[This is an advance post in a series from the ESN blog. You can find the first part here or here.]
In the first post of this series, I was ruminating about a patient who had a rapid decline in health and social circumstances, culminating in a recent scan that showed the possibility of cancer even while he was struggling with homelessness. It was a bleak situation that caught me off guard because I was not expecting it and was grieved to think of what it would be like for him to die alone.
You can take me out the hood, but can’t take the hood out me Cause I’m ghetto. 50 cent, LB, &TY
I froze and my heart went racing. Time stops during an adrenaline rush, but a moment later I started to figure out what was happening. First, I realized that I had instinctively crouched and angled myself behind a slender tree. Then I realized that everyone else outside was still ambling down the street casually as if nothing had happened. The friend I’d been walking and talking with was already a few steps ahead and was now looking at me curiously, only just realizing that I had gone rigid, defensive, and wide-eyed.
I felt stupid. The sound came from a noisy truck that then clattered its way down the road, past the silent streetlamps and closed town shops of the suburban downtown center we were strolling through. It was ironic; we had just been talking about how different life in my neighborhood was from the environment we had grown up in and how much I enjoyed the sense of community there in comparison to the more isolated existence in the suburbs.
It’s amazing how much a year can change you.
A few weeks earlier…
*BANG… BANGBANG… BANGBANG*
Silence. I nearly dropped my groceries but then realized that the sounds were coming from somewhere beyond the backyard lot I was in. I had time, so I shut the car door and ran into the house. I locked the door, set down the bags, and listened. More silence. No more shots, no screeching car tires, but no sirens. Not yet. I waited a few more minutes, trying to listen over my own thudding heartbeat. Still nothing. I cautiously opened the door; other neighbors were doing the same, and I watched a car drive casually down the street.
Still no sirens, no flashing lights. I don’t know what possessed me except a few rapid calculations and conclusions that dominated my thoughts:
There are no more shots. People are starting to come out. Since it is broad daylight, most of the danger has probably passed.
But there are no sirens. No police. No EMS. It could take them minutes more.
Somebody could be seriously hurt. They might not have time.
I did something that, in retrospect, was really, really stupid. I got into my car and started to drive around the block.
It has been one year since moving into my current neighborhood, and it was an exciting, thrilling anniversary to celebrate. I wrote the following during my one month anniversary, when this website was first created:
… In retrospect, it was one of the best decisions I have ever made, since each day brings me a new story and hints that the life I once knew was not the life I was made for. It seems almost natural, with each passing day I am here, to believe that this is the way we should all live, though I am willing to give it more time to see the truth in that.
What did I do? I moved from a nice, single apartment near the hospital I work at and into a row house in the inner city where my patients live. I moved out of a fully furnished site with laundry and Fios and easy access to every modern convenience into a shared house and a room like my college dorm except smaller, without air conditioning, and with plenty of cockroaches and a gas leak that’s worse every time it rains. I moved away from neighbors I loved who were fellow physicians in training and into a house on a block where the neighbors shrug and freely confess they deal drugs to “make ends meet”, hold vigils in my back parking lot for gangsters who were shot, and are crazy enough to try my home cooking. I moved away from everything that was comfortable and safe into a world of rumors and sensational reputations and risk.
I thought I was going to write this blog to show off how daring and cavalier I am, but it really is just to share my daily struggle to overcome my fear of small things like the dark. I thought I was going to write about thugs and hoodlums, but there are only honest people, funny people, warm and tragic and open hearted people, understandable people here. I thought I came here to embrace the suffering and the lost, but am finding that it was I who needed a home.
I hope you enjoy the company you find here.
All those words still hold true, though their depth and character have matured with time. Some things change you, often more profoundly and deeply than the things you try to change. I thought about this a few days after this particular shooting when D, a neighbor and friend, and I went out to grab a lunch one Sunday afternoon. We ate a good lunch at a “local” diner, which was only two miles away from our houses but still a fair distance away from the “inner city.” It sat on a corner in what I had considered to be a blue-collar neighborhood, and as we drove around that block, D said, “This used to be a much nicer area, with houses that everyone wanted to live in. Doctors and lawyers used to live here.”
I was stunned for several reasons. One thing was my automatic disbelief; all the physician and lawyer houses I had ever been to were at least double, if not triple, the size of any of the tired houses before me. It seemed unbelievable that these houses had either depreciated in value or that professional salaries had increased that much. D was certainly the authority on the matter though; he was not only a construction contractor, but had grown up on the very block I lived in and, over a half-century of shared history with the city, had become my local historian and cultural expert. In fact, he told me once that doctors and lawyers used to live as neighbors on our block… the same block that now had half its doors boarded up, that had sex offenders and ex-cons taking up a fair percentage of the remaining homes, that had police sweeping the area for crack dens and gunshot calls.
