The Common Good

Are We Offering Grace, or Just Another Program?

I really like Marlena, but that doesn't mean she is a good person. She is smart and easy to talk to, but only if you are talking about her stuff. She is attractive and has her hair done every week, but every month she asks to borrow rent money. She loves her kids, but she lies a lot and has taught them to do the same. She's been through more houses, jobs, men, and resolutions than anyone I know, always looking for a better deal. So then, even though she clearly understands and openly embraces what our little fellowship is about, it is easy to wonder how long she'd stay with us if our friendship wasn't such a bargain.

Lately I find myself wondering about that bargain, about whether the 'grace' my friends and I give our neighbors here is anything like the real thing. I mean, on one level offering our love without condition to broken people in a hard place sounds like a righteous thing to do. Moving into this neighborhood to establish genuine friendships across seemingly insurmountable barriers of race, class, and culture sounds more authentic than just dropping in to establish food, clothing, medical care, education, or housing programs.

For someone like Marlena, however, I wonder if our unconditional friendship isn't just another program after all. When she comes over for a loan or asks Marty or I for a ride to the doctor, we generally treat her the same way we would Ric or Karen next door, who are our 'real' friends. It doesn't feel the same, though, partly because Marlena is in no position to return our favors, and partly because so many of her immediate needs are caused by amoral, ghetto decision-making we would never tolerate in a real friend.

On Monday, for example, she called me sobbing just as I was preparing the game and a little five-minute talk about the value of community for that night's fellowship dinner. "I just got a call from my son's baby-mama. The girl he's living with now stabbed him three times last night! He's in the hospital there and he might die

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