Really, I'm not sure where to begin, which is odd. For a girl who grew up in white-washed suburbia, moving into what can be unequivocally classified as "the hood" should provide me with plenty of dramatic antidotes about being shocked as I picked up my first crack baggie, heard my first gun shot not meant for an inanimate object, saw my first crack whore (not the dolled-up kind you see in the movies), and lived in my first (former) crack house.
But, you know what, I'm not shocked. It feels like home. A dingy home with rats, a toilet that leaks about two gallons every couple hours, barred windows, and a general feeling of third-world squalor but home nonetheless.
I have many stories to tell, all of which I'm sure I'll share over time. But, for now, I'm offering you a few of the things I've learned about living in the ghetto:
1) Germaphobes need not apply. When I first arrived, everyone informed me a man had been shot and killed a few feet from my doorstep just a few days earlier. Then, they asked if I was scared. Nope. I wasn't scared of the violence in the ghetto, I was scared of something much worse: the dirt. I spent the first five hours after my arrival scrubbing down the kitchen. I lined the shelves with new shelf paper, cleaned the toaster cord, you name it, I did it. Then, I stood back and reviewed my work and realized it all looked ... exactly the same. For the first and only time, tears welled up in my eyes. I would have sunk to the floor in despair ... except for the fact that I refuse to touch the floor with anything but the bottom of my shoes.
Two weeks later, I'm still not accustomed to the living conditions, and, in a way, I hope I never will be, but you know what? I'm almost thankful for it. Almost. I interact with homeless folks everyday who don't have a house that can collect dirt, they don't have a toilet that leaks, and they don't have food in their kitchen cupboards that rats can nibble. Everything may not be perfect here, but everything is a blessing.
2) Your heart must be soft but unbreakable. There is an interesting paradox concerning what the condition of a person's heart must be here. You must be tender-hearted but not faint of heart. I see things everyday that touch my heart deeply, but I don't ever let them break my heart. The people here need love, not pity.
Take Mario, for instance. I begin everyday with a drive to "The Grey House," where I work. It's just a couple of blocks from where I live, and it's the gathering spot for all the folks in the neighborhood. When I arrive, Mario is always sitting on the front porch. He's a man who contracted AIDS as a young boy. From years of crack use, he has only a single tooth left, right in the front, which he shows with a big smile. He talks quickly and unintellegibly most of the time. But you know what I can always understand? "I'm feeling good." He begins every conversation with every person he meets by saying "I'm feeling good." His body is thin; he's wasting away with AIDS; he has no family that cares for him, but he always comes to church and he always "feels good." That touches my heart so deeply, but I can't let it break it. It's not easy.
3) If you ever have a chance to room with a black girl from London, do it. They make the coolest roommates ever.
3) You have to be flexible. I'm heading up what we'll call "business development" of MetroKidz, and there is A LOT to be done. So, I began my day yesterday with a plan. It was all mapped out. But, then, there was a knock at the door. It was Jay, a gentle-natured sixteen-year-old who needed a ride to school. He had missed the bus; it was pouring rain. He had a test that day, and his school was miles away. For a split second, I was annoyed. I had a list. I had things to do. Important things. Then, I realized, "What can be more important than serving others?" Off to school we went.
4) Doing God's work, doesn't double as spending time with God. At the Dream Center, we spend the bulk of our lives ministering to others. All day long, we work with the underprivileged, we provide them with food and clothes, we talk to them, we love on them. We do our best to provide them with anything they need, and we "do it as unto God not unto men." At Metro Kidz specifically, we plan Bible lessons in the morning and go over them with the kids during our Sidewalk Sunday school in the afternoon. But, I've learned quickly that all of this does not substitute as "God time."
Each one of us should be pouring out God's Word and love on those around us, no matter if we live in the ghetto of Atlanta or a Penthouse apartment in NYC. But you can't give away what you don't have. And, here, you can't front. Situations that require love, understanding, and patience are ever-present. If you aren't walking intimately with the only One who can fill you with those things, it will be obvious.
5) You have to keep a sense of humor. Taking yourself too seriously in the ghetto could get, well, seriously depressing.
6) Nothing is as fulfilling in life as a hug from a child. Every Sunday, I ride the bus with Pastor Paul to the housing projects. We pick up the kids and bring them to church. We have rules to keep the kids in order, but last Sunday, there was one boy, Reginald, who just wasn't having it. When I tried to settle him down, he folded his arms and scowled, refusing to make eye contact.
When we got into service, the unruliness continued. He knocked over chairs, kicked the walls, messed with the other kids, and caused a general ruckus. Every time I got close enough to tell him to settle down, he would scowl and run. Finally, I cornered him and sat him down next to me. He was too big to sit on my lap, so I physically held him down to keep him from bolting. I didn't reprimand him harshly. I corrected him gently, then rubbed his shoulders, told him I loved him, and asked him if everything was okay.
All he did was scowl. Still, no eye contact. Eventually, he wriggled loose.
Towards the end of the song service, I was standing up with my eyes closed, praying. All of a sudden, I felt small arms wrap around my waist. I thought maybe it was one of the little girls, who have all labeled me "barbie doll" despite my brunette hair. It wasn't. It was Reginald. That may very well have been the best hug I've ever gotten.
It's moments like that, that make every minute here worth it and keep me smiling ... despite the dirt.
Keep dreamin' those big dreams.