I’ve had Marvin Gaye on my mind a lot lately.
Over the past few years, I’ve turned often to this video clip of Marvin’s “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Want To Holler).” I’ve played it over and over and posted it on my Facebook page because “Inner City Blues” taps into how I feel about the time we live in.
Like you probably, I’m on edge with what I read and see every day. So, “Inner City Blues” helps. So does Marvin’s ’71 masterpiece, ‘What’s Going On,’ the nine-song cycle that ends with “Inner City Blues.”
That recording feels so prescient today.
Its take on America nearly 40 years ago feels so needed now, especially for me. And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to learn that things in our lives become important when they become personal.
And in my house, they did this summer.
In early June, on his way to Jerusalem to study Arabic for nine weeks, my son got interrogated by Israeli security in Munich for nearly 30 minutes. They saw him as a young white guy traveling alone, intent on potential badness.
Will, the UNC junior, the former Eagle Scout — and a potential terrorist. Right then, I felt like what I heard from many black parents over the years. Will was judged not by the color of his skin. He was judged by what he represented – an angry young white man with an agenda.
A few weeks later, on her way back from driving to take care of a friend’s dog, my daughter got caught on a neighborhood street that turned into a river.
We’ve all seen that this summer. Our quick-trigger weather has become a local exclamation point of what’s happening worldwide with climate change, and my daughter became a part of that — stuck in a stalled car, in the middle of a street, as water seeped like snakes into her floorboards.
I was out. Kath was home. Elizabeth called Kath from the car crying, “Mom, I don’t know what to do! I’m scared!”
Kath raced to the corner and got Elizabeth out. When Elizabeth came home, she shook from crying so hard. I had never seen her so scared. At that point, I didn’t know what happened. I simply hugged her hard, not saying a word.
Elizabeth, the Grimsley High senior, the quiet girl who plays piano and wields a field hockey stick like a champ every fall. She became a frightened front-row observer of one of our most dangerous threats — climate change.
Then came this past week. High Point University, the place where I work, turned into a national headline and any parent’s worst nightmare.
We had a freshman, a 19-year-old kid from a wealthy enclave in Boston, who wanted to carry out a mass shooting on campus. He had two guns, and according to police, he wanted to “shoot up the school,” and he had a “plan and timeline to kill people.”
That didn’t happen, thank God. But today, a few days after this emotional whirlwind hit our campus, I continue to ask why. I have no answers.
But I do have Marvin.
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today,
Only love can conquer hate, Marvin says. But that was 40 years ago.
Today, as I look back over what has unraveled since Wednesday, I ask, “Can that really happen?”
It’s Thursday, and I’m at HPU’s Hayworth Chapel, seated among a circle of chairs, getting ready for our weekly communion.
It’s one of my most favorite times of the week. There’s anywhere from eight to 12 of us, students and faculty and staff. Someone reads a piece of scripture, and we talk, pray, pinch off a bit of pita bread, dip it into grape juice, pray some more and go about the rest of our day.
But this day is different. It’s the day after the HPU freshman’s arrest, and as we circle up, I sit beside my friend, a professor. I’ll call him Dave.
He’s married, a father of two girls, and we’ve both plowed some ground about the highs and lows of being fathers, husbands and men. We’ve had conversations about his girls, my kids and our faith walk. We’ve gone deep.
So, when I sit beside him, I expect a typical Thursday. It is not.
Dave begins to read something from the Book of Genesis – I can’t remember what – and he stops. His shoulders drop, his eyes squeeze shut and his voice gets so caught in his throat it sounds tiny, almost inaudible. And he cries. He is broken by emotion, and he talks about the importance of reaching out to outcasts.
That’s the word he used.
He talks about how we all need to help them, reach out to them, and pray for them.
When he finishes, I get up and hug him around his shoulders. All of us know what he’s talking about.
The arrested HPU freshman told the police he had felt like an outcast, unwanted. He also told them that he had been planning a mass shooting since Christmas. He had watched videos of what happened in my hometown of Charleston, and if he didn’t get into a fraternity he wanted after Fall Rush, he was going to kill his roommate, himself and maybe loads more.
