Friday, August 22, 2014

Back in the Neighborhood

Yesterday, Miguel and I led a team of neighborhood volunteers, and every kid who came to our apartment for help with homework got specific attention and finished her or his assignments. It was noisy. Hands shot up. Kids shouted out questions. We kept order and held mental lists of requests in our head, moving from kid to kid, deciding how best to help them.

After two hours, we sent the elementary and middle school students home, bought hot wings for the leaders and sat with them around the living room table talking about soccer, Ferguson, the new baby, music, and the lives that come through our apartment.

We're at the tail end of an exciting week. Our ministry newsletter is being printed and shipped. After praying, writing letters, and sharing a petition, we saw an immigrant father released from detention and reunited with his family. We received requests to share the story of this ministry in nearby churches. We spent time with mentors and co-workers.

This morning, I spent time reading the book of Exodus and studying Spanish. After writing this blog entry, I'll clean up the last traces of the chaos of our after-school program. This rhythm of hard neighborhood work punctuated by time to learn, write, and reflect is something we've been praying for since we moved into this neighborhood nearly six years ago.

Thank you to everyone who gave to make this transition possible. We're thankful for your generosity, and we're working to put together gifts which will be headed your way soon.

Here are a few of the other good things that we can look forward to as we continue to grow:
  • Renaming: The jewelry work will keep the "Refugee Beads" name, but we're planning to name our afterschool program and youth mentoring work. This will allow us to tell their stories better and open more doors for them to grow. 
  • Storytelling: In collaboration with Storyboard, the artist's collective of Open Table Community, I plan to tell more neighborhood stories in print, video, and song. Look for more updates on our blog and facebook page as well. 
  • Teaching: I'm excited to gather some of the interested young men in the neighborhood to talk about their spiritual journeys and share the good news of God's love for them. 

Whether you've prayed for us, supported us, walked with us, or read our story with interest, thank you for your part in placing us here and sustaining us in this good work.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Violence and Place

At the park next to our home, about three years ago, I stood on the sidelines as a coach and saw a fight develop between my team and the other. 

Like most fights, it overshadowed its first cause. I can't remember who said what to get it going. I know that David, a striker who also plays American football for his school, was at the center of most of our fights that year.

But teams lined up according to the colors of their jerseys, shouted, and advanced toward one another across the small, dusty field. The referee shook his head and watched. I ran to the middle, demanding that my players calm down, waving the other team off, making eye contact with David. 

Probably because no one really wanted a fight, the lines dissolved, we gathered our gear, and everyone headed home.

Three years later, most of that team has graduated from high school. Two of them are in jail. Others have drifted to other teams. Some have stopped playing soccer for the sake of raising kids or working. The few who stayed together have formed a men's team, and I play with them every Sunday night.

David hasn't gotten into a single fight since I've been playing in this league. A large part of it, I'm sure, is the fact that he's been growing in character. I'd like to think that I helped set a tone of togetherness that helped remove violence from within the team during the years that I coached, but there were so many other factors that it's hard to make any claims.

I'm often the only white man on the field, and I feel my strangeness whenever I stop to think about it. But generally, we're out there playing together and yelling at one another and working together to win. I've earned the right to sink into the fabric of the place a little bit.

This morning I read in Genesis where God decided to release a flood on the earth. There's a lot about the wickedness of man and general rebellion, but when God finally identifies a specific behavior that exasperates him, it's violence. This comes on the heels of the story of Cain and Abel.

Violence is a dominant force in our neighborhood. Police use it to identify and contain my neighbors, fathers teach it to their children, alcohol and drugs exacerbate it, and kids nurture and practice it among themselves on the soccer fields, at school, and in their homes.

I think that in the modest arena of our soccer team, we've seen progress. And while Ruthie and I really can't claim credit for it, we can say that we've become part of the spread of peace by becoming part of the neighborhood.

I've been reading responses to violence in Gaza, Missouri and Iraq online. Someone did something to someone else, and someone got violent and did harm, and the other saw violence as a necessary response, and violence multiplied and claimed families then regions, and it seems to be ruling the world and claiming nations as its servants these days.

Bloodshed is being applied recklessly and out of scale with the problems it's supposed to be solving.

I can only add to this conversation a modest truth that I've learned in the few years that I've been living as a white person in a neighborhood peopled by those who our nation's system of violence has pursued, oppressed, and defined. 

Christlike love for neighbor is an antidote to violence which is available to any person willing to practice it. Christlike in the sense of entering into the neighborhood, encountering violence in its arena, and fostering grace there. 

This leaves those who claim to desire peace with an uncomfortable first step to take. To love neighbors out of the nightmare of violence, we have to be neighbors first. We have to step onto the field where the fight is brewing.