Two months ago, for the first time in my eight years living in Washington, D.C., I was mugged. Two young men rolled up in a pickup truck while I was unloading groceries from my car in the alley next to my condo building. They made me lie on the ground, held a gun to my neck as they took my money, and then locked me in the trunk of my car as they made their getaway. Fortunately I still had my cell phone in my pocket and was able to call 911 from the trunk. The police were able to free me, as well as pursue and arrest two suspects who are now in the District court system.
I was not hurt, they took little of real value, and I feel like I've done a pretty good job of refusing to let fear change the way I live. Fairly or unfairly, with my privileged status, I'm not worried about my future or my survival. I am worried about those two young men, and many others like them. What influences, role models, or lack of positive options allowed them to make such stupid and destructive choices?
In reflecting on my mugging, I've only recently begun to connect a few dots. For the past six years, I've been on the board of Urban Family Development (UFD), a nonprofit organization that currently runs programs for after school enrichment, tutoring, and mentoring - and we have lots of big dreams for expansion. However, it's always been a struggle to find funding and volunteers for this kind of work with such a great need, many worthy ministries, and a limited pool people willing to sacrifice their time or money.
I don't know what the government of D.C. is going to spend to prosecute and potentially imprison those muggers, but I'm pretty sure it would be enough to give UFD a solid financial boost - and then some. The most visible anti-crime measures in my neighborhood consist of portable floodlights rotated around sketchy street corners. A church friend who once interned at UFD and is now a D.C. policeman confirms what a band-aid these strategies are, even as he tries to do his job with integrity. Instead of high-visibility, low-impact band-aids, I want UFD to provide better options for as many youth as possible, so that fewer young men and women grow up to make stupid choices like wrecking their lives to steal my $20. I want to execute a preemptive strike on this kind of stupidity by supporting a program that provides a safe place for children, gives them mentors through the difficult years of adolescence, and then celebrates their success - all of which UFD does.
Why can't we - both as a society and as a church - do better at providing positive choices for our youth? And for me it is a both/and. I've seen more small-government conservatives willing roll up their sleeves and volunteer as tutors. Meanwhile, it's mostly the justice-minded liberals who march and lobby to end poverty and violence. How can we get more liberals to show up at UFD and more conservatives to advocate? (I know these categories are unfair and far from universal, but I've seen this dynamic over and over in my own church experience.)
Government at every level must do better at making the needed resources available, if for no other reason that the churches simply don't have the resources to do it all on their own. But the church must also be the conscience of the state - challenging not only with words, but by example in serving and caring for those at the margins of society. Conversely, the words of the prophet Jeremiah may inspire the church, but they were originally spoken to a king: "Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says the Lord." (Jeremiah 22:15b-16)
Consider this as the onslaught of opportunities for "Canned Compassion" wash over us with the holiday season, and look for opportunities to do both justice and mercy, not with band-aids of a march here or a meal there, but with sustained service and activism that seeks real healing for our communities.
Ryan Rodrick Beiler is web editor for Sojourners.