The other thing that stunned me was that I, and perhaps D as well, had completely forgotten that a doctor still lived in the neighborhood. Me.
My hands trembling from the adrenaline, my ears still keen for the sounds of gunfire, I turned the corner out of my lot and down the street. I immediately saw a crowd of people gathered on the corner ahead and ran through another series of thoughts:
Lots of people means it’s probably very safe. People probably knew who did the shooting, and that he (or she?) was long gone.
But there are still no sirens, no lights, no police, no EMS.
And a crowd of people can only mean one thing: someone is down.
I parked at the curb and jumped out. I grabbed my emergency medical kit from the trunk, made sure to lock the door, and ran towards the man hold a blood-soaked towel to himself…
“Here they are!” people said with mixed relief. If they knew I was just a passerby, just a resident with a medical kit he bought on eBay, they might have been more worried…
Pulses were intact. There was little active bleeding left. Wound looked through and through.
No signs of shock yet, relatively little blood loss, and no evidence of major arterial or visceral damage.
Just hold pressure.
I then became dimly aware of another set of hands, of uniforms and radios, of holstered guns, of sirens — thank God for the sirens! — and my own trembling fingers. The patient was loaded up into an ambulance and rapidly disappeared. I finally became aware that some of the hysterical shouting had died down, that I was surrounded by yellow police tape, and that a number of police officers and firefighters were looking at me and my little orange bag very curiously.
“So… what are you doing here?” one of them asked with a very, very puzzled look on his face.
“I live here, just around the block.”
“Oh.” He paused. “Well, then you’re going to need a lot more bandages in that kit of yours.”
I looked down at my bag. He was right.
So that’s the story of treating my first gunshot wound “in the field,” as ER people like say. I was never an ER type of person; I like to sit around and mull things over, to tap out my thoughts onto a computer screen, to hem and haw and debate and discuss ideas over a cup of tea or even a muffin. I am not an adrenaline junkie; when I get nervous and wired, I begin to pace as my hands shake like a sheet of paper. I am not a risk taker; I am naturally an introvert whose idea of a good time is maybe going out to a movie and whose vacations generally consist of reading, writing, TV shows, and catching up with friends.
These are the sounds of firecrackers and bottle rockets, sounds that startle me in ways they never did before. They are supposed to be the sounds of celebration and liberty:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — Declaration of Independence
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. — Constitution
We celebrate those who take radical steps in departure from norms and stereotypes and typical expectations, who act decisively to forge something new or to defend something sacred, who act to move beyond the “ordinary and proper” in displacement as Henri Nouwen likes to say. But he would be quick to point out that the most radical thing is not what we do, but how and why we obey.
Let us not mistake the idea of voluntary displacement as an invitation to dramatic action. We might think that in order to become compassionate people we must make great farewell gestures to our families, friends, homes, and jobs. Such an interpretation of the call to displacement is more in the spirit of the American pioneers than in the spirit of the disciples of Christ. What we need to understand above all else is that voluntary displacement can only be an expression of discipleship when it is a response to a call — or, to say the same thing, when it is an act of obedience. Christians whose lives are marked by impressive forms of displacement explain their movements not as self-initiated projects with clear-cut objectives and goals, but as responses to a divine invitation that usually requires a long time to be heard and understood. — Henri Nouwen, Compassion
I am slowly realizing that I am made for the neighborhood because a neighborhood is about relationships and people far more than it is about resources and circumstances and gunshots and stuff. I remember the first time I heard gunshots in the neighborhood, how I breathlessly ducked beneath windows and spread myself out on the floor. It seems a little silly in retrospect and in comparison, and though I don’t think I will ever run towards the sound of gunfire again, I am coming to understand what Jesus meant when he asked us to simply become a good neighbor.
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance apriest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’
“Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” — Luke 10
True to form, there was a new group of people sitting around the dining room table, which had only gotten more chipped and rickety in the past few months. Again we came from very different backgrounds, but this group was particularly unique in that most were from out of town: people who had also chosen to move into the “inner city” of their communities and share their stories & experiences. Also present was X, who had recovered from his hoarseness and was back to his peppy, sassy self. Or at least, nearly so. “Man, when I first met D,” he said, gesturing to me, “I was like, ‘Who is this dude?’, and someone said, ‘He’s a doctor,’ and I said, ‘No way man! Are you kidding me?’ and so I asked you, ‘Are you a doctor?’ and you said, ‘Yes.’ and I was like, ‘Whaaaaaat? What’s a doctor doing here?’” He paused, and then in a surprisingly serious tone said, “All you guys in this house, you are like my brothers.”
