Violent grace

By Jennifer Armstrong Boulden
Special Contributor

Jennifer Armstrong Boulden

Jennifer Armstrong Boulden

A few weeks ago a 17-year-old boy stabbed my 30-year-old little brother twice in the back during a 1 a.m. carjacking, leaving him to bleed out alone on a cold convenience store floor.

That sentence still feels impossible, ridiculous to fathom.

My brother isn’t someone who gets stabbed. No one really is, right?

We waited hours for news in the UAMS ER that night. Word began spreading as the day broke. Love hit us from every direction. Within 24 hours, it felt like the entire planet Earth was praying for Michael to recover. We felt drenched in grace, and were pretty sure we’d broken Facebook.

The attack was the worst of it. After that, things kept breaking our way. A store clerk kept Michael alive with ice and pressure until paramedics could get there. Police caught the suspect within minutes. The weapons narrowly missed Michael’s major organs. The wounds were deep but not fatal. An internal bleeding scare later that morning turned out the best way possible. Michael could come home with me the next day.

I can’t even describe the relief our family experienced. Our story was on the local news, and the well-wishes and prayers continued to skyrocket.

But as the week progressed, a secondary narrative began to emerge, especially online. I read ugly diatribes about race, about staying out of the “bad parts of town,” about crime taking over our city, about how the world was not safe anymore for good people and you should never help a stranger because they’ll literally stab you in the back. Though understandable, these sentiments seemed neither helpful nor true.

In that gas station, when Michael realized he was very likely about to die, he focused on all the love he’d received and all the love he still wanted to share. He wished he’d given more hugs. He began to be less scared, feel less alone. Gasping in pain, he worried about the person who’d stabbed him. My ever-compassionate brother asked us to pray for his attacker.

‘Wave of love’

That’s the thing. We were all angry, shocked, terrified, rattled, upset about his attack, yet there was support all around us, many layers deep. As we rode that wave of love through the darkness, we felt renewed appreciation for the fragility of life and amazed gratitude at the kind hearts of strangers.

Maybe it’s counterintuitive, but it felt wrong to draw from this crime too many condemning conclusions about our world, or too many self-congratulatory conclusions about ourselves.

I don’t know what frenzy made a 17-year-old kid now facing two felonies think that killing someone to steal an old van was a smart idea. I know it was not because he was black, or because Michael had dared be in a bad part of town, or because the city had become too dangerous for good people, or because helping strangers is a bad idea. And it wasn’t because God had rejected him.

Michael, our sister Laura and I grew up as preacher’s kids, moving all over Arkansas in a family of active United Methodist ministers—four of them. We were surrounded by love, always.

It struck me how privileged our childhoods were compared to what this boy likely experienced. I imagine that growing up, he did not feel layers of loving support and prayers coming at him from every direction. Things were probably not in the habit of breaking his way.

I imagine that our collective isolationism within our communities had something to do with influencing his background, turning him toward aggression to combat fear and need. I imagine he is not a creature of evil, but one who has never felt the kind of universal love and support we have received throughout this horrible event. I imagine being a criminal didn’t have to be his self-identity.

Hope

My personal belief centers on hope. I believe there is no heart or evil from which truth, goodness, and even beauty cannot grow, if nurtured. Conversely, no heart is immune to evil and desperation when segregated from the love and support we share.

This troubled kid almost murdered my brother. He deserves his full punishment, and I hope for everyone’s safety he grows wiser instead of angrier.

That said, we’ve constructed a world full of boundaries and divisions where fears flourish. It’s too easy to forget that God’s love is not limited to our fears and the silly self-created fences between us.

Our family will be approaching this new year with grateful hearts. I hope to remember as the year progresses that everyone we meet in this sad and beautiful world we share needs respect and nurture.

I believe we are all equally worthy of the kind of love and support our family has experienced through this violent and senseless crime. That seems like a good place to start this year afresh.

May God’s grace be with us all.

Boulden, a writer and marketing consultant, lives in Little Rock and is a member of Quapaw Quarter UMC.