To really appreciate the significance of what I'm about to tell you, you need to understand that I am a tall skinny white man with a short conservative hairstyle who lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia.
Tall skinny white men with short conservative hairstyles who live in the suburbs of Philadelphia were taught as children if they grew up in those suburbs that we don't go to Kensington. You just don't and to do so is to put your life in your hands because the people who live there are not tall skinny white men with short conservative hairstyles!
You also need to know that throughout my life, I've been bullied. In my youth, classmates called me pea brain, retard, and stupid among other similar horrible names. In recent years, I've been told by one clergy person
that I demonstrate signs of Asperger's Syndrome and therefore do not have the wherewithal to be in youth ministry.
I've been told through the words and actions of other significant people in my life that I'm just not worth it. In many parts of my life, I've been kicked to the curb.
Being an outcast in so many social settings when balanced by my ever developing Faith has produced in me a sensitivity and Hope that I try to tap into as I relate to addicted and homeless people who are among the most outcast people of our society.
Jump ahead to last night.
Toward the end of my evening of visiting Emerald City and its neighboring community on Frankford Avenue, I was sitting on the sidewalk talking to a man who did not match my personal physical or social description in any way whatsoever. He and I are polar opposites in many ways. I'm quite sure that, if he chose to do so, he could turn me into a 200-pound pile of confetti fairly quickly. But there we sat on this sidewalk in our first ever real conversation.
This African American Man with his stocky muscular build and his long flowing dreadlocks wanted me to know something about me.
"I've been watching you on your last visit and today. I see how you walk through this cement jungle and sit and listen and talk with all of us. You walk and sit around trash and needles and don't get hurt. You're not afraid of anything. You are a fearless, quiet, ferocious lion. You are making a major difference here and will be making a major difference in our lives. God has a plan for you."
I sat there speechless and overwhelmed with gratitude to God for this moment. I looked around at my surroundings
and thought, "There is no other community of people I want to serve at this time in my life." As we stood, he taught me "the hood" way that men greet each other. I did it to the best of my ability. He appreciated my effort but explained that what I was doing was the Puerto-Rican Men's greeting. The African American greeting has an extra shoulder bump at the end.
I share this with you not to bring any glory to me but rather to share with you this one example of how very wrong we
are to assume that someone who is not like us on the surface is not like us in their heart.
For my weekday visits, I always try to get there by 4pm. Thanks to traffic and other factors, I rarely arrive before 4:30 or 4:45. Yesterday was different and I managed to arrive a bit after 4. I had told Anna and Pastor Jason that I figured I'd be there at 4:30. As I pulled into my usual parking place and hopped out of my car, I heard words that made me laugh. It was an announcement that I'd been told is made in various ways each time I arrive. This was the first time I heard it. "Banana Man is here!"
Announcements of particular people arriving in Emerald City are typical. Lots of people visit this community, especially on weekends. It's not unusual to hear an announcement such as "Visitors on the Block." The residents all live on the right side of Emerald Street. The left sidewalk is kept open for pedestrians. When children or teens are walking on the opposite side of the street, the announcement is made: "Kids on the block." All of these announcements are made as a sign of respect for the people who are arriving or walking through. Activities related to drug use stop or become more discrete in these times.
Conversations preceded by handshakes, fist bumps, and/or hugs are the norm as we distribute bananas and water. Anna had chocolate candy filled Ziploc bags that she distributed as she conversed with people. We always run out of bananas and water before the need ends.
As Pastor Jason, Anna and I spread out across the Community conversing with people:
- One conversation was about the power of sin and Jesus' death and resurrection.
- Another was about the possibility of getting two different people into a specific detox center.
- Another conversation was with a newcomer to this community although not new to the streets. She was, from a suburban perspective, beautifully dressed in her Sunday best, as she was returning exhausted from her long day of 'dates.'
- In another conversation, arrangements were being made to help a resident get to an important medical appointment.
- One woman told us that the next morning, she was going to detox. Please pray for her.
One conversation really won the prize for most frightening and funny. As Anna, Pastor Jason and I were walking down the sidewalk on Frankford Avenue right about here
, I saw a pair of men's boots sticking out of a tent door. They were obviously on someone's feet and in a position that made me question if the unknown wearer was safe. I asked the man standing next to the tent if the man inside was OK - as in not overdosing. This man quietly explained that they found him dead about 20 minutes earlier and were just waiting for the ambulance. The man blocked my attempt to access the tent. I called Anna who came right over. We managed to get past the standing man and flip open the tent door to find the wearer of the boots sitting up and laughing at the joke they played on us. I gave them each an extra banana in recognition of their acting abilities.
As conversations were coming to a natural close
, I made my way to Urban Hope to attend their "Road to Recovery" meeting.
Before I left for that, however, I agreed to charge a phone in my car for one man while I was in that meeting.
When I came back to Emerald City to deliver the phone, a wave of sadness hit me when I saw a woman there who I've known since my first visit in July 2017. It wasn't the "seeing her" part that made me sad. We had chatted briefly a few hours earlier. It was the seeing her dressed and preparing to leave for her night of 'dates' that made me sad and deeply concerned for her safety. For all of the months of interactions that we've had with deep conversations, this was the first time that I'd seen her in that mode. We only passed each other on the sidewalk. We each said "Hi 'First Name.'" to the other. For me, there was an awkwardness at that moment that I can't quite describe. I sensed in that brief moment that she felt it too.
There is no real conclusion to this blog because as you sit here reading it, each person mentioned, with the possible exception of the one who was planning on going to a detox today, is still there risking health and life all because society cannot provide a REAL way out for them.
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