Rev. Josh Noblitt (photo), the social justice minister at Saint Mark United Methodist Church in Midtown, and his boyfriend, Trent Williams, were assaulted and robbed by a group of young men as they enjoyed a picnic in the park on July 2. Their attackers apparently targeted the couple over their sexual orientation in an incident classified as a bias crime by the Atlanta Police Department. Six people, ranging in age from 13 to 19, were arrested minutes after the incident.
Noblitt spoke out about the assault from the pulpit on July 11 and invited the public to join him on Sunday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. for Transform the Park: A Picnic.
“It is a sobering thing to have a loaded gun pressed against your head, and that moment has been branded into my memory forever,” Noblitt said as he read from “An Open Letter to the Beloved Community.” “It has reminded me that life is short, tomorrow is not promised, and every moment is a precious gift not to be wasted.”
The full text of the statement Noblitt read during services on July 11:
I have been thinking a lot about you over the past week and reflecting more on what it means to bring you into full existence. Rev. King describes you as a vision of total relatedness, transcending all demographics, embracing all, with justice for everyone, the alleviation of economic and social inequality, where everyone has the physical and spiritual necessities of life. As I try to make meaning out of the traumatic events of the past week, I find myself now in permanent relationship with people who I don’t know anything about other than the fact that they confronted me and my loved one in the park while we were enjoying a nice summer evening picnic and could have easily taken our lives or caused serious physical harm. It is a sobering thing to have a loaded gun pressed against your head, and that moment has been branded into my memory forever. It has reminded me that life is short, tomorrow is not promised, and every moment is a precious gift not to be wasted. So what do I do with the time I have left? What would you have me do at this unique personal intersection of race, class, age, sexual orientation, and religion to advance your presence among us?
Over this past week, I have spent a lot of that time thinking about the young men I encountered in the park and I am sure they have thought a lot about me. I wonder how people so young could have found themselves in a position to make the decision to assault and rob people that they perceived to be gay and not think through the harm that it would cause to us, to the community and to themselves. Clearly spiritual starvation is at play in all of this, and I wonder what else.
Do they really hate me and people like me? Or do they merely think that we are easy targets? What led them to ask us if we were gay and then to conclude without even waiting for a response that we should be beaten for that? Would they still have approached us if we had been a man and a woman? Would they still have approached us if we were two men of the same race? Where did they even get these ideas in the first place? It doesn’t take much effort to find negative stereotypes about gay people or about young black men in our culture, and we have seen these stereotypes play out in community discourse over the past week. We live in a culture that so easily gives us permission to demonize the other without taking the time to look at the bigger picture or to hear stories from people who are different from us. I think about these questions over and over in my mind, praying for guidance, for a clear sense of what this all means, and wondering what my responsibility is in all of this.
My thoughts and reflections over the past week have led me to a fork in the road with two potential paths to take. One being a path of fear and the other being a path of love.
For me, the path of fear is easy at first, because it makes me feel safe by building up walls; viewing others with suspicion, and lashing out with violent intentions to protect myself before I am harmed. But slowly over time, it enslaves me to the actions of others by convincing me that I must retaliate hard when I have been wronged and to seek revenge. It leads me to make negative assumptions based on the limited information that I have and conclude that others are evil and without any redeeming qualities. As I gaze down the path of fear, it seems to lead to isolation, pain, and a very narrow view of the world.
I don’t want to walk down that path.
When I look down the path of love, it seems rocky at first. Difficult to navigate because it asks difficult questions and requires deeper reflection. It is a path that recognizes that people are not the worst thing they have ever done and that there is always a complex story and set of circumstances behind every decision we as human beings make, for better or for worse. The path of love leads me to try to find ways to reach out to people in search of common ground and the reflection of the divine that exists in each of us. The path of love leads to a much wider view of the world and to the liberating reality that we are deeply connected to each other; we are all in this together; and whether we want to admit it or not WE NEED EACH OTHER.
I don’t know what that means yet in the context of the events of the past week or how you would have me act to ensure justice both for those young men or for myself, but I trust that you will guide me and guide us all in our quest to live in a safer community. Rev. King said that you require from us a “qualitative change in our souls and a quantitative change in our lives” in order to bring about your presence and reality. It is going to be a long and difficult road ahead for both me and for them as this all plays out in the courts and beyond. But I want to be on the path of love leading to Beloved Community; committed to the work of restoration and reconciliation, building relationships across lines that traditionally have divided, and creating a new climate in our culture that teaches kindness and inclusion and ensures that everyone has enough. You require tireless work over a lifetime, and that can seem overwhelming, but perhaps there are small steps we can start with. One step I’d like to start with is having a picnic in the park where all of this took place to begin with. Maybe that can be a way to move from the path of fear over to the path of love by creating new memories in that space and building new relationships that bring you Beloved Community into closer proximity. Even as I write this, I can feel you getting closer and I hope one day to see you in plain view.
Searching for you and looking forward to your arrival,
Rev. Joshua M. Noblitt