ON THE BLOCK
One night within weeks after moving to our home in the Point Breeze neighborhood of Philadelphia, we heard gunshots and then saw men cowering in fear in the parking lot across the street from our home. A man lay bleeding in the street not 30 feet from our doorstep. I ran down to the basement to make sure the kids were safe and away from the windows while Jill called the police to let them know we heard 4-6 shots outside our house.
Men yelled and scattered as the police arrived. Loved ones screamed in horror as the shooting victim was taken away by ambulance. As we saw our block be transformed into a taped-off crime scene, we prayed silently and spoke with many neighbors and police officers. The police investigation lasted into the night, but the victim’s life did not. He died at the hospital. No suspect has been found. No one is talking. That’s often how these things go.
Two nights later, I noticed a gathering of people in the parking lot of the convenience store (where the shooting happened). Jill and I quickly went over to listen and be present with the hurting people in our neighborhood. A man who was related to the victim spoke. His words were measured and strong. He shared his desire to see the community come together to change. As the vigil ended, I walked up to him, thanked him for his words, and said. “We just moved onto the block and are raising our family here. Can we link up some time? I’d like to learn from you and think about ways we can seek peace in this neighborhood together.”
“I’d like that.” He said.
Neither of us had our phones on us to exchange numbers. I went back into the house to grab my phone and any cash we had to help with the funeral expenses. When I came back, we exchanged numbers and I handed him the little bit of cash we had and asked, “Can you make sure the family gets this? It’s not much but we want to help.” He thanked me and grabbed me by the shoulder saying, “Come with me.”
He led me to the murdered man’s mother and introduced us. I gave her my condolences as my new friend handed her the money we offered. She gave me a hug. I asked if I could pray for her. She said yes and I put my hand on her shoulder and prayed for her in the middle of the crowd, right about where her son was gunned down.
Days later, I met with this new friend for lunch. He asked me, “Why did you move to Point Breeze?” He wasn’t accusatory. He was curious about what would motivate me to move to this neighborhood. I think my answer surprised him.
“Can I be completely honest with you?” I asked. He nodded in approval. “We have close friends who live in this neighborhood and I see a lot of people moving into Point Breeze, into nice, newly redone homes. Most of them look like me. But as I walk around Point Breeze, I see that most of the people who have lived here for a long time look like you.
Some people think the way to improve the neighborhood is to move the established people out and make room for the new. They think the way to make it safer is to price out the residents. In pursuit of this, people are often objectified and vilified along racial lines. This causes more tension than peace. I believe that we were sent into this neighborhood to be peacemakers and agents of reconciliation; to invite people to gather at a table over a meal and learn to see each other as humans again. Hopefully, over time, we can see people come to value peace and life the way God intended it.”
“Now that’s what’s up!” Anton exclaimed eyes lighting up. That simple, even vague, picture of the Kingdom spoke to his heart. We went on to discuss how I pastor a small, forming church here in the city and we are seeking to embody life in the kingdom here in our hood. Anton was excited about meeting someone who “didn’t see their faith as going from meeting to meeting, but rolling up their sleeves and getting involved.” Now he wants to introduce me to some other community leaders and work with me (us) to seek racial reconciliation and help the poor in our neighborhood.
Just a couple weeks later, I get a call from my new friend telling me that he has an idea for how we can partner on something. He is getting people together to have the biggest neighborhood potluck meal we can organize. He dreams of feeding 1000 people or more in our neighborhood. I told him we are in, let’s get at it. Then he tells me, “I spoke with our city councilman about you. He is eager to meet me you. Text me your email address so he can contact you and set up an appointment.”
As I write this, I am still a little surprised at how crazy this whole situation has been. By simply being present, taking some steps intentionally to listen to others, and then sharing some of our story as it intersects with theirs, we have seen the beginnings of some new relationships. If you read all the way to this point, I hope you won’t think there is anything special about what we are doing. It doesn’t require a shooting for us to get to know our neighbors or to meet people of influence. It takes presence. I’ll give you three simple and helpful principles I’ve learned:
1. Look around you for what is going on. Pray and ask the Spirit for wisdom and insight.
2. Listen to the people around you. Ask questions and learn their story.
3. Lean into relationship with those who want to know more about you. Pray again for God to show you what’s next.