I am afraid of well-meaning Christians. This is probably because I am one myself, but it is also because I encounter well-intentioned Christians all the time. They have a vision for all the good they could do to other people. For the people to whom they are going to do so much good, this is rightly a cause of fear.
I came across one of those Christians with a vision a few days ago when I had the opportunity to meet the pastor of the congregation moving into the church building next door to The Family Tree. He was excited to tell me about the vision he has for our neighborhood. It includes exciting things like a parking lot for charter buses and also a computer lab in their newly renovated building. The neighbors will surely be thrilled. This Pastor has a vision for a huge, multi-ethnic congregation that brings light to our struggling neighborhood. It is obvious in his way of seeing that we are living in total darkness and depravity. Despite his grand vision, it became clear as we talked that he did not even know the name of our neighborhood – Enderly Park. His new building is at the corner of the two busiest streets in the area, but he did not know Tuckaseegee and Parkway, the names of the streets.
Pastor told me he was going to “blow up this corner,” which I assume is part of the vision that Jesus has given him. He clearly does not know, despite the presence of a makeshift memorial there, that just 18 months ago there was an actual explosion on the corner where he was sitting. From a gun. And after the explosion, one of our beloved young people, Khalil, was dead. At 13 years old.
What Pastor does know is that Enderly Park fits a type – poor, black neighborhood with cheap real estate. And based on that type, he assumes that we need his church/social-services agency to come and do good things to us. He feels sure that even if we don’t really need that, we won’t be organized enough to resist. And Pastor knows that he can then write our neighborhood into his story of being the Hero-Pastor. Hero-Pastor saw our ‘profound need’ and acted out of pity to rescue the dark inner-city [code term for “black”] neighborhood that lived in despair. Brave Hero-Pastor risked life and limb to serve a fragile, violent neighborhood. The specifics of our story – the things that make Enderly Park a neighborhood and not just a set of demographics – are unimportant to his story so long as the right target population can be found and have their lives transformed by Hero-Pastor.
Hero-Pastor only sees our deficiencies. He has believed the lie when the Truth could set him free. From his comfortable home in the suburbs, he’ll have a hard time ever seeing past the lie. But the Truth says that Enderly Park is full of God’s People. You start to see all the goodness when you stay long enough to grow some roots. You start to know that God still shows up in the flesh of your neighbor. You learn that the neighborhood is full of heroes – saints, we call them – and that most of their work is done in secret. They are folks like Mary. Everyone calls her “Granny” because she loves them just like a Granny would – by taking them to school, feeding them, and giving them the loving lectures they occasionally need. Or Bill, a dozen years in recovery, his care-filled eyes ever on the street. He is raising his gentle and bright fourth grader alone following the recent loss of the child’s mother. Alicia is another. Young and feisty, she carries a fire for justice in her belly, and a heavy dose of compassion to go with it. There are heroes all around, working out their sainthood with little acts of compassion and resistance every day. They never call attention to themselves. They never insist on being written into the story as the heroes. Yet all their little acts of compassion, light and resilience make life joyous around here.
It’s funny that a vision can blind you to all that goodness. You only see the shadows, and miss all the little lights everywhere. You miss the way the saints testify to the great source of Light that makes those little lights shine.
I’m not Hero-Pastor in this case – though he is all too real – but I have been before. And sometimes I still am. But I’m trying to pay attention. I’m learning to repent, to stay quiet. I’m learning to listen and watch as the good news moves rhizome-like underground. It slips from house to house without fanfare or ado. It pops up through the cracks in sidewalks under yellow streetlights. It springs up quickly, but you must develop the eyes to see it. I’m learning to see. I’m learning to listen. I’m learning.