I hesitate a lot in writing this, mainly because I fear appearing as if I am tooting my own horn and praising myself. I am a very new neighbor, still very shy and still very paranoid and fearful about the newness of the world around me. I continue to hide behind and learn from my intrepid roommate, whose daily courage and savoir-faire continues to teach me how to live, whose actions of neighborly love towards X have far exceeded my own in critical timing and influence. But I describe this moment to introduce one of the first true and genuine expressions of acceptance into this neighborhood, which has taken nearly four months to happen.
Over the next few posts, some of the other people sitting around the table that night will share their stories as “guest authors” here. All of them have gone through their own journeys of displacement, described as Henri Nouwen so aptly put it:
The paradox of the Christian community is that people are gathered together in voluntary displacement. The togetherness of those who form a Christian community is a being-gathered-in-displacement. According to Webster’s dictionary, displacement means, to move or to shift from the ordinary or proper place. This becomes a telling definition when we realize the extent to which we are preoccupied with adapting ourselves to the prevalent norms and values of our millieu. We want to be ordinary and proper people who live ordinary and proper lives… This is quite understandable since the ordinary and proper behavior that gives shape to an ordinary and proper life offers us the comforting illusion that things are under control and that everything extraordinary and improper can be kept outside the walls of our self-created fortress.
The call to community as we hear it from our Lord is the call to move away from the ordinary and proper places. Leave your father and mother. Let the dead bury the dead. Keep your hand on the plow and do not look back. Sell what you own, give the money to the poor and come follow me. The Gospels confront us with this persistent voice inviting us to move from where it is comfortable, from where we want to stay, from where we feel at home.
Why is this so central? It is central because in voluntary displacement, we cast off the illusion of “having it together” and thus begin to experience our true condition, which is that we, like everyone else, are pilgrims on the way, sinners in need of grace. Through voluntary displacement, we counteract the tendency to become settled in a false comfort and to forget the fundamentally unsettled position that we share with all people. Voluntary displacement leads us to the existential recognition of our inner brokenness and thus brings us to a deeper solidarity with the brokenness of our fellow human beings…
In voluntary displacement community is formed, deepened, and strengthened. In voluntary displacement we discover each other as members of the same human family with whom we can share our joys and sorrows. Each time we want to move back to what is ordinary and proper, each time we yearn to be settled and feel at home, we erect walls between ourselves and others, undermine community, and reduce compassion to the soft part of an essentially competitive life. — Henri Nouwen, Compassion
I have been spending time working with children and adults with developmental disabilities this past week. It has been a long week, and to help me process the many emotions and things I saw, I picked up a book to read about theology and disability. The author described the following story in his introduction:
One day a number of concerned mothers met with the minister to express their frustration and anger over the unseemly conduct of a particular boy in Sunday School. They did not want their children exposed to this child and feared what he represented. For it seemed that this boy was modeling “bad behavior” – verbal outbursts that sometimes involved profanity, a lack of sensitivity to other children’s personal space (occasionally biting them when irritated or provoked) and an unpredictably violent imagination when playing with toys. No Sunday school is equipped to handle problems of this magnitude. So upon expressing their indignation, the mothers requested that the minister call the child’s parents and ask that he not return to Sunday school. Obviously, there were family issues that needed serious and immediate attention.
The “problem child” was ours. My wife received the call early one morning. The minister was deeply apologetic and pastoral in his approach. But the damage had been done. What were we to do? Where could we go? Over the years, we had been through behavioral programs, family counseling, and psychiatric care. At this point, we were just beginning to come to terms with our son’s recent diagnosis: Tourette’s syndrome. Later, he would also be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. But at this point he was about seven years old, and we knew only of the Tourette’s. We stopped attending this church. In fact, we stopped attending church altogether. — Thomas E. Reynolds, Vulnerable Community: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality
In reflecting on these things, the following passage from Scripture came to mind:
You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.
- Revelation 3:17–18
This is not the time or the place to give a sermon on the nature of disability, but it is a place of worship. Under the Old Covenant, it was sinful man who was charged with the responsibility to humble himself and to sacrifice the blood of animals as a cleansing act of contrition in order to enter into the presence of a Holy and a Mighty God. But now, a New Covenant has been revealed in which the divine order has been reversed. Instead of asking us to repair our disabled selves, Jesus Christ disabled himself to live and breathe and walk among us. Jesus Christ,
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
This is the God we worship: the Servant King, who became a helpless babe for our sake, who allowed himself to be mocked and beaten and abused for our sake, who became disfigured for our sake, who bore the wrath of God for our sake. It is He, the Compassionate God, who offers us gold to take away our neediness, clothes to restore our dignity, and sight to see as He does.