Moving into a neighborhood for the sole purpose of transforming it through altruistic love is a habit wired into me from my Mennonite upbringing. For me, nothing is an obstacle if relentless love is a part of the equation. In my district work, I run into folks who vie for change through lawmaking, policing and education. This method improves some things. However, it often persists as dirt pushing—pushing problems around instead of resolving them or transforming the problem into an asset or redemptive act.
Hence, the following is a bit of a synopsis of the beauty, the adventure and the struggle of altruistic investment into whatever and whomever decided to become my neighbor—transforming the neat rows of dwellings into a dynamic, supportive community. After all it takes a tribe to raise the children that run through the streets of Railroad Island, unsupervised. Whoever, imagined it was a nuclear family that did it—or a single mother for that matter.
I had heard mutterings of a church with a charismatic leader, who had called his congregants to move into the inner city (the Phillips Neighborhood) and bring the love of Jesus with to transform their neighborhood. I don't know if their goal was their particular goal to convert the druggies, car-burners and sex offenders into stable members of society or if it was simply to push them out and in so doing transform the neighborhood. Anyhow, I thought transformation was an excellent idea and prayed the second would not be unintended consequence. I personally was not interested in simply gentrifying my neighborhood but being a catalyst for change, so that the druggie next door could say that they are no longer a druggie rather than pushing him out into another neighborhood so he can sell drugs to someone else's kids.
So, with this thought in mind, I pulled together some like-minded people, who seemed agreeable to the outrageous plan. We started off by getting to know our neighbors. We did kids night for them and for the other Hmong in the neighborhood. We had kids crawling into every crevice of our existence, in the three houses our atheist neighbor dubbed “Revival Row”. I would often come home from a full day of work in the summer only to start over as kids would see me pull up to my house and come running, screaming my name from all corners of the four block area.
There was, in particular interest to us (because of the numerous police calls), a large house which was always rented out to a large black family. Every family that lived there generally had the same story. Yet the last family was the most challenging of all. They had moved from Chicago to avoid getting shot there. I remember I was the first to meet them and got invited over to the house for a birthday party, by the ten year old who had been wandering the neighborhood, tehn became my shadow for the day. The moment I entered the house through the kitchen, I got yelled at by the toothless grandmother as she sized me up and down while waving her spatula. Her accent was so Chicago I had no idea what she was saying other than “white” this and “black” that. I decided another room in the house was my better option. So, I sat in the dining room with the mother of the child and some other adults and was offered some stuff. I turned it down. I went to the next room to watch TV with the ten year old, which was also the front room of the house. There, four uncles took their turns bringing me plates of food, entertaining me and attempting to bribe my little shadow into leaving. The auntie came by to see what was up and commented, "Wha's yahl's problem? Neva seen a white girl ba’for?" People, all kept coming in, looking through a drawer, while my ten year old and whatever uncle yelled, “It ain’ in there. The stuff ain’ in there.” They also kept checking out the front window every time a car pulled up—likely to figure out if they should be busting out the back. Meanwhile, my little shadow snuggled into me, shuttering in terror at the scary parts of whatever movie was on.
That was how I got tangled into the daily life of my “problem” neighbors.
Eventually Uncle Phil came along. He too like the rest of the family was in and out of our house and lives. We became aware of the possibility that he was a danger to the children and called child protection for this and for a number of other reasons. I had a heated argument over the phone with the lady on the other side who insisted I was reading into the situation. Then one of the guys in our community started getting thick with the family and smoking pot with them and more secrets came out. (Actually, their secrets were generally pretty loud.) Uncle Phil's dangerous!—do not be found alone with him if you are a woman, we were told. That's about the time when one of my roommates confessed to having a crush on him. She invited him into the house. She went out with him. She watched TV with him in his house on his bed. It was his mug shot on the front pages of the paper that explained to her how lucky she had been. She was horrified, ill and left work early that day! Thank God it was a lesson well learned.
There were other close calls of such sort. We were sleeping with the enemy and it was beginning to be difficult to see if our neighbors were converting us to their vices or whether we were converting them. For the most part the later was true. This particular family is now drug and alcohol free. Several uncles and aunts have gone to rehab and they have calm evenings in the house together.