionment, because you were not broken. from Rachel Balf