After introducing myself and stating the purpose for our gathering, I asked permission to speak from my heart. "Since most of you are half my age, I am the age of your fathers. Would you allow me to address you on behalf of your fathers?" All eyes focused intently on me. There was no stopping then. "I know you have heard plenty of times that this back and forth violence in our neighborhood is complete nonsense. You have heard it at school, at home, and by the many people with authority over you. You've been told how destructive gang behavior is."
Then I stared into their eyes and said some of the most frightening words I have ever spoken on the streets of our community.
"But today, on behalf of your dads, I want to say to you what should have been said a long time ago. My son, my daughter, would you forgive me for not being there for you when you were little? Will you forgive me for not being there when you took your first steps, said your first words? Will you forgive me for not being there to throw the ball around when you when were young? Will you forgive me for leaving you when you most needed me? Will you forgive me?"
As the words poured from my lips, I could not control myself. I began to weep. I wept bitterly. Tears ran freely down my cheeks. I had not planned to cry. I was making a fool of myself, completely exposed and emotionally naked in front of this hardened crowd of gang members. But to my surprise many of them responded in kind. They too began to weep.
Something special happened in that moment. A fearful pastor was becoming the conduit of heaven's tears. It was sacred. Jesus was there.
A similar event happened many years earlier when Jesus was overwhelmed with compassion for another city. "Jerusalem, Jerusalem," he cried. "How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings … " (Matt. 23:37). Longing to reach his lost children, it's natural for a father to weep.
There are many who weep in my city, but that day I realized that we pastors have been given the special privilege to weep for our cities. We are called to weep on heaven's behalf. We are called to become fools for the sake of the king, to share in Jesus' ministry of tears, and to mourn with those who mourn.
My vulnerability that day was completely unplanned, but God had a purpose behind it. My uncontrollable tears, and the crying it provoked among the young people at the vigil, opened a door that I never could have opened through my own cleverness.
Following the gathering I was able to develop a deeper connection with many of the gang members. They opened up to me. They trusted me even though I had no credibility in their world. I had not shared their gang background or lived through the same experiences. But my vulnerability at the vigil had given me credibility in the neighborhood. I hadn't shared their life, but I had shared their pain. As a result my preconceived ideas about them changed. God gave me a love for these young men I had not experienced before, and God gave them a pastor.