Louisville, to me, is the Kentucky Derby. It’s big hats. Celebrities. Horses. And gambling.
Louisville, to me, is Muhammad Ali. It’s The Champ’s hometown. It’s the museum. It’s the site of his historic protest against the Vietnam War and American racism.
Louisville, to me, is a day trip. It’s a cheaper flight out via Southwest. It’s my favorite restaurant downtown, research at the Filson Historical Society, Derby parties or a friend’s graduation.
But I’ve never lived there. My students, however, know Louisville. They live there. They breath there. And some are scared of dying there.
Last year while teaching at Kentucky State University, my students introduced me to a new Louisville.
I never knew there was so much dying. And I never knew there was so much fear — until my students started speaking of their loved ones’ deaths by bullet. Until young men sat in my office depressed — because they were 22, and believed themselves to be black unicorns, hunted and stamped with impending expiration dates. Until a student sat in my office afraid of going back home to Louisville for the summer. Until a young man sat in my office plotting his survival — how he would stay in the house, who he would avoid, what he must do, where he could not go, in order to stay alive.
According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, violence — shootings, stabbings, executions — shattered the lives of 118 families last year. This year, so far, it’s been 52.
Recently, a stray bullet killed 7-year-old Dequante Hobbs. He was eating a piece of cake at his kitchen table. In 2014, a 16-month-old, Ne’Riah Miller, died when she was struck by a stray bullet, as well. She was sitting with her family on their front porch.
On June 1, Gov. Matt Bevin met with 400 faith leaders and Louisville residents to launch his plan for “Reclaiming Our Communities.” He asked that groups of three to 10 people adopt a neighborhood and commit to visiting, walking and praying with that community two to three times a week for the next year.
Overwhelmingly, it seems that his plan has been either dismissed as too simplistic or met with skepticism and ridicule — by some Christians no less.
I’m baffled by this. I don’t recall Bevin saying it was the only answer. He said it was an answer.
Yes, we need economic solutions.
Yes, we need social change.
Yes, we need political input.
Yes, we need racial healing.
But there is also a very real spiritual component to all of this. Too many babies, too many of my students, too many communities, lack hope. They lack faith. They lack joy. They lack peace. And if the church — we the members of the church — aren’t willing to go tell them there is hope, that they can find rest, and that they can have peace, who will? Who can? And who should?
Too many churches and faith leaders have become obsolete in the fight to save our youths. Too many churches function as islands in their communities. We’re building bigger, better church houses, but we aren’t building relationships and our communities are crumbling. This must stop.
Historically, the black church has been the bedrock of social justice in the black community. Black churches in the early 20th century ran schools or offered classes on reading and writing. They served as voting information, recreation and employment centers. Then, in the mid-20th century, the black church lay at the crux of Civil Rights movement. The very heart of resistance, organizing, fund-raising and social change was the black church.
More so than any of this, the church, to me, is Jesus — and Jesus is transformative. Jesus is revolutionary. To be quite basic, simplistic and some will even say, naive: Jesus saves.
And we need all that: Transformation. Revolution. Salvation.
In Louisville. In Lexington. In this nation.
So, I pray we heed Bevin’s call to reclaim these neighborhoods. I pray that Louisville’s faith leaders will rise to his challenge even as they challenge Bevin to provide more concrete solutions to the very real systemic and institutional injustices these communities face.
And, I pray every day that none of those bullets or knives or death certificates have my students’ names on them.
Le Datta Denise Grimes is a journalist, doctoral candidate at the University of Kentucky and the 2016-2017 Visiting Professor of History at Kentucky State University.