I write about discovering urban poverty as if it were the ruins of the Santa Maria. It probably seems ridiculous, but maybe not. Because the earth almost shook and the ground almost split. It was surreal, tangible, shocking. Everything that had only been theoretical slid in from the edges and piled up around us.
Here it was.
This was middle-American poverty and it burned my eyes.
There was nothing sensational or strangely street-glam about it.
Rap music might bang out its bass-line, but this wasn't the backdrop for a hig-def video roped in gold chains with corks popping and legs for days.
This was my community, the streets and corners I'd always vaguely known about but had never identified as "mine". It had never mattered to me before.
The reality was painful, the burden impossible.
I felt helpless, then guilty. Guilty, then helpless.
Most of all, I was terrified.
It was little more than a glimpse, not nearly close enough to the flames for my cheeks to feel hot, but before long, my feet started moving. For the first time ever, it wasn't to run back into my bubble.
I was pulled straight into the gutter, and I brought all my garbage with me.
Down in a new kind of mess, I learned names and memorized the precise furrow of her brow, the pitch of his laugh, the way she wrapped her hair up in six different loops then just left it up there on her head, looking so fabulous I wanted to snatch it up and keep it for myself.
Knee deep in their weeds and tangled up in my own,we grew quite fond of each other.
I started to see the ways we each have something to offer.
Since then, we've traded heated words, we've lost our tempers, we've hoisted our Ugly flags. We have given up on each other a thousand times. We have walked away and said we were done. We have judged. We've used and been used. We've banged our heads against ever-changing walls and scraped and re-scraped the fragments of our honor for each other into something we could hold.
We have celebrated life, grieved loss, clocked the miles, opened the doors.
Some friends become permanent fixtures, others just pass through, but never without leaving their mark. Either way, there's something about simply knowing and being known.
Sometimes, we retreat.
Sometimes we force our way back in.
All along, we have loved.
Every day, their love is our gift.
I still find myself pushing back the American impulse that rises up, telling me there should be an agenda here. We should either be fixing them or gaining wisdom and patience while we try. We should prescribe our middle-class remedies to their generations of doing-things-a-different-way and watch with delight as poverty snakes down the drain in shame.
At least we know enough now to eventually recognize our stunning arrogance.
Now and then, we're evolved enough to stop it in its tracks.
But often, we just keep being the same faulty humans, so mixed up, so turned around.
We keep failing our friends and our friends keep failing us.
We take turns, trade seats.
We hold their lives to the light and combust with the heat of our own glaring poverty.
Slowly, often imperceptibly, we drag each other back out into the noonday sun, where all the filth is exposed and there's no time to find shade.
We teach and learn and I hate the ways we keep screwing things up.
But the point was never perfection.
The point was community - sharing a messy life, in slivers and in shards.
There is no us/them.
There are humans fighting for each other, humans more aware of each other, humans believing God wasn't playing games when he called us His family, effectively binding us together despite the barriers that always made us think we were meant to stay apart.
When we decide who belongs to each other, who is similar enough or different enough or..or...or.. We interfere with His wild plan of redemption for every one of us. When we make this all about cash or power, we miss the entire point.
This is the purpose of community - coming together to celebrate, work, learn, and drink watered-down Coke from a sweating paper cup.
I never cared until I knew their names.
And they might say the same.