STANDING IN THE GAp
I once heard a preacher expound on the troubling scripture of Ezekiel 22, in which God imagines a wall of righteousness surrounding the holy city of Jerusalem. The wall is crumbling and full of gaps. God looks for a person to stand in the gap but can find no one.
The preacher said that Jesus, through his life and work, became that man willing to stand in the gap. He said our great moral purpose as Christians is to imitate Jesus by being courageous enough to stand in the gap. Standing in the gap of righteousness, he told us, is about more than prayer or worship or other rituals we practice inside a church.
A “gap-stander” is quite different than a mere bystander. Gap-standers, instead of watching society crumble with arms crossed or even hands folded in prayer, learn to reach out. They reach out to become bridges, crossing those boundaries that divide us in this world. They reach out to catch those people others are willing to let fall between the cracks. And they reach out to shield and protect what is most sacred.
STACEY WALKER IS A MAN FAMILIAR WITH THE GAp
To become a gap-stander, it helps to have spent some time in no-man’s land: as an outsider or in-betweener. This is the place Stacey has spent most of his life. Growing up Black in a very White Iowa meant he often felt like the only one of his kind in any given room. Stacey wrote eloquently about that in this piece for Little Village.
When I interviewed him, he also spoke about sometimes feeling like an outsider in the Black community in which he was raised.
“I was very fair-skinned growing up, and there were times when I felt like I wasn’t liked as much because I was lighter skinned, or because my friends were White, and that’s hard to reconcile when you grow up in a neighborhood where everyone else is darker skinned, everyone else seems to kind of fit in to “Black” life and Black culture. I talk differently. I wasn’t prone to using Ebonics. I was trained in the piano. I liked country music growing up, so I stood out, you know. And at times, I felt like an outsider in my own culture. Those were pretty big feelings to try to wrestle with growing up. “
The struggle with racial identity was also woven into the problems of poverty and violence. Stacey and his sister lost their mother to violence when they were very young. (A recent Gazette article tells the story of their mother’s unsolved murder in Buffalo, NY as well as Stacey’s recent involvement in a local group created to address the root causes of gun violence.) With neither of the children’s fathers present and their mother gone, their grandmother gave up her career in nursing to raise Stacey and his sister.
She did the best she could as a single guardian, but they grew up poor. Throughout his life, Stacey was keenly aware of the difference between his life and those of his White, more affluent peers in school.
“I went to Grant Wood Elementary School growing up in Cedar Rapids, one of the Whitest schools you can find, and everybody else, when they came to school they arrived in yellow school buses, but we took the city bus. Everyone in my neighborhood had to take the city bus to school because the yellow buses, for whatever reason, didn’t pick up kids in the Oakhill Jackson neighborhood. For the most part, the only kids who got off the city bus to go to Grant Wood Elementary School were black kids. But when you’re growing up, you don’t think about that. You just know, Hey, I need thirty cents every day to get to school and I need thirty cents to get back, because we don’t have the luxury of a yellow school bus.”
This subtle kind of experience was accompanied by other instances of more overt racism Stacey faced growing up in Iowa: like the police officer who pulled him over one time and laughed at the idea that Stacey could be a student at the University of Iowa, or on a couple of occasions being called a nigger by White students who may have had one too many beers.
“I made it a point of pride that I would never respond out of anger, and that I would try to have a conversation with these individuals, because that’s how people get hurt, when there’s alcohol involved and you’re throwing around racial slurs. I hoped that more so than getting into a fight with someone, that that person would remember the black guy who didn’t turn into the “angry black man” and instead said, ‘You know how ignorant you sound? You know how dangerous of a thing you’re doing?’”
This is one of the most striking things about Stacey: he has legitimate reasons to be resentful, or just plain pissed off, at those with more privilege than he ever had. And he doesn’t avoid the conflict that comes with speaking honestly in the face of disparity or injustice. But he also doesn’t give himself over to bitterness or anger.
Part of that comes from Stacey’s ability to see the human being outside of the conflict or the system that creates inequality. When I asked him if, growing up poor, he had ever carried a mistrust toward people with money, this was his response.
“I never had a mistrust. It might be because the nature of the schools I attended always seemed to house the poorest of the poor and the wealthiest of the wealthy. I was accustomed to seeing wealth and seeing good people who were wealthy. Generous people, thoughtful people. My mistrust of things had more to do with the character of the person, which you only come to learn after you spend a certain amount of time with them. I’ve been discriminated against enough that I always try to give everyone, no matter who it is, the benefit of the doubt so that I can make a fair assessment of them. And I think that if you can’t get to that point as an adult, you will be seriously handicapped in whatever you’re trying to accomplish, because good people come in all shapes, forms, and sizes, but so do bad people. And sometimes you just gotta do the hard work and sit down and get to know a person before you can find out who’s who in this world. “
BETWEEN VICTORY AND FAILURe
Stacey has spent his life in the gap between Black and White, poor and rich. He also knows how to occupy that space between victory and failure. “I’ve always been a fierce competitor,” he says. “And I am absolutely okay with failure. I know how to lose. What I don’t know how to do is not try.”
He’s received plenty of recognition. As a high school athlete Stacey was all-conference in football and track. He was named the Boys and Girls Club National Youth of the Year, and during a stint in Washington, D.C. after college, he quickly went from busing tables to helping design national initiatives at the Case Foundation.
He has also had failures and setbacks. 2015 was a particularly tough year, he recalls. A political campaign he was intimately involved in ended prematurely. A long-time personal relationship also came to a close. And his grandmother, the only parental figure he’d known most his life, died after a lengthy illness.
But 2016 brings new prospects. Last week Stacey Walker launched his own campaign for Linn County Supervisor. Top issues he’d like to address through public service are improving mental health services, pushing for a higher minimum wage, and making things easier for those who are most vulnerable in our communities. Beyond that, Stacey says he hopes his campaign will encourage others to see that politics is for everyone. “It shouldn’t be left up to just one group of people. I hope my campaign can bring more people into the process, to the table.”
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” he says, “but I don’t buy into that idea that you have to choose between dreaming big or being practical. That’s a false choice. You have to do both.”
In other words, you have to stand in the gap.
Story by Courtney Ball, Photography by Josh Booth.