The Common Good

I'm an Idiot

Lately I keep wishing I was somebody else. Somebody different. Somebody better than me.


Don't worry. I'm not depressed. I am well aware that I have many good qualities and many more good friends. My marriage is strong. My kids are fine. Moreover, I am ever increasingly convinced that the God of love loves me, no matter what I do or don't do.


Unfortunately, none of those things changes the fact that, after nearly 45 years of countless growth opportunities, I remain essentially the same careless, undisciplined fool I've always been. Everybody makes mistakes, of course, but mine are almost always the kind a more thoughtful, more focused person could easily avoid.


On Christmas Eve, on my way to the YMCA with my son Roman, I ran a stop sign and hit a car just a block from my house. The other driver was young and furious and both Roman and I thought we were in real trouble. We might have been, too, if he hadn't recognized me as a friend of his nephews. Even so, I cost my family our $1000 insurance deductible, not to mention the rate hike sure to come when this claim gets added to the massive speeding ticket I got a few months earlier, while Miranda and I were visiting colleges in North Carolina. Because we were late for an appointment. Because I didn't read over the directions the night before. Because I'm an idiot.


I'm not kidding, either. Believe me, there's nothing funny about missing a plane and paying the change fee and getting stranded alone in Honolulu for two days at the end of a 10-day speaking trip, all because you didn't bother to double-check your departure time. Nobody laughs when you leave your son waiting in the rain outside his school because you lost track of time at the office, or blow a valuable new friendship because you didn't even call after you forgot a lunch appointment, or let your wife down for the millionth time because you got so wrapped up in a conversation with somebody else.


If you're wondering why I'm beating myself up this way, well, it's because a few days ago I wasted a bunch of money, too. I got hustled out of it, actually, but only after I carelessly violated just about every urban ministry principle I've taught for the past 20 years. Honestly, the guy who hustled me wasn't half as slick as I was stupid.


It all started when our friend Mark and I, along with a bunch of college kids, rebuilt the porch and cleared out the basement of this old twin house he bought in our neighborhood, where we have our offices, board a few interns, and rent an apartment to a really cool woman we're trying to draw into our fellowship. Anyway, we ended up with a ton of junk in the front yard -- including about 50 old cans of paint -- that needed to go to the local landfill. The next day, as we were sorting it out, a friendly man came by and offered to load it all up and haul it away for a mere $50.


"I'm a strong, Christian man and I need the work," he told me. "I'm not one of these other black guys out here stealing to buy drugs. My cousin owns that truck over there and a buddy of ours has a junkyard on the other side of town. We can do the job right now. It sure would be a blessing if you could trust me to help you out."


I should have said no, of course. In the first place, Mark and I were perfectly capable of hauling the stuff in his truck the next day, as planned. It was going to cost us a lot more than $50 to dispose of it properly, of course, not to mention our time, but we didn't need any help. Moreover, even if we had, we had 10 friends within three blocks who needed the work as much, or more, than this guy. Even so, I hesitated. Looking back, I can see I was afraid.


I didn't want to seem like an untrusting racist. I felt guilty for being so much better off. I didn't want to disappoint this guy - even though I barely knew him. And besides, the deal itself was too good to be true.


So then, before you could say "there's a sucker born every minute," I was off to the ATM for $80 in cash, which I promptly deposited in my new friend's hand, so that he and his cousin could gas up their truck and get some dinner before commencing to work that evening. He pumped my hand and hugged me in gratitude. The job would be finished by the time I got back in the morning, he assured me, but we exchanged cell phone numbers just in case.


You already know the rest of the story.


Why didn't I just tell that guy to come back and work with us the next day? Why didn't I insist on paying with a check, and even then only when the job was done? Why didn't I call to ask my wife what she thought I should do? Why didn't I worry about the probability that our toxic waste would be illegally dumped? Why didn't I recognize the red flags of race talk and Christian talk and trust talk that indicate an urban con job?


The short answer, of course, is that I am a careless, undisciplined fool. But in this case, there's more to it than that. In this case, even after more than 20 years of urban ministry, racial reconsideration, and earnest soul-searching, it is painfully evident that I still have enough unfocused white guilt to make me vulnerable to just about anyone shrewd or desperate enough to work that angle. Living where and how I do these days that could be quite a problem.


I really do want to be better, not only for my neighbors here in Walnut Hills, but even more so for my family and friends. It is perhaps to my credit that I am so adept at confessing and apologizing and winning back people's trust, but it embarrasses me that I've had so many opportunities to practice those skills. I'm tired of saying I'm sorry for the same things - over and over again.


God knows I've changed before. Now God knows I want to change again. And now you know too.

Bart Campolo is a veteran urban minister and activist who speaks, writes, and blogs www.bartcampolo.com about grace, faith, loving relationships and social justice. Bart is the leader of The Walnut Hills Fellowship www.thewalnuthillsfellowship.org in inner-city Cincinnati. He is also founder of Mission Year www.missionyear.org, which recruits committed young adults to live and work among the poor in inner-city neighborhoods across the USA, and executive director of EAPE, which develops and supports innovative, cost-effective mission projects around the world.

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