Home boy missions

WARNING: I’m left-handed, and I was raised with an especially cranky Scotch-Irish sense of egalitarianism, so I find it hard to just write things. I rant, and this is a rant, not a Ph.D. dissertation. I don’t know everything about everything, or even much about anything, so I’m sure some aspect of this can be picked apart by somebody. But I try very hard, when I rant, not to rant out of ignorance or stupidity.

If it turns out that a striking, thinking-outside-the-box solution is in the works to address any of the issues I describe below, that’s great. I will be happy to learn that I wasted my time writing all this.

I have to say that God has been so gracious to me recently. Things in life don’t make more sense; it’s been very clear this week that the world is definitely fallen, but my sense that God is in control despite appearances is pretty solid–right now.

That said, I am also feeling very Dickensian, very sarcastic and cynical about a few things. I am reading Dickens’ Bleak House, a powerful, passionate indictment of bureaucracy, child labor, religious hypocrisy, class warfare . . . the humor and the anger and the amazing descriptive language just don’t stop.

When I look at some things going on around me, I can’t help wanting to pin some complacent authority figure to the wall with withering sarcasm, including some people in authority in the Christian denomination of which my church is a part. What mostly ends up happening is me shaking my head, muttering “stupid” under my breath, and wishing I had a beer.

Case in point:

Yesterday, as I was walking home from the bus stop after work, I passed a house on my block where an older boy, maybe twelve, was playing with two younger boys, maybe in the five to seven range.

As I passed the house, I heard one of the younger boys shout, in a way that made my blood run cold, “Fuck you bitch! I’m going to kill you!” He was not directing his words at me; he clearly was repeating something he had heard, perhaps a number of times. He repeated his comments and eventually a woman came out and reprimanded him.

I don’t know the number of children in Rochester who, as the product of broken, abusive, or non-existent families, have the above drilled into them from birth, but every day, I see baby mommas of various ethnic backgrounds dragging small, tired, angry children on the bus, children who never see a loving father and whose lives alternate between being screamed at and being given expensive “prosti-tot” outfits, mini-Timberland boots, tiny suede hoodies, and all the Doritos and juice boxes their malnourished little stomachs can hold. And of course, when these indignities are not being heaped on their small heads, these little ones are, while Mom is “at program,” in day care where they have no opportunity to develop any bonds of trust with a caring adult who can model consistent, loving behavior.

I see baby daddies (also of various ethnic backgrounds) by the score wearing their rakishly tilted baseball caps, hoodies embossed with dollar signs and skulls in gold, baggy stone-washed jeans, and pristine, expensive sneakers. I hear them talk about fights, shootings, encounters with the police, sexual encounters with various “bitches,” sales of various drugs.

The epitome of this kind of conversation was a phone call I heard one day on the bus; from behind me, I heard a man talking on a cell phone: “Michael, I’m not kidding; if you don’t give me the money you owe me, I’ll kill you.” The whole bus fell silent for a few seconds.

I live in what someone once called a “marginal neighborhood.” There are a number of home owners on my street, but there are also a number of rental properties.

These buildings hold a shifting population of people of various ethnic backgrounds who are “on assistance.” Some of them, recently arrived Burmese and Bhutanese folks, are doing what they can to find work and better places to live because they, with a strong work/study ethic, are targets for others who have, for a number of generations now, slowly been stripped by circumstances and well-meaning authority figures of the same work ethic–until they are left only with anger, shame, and a belief that they cannot do better.

I have seen pictures from the early part of the twentieth century when my neighborhood was a showplace. I have met several people–responsible, middle-class people, who actually grew up on my street in the sixties and seventies and went to school in the neighborhood. There is a couple from my church that has lived a block down the street from me for quite a number of years.

So I know that my “marginal” neighborhood was once a desirable neighborhood where people lived for years and knew and cared about each other. It was once a neighborhood that was clean. No lawns littered with things like Dorito bags, McDonald’s wrappers, beer bottles, wadded-up baby diapers, tiny rock cocaine bags, and the odd sneaker. It was once a neighborhood that was quiet. No sounds in the distance, during the summer, of gun fire at one in the morning (or is it fireworks? hard to tell in July), no pitbulls barking in the dark.

I am in my neighborhood because, six years ago, I bought a decent-looking house that was a two-minute walk from a bus stop and a five-minute walk from a grocery store. I knew three families that owned homes within a block of me. City government was talking up home ownership and offering grants to first-time home buyers; talk of neighborhood renewal was in the air. . .

At this point, from my perspective, I am cynical about how much any government, liberal or conservative, can do to turn a “marginal” neighborhood around, whether it’s with home buying grants, a greater police presence, or well-publicized marches for peace.

But I become even more cynical when I consider what I have always heard: that the neighborhood issues I see played out daily would not exist if the Christian church would do some basic, practical things that it, in theory, has always been doing–sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry, educating the ignorant, soothing the wounded, all in the name of Christ who died and rose so that the wretched, damaged, and dispossessed (no matter what their ethnicity or income level) could have life and hope here and in the world to come.

At this point in my life, I find it astounding that men and women in my own Christian denomination will give up a middle-class life (good home, good job, good car, etc.) to go for Christ’s sake to places in the world where there are no hospitals, no flush toilets, and no cell towers. But they do not ever seem to think of giving up a cushy middle-class life to move into a “marginal” city neighborhood and share God’s love with the desperate people there by modeling a life of commitment to God and family.

No foreign language requirements for that kind of life. No need to give up pizza. And yet, when my denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, talks about home missions, it generally doesn’t seem to be thinking of the people I have described or their needs. It doesn’t encourage singles and young families to buy houses in urban neighborhoods, develop relationships, and begin to show that Christ is the ultimate answer to the needs of the desperate, lost people around them.

The cynic in me sees it this way: If someone is a spiritually dead communist in North Korea who might blow you in to the government and get you shot in the head, go for it. If someone is a spiritually dead drug dealer who might sic his dog on you and shoot you in the head, run away and hide.

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