I post this as an Irish-American who grew up in one of the toughest ghettos in the country, in Richmond, California.
This post is about people I dearly love, people who are hurting, people who need our prayers.
I am speaking, of course, of our brothers and sisters in our nation’s ghettos.
I grew up in such a place, and can say from personal experience that these places are beset by violence, and despair is a constant temptation when you are immersed in such a place.
And yet, I also know with St Paul that “where sin abounds, Grace abounds even more.” There is a kinship and instinctive sense of community in the old hood that I’ve not experienced in other places I’ve lived. People look out for one another. And more than that, these places bring forth a saintly response to the ongoing crisis from the people who live there.
A few years ago, I met a woman named Hope in a support group for survivors of violent crime. A year before, she had lost one grandson to murder, and almost exactly a year later, she had lost her remaining grandson in the same manner, and he had bled out on almost the exact same patch of street as his brother.
I held her hand as she wept for her lost children, and pain came off of her in waves. It was as if the skin of her face was floating on an ocean of tears. She had loved those two children with fierce, maternal love, and losing them was like living a nightmare.
But she took up the cross of her grief, and reached out to the kids in the neighborhood, doing the best she could to prevent another mother’s or grandmother’s heart from breaking as hers had. She prayed, she worked, she filled her days with service. She is a saint. She needs your prayers.
But there is not only tragedy and violence in those places. There are also human treasures there. Many, many of them.
I remember an older kid who lived 5 houses down the block from me. He had had polio, and so had those braces on his legs, and eventually ended up in a wheelchair, but his heart was big and loving and more generous to me than I deserved. His immobility made him a keen observer of the goings-on in the neighborhood. I remember sitting on his porch on summer afternoons while he shared his concern for a family across the way who had hit a rough patch, his excitement at the college prospects of the high-school aged boy of the family next to them, and why Mean Mrs. Warner was such a bitter old lady – her late husband had drunk a lot, and she had put up with a lot from him. I don’t think my wheelchair-bound friend ever saw himself as a mentor – he just enjoyed my company, and I his – but I learned an immense amount from him about seeing without judging, and about taking whatever situation God puts you in and making the best of it.
Mr Pender, a retired man who lived next door with his wife, had a real tenderness toward animals. There were stray cats all over the neighborhood, and he would take them in and make sure they found proper homes. His wife had had a stroke, and so he would carry tenderly her out to his car sometimes when they went off to church. Mrs. Pender had a sixth sense about when the streets were getting rough, and would take me in and feed me hot chocolate on rainy winter afternoons, and made a point of telling me that she just knew I was going to grow into a very special young man.
If America is to be truly a Christian nation, we must realize our fundamental kinship with all who share our shores. The ongoing emergency in our Ghettos is our greatest moral scandal. The grinding poverty, the un-consoled victims and relatives whose bodies and minds have been wounded by violence, the economic and political abandonment of the people in these places by those with the means to give them truly substantive help, have made them virtually forgotten people – People Who Don’t Matter. This separation is deeply wounding for people on both sides of the divide.
The only difference between my childhood neighbors and everyone else in this country is miles, money, luck, and the lingering echoes of an unspeakably sad history.
People in our ghettos are our brothers and sisters. They are truly Us. And more than that: I look at Hope, and at the older kid from down the block, and at my dear neighbor Mrs. Pender, and I see the Face of Christ.
We must be reconciled with them as our brothers and sisters. I pray that we will find one another across the desolating separation, and I believe that this is possible. When we do, the streets will resound with the aching joy of reunion, and we will embrace our brothers and sisters with gratitude.