In August 2005 I quit the diner to work at the church. I had been attending and volunteering for a few years at that point and it seemed like a natural move to make at the time. When you have the mindset that what you do matters and that everyone has value, working at a church seemed like an easy next step. Looking back, it was a pretty sweet gig, especially since I didn’t have to work at night. I also got to work with my fiance (now wife) whom I married in January 2006. By far, the best part of working there was coordinating mission trips. We went down to the inner city of Chicago a couple of times to work with ministries serving the poor in that area. There was a trip to Nashville to do something similar. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans just as we started working at the church and we coordinated a couple of trips down there to gut houses flooded by the storm. We would sleep on the floor of a church near the worksites, get up and eat food prepared by volunteers, work all day, and then come back for dinner and pass out from exhaustion. It was awesome. One of the trips we even came back with our first dog, Cajun.
During spring break, we would take a group to work with an organization focussing on Christian Community Development in Jackson, Mississippi. It might sound strange, but it was actually a really fun way to spend your spring break. Since Jackson is a full day’s drive from Milwaukee, we would meet at five in the morning at the church, pile as many people and their stuff into our cars as possible, road trip down there, and then stay in this massive house in the inner city of Jackson, Mississippi. The trip was so popular that we even had to run two weeks of it to accommodate the different spring break schedules for the different universities in the area. In total, I spent six weeks there over the four years.
The organization we worked with would obtain houses cheaply, sometimes for a dollar, and then use volunteer labor, us, to gut the houses and/or do minor repairs to houses near completion. Once a renovation had been completed on a house, it was sold to a renter in the community for under market value. They would work with the potential buyer in advance to make sure their credit was acceptable and help them improve it if it wasn’t. They would assist with the loan process and help navigate them through the details.
Part of the experience was a tour given by some of the volunteers or employees from the organization. The tour started at the house we stayed at and we would meander around the neighborhood. The city of Jackson, particularly in the inner city, is full of shotgun houses. They are narrow, sometimes only 12 feet wide, with the front and back doors aligned in a straight shot to create a hallway that each room is entered off of. The name shotgun house reflects the fact that you could shoot a shotgun through the front wall of the house and the shot would pass through each room as it makes it way to the back of the house.
Shotgun houses were probably never in great shape to begin with and most of them were run down. That isn’t surprising given that we were in a poor neighborhood in the south. When you are 23 years old you don’t really understand poverty if you didn’t grow up poor, or at least don’t identify as growing up poor. It is easy to judge someone for the level of care they take in maintaining where they live. As we meandered around the neighborhood we would pass by houses that were renovated by the organization and bought by residents. Those houses were always in pristine condition. Even the older renovations still looked immaculate. Their yards were clean and maintained. There weren’t cars parked on the lawn or dozens of kids toys strewn about the yard. There was a level of pride inherently apparent in how the houses were presented to passers by. The economic status of the owners of those houses weren’t necessarily different than the house with three cars parked in the yard. The nicer houses were kept nice and the shittier houses were kept shitty. That was my first interaction with that truth. Nice stays nice and crap stays crap. As a landlord a dozen years later, I use that same principal when thinking about the quality of work I create at my rental properties. Financially it makes almost no sense to put money into a property I can buy for next to nothing. Unless something drastic changes with our neighborhood the return on my investment will be much lower than if I came into a property and did the lowest quality work as quickly as possible for the least amount of money. But, I know that nice stays nice and shit stays shit.
Part of the conversation in the neighborhood focussed on issues of public health. The 36 year old version of me knows a lot more about healthy living habits than the 23 year old version did. But even at that time I understood how weight gain works and how caloric intake verses energy expended matters. As we drove on, our tour guide explained how a 40 year old person living in this neighborhood would have been born in the 60’s and grew up during a time when racial segregation, especially in schools, was normal. Because of that, they might not have had a very favorable view of education. Even worse, they might not trust information given to them by “authority figures”. Even though I can’t totally relate to that mindset, I can see how a lineage of mistrust could be passed down through a couple of generations. If you grew up with parents or grandparents that were discriminated against because of what they looked like, you would have been taught, subtly or not, that white people are not to be trusted. Now, when a public service announcement or campaign comes out and an older white doctor tells you that sugar and fat are bad for you, it’s at least plausible that you might not believe them as much as someone that has been trained to trust information handed down by older white people. Even if that is only minimally true it at least creates a dynamic where the playing field isn’t level. And, because of that, the idea at least has some merit.
