by Eric Clayton
My wife and I found ourselves unintentionally present at a protest march this past weekend.
We were spending a rare free morning wandering the streets of Philadelphia and were slowly making our way to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was a beautiful day: sunny, a light breeze and all sorts of people out doing all sorts of things.
We had just stepped out of the Rodin Museum and were winding our way down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway when we heard chanting.
“What are they saying?” I asked, noticing the small contingent of sign-wielding marchers. They, too, were making their way toward the art museum, maybe seventy people or so strong.
We couldn’t make out the signs from where we stood, but the chanting became clearer: “Talk it out; don’t shoot it out.”
“Gun violence,” my wife said. Then, after a closer look at the signs: “Those must be faces of friends and family who were shot in the streets.”
It was a powerful image, this small but mighty band of marchers of all ages, clinging to these signs of what we assumed bore images of lost loved ones. They moved with determination up the Ben Franklin Parkway, flanked by three police cars, responsible for managing traffic. We walked with them, a street over, watching and listening to the chants and to the supportive honks of cars.
Then they came to an intersection – a busy one – and the police officers pulled alongside to block traffic as the marchers move quickly, intentionally onward. Nonetheless, a group of seventy people can only move so fast, and the cars quickly backed up, far and well out of view of the small band of marchers.
The supportive honks quickly turned into annoyed leaning-on-of-horns. For those drivers in the rear, the march wasn’t even visible; they likely assumed the backup was the result of some sloppy driving.
What was quite clearly an effort to grapple with trauma and tragedy to those of us nearby was nothing more than an inconvenience to those just a block or so away.
I’ve been reflecting on this image in the days since: Traffic caused by mourners, by those trying to derive meaning from the loss of loved ones. This idea that what is devastating and heart-wrenching and absolutely life-shattering for some can be nothing more than a simple irritation or temporary annoyance for others is worth sitting with.
And it’s far from abstract. We may think of the plight of Afghan refugees, uprooted from their lives and livelihoods. We may think of the ongoing death toll from Covid-19 – not only in our country but around the world. We may think of the devastation wrought by monster storms, massive earthquakes, uncontrollable forest fires.
And, we may think of ourselves. Where in that line of traffic are we? Are we up close to the trauma, witnessing it firsthand? Or, are we farther away, merely inconvenienced? And if so, how should we respond? How does God invite us to respond? What actions are we called to take?
If we’ve learned nothing from these past many months of pandemic, we’ve learned this: Our world is interconnected. We belong to one another. We are somewhere in that line of traffic. And it’s tempting to lean on the horn, to throw up an unkind gesture at the car immediately ahead, focusing solely on where we need to get to.
Somewhere, though, at the front of that line of cars – somewhere down the line of our daily inconveniences – there may very well be someone who is struggling. A refugee family. A parent afraid to send a child to school. An elderly couple unable to move out of the path of a changing climate.
There may be a band of mourners, of marchers, clinging to images of lost loved ones.
Let us not allow a temporary annoyance to blind us to the very real suffering of others. Let us instead help to shoulder that suffering and do what we can to make it light.
In God’s peace,
Eric Clayton is the Deputy Director of Communications for The Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. He and his wife, Alli, are parishioners here at St. Ignatius Catholic Community