Happy New Year friends and family!
I hope the holidays and the first days of this new year have been life-giving and invigorating.
As I look toward 2017, I carry with me the joys and challenges of this past year that have refined me and have offered me insight as I continue this vocational work of building relationships with kids in my neighborhood.
November and December brought some great challenges but significant joys as well, particularly with a set of longtime neighborhood friends. Instead of speaking on the specifics of programs I feel compelled to tell a few stories of these joys and challenges.
At the beginning of November, I was feeling tired after a very full October. I was looking forward to a visit from my parents and a day retreat following their visit. The set aside time of rest could not have come any sooner. The day my parents were coming into town, a Friday, held the usual rhythms of running Friday Fun Life and helping at Moriah Pie, the neighborhood pizza café. The evening at Moriah Pie unraveled quickly with a group of kids eventually having to ask them to leave the restaurant space after repeated disrespect. This left them to their own in the surrounding streets and the church piazza across from the café. Not too much later we were informed that one of the boys outside had become violent toward the son of a patron eating at the café. When a few of us approached the group outside about the incident we received a variety of stories and interjections about what happened, who started the violence first, what was said, and ultimately affirmations about why they were in the right with their actions. As we stood outside trying to reason with their unacceptable actions I could feel my emotions crumbling internally.
I recalled the weekend before their presence and smiles at the Fall Bash event and felt that their disrespect toward us now was a personal injustice. My neighbor Erin and I decided it was time to bring in parents by walking around to houses to inform their moms and grandmothers about the incident. It was apropos that my parents arrived in the middle of this. I gave them a brief update, hugging them and trying not to cry.
Ultimately it was decided that the boys would have to make things right by spending a few hours the next week working with Robert-resident urban gardener- in the gardens before they could return to Moriah Pie or other community programs. Erin and I would join as well.
The following Tuesday, election day when they were out of school, 3 of the 4 boys showed up at the agreed upon meeting spot at 1 pm on the dot. We spent time with them turning the compost piles, tearing down corn stalks and the bean vines climbing the stalks harvesting along the way, chopping wood, and processing tomatoes that would go in our pizza sauce at Moriah Pie. Robert laid the grounds for their purpose for being there, how they would successfully make things right by exhibiting hard work and respect during our time together. They loosened up as the afternoon went, asking questions about the activities we were doing, making conversation about school and the election, and commenting on the calming nature of the work at hand.
One of the boys- Keith- who failed to show up for the work session, rearranged a time the following week to work one on one with Robert. I ran into them that Thursday afternoon as they were turning compost. I was on a break from the final session of a 12-week workshop in which I had been participating with the Norwood Drug and Alcohol Coalition. Interestingly enough, we had brought Keith up earlier that day during our session, using him as an example of the type of kid we hoped to reach about the negative effects of underage drinking on the developing brain.
As I made surface conversation with Keith and Robert I decided to tell Keith about the workshop and how he came up in our discussion. His response was silent so I prodded, “Do you want to know why?” “Sure, why?”, he asked half-heartedly. “Well,” I continued, “we were talking about underage drinking and the negative effects it can have on the developing brain. We have been talking about how we can better talk to our young friends about this and you were one of the friends I named.” He seemed disinterested, but I’d like to believe that deep down in that preteen boy he was somewhat elated to know that he was being talked about, even if by a bunch of boring adults.
Later that evening, when I returned from the workshop session, I found Keith and another young friend Yolanda cracking walnuts outside of my house. This was a task that Keith had done earlier with Robert and he wanted to show Yolanda. After instructing them that they couldn’t just help themselves to the task without supervision, especially parking themselves in someone’s yard, I sat there with them cracking walnuts until I shut down the operation to head to a meeting at church.
The happenstance interactions with my young friends continued that night. After my church meeting I found my friend hosting a bonfire in her backyard that intersects with my backyard. Among them were a set of neighborhood kids roasting hot dogs and making conversation with a few adults gathered there. The hot dogs were provided by one of the boys who had run home to retrieve them. I hadn’t eaten dinner so I was happy to partake. I was smitten with their ease of conversation with a group of adults. Yolanda showed up forlorn, mentioning losing her backpack and jacket sometime during the evening of running around the neighborhood with other kids. She was certain one of the boys in the neighborhood had stolen it. I told her I’d look for it in the morning when it was light out and meet her outside of the café across the street before she left for school. This didn’t stop Keith from roaming around with his phone flashlight backtracking their steps looking for it. As it got later they headed home.