Next up on the tour we started moving away from the houses and into a more commercial area. In 2006 there seemed, at least in my circle of friends, to be this idea that Walmart was bad and small businesses were good. Walmarts were bad for economic development and because they rarely paid a living wage the employees weren’t given the same opportunities that someone working in a small business might have. I don’t think that sentiment has changed much since then, but for a guy that grew up going to Walmart and Sam’s Club and never thinking twice about it, it was a new, fresh idea. As we drove on we passed a Walmart and a couple of other big box stores and then something I never really noticed before. I never noticed them, because I never thought about going to one. It seemed like, though, every fifth store was something like a cash checking place, or a cash advance shop, or a furniture rental place. When I say I never noticed them, I also mean I never thought about what a person would experience when they walked into one. I had a checking account when I was 10. I didn’t, and still don’t, totally understand why a person would be averse to opening a checking account and therefore need to rely on a check cashing place. Especially since they charged the customer for cashing the check. At that time, I think the minimum wage was about $7.25. So if they charged you $5 to cash your check, after taxes, you were spending one hour worth of “work” ($7.25 after taxes is about $5) on cashing your check.
If you needed the services of a cash advance place, you were in even rougher shape, since the interest rates charged were roughly 25% and then if you failed to pay the late fees charged to you meant that if you were to borrow $100 and miss a payment for some reason, you might end up having to pay $200 before the loan is totally forgiven. Again, as a 23 year old that was never in that dire of a situation, it was really hard to wrap my head around the mindset that would be needed in order to think that using a cash advance shop was a good idea. The same is true with renting furniture or appliances.
Then we talked about how the flow of money in and out of a neighborhood matters. Since none of the stores were really in their neighborhood, and none of the landlords lived in that neighborhood that meant that any money spent by the residents went to people or stores outside of the neighborhood. Because of this, no new economic development, besides a corner store or liquor store popping up, was created. That also meant that very few, if any jobs, were created in those areas. And because of that, the entrepreneurial potential of the neighborhood was slowed to an almost non-existent pace.
Those tours created a solid framework for understanding the problems facing Jackson’s inner city. The house we stayed at in Jackson had a huge living room with probably ten couches lining the space. At night all 20 of us would gather up there to debrief from the day and talk about what we learned. During one of those sessions someone made the connection that the problems facing Jackson were really similar to the problems Milwaukee was dealing with. That connection made the trip all that more meaningful since work was being done in Mississippi to fix the problems and that work could be translated and continued in Milwaukee.
Throughout the week long trip, two themes would continue to rise to the surface. The first was the idea of Christian Community Development.
My wife and I had always thought that being missionaries would be an interesting (fulfilling, meaningful, purpose filled) lifestyle choice. Living somewhere foreign to you and having to learn the culture and figure out how to navigate life outside of the normal way of living it is inherently exciting to us. When we first met, we talked through how we could see ourselves living in a hut in Africa or in a jungle somewhere. My wife’s brother was in the Peace Corp a few years before this on an Island in the Caribbean and we took a trip there to help paint a daycare center and do other small tasks around the town where he lived. When you are on a mission you feel different. You are excited to wake up because of the work that you get to do that day. You aren’t as concerned about yourself. It’s ok if you are uncomfortable or if you work so hard you just want to go to sleep when you get home. That was what life was like when we went to Jackson, or any of the trips we took while working at the church. There was a purpose to what you were doing. By 2006, I understood that feeling and wanted to have more of it.
One of the main themes of Christian Community Development is the idea that in order for a neighborhood to actually be desegregated it needed to be diverse racially and socio-economically, and that both of those were equally important. In order to have racial reconciliation actually take place, diversity needed to exist on those two levels. It wasn’t good enough to have a neighborhood with multiple races if all of the people living in that area were poor. That didn’t actually put right what racism made wrong. Obviously, it didn’t hurt, but the idea of reconciling is more than just fixing a problem. It is fixing the problem in a way that provides an outcome that should have existed if the problem was never there in the first place.
The socio economic aspects of racial reconciliation and community development were especially appealing. Both my wife and I grew up in middle class or upper middle class households in suburbs of large cities. We were both raised with strong work ethics and understood our economic potential since both of us were college graduates.
Being middle class would be the floor of our potential. If we dipped below that, it would either be by choice on our end or we would have to screw something up bad enough to disqualify us from that type of lifestyle.
