catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 15 :: 2012.07.20 — 2012.08.02


Working the streets

When the doorbell rang, I jumped up and turned off the television.  It was 4:20 in the afternoon, and I was watching a re-run of M*A*S*H instead of working on my next Sunday’s sermon.  After a few seconds, I walked slowly down the stairs to answer the door.  There were three little boys and a large can of gasoline on my front porch.

The boys were eight or nine years old.  I knew all three of them from my church’s children’s outreach program and also because they all lived in just a couple of blocks down the street from me — Little T, Jonathan and Gabriel.

They were from the “bad” part of the neighborhood — that is, the part that was mostly people of color, mostly poor, mostly renters of run-down properties.  All three lived in subsidized housing.  Little T‘s mother had a job as a part-time clerk in a convenience story for minimum wage, trying in that way to provide for Little T and his older brother.

“Hey, how are you guys doing?” I asked as I stepped out onto the porch.  I think Little T‘s real name was Torrence, but nobody called him that.  He wore thick, dark-framed glasses, and spent most of his time at our kids’ program explaining why what just happened wasn’t his fault.  Usually, it most definitely was his fault.

Already at the age of nine, he was learning how to be at the center of everything that happened, whether it was good or bad.  Although some of the kids claimed that they didn’t like Little T, he was always the one they all followed.  He was always the one who controlled the tempo of the group.  If you lost him, you tended to lose the whole group.  If you kept him focused, you could usually keep the whole group focused.  But at the age of nine, he was right on the edge.  We probably had another year or so to work on him.  After that, the window would start to close.  He would be harder and harder to keep connected, and the draw of other things — darker things — would begin to get stronger.

Little T popped the question: “You want your grass cut?”  Jonathan and Gabriel looked on hopefully.  The grass was high.  But the recordings in my head clicked on and began to play.  It’s not my grass.  It’s my landlady’s grass, and she’s not home now.  And what if I pay them to do it, and they cut one of their toes off in the process, or knock a stone through one of the neighbor’s windows?  Who’d be liable, who’d pay, whose insurance would cover it?  These kids were barely ten years old.  Could they handle a power mower?  Did I want to take the risk?  I stalled for time, my usual dodge in the face of a dilemma like this.

“You guys had much business so far?”  I asked.  Jonathan and Gabriel looked at their shoes and shook their heads, demoralized.  Little T was angry.

“No.  We’ve been out since one o’clock, and nobody’s let us cut their grass.”

No earlier successes for me to hide behind, but I knew by then that they weren’t going to be cutting my lawn either.  Every other neighbor’s timidity just made me more timid.   In the end, I fell back on the fact that it was my landlady’s yard and not mine.

We talked for a few more minutes, and then we said goodbye.  I watched them, Little T pushing the heavy mower, Gabriel carrying the still-full gasoline can, Jonathan following along behind, all headed for home.  They had taken a few steps closer to bitterness that afternoon, and I had pointed the way.  This is how kids are lost.  25 years later, the image still haunts me.

Without risk there is no biblical obedience.  We are mostly romantic sorts.  We think of the risks of Christian obedience in terms of martyrdom, Roman arenas and lions.   Martyrdom is a rare commodity for most of us North Americans, and yet, risks abound — mundane risks.  I can face a company of Roman persecutors in my mind, but here, three small boys with a lawn mower routed me.  A small step toward redemption was lost.

Afterwards, I stood looking out the window and thinking of all those people I know who have said to me, “If all those street kids really want a job, they ought to go out and mow lawns and shovel snow, like I did when I was a kid.”  Maybe those weren’t the same people who told Little T and his pals “no” that afternoon.  I wondered.  I also wondered what I’d do the next time.  Would I take the risk?  Would I do the dangerous, right thing?  I hoped so.

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