I think what I love and what is hard about living in North Minneapolis is that all the time, in all circumstances, no matter what, simultaneously things are awesome and difficult. Beautiful and painful. Bittersweet. Roses and thorns. Inspiring and hopeless. It's a weird thing to recognize and an even weirder thing to live in all the time.
And as I write this I recognize that this is the nature of humanity. I believe that to be truer than most things I believe in. However, I think we are really good at hiding it. The painful and ugly parts at least. So while we inherently know that nothing is perfect or all good, or just simply beautiful, in many American subcultures it appears to be true. That things are better in the suburbs. That nothing bad happens in rural America. That if you have a big house and someone else comes to cut your lawn and the hot pool boy is just your style, then your life is great. No skeletons in the closet if you will.
And that is total rubbish.
But living here in NoMi there is no pretending. I mean At. All. People live as unique individuals, fully and wholly themselves. You are who you are if someone has a problem with that, then that's on them. We are a personal and public proclamation that there is good and hard in not only each person, but that it manifests itself in our cultures and communities. Just the other day a gal boldly walked down the street in just her bra and tight pants. People here live their lives out in the open. Arguments in the front lawn or back alley, derogatory remarks being thrown out windows like candy in a parade. We don't hide. We embrace it almost to a fault. I actually enjoy the freedom that this openness brings. But there are many days I wish I could go back to being a bit more ignorant or naive to all the hard things like I was before. Living the lie that if you don't see it happening then it must not be real right? Well, we see a lot here, so our carefully crafted world of make believe no longer exists. Every day we are reminded that humanity and sin can be dark and scary and sometimes it pretends to be your friend, till it back stabs you or shoots you with 9mm.
And yet, there is still something more in this for me. More than the understanding that there is evil in our world. It's never just a reminder that we as people have a long way to go in using our powers for good and not evil. My understanding that because I believe God created each and everyone of us, than each us has been touched by him. That we each live with his imprint on our soul. It is this belief that we have both beauty and madness in each of us, and this has a way of slipping under my skin and actually changing the chemical make up of my DNA and how I live and approach the world from this point forward.
This past Sunday we hosted a gathering at the NoMi Homie Community garden. It was a time for neighbors to come together and help weed the plots and install the Free Little Library. Folks came and it was so good! Kids were running in the sprinkler, people met new neighbors and got to know one another, and we weeded a bunch. (Yet, with a garden our size, it still didn't seem to make much of an effect!) If the very nature of community gardens is to bring people together to nurture real food and real relationships all the while reconnecting to the earth, than Sunday we hit it out of the park. It was all of those things and I know it warmed each of us there from the inside out, bursting the jaded parts of living here with bright lights of hope. It was restoration of faith in humanity at its most simplest of forms. It was catching glimpses of God in each of us in the way he longs to be seen. When the work was done, we grilled out, harvested lettuce from the garden poured the chilled wine as the adults rested and the kids ran free.
That was when we noticed a small 2yr old boy running in the sprinkler that didn't belong to anyone. We kind of gave each other the look of, "He has to have parents around here somewhere right? Or at least a brother or sister or cousin who is watching him?" We pulled him out of the garden, (as he was just trampling over everything) and asked him where his mom was. Nothing but a big smile and a giggle.
So we tried again.
Nothing. We each looked around and came up...empty. No one was around. No one was sitting on their stoop paying attention. None of the kids remembered where he came from. It was as if he just teleported himself there to the middle of the garden to play in the sprinkler.
We went two doors down and asked the dude sitting on his porch if he had ever seen this kid.
Nope. But maybe we should try the house behind him. There were always kids there.
So my neighbor Joab and I walked through the alley and started knocking on back doors. Now, being someone who lives here and knows how things work, I did this once and then realized we would get no where. Most people don't even open their front door, let alone the back door. That move is marked with shady and laced with danger. So Joab put our little garden boy up on his shoulders and we started walking the street, asking anyone we saw if they knew this little boy. What his name might be. Where he lived. Do they know his mother. Five houses and a few other poor folks who got caught up in our mystery game as they were getting out of their car and no one had any answers.
I can't imagine what we looked like. Here two strangers walk up to you and ask if you have ever seen this little boy before. They confess they are trying to find his home because he is lost. It was interesting watching the range of emotion of the folks we asked. Clearly, we have a lost child on our hands. Most aren't that surprised. Which is sad in and of itself. A few were in different, most likely understanding that his home would eventually be found, it wasn't that big of a deal. And then you had the mothers who were genuinely concerned. But I just kept thinking,
"We have to find this child's family. If we don't then we must call the police and this little boy's life from this point forward will never be the same. The mother who lost him, or neglected him, will be irrevocably punished for her mistake. He would be taken from her. He could end up in a foster home that's abusive. He would be separated from his family if not forever than for a long time in a strangers home with strange people."
