What a Priest Learned about Gratitude at Emmaus House

The following was written by Claiborne Jones, retiring Executive Director and Vicar of Emmaus House and included in the Summer 2014 issue of Pathways, the journal of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta (reprinted with permission). The boys were shot a little after nine o’clock on Palm Sunday night.

That morning, walking the thoroughly pollenated gardens of Emmaus House for our procession, we sang Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord, Gonna Lay Down My Sword and Shield and When the Saints Go Marching In. When it came time to chant Psalm 118, there were no mellifluous sounds to be heard. Just a scratchy, dry sound like an old LP came out of my mouth. Andre, a big, strong, quick, playful, dimpled 15 year old, got the giggles. And I mean the uncontrollable giggles. I almost got the giggles too. As folks were entering the church I poked my index finger at his chest. “Okay, buddy roe,” I smiled. “Next year you’re chanting the psalm.” More giggles.

Monday around 9 a.m., I got a call that Andre Johnson and his half-brother Nick Martin were at Grady ICU, both shot in the head, and that a third friend had been shot in the ankle. Disbelief. Anguish. Rage. Confusion. On the drive to the hospital, I raged at God with tears and screams I didn’t know were in me. At Grady the waiting room was filled with distraught teenagers and parents. We prayed, probably 80 of us, in a big circle. People shared what they knew.

Our boys had gotten an ice cream at Mr. McGruder’s Store beside Emmaus House, then walked across the street towards Nick’s mom’s apartment. A former police car was driven up and another vehicle filled with older men. There were sassy words. Then a man got out and began shooting our boys as another trained the police car spotlight on them, tracking them in the darkness. They drove off. An ambulance came for Nick. Andre ran home and got to the hospital in the back of a neighbor’s pick-up truck.

Monday afternoon, while I sat with the Martin family whose son was close to death, the waiting room attendant came in with a portable phone. “This lady says she is your auntie and she doesn’t have your cell number.” Puzzled, Mrs. Martin took the call. It was a reporter from a major local TV news show. I kid you not. By the end of the day, Nick had died, Andre had lost an eye, and their friend had gone home in a cast. Tuesday morning, at the Renewal of Vows at the Cathedral, I simply collapsed in babbling grief, held by a wonderful priest.

A year passed. A trial was held. I went every day. The alleged perpetrator was acquitted unanimously. I reckon it was hard for middle class jurors to believe the guys from the ‘hood’ who gave testimony were telling the truth. After the verdict was read, the judge made the accused wait for the jurors to leave before telling the man how unbelievably lucky he was not to be going to prison.

And then, a month or so after that, our whole Chapel congregation went to Holy Innocents’ for Mother’s Day. Five wonderful mothers in our congregation sat with Michael Sullivan to talk in the adult forum. The moms in the audience began smiling, nodding their heads, some surprise on a few faces, experiencing that maternal sisterhood across race and class. Then Andre’s mother quietly spoke. “Sometimes people are mothers who haven’t had their own kids. When I was going through the worst day of my life, when I though my son was on the point of death and the people at the hospital said everyone but immediately family had to leave, my friend hid behind a column so the attendant couldn’t see her. And she came back with us to the room and stayed with us. We just told the staff she was part of our family. She is a mother to me.” I was deeply touched. I am that friend. But also I wanted to say, “How can you be grateful for anything after what happened to Andre, to the boys?”

What I have learned about gratitude at Emmaus House is that it is not simply feeling thankfulness for safe children, enough food, shelter, good grades, justice, a job, a loving family, staying away from drugs. Christian gratitude is also an act of the will, a refiner’s fire, which forges out of the most awful circumstances eyes to see and hearts to give thanks for Love writ large, Christ’s eyes, fiercely weeping with us and blessing us at the same time. “How can we not be grateful, Claiborne?” a parishioner asked after the tragedy. “God has been so good to us. Of course we are grateful. Of course.”

-The Reverend E. Claiborne Jones