Scary. And sad.
A 19-year-old from Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood had bought a 9 mm handgun and a short-barrel, 12-gauge shotgun and rounded up enough ammunition for both. And he had done all that in two weeks since arriving at HPU.
Two weeks. Now, back to Dave.
After he speaks, we all fall silent. What could we say? We all had been wrestling with our own thoughts about what happened on campus, and in our spot beside the pulpit and near the base of a big gold cross, we all feel that emotional weight.
After a few minutes, Jacob Lancaster speaks up.
He’s a senior, a religion major, the son of a United Methodist minister from a rural stretch of North Carolina an hour south of HPU. He started the weekly communion a year ago, and on Thursday, he has something to say.
He talks about what he wrote on his Facebook page. He had quoted a prayer from the book, “Work of God: Benedictine Prayer.”
“God our greatest joy, we rejoice that you call all peoples to live in peace and happiness. Teach us to trust you and each other that we might be free from worry and fear. May we ever seek peace and pursue it, in your holy name, Creator, Redeemer and Spirit. Amen.”
Then, he reads what he wrote.
“Lord, we live in a violent world because we don’t really have courage to look upon each other with love rather than fear and hate. Give us your peace, and comfort those trapped in fear that they might be healed. Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer. Amen.”
Jacob, Dave and I walk out of the chapel together. Jacob hugs Dave. I do, too. You know, one of those from-the-side man-hugs. None of us talk about the tug, the hurt and the worry we heard in Dave’s voice. But we know from where it comes.
As I walk away, I think back to what I read recently in Michael Paterniti’s “Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America With Einstein’s Brain.” Paterniti wrote:
“We are driven by desire and fear. Only in our solitary hungers do we find ourselves capable of the most magnificently unexpected sins.”
I found those two sentences, I think, Tuesday. Then came Wednesday.
Everything began to change for me an hour before daybreak.
It’s Wednesday, a few minutes before 5 in the morning, when I look at my office email. I read this:
As we begin a new school year, we experienced an unfortunate situation today.
While there is no immediate threat, we are informing you that this evening, students reported to HPU staff that another student had possession of two firearms.
Due to the diligence of the students who reported this and the swift response of HPU security, the firearms were confiscated and the matter was turned over to the High Point Police Department. The owner of the firearms has been removed from campus.
“OK, kid with two guns,” I think. “He’s caught. Done. No big deal.”
Then comes the email from my minister right after 12 noon.
“Just read about the student with the guns,” she wrote. “I would imagine your week just got more complicated. Hope all is well.”
Right then, I jump online to see what I could find from my old newspaper, the News & Record. I read this. After the freshman got arrested and taken off campus, he told the police his real plans.
The news immediately became what I call a “red ball,” journo shorthand for big, bad breaking news that always sends editors and reporters into a tizzy.
But now, instead of a caffeine-addled newsroom full of loud voices and ringing phones, I work on the quieter side of communications. It’s a tree-shaded enclave, where classical music plays from speakers above the school’s expansive promenade and a red-brick wall and fence with security at every entrance circles the campus like a moat.
Now, after what I read online Wednesday, it hammers home what I already knew: No one can feel safe no matter how secure you think you are. We almost became another El Paso, another Dayton, another UNC-Charlotte, another Orlando. The list is long.
And yeah, here, too.
The story just pings everywhere.
I get emails from a former co-worker working in Ohio, my creative colleagues at HPU’s book publisher in Texas, and my first cousin, Mary Ann, our family’s matriarch. She spends her summers with her husband in Nantucket. Mary Ann writes:
I was so saddened to hear the Boston news telling of a student at HPU from Back Bay — been there 2 weeks — was in court today for being arrested for a plot kill off a few of his classmates! What a world we are living in — what a country ….
Such and tight rope for schools! so many lessons to be taught! Know we are thinking of you all and High Point University!
I was heartsick. Still am. That’s what made me think of Marvin.
In July, “Sound Opinions” – the most excellent podcast from music journalists Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot – did an album dissection of Marvin’s “What’s Going On.” With the weirdness of having a reality president more interested in himself than us, I had returned to listening to “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)” as a way to channel in some positive way my angst and anger.