In this moment we were holding the future of this child in our hands and the weight of that was incredibly overwhelming. It felt wrong and broken and sad. For him. For his mother or family who didn't know he was missing. It all just felt heavy, in the way you have that foreboding feeling that something bad is going to happen.
There we stood looking at each other, neighbors and friends, holding this very sweet little boy with no home and no name. (the kids had kindly nicknamed him garden boy) We were running out of options, but we weren't ready to involve the cops. Not just yet. Joab had a gut feeling about a house across the street and down the block. So we went for it. As we approached the house, we called out to the people on the porch. When the guy game out he looked at us a little strange, and it actually took him till we asked, "Do you know this little boy? We don't know where he lives." that he actually gave the child a second glance and was like, "Oh yeah, he's with us. Thanks." All casual and cool and nonchalant. You know, as if missing a 2yr old for almost an hour is no big deal.
So we handed him back. Just gave him over to a family who didn't notice he was missing. Who wasn't looking for him. Who apparently didn't notice his lack of activity in the house or voice or his getting into everything because you know, he's 2!
It was indifference.
And so with the little boy handed back to his family, we headed our way towards the community garden to share in the communal meal that was prepared. To sit and be with one another. It was supposed to be a beautiful moment of rest and peace and laughter after a few hours of hard work to bring beauty to the northside.
And now it was tainted.
It was bittersweet.
Beautiful and hard.
It was tainted with sadness and heartache and the heavy that comes from the awareness of the broken places that always exist that we wish didn't.
From our little corner where we ate, we watched our little garden boy run away from home a few more times. Each time now however, there was a mom chasing him. Or getting to him before he made it completely back to the garden. And as I sat there, watching all of this, experiencing it in the moment, I thought lots of things:
- That poor mama who's mistake is being witnessed by strangers and most possible being greatly judged for her lack of focus for her child. My empathy is not a full pass to neglect, however, I have also been the mom who didn't know where her kid was at one time. (each per kid. Maybe once a year.)
- It becomes easy to judge others. To sit there throwing around words that cut her down without ever even talking with her and finding out her story. Because I don't know her, she becomes an easier target for my hate and frustration. In on simple act, she becomes the spokesperson for all that is wrong in our neighborhood. The story we make an example of when trying to tell people of all the crazy crap that happens here. It becomes unfair to her and wrong of me to put the entirety of the burden of a downtrodden culture squarely on her shoulders.
- Then in that moment it had me pondering all of my mistakes which are many and great and happen frequently. I am no different than this woman. Our shortcomings and weaknesses and temptations might be different, but we still both have them.
- The lack of this understanding started to become abundantly clear. One of the issues I have living here is how quick people are to judge and yell and cast stones. And we do because its real easy. I mean people do some really stupid crap here. Then those choices start to separate us. We use it as a divider to keep us apart and on different sides of the block. The people who do bad and hurtful things, and those who don't. Those who are trying to make this place a little bit better, and those who could care less. Those who take peaceful walks, and those who sole purpose is to disturb the peace and shake people up. The more we separate, the less we understand and less we show mercy. Our culture over here on the north side is one of abandonment. We are all on edge living by the scraps of our teeth. We don't have a surplus of mercy because we haven't been shown mercy. I must think about myself because no one else will. I am on my own and have to fight tooth and nail to just break even.
- When you live in that mentality, yeah, you judge others. You judge because you don't have time for other people to be stupid where you pay the price. This is the underlining current that tears at the need to be connected, especially with your neighbor. It is destructive instead of restorative. We see how we are different, not how we are the same. When I need to look out for myself, I don't have time to look out for you.
- I really believe in order to create healthy communities, we need to show mercy. We need to find ways to connect despite our gut reaction to judge and tear down. When we tear people down, we tear cultures and society apart. A healthy community can't be built on the backs of broken people.
We need understanding.
We need mercy and patience.
We need time.
We need to be connected.
We desperately need to judge less and love more.
We need Jesus.
That mom made a mistake. Yet, I also saw her trying to be better. There is good in her, a divine imprint. And it is also in me. That brokenness and darkness and weakness in her? That too is also in me. Those things we share because we are human. Empathy is not our "get out of jail free card" to excuse all behavior. It is however the bridge we need to cross the wide divide to meet each other. To see where we are the same instead of standing in judgement of our differences.
So I helped a little lost and forgotten boy find his way home. I met neighbors I had never talked to before. I witnessed a family be reunited and I experienced a well of emotion and slowly started to evict some of my old school thinking and understanding. I think I started to understand the way of things a little bit more here, and as we all know, understanding creates space for mercy. God's kind of mercy.
Man we desperately need more mercy around these parts.
And I am extra thankful that the cops weren't involved in this little gathering, as they historically somehow seem to be when we are involved.
It was a bittersweet day and we live a bittersweet life.
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