We're back from a week's vacation in Ohio — a full week without my normal "online oxygen."
I wanted to share some thoughts about poverty and the gospel that I didn't get out before we hit the road. Two weeks ago, our family had a series of experiences related to poverty in Northeast Central Durham — Durham's most notorious and impoverished neighborhood.
The Saturday before we left for vacation, I had the pleasure of helping move Denise Friesen into a home she has recently purchased in this neighborhood. Denise has been a teacher in Durham city schools for seven years and now has just begun a job at the Center for Documentary Studies as a resource person helping educators utilize photography and other arts as tools for literacy training. Denise has been a wonderful friend since her days at Carolina and has not only inspired the mission of our family but also models missional living in so many ways. She has so often taught us that even our most noble discussions about incarnational ministry (in short, taking to whole gospel into the contexts of the lives and communities of others) can be paternalistic. So often we operate incarnationally to transform others without being fully open to learn from and be transformed by those we engage with the gospel. Denise has taught us that embodying the gospel to the poor is so much more complicated than seeking out the poor with noble and simplistic hopes of empowerment and change. Poverty is a system that grips people in a manner where change is slow and in many cases improbable. The gospel compels us to seek the poor as friends, neighbors, recipients of our resources — and as teachers and guides of what it means to follow Christ in our very complicated world. We had a couple other experiences two weeks ago that reinforced these lessons — the powerful grip of poverty and the importance of our presence in the lives of the poor.
The first experience comes from our family's experiences the Antioch Baptist day camp two weeks ago. Antioch Baptist is a church located in Northeast Central Durham. Our church has been forging a partnership with Antioch and has targeted this neighborhood as an area of intentional and reciprocal ministry. Antioch had graciously invited a team from CHBC to lead a week of their educational day camp. Mimi volunteered to attend daily, lead the arts component, and to help with coordinating some other speakers. Our kids attended each day and campers and helpers. The week was a marvelous success. Our fellowship is so blessed with caring, innovative, and experienced educators. But there were, as expected, some difficult moments. The most difficult involved observing interactions of some of the camp counselors (teens who regularly lead the camp) with the campers. On occasions these teens used intense and condescending language with quick threats of expulsion to manage the kids even in circumstances where the kids were being attentive and engaged. I realize this was a cross-cultural situation that we didn't fully understand, but in these interactions it was easy to see the long tentacles of poverty — kids being told that little was expected from them except failure. Poverty breeds a language, tone, and expectations of failure that are hard to escape.
A second experience involves Lattimore, a homeless man from Chapel Hill that our family has befriended this summer. I want to write so much more about Lattimore — we are learning so much from him and being stretched in some many ways by this friendship. Lattimore grew up in Northeast Central Durham. His story is very complicated. He has been a marine, a cook in a highly respected restaurant in the area, and a successful vocalist on the blue circuit over the past three decades. He has also been drug dealer on the streets of Durham. He was incarcerated for thirteen years and shot on four different occasions because of this vocation. He is now dying of AIDS which he contracted from sharing needles as an IV-drug user. He is also a man with a vibrant and deep Christian faith.
Over this summer, we have had so many new experiences with Lattimore. We've watched him be mistreated by restaurant owners while eating with us for simple requests (like wanting more ranch sauce with his chicken wings!) while our kids seemingly endless requests for drink refills are met with smiles. There are also some merchants and restaurant owners that take a good care of him on Franklin St. (Chapel Hill's main street). But his efforts to get housing have taken him back to Durham, which is threat to his safety — he has explained to us that he is an OG ("old gangster") in Durham where there are many scores that could be settled. While in Durham for the Antioch camp, we spent some time with a variety of social workers and case workers to help with Lattimore's housing. The system is so complicated. One afternoon, while shuttling between case workers, Lattimore took us on a driving tour of the neighborhood. The tour included the places he grew up, places where he fought and was shot, and even an interpretation of the morning's newspaper (There had been a drive-by shooting and murder the evening before and Lattimore knew the victim and the suspects). As Mimi and I debriefed this day, we were both overwhelmed with almost inpenetrable power of poverty — a system which demands energies and resources that the poor do not have, living conditions that make crime a hard choice to escape, shattered dreams, and marginalized expectations.
I'm thankful for friends like Denise who know these realities yet forge ahead and who teach us appropriate expectations as we seek to embody the gospel with the poor. I'm thankful for friends like Lattimore who offer an amazing humanity to the tragedy of poverty. I share these experiences without answers. But I continue to realize that faithfulness to the gospel demands greater thought and more courageous efforts to be in community with the poor.