WASHINGTON, Aug. 2, 2015 – Thirty years ago as a community tenant organizer, I received a call for help and did not realize that two lives would be saved when I entered the abandoned building that afternoon. A man nervously opened the door after peering through the torn sheets covering the first floor building windows. He hurriedly shepherded me into the building.
I stood on the first floor of the large apartment building with its lobby filled with peeling and crumpling walls. The lobby area was a literal shooting gallery of addicts in various stages of wakefulness.
A few seconds later, the man pulled a handgun from behind his back and held it pressed tightly to my head and then to my neck. I remembered thinking about two things those first few moments; first was how to find a way to escape, and second, how to help him to understand that God, not my job, had sent me to care enough about him as part of my community organizer ministry.
For the next several long nervous minutes he called to the others in the first floor lobby to help him find ways to dispose of my body after they had “offed me.”
I began to say almost involuntarily, something that my father had said to me about letting God’s mission in your life take over whenever you were confronting a challenge.. Then I could hear my mother’s voice saying “You know what is right. You know the right thing!”
The right thing then began to spill out of my mouth as quickly as I could impress upon him and the others who were more concerned with his dramatic theatrics than they were about my insistence that it was God who teaches that they be helped and not my life that really mattered.
“God says you have a right to live right. God says you have a right to not be thrown away or seen as washed up with worn-out lives. You have a right to live with hope and faith because it is your right given by God!” I insisted. “A bruised reed will he not break, and a dimly burning wick will he not quench: he will bring forth justice in truth” (Isaiah 42:3).
I kept repeating it over and over again, until finally, the gun that had been pressed firmly against my neck began to feel less urgent in his tightened clenched fist. It seemed as if the man was engaged with a spiritual war within himself, for even calling me there. It was like he was working through whatever real reason he and the others wanted to eliminate me.
In what seemed like an eternity, he shoved me toward the door and mumbled, “I don’t care what you want to do for us, just get out of here!” I turned as he shoved me again toward the door. He just stared as if he were looking right through me. Yet he had the saddest eyes I had ever seen, I unlocked the door and he yelled after me, “God’s not in this place!” He slammed the door.
Standing at the building entrance, I had a feeling of relief and sadness. Even though I felt I had escaped a near death experience, I felt sad because he and possibly those who were ‘trapped in that life” inside that building on Richton Street in Detroit felt that there was no place for God in their life.
The following day I went back to building with another organizer, who warned me that returning was “crazy to try and cheat death twice.” I did not see it as cheating death. I wanted the potential killer and the others in the building to really understand that everyone born is a child of God and had a right to claim him in their life.
This was a right each had no matter how down, desperate, how close to an imposed or self imposed death they felt. It was not just about tenant rights, but it was about life rights given to them by God. They needed biblical due process.
When we arrived, the man who had held the gun to me was gone from the building, as were many of the temporary residents of the drug shooting gallery. I remembered hearing the voices of some of my co-workers that day, insisting that I report the assault to the police so that they could “bring the man to justice.”
For me, justice was putting the Biblical word of God into action and what was right was talking to several minister friends about how they could help to bring God’s justice to the lives of those souls that felt trapped or abandoned in that building. I explained that it was their life as well as their imagined death of God’s Holy Spirit within them that was the real crime committed.
Later that week I ran into Kenny, a tenant leader who lived in an apartment building down the street. He had heard about what had happened that afternoon on Richton. He said “You’re the dude with the cross on your collar aren’t you? You were brave, Mr. Fobbs.” I told him that it was not me who was brave, it was the man who freed me from his gun who decided to let God into his heart who was brave enough to stand against those who were cat-calling from the shadows of the shooting gallery to kill me. That man was brave enough to listen to God’s Holy Spirit in his heart,
“This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place” (Jeremiah 22:3).
I believe that there are times in our life that God speaks to us through personal tragedy and turmoil where we feel that we have a gun being placed at our head. Some may feel the desperate weight of economic challenges, marital strife, or children who appeared headed down a lonely friendless highway. This is the time to brace yourself and reinforce your life by allowing God’s Holy Spirit to speak truth and remove the figurative gun from your life that is pointed at your head.
That day on Richton, I prayed for that young man who held that gun at my head and for all those who were trapped in that building with a feeling of abandonment. I prayed that God would move upon their spirits and to give them a chance for a second chance with him. No matter how far they had fallen, his Holy Spirit was there to be the cushion for their souls.
Thirty one years ago, I thanked God that he helped the man ease the trigger back so that he could save his life and spare his soul on Richton, where the miracle of God was real.