As the white police officer screamed at me, I thought, “I am not going to let you make this mistake.”
He had pulled me over in this mostly white, upper-middle-class US neighborhood because I was driving without my headlights on. I’d forgotten to switch them on, and I assumed he was just going to give me a warning. But when he reached my car, he told me he smelled drugs and that he wanted to search my car. (There were no drugs in my car.)
Over the years, I’ve been stopped many times under similar pretexts. To me, an African-American, it’s racism and racial profiling.
In the past I’d become very angry when something like this happened. These incidents left me feeling violated and humiliated. But this time was different. I felt calm.
Why? Well, I knew there were no drugs in my car. But also, I was returning home from an inspiring evening meeting at my branch Church of Christ, Scientist. The focus of the meeting was the idea that everyone’s true identity is actually spiritual, because we are all the children of God, divine Spirit. As such we are made to express His qualities of love and peace. This may not always be evident, but every one of us, no matter our background, is capable of kindness and fairness.
When I suggested to the officer that he might be mistaken about smelling drugs, he started screaming at me. That’s when I reached out to God in prayer. And I then had that thought about doing my part to help the officer not make this mistake.
It was not an aggressive thought. It was a quiet internal message, assuring me that God was present and that my prayers were already being answered. As the officer yelled, I looked at him. I wasn’t looking at his belligerent gestures, but at a fellow citizen – a brother.
At the time, I was serving with AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). I worked with grass-roots organizations to improve the lives of people in the community. Looking at that police officer, I realized he probably felt the same way about his job as I did about mine – he, too, was working hard for his community. I was grateful for this insight. It assured me that he could recognize honesty and truth.
I told the officer I’d consent to a search if he called another officer to be a witness. A few moments later, another officer arrived and told me I had two choices: Either I could allow them to perform the search, or they would call a judge and get a search warrant.
I held on to the ideas from my prayers. They made me feel confident and comforted. Instead of feeling angry, I felt that I was helping the officers do the right thing. I knew God was embracing each of us, giving us inspiration about the right course of action to take.
I have three brothers, and though we’ve had our share of disputes over the years, we love each other deeply. I see our love expressed in the respect and care we have for each other’s lives. And I realized that these officers were my brothers, too, with one Father-Mother, God, as our Parent.
As I was praying, I noticed a change in the first officer’s attitude. His whole demeanor changed. He came over to me. In a gentle voice he said, “Sir, I’m going to have to give you a ticket for driving without your headlights on.” I told him that I understood, thanked him, and drove off.
The next morning, I told my project director what had happened. She was moved by the story and told me to share it. “Share with other young men whatever it was that enabled you not to get angry,” she said.
And, in writing my story and sharing it, I hope I’m doing just that. My prayers helped not only me, but the officers as well. I learned that I don’t ever have to feel helpless about injustice of any kind. And I now see prayer as a proactive way to handle tense situations.
Adapted from an article published in the March 7, 2011, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.