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Looking for Grace in a Cincinnati Ghetto

By BART CAMPOLO · April 30th, 2008 · The Road to Wellness
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For as long as I can remember, I've ended my letters and e-mails with the encouragement "Keep the faith." I must have picked that up from my father, since he's the only person I know who signs off the same way.

It might have been more lucrative for me instead to have picked up "It's Friday, but Sunday's coming!" but I've always preferred the flexibility of the simpler phrase. Not everyone who hopes for God's grace is a Christian, after all, and we who are surely hope for more than that.

We hope to be happy and successful, for example, no matter how we measure those things. We hope that our parents love us and that our marriages work out and, more than anything, that our kids will always be safe and sound. We hope for such things, at least, unless we've learned to know better.

Recently, a mother and daughter showed up at our side door. The mother is mentally handicapped and deeply damaged. Her daughter has her own set of issues. For months we'd been planning a summer move from their dangerous, filthy, heatless apartment building into a cute little duplex we've been fixing up around the corner.

All of a sudden we were too late. "My daughter got raped in the hall last night," her mother said, and from then until now we've been walking on the dark side of love.

The sequence of what followed doesn't matter, and I couldn't remember it even if it did. The hospital, the detectives, the rape crisis center. Getting that evil building condemned, relocating the two in our duplex, finding bedbug-free furniture for them, finding helpers for the move itself.

The girl's bad behavior as our houseguest, her mother's worse behavior as a parent. The questions, the doubts, the guilt for questioning and doubting. And then, as if piling on, the quick meltdown of a promising young man we've lavished with attention and opportunity for the past seven months and the crude suicide attempt of a troubled young woman whose phone call for help I failed to return the day before.

What does matter, I think, is the way all those things have been eating away at expectations of goodness and order I didn't even know I had. It's been a while since I believed everything happens for a reason, according to some grand plan, but evidently I've hung onto the notion that love always makes some kind of difference, even in the midst of chaos.

Even that somewhat less-ambitious worldview, however, seems to be no match for this one little neighborhood, let alone the world itself.

It isn't the suffering here that's getting to me but rather my neighbors' dull, matter-of-fact attitude about it. The daughter hasn't been fazed much by her rape, her counselor tells me, because she always expected to be hurt that way sooner or later. After all, her mom was raped three times as a girl, receiving no follow-up care or counsel, which might explain why she can offer so little now in terms of emotional support.

The meltdown guy? He walked away because we called him on a lie and it never occurred to him that we might just forgive him. The girl who tried to kill herself? She lives in the condemned building and has nowhere to go with five children under the age of 10. One missed call was all it took to convince her that no one cares enough to help.

It seems to me that these are the poorest of the poor in spirit, the ones who hope for next to nothing. To survive in a place like this, such people learn to live almost completely in the moment.

They know better than to expect any ongoing goodness or order. They keep no faith.

We have come to love them, but the longer we're at it the more I am haunted by the fear that nothing -- not even love -- might be strong enough. I can celebrate the ways our intentional generosity touches some of our neighbors, but I can't ignore the fact that both their natural hopelessness and the dysfunctions that inspire it are quite capable of breaking us. Or at least of breaking me.

If that happens, however, it won't mean I was wrong about Grace, but only that I overreached my limits. And if it doesn't happen, it won't mean that love always makes a difference, even in the midst of chaos, but only that I managed to keep the faith.

That's all I'm hoping for now, for starters at least.


BART CAMPOLO is a veteran urban minister and activist who speaks and writes about grace, faith, loving relationships and social justice. He's the leader of The Walnut Hills Fellowship, a ministry in inner city Cincinnati.


 
 
 
 

 

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