By Melody Shobe
There’s a news story that I just can’t seem to get out of my head. It’s not the one about the current economic crisis, or the recommended bailouts. It’s not the one about the new president-elect and his selections for cabinet positions or hypotheses about what he’s going to do once he takes office. It’s not the one about splinter groups of the Episcopal Church. It’s not even one of the many stories about disease and poverty and civil unrest in Africa. It’s the one about a Wal-Mart in New York on the morning after Thanksgiving.
Maybe you heard this story. Here’s how it goes. In the predawn hours of “Black Friday,” Jdimytai Damour arrived at Wal-Mart. He’d only recently been hired there as a temporary worker for the holiday season to try and make some extra money to buy Christmas presents for his kids. Across the street from the Wal-Mart, a throng of shoppers had been building all night, filling sidewalks and stretching across a vast parking lot. The store was scheduled to open at 5 o’clock, and many of these shoppers had arrived hours before so that they could be the first to take advantage of the Black Friday sales.
Around 4:55, the crowd of more than 2,000 had become a rabble, and could be held back no longer. Fists banged and shoulders pressed on the sliding-glass double doors. Ten workers inside, including Mr. Damour tried to push back, but it was hopeless. The doors shattered against the onslaught, and the crazed shoppers surged through in a blind rush for holiday bargains. Caught in the melee was Mr. Damour, who was thrown back onto the black linoleum tiles and trampled in a stampede that streamed over and around him. Fellow employees and onlookers attempted to move into the onrushing crowd, but were thrown back. By the time rescue personnel got to his crushed body, Jdimytai Damour was dead. Hundreds of people had stepped on his body on the way to grab their purchases.
The crowd that trampled Mr. Damour was not rushing toward a food relief convoy. They were not starving as a result of some catastrophic drought or flood. This mob that broke down the doors of that Wal-Mart in Long Island was after discounted televisions and the hottest new toys. One person present at the Wal-Mart told a reporter that when the store managers announced over the PA that all shoppers must vacate the store because someone had been trampled to death, she heard several people remark flippantly that that they had waited a long time to get those bargains and weren’t going anywhere.
I am not sure what, exactly, has made this story stick so firmly in my mind. It was an awful, tragic death, but there were hundreds of thousands of other awful, tragic deaths that day. It wasn’t even a big news story; I had to search around to find it after someone told me about it. So why, of all the things that happened on Black Friday, is this the one that I can’t seem to shake?
I think, in part, this one stays with me because it hits pretty close to home. I am outraged and saddened by the tragedies happening in Africa and India that same day, but they seem very far away. The economic situation and the bailout numbers seem so large and distant from my experience to be ridiculous. I don’t have any stock, I’ve never lived in the developing world, I don’t know what it is like to be at war. But I waited in really long lines—more than once—to get the new iPhone when it came out. I went to the bookstore at midnight to get more than one of the Harry Potter books. I, too, have been bit with the bug of wanting to have a thing, a superfluous, silly thing, so badly that I would do crazy things for it.
What stuck with me, what appalled me about the Wal-Mart story, was that it could have been me. I’ve never pushed and shoved and been a part of a mob, but I could have been. The Wal-Mart story convicted me, as one of the wealthy people living in this wealthy country who has everything I could ever need and still wants more. It reminded me of what I am capable of, and cried out for me to confess my complicity in a society where these things happen.
I think this story also stuck with me because it is so apropos for this holy season of Advent. While the rest of the world tells me that it is already Christmas, that I should shop until I drop and sing out “Joy to the World,” the church tells me to wait and listen and watch. While the world tells me about the promise of Santa Claus to come, the church tells me to walk the pathways of the desert to hear the cry of John the Baptist in the wilderness. While the world shows me manger scenes with the Christ child already in them, the church reminds me that I are waiting and watching for the Christ who is yet to come. Thinking about Mr. Damour’s life and death has made me hear the readings for Advent in a new and different way. I have heard Isaiah tell me that Advent it about looking at the world and seeing it for what it really is, a world that is broken and desperately in need of salvation. And I have heard John the Baptist urge me to look at myself, and honestly acknowledge that I, too, am a part of that brokenness.
Because then, and only then, will I really be able to feel the longing for Christ to come into the world and save it. Then, and only then, will I be able to experience true joy when he actually does.
The Rev. Melody Shobe is a stranger in a strange land; she’s a southerner now living in Rhode Island and working as Associate at Christ Church, Lincoln. She and her husband, the Rev. Casey Shobe, stubbornly continue to insist that “y’all” is much better than “you guys.”