So, if you are keeping score, we possess the two main characteristics needed to assist in community development/racial reconciliation. Even though we were pretty poor at the time, we knew that wouldn’t last long and we were, and still are, white.
The other main idea this organization focused on was helping create an atmosphere where those of different races and socio economic classes were seen as “more than equals”. It wasn’t good enough to just think of someone different than you as your equal. There needed to be some action involved. There is a level of sacrifice when you know someone is more than just equal to you. It isn’t good enough to just not discriminate against a person because of their race or class. That is only the first step.
I think it was around that time as well where white people would be proud of the fact that they had a black friend. People’s rebuttal to the accusation of being racist would literally be to tell you about the one black friend they had. I don’t think that idea is that common anymore sense it was pretty stupid to begin with, but the thought was if you had a black friend that somehow made you not racist or it excluded you from anyone being able to assume that on some level you might be racist. I remember multiple times around that time of my life where someone defended themselves as not being racist by pointing out they had at least one black friend. Racial reconciliation is more fluid or alive than a benchmark that you can arrive at. Hundreds of years of legal slavery and decades of government sponsored segregation and years of discrimination based on a persons race aren’t going to be fixed by white people having one black friend. To be more than someone’s equal requires at least a small amount of sacrifice. Deciding that you are going to treat someone that is different than you, someone that you might not understand, in a way that honors your differences while still allowing the individuals to live their own lives in the way they choose is hard. This reminds me of a neighbor we have.
Lavelle is the son of Patricia. Patricia has lived next to us the entire time we have lived here. She lives in a triplex owned by one of her sisters and her brother in law. In one of the units lives a different sister, Gwen, and the third unit has been occupied by various family members throughout our time here. The average person would guess that Patricia is at least 20 years older than Gwen. Gwen is older than Patricia, but you would never know by looking at her. Patricia smoked constantly when we moved in but has had so many health problems that I rarely see her smoking any more. She is up between 4:00 and 4:30 in the morning usually when I am just getting up and is picked up by a medical transport van and taken for dialysis treatment most days of the week. I have never heard about either sister working. Neither sister drives.
I have also never heard of Lavelle working. He drives all the time though, usually with a beer in the cup holder. I think Lavelle might be a little older than me. Maybe he is in his mid-forties now. Lavelle loves honking the horn. He’s better about it now, but he also loves bass. At least, you would assume so because of how loud it is and how often he is listening to it at odd hours of the day and night. I used to think Lavelle had 8 kids. Then I found out they were actually his long time girlfriend’s kids. Many of her kids have different fathers, but none are Lavelle. I have never seen one of those kids properly restrained inside of a vehicle. Even the smallest of kids were never in a car seat. We have tried to help fix that but haven’t gotten anywhere with it.
I wouldn’t say that he is my friend. In fact, I wouldn’t say that I really like him all that much. He throws his beer cans on the ground in front of our house. There was a summer where I had to go “ask” him to turn his music down at two in the morning multiple times a month. We had to call the police on him once for being in a loud argument outside of our house. He really doesn’t offer society much in terms of production or economic value. He doesn’t work, but has enough money to buy a beater car, subwoofers, beer, and weed. I don’t have any reason to suspect that he gets his money illegally, I just don’t have reason to assume that he works for it.
He does, however, really care about his mom. He comes over all the time to check on her. It seems like he is always running errands for her too – bringing her a six pack or a pack of cigarettes. It seems like he really cares about the girlfriend and all of her kids. Even though I don’t really like a lot of the outward things I see from him, I can see enough good in him to value knowing him. Even though I’ll probably never invite him over to hang out and watch football, and I probably wouldn’t consider him a friend, I would still be sad if he wasn’t around any more. When Patricia dies I’ll be sad for Gwen and Lavelle. I think that might be what being more than equals is actually about. It would be really great if I had enough in common with Lavelle where both he and I wanted to hang out together, but we don’t have that type of relationship. It would be really great if we both liked each other enough to want to even want that, but we don’t. In some ways, I think that is what it means to be more than someones equal. It means that you can look at someone who looks differently than you (I am white and Lavelle is black), who has a different world view, and who has a different level for what is tolerable behavior and still wish the best for them and find ways to appreciate the good you see in them.
The cycle of poverty.
