Elijah McClain 25 February 1996 – 30 August 2019 – just posted tonight by my friend, the artist and iconographer, William Hart McNichols. My own meditation on his painting follows.
“But the righteous man, though he die early, will be at rest. For old age is not honored for length of time, nor measured by number of years … There was one who pleased God and was loved by him, and while living with sinners he was taken up lest evil change his understanding or guile deceive his soul…Being perfected in a short time, he fulfilled long years; for his soul was pleasing to the Lord, therefore he took him quickly from the midst of wickedness. Yet the people saw and did not understand, nor take such a thing to heart, that God’s grace and mercy are with his elect, and he watches over his holy ones.” ~ Wisdom 4
I recently painted this image of the very gifted, talented and beautiful soul, Elijah McClain. I used his photograph but added light around his head and golden colored shirt to echo scripture’s prophetic words about the chosen ones of God. The red buttons signify his terrible death – red being the color of the Martyrs. I asked my dear friend and theologian, Christopher Pramuk, author of many truly unique and brilliant books, including Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton, Hope Sings So Beautiful: Graced Encounters Across the Color Line, and The Artist Alive: Explorations in Music, Art and Theology, to write a reflection on Elijah McClain.
~ William Hart (Fr. Bill) McNichols
If a sacrament can be described as something that attaches itself to one’s heart, and in doing so, becomes an instrument of communion and grace, then Fr. Bill’s new painting of Elijah McClain has become for me a most powerful sacrament.
At first, I resisted, I didn’t want it to be so. Like grace itself, attachments of the heart can be both beautiful and dangerous. They demand vulnerability, commitment, risk. When Fr. Bill shared Elijah’s image with me, I didn’t want to let it in. I didn’t want to allow him, those penetrating eyes, to gaze into my eyes, afraid of what he might uncover there. I resisted because Elijah’s story, and Fr. Bill’s image, struck too close to my father’s tender heart.
My wife Lauri and I have two children from Haiti, adopted in 2010, just after the earthquake. Sophia, 17, is now on the verge of young adulthood; Henry, though just 11, could pass as 17, when seen from a distance. While Sophia is small in stature, Henry, with his broad face, huge hands, and legs twice as thick as mine, is a gentle giant. Except when he isn’t.
Henry suffers from crippling mental illness, rooted in trauma and neglect during his first year of life. One afternoon a few years ago, I was called urgently to come to his school. For the third time in as many weeks, Henry had gotten upset and had bolted out the building’s front door before staff could restrain him. I arrived to find my son sitting in a vacant lot near the school, surrounded by five police cars, lights flashing.
Flight – or what the therapists call “elopement” – is Henry’s first and last means of escape when big feelings overwhelm him. Lauri and I know that flight for Henry is self-protection, literal survival. Our neighbors, strangers at the grocery, police officers, don’t know this. To the police, flight is often, and sometimes fatally, mistaken as fight, defiance, disrespect. Especially when the prey, now backed into a corner, is a young black man.
When I first saw Fr. Bill’s painting, the heartrending outlines of Elijah McClain’s story were familiar to me, as they have become intimately familiar to so many here in Colorado, and now, around the world. He was 23, a massage therapist much loved by his clients, killed by an encounter with police that involved a carotid choke hold and a disabling dose of ketamine that left him in a coma for six days.
“It doesn’t make sense,” said one of his clients, calling the police response “brutal.” “He was the sweetest, purest person I have ever met. He was definitely a light in a whole lot of darkness.” Pictures of Elijah playing the violin to the animals in a local shelter during his lunch break have circulated all over the internet.
When police officers bore down on Elijah – he was wearing a face mask and waving his arms around, probably singing, his friends say, as he walked home from a convenience store – the young man repeatedly begged the officers to forgive him.
“I can’t breathe. I have my ID right here. My name is Elijah McClain. That’s my house. I was just going home. I’m an introvert. I’m just different. That’s all. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting. Why are you attacking me?” He also told the officers, “You are all phenomenal. You are beautiful. And I love you.”
“He had a child-like spirit,” another long-time client says. “Elijah McClain was not conditioned to the norms of America… He lived in his own little world. He was never into, like, fitting in. He just was who he was.”
Years ago, I was reading an article by the eminent Black Catholic theologian M. Shawn Copeland, when I came to a line that stopped me cold. In a deeply racist US society, people of color, she wrote, are “overdetermined in the flesh.” I did not, perhaps could not, understand such a statement until I became the father of two black children.
Whether I am with them at the mall, walking through our neighborhood, or behind the wheel of a car, I am chronically aware that the warm glow of white privilege that now surrounds and protects my kids will not be there forever. I cannot look at a photograph of Sandra Bland without also seeing my daughter Sophia, herself full of fierce, feminine strength, lying face-down in the grass with a police officer’s knee on her neck.
Elijah McClain, thanks be to God, “was not conditioned to the norms of America.” Neither was Sandra Bland.
In Fr. Bill’s painting, the glimmer in Elijah’s eyes returns my gaze with love. The hints of blue in Elijah’s face — a color that represents divinity in the icon tradition — remind me that we never walk alone in the valley of the shadow of death. Like a mother’s cloak, the Spirit of the Living God gently surrounds each of us, and flashes like the sun from within. She is the divine Child who plays “hide and seek” within all the people, daring us not to conform to the dictates of a rapacious and violent society. Like a lamb led to the slaughter, She says, “I love you,” and “I’m just different,” and “Why are you attacking me?” in the face of the world’s power.
Elijah McClain, pray for us. Pray for our children, especially all young men and women of color. Give strength to every anxious parent’s heart. Help us reclaim the light of God within, which endures even in the face of physical death. Teach us to remember and cherish the animals, as you did with your gift of music. Dear Elijah, may you dwell now in deep peace, and feel the infinitely accepting love that we so often fail to give.
And Fr. Bill, thank you for once again enkindling the flame of faith, hope, and love in a sea of gathering darkness. Your art, your attunement to the divine mystery written in human flesh, is a tremendous gift to the world.
July 25, 2020