It can be said that I live in the hood. THE hood. V.M. Ybor has long been home to some of Tampa’s urban black and brown poor, but of recent, it’s becoming more … well, gentrified. My block is the perfect representation of this: on one end, a predominantly black church known for prosperity gospel, followed by recently renovated homes, once abandoned, but now occupied by progressive white folks with Hillary and Bernie signs on their well manicured lawns, and closer to my own home, the old oak, partially in the street, and home to our local dope boys. Contrast, right? To me, it is BEAUTIFUL.
My family hosts a home church on Sunday evenings, so in a way, this street is book-ended by folks following Jesus. I wonder though if, in being here in this neighborhood, we are truly making a difference, and truly having some impact on the all people around us. Last week, I ordered something from Amazon, which was to be delivered on the weekend by FedEx. They came on Saturday to deliver my package (a $20 electronic replacement part) but the delivery driver saw the dope boys near by and never stopped. He later told his boss he felt unsafe and refused to deliver the package (he also told a story, which I believe to be false, of being harassed by an ‘unknown’ black man, who cursed at him and scared him, possibly tried to rob him, although interestingly he declined to file a security incident or a police report). I’m certain he’d have had no problem delivering to the new folks on the other end of the block. FEAR made ALL the difference. Delivering the package was his JOB, but his fear overrode his PURPOSE for coming here.
Such is the conundrum for us charged with bringing the Good News of Jesus to the places we’re called to, including where we live. Whether we’ve been here for a long time or whether we’re new, we should always be about ushering in God’s Kingdom to wherever we’re at. That Good News is as much for the poor as it is for the middle class. It’s as much for the folks on the west end of my block as it is on my end. Its for the dope boys and their clientele. It’s for the folks further down walking their dogs. There are many things that make us different, but their need for Jesus remains. Fear is a barrier that prevents us from delivering the Good News to those that are desperately needing to hear it.
I’d be lying if I said I’m not also afraid. Just last night the police had the entire street, both ends, blocked off. Some kind of standoff, I assume, as I hear unclear directives blaring over a bullhorn. As my family slept, oblivious to it all, I was still awake, and worried. Honestly, I’ve had many nights like this. There are definitely things that feed into the fears, both the rational fears and the irrational fears (we all have them, right?). But despite them, I’ve come to learn about my neighbors, not just about the bad, but also the GOOD.
By interacting with and observing my drug-selling neighbors, for example, I’ve learned of their youthful ignorance, but also their fierce desire to raise their children, to be the fathers their own fathers weren’t, and to perhaps provide a different life than the one they themselves were afforded. It’s completely nuanced. I’ve also attended neighborhood association meetings, full of well-intentioned people, who care for their property values and their safety, but have yet to learn to love the people around them that don’t look like them, but are affected by the decisions those in that meeting make. Jesus is the thing that is missing for both.
For me, it’s might be much easier to give into fear. I could just draw line in the sand, and reject the people nearest to us, who look like us but who live drastically different lives, and willfully gravitate towards those whose lives more closely reflect ours, despite their disdain for their other black and brown neighbors. Is this merely about to “sell out” or to not “sell out”, and to reject my own black identity for my own safety? Truly there are layers to this, that wrap into concepts like black culture, black identity and our struggle to find a place of equally footing in society despite our shared socioeconomic challenges (all concepts I won’t explain here). This includes Jesus’ call to see His Father’s Kingdom come and His will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.
So, what is the answer for this neighborhood? How do I participate in ushering in God’s Kingdom for my neighborhood? For me and my family, it is to continue to exist here, to pray and to continue to connect with those that live here, so that their lives can be changed by the Gospel. We resist the urge to turtle into our house and instead, with great risk, we try to be a visible, and sometimes vocal, presence here. We invite people in, via our homechurch Kindred, and encourage them to follow our lead. We challenge ourselves and our middle-classed neighbors to love and show concern for the poor. We live our lives in stark contrast to our dope-slinging neighbors as an example of a different way to live. We teach our children as best we can of their identities in Jesus, and of their black identity as well, help them grow to understand the complexity and nuance of being black in this neighborhood, in this city and in this country of ours.
In conclusion, I accept that I am inadequate in this goal of mine. But that’s okay, truly, God is God and I am not. I won’t let fear be a hindrance to my call to deliver the Good News. Besides, this Kingdom doesn’t need to be established by conquest. BECAUSE WE ARE HERE, SO IS JESUS. We pray that His Will be done …
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