By Kevin Squires | Senior Director of Church Partnerships
Very few things in this world can be as captivating as a story. Stories are able to penetrate hearts, minds, and souls in ways that are indescribable, often leaving us speechless yet changed.
Recently I began working out… swinging kettle bells around like it is nobody’s business. The morning after my first workout, every square millimeter of my body ached. The reason for my soreness was no doubt caused by the fact that those awkward exercises and motions had targeted parts of my body that were rarely used in my everyday motion. I was sore in places where I didn’t know I had places.
Stories undoubtedly have a similar effect on our souls. Stories are able to target and penetrate places inside of us that bring out emotions and thoughts that we never knew existed. Everyone has a story that has changed them, shaped them, and transformed them into who they are today. Perhaps it’s because stories often lead us to crossroads in our lives, begging us to choose one way or the other. While one path seemingly continues down the direction we have been traveling, stories provide new details that often make us stop and question whether or not we need to veer down a different path.
March 13th marked the 50th anniversary of a story that shaped my life as a follower of Christ. Ironically, the story had nothing to do about faith, Christianity, or even me. I wasn’t even alive yet. Matter of fact, the story wasn’t even brought to my attention until I sat bored in a college classroom in the spring of 1999, weeks away from graduation. It was on that spring day that I learned about the death of Kitty Genovese.
Kitty Genovese was a 28-year old bar manager in Queens, NY. Having just closed up shop in the early morning of March 13th, 1964, she began her short walk home around 3 am. Stalking her in the shadows of the empty street, Winston Moseley attacked her from behind, stabbing her repeatedly in the back. As her screams echoed throughout the streets, neighbors began peering out their windows, shouting at the attacker to “Leave her alone!” Scared that he had been seen, Moseley took off running down the street. As he rounded the corner, Moseley stopped and waited, realizing Genovese was still alive and could clearly identify him. Minutes later, he returned and discovered that no one had come to help her. Her body was lying there, barely alive, in a pool of blood. Eyewitnesses reported later that she was crying out to them, “It’s Kitty! I’m stabbed! Help me!” Surprised to see her alone, Moseley kneeled down and killed her in cold blood.
Over 600 murders happened in New York City in 1964, but the story of this one penetrated a part of society that couldn’t be ignored or forgotten. As reporters came out to uncover the details of the murder, it was discovered that there were many eyewitnesses to the crime. The New York Times reported "38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched the attack unfold for more than half an hour but didn't call the police during the assault.” Although the exact number of eyewitnesses is debatable today, the extrapolation remains the same… large groups of people rarely act when faced with a crisis. This phenomenon has come to be known as the bystander effect, which assumes that individuals within a large group will not act because they assume someone within the group will. The apathetic assumption often grows with the size of the group. In other words, the larger the group size, the less action performed by each individual.
As a college student, I took in every detail of this story. I remember being appalled at the neighbors’ lack of action. I cringed as I read eyewitness interviews saying things like…
“I didn’t want to get involved.”
“I told him to leave her alone!”
“It was hard to go back to sleep that night.”
“It was none of my business.”
“There was nothing I could do!”
Despite all those genuine beliefs, there was one part of this story that shaped MY STORY. I remember asking myself… How could people sit back and watch injustice unravel before their very eyes… feel bad about it… lose sleep over it… but then brush it off as someone else’s responsibility?
As always, I didn’t have to dwell on that question for very long before my finger began pointing back at me. By the time I graduated from college, I had traveled on mission trips to Africa, Central America, and several urban cities throughout the United States. I had seen injustice face-to-face and acted on it to fulfill my responsibility. But then it hit me… my actions were almost exclusive to the mission trips I went on. A brief glimpse into my daily life uncovered that I often resembled Kitty Genovese’s neighbors, not the super-hero version of myself that I liked to portray. I wondered… Why didn’t my two lives connect?
Through the years, I have continued to unpack that question and found that mission trips should not be seen as events in our lives. Rather, LIFE ITSELF IS A MISSIONS TRIP.
I have spent years studying the mindset of the early church of Acts and am amazed at the daily, wholistic care and compassion of Christ’s church in its infancy. There is no doubt that they saw their everyday life as a missions trip. In Acts 2, we see early believers devoted to teaching, fellowship, and community! We see that every soul was filled with awe! We see that they sought unity, not through tolerance and the need to simply coexist, but through Christ! We see that they all shared their possessions and worked hard to see that no one in their community was in need! And all of those things culminated in the Lord adding to their number daily those who were being saved!
The relatively small church of Acts might have been small in number, but it was mighty in power. Few sat back and succumbed to the bystander effect because each of them saw themselves as playing a key role in a Spirit-empowered movement that, unlike Genovese’s neighbors, could not be lulled back to sleep.
Martin Luther King Jr. profoundly stated that, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.” As I trace my story back to my college classroom, I remember having a strange feeling that day that I was partly responsible for the death of Kitty Genovese. Maybe because her story begged me to ask myself, How many needy people have I ignored in my walk with the Lord? Have I ignored the hungry? Have I ignored the thirsty? Have I ignored the sick and the weary? Have I ignored the outcasts? Have I ignored those who simply don’t know of the saving grace of Jesus Christ?
Each of us must ask ourselves… Will I simply be someone who stands at the window and screams at the injustices of the world, or will I be someone willing to hit the streets at all hours of the night to help those in need? Micah 6:8 reminds us what the Lord requires for all those who believe… “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Contact your local church or CLICK HERE for ways to get involved with ministry to those in need.
Has Kitty Genovese’s story impacted you today? What will you do in response?
Photo sources: 1. http://pix11.com/2014/03/07/the-murder-of-kitty-genovese-50-years-later-is-38-witnesses-story-a-myth/#axzz2wblS4fVK 2. http://paultripp.com/articles/posts/kitty-genovese