Despair

“He wasn’t a big time drug dealer or anything, you know? He didn’t have anything worth taking. I knew him.” My neighbor stopped for a moment, clearly shaken and deeply unnerved. “Why did this happen to him? We grew up together…”

His voice faded and we sat in silence. It was twilight in summer and one of those ordinary and warm and therefore active evenings in the neighborhood. I watched as people roamed up and down the street, meandering without any goals or focused ambition, simply enjoying the night and occasionally tossing my neighbor a casual greeting. He is typically gregarious and outgoing, the life of the party at nearly every party, but in those moments he barely responded.

I had come home from a long and late shift in the hospital, a place where it is not unexpected to spend time with those who are dying. I have gotten used to sitting in the silence and humidity of grief. And so I found myself listening to my neighbor tell me the story of a young man who had been shot to death in what was rumored to be an unusual mugging. I was listening to my friend as he struggled with the arbitrariness and injustice of the event, which was not uncommon.

And I was shocked. Not because it had been the third homicide in Wilmington in two weeks, but because he himself had been mugged at gunpoint around then and yet all he could talk about was how disturbed he was about the death of someone who was, at best, an acquaintance.

“I just don’t know. This world… it’s crazy. I don’t want to be here any more…” I could hear the hesitation and weight in his voice. He had welcomed me to the block, took me in like a friend, talked about me like family, and yet even so, the same neighborhood that had brought us together was, in its unpredictability and volatility, now threatening to tear us apart.

What is it like to live in the inner city? It is intense and very much like residency life in the hospital. It is about making faster friendships and deeper loyalties than you thought possible, with people whose very lives can end in a single bad night. It is a life that is difficult for spectators to understand, and therefore one that they may feel entitled to pity or to mock. And it is like work never leaves me alone, that all the joy and grief that comes from living as if your life depended on living and doing things together can come to such a senseless end…

No wonder we sat in silence, watching the electric street lights wash away the fading day.

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Street memorial. Christe eleison.

Despair

Fire and Smoke

There is an icebreaker question used in small groups: “If your house was on fire, what three things would you rescue?

The sunlight began creeping down our broken blinds, making its way into the late Sunday afternoon. I laid on the sofa exhausted, eyelids dragging. There was a pile of dirty laundry upstairs in my room, waiting for me to get up and take it to the laundromat, but I was tired after a long work week and so I lingered as my laundry languished. It felt good.

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Smoke

I heard sirens outside. Sirens were not unusual for my neighborhood so I didn’t move, but then a deep horn started blaring. Something wasn’t quite right. There were big red firetrucks outside and thin wafts of white smoke creeping into my porch. My eyes started burning. I coughed a few times, more out of fear than anything else, then stepped out into the afternoon daylight. Down the street, only a few doors away, thick black smoke was venting out of windows and into the air. Yellow-clad firefighters were already shattering windows and racing to grab equipment. They had a look and frantic hesitancy in their movements that I recognized; it was the same controlled panic that often surrounds a hospital’s code blue or a crashing patient. It meant that this was not trivial.

If your house was on fire, what three things would you rescue?” I actually paused in that moment to consider how useless that question was, because even in that instance, confronted with the very real possibility that my very small row house could burn down in minutes, I had little idea of what to save. There wasn’t much that would have made the list. Certainly not laundry.

Neighbors also stumbled out of their houses and spilled into the street. There was still snow on the ground and I shivered even while backing away from the fire down the street. Crowds of people clustered behind the firetrucks. A group of police officers milled about, shaking their heads at the scene. They ignored everyone except me, because I had pulled out my cell phone to snap some pictures, and only then did they gruffly warn me to back away from the area. I would have left the street entirely, but my car had been blocked in by the firetrucks.

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Firefighters and their trucks

Fire and smoke spread to the next house, closer to my own. Firefighters scrambled to anchor ladders in so that they could climb up. They revved chainsaws and clambered onto the rooftops, creating gaping holes for ventilation. My neighbors and I made small talk, watching the firefighters’ attack and salvage. Someone said they heard the fire was started because one of the many children in the house had put a broom on the stove.

I felt despair. Those children came to our house on Mondays to our little informal “milk and cookies” ministry. My fiancée and I had taken care of them many times, baking cookies together, drawing pictures and playing games, listening about their days, reading Bible stories. When I drove around the block to get to work, they would wave hello. As I watched the firefighters crawling over the houses like ants, it felt as if all those afternoons were literally evaporating in smoke.

“Economically depressed” neighborhoods like ours see high turnover for a variety of reasons. Houses are foreclosed, young men go to jail, wealthier owners flip properties, working mothers make too little money and move somewhere worse, or working mothers make too much and move somewhere better. Every now and then, disaster strikes and rarely do people have the insurance, financial savings, or optimism to stay and rebuild. Those who are there for the long run seem to be forced to stay. Many houses are abandoned, Some can’t sell their properties because the value is just too low, and some are too ill or too lacking in social support to muster the reserves to leave.

This has been my neighborhood for nearly two years now, and it feels strange to have been here longer than a number of neighbors. It has been difficult to watch hard-won friendships vanish like smoke, and what has made it more complicated is the constant temptation and capacity to leave as well. It is sad to me that no neighbor expects me to stay, but what has been more surprising (and discouraging) is that friends, family, and acquaintances of more affluent means express incredulity that I choose to stay and repeatedly encourage me to leave. All of them simply want a safer and less uncertain life for me, and I appreciate that. But some have said much harder things. They have told me that it is not worth it, have harshly questioned the altruism of my motives (even as they enjoy life outside the city), have accused me of a Messiah complex, and have called me “sick in the head”. They have told me that I write these entries out of self-promotion and pride, that I am self-centered, and that I am leading people astray and glorifying poverty. They say that I am distracting people from the Gospel, that I am being disobedient to God, and that I have wrongly misinterpreted His calling (which is to pursue the maximal safety and security of my family.)

And they would be right. Or at least, they would be if I were here for any other reason than love.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.1 Corinthians 13:1–3

I have been called to stay here, not because of any change I can accomplish but because I want to learn how to love my neighbor. That is all. It is a very simple thing, even if it is not an easy one. There are many times when I am selfish and boastful and proud, but those are not reasons to stay or to leave. These are the people God has placed in my life, and I should not live as if I can choose my neighbors. Isn’t the parable of the Good Samaritan prompted by an effort to justify a narrow definition of a 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?” — Luke 10

What does it mean to love our neighbors? The common thread among contributors here is that, primarily, it means following Jesus where He leads and choosing to make a home there. For that, we wish to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure. We wish to love.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. — 1 Corinthians 13

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Fire and Smoke