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.

memorial
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

Bang

You can take me out the hood, but can’t take the hood out me
Cause I’m ghetto.
50 cent, LB, & TY

*BANG*

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…

*BANGBANG BANGBANG BANG*

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.

Other cars are driving around…

If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?

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.

*BANG BANG BANG*

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

I ordered some “combat wound dressing,” designed to stop profuse bleeding quickly. Hope I don’t have to use it!
Bang

Selection Bias: Statistical Integrity in Christian Community

Originally a guest post for the Emerging Scholars Network (a ministry of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship):

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

Engineering does not often apply directly to faith, but one method that has transformed the way I view community is a commitment to statistical honesty. In reading papers and critiques of clinical trials, one thing that comes up repeatedly is the question, “Is the community they engaged in this trial one that is diverse? Does it represent society in general? Can it translate into meaningful implications for the people I treat? Or were these participants selected in a biased way to favor a certain outcome? Is there a skew that limits how we may interpret and understand the world?”

One day it struck me to think about my own community with a similar critique. If I took a random sample of my friends from work, my neighborhood, and my church, would it look like it was truly random? Would there be an overrepresentation of certain types of people or a paucity in others? Would that statistical bias be a reflection of intentionality or a revelation in exclusivity?

I did a brief mental estimation and was not happy with the results. It is my natural human tendency to surround myself with others who think like me, talk like me, and act like me. What I have been grateful for in the work of medicine is being forced into contact with those who are very different from me, those whom, I am ashamed to say, I would not ordinarily choose as neighbors, associates, or friends. Through this means of grace, in the past year alone I have encountered former drug dealers and drug addicts, millionaires and mansion owners, wheelchair riders and deaf academics, judges and janitors, Holocaust survivors and pedophiles, saints and sinners. Though my coworkers (and myself) have often varied in expressions of compassion, we were obligated by both law and ethic to work with them in seeking their greatest benefit.

And so I found myself wondering, “Who is my neighbor? And have I shaped the courses of my encounters, friendships, and associations to suit their needs or my own?” I found that I did not like the answer: that my friends were mainly from certain ethnic groups, certain socioeconomic demographics, certain intellectual capacities and predispositions, certain persuasions of personality and even certain sects of faith. I had groomed and self-selected myself into becoming a statistical outlier in ways incompatible with the gospel, and it grieved me to think of those I had hurt in my exclusivity.

In this season of Lent, it is both sobering and encouraging to consider Christ’s disabled state, the divinity of he whose statistical cross-section of acquaintances included fishermen and Pharisees, tax collectors and political zealots, Samaritans and the blind, lepers and the governor’s wife, Centurions and servants:

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!
Philip­pi­ans 2:6–8

Selection Bias: Statistical Integrity in Christian Community

My Most Dangerous Neighbor

My most dangerous neighbor actually died half a year ago. I am told she was an elderly lady who used to live in the house next door. The family didn’t want to give up the property at the time, but they didn’t want to board it up like the other abandoned or condemned row houses on the block, so they just quietly locked it and left a light or two on.

I couldn’t tell at first; the porch seemed fairly decent, and I hadn’t been spending much time on my own front step anyways to note the absence of traffic to and from the house. I was still scared of the people out there, the neighbors I didn’t know. I suppose it’s no real surprise that they didn’t know I lived there either, that I was less known or appreciated than my deceased neighbor.

But nothing stays a secret here for long; after a while, everybody knows everybody’s business. Some enterprising fellow found out about my late neighbor and decided to swipe a few pipes from my neighbor’s house, most likely to sell them for scrap. One of those things also included a part of the gas line. My housemate was the first to smell the gas and, at 11PM, called it in to the fire department, who promptly showed up and eventually figured out what was going on (by breaking into the neighbor’s house). Turns out that gas was seeping into our basement too, and that only God’s grace kept our two houses from lighting up. Through this discovery process, we got temporarily evicted from the house and I found myself milling about the street and chatting with my (living) neighbors. The kids were buzzing with amusement and I joined the adults in snapping pictures on my cell phone of the excitement and chatting about life on the block. My neighbors were kind and offered us a place to stay for the night, but things cleared up enough to let us back in and sleep. Despite all the excitement, I slept well that night, oddly feeling more attached to my new home even though it had been trying to kill me.

My Most Dangerous Neighbor