As promised, I woke a little early the next morning (a Friday, Moriah Pie prep day) but didn’t find the backpack. I did find the same group of kids from the night before gathered outside of the café cracking more walnuts with those doing morning prep tasks for Moriah Pie. I informed Yolanda that I didn’t find her backpack but would keep my eye out.
Later that morning when I brought up the missing backpack during our Moriah Pie team breakfast a friend pointed out a bag that was sitting in the café found outside during an event the night before. It was unmistakably Yolanda’s, fitting her description with her jacket inside. I excitedly jumped on my bike and rode the backpack to her school. I had hoped to give it to her in person but she was in the middle of a specialized class and so I left it at the school office.
My elation at the recent connections with my young friends subsided when Robert found a number of our final seasonal carrots pulled from our garden and strewn down Mills Ave. It seemed too obvious that Keith was involved as this was a tucked away carrot bed that he and Robert had been working in the day before. He planned to approach the kids about it at Moriah Pie that evening, offering them the opportunity to confess if indeed any of them had a part in the carrot nabbing. Those involved did confess and so spent some time sullenly walking around the surrounding streets of the café with Robert picking up trash. Yolanda was one of those involved and so she asked me to hang onto her bag during her walk about trash pick-up. Later, when returning her bag to her she rummaged through it pulling out a note including a hand drawn picture she composed thanking me for bringing her bag to school. Others at the table excitedly mentioned seeing me at the school as they passed through the halls. The note hangs on my wall in my room.
Another work day was organized in December after a particularly hellish Friday Fun Life session entailing kids running around our church hiding from volunteers and refusing to listen. I had that Friday off and therefore heard the tale from my volunteers, disheartened and worn thin as they relayed the details. Another walk around the neighborhood to speak with kids and parents, another work day with Robert this time doing outdoor work projects at the particular volunteers’ homes, another opportunity for challenging them with accountability for their actions.
Out of all of these interactions, the one that lingers in my memory is the walk around the neighborhood with my friend and FFL volunteer Lyric who was present at the particularly challenging FFL session. As I confronted the kids and their parents about the incident some were humbled, some pushed back and made excuses, and I think all of them were mildly if not very surprised to find me on their doorstep bringing the issue into the light.
As Lyric and I walked from one house to another we walked a few blocks with Keith, one of the kids involved. I stopped him in the middle of the sidewalk. “I want to say something to you, Keith. And I want to look you in the eyes.” I bend down to meet his gaze. “Keith, I see you as a leader.” I’ve said this to him before. “I see you as having great influence with others and I want to challenge you to be a positive influence, not a negative one.” Lyric chimes in with affirmation around his ability to influence the other kids. I forget what else I say exactly but something along this same vein of calling out the good in Keith and challenging him to higher standards. He surprised me with his attentiveness as I spoke. It’s true, too. He is a highly influential kid. Yet I wonder if he hears enough encouragement towards positive influence or if he is hammered down with the negativity of his choices and bogged down by his life circumstances.
I hear this negativity when I go over to Evan’s house and talk with his mother and grandmother about the incident. They bring up the numerous times he’s been suspended from school and how he’s always getting in trouble. I take the opportunity to speak similarly of Evan’s influential behavior and the good I see in him.
I have to admit, I have questioned my own positive influence with these kids this past year. It’s not easily measured or tracked. And any advances are not blatantly obvious. And sometimes my energy is thin and I feel like I need to be doing more but I feel limited. Sometimes I find myself utterly frustrated at them; other times saddened by their circumstances. I pray for them, I cry over them when I feel like I can’t pray, and I try and speak positive words to them.
My hope, in the midst of my limitations and insecurities and places of brokenness, is that my resolve for them to know love from a stable non-parental adult keeps driving me. My hope, in the midst of the challenging interactions, is that these kids and their parents catch a glimpse of this love that more often than not has to come outside of myself.
Love is a risk. There is risk in pouring yourself out with or without the expectation of reciprocation. But I cling to the force of love, the healing power of love that makes the risk, the weight, the tears worth giving love even still.