by Becky De Oliveira
Yesterday, which was a Sabbath afternoon, I was walking through the neighborhoods that make up the three towns that all run into one another near my house. As I approached one lovely-looking dark blue house on a wide corner lot, I heard what I first thought was a loud television. Then I realized it was a person shouting. No, screaming. Raging. Like a maniac. His voice was hard, rough, loud, furious, throat-scratching. It was the angriest voice I’ve ever heard. Was it coming from inside the house or from the fenced backyard? I paused outside, uncertain, trying to figure out exactly what might be going on. I heard a loud thud. Then silence.
What should I do? I thought, frantically. My first thought was to call the police. But I don’t want to be some kind of Karen. I’m already a middle-aged white woman. (For the record, based on the demographics of my town, I’d wager half my house that the screaming man was also white.) I went over the things I did not know, namely, 1) whether he was raging at a person or over the telephone or at a video game or a broken microwave, and 2) if he was in fact raging at a person, was it a person fully capable of defending him or herself without my intervention? What if I were misunderstanding the situation? What if police presence escalated it unnecessarily?
My next solution was to knock on the door and see if anyone answered. If they did, I would kindly ask whether everything was OK, whether I could help in some way. But then all the voices of my friends and family came back to me, all the people who shout, “No!” whenever I consider talking to strangers (which I often do) or otherwise behave in a manner that does not suggest an appropriate level of caution, given that I am a smallish middle-aged woman and not in fact the Incredible Hulk, which is how I imagine myself. Also, my personal safety aside, what if knocking on the door somehow made things worse?
I paced around, lurking one house down so as not to be too conspicuous for a couple of minutes, and then made a decision. I kept on walking. I consoled myself with this completely pointless thought: I’m going to keep an eye on that house. What? What does that even mean? I have no idea, although I do envision pausing outside the house every Saturday afternoon for the remainder of the time I live in this neighborhood. I see me, aged 93, pausing outside the house, cocking my good ear toward the window. And if I hear screaming, then what? What will that 93-year-old woman do that this 48-year-old woman couldn’t do yesterday?
I thought about the screaming person and whomever he was screaming at. I prayed for anyone involved in this hideous situation. Awesome: Thoughts and prayers. Exactly what everyone needs.
When I taught at Andrews University, I used to ask my students for prayer requests before class. One day, a girl asked that we pray that she would find a ride to Niles, Michigan, just about ten miles southeast of the university, later that day. I paused and said, “No. We aren’t going to pray about that. Anyone have a car? Anyone free to take Jane to Niles this afternoon?”
The kids looked startled. They were used to naming problems and praying about them, not solving them. A young man tentatively raised his hand. “I guess could do it,” he said.
“There you go, boys and girls,” I said. “Never pray about anything you can solve yourself.”
And I would generally say this is my attitude. It’s the attitude many of us have. It’s why we get so frustrated at “thoughts and prayers” in place of tangible actions that could make a difference. We don’t need you to pray, we say to our leaders. We need you to act. Like only you can.
Most people I’ve asked say they would have called someone: the police, a social worker, non-emergency services, a crisis center. One suggested prayer. Throughout my life, in other situations, people have advised me to step back. “This has nothing to do with you,” they have said. But it does have something to do with me, I protest in my heart. It has something to do with me because I am hearing it. Because maybe I am the only one hearing it.
I should have done something different, something better. I walked, I thought, I prayed, I formed a vague positive intention. Now it’s a new day, and all I can hope is that maybe nothing in that house was as bad as I feared, or that it was but it’s resolved, or that God really is watching and intervening. And I ask for more wisdom for the next time. And the time after that. And all the times.
Becky De Oliveira is a teacher, writer, and graphic designer working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.