Coming Alongside: Justice, Mercy, and Mentoring

What does it mean to do justice and love mercy in 2020? In a world of toppling statues and burning precincts alongside alleged police misconduct, how can we have a correct understanding of the rights of citizens to speak their minds, the responsibility to do it lawfully, and the critical role of police to protect the community from violence?  How can we empathize and seek to right wrongs without excusing lawlessness on either side?

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Micah 6:8

This was one of the verses quoted by Bishop Joel Brown at Saturday’s Lift Lakeland Day of Unity at Lake Mirror. I attended the Lift Lakeland event to support an extraordinary collaboration built between the Lakeland Police Department, the Sheriff’s Office, the City of Lakeland, and pastors of churches in primarily Black communities. I was encouraged by the graciousness, the spirit of humility, and the efforts made by all of the organizations to respect and lift each other up. We have a lot to be thankful for in the city of Lakeland.  The atmosphere was positive, committed to working together for an even brighter future.

I’ve been re-reading a favorite book, The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence, by Gary Haugen, who founded the Institute for Justice Mission based in the Washington, DC area. He writes about poverty and violence, and the essential role of the police as an instrument of justice in communities around the world. IJM is an extraordinary organization, with US operations headed by Lakeland’s own Philip Langford. 

“For the hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people who live outside the protection of the rule of law, the  principal reason they suffer abuse is often not the absence of good laws, but the absence of a functioning public justice system to enforce those laws.”

Gary A. Haugen

As citizens, we have much to be grateful for in Lakeland and in Polk County–we have a high functioning public justice system that protects us and provides stability.  As a result, we have not had many of the problems faced by cities of our size around the country.  We can be appreciative of the respect and trust between the community and law enforcement. Though no organizations are perfect, it is widely acknowledged that our local law enforcement demonstrate high levels of professionalism and effectiveness.

The leadership of Sheriff Grady Judd and his team in Polk County have been a consistent voice for protecting the weak from the strong–the “locusts” described by Gary Haugen who victimize those who are the least able to protect themselves. Our Lakeland city police under the leadership of community policing expert Chief Ruben Garcia have invested in relationships over the long term, resulting in a safer and better connected community. Both agencies have been accredited forces for decades, reflecting high standards and a commitment to professionalism.

“The men and women of law enforcement who write you a ticket today will stand in front of a bullet for you tonight.  We will stand in the gap between good and evil, make no mistake about it.” 

Sheriff Grady Judd

As Christians, we are called to pray for our leaders (Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13), and we are also called to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). In light of the events of 2020, there are many tears to be dried.  We celebrate the progress we have made and look forward to the additional work yet to be done that will create a more just community for all. We have the opportunity to be instruments of peace, bringing Christ’s love–the only foundation for true change.

As we think about the issues facing us, we do well to remember the extraordinary privilege we have as Americans when contrasted with most of the rest of the world, where 736 million people live in extreme poverty. It is violence that has an outsized impact on those who are the least able to protect themselves.

“Violence is as much a part of what it means to be poor as being hungry, sick, homeless, or jobless. In fact…violence is frequently the problem that poor people are most concerned about. It is one of the core reasons they are poor in the first place, and one of the primary reasons they stay poor.”

Gary A. Haugen

If we agree that violence in all its forms is to be rejected and is not the answer for communicating disagreement, then we have a new calling.  Our responsibility shifts to having a clear understanding of how government works so we can engage effectively and appropriately to make real change when it is necessary.  

For the last three years, it has been my privilege to serve on the statewide Florida Commission on the Status of Women and to help plan the LEAD Summit in Tallahassee– LEAD stands for “Leadership, Education, Advocacy, Development”.  It’s an annual gathering of more than 150 primarily women from across the state of Florida who come to learn more about being effective advocates in their own communities. 

Free and open to all, the LEAD Summit is an example of the kind of program that can help be a part of the solution–for several years, I have participated with my current and former students. Other organizations in our community effectively lead and build up young people, equipping them to make a difference.

The goal of the LEAD Summit and other worthy programs like YMCA’s Youth in Government, The American Legion’s Boys’ and Girls’ State, and the Randy Roberts Foundation’s Congressional Classroom, is to help citizens learn more so they can do more, working collaboratively to solve problems. Parker Street Ministries after school program, Lakeland Police Athletic League, the Boys and Girls Clubs, and Top Buttons “Building Up Girls” events are other examples of community groups who effectively build up young men and women. 

Learning to advocate wisely and effectively for a point of view is a skill that can be taught.  Stronger skills lead to confidence and “agency”–the polar opposite of the frustration and powerlessness that have led some to express themselves destructively. It is through mentoring relationships that the most effective long-term change is made.

Mentoring happens when wise and experienced adults come alongside young people to help them learn successful strategies. Mentors can help with everything from building soft skills in the workplace to navigating the practicalities leading to economic health like budgeting and obtaining a loan.  We owe it to our kids to work intentionally to help them become capable advocates for themselves in all areas of their lives. 

As we investigate the ways we can be more effective as a community, we can celebrate the stability that law enforcement provides. We can set a goal of even stronger partnership between the community and the police, and we can look ahead to a more strategic use of mentoring to propel our young people toward a brighter future.

Mrs. Jennifer Canady directs the RISE Institute at Lakeland Christian School, which houses the Center for Law and Public Policy, dedicated to preparing young people to be effective advocates.