But with “Sound Opinions,” I knew I would have two experts who could put it all into context.
Do love their audio classroom.
Kot and DeRogatis did what they do and talked about that ominous time in our history. Let’s do the numbers and the initials.
More than 100 riots erupted in cities nationwide in ’67, MLK and RFK were assassinated in ’68 and the Vietnam War raged halfway around the world, yet its images filled our TV screens every night.
In the spring of ’71, Marvin and Motown released “What’s Going On.” It was a response to a war that claimed the lives of over 3 million people – more than half of them Vietnamese civilians. The album called for the war to end and zeroed in on the problems of 1970s America — racism, poverty, drugs, violence, police brutality, economic inequality and environmental ignorance.
It also cried out for the need to love one another and save, well, us.
Who’s willing to try
Yes, to save a world
Yea, save our sweet world
Save a world that is destined to die
That’s from side one, fourth song, “Save The Children.”
Nothing warm and fuzzy there.
Said DeRogatis: “Marvin got political with ‘What’s Going On.’ He’d been thinking about these things for years. There’s a famous quote of him talking about the 1965 riots in Watts as a pivotal moment in his life, and he said, ‘With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to be singing love songs?’”
Said Kot: “There’s this great line that opens “Inner City Blues” — ‘Rockets/Moon shots/ spend it on the have-nots.’ And you know, the line later in the song, ‘Trigger happy policing/Panic is spreading/God knows where we’re heading.’ Does that song familiar?
“Doesn’t that sound like a Kendrick Lamar record? These songs are very apt to what is going on in our cities, and Marvin Gaye was not afraid to talk about them.”
In a rare 1971 interview with British music journalist Phil Symes, Marvin talked about ‘What’s Going On” and why he did it. He said:
“I spent the three years writing, producing and reflecting. Reflecting upon life and upon America especially – because that’s where I live – its injustices, its evils and its goods.
“Not that I’m a radical – I think of myself as a very middle-of-the-road sort of person with a good sense of judgment. I think if I had to choose another profession I’d like to be a judge because I’m very capable of determining what’s right and what’s not.”
And the album and the single, “What’s Going On”?
“The album and single show the sort of emotion and personal feelings I have about the situations in America and the world. I think I’ve got a real love thing going. I love people, I love life and I love nature and I can’t see why other people can’t be like that.
“I can remember as a child I always kept myself to myself and I always dug nature. I used to fool around with worms, beetles and birds, and I used to admire them while the other kids were playing sports.
“It was like some strange force made me more aware of nature. Those kids playing sports were also showing love – love for sport. And if we could integrate all types of love into one sphere we’d have it made.”
And the response?
“I feel very good about it. I wasn’t sure what would happen to it. But I don’t feel good for myself – I didn’t have much to do with the song; I feel it all came from God. He drew me into it.
“I mustn’t get into ego tripping, because I didn’t have much to do with it. But I’m only human and when you get a lot of pats on the back for something it makes you go on trips. I was only the instrument in the album – all the inspiration came from God himself. It’s one that should be listened to.
“The material is social commentary but there’s nothing extreme on it. I did it not only to help humanity but to help me as well, and I think it has. It’s given me a certain amount of peace.”
Gave me peace, too. I needed it this week. And I found it in Marvin — and my boss.
I call him Dr. Q.
Five years ago, I left a lifetime of daily journalism and came to HPU as its senior writer. Since then, I’ve worked with HPU President Dr. Nido Qubein on his books and the university’s books as well as his essays, video scripts and the HPU biannual magazine.
I’ll be sitting with Dr. Q in a small conference room working with him on something, and I’ll take notes and tape-record as he talks about leadership, education and life. Then, he’ll stop. He’ll smile, place his hand on my shoulder, go all late-night comedian on me with a dramatic pause and say, “Jeri, you should be paying me.”
I always laugh. I tell him he’s probably right.
Now, to Wednesday.
