Monday, January 9, 2012

Ghetto Mama

When my husband and I first considered moving to inner-city Indianapolis to minister to the urban poor, we heard questions like: Will your kids be safe? Won't you miss your friends? Can you afford it?

The questions weren't anything new to us; we were asking them ourselves. After all, we have two preschool daughters and their well-being is our first concern. We both grew up in middle-class suburban or rural homes, so living and communing with the urban poor was bound to create some culture shock. And after years spent in college and seminary and low-wage jobs, we were certainly hoping to pay off some debt.

But something we weren’t questioning was God’s loud, clear call for us to go and do something uncomfortable, risky and life-changing. We’re now going on three years of living in a parsonage literally connected to a multi-racial, low-income church – a church in the ghetto – and we’ve certainly met those criteria.

Are your kids safe?

When the crime rate in your neighborhood is considered to be lower than only 1% of cities in the U.S., you make some obvious changes in your kids’ play habits. Our young daughters don’t play outside alone, we don’t go for walks after dark, and we enforce the no-talking-to-strangers rule like it is biblical. But honestly, regarding safety, I don’t know that our lives have changed too terribly much, and I think I know why.

While petty theft is epidemic in inner cities, only once have we had anything stolen. Granted, that one thing was our gigantic central air conditioner – sold for loose change on the black market – but considering the fact that we keep a decent stroller un-chained outside, and considering the number of times I have absentmindedly left my purse on the front porch or in my shopping cart, I would say there is another force at work. God has undoubtedly protected us from some major calamities, and has done so through our neighbors. The same people who get food from the church food pantry each week, who receive counseling for crack addictions from my husband and send their kids for me to tutor, are continually on the lookout for us. We are their pastors, committed friends who have chosen to be a part of their world and who attempt to bring hope into it. Our children are their children, their children are ours, so while the question of safety is certainly valid, the strength of this Christian community and the loyalty of its members make our neighborhood much safer than I once imagined.

Who are your friends?

A teenage mom approached me in the nursery and asked me for advice on breastfeeding. A neighbor has kids the same age as mine; they like to build leaf piles outside. A grandmother babysitting her granddaughter asked if we could have a play date.

There are countless ways to connect with people of low socio-economic status, but as a full-time mom, my kids are the key. Having children gives me an immediate bond with every person I come into contact with, because nearly everyone has a daughter or son, niece or nephew, and everyone has been a child. Unique conversations on relationships with our children, our hopes for their future, and even our status as God’s sons and daughters, abound.

I’ve found that contrary to popular opinion, low-income parents are not necessarily “bad” parents. Many have seen their neighbors’ children taken away by Child Protective Services, and therefore take their role as parents quite seriously. They are fiercely loyal, ever watchful, and very present in their children’s lives. And while we may not always agree on how to show it, we all believe that our kids should know we love them.

Another surprising find: unlike their middle- to upper-class counterparts, Christ-seekers in the inner city tend to be extremely honest and transparent about their struggles with sin. They have been in pits of despair I could never comprehend, without the hope of money or influence to pull them out. I’ve had a number of conversations with people who desperately wanted God to shine some light into their dark lives, and while they intended for me to help them, their willingness to be so honest has helped me more fully face the dark places in my own faith. The deep friendships I’ve made here are quite unexpectedly more open and real than any I’ve made before.

How do you afford it?

Shallow as it sounds, my husband’s pay was my biggest concern in coming here. With a seminary degree to pay off and Baby Number Two on the way, we were hoping for Greg to at least be paid full-time for his work. When we learned the church could only afford to pay him part-time, we did what any other middle-class-minded American family would do to save money: we cloth diapered, clipped coupons, shopped at the thrift store. We even began contriving meals solely made from canned food in the church food pantry. But we still couldn’t afford health insurance. As a last resort, we signed our kids up for government assistance, and Greg and I began visiting a reduced-cost health clinic when we got sick. In effect, we became truly incarnational, relying on the same systems our neighbors rely on, learning firsthand the inadequacies of these systems. Our bills are certainly reduced, but our dignity and self-respect are on the line each time we wait hours in queue to speak with an overwhelmed caseworker, discover our paperwork has been “lost” again, or experience the rudeness of a state employee. As Americans, our worth as humans is intrinsically tied to our income. Living in the inner city has taught us that our identity in Christ’s Kingdom far outweighs our loyalty to any other country, any other value system.

We’ve also learned that the worth of material possessions is so very, very minute compared with relationships. Our first attempt at a community garden was a huge success, with everyone trading and sharing and working the ground together. Anything on my pantry shelves is up for grabs if a neighbor needs food. Our kids regularly donate their clothes and toys. When your neighbors and friends have so little, you realize you don’t need so much.

And here was the big surprise: despite my initial concerns about income, our family was able to pay off all our loans within our first year of inner-city ministry. We were entering the lowest paying job we’d ever had, but thanks to frugal living and generous giving from other Christians, we found ourselves suddenly debt-free!

I won’t pretend that calling myself a “ghetto mama” is cool, or even basically true. I know a lot of real ghetto mamas that would trade places with me in an instant, because when push comes to shove, I could pick up and leave this place if I wanted to. They couldn’t. I do, however, embrace the coolness and truth of calling myself a “Christian.” There’s nothing better than knowing a God who calls us into risky waters … and doesn’t leave us there to drown.

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