What the Multiracial Church Can Learn from Officer Barnum and Devonte Hart

By: Amma Mante
Guest Commentary


Photo by: Johnny Nguyen

Photo by: Johnny Nguyen

Recently at a protest in Portland Oregon, organised in the wake of the Ferguson decision, Johnny Nguyen, a photographer, observed a boy crying profusely. He was holding up a sign that said free hugs. Nguyen decided to stay close to the boy, he could tell something special would happen here. And it did. Officer Barnum spotted 12 year old Devonte Hart standing in front of the police barricade. He came over and tried to engage him in conversation. He asked him about his favorite subjects, sports the things that you woudl ask any young person. He recognised him as a whole person, a boy with perhaps a special or unique story but still a young boy. However, he didn’t stop there. He didn’t pretend that he didn’t see the anguish painted on Devonte’s face. He asked him what was wrong, and accepted the answer which he got; Devonte told him he worried about police brutality towards black people. Despite the fact that he was a white male and a police officer he didn’t deny this boy’s reality. Nor did he deflect the blame and advise Devonte just to obey the law to stop this happening. Also absent from his response was any attempt to confuse the issue of Police brutality with an ill timed commentary on ”black on black” crime. What Barnum said next was sweet respite from the stream of counter accusations,denials and dismissal of black pain we are seeing. He said ‘I know. Sorry.Sorry.Sorry.’

At this stage he was probably unaware of Devonte’s story. Born with drugs in his system, he lived in an unsafe abusive environment until he and his 2 siblings where adopted by Jen Hart and Sarah Hart. It took an incredible amount of courage and strength for him to stand there filled with hurt, maybe anger, confusion but still he stood there determined to give free hugs and spread love. And perhaps it took an equal amount of courage for Barnum to walk over and shake his hands and begin that conversation.

Eric Garner, Aiyana Jones, Rekia Boyd, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown,Tamir Rice . My heart hurts not only for the loss of these young lives, but also for how many Christians are heaping recrimination and judgement upon those who are being oppressed, marginalised and villified. Many white evangelicals have shown the compassion that Christians should be known for. Matthew Hall in his erudite piece entitled ‘What’s the Big deal with Race’ elucuditated on why and how the Church should respond, and there are many Christians of all race standing up in solidarity with the black communities. However there is a certain and substantial section of the white Church that have failed in their response to this stealth genocide on people of colour. The names I listed above only represent a fraction of unarmed black men, women and children who have been gunned down by the police. I urge the Church to look at Micah 6:8. What is it that God asks of us? To act justly. To love mercy and To walk humbly with our God.

To act justly. More so than any protests which turn violent, when our law enforcement officers are allowed to act as judge, jury and executor it not only promotes lawlessness but is lawlessness. Jefferson Bethke a writer and spoken word artist posted an update for the Church to be mindful of our hurting brothers and sisters in Ferguson and he received a backlash of angry and hateful comments and castigations about race baiting from a host of aggrieved white Christians. According to a recent study a significant amount of evangelical white Christians imagine themselves to be the most persecuted group. This reveals just how far cognitive dissonance has taken roots in the minds of many evangelical Christians. This disconnect with reality would almost be laughable were it not so distressingly telling of a paucity of empathy and compassion.

Love Mercy, Walk Humbly. God would have been perfectly justified to get rid of all of us to start with a fresh sheet. Instead He chose to blot out our otherwise indelible sins through His Son. When we use respectability politics justify murders we disregard the Grace we ourselves are under. Irrespective of whether someone was a good student or not, or whether they have a spotless criminal record or have spent their life in and out of jail we must respect the sancity of life. All life, including black lives, matter.

The denial of white privilege and the aggression of a white supremacist agenda is borne out of fear not of love. There is no fear in perfect love. In love you can find the courage to admit your privilege, to own up to your prejudices. To stride across the hurdles and barriers we have placed in between each other cross, and offer empathy and understanding. At the end of this brief but powerful exchange Barnum asked if he could get one of those free hugs. This was the image that went viral within hours and was followed up by a facebook post from his mother Jen Hart. As Jen Hart rightly predicted her facebook post which raised hard and difficult issues did not garner as much attention as the actual photo image of her son and the Officer. We must resist the temptation to either castigate the Police Officer for the admissal implicit in his reply, or smile gleefully or use it to further the myth of a ‘postracial’ America where people can just hug it out. The process that led to the embrace are just as important and vital for real change to occur.

More urgent than charismatic preaching, megachurch centres, and the latest Christian worship tune, what will exist and endure eternally is Love. Society is sick and racism amongst other inequalities are symptomatic of this. The panacea is Love.



Amma Mante is an educator and writer born and raised in Glasgow, Scotland where she spent the first 19 years of her life. Since then she has lived in New Jersey, Sheffield and London as an Urban Ministry volunteer, Law student and Adult and Youth Educator. She is currently teaching in Seoul, Korea. Amma is passionate about social justice, and the written word. She is hoping to use her creativity to bring diversity to Children’s and Young Adult’s literature an area of writing she is particularly enthusiastic about. She is also working on a creative non fiction book for Adults which will tackle gender, race and social issues.

UrbanCusp.com is a cutting-edge online life.style magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. The site offers a platform for young adult perspectives, profiles inspirational visionaries and artists, and serves as an online community for change agents who are like-minded. Founded in 2011 by Rahiel Tesfamariam, Urban Cusp highlights voices, ideas and images not commonly found within mainstream media.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login