Helms and I recently had an occasion to speak to a congregation for a Wednesday evening church gathering. This occasion was different than our normal speaking opportunities in that we had several of the young people from our neighborhood youth group along with us. Our talk went as it usually does, discussing our experience in ministry and in community life, and talking about the way our arrangement of living among the people with whom we minister has started giving us new eyes to see the work of God in the world. Following our talk, several folks from the congregation wanted to ask questions in response to our talk. The last of those questions came from a man, who, as gently as he could, said, “I’d like to hear from the youth who are here tonight, if any of you are comfortable talking. What difference has Hyaets Community made for you?”
My usual reaction to such a question is to reverse it – to talk about the difference living in Enderly Park has made for me. I like to relate a story of how James and Deshawn one night showed me that the kingdom of God is present with us as we use only our very limited resources and our imaginations to care for one another. They showed me what I really believe: when you are in a bind, Jesus is OK but Visa is better. And they demonstrated a more excellent way. I like to answer the question by talking about Raynard, who one time showed me in a deeply meaningful way that reconciliation is actually possible, that men of different colors and vastly different life experiences can really be brothers, even in a deeply racialized society.
I might also talk about learning to deal with my white privilege, and about learning to see it when I did not even know I had it. I might say that not knowing I had such a privilege was one evidence of it being there. I would probably talk about how the poverty of my neighbors is a distortion of God’s intention for creation, but how that poverty has created people in our neighborhood whose values look a lot like Jesus’ description of discipleship in the Sermon on the Mount. I would talk about learning to live with humility among these folks, letting my life mimic theirs and learning to honor their voices in a culture that teaches us to honor the voices of the well-known, the wealthy and the powerful.
Those typical answers to that man’s questions are not just chatter, either. They are really what I have come to believe. They are really what my neighbors have taught me about the work of God going on around us, and what they have taught me about myself. Those lessons have not always been easy. Having my internalized racism exposed, or my lack of faith in God’s provision brought to light is not pleasant, but it is the working out of the Good News in my life.
On this particular night, though, the questioner did not ask me. He asked the youth who were with me. I did not expect anyone to respond, but several young people very willingly got up to answer. They bravely took the microphone in front of more than 100 people – a rare situation for them – and spoke. That was significant in itself, but their answers to the question were remarkable in one aspect. The answers went like this:
- “At Hyaets, we help people out. We feed them if they are hungry, and we ask them to come in the house to talk if they are lonely.”
- “We do lots of stuff for people, take care of people, and we go places together and have a good time with each other.”
- “We’re family. Helms is my sister, and Greg is my brother, and we’ve been knowing each other for a long time now, so we’re always taking care of each other.”
There it was – neighbors teaching me how to answer the question, and answering for themselves far better than I could have answered. The three youth who spoke used the pronoun “we.” We help people out. We stick together. We are family. The difference that Hyaets Community has made for all of us neighbors is that “I” and “you” are now “we.” This is one of the gifts that life with my neighbors has given to me. They remind me through their lives and their words that my life is not my own and that the fruit of the work any of us does, does not belong to us, but to the whole body of Christ. That’s news worth sharing.