by Ken Abell 

My brother could use a little mercy now He’s a stranger to freedom, he’s shackled to his fear and his doubt

The pain that he lives in is almost more than living will allow

I love my brother, he could use some mercy now . . .”(Mary Gauthier)

As someone who went through long cycles of unemployment in the early to mid-80s, I have firsthand experience standing on the outside looking in, which is as good a way as any to define being marginalized. It was in no way enjoyable—I felt useless and frustrated, and had more than one knock-down drag-out with God. 

However, 30-some years removed from that difficult season, I understand that everything truly happens for a reason; with 20-20 hindsight I often marvel at the changes in perspective God wrought in me while I was immersed in economic woes. It heightened a desire and ability to make connections with those on the fringes. 

Have you ever stood in a grocery store beside a friend who happened to have different skin color or came from a distinctive ethnic group? Have you seen the sideways or down- the-nose glances of barely concealed prejudice from clerks or other customers? Have you taken note of the resigned acceptance of it by your friend?

We live on the edge of Navajo Nation, and work with men who experience being marginalized on a regular basis because of a threefold reality: 1) their identity as Native Americans; 2) a past that includes jail and/or prison time; 3) lack of education.    

What follows are eyewitness vignettes illustrating these truths. 

Allen, a natural born storyteller and a lover of fun, was Pawnee and Navajo. He had a hole in his pocket, which meant that if there were a few dollars in it, he wanted to go to town. He graduated from the BIC Overcomers in November 2012. Then later, true to the charitable and gregarious nature of his character, he came to serve as an assistant to my wife Anita, the kitchen manager.  

In that capacity, he helped make shopping lists and go along for the excursion to stock up on groceries. As they made their rounds each week, Anita became increasingly aware of the sideward looks or outright gawks received from white folks. He routinely ignored it, but once reacted to a clerk at the cash register who kept eyeballing them.

“What?” Allen quipped, grinning. “She’s my mother.”

“Allen, I’m not old enough to be your mother.”

He smiled at the cashier. “She’s my sister.”

On the ride home Anita and Allen had a laugh about it, but afterwards, she told me that the clerk’s staring made her uncomfortable and indeed, disgusted her. In a private moment, I engaged Allen in a conversation about bigotry and such. It was his turn to gawk—he ogled me as though I had a green complexion and pointy ears.     

“It’s just the way it is,” he said, shrugging dismissively. It’s just the way it is. That stoic acknowledgment is how the majority of Native American men I have walked alongside deal with inherent racism. Our friend Allen developed pneumonia, was hospitalized, and entered eternity in October 2014.

Before addiction sank its hooks into him, a Navajo man named Russell graduated from college and had a job in the accounting department of a large company. Casual drinking in his teen years eventually became weekend benders, which in due course led to nightly binges. A DWI here, a drunken disorderly there, and soon the jail had a revolving door for Russell. 

He attended the same program as Allen, and on the surface did well. However, in one-on-one chats, it became clear that he could not or would not peel back the layers to get to the root causes of his abuse of alcohol. After graduation he stayed connected to us and remained sober for eight months or so. During this period, he faithfully submitted his resume and applied for jobs; he was desperate and willing to do anything.  

With a felony on his record, no prospective employer would even talk to him. He disengaged from our network of accountability and returned to his old ways. The last time I saw him was August 2018. He was in a drunken stupor staggering past the post office. I picked him up. His shame and self-loathing were palpable. 

I don’t know if there are local or national statistics, but among the felons I know, the unemployment rate is in the 70 to 80 percent range. I’ve seen more than one man jump through hoops to get the most menial of jobs only to be denied. The accumulation of rejection can frequently be the trigger that puts a bottle in an alcoholic’s hand.

Anthony, a Zuni and proud of it, was introduced to marijuana when he was eight years old by a 12-year-old cousin-brother. That initiation established a pattern that became entirely normal to him. He floated through his grammar school years with little to no adult supervision, dropping out before high school. Recruited into crime by relatives, he got sentenced to prison because he followed orders given by an uncle. 

He was paroled to the program in August 2011. In his mid-20s, we made an immediate connection on the common ground of humor and laughter. We have journeyed together since then. His emotional makeup is stunted at a pre-teen level, so it’s often a challenge for him to comprehend the whys and wherefores of his circumstances.

Anthony wants a steady job, and definitely has a work ethic, but his lack of education is a barrier that keeps him on the outside looking in. He is not alone in that arena; there are plenty other graduates who bounce from one pickup job to another with long lapses between viable employment.

How does BIC Overcomers tackle these realities? The men arrive as strangers, become friends, and depart as family. We begin by extending unconditional love and grace while affirming each client’s identity and heritage. The truths of Scripture—Psalm 139 for example—are frequently expounded in various courses of the curriculum.  

As for the challenge of education: We partner with Denise Conway, who shepherds willing men through the process of attaining a GED certificate, which for some, has been a stepping stone leading to community college.

One more point to take into consideration as we reflect on the marginalization of Native Americans: Flicking a switch for lights or turning a faucet to get water is taken for granted by those reading this, but large pockets of Navajo Nation, a.k.a the rez, has no electricity and no water—a fact that ought to cause us to appreciate the conveniences we have while reevaluating any and all reasons for grumbling and complaints. 

Ken R. Abell is a counselor and home living coordinator with BIC Overcomers, Bloomfield, NM. This article is reprinted from the Winter 2019 edition of Shalom!

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