I live in a neighborhood where the youth group comes on Spring Break. I see them prayer walking, prayer giggling, prayer flirting up and down my slushy, grimy streets. I hear them, and I am transported back to last summer, when the churches flocked in to the neighborhood parks, put up awnings, cooked a meal, gave a message. People wandered around in T-shirts that said “Bringing Good to the ‘Hood”. I went there a few times with my daughter, happy to eat a free chicken dinner. But I stared at the people running around in their lime green t-shirts, and I was confused. I forgot, for a moment, that I lived in the hood. Thanks for the reminder. I forgot, for a moment, that there was no good here until you showed up with your microphones and chicken dinners and matchy-matchy shirts. Thank you, thank you for bringing it, I shook my head slowly, wiped the sauce off of my daughter’s fingers. I felt sorry for the do-gooders who I am now willing to assign positive, if not ill-advised, intent. I felt bad for them, not being as enlightened and humble and missional as I was. I ate my free chicken dinner, on the dime of the large church a few blocks and a million years away from what goes on in this park, and I felt smug.
I had lived here one year. I too, in my heart of hearts, believed that I was bringing good to the hood. I had just learned to not put it on a t-shirt anymore.
I am an outsider wherever I go. I on-purpose moved into a neighborhood, a job, a life, and relationships with people who are so very different from me. It takes so much work, every day, just to navigate the perils of these differences. To try and understand better. To try and learn better. To try and advocate in a way that is actually needed. To will myself small, like the little seeds Jesus was so fond of.
But inside there are dreams of large trees, big enough to create safe havens for the birds of the air. I am writing, all day every day, in my head. The disasters, the miracles. The despair, the joy. The abuses, the sadness, the mental illness, the addictions, the disabilities; the perseverance, the community, the colors, the embraces. The erasers taped on to the end of a pencil. A box of free bananas in the hallway. The snow slowly melting to reveal a graveyard of vodka bottles, gray and blue and brown. The youth group roaming outside of my window, hungry and scared for that mysterious, inscrutable kingdom to come. I don’t even know it until I write it all down: I love them. I love everything about my life, even as it pulls me down, forces me to see inside myself in ways I never wished for. And that too, I must write about.
Every day I surround myself with people who are so different from me. Every day I write. There are so many ways I could do it better, so many fears of not doing it right. Like translating poetry, as my friend J.R. says. We have a choice: it is too much work, too perilous, too fraught with complications and you leave it be; or, you pick up your courage and try your darndest to translate to the very best of your ability. Either way, your heart comes out a little bit more broken.
One of my writer friends was talking to me about her own feelings on the subject. She mentioned the War Photographer series we ran here, and how she thought about it often. I just wish, she said, that so many people hadn’t ended in the place of “well, it’s really hard and complicated, so I guess I better not tell any stories”. Her voice is ringing in my ear, echoing what I don’t say often enough, but I believe right to my very core: there are so many stories waiting to be told, and they need to be told well.
I am in the thick of it; my life is a fine balance between learning and practice. Of getting high and mighty and then getting the smugness kicked out of you by life. Of blundering, learning, making mistakes, asking for forgiveness, picking yourself up and trying again. Of becoming paralyzed by our privilege and choices and systems, and forging on to be the miserable, lonely, messed-up agents of reconciliation that we really are.
I still have dreams of large trees, of beautiful safe places for the sparrows of our world. This, of course, is one dream in the kingdom of God. But for me, these types of dreams are so tied to productivity, problem-solving, tangible proof that I am bringing good, one small step away from a lime green t-shirt of my own. And the reality, the way I have seen the kingdom at work in my life is like seeds spilled and scattered on the ground. I am the farmer, oblivious and bumbling, not knowing how in the world these seeds sprout and grow. But they do, the seeds of Christ and his love for his world, they are sprouting all around. Some look like weeds to me, some look like fruit, they all look like people I know and love and am in relationship with. I always thought I would be ready for the harvest, a sickle in my hand, content to reap and be proud of all the good work I had done.
And instead I am being told to sit tight, listen hard, and watch the kingdom grow. Be prepared to have your heart broken over and over again. Pray for the day when you are no longer needed, and until then translate those poems you are privileged enough to see, the ones that often enough look scattered, lonely, decayed and forgotten.
And stick around long enough to see the good that grows up and out.