I started to understand what that phrase actually meant while in Jackson. The idea that different people having different starting positions in life became more clear. If you can accept that idea as truth, it is easy to make the connection that if large pockets of minorities are all starting behind the average middle class white person, it wouldn’t be a stretch to consider that as a race issue. Understanding the financial leveling up that happens through generations, again, makes it easier to view how this can play out. My parents are financially better off than both of their sets of parents are/were. My wife and I and the families of my siblings and my wife’s siblings are better off, or at least can project to be, better off than my parents. Each generation levels up a little bit. If this has been happening for 5 or 6 generations, it is conceivable that the starting point of families in my neighborhood could have been slavery since 5 or 6 generations ago because slavery was still a thing. I can see that it would take a lot more than 5 or 6 generations for a black family to work their way up to the upper middle class. I can understand why a black family wouldn’t necessarily have the means to up and move out of a neighborhood that is falling apart. I can see how there would be too much leveling up required to get someone to feel confident enough to move out of our neighborhood.
Especially now I can see how there is a disconnect in the way someone like Lavelle sees the world. Or maybe it’s not a disconnect, maybe it’s just different. He doesn’t need to work so he doesn’t. Maybe having a career was never made accessible to him in the same way that my parents sat me down and told me I was going to college. I remember being in 10th or 11th grade and my mom dropped me off at the library, showed me where the books on careers were, and told me to call her when I figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up. My dad never gave me the option of not going to college. It was just what I was going to do. He knew enough about life to understand the value of going to college at the time I went. Neither of my parents went to a traditional college. My mom didn’t attend one at all and my dad went to a trade school. But, again, they leveled up from their parents and were helping us do the same thing. I doubt anyone ever sat down with Lavelle during his more formative years and explained how to level up enough in order to make him want to do more with his life, and even if someone did, his starting point in life was pretty far behind the average white middle class person’s. The cycle of poverty is more than just the idea that if you are poor it is hard to stop being poor. It’s more like if you are poor, it’s hard to know what it would be like to not be poor, or even more so it’s hard to know that you might not want to be poor, or even worse, you might not know that you don’t have to be poor, or worst of all, you might know that you don’t want to be poor, but have no idea how to stop being poor.
It was April 2006 and a lot of those ideas were starting to make sense to me. We had been married for three months. Both Meg, my wife, and I were down in Jackson again for another pair of weeks. We worked during the day and debriefed at night like we had in previous years. Lunch each work day was provided for us at the church by a woman named Mama Ward. She was in her 70’s and each day she would make lunch for the 40 – 50 high school or college age volunteers. I don’t know if we were just really hungry every day from working or if she actually would make the greatest meals any of us had ever eaten, but it sure felt like it. Being in the south, everything was southern. Macaroni and cheese, baked beans, pulled pork, corn bread, and for dessert, banana pudding. I don’t even like fried chicken and I would eat seconds or thirds if there was any left over.
Some days we would have someone from the housing organization or church or neighborhood come and talk to us. Years later, I only remember one. I’m not totally sure how the organization and the church we ate lunch at were connected but they seemed to have a pretty good relationship. During that lunch the pastor of the church’s wife came to speak to us. She was a white woman in her early 50’s.
Have you ever noticed when people give the same speech over and over they tend to move through it pretty quickly. Rehearsing something and speaking it repeatedly naturally quickens your pace. When you have about 20 minutes to talk to a group of college students and you finish what you wanted to say in 15 minutes, you have a chance to freestyle a little. Although I had never met her before you could tell she would come and talk to volunteer groups often. Her talk was nice, but not anything special. She and her husband ran a church that was racially and socio-economically diverse. That was one of the major tenets of their congregation and the two of them lived that out by living in the community they served. They weren’t the only white people living in the poor, mostly black neighborhood we stayed in. The construction project manager, Matt (25 year old white guy), lived in a renovated house and, since we spent a couple of years in a row coming down there, the group we came with kind of adopted him into what we were doing outside of work time. He came over for dinner most nights and if we went out to eat, he came too. The volunteer coordinator, Megan (45 year old white woman), also lived in a house nearby.
Why both Meg and I remember that lunch and the pastor’s wife so vividly is what happened after she finished her speech early.
“I don’t normally share this, but I feel like I should”
We have no way of knowing if she actually shared what she was about to tell us with every group she came to talk to. She might have told everyone the story she was about to tell us. I guess it doesn’t really matter, but I don’t think we would have actually moved into the inner city if we hadn’t heard what she was about to say.
