I've heard from many of you who liked last month's post, or were at least relieved by its more positive tone. It turns out a lot of folks have been thinking all this ghetto reality is bringing me down, and I suppose those folks are right in a way. It is hard to stay positive when you are so mixed up with so many brutal and broken lives, and I tend to write when I feel most frustrated. On the other hand, if I wrote when things went well, I could just as easily send out an entirely truthful, utterly upbeat letter every month, about the very same group of people. Well, maybe not every month, but you get the idea. When you are trying to give grace at close quarters, over time, almost everything becomes a matter of perspective.
For example, last week I went for a walk around the neighborhood. I didn't even make it across the street, however, before Marlena (remember her?) called me over. As sad as she looked, I thought we were going to talk about her son's ongoing recovery from his stabbing, or about her own job search (she got fired for missing too many days when he got stabbed), but this is what she told me: Victoria, her bright and beautiful 16-year-old pride and joy, is three months pregnant. And this was my first thought: Maybe she'll miscarry.
I know that is terrible, of course. But I know Victoria, too. Smart as she is, she's already dropped out of high school and she's never held a job for more than a few weeks. She isn't ready to take care of a pet hamster at this point, let alone a child. I don't exactly know the father, but I know the sorry line-up he comes from, every member of which has already been the sperm donor for at least one fatherless child. I know this neighborhood, too. Barring a miracle, Victoria's baby doesn't stand a chance. And while I still pray for such miracles, especially when it comes to the fortunes of ghetto babies, I certainly don't count on them anymore.
After I told Marlena I'd get back to her, I walked on. Halfway up the block I ran into Tanya (remember her?), now 14, who gleefully told me the doctor at the clinic said she'd lost 20 pounds. "Why were you at the clinic?" I asked her. For my Depo shot, she answered matter-of-factly, since it was me, after all, who convinced her mother to put her on that form of birth control last year. Like I said, when it comes to babies, I don't count on miracles. Unfortunately, that doesn't make me feel any better about this desperate little girl having sex with the much older boys whose casual affirmations mean so much to her.
Moving on, I turned the corner onto McMillan Street, one of the main drags in Walnut Hills. Up there, over the next five minutes, I passed half a dozen scantily clad young women pushing their babies in cheap strollers with toddlers trailing behind, most of them smoking and shouting profanities into their cell phones. Instinctively, I began extrapolating the kinds of apartments, diets, discipline styles, and educational opportunities those mothers will give their children. Suddenly I stopped. What is wrong with me? I wondered. Babies used to be beautiful little reminders of the promise of new life. Now, in this place, seeing them just depresses me. As much as I believe in loving and protecting each and every human being on God's earth, no matter how much or little he or she can contribute, I grieve and I rage when people with no ability and no intention of nurturing a child conceive one anyway, regardless of the consequences.
At the other end of McMillan I ran into my old friend Bobbie (remember her?) who angrily reported that her son had just called to tell her his on-again-off-again 20-year-old girlfriend was pregnant. For years Bobbie bragged to me about teaching her son to use condoms when he was in junior high school, so that he might avoid the burdens of child-support (marriage and parenthood being out the question) later on. Now, having made it to 26, he had let both her and himself down in a big way, and she was furious. All she could hope, she told me, was that a paternity test might get her son off the hook. And right onto Jerry Springer, I thought to myself.
By the time I circled home, I was ready to tell Marty that I couldn't take it any more, that it was time to pack our things and get out of here. Fortunately, she was already across the street, preparing the food for our big Monday night dinner party. So then, instead of cashing in my chips, I went over there myself, to set up the tables and chairs. Pretty soon the rest of the gang rolled in and we sat down together to eat.
Donna and Jeff showed up a few minutes late that night. As usual, their 1-year-old adopted son Quinn practically stopped the whole show with his cuteness. Quinn has just started walking, but he's been smiling and laughing and flirting with the rest of us since a few months after he was born, and our entire fellowship is madly in love with him. On this particular night, our friends Nina and JJ had brought their 1-year-old, Cortez, and the rest of us watched the two of them playing together like so many grandparents of all ages. By the time we got around to taking prayer requests at the end of the night, I no longer wanted to move. I just wanted to hold Quinn and Cortez.
Given that Donna and Jeff are among the most gifted and thoughtful parents I know, and that both their families are solid, supportive, and nearby, I daresay there isn't a child on this planet better loved and cared for than baby Quinn. Cortez has far fewer advantages, but his mother and father are still together, and increasingly they are looking to our fellowship to guide their parenting. There are no guarantees with kids, of course, but with these two at least, there is plenty of hope.
As we were cleaning up afterwards, another pregnant 16-year-old, Summer, sought me out. We've just begun getting to know Summer and her family, who moved onto our street last fall but only recently started responding to our invitations. "I was too afraid to ask everyone to pray for me," she said, "but I'm really scared about delivering this baby." I called Donna over, and then Karen, Bobbie, Marlena, and every other mother I could find, and asked them to gather around this poor, frightened child to pray for her together. Fifteen minutes later they were all still there, laughing and talking together, offering Summer a kind of communal support that almost no expectant mother gets around here. There will be more of that for her, and hopefully for Victoria too, whether or not her mother and I are able to talk her into letting her baby be adopted.
If you find this letter depressing, I am genuinely sorry. There is plenty to be depressed about, to be sure, but there is also this strange little fellowship of people, committed to loving each other in the midst of the mess. And there is Quinn, too, and Cortez, and the outside chance that some of those miracles I no longer count on will come our way anyway. Remember, when you are trying to give grace at close quarters, over time, almost everything becomes a matter of perspective. Honestly, at the end of my walk, at the end of that day, I felt more tired than anything else. I wasn't tired the next morning, though. As usual, it was good to wake up.
Bart Campolo is a veteran urban minister and activist who speaks, writes, and blogs about grace, faith, loving relationships, and social justice. Bart is the leader of The Walnut Hills Fellowship in inner-city Cincinnati. He is also founder of Mission Year, which recruits committed young adults to live and work among the poor in inner-city neighborhoods across the U.S., and executive director of EAPE, which develops and supports innovative, cost-effective mission projects around the world.