As I write this, my family is gathered around the dinner table polishing off a dinner of tapas. Not fancy tapas, mind you. Mozzarella sticks and bbq meatballs and flatbread pizza and chicken wings and the obligatory plate of celery and carrots kind of tapas. We’ve been snowed in since Friday and if we’re lucky, we’ll be snowed in at least two more days. We’ve clocked more family time hours in the last month than we have in the last ten and my heart is so full it might explode.
You might be wondering why I’m writing if my family is eating, so let me enlighten you.
Our dinners have three parts.
The first part is the Gathering Phase. This is the phase where Thad and I call (yell at) the kids to the table to fix their plates, grab a drink, and have a seat.
The second part is the Eating Phase. This is the phase where we all eat. And/or complain about the food served.
The third part is the Wheels Off Phase. This is the phase where food is still being consumed, Thad has launched into the evening reading of a passage of scripture, and the kids are literally yelling things at each other like: Stand down, soldier! Stand down!, You need to read yo’ bible, homie!, Everybody listen to my burp!, It’s about to get crunk in here!, What’s your purpose?, Get out my face!, LaBron James Bruh! There is also the random rapping, loud punctuated speaking, the overwhelming feeling that at least two kids are going to take things to whole other level and start ripping off shirts to fight, and the churning in the pit of the parental stomach that under the surface of all that is happening around our family’s table, there is a current of something we’ve yet to name. There is posturing that mimics fighting and intensity that mimics fear and talking that mimics things not heard in our home.
The third part is always the part of the meal where Thad and I look at one another and question every decision we’ve made in the last six years. Urban missions and public school and radical hospitality endeavors and the taking in of so many caught in the fray all come rushing into the space between us at the table and we’re keenly aware that apart from moving out of the neighborhood and out of our school, we are at a loss for how to diffuse the intensity in the house.
We’re staring head long into the faces of six babies who are showing signs of contact burns while sleeping in a house on fire.
When Melissa lived with us, we bore witness to the aftermath of childhood abuse and teenage abuse and neglect and alcohol abuse. She would close off and clam up and then with great ferocity, lash out in the midst of the normality of life, “I don’t know how to be normal! I don’t know what normal looks like!” Running made more sense than sitting down for dinner and drinking was easier than coming clean. Screaming obscenities and kicking the porch and chain smoking were keys to dealing with the junk of life and sobbing was the only way to get through the night.
When Curtis came by to visit and Crystal stayed the night and Valerie took her place at my table and on my porch and in my heart, my kids bore witness to the kind of brokenness that reeks of alcohol and sexual abuse and cigarette smoke and heroin. They overheard hard things and held hard truths and leaned into the world with the kind of hardness that is only learned by knowing hard things.
When the kids from down the street would come to play, we bore witness to the scars of years of neglect and hunger and kids parenting one another. Strong sibling love would be extinguished in a moment of perceived disrespect and blood would pour from knuckles and mouths. Saving face was more important than admitting to stealing and peeing all over the bathroom floor just for spite. Family ties trumped telling the truth about what was happening behind closed doors and fear masqueraded as pride. And the urge to fight either with words or fists preceded them and over time, my kids closed the doors of their hearts to the kids who’s rather cuss them out than learn a new way to play nice in the sandbox.
When my kids climbed on their first ever school bus and sat in their first ever public school classrooms, they bore witness to the kind of language that jockeyed for a position of power and the kind of children who were no longer wholly children. The undercurrent of every word my kids heard was fear and anxiety and anger and insecurity and hunger and neglect. In three short years, they learned that to be heard, one must yell. They learned that eating fast meant that no one would ask for your lunch. They learned that hard faces and cold shoulders meant that you were invincible. They learned that our more than enough was not nearly enough unless their shoes were the right ones. They learned that vulnerability is weakness and kindness is gayness and whiteness is something to either be envied or condemned. And they learned that being the 1% came with a certain amount of suspicion and a fair amount of distrust.
Because when the poor and the broken and the abused and the neglected and the strung out and the marginalized all live together in a few square blocks paid for by government dollars and forgotten by the Church, any light that moves into the neighborhood is fractured into a thousand shards breaking out over broken sidewalk.
For months, I’ve rolled this post around in my head trying to make heads and tails of it. It’s a hard thing to share the truth and an even harder thing to share the truth in light of the response I may get from some of you.
But the truth sets us free, you know?
Even the hard truth. And I’m about to drop some hard truth on you.
While the government has corralled the least of these among us and built Section 8 housing and homeless shelters and soup kitchens and more jails, the Church has packed up and moved out to the suburbs.
We’ve sat on our hands and voted our conscience and pointed fingers at the concrete badlands built by our elected officials. We’ve bought acres of farmland and funded private schools and raised millions to erect bigger church buildings on wide open spaces while our inner cities have gone to hell.
We’ve done nothing to combat the morality or emptiness that we’ve accused of plaguing our cities. We’ve ripped our kids out of public school in the name of better education and counter cultural living and God-fearing rearing. We’ve moved out to greener pastures because gas is cheaper and we can afford more house for less money. We’ve prayed circles around our presidents and around our governors and fasted when morality was up for vote. We’ve written checks signing over millions to a handful of Christians who are committed to being the light in the dark, but given no thought to how we might sign over our lives for the sake of the Gospel by moving into the dark.
And we’ve watched from the sidelines as lines have been drawn in the sand and taken zero note of how our absence or pure neglect of our inner city neighbors illuminates the state of our own hearts.
Maybe our hearts are empty or calloused or just plain cold in other ways.
Maybe our apathy is our sin against humanity.
Maybe our absence has made it easy for the government to corral the ones whom Jesus would live among into sub-par housing and hopeless cycles of poverty and failing schools because the Light was not present to combat the dark.
Maybe our packing up and moving out has just helped to contribute to the demise of our cities and maybe we’ve neglected to love and serve the body of Christ still in the city by failing to be in the trenches with them. Maybe our preservation of self and family has paved the way for the few on the front lines to be set aflame by the constant contact with those on fire. It’s hard to grow up in an environment that is absent of the Light of Jesus and it’s hard to be the Light of Jesus in an environment at war with the Light when there is a city aglow on a hill far away beckoning the Light to retreat.
Or maybe our absence in our nation’s cities has made room for the dark to shatter the light across the pavement in ways that hide the light in the cracks.
But light is not simply the absence of dark.
It is the enemy of the dark.
And to win the war, the Light must move into the neighborhood and push back the dark.