There aren’t many moments in your life that you can look back on and say that something you heard made you want to drastically change the course of your life. Maybe that’s what happened or it’s possible that it was just reorienting all of the things we had already been thinking and feeling, aligning them for a single, greater purpose. Kind of like when you put a really strong magnet near a compass and it changes the way the needle points. We had a bunch of compasses that we were using to guide our life. One of them being what you do matters, another being that everyone has value, another being that we want adventure – to feel like you did when you were on a mission trip, we wanted to do something memorable with our lives, another being we want to have a naturally ingrained level of sacrifice, we wanted to use what we had been given to help those that hadn’t been given as much.
“I don’t normally share this, but I feel like I should”
She went on to tell us in vague detail about a time a few years prior when her husband was out of town. She was alone in her house in the inner city of Jackson. Nothing like this had ever happened to her before and hadn’t happened since. All she told us was that someone broke into the house while she was there alone. Choking back tears you could tell that there were other details to the story that she was holding back, something more happened. I suppose the specifics aren’t all that important. It doesn’t make her next comment any more or less important.
She was dressed nicely so you could tell that her and her husband, although they currently worked for the church, must have had lives before ministry that allowed them to have nicer things. Maybe he or she was an investment banker or something before working for the church. That wouldn’t surprise me. She was a white middle or upper middle class woman that chose to live in the inner city and was telling us that someone broke into her house one night while her husband was out of town. I think about her every once in awhile and I wonder if she had any second thoughts about telling us about the break in. I guess she must have since she told all of us she doesn’t normally share that story with many people. I could see how it would be a pretty big downer. We all traveled hundreds of miles to help out and then are told about someone’s house being broken into, not far from the house we were staying in.
She continued on with the story by talking to us about her conversations with people afterward. She told us that her husband was more than fine with moving out of the neighborhood. He wanted to do it for her. They didn’t need to live there for financial reasons. They had plenty of money and could use it to buy a house somewhere else. They had been there long enough to tell themselves they made a difference. She told us about her conversations with friends.
“Why do you live there. You don’t have to live there. Are you going to move?”
She told us that it took her a couple of weeks of trying to figure out what to do next. I can imagine them looking at real estate listings online or driving by apartment buildings thinking about what their lives would be like if they lived there instead. I could see the two of them walking up to the front door of their house with a pit in their stomachs. I bet driving home from work they wished that they could just stay at work or had some other place to go to so they wouldn’t have to walk past areas of the house that created mental flashbacks of what happened. I am sure there were times they had to convince themselves they were strong enough to stay and other times they knew they weren’t. If they were like me, they probably started off telling themselves there was no way they were going to move and then hit a breaking point where moving seemed like the only possible option. Like when you are a kid and you are trying to hold your breath underwater for a minute. You start off thinking that you can do it no problem and then you slowly start to think that you can’t. The pressure builds and you begin to doubt if you can actually do it. 30 seconds go by and even though you’re halfway, the second half is way harder than the first. At 45 seconds you start telling yourself that 45 seconds is good enough and you want to jump out of the water. At 50 seconds you start to feel like you’re drowning and by the time a minute rolls around you throw your head out of the water and gasp for air thankful for the chance to do so.
In the end they decided to stay.
The reason they decided to stay is what changed our mindsets moving forward. If they would have stayed because of pride (we are tough enough to handle this), I probably would have forgotten all about it. If they had stayed for religious reasons (God is tough enough to handle this) I probably wouldn’t have really cared. If they had stayed because they thought someone else was counting on them, I would have thought that was nice, but again forgotten about it.
The reason they stayed was because every other person living in their neighborhood had to deal with the potential for something bad to happen to them. None of them wanted to live in a place where they were more likely to experience crime, but while the pastor and his wife could move, the majority of the rest of the neighborhood couldn’t.
That is what it means to be more than someone’s equal. You share in a burden that you can easily avoid having to bear.
I get that now. I started to understand that day after hearing her story. Now, having lived in our house for the last 14 years I understand it more and more.
No one wants to feel unsafe in their house. No one wants to worry about someone coming up to them when they take the trash out after dark. No one wants to hear gunshots and wonder how close they are. Is it possible for them to hit our house? Did they hit someone and if so, is the person laying on the ground dying somewhere. No one wants to look out their front window and see an obvious drug deal happening and no one wants to make eye contact with the drug dealer and then be afraid the rest of the day that they might come back and do something to you. No one enjoys seeing someone pick up or drop off a prostitute. And no one ever wants to see a drunk old man pee in the alley. With all of the bullshit that goes on living where we live, I am actually surprised, at times, that anyone lives here. But then I remember that I have a choice and not everyone else has one.