I am thankful for this testimony which shares the humanity and love experienced while living in an urban community. Welcome, Megan Westra.
“Do you feel safe?”
Well, not always.
I’m getting used to it now. The wide eyes and once-in-awhile gaping mouth. “Where do you live?”
I live in the inner city. On purpose. And I have no plans of leaving.
I have been robbed five times. I have witnessed a drug deal while sitting on my front porch. My block has been taped off with police line while the cops hunted down an armed assailant.
This is the inner city people think of when I talk about where I live, and they’re right. That is part of it.
There is violence and corruption in the inner city, but that’s not all there is.
There is also grandmothers who welcome their seven grandchildren, five great-nieces and nephews and any other lonely soul – yourself included – in for lemonade and cookies.
There is also a young man, a freshman in high school, who plays five instruments, writes music, is fantastic with children and was just elected president of the student body at his school.
There is also this older couple down the block who have lived in the neighborhood since the 1970’s, own their home and are now retired. You’ve never seen the genuine, light- up-a-room smile leave his face, and she makes the best peanut butter cookies in the world.
When groups of teenage boys hang out on porch steps in your neighborhood sometimes they’re tossing dice and killing time, and sometimes they’re writing a rap about the importance of trees and wildlife to the wellbeing of a community.
But people never ask about that. They just want to know “Do you feel safe?”
There is typically no concern expressed for my neighbors or the residents in the area as a whole, and honestly, their safety is probably more at risk than my own.
You see, I have a good landlord. The church I work for owns the house my family lives in. They installed a security system and they make sure that leaky pipes are fixed, broken porch rails are mended and holes in the roof get patched.
My neighbor’s ceiling caved in on her two-year-old daughter and her landlord – who lives in Utah – did nothing, save evict her and her two very young daughters when she stopped paying rent in protest.
It may go against every inkling you have, but you need to know that being white keeps me safe in my neighborhood. Most crime in my city is black-on-black or latino-on-latino or white-on-white. I’m a white person living in a black neighborhood. The violence isn’t directed at me, typically.
I’m surrounded by brokenness and broken systems, violence and the despair that settles like soot over disappointment time and again, but these scorching flames rarely do much more than lick hot at my heels.
While reading Gary Haugen’s recently-released book The Locust Effect I was struck by how similar the gut wrenching stories he recounts from the developing world were to the horrors I see in my neighborhood.
I asked Gary during a Google+ Hangout what could be done about everyday violence in the lives of the impoverished people living in our U.S. cities. His answer? Get closer. Proximity is key.
So no, I’m not always safe in my neighborhood, but many of my neighbors live the horror of never being safe. Whether violence takes the form of a neglectful landlord, robbers, assailants, verbal assault, something drug related, or racial profiling and police brutality.
We cannot understand how the epidemic of everyday violence effects the U.S. unless we see it, unless we get close enough to hear the stories whispered with bated breath. And to do that, we must move closer, even if that means we put our own safety at risk sometimes.
I have no illusions of being able to change the way the story ends, but I do have every intention of doing my part to make sure we don’t continue to plow down this path ignorant of the people who are falling and dying as we press on. There were 106 homicides in my city last year*, and many other assaults, attacks, and robberies. There are also thousands of properties falling in disarray due to absentee landlords and slumlords, broken systems at every turn and a criminal justice system that is locking up over 12% of the African American men in my city – twice the national average**. Injustice and every day violence is abundant, but as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. prophetically noted, there is only one way to drive out hatred, and that is love. I would add in that same vein that there is only one way for violence to cease, and that is for peace to move closer and take up residence.
Is this not the example Christ has set for us? That in the midst of hurt and despair and disarray, healing and hope and redemption move in all the more closely. That Love wraps itself in the wounds it is trying to heal and says “I’ll take it.” Is this not true justice? That the Word became flesh and came to dwell among us (John 1)? And so, may we press in ever closer. Following hard after Immanuel – God with us – may we too incarnate ourselves and the Spirit we bear within us into the places where hope, healing and restoration is needed most.
What ways do you see every day violence in your community? Do you see it at all? How can you get closer to see the hidden pain that is lurking beneath the surface in your community?
*”Fatal shooting brings 2013 homicide tally to 106.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 1, 2014
**”Wisconsin’s Mass Incarceration of African American Males: Workforce Challenges for 2013.” John Pawasarat and Lois M. Quinn. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 2013.