I was scared the first time I took a Harlem-bound Green Line train. It sounds bizarre now, but, at that point, all I knew about East Garfield Park was crime reports. With just a 9 o’clock news diet, you would also believe the West Side was violence and guns and gangs and poverty. It was a one-dimensional narrative, a handful of negative adjectives to describe a swath of people - thousands of people. But I believed it; I believed it enough to be scared of the people I passed on the stairs connecting the street to the elevated track.
It’s been one year since I began working at a community-based nonprofit. One challenging year.
Here’s what I know to be true:
I think it’s easy to do good. It’s easy to pack a meal, to hand off a black, plastic bag of unused clothing, to donate money, even. It’s easy to serve the “starving children,” the ones you’ll never meet. But, I don’t think we’re supposed to serve from a distance.
More than that, serving isn’t supposed to be easy; and, if it is, you’re doing something wrong.
In the last year, not once have I walked away feeling like I did something important, or like I’ve done something good. Rather, I’ve walked on the sidewalks, retreating to the downtown-bound elevated tracks, feeling like someone took a rough, Brillo pad to my skin, trying to scrub away dirt and grime, stigmas and misunderstandings.
Spending the last year in a community affected by the not-so-surprising adverse effects of disinvestment and systemic racism has been challenging, because, for the first time, I saw people. These aren’t news reports, the images on a nonprofit’s promotional brochure, or an Alyssa Milano-narrated UNICEF commercial. I saw and smiled at and said hi to real people.
Service isn’t supposed to make you feel good; it’s supposed to put you in new spaces, to make you feel uncomfortable, to reveal injustices. But, more than that, it reveals this immense need and call to love.
I went to my church back home a few weeks ago. It’s an old, brick church, at-topped with a gold cross that, on a clear day, sits above miles of cornfields, proudly touting to the predominately white, middle-class, rural community. I listened to a sermon to the homogenous congregation on loving your neighbor.
Don’t get me wrong, I think loving the people who inhabit the home next door is important. I think loving your husband or your wife or your kids or your friends well is so important.
I certainly don’t want to belittle the act of loving another; but I wonder what kind of service a love without geographical or social bounds would permit.
I don’t think Jesus called us to send a packed meal to a child thousands of miles away. I don’t think he wants us to pack said meal, then retreat to our comfortable communities.
No, Jesus hosted a banquet to eat with the poor.
I think the call to serve is that of learning to love people who are different than us, the people who are easiest to keep at arms-length, to shove into these little, stereotyped boxes, sealed by the difficult to bend flaps of believing sinful behaviors put people in poverty, understanding poverty as a political tool, and believing that “chiraq” could actually be a middle eastern country thousands of miles away.
It’s loving people like you would your neighbor. It’s eating with them, meeting people eye-to-eye, not savior-to-poor. It’s having a conversation with someone and hearing their unique stories. It’s overcoming a fearfulness of the people who look different, or who believe something different, or whose situations are different.
It’s not serving to feel good; it’s serving to love others well, as challenging and uncomfortable as it may be.
I think that’s the call to serve, or at least the definition I’ve gathered in these 365 days.