One of the most powerful things this side of heaven is to be radically loved by someone who is radically different than you.
— Dr. Mac Pier @ TLCC
April 27, 2014
While they were talking about guns and mugging people, I sat there thinking, How did I get here?
I was sitting in on “group” — the life skills workshop that the Y provides to the kids in their program. The kids are on probation, and I run a mentoring program that sends folks to work with these kids for a few hours each week.
My friend and awesome volunteer leader, Stan, was sitting across from me, on the other side of the circle. I sat between Rico, a tightly wound young man with a smile that lights up the room, and Ivan, a tall kid who’s smarter than you might think at first and probably has a problem with impulse control. Around the circle sat DeShawn, his chair pulled back, withdrawn. David slumped in his seat with his hood pulled over his eyes. Micah flipped through a book he grabbed off the bookshelf behind him, punctuating his complete lack of interest. Miles sat across from me, upright and focused — but I knew he’d been ditching the program. Sharome was on the other side of Rico, refusing to participate, the front of his shirt pulled up over his face in protest. Devonte was a quivering mass of angry passion; Shadeira, shy but giggling with the boys. Mike’s face, with his happy cheeks and big hair, was open and up for discussion.
And the discussion was guns. Robbing people. Street bravado.
My friend Stan is a dreadlocked defense attorney in Manhattan. They relate to him easily and, to be quite frank, they’re happy to know a defense attorney. Me? I don’t think they know what to make of me.
And I don’t know what to make of this — this thing where I find myself in a group session with gang bangers instead of — I dunno — PTA moms?
I hadn’t planned on getting this up close and personal with the kids in the mentoring program when I started. God and I had an agreement, so I thought. Actually what happened was I had an idea. But God had a plan.
I was there at group for two reasons. One, because the week before, Stan had sat in on group and had been appalled at what he heard. Appalled to hear them laughing about mugging people. He was concerned that maybe we hadn’t equipped our mentors well; that maybe we didn’t know what we had gotten ourselves into. He felt a deep sense of responsibility to get through to these kids.
I was also there because the Sunday before, one of the kids looked up at me and said, I want you to be my mentor.
I told him I’d be there on Thursday. I had to be true to my word.
So I sat there while Stan spoke with them about robbery charges and what they mean. About how someday, they’re going to decide to mug the wrong person. He told them about Bernie Goetz and about how the justice system might be slightly….skewed. He tried to elevate them and speak to them at street level, too. It was, I don’t want you on the streets, but let’s talk about your choices while you’re there.
I was quiet for most of the discussion, images of soccer balls and minivans and privilege dancing in my head like a comic strip thought bubble. I am vastly different from these children, as the white suburban soccer mom; there is very little in my life that seems to speak to theirs. Days later, I would tell my best friend Aisha about this night, about how different I felt from them. She put her hands on the table, looked me in the eye as only a best friend can do, and said, “I need you to hear me on this. You need to get over this white soccer mom thing.”
“But I’m afraid that’s all they’re going to see when they look at me.”
“Probably. But you’re there. You are getting to know them as the people that they are. They are going to have to learn about you too. You are there doing something with them and that’s what counts. So stop referring to yourself as the white soccer mom. Besides,” she continued. “We both know you’re not really white.” It’s our old joke.
I laughed and shrugged, “Irish, Black, same thing.”
I so needed her to make me laugh and tell me truth. Thank God for Aisha.
When he heard about Bernie Goetz, Devonte got mad. A passion in his belly rose up and into his voice — for all his teen age years, there was an articulate intelligence, a power in his anger. He forgot to be disaffected for a moment and he engaged. It was beautiful. And he was not wrong. Harness that passion and this is a kid who could influence the world.
Then we got into a conversation about wealth. Ivan tried desperately to get us to understand that money will not make us rich — it’s losing value every day. He tried to tell us gold is the way to go (earlier, he’d posited that there is no good and evil, just every man for himself. We talked about anarchy.). Rico talked about billions of dollars and the room got loud with voices. Mike was quietly shaking his head, and in a low voice said, “Money can’t buy you friends.”
Rico, with all his big and bright expansiveness, said, “Oh yes it can! I got one-hundred dollars and boom, I got friends.”
Mike kept quietly shaking his head and said, “Yeah, but they’re not real friends. They don’t have your back.”
The room was still exploding with conversation – Ivan was still talking about inflation, the Y’s staff member was trying to get everyone to quiet down. Devonte held up his hands in the chaos and said, “Hold up, hold up. I want to understand how we’re defining wealth here.”
