Every Halloween weekend over the last 19 years, the memory resurfaces like the Creature From The Black Lagoon–the death of my friend Bonkey McCain, gunned down in a drive-by shooting in the late evening of Friday, October 30, 1992 in Birmingham, Alabama. He officially died at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, October 31. He was 17.
My mom shook me awake about 7:30 a.m. to tell me the horrifying news. It was difficult to comprehend that someone dear to me in our church’s youth group at Shades Valley Presbyterian and a fellow classmate at Shades Valley High School was dead, much less that it occurred in such a violent manner.
A member of SVHS’ football team, Bonkey and his teammates had been celebrating their win over another school by eating at a local Pizza Hut. As the players walked out into the parking lot to head home, two guys in a car drove by and opened fire into the crowd. Although Bonkey wasn’t the intended target, he took three bullets to the chest. No one else was injured.
Bonkey’s death hit the school, the church, the Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley, and the community hard. Bonkey was a remarkable young man with an incredible heart who loved God and people of all kinds. Bonkey wasn’t always perfect about reaching out to others who were different but more often than most of us, he truly made connections with another regardless of their differences. It was a trait that garnered him the title of “bridge-maker” during those first grief-stricken days and at his funeral. Bonkey had that special something about him, a light that just glowed every time he entered a room. Although they were cut short by a cowardly kid with a gun, Bonkey had big dreams of getting a higher education, playing in the NFL and doing good in the world.
Bonkey was also an amazing singer who brought an entire room to tears singing Boyz II Men‘s “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday” at the Presbytery’s Winter HS Retreat at Camp McDowell near Jasper, Alabama in February 1992. Not a single one of us knew that Bonkey had such a gift until he stood up impromptu to sing while folks were hanging out on the carpeted floor near the fire place in Epps Dining Hall. We certainly didn’t realize that eight months later, we would experience the difficulty of saying “goodbye” to the guy who stunned us with his beautiful rendition of a tune by his favorite artists.
I will forever associate the song and the music group with Bonkey McCain so it seems quite appropriate that while nearing the anniversary of Bonkey’s death, I read earlier this week that Boyz II Men is celebrating 20 years together with a new album. Of course, I immediately thought of the time Bonkey surprised us with his talent. I also have a fond memory of him singing along to posthumous album Legend by Bob Marley & The Wailers during Shades Valley Pres’s Fall Youth Retreat at Camp Lee in Anniston, Alabama in September, more than a month before his death and the last time I remember hanging out with him and my other friends in HS Youth Group. Bonkey was, like many of us, a Bob Marley fan and listening to my friend match his voice to the Jamaican balladeer on hits like “One Love/People Get Ready,” “Three Little Birds,” “Buffalo Soldier,” “Redemption Song,” and “Exodus,” I began to understand the significance of Marley’s life as a musician and activist in Jamaica amid deeply-rooted political oppression as well as the decades-long injustice perpetrated toward black men and women in the U.S.
Bonkey and his family’s presence in our dominantly white Protestant church and youth group brought me face to face with not only black culture and history but also issues of poverty and violence of which the McCains were so desperately and courageously trying to escape. Bonkey, his sister Angel, 14, and brother George, 12 (their ages in 1992) and their mom Carmen, became connected to Shades Valley Presbyterian in 1988 through one of the adult church school classes of which my mom was a member. Another woman in the class suggested that as an Advent-Christmas mission project, they provide toys and necessities to Carmen McCain, a single mom studying to be a nurse at The University of Alabama at Birmingham, and raising three children while living in a single bed-room home in a part of the city where many black folks had been stricken by poverty, drugs and deadly gang violence. I remember the Sunday afternoon when my mom told me about her class’s project and asked me if I would think of a few gifts that a 12-13 year-old my age would want for Christmas. Little did I know that the teen whom my mom’s class was helping would have a great impact on my life and so many more.
The class’s mission project soon turned into something more tangible (as I believe to this day that ministry should do), a loving relationship with one’s neighbor. In an effort to get her kids into a safer and positive environment, Carmen began bringing her family to Shades Valley for worship, church school and youth group. I met Bonkey on our church’s Fall Youth Retreat in 1989. It was the first time we ever had a black member of our youth group and the first time I had ever slept in a room with someone who wasn’t white. I know that sounds foreign and even shocking to say now, but in the late 80s in Birmingham, such an occurrence was a huge cultural shift in my white suburban world. Thanks be to God.
