“Dad, I don’t like it when we’re the only white people there.”
“I feel like we’re “Waldo” and everyone’s looking at us.”
“When we go past that statue, we’ll be in the not-so-nice part of town.”
Have you ever had to navigate conversations like this with a kid? Have you ever had to wrestle with these kinds of feelings in your own heart?
Every Thursday this summer, a crew from our church has gone to a park in the 53206 zip code to do VBS, but Imago Dei Church style. Which is – simple, bare-bones. Just people getting with people to talk with people about Jesus. Oh, and food. We’ve partnered with another ministry that drops off lunch.
The 53206 zip code is right next door to where my family lives and where our church meets. We can and do walk our dog through these parks.
Here’s a few stats from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that describe what life is like in 53206.
- A 2013 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study found it was the most incarcerated ZIP code in the state, with a majority of its men having spent time in jail or prison.
- Two-thirds of the children in 53206 live in poverty.
- Nearly 95 percent of its residents are black. No other ZIP code has a greater percentage of African Americans.
- Residents received the lowest rating for health outcomes from the Center for Urban Population Health in 2009. The rating was based on access to quality healthcare; health behaviors; physical environment; poverty and education.
Running a “Vacation Bible School” here looks, feels, and SMELLS different. From cigarettes, to BO, to diapers that clearly need to be changed, it’s not a comfortable environment for the affluent. Like me…or the people who live there.
And I am so glad that our church serves here, my wife faithfully brings our kids, and pushes me to come with. It has opened up wonderful, God focused conversations that we would not otherwise have. But converse we did while eating dinner in the safe comfort of our home that is less than one mile away from abject poverty.
So join us, if you will, for last night’s dinner conversation.
Kid: “I don’t like being the only white people there…”
Mom: “Do you know what it’s called when people only live by and interact with people who have the same skin color as they do? Segregation. Is that a good thing?”
Kid: “No. But why is it like that? Why do all the black people live in one neighborhood and all the white people in another? How did Milwaukee get this way?”
Me: “Well, there’s a long answer and a short answer. Most people prefer to be around people who are like them. But, we have to go back to slavery in America to really understand it. Shoot, we have to go back to the Garden of Eden…”
Kid: “But slavery is done. Why is it still like this? Why do the black people live in neighborhoods that are poor and play in parks that are dirty?”
Me: “Well, there’s a long answer and a short answer. Do you know how it’s uncomfortable for you to play there for an hour? How would you like to live there? See, when people with resources avoid living and playing in tougher neighborhoods like we were just in, then the tough neighborhoods don’t get the personal attention or structural investment that other, better resourced neighborhoods do get…”
Kid: “It still makes me uncomfortable.”
Mom: “Aren’t you glad that Jesus made Himself uncomfortable for you? He left heaven, to come into this tough world, to be around people who were nothing like Him. And that, not just to give us an hour, but to give us His life. He stepped into the nastiest neighborhood – a God forsaken, sin smeared cross – so that through faith in Him, we could step into eternal paradise.”
Ok, let’s put the kids to bed so that the adults can talk a little bit.
I’d like to make sure I’m clear on a few things. First, in no way, shape or form do I think that we are doing something heroic or even sacrificial. Communicating the gospel can change someone’s heart forever. But handing out a simple lunch one day a week for a few months in the summer is not going to fix Milwaukee’s problems. In some ways, what we’re doing may contribute to the bigger, systemic issues. But that’s a discussion for another day.
Second, please don’t pity the people living in 53206 or neighborhoods like it. Have compassion, sure. And be inspired. Moms working third shift because they can’t afford child care. Homeless kids showing off how they climb trees and can do backflips – with a smile on their face. The strength and resiliency in 53206 is nothing short of amazing. And by the way, there is SO MUCH good happening in these neighborhoods that the news is not reporting.
Third, I’m not so sure that kids like mine need to be “protected” from the realities in these neighborhoods. Poverty is more than financial or material. If you “protect” your kids from neighborhoods like this, you just might “expose” them to things that are far more dangerous.
Fourth, we can choose to ignore – or explain away – the realities of poverty, sin, segregation, and injustice. But when I see kids pouring out of the woodwork and people lining up for a modest sack lunch, it seems to me an awful lot like the places and people Jesus engaged. And the religious criticized.
Obviously, there is more to be said on all of this. To be continued….
…Hopefully by you in your everyday life
And probably in another blog another day…
…Certainly better people than me
And definitely by the God who will never leave us nor forsake us…