RICHMOND, Va. – Few outsiders venture into Mosby Court unless they’re visiting relatives – or looking for trouble. Almost no one lives there by choice.
Six-year-old Ernesha Baites has no choice. Her mother can’t afford to live anywhere else. So the little girl and her teenage sister do the best they can in the tough housing project in Richmond, Va., while Mom works to make ends meet. Ernesha has big brown eyes set off by the white beads in her braids. Her gap-tooth smile could melt steel. She loves cartoons and Rapunzel.
The week before she started first grade in September, somebody shot her.
He probably wasn’t aiming at her, you understand. He just didn’t care that she was playing near the line of fire.
It could have been a drug deal gone bad or a gang beef. This time, witnesses said it was an argument on a basketball court that turned into a shootout. Neighbors said they heard at least 20 shots fired. A bullet hit Ernesha’s leg, but she’s going to be OK. Once she got home from the hospital, she even talked to a local TV news crew. Sitting on the couch in her living room, she showed a reporter the cast on her healing leg. Her relieved mother sat beside her, talking about moving someplace safer as soon as she can get more work hours.
A happy ending, you might say – as happy as endings usually play out in Mosby Court, at least. But before the news crew turned off their camera, Ernesha had a question.
“Why did they shoot me, if they already saw me?” she asked.
The look of confusion and hurt on her face reminded me of the expressions of Syrian refugee children I have met in areas bordering the horrific civil war in Syria. They don’t understand why someone would shoot at them and try to kill their parents or their brothers and sisters. They don’t understand why they can’t go home.
Ernesha doesn’t yet understand how cold this world can be, either. But she’s learning. You wonder if she looked into the eyes of the shooter and, if so, what she saw there. I know all the sociological answers: The gunman might have been shot or brutalized when he was Ernesha’s age. He might be trapped in Mosby Court, or someplace like it, by poverty and hopelessness. He might have felt the pressure to “represent,” to kill or be killed, to uphold the street code.
But the real force behind the bullet was sin.
It never ceases to amaze me how many otherwise sensible folks believe that people, deep down, are basically good and want to do the right thing. We’re just confused or traumatized by bad experiences, they say. We’re misguided or manipulated by others into doing wrong. We have no choice.
All these rationalizations sound reasonable at different times or places. But the root cause of wrongdoing is sin. People are basically good? Nonsense. I have the potential to be every bit as bad as the guy who shot Ernesha – and I have fewer excuses. You’re no better, if you’re honest with yourself and God.
We are sinners. We have rejected God and sought our own selfish and evil ways, just as the Bible says we would. Technology and science may have produced staggering human progress, but they have improved human nature not at all. We are capable of hating one another just as passionately, fearing one another just as keenly, disobeying God just as willfully as our bloody-minded ancestors.
We are sinners – collectively and individually. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t need a Savior. And the world wouldn’t need to know about Him.
International Mission Board (IMB) President Tom Elliff spoke recently about having a hard time sleeping after watching the evening news, not just because of wars and disasters, but because “every one of us has learned how to look at the most horrific things you can imagine and be unmoved by them. We know where the great tragedies are, we see people running for their lives and starving physically,” he said.
Often they are also starving spiritually. “We’ve learned how to be aware of lostness but not be moved by lostness.”
We have an even deeper problem, however, if we cease to believe that sin causes darkness and can be defeated only one way.
“We can talk about the problems, the poverty and corruption and politicians. But it all goes back to the darkness they live in,” a missionary said in one of the most corrupt cities in Asia. “The only answer is Jesus Christ.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Erich Bridges is global correspondent for the International Mission Board. Visit WorldView Conversation, the blog related to this column.)