Hearts at Half Mast — On the Heartache in Atlanta & Boulder

I’m trying to stir up in my soul what my late cousin, Dennis Thompson, stirred up in his one random morning at an old country church in Brandon, MS, during my 7th grade year. The word “traumatized” wasn’t used so often as it is today. But looking back at what we all went through that week there’s not many a counselor who wouldn’t label that episode with “classic trauma.” 

My buddy, Anthony Fleming, had committed suicide. Anthony was such a cool young boy. We called him “Ant.” Ant never got off the bus without a fresh haircut. In those days if you didn’t have a step in your fade and at least 2 lines around the sides you just weren’t cool! Ant’s big brother was a High School basketball star. And Ant was celebrated because he was one of only a few kids who wore Air Jordan sneakers. He was quiet in his conversation. Would crack a joke here and there. And never hurt anybody. He was a friend. He was my friend.

Then one Monday morning we all showed up to campus to hear the tragic news that Anthony had taken his life. Pointed a gun to his head. No explanation. No letter. No warning. 

It seemed that a young boy couldn’t cope with whatever pain he was experiencing in his life and just ended it. And there we were, a sea of 7th graders, left to figure this out. Our teachers and counselors were there. As were our parents and our churches. And bravely dozens of us showed up at Anthony’s funeral. It was my first “loss” in my young life.

In those days they’d open the casket so that all could get their final glimpse. And we watched Ant’s brother and Mom and family weeping hysterically. And as 13 yr olds we all let it out. Crying. Crying. And more crying. 

But what I remember most about that day is not our tears. I remember Dennis. 

Dennis was my big cousin. I was the eldest of 5 so if I had a big brother it was Dennis Thompson. He was my Aunt Christola’s grandson and boy did I love him. I wanted to be like him. I wanted to make Dennis proud. Dennis was country tough but still tender. He had a cannon for an arm—he was my future quarterback on the field. And everyone loved him. 

I’m wilding out crying for my friend Anthony. And Dennis saw my tears. And he hugged me for darn near 20 minutes whilst I cried. And I’ll never forget seeing my big cousin, who was not close to Ant whatsoever, shed tears with me. And when it was all done my big cousin kissed me on my head and said, “We gone make it Ricky. I love you.” 

As tragic as that episode was, as impossible it was for us to understand, as gripping as it could’ve been, what remains is the feeling I can still feel being embraced by my big cousin and hearing those words, “We gone make it Ricky.”

Completely removed from this event, Dennis saw what “I” saw. Dennis “felt” what I was feeling. And he was “moved” like I had been “moved” and sat in it “with me.” 

The last two weeks there are circles of communities who’ve experienced trauma. The first are many in the Asian American community who suffered the tragic loss of life in Atlanta, GA. The investigation is ongoing. And we all know the rhetoric that has raged on all sides of the conversation. And as my friend, Pastor Jason Cook, has quipped, “I don’t need to know all the facts in order to lament.” I am thinking, quite intently, about my friends Ray and Jessica Chang. Hae Won Kim. Mae Young. Pastor Yamin Huang—a personal hero. Dr. Mae Young. And so many more who are seeing some harsh realities, feeling some strong feelings, and being moved deeply.

As an African American man, when you see senseless crime that has been racially motivated, you know this feeling that ensues. The questions dominate you—“How can stuff like this still happen? Can this happen to me? Can this happen to my kids? Am I always gonna feel hopeless?” It’s a heartache that, amazingly, you get used to and start to live with while quietly trying to make a difference in whatever way God has called you to do it. Those folks listed above are precious friends, colleagues, and former classmates of mine who continue to ache today. And I am thinking of Paul’s admonition to us to “weep with those who weep” and “mourn with those who mourn.” 

You see, on that church parking lot in Brandon, MS, Dennis didn’t wait to get the whole story. He didn’t rush to minimize my pain and just tell me to keep going. He didn’t even try to compare my pain to others’ more considerable pain. He stopped. Took notice. And responded with lament. 

The second group that is reeling today are about a dozen families in Boulder, CO. We all know what has happened by now. An investigation is forthcoming there as well. And the usual debate has, yet again, extinguished the step Paul longs for us to take—to weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn. Don’t get me wrong. Our country is made for debates where opposing sides civilly wrestle for a way forward. And I’m proud of that. And by God I pray that we will civilly and honestly wrestle well with whatever resolutions we can muster. 

But where are our tears? Where are our prayers? Where are our evening dinners where, during our time of praying over our meal, we stop and lift up the people in Atlanta and the people in Boulder and the people in countless cities around the world who are facing trouble? 

I don’t have any answers. I just have a goal. And my goal is to do and be for others what was done for me one morning in a church parking lot in Brandon, MS. 

Around the nation the flags are waving at half mast. May our hearts wave at half mast in honor of those who are hurting around us. The sooner we see others’ pain and heartache as our own, the sooner we may get to that place where there is less pain for everyone. 

Dennis died from a heart attack on April 7, 2012, at the young age of 36. But he left his mark on his little cousin on some dreary day in 1989. And for that I remain ever grateful. Rest In Peace, Dennis Thompson. Thank you for being the big brother I didn’t have. May I make you proud bro. 


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