Written by Anthony Moujaes
The message that the Rev. Oby Ballinger is sharing with his neighbors in St. Paul, Minn., is not unique to ministers or Christians. Ballinger, pastor at Community United Church of Christ in St. Paul Park, wants those around him to seek out the other, to welcome the stranger in 2014.
It was the way Ballinger, 31, arrived at this message that is interesting. Ballinger was randomly mugged, physically attacked the day after Christmas while taking a morning stroll not too far from his house. Rather than taking shelter at home in fear, or retaliating against wrong-doers with violence, Ballinger is acting out of faith. In the last two weeks he continues to walk the streets where he was attacked, and urges people to build community in their neighborhoods.
"God calls us to make peace. My response comes of that conviction that we can be better people, we can act with compassion and collaborate with each other and build relationships," he said.
The mugging took place at 10 a.m. on Dec. 26 a block away from the busiest intersection in St. Paul and not far where Ballinger and his husband of four years, Javen Swanson, live. Two men yelled at Ballinger, then attacked him, punching him in the face and body. The altercation left Ballinger with a black eye — and a determined resolve.
"The immediate response was shock and surprise," Ballinger said. "I recognized that I could respond with fear or with faith. If I responded with fear then those who attacked me have won."
Determined he would not let that happen, Ballinger's reactions after the mugging have been rooted in his belief that something good can come of what happened to him. He's told his story to television and newspaper outlets in Minnesota, hoping his message resonates with others.
"Safe neighborhoods are a product of caring and focus on neighborliness. If a neighborhood is unsafe, it's because of hiding those relationships behind locked doors, or distrust and weapons," he said.
Neighbors can commit to take care of each other by forming a walking group to meet up with other members of the neighborhood, and when the weather warms up they can have a community night out or block party.
"One thing I'm doing is continuing to walk the streets. I don't feel forced to stay inside," said Ballinger, who walks his neighborhood on most days for spiritual relief and exercise.
Building up the community should also give neighbors cause to look out for each other. Ballinger's muggers were eventually scared away by a witness, but there were several people who saw it, and chose not to get involved.
"I hope, if faced with something like that, I will stop and risk getting involved to help keep people safe," Ballinger said.
To be clear, Ballinger's response doesn't mean people should empower themselves by carrying guns or other weapons, but it also doesn't mean that they cower if confronted. "I'm not suggesting that we lay down in front of violence, but that we have the power by building relationships with those around us," he said.
Reminded by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., — that darkness cannot drive out darkness — Ballinger wants his neighbors to feel empowered by a profound sense of community for each other.
"Power does not come in weaponization, but in compassion and care for the neighborhood," Ballinger said. "I want people to recognize they have the power to react with confidence instead of being victim to fear. There is power to finding your voice to choose a different way."
For now, police have told Ballinger they have a lead on his two attackers. One of the suspects was charged on Monday, Jan. 6 with attempted first-degree aggravated robbery. In the meantime, Ballinger will continue to share his message for 2014, to drive change in his neighborhood and others.
"The true test is when we talk again in a year," he said, "when we see if the neighborhood has grown together and whether or not this was a flash-in-the-pan moment."