On Saturday mornings I prayer walk through the neighborhood with our teammate Kristin. Usually one of the kids tags along. If it’s Glory I end up carrying her, making a mental note that she’s not quite ready to walk so far. Usually our dog recognizes we’re going for a walk and insists on tagging along. So we head out at 7:30, before the Miami heat and humidity make the outside unbearable.
There are many ways to prayer walk, but for me it consists of asking God all the questions I don’t have answers to. Sometimes I pray out loud as I pass people or places I have some meaningful knowledge of (a friend’s house, the churches, etc.), but mostly I beg for eyes to see where God is on the move in the Grove and how we are to come alongside him. I ask questions, and I try to clear my mind enough to hear the still small voice.
One Saturday earlier this month I found myself walking alone. Kristin was out of town and I crept out the door before being spotted by a child begging to go but still wearing only underwear.
I walked down a “hot” street and notice a duplex had been knocked down. I drive down this street several times a week – it intersects with ours a couple blocks up from this particular corner – and had not noticed any signs of pending demolition. One of the men who sits on this corner daily was already out. I don’t know his name, but he is the only man on this corner in a wheelchair and is therefor easily recognizable.
I point to the now empty lot and ask what happened. “They demolished it,” he responds matter of factly. “Yeah, I know,” I say, remembering he does not see me as one of us, as the insider I wish and sometimes pretend to be. “Do you know why?” I try again. “That’s just what happens around here,” he tells me. His tone is harsh and I accept that he does not want to chat with the weird white lady out walking the streets alone at 7:30 in the morning. He is not interested in small talk about the extermination of his neighborhood, his culture, his community, his very livelihood.
I stand on the sidewalk looking at the excavator with a bit of disbelief. Then I too remember, that’s just what happens around here.
This morning Kristin and I walked down Day Avenue, a heavily gentrified street where eleven duplexes housing original Grove residents have hung on by a thread. Several months ago the tenants began receiving eviction notices, a telltale sign the owner acquired a demo permit.
As we approached the property a couple walked up behind us and noticed as we did, the buildings are now nearly leveled. “It’s about time,” the man said as they held hands and continued down the sidewalk. I am tempted to judge them but remind myself they likely weren’t in a genuine relationship with anyone who lived in those duplexes.
Kristin and I stand amidst the rubble that once housed eighty or so people and wonder out loud, Does it now more closely resemble a graveyard or a war zone? To stand here most assuredly feels like a kind of death. A loss of life in our community. My chest feels tight and it is hard to breath. The three remaining walls simulate tombs, a reminder of what was but is no longer.
This is also certainly a battle field. Our community is under attack and we are each, by way of proximity, engaging in spiritual combat. There is a war going on, both in flesh and blood, in policies and in lack of enforcement, against the image bearers living here. There is a fight to transform housing from a basic human right to a commodity to be won by the highest bidder.
Of course, in war there is loss of life, and the rubble under our feet is a reminder of the cultural carnage. The neighbors who are no longer neighbors. It is both graveyard and war zone.
Earlier this month I had the privilege of attending the Christian Community Development Association National Conference. One of the plenary session speakers, Gregory Lee, said that those on the front lines see how big the problems are and we know they’re too big for us. It was also said from the main stage (by Erna Hackett) that hope feels really risky right now. I have spent the better part of October trying to reconcile these two truths with the realities of our neighborhood, with an eye for the unseen and the eternal.
The beauties of moving into the neighborhood as Jesus did and seeking to live in solidarity with our neighbors are beyond number, but the side effects are also numerous. As we stand shoulder to shoulder on the front lines we are face-to-face with the immense challenges, systemic injustices and oppressive systems designed to hold our neighbors down and push them away.
Occasionally, those same stinging darts graze us and we ourselves are wounded in the fight. We grasp for hope, but if we’re honest, hope feels far off and risky. We are tempted to believe, as my cranky, wheelchair bound neighbor, this is just what happens around here.
The problems are too big for us, it’s true. The dominos of gentrification are falling so fast we regularly verbalize thoughts our team has pondered internally for months: What if? When? How much longer?
I sometimes think it would be easier not to hope. To resign ourselves to the erosion of the Grove. To plan ahead for something else, somewhere else. To stop fighting.
But we cannot – as much as my flesh would like to – we cannot not hope because we’ve drank the same kool-aid as the Samaritan woman. We’ve tasted the water that gives eternal life and we know the one the prophet Isaiah spoke about when he said, “A bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not extinguish, till He leads justice to victory. In His name the nations will put their hope.”
We put our hope in Jesus, exactly because because we know this work is too big for us. We put our hope in Jesus, because he is the hope of the world. We put our hope in Jesus, because he knows intimately what it is to be marginalized and mistreated. We put our hope in Jesus, even when, especially when, it feels risky.