The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”
Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?”
But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”
Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
The Lord answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the place Massahand Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
In 2017, James Forman, Jr., the son of the legendary SNCC organizer, wrote a pivotal book on mass incarceration focusing on Washington DC. Forman’s book, Locking Up Our Own, lamented how the heroes of the Civil Rights movement, within years of their newly appointed roles as the first black mayors, police chiefs, and councilmembers contributed to one of the largest efforts to overpolice and incarcerate Black people since slavery. Facing the double onslaught of heroin and crack epidemics in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, these black elected officials, who were the sons and daughters of SNCC, SCLC, CORE, and the NAACP could not square their fight for resistance and justice with the poverty, desperation, addiction and crime that they saw in Chocolate City, which was once the biggest majority Black city in America.
Rather than figure out a way to heal their people, they decided to punish their people instead. Rather than take one brave step forward, they took our people two brutal steps back. Sometimes, when all you’ve known is pain and trauma, the familiarity of bondage just feels easier than the unfamiliar freedom of healing.
In Exodus 17, the people of God were faced with a similar challenge. They had recently been freed from having to make bricks without straw under Pharoah’s lash. Yet, though their bodies had been set free, their minds and spirits longed for the meager but predictable rations of their enslavement. So they cried out to Moses, in Exodus 17:4, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?” The Lord then tells Moses to take the staff which he has used to lead them across the Red Sea to strike a rock in the desert of Sin, and it would bring forth water. Sure enough, at Massah and Meribah, Moses struck the rock and water flowed for the people to drink.
What do you do when you find yourself in the desert? Where is the place that you go to in your own mind when it seems like every good option has failed? When the sun is baking and peeling your skin, and your mouth is completely dry, would you trust God for a miracle or pine for the familiar ways of old?
The people of God were not even one full generation out of bondage before they began to question whether being free was really worthwhile. God had already led them miraculously though the Red Sea. And even once they found themselves in the wilderness, God has already provided manna and quail to literally fall from heaven to provide their every need. But when they felt the rays of sun bearing down on them, all of that changed. Their first instinct was to question being freed in the first place.
In so many ways this is exactly where our elder leaders have been in this city. They were not even a full generation out from Bull Connor’s dogs and firehouses and the KKK’s crosses. When the city’s first elected Mayor, Water Washington sent his first budget to Congress in 1967, the DC subcommittee chair, Walter McMillan (after whom McMillan Reservoir is named) sent a wagon full of watermelons to Washington’s office in response. Having been shamed and humiliated for centuries, black elected officials could not stomach the pain, shame and humiliation of seeing their own loved ones strung out on drugs, and committing crimes of desperation to get high. They could not bear the heat of the sun seeing their children and grandchildren’s hope disintegrate into bloody turf wars over streets they did not own.
When faced with an unthinkable conundrum, they failed the test presented to them in the wilderness. Rather than trust the God of their salvation and liberation for a miracle, they turned the rod that God commanded them to use for transformation into a rod of punishment and incarceration. Instead of striking the rock, they struck each other.
Today, DC faces a very similar quandary. For nearly two years thousands of our nine, ten, and eleven year olds were forced to try to learn reading, writing, math and socio-emotional skills on Zoom in often unhealthy and unsafe home environments. For so many of our kids, school is the one place they can come to actually have a semblance of stability and safety. Yet after two years of interrupted learning during global pandemic and a year of readjustment we now have twelve and thirteen year olds shooting other teens and carjacking at gunpoint. In so many ways they are crying out, “I’m thirsty!” “I’m hungry!” “I’m hurting!”.
Our DC elected officials sent a revised criminal code to congress that attempts to treat our citizens like human beings who are capable of healing and change. However, much like Congressman McMillan, this Congress has rejected the political will and autonomy of our elected officials and has sent a wagon of watermelons back to our leaders to mock us. And like so many of our local elected leaders before them, some of our leaders are tempted to be “tough on crime” in the name of “accountability”, which is just a sanitized way to bring us the “law and order” of Donald Trump and Richard Nixon.
The season of Lent is all about who you will become and what you will do when you are truly tested and tried. Will you believe God for water to come from the rock? Or will you be lulled into believing that the old ways of Pharaoh are more powerful than the One who brought you across the Red Sea and already gave you manna and qual? Will we trust in the power of the One who is mighty to save? Or will we put our trust in chariots and horses?
There are many in the city, like DC Justice Lab, Harriet’s Wildest Dreams, PeaceWalksDC, The WIRE, DC or Nothing, The Alliance of Concerned Men and so many others who fought for and found overwhelming support among DC voters for a Revised Criminal Code that drastically reduces the carcel impact upon our loved ones. Our mayor vetoed it. The Council passed it. Congress overruled it.
With every new instance of mounting police violence and community violence, the heat of the sun in the Desert of Sin is brutal, and every last one of us can feel it. But each of us has a choice to make. Will we harken for the bondage of Egypt? Or will we trust the God who makes a way in the wilderness and an oasis in the desert?
REV. DELONTE GHOLSTON
Meet the Author
Rev Delonte Gholston is a native Washingtonian whose parents moved to the city to escape racial terrorism in South Carolina and Georgia. He is faithfully and joyfully married to Claire Wiggins Gholston. Together they have two daughters, Evyn (5) and Olive (2). They live in Ward 7 where Pastor Delonte shepherds Peace Fellowship Church and organizes PeaceWalksDC, a coalition of churches, community organizations, survivors and advocates committed to ending police and community violence. He is a public theologian, a songwriter and musician who loves singing about the change we want to see. He is a proud alumnae of DC public schools, Swarthmore College and Fuller Theological Seminary.