CityBeat Blogs - Spirituality <![CDATA[Bart Campolo on Fear and Bitterness]]>

It is Sunday night, and I am suddenly awake at the crack of too-close gunfire. I creep to the window without turning on the light, more curious than afraid until I remember I don’t know if my daughter and her friends are home from their movie. Looking out, I see three men spread out in the backyard we share with our neighbors, one moving slowly past the patio furniture where we had a child's birthday party that afternoon, the other two crouched by the trampoline my son and his football buddies slept out on last week. Strangers in our space, clearly visible in the moonlight, probably carrying guns.

My wife, Marty hands me a phone and the 911 operator keeps asking how many, what color, how old, how many shots, until I hiss at her to hurry up and send a car because they're still out there, calling back and forth to each other, pointing at the apartments on the other side of our back fence. They move into the side yard, where they regroup for a moment, and then they walk out our gate and down our front steps, cross the sidewalk past three women they seem to know, and get into a gray, late-model sedan parked behind our minivan, where my daughter was supposed to have parked. God, don't let her come home now, I think, as I keep narrating to the 911 lady, both of us knowing the information doesn't really matter. The police always come too late. Sure enough, the gray car slowly pulls away, coming to a maddeningly full and legal stop before turning the corner and blending back into the city night. The three women’s loud voices trail off in the other direction. It