We'd been talking about it for months, but I think most of our neighborhood friends didn't really believe it was going to happen. After all, people around here are always talking about things they don't really intend to do.
As plans firmed up the week before we left, people got nervous in a big way. All of a sudden, nearly everyone had a reason they couldn't go.
At first I was shocked that these people in our church, who had never been on a real vacation, were ready to throw away such a golden opportunity. Some said they couldn't afford new traveling clothes or there was no television or smoking in the dorm rooms where we were staying or we'd decided against beer drinking and spending money in the interest of group solidarity or they were less than thrilled with our itinerary.
It angered me that my friends were so inflexible, especially because most were contributing little or nothing at all to the trip. Fortunately, the week before we left, just before I shot off my mouth at dinner, a friend set me straight: Our neighbors weren't ungrateful.
They were terrified.
There I was, an educated and experienced world traveler, talking about familiar attractions like the Navy Pier and the Magnificent Mile, secure in the knowledge that I'd be driving one of the vans, holding lots of cash and a handful of credit cards along and my unlimited-use cell phone and a long list of Chicago friends in case of an emergency.
There they were, with no such knowledge and no control whatsoever, being asked almost casually to just relax, follow directions and unquestioningly trust me and my more privileged buddies with their lives. Really, it's a wonder we made it out of town at all.
But we did make it out of town in three rented vans, and we did make it to the Navy Pier and the Magnificent Mile, not to mention the Shakespeare Theater, Shedd Aquarium, Chicago Field Museum, Chinatown, North Park University, Buckingham Fountain, Giordano's Pizza, Rock of Our Salvation Church, Macarthur's Soul Food, Foster Beach on Lake Michigan and all the way up the mighty Sears Tower. We did all that in three short days, laughing and eating and ooh-ing and ah-ing and enjoying being together every step of the way.
I wish you could have seen teen-aged Joseph walking on the beach, certain that Lake Michigan must be an ocean; Miss Mary, looking over the great city from the 110th story, realizing she'd never been so high up; Lamar, a tough-as-nails ex-convict, patiently waiting for autographs after his first musical; little Diamond and Dierdre, holding hands and laughing with their mom as she led them around the dolphin tank; Terry, eating the best pizza she's ever had on just her second-ever trip out of Cincinnati; William, positively glowing with pride as he called his sister from the pier to just tell her where he was; Daria and Sarah, giggling and singing camp songs in the back of the van; or Big Louis telling stories to 5-year-old Sabina as bedtime approached.
More than all that, even, I wish you could have seen our fellowship as a whole rising up to a new level of closeness and mutual trust. Remember, this is an utterly unlikely group of underclass survivors, out-of-culture enablers, neglected children, mentally handicapped parents and religious refugees. Traveling the way we did was a big risk for each one of us, in one way or another. Somewhere along the way, however, those risks turned into big rewards for everyone.
At one point Tre, who bears the scars of the most nightmarish kind of ghetto violence, was walking alone with his new friend Mark. "This is just what I needed," he said with a broad smile. "A whole weekend where I can relax and know that nothing bad is going to happen."
I always hate it when someone ends a story by saying, "You really had to be there." If I really had to be there, I want to say, "Then why did you bother telling me about it in the first place?"
Happily, in this case, you didn't have to be there at all. You don't have to be here in Walnut Hills either to understand what's going on here. You just have to be somewhere loving someone and desperately wanting them to love somebody else.