I live in the southernmost part of North Philadelphia, just blocks from the art museum where Rocky made his infamous run up the stairs in the movies. Philadelphia is an interesting place, especially when it comes to neighborhoods and communities. Here, boundaries are both odd and perpetual. A short one block away from my home, houses sell for a quarter of a million dollars. The street is always well paved. The cars out front start around $30,000. The street is comprised mostly of upper middle class white families. In contrast though, my block is composed of low-income housing, cracked sidewalks and all working class black households. Well, all are black with the exception of ours. We are white.
I live next door to two middle school boys and their elderly grandmother. Both of the children’s parents passed away in a car accident when they were very young. Their grandmother took them in as her own and has been raising them ever since. Bryant, the older brother, is a street-smart wisecracker with an entrepreneurial spirit and an affinity for video games. James, on the other hand, younger by one year, is a gentle and playful kid who loves tennis and hunting for air-conditioned places during the summer. James still retains a childish physique both in demeanor and facial expressions. In contrast, Bryant’s boyish face seems to have left sometime over the last year, replaced by the necessarily hard face of an inner-city street dweller.
It has always worried me that James and Bryant did not have two parents to raise them. Of course, people can make it through without both a mother and a father, but there is always a price paid. In particular, it is difficult when boys don’t have a father to look up to. I find myself sensitive to this when I spend time with James and Bryant daily. I interact with them both every single day of my life here in Philadelphia. Either sitting on my stairs, knocking on my door, running errands with me, playing video games together, fixing something broken or going to church with me, they play a daily role in my life.
And whether I like it or not, I am a father figure. I didn’t ask for the job. I didn’t seek it out. I didn’t necessarily even want it, but nonetheless, they are both looking at me through the eyes of boys who need a man to show them both how to be men and that they are worthy of love by a man.
Recognizing this, I have to make the choice to live intentionally and choose to make them a priority or to push them aside for other pressing matters. I dance back and forth on my decision from day to day. Ultimately, however, I have chosen to love them both regardless. I have chosen to accept my role in their life. I have chosen to take on the often-terrifying responsibility of showing and teaching them both what it means to be a man … and not just a man, but also a man of God.
I am not a parent. I am not even married. I do not know what it’s like to carry a child for nine months and then, as Elizabeth Stone said, "to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body."
And yet I find my heart turning to James and Bryant and desiring greatly to give myself to them. I desire the best for them. I worry about them. I find great joy in them. They make me fiercely angry and uncontrollably giddy. When they come home with good report cards or sports trophies, I find myself feeling proud and want nothing more than to hug them and shake them around, filling the air with exclamations of, "Hey, you over there! Did you see this?!" and "I’m so proud of you! You did so good!"
Simple walks to the store for a two liter become moments of goofing off, a lesson in life, small talk, or moments of rebuke and reconciliation.
I forget the divide that is between us because of the color of our skin. Sometimes people remind us. Just tonight, James and I were returning from the store. Bryant was walking ahead, the two of us angry at one another after a fight. Frustrated, angry and thoughtful, I stared at the ground. James opened an umbrella and sheltered us both as the rain began to fall all around us. My worries about Bryant’s relationship to the hard city life flooded my mind, making the voices around me dense and distant. One, however, pierced through loud and clear. It was cocky and bitter.
"That’s great. A black boy holding an umbrella for a white man."
I turned to see two black teenage males, surrounded by a group of younger middle school kids all staring at the two of us.
"Say something," he said, in an "I dare you." tone of voice.
"What did you say?" I said in an openly irritable voice.
"You whipped us." he retaliated. "You put us in chains and you whipped us. You made us slaves. Look at him." He pointed to James. "A slave."
"You don’t know me!" I said with an attitude, realizing this street phrase had actually become a natural part of my vocabulary. "This is my neighbor. We’re together all of the time. So, don’t you dare play the race card with me."
"You whipped us! You made us slaves!" he yelled.
James and I turned and walked away. In the distance in a mocking voice I could hear them call, "Don’t you dare play the race card with me."
James looked over at me and asked, "Are you okay?" I said yes, but it was a lie. I wasn’t. No matter how much I love these kids and how much I want to take care of them and usher them into manhood, we live in a world that will always look at us and see two black kids and a white man. I can never teach them what it means to be a black man in a white world. I will never understand what it means to be black. I will never understand what it means to live in a country where my race might not be enslaved any more but the country still loves the color white more than black. I will never understand. And I can’t show them how to deal with these things.
I am white. They are black. And the line still exists.
I don’t know exactly how to deal with this. I don’t know how much it affects things. But, I do love them both and I choose to continue to love them, regardless of the boundaries and the real temptations around us to keep those boundaries in place.
I believe that God sees color like the rest of us, but I don’t believe that God is as wishful and ignorant as his children often are. I believe that God looks at this fallen world and sees the lines that exist. As a reflection of his character, he celebrates diversity, while the rest of us still fear it. The Church is perhaps the leader in revolution and the leader in sin. As the popular saying goes, "Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week." I do hope that God will meet James and Bryant and show them how to live in this country and world with the color of their skin. I am sure that I don’t know how.
No nice little summary. Or nice little Bible lesson. I am confused and feeling disheartened by tonight’s events. My hope though is knowing that God has promised to walk with James, Bryant and I through it all. I do not know what will happen to them or me. I just know that God will be with us as we each walk our paths. Only God is a sure thing.
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