We meet our neighbor Anthony standing on the stoop between our house and his, 9:30 at night, surveying the blue and red flashing of six cop cars turned and blocking-off the street just outside our house. By now the shrieking ambulance, the gauzed men on stretchers and the gunshots have been fired and have all strangely expired. With somber attention, we watch an officer as he draws a yellow square around the scene, slowly stringing the tape in a familiar ritual which suddenly seems so completely out-of-this-world – very real and surreal all at the same time.
“What do you think it was?” I ask – an effort to break the choking silence, to gain perspective. Our next-door-Brotha nods his head and flashes a wide grin.
“Drugs!” he shrugs, seems to almost laugh off our midwestern simplicity. Probably thinks we real naive, cut from hayseed or backwoods country fo’sho!
Most folks it appears are pretty nonchalant. Intrigued, actually. A man roller-skates away with a young bead-headed girl in his arms. Teenagers run up the hill to check the scene in front of our house. Mommas push their babies casually along the sidewalks. Pebbles, our dark-skinned friend who always wears flip-flops walks by and calls to us:
“Was it a drive by?”
My housemates answer they “heard gun shots and that’s all.” In the car several moments ago, Steven imitated the seven shots fast: “bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang!” We ask if the neighborhood’s always been like this, or if its just gotten bad recently.
“Three or four years ago, this never would’ve happened,” Anthony says. He lights up a cig, looks down the block and tells us he used to sell drugs about five blocks up, assures us he “doesn’t do that junk no more.” “These guys today,” he continues, “they ain’t got no respect it’s not like it used to be…they even ask my mom if she ‘alright,’ like she wanna buy somethin’!”
This is the beginning of a lengthy stream of conversation where Anthony tells us he’s been gone a while, living in South Carolina, over to Philly, then back to Wilmington. The neighborhood has changed: two violent shootings this summer, heavy drug-trafficking. We tell him where we work, that we are volunteers, ask where it is safe to walk. He is candid: “You walk on Vandevere?! Catch a bus, man! I don’t even walk that way alone.” He tells us stories of women he’s seen walking out of “port-a-johns barefoot in the morning,” like they’re “living there at night, doing tricks and sellin’ for drugs.” Anthony is one dark, tough-looking dude who can certainly “hold his own” just looking at him, but even he pumps a fist to emphasize that we shouldn’t walk anywhere by ourselves at night. “Well, welcome to the neighborhood,” he nods, shakes our hands, all six of us. “I can tell you all nice people. Hopefully this place don’t rub off on you too much, or maybe you rub off on them!”
With that, we turn to climb the porch stairs of our new residence, the Martin Luther King Jr., or “MiLK” House. Flip on the outside light, close and lock the door. This will be our home for the next year: Surprise! A white row house with matching white porch, thrifted wooden rocker, draped Tibetan prayer flags, potted sweet basil plants lining the stairs and a ferociously-free wildflower garden out front. People call us “The Missionaries” and I’ve been called “White Girl” walking home several times, as though I were the only one of my kind, so we are definitely set-apart within our community.
Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing here: another year of service for no pay, college loans looming over my head, sitting at a desk begging for money and writing grants all day, living yet again with complete strangers, feeling stranded in the concrete jungles of Wilmington, Delaware, no access to a car, fearing for my safety every day and living with compromised freedom miles away from family and home and everything familiar, and then I remember Jesus, His words, His commands. I remember the crippled homeless man I passed on the street today, who took the time to yell to me: “Jesus is the answer!” and I wonder how often in my nervousness and fear, I fail in proclaiming this profound truth. I wonder as I scurry the streets, preemptively judging the passersby and cringing at each corner, how others see me: am I truthfully reflecting Christs love? Am I in effect, avoiding my neighbors, my enemies, the very people Jesus asked me to encounter?
“If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:46-48.
As frightening as it has been and will continue to be, maybe it’s all right that we – that I – am so uncomfortable, that I stand out; after all, Jesus set the bar pretty high. This is the kind of diverse and rich and intimidating community into which Christ calls us.
In our dining room on the wall next to an old poster of MLK, pictures of Jesus, some leaves, and several hungry faces ripped from magazines, is a black-and-white photograph by Diane Arbus underscored with the following hand-printed quote:
“We might define true community as the place where the person you least want to live with, always lives.” -Parker Palmer
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