Rev. Drew Stockstill
Tyrone Gibson, Child of the Covenant
When Tyrone Maurice Gibson was baptized at Christ Lutheran Church, Harrisburg, his mother and siblings were with him, as is often the case in a baptism. What is less common is that Tyrone’s mother and siblings were baptized with him that Sunday, and he was ten-years-old.
The sacrament of baptism makes visible what we know of God’s gracious claim on our lives. It is a sign, it is a seal, it is a promise. This particular baptism was an act of solidarity with Jesus in his death and resurrection, but it was also an act of solidarity by a family baptized together. The church also made a promise of solidarity, as we do in every baptism. We, the members of the church of Jesus Christ, promised to guide and nurture Tyrone and his family, by word and deed, with love and prayer.
Our commitment to Tyrone’s family continues, though the young man no longer requires his church’s guidance. Claimed by gun violence last month at the age of 14, Tyrone now rests in the arms of Jesus, in the company of all the saints in light. As we cherish Tyrone’s memory as a bright, loving young man, we invite our siblings in the faith to support Christ Lutheran Church in accompanying his mother, Chiquita, and siblings in rebuilding their lives.
I, like all members of Christ Lutheran Church, remember Tyrone fondly as a spirited, bright presence who would sometimes read scripture in front of the church and serve as an acolyte. He participated in my installation service. Tyrone loved going to Camp Nawakwa, trips the camp graciously made possible. Tyrone showed leadership skills, especially within his family, in lots of little ways. At Christmas he helped pick out and wrap Christmas presents for his mother and younger siblings.
But Christ Lutheran’s expression of solidarity made at Tyrone’s baptism had some practical limitations, especially for a church within a denomination that is 96 percent white. Tyrone and his family are residents of Central Pennsylvania’s most economically disadvantaged neighborhood, Harrisburg’s Allison Hill. Christ Lutheran is committed to the families of Allison Hill, and our church houses a ministry to provide health care services to people with significant barriers to accessing care.
We could worship in solidarity with Tyrone, but the fact of the matter is that where Tyrone lived meant that his experiences and opportunities were vastly different in critical ways than many other Lutheran youth. This is injustice. Our promise to guide and nurture Tyrone fell short. How can we guide in a community where many of us are outsiders? How can we nurture when many of us are afflicted by biases that compromise the creation of the authentic and mutual relationships required to nurture the young Christians we baptize?
Tyrone lived in a community that many in the region disparage because of its poverty. I’ve heard many say they’d never step foot in Allison Hill. They are scared. By implication, this means the larger church is scared to keep our baptismal promises to Tyrone and God’s children like him. We hope our larger community is awakening to the contradiction that while we tell a child their life matters to God, we struggle to say that black lives matter to us in ways that will make us truly examine, confess, repent, and change behaviors and even practices and traditions that perpetuate inequality, social segregation, and racism even in the church.
Whenever I served Tyrone communion, following the tradition of my predecessor, I placed the bread in his hand and said, “This is the body of Christ given for you. Bread from heaven because God loves you and so do we,” making the sign of the cross on his forehead, clearly visible in breadcrumbs.
A few days ago, I repeated what I had told Tyrone countless times over the communion rail, this time standing beside his coffin; the mother and siblings we had baptized, staring in stunned silence at the grave that would soon embrace their 14-year-old son and brother. “Tyrone,” I said, “God loves you, and so do we,” and I placed the sign of the cross on his casket. Tyrone was shot to death near his home, in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon. As of this writing, his death is still under investigation, but when the details emerge, I suspect we will be sickened to learn the age of the killer and the reason for this violence. Tyrone was not involved in illegal activity. At his funeral Harrisburg’s police chief, Thomas Carter, described being at the scene of Tyrone’s murder and moved that there seemed to be a halo around this child’s head. Tyrone looked so innocent, “untouched by the weight of this city.” Carter continued: “It looked like to me that he was a church kid. He wasn’t into guns, and I said to myself who, and for what reason, would want to shoot this little kid? Why?”
Tyrone was a church kid; our church kid, a son of the Lower Susquehanna Synod, a child of the covenant. I promised Tyrone when he was alive that he belonged to God and nothing could separate him from that love. He belongs to God in the resurrection, and a halo shone around him in his death on the street. It was our responsibility to nurture and guide Tyrone. He died a death few of us could ever imagine for our youth, a result of injustice and a failure of our society. He was our blessed saint. He deserved better nurture and guidance from us all.
What we see on the news about gun violence and protests; what we may feel about racial and class divisions, is no abstraction in our church. To think that these are issues that do not impact the lives of our own church members is to make invisible children of God. We made a promise to Tyrone to share the love and teachings of Jesus, to nurture and guide, but we also made that promise to his mother, and to his sisters and brothers (the youngest of whom is five months old). We made that promise to each other.
And God is calling us in our work as disciples to recommit ourselves to this baptismal promise to nurture each other and guide each other to more diverse relationships in our churches, to more active participation and both social and financial investment in communities where people face unjust burdens to their wellbeing. Let us make visible in the lives of our most vulnerable the grace we announce in baptism, and let it be our seal and our promise.