It has been about a year since we moved out of the “inner city.” It’s an experience we are still processing with many mixed feelings, among them relief, disappointment, and shame. It is a relief to be able to walk around the block without fear of hearing gunshots, to sleep at night with working heat and running water in the winter (since the pipes don’t freeze here), to not wake to banging noises wondering if we are being broken into. It is disappointing to feel isolated in our rented apartment, that even though our neighbors are friendly and engaging, our interactions tend to be brief and largely disconnected. And shame… I am still not sure why we feel that but we do.
Our relief from the acute and toxic stress of a dangerous neighborhood and an environment of poverty has been replaced by other kinds of stressors. The contrast strikes me as both humorous and bizarre. Instead of having a neighbor ask to borrow a few bucks, we have financial planners asking us to pay them thousands of dollars so that they can manage the rest of our money. Instead of worrying about our beater car getting broken into, I park it next to luxury vehicles in the physician parking lot. Instead of grumbling about sleeping in the hospital because the pipes froze at home, I dream of sleeping there to catch a break from the baby. Some forms of stress have merely been replaced by others, the superficiality of which often amuses and frustrates me.
It has been about a year since we moved, and in such mundane ways the time has been hard for us: a baby that doesn’t sleep, new positions at work as an attending, two board examinations, the occasional ill-timed illness. In these senses, life has become so busy that we sometimes forget that we are still newlyweds. Saying that we “celebrated” our first wedding anniversary with a newborn is like saying we celebrated freedom from financial debt by buying a mortgage.
Even so, I wonder at how much harder life would have been if we hadn’t moved, if we had to live with most of the stressors our neighbors did. What would it be like to work multiple minimum wage jobs? To buy formula and diapers with foodstamps and public assistance? To be so busy with work that I couldn’t cut the grass and be dogged with $50 fines? To see higher education as both a luxury and a gamble in debt as one of the few hopes of making a better but delayed income? To rely on some neighbors for help while regarding others as hostile? To go out for interviews and shopping and church and be judged by my skin and my circumstances? To get sick without health insurance or without cash reserves? To have municipal debt threaten me with a debtor’s prison?
It has been about a year since our migration from one part of the city to another. We only live ten minutes away and yet it feels like an entirely different city. We rarely contact our old neighbors, mostly because they too have been displaced by a variety and combination of things: eviction, love, rent discrimination, family ties, violence, incarceration. Some of these elements would compel anyone to relocate, but others are the consequences of force and disparity. We have made some attempts to reconnect with neighbors who were our friends, but the gravity of lifestyle and circumstance has largely pulled us apart.
My wife and I were driving and talking, weaving through the city to navigate around the interstate that divides it, when we realized that there were simply no physical spaces where we would naturally mix with our old neighbors. We probably wouldn’t see them at the grocery store because the best food prices are mostly outside the city limits. We probably wouldn’t see them at the schools because performance and attendance are also largely geographic. And we probably wouldn’t see them at church because, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “we must face the fact that in America… the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic.”
In the past year we have come to realize that our city is still segregated, not so much by law as by the formation of virtually independent societies. Mobility, access, and associations within these two separate spheres have been shaped and contained by race and economic privilege in such a way that there are really two Wilmingtons, two cities with few bridges between. And as much as we wanted to believe that the course of daily life would take us casually and easily between them, we have found that those crossings are characterized instead by a deliberate and sustained tension.
My wife and I recently watched “Selma.” We both had difficulty sleeping for the next few nights, almost as if we had watched a horror show. Part of it was the recognition of how blatantly racist and unjust our country had been, even within living memory. Part of it was also our experience that racial and economic injustice continued to exist in so many ways, and that its correction would be anything but painless or smooth. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote:
Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn. The reality of substantial investment to assist Negroes into the twentieth century, adjusting to Negro neighbors and genuine school integration, is still a nightmare for all too many white Americans. White America would have liked to believe that in the past ten years a mechanism had somehow been created that needed only orderly and smooth tending for the painless accomplishment of change. Yet this is precisely what has not been achieved. [….] These are the deepest causes for contemporary abrasions between the races. Loose and easy language about equality, resonant resolutions about brotherhood fall pleasantly on the ear, but for the Negro there is a credibility gap he cannot overlook. He remembers that with each modest advance the white population promptly raises the argument that the Negro has come far enough. Each step forward accents an ever-present tendency to backlash.
A small but very persistent voice in my head has wondered if our new life here simply affirms the reality of disparity: that our choice to live in a “better” neighborhood is an acknowledgment of our failure in a crazy experiment of integration and that we have now “come to our senses” to endorse the segregated way of life by quietly but steadily assimilating ourselves back into affluence.
I suppose that is why I feel ashamed. I feel weak and incapable. I feel spineless and lacking conviction. I feel guilty for having and enjoying good things, even though I would not begrudge them to anyone else. And even though I believe we did the right thing at the right time, even though I would not criticize someone else for making the same decisions we did, I still feel ashamed.
In such moments, I am reminded of how reconciliation will one day occur. It will take place in a single and unified City where there are no distinctions between the inner and the outer but will instead be commonly defined in reference to its identity as the home of God himself:
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
Even as we stop to consider our next steps in the city and continue to seek its good, my wife and I are reminded that our ultimate responsibility and fealty is to follow Jesus where he leads. Our responsibility is to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. We cannot explain fully why we are here now, nor can we assume we will stay for long, but in the presence and pursuit of Jesus we will come to know and be healed and be whole.