The more Bonkey came to church, the more we got to know him. And his affable personality and great sense of humor made him an endearing part of our lives as youth (among the youth group at Shades Valley as well as with friends we hung out from other Presbyterian church youth groups in Birmingham and central Alabama like First Pres of Auburn, First Pres of Selma, etc.). Eventually, with help from the church, Bonkey, George and Angel moved into a safer mixed-race apartment neighborhood in the suburbs of Homewood, one of many smaller towns that make up Birmingham’s thriving metro area. Carmen continued with nursing school and Bonkey and his siblings enrolled at Shades Valley High School. With their worries and fears of their former home and situation behind them, the McCains began to flourish in their new environment as Carmen had hoped. Bonkey’s academics rapidly improved and the family was beginning to carve out a nicer life for themselves.
One of my most fond memories of Bonkey is from the 1991 Montreat Youth Conference. Every night before going to bed, Bonkey (who shared a room in Assembly Inn with me and two other guys from our youth group) would iron his T-shirts and shorts and clean his sneakers with a tooth-brush dabbed with water. It was an uncommon practice for most…well, most suburban white teens at the time, but for Bonkey it was about being appreciative of what you had. Even though Bonkey had more opportunities, there was a time when he didn’t. He said that he and his siblings, after a night of sleeping in the same bed with their mom, aunt and a relative (all arranged in different angels on a queen size bed), ate the same breakfast of oatmeal and wore the same clothes every day.
Bonkey learned only on the important of not taking anything for granted. To Bonkey, a T-shirt, pair of shorts and tennis shoes were more than just things that one could replace if they got dirty; they were symbols of a better and more productive life that brought him and his family out of the slums. Bonkey understood the value of taking care of the gift of the present and future he had received.
That same conference (which is a week long, Sunday to Saturday) Bonkey also taught us an extremely humorous and poignant lesson about how to deal with racism. Being a charmer and somewhat of a ladies’ man who befriended just about anyone, Bonkey met a couple of girls from another church youth group in another state who were two rooms down the hall from our room. One evening, Bonkey decided to invite them over to hang out. Knowing that we weren’t supposed to leave our rooms after the 11:30 pm curfew, he tied several coat hangers together and, reaching out of our bedroom window that overlooked Lake Susan, Bonkey tapped on the window of the girls’ room. They opened their window and whispered that they’d sneak over in a few minutes. Soon there was a knock on the door and the two (or three) girls came in. It’s vital to the story to note that the girls were white but worse they were extremely flighty, chatty and as it turned out…a bit racist.
Recognizing after about 15 minutes that the girls were not going to stop going on and on about various petty and ridiculous topics, Bonkey layed down on the floor in between the two beds in the room. Bonkey’s bed was actually the cot that was up against a wall on the other side of the room, but he went to the floor not because he was actually sleepy but to give off the subtle hint that it was time for the girls to go home. No sooner than Bonkey began his pretend bedtime, the mouths of the girls who were sitting on one of the beds dropped wide open. “Do you really make him sleep on the floor and not in a bed?!? Well, at least give him a pillow and a blanket!” And they proceeded to toss the bedding to Bonkey, completely comfortable with the notion that the three white guys would make the one black guy sleep on the floor because of his skin color, and thus condoning the perceived racist behavior themselves.
Never to miss an opportunity to kid around, Bonkey looked up at the girls and with a straight face said, “You know I can’t sleep in the same bed with no white boys.” I almost busted my gut and wet my pants trying not to laugh. The girls left soon after, still clueless as to what had taken place. We all fell to pieces in riotous laughter along with disbelief and indigence at the racist tone that was revealed. Bonkey took it in stride and while I don’t recall what he said, if anything at all, I learned that humor may be the most non-violent and loving response to ignorance and idiocy.
That story still makes me laugh out loud even now as I recount it here in this blog post. And at the same time, it’s those funny and poignant parts of Bonkey’s life that leave me feeling bittersweet during this Halloween season. Although it’s a beautiful Fall day outside in the upper 60s with the sun shining magnificently on the golden brown leaves, my heart feels blue inside. It does help to focus on other joys of the holiday–the impending trick-or-treating on Monday with my 3-year-old daughter Katie dressed as Mater from Cars; and the outing to Uncle Shucks Pumpkin Patch and Haunted Corn Maze in north Georgia with the HS youth from Pleasant Hill Pres, followed by a church lock-in and a service project at Shepherd’s Inn in downtown Atlanta early Sunday.
But at the same time, I can’t help but wonder about all of the life Bonkey missed–a loving wife and kids, a career he was passionate about, a loving church community and dear friends as well as all of the current events over the last two decades. Mostly, though, I lament not being able to share any of my life with him. As Katie and I were running errands yesterday, Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” popped up on my iPhone, much to Katie’s delight. I instantly thought and lamented at how grand it would’ve been to tell Bonkey that my little girl digs the music of Bob Marley or see Bonkey sing Marley or Boyz II Men to her.
There is so much that Bonkey never got to know and so much more of his short life and tragic death that shaped my faith as well as what I know and believe about the ways of love, peace, grace, justice and non-violence.