It’s late afternoon, and I hear Dr. Q’s voice echoing from around the corner in our U-shape of offices. I find my colleagues in communications huddled around a big screen editing a video. I ask about it, and I hear how Dr. Q wrote five words on a piece of paper and riffed on what happened on campus.
He spoke for a little more than four minutes. No notes.
Later that night, the video was sent out to parents, students and everyone else in the HPU universe. Dr. Q talked about how proud he was of the staff and security in how they reacted to what he called a “young man making a really bad choice.”
You’ll find the entire video here.
Here’s what caught my ear. He said:
“I know (you’re thinking), ‘Why didn’t you tell us more last night?’ We communicated with you as soon as we could, and we did not have all the information. We did not know what he had planned or what he had in mind.
“It’s a tough world we’re living in. It really is. We all should be questioning ‘Why is it like this?’ But crazy things happen. What is important is that we were diligent in ensuring the safety of all our students, staff and faculty every day.”
Dr. Q ended with this:
“All I can tell you is that we do all we can. And we pray every day that across America and across the world we all experience peace….
“I have four children, and my wife and I pray every day for their safety and security, and we thank God every day. At the end of the day and at the beginning of each day that they go to a school that is safe, that people care about our children. We care about you, students. And parents, we care about your children.”
Then came Friday morning.
I’m walking into work when I run into my colleague, Katie Hamlin. She’s in HPU purple, mic in hand, setting up for a video shoot in front of HPU’s Hayworth Fine Arts Center.
I ask about it, and she tells me she’s working on a stand-up to book-end a talk Dr. Q gave before he started his life skills seminar Thursday. He’s been doing these seminars for incoming freshmen for years, and he does it every week, always on Thursdays.
This week was no different. And yet, it was.
In front of HPU’s freshman class, he talked about what happened.
You’ll find it here.
He talked about the student or students who tipped off HPU security. Dr. Q called them ‘heroes.”
He said he couldn’t tell the class who they were because he wanted to honor their request to remain anonymous. But he told the crowd to imagine they were with him onstage.
“Show them some love,” he said. “‘Go for it.’”
That’s classic Q. He’s never one to use “I” in any sentence. It’s always “we” or “us” as he talks about how leadership is all about bringing people with you across the finish line at the same time.
Or something like that.
That didn’t surprise me. I figured Dr. Q would give a nod to the students who helped avert a tragedy. But what surprised me was what else he said. It’s below:
“This morning, I offered a prayer for this young man. And I said, ‘Dear God, forgive him and lead him to a more peaceful existence’ because I bear the pain to the extent that I can for his parents and for him. He’s a human being, and he was created by God just like you and I were. So, I care about him, too.
“And this may surprise you, but I love him, too.”
And Jesus said, “Amen.”
It’s now early Sunday morning, and I’m licking my proverbial wounds over my alma mater losing to my son’s soon-to-be alma mater when I turn on cable news and find out we in America have had another mass shooting.
This time it’s in Odessa, Texas. The city made famous by “Friday Night Lights.”
Now, it’s famous for something else.
I know our near mass-shooting at HPU will soon fade from America’s collective memory, and the eyes of our often fearful nation will be averted to another tragedy that’ll shake everyone to their very core.
Today, it’s Odessa.
Tomorrow or next week or next month, it’ll be some other zip code in America.
Meanwhile, we’ll continue asking questions, pointing fingers, demanding gun reform and hearing it’s a mental health problem.
The bottom line? All of us will be trying to figure out why.
As for me, I know I can’t forget about what happened this past week at HPU. It hit way too close to home. But I am thankful of how HPU security and the student — or students — responded. And yes, I’m proud of the man I work for. He stepped up when the campus needed him most.
Sure, the cynics among us will see Dr. Q’s move as PR. But if that’s the way you live, well, good luck with the rest of your life. I don’t see it that way. What he did was needed and welcomed for so many reasons.
For me, that reason is hope. I feel like I have to hold onto something because right now hope is hard to find when hate boxes us around our ears seemingly every day from every direction. Including from our reality president in DC.
So, the famous Motown crooner helps. So does a university president.
What they say makes me think love can conquer hate.
May that continue.