Rico said, “Billions of dollars!”
The room finally quieted down for a minute, just as Mike leaned back in his chair and said in his quiet voice, “Nah. That’s just money. Money just makes you rich. That’s not wealth.”
I wanted. to freaking. hug him.
I asked him to tell me more. He got shy, smiling and looking down, shrugging himself back into withdrawal. But he was beautiful in that moment, Mike with his smiling cheeks and his wise, wise soul.
They surprise me, these kids, because I come to them with ridiculous preconceptions. I come carrying the weight of classism and racism and probably a host of other isms I haven’t yet recognized. I don’t want to carry this baggage with me. I like to think of myself as progressive. I try to deconstruct my isms and just be real. I try to recognize that other people see me through their isms, too. I also realize that my isms could very possibly keep me from doing God’s work by keeping me scared, keeping me separate; letting my awareness of my own privilege keep me from doing something out of some twisted, self-sanctimonious I’m not worthy bullshit instead of just being real in front of kids whose lives get way more real way quicker than mine probably ever will.
Deshawn surprised me when his face lit up like a firecracker while he talked to me about The Odessey. Yes, that ancient Greek text about the shipwreck. Mike surprised me with his wise spirit. Ivan surprised me with his economic philosophy. I have so much to learn from these kids, and these kids have so much to offer the world.
One of these kids was involved in a crime that got some attention — I Googled it, and read the news reports. The comments were typical. I quote: “If those are the children of our future, we don’t need them. Toss them away! A waste of space!” There was also the simple: “Just kill them.”
There was a time my soul may have wanted to agree with them. But I know the circumstances and more importantly, I know this kid’s name. I have seen his gentle smile. I have witnessed his shyness, his total lack of aggression. His biggest crime these days is being incredibly bored. And I want to say, Dear society, you have already tossed these children away. That is why they are in trouble.
Or maybe just: Dear society, you are an asshole.
I’m reminded of something a friend had said to me a while back: No kid wakes up wanting to be the bad guy.
Finally, at one point during the night — I don’t remember how or why — but suddenly, I was expected to speak. The air seemed to leave the room as all eyes were on me. They resumed their disaffected positions, leaning back in their chairs, legs sprawled. I started to speak.
“Look, I can’t really speak to your lives. I have no idea what your lives are like. I come from a completely different world than you.” They nodded with their hooded eyes. Was that encouragement? Or condemnation? I decided on simple concurrence.
“But I can tell you this: each and every single one of you was created with incredible skill and talents and beauty that you could use to make the world a better place.” I looked around the room as I spoke, nodding to those whose talents I knew. “Some of you have music to make, art to create, clothes to design. You have businesses to start. But somehow you have bought into this lie that the only choice you have to make is to live way down here on the streets, mugging and robbing people. That’s a lie. You can make a different choice.” I looked at Davonte. “You, for example. You are an incredibly smart guy — articulate and eloquent, and you have a passion and a fire in your belly. I know you’re angry, and rightfully so. But instead of being one of these kids who’s out there getting shot you could take that anger and that passion and go out and help hundreds of kids just like you NOT get shot. Your choice.”
Anger melted off Davonte’s face like wax on a candle. He got shy and smiled and was uncomfortable at having his beauty acknowledged for a moment. Later, he came up to me and shook my hand. “I want you to be my mentor.”
Dear God, I wondered, maybe sub-consciously, why would you pick a white soccer mom from an affluent urban neighborhood to help young black urban gang-banging males?
And God said, through Dr. Mac Pier on Sunday at church, Because there is nothing so powerful this side of heaven as being radically loved by someone who is radically different than you.
This hit my spirit like a direct IM from God. Get over yourself, already, he said.
Then, just in case I didn’t get the message, he sent my BFF the next day. Would you get over yourself and this white soccer mom thing already?
Dear God and Dear Aisha, I hear you. And I love you both. I will try, and I trust you will both slap me upside the head when I regress. Amen.
So I will go and I will radically love those who are different from me. But I have a feeling that’s not what God meant. I have a feeling I am going to discover what it means to be loved — because these kids, I have so much to learn from them. They have so much to give. So I will speak love and empowerment and beauty and literacy and every other good thing from God into their lives as much as I can.
And they will teach me, grow me, and stretch me in ways I can’t possibly imagine.
And God will be radically there.