The world you inhabit has suddenly become dark. You are seeing things you had, until this point, only read about in books. The brand of Christianity that you adhered to–that you wanted to lay it on the line for–has started to unravel under the weight of injustice. You will begin to shed layer after layer of piety.
In what becomes an act of bravado, you start to go to coffee shops on Sunday mornings instead of looking for a “Bible believing church” in your new city. When folks back home ask if you checked out their cousin’s fellowship, you smarmily reply that it is in the suburbs, a land of white privilege that doesn’t warrant your time or effort. When you do visit an urban church that seems promising (on a Sunday night–practically subversive), they happen to sing a chorus from your youth and you abruptly depart.
A family in the neighborhood where you are serving as a year-long volunteer dies in a fire that could have been prevented. Except that not everyone perished. The infant son is pushed up and out and over the iron bars on the windows that hemmed in the rest of the family as flames enveloped the house. Hesurvives. The poverty that led them to use the gas oven for heat persists all around. The stench of burnt vinyl siding lingers in the air for a few days afterward. You walk by the stoop daily and see a growing pile of fruit and candles, offerings for the deceased to take to the other side of life.
Soon, you will stop going to church altogether. No God you want to know would be alright with what you have seen in a few short months. The effects of addiction. The crippling poverty. The nightly sounds of battery and pop of gun shots. The alarm and confusion turns to anger and then to cynicism. A couple of teens from your after school program get picked up in a “sweep,” a common practice of rounding up young black men who “fit the description” of petty thieves and drug dealers. They remind you that it doesn’t pay to play by the rules because they will be targeted anyway, simply for the color of their skin and where they live.
By the time Mo gets shot, you are drinking your way through cynicism a few nights a week. You’ve stopped answering phone calls from some friends and family. You feel that you are too busy doing important work. Your only spare time is spent with the other full-time volunteers in your program. They are the only ones who “get it.” All the pain. All the brokenness. They’ve had the same conversations you’ve had with the dope-sick prostitutes on the avenue as you open the community center in the early morning. A friendly hello. A wave to the pimp nearby as you lock up late at night. This is normal now. Even welcome. No one back home would understand, so why try to explain or even describe it?
Mo’s wound is in his stomach. You learn this is common. It is why there seem to be a disproportionate number of young men rolling down the avenue in wheelchairs. Gunshot wound at nearly point blank range. A hand off deal gone bad—or something. It doesn’t matter. You have come to understand that all is gray. Good and evil. Right and wrong. Decades of racist land use policies, underfunded public education, a lack of jobs, and decrepit public housing failed these guys before they were even out of kindergarten.
You and another volunteer visit Mo in the ICU on Sunday afternoons, the one block of time during the week when you are not running a class, a program, or trying to raise money to keep the doors open. He is unconscious. He is on a ventilator. Each week he loses more weight. The basketball team Mo played on was supposed to provide a place for pro-social behavior, like somehow this intervention we cobbled together with a few balls and a referee’s whistle could counteract geographic isolation and economic disparity.
The last time we see Mo is in a casket in a worn-down funeral parlor across from the parish adjacent to the community center. There are water stains on the drop ceiling tiles. Few of the folding chairs match. At least four of the younger teens from your program are hanging on to you in tears. The others are fronting on the street outside. They wear t-shirts with his face on it. They insist that the crew that Mo tussled with is going to show up as an act of disrespect that will warrant more fighting, more violence, more gunshots.
You find solace in the person who sat with you at Mo’s bed side. Intimacy is equal to shared pain at this point. Doesn’t matter that he’s not a good guy, that he treats women poorly. He saw the same horrors you did. He also felt that the only “real” thing was the struggle. Together, in a sort of unholy communion, you might be able to make a tiny bit of difference, and if not, you had each other’s back in the fight.
The problem is, younger disillusioned self, that you cannot sustain this, no matter how just the cause, no matter how real the gains. Acting out of pain eventually produces more pain. The team of idealistic do-gooders begins to turn in on itself. Sharp words are meant to wound. Anything vulnerable and true is passed over in favor of a hard, sarcastic edge. Grace has a very difficult time getting through.
Your team will organize vigils and rallies for peace. There will be meetings with police, conversations on conflict resolution, and training after training after training. You will go to Washington to lobby for more funds for this work. The adrenaline will keep you woke even as your body gets sick and your heart hardens.
What saves you, in the end, isn’t the cause or that guy. In fact, he wields enough pain to haunt you for years and the shame lingers. Instead, you will find yourself regularly landing in the back of a church populated by the broken. You will sit next to the same people who buy their daily dose of relief on the avenue. You will break bread with the abuela who silently petitions the heavens for the safety of her grandsons, a worn rosary continually threaded between her knotted hands. You will shed an ocean of tears into strong mugs of coffee in a rectory kitchen. You will ask how the sisters and priests keep showing up when you are very, very ready to go home.
They will point you to the Eucharist.
You will find a universal Church, a communion of saints, and a body of teaching that says Christ came for the least among us, that he sides with the poor and suffers with them. You will crawl your way back to a community of faith and eventually find a way of proceeding that resonates. You won’t need to go home because at the Easter Vigil in 2005, you will truly, deeply know home is wherever broken believers and stumbling sinners are gathered in hope.
Dear tired, younger self–and others just starting out–my wish for you is that you find your sustaining source. Look for beauty. Cultivate friendships with those who will call you to be your better, hopeful self. Ask an older, wiser person to help situate this experience in the larger story. Take the phone calls from family. Be bold. Be true.
Be honest with the people who love you and be open to their love. Be still. Rest. Drink some, but not too much. Put the phone away sometimes. Hug someone because you need human touch. Skip a protest and don’t feel guilty about it. Prioritize where your energy can best be spent. Mess that up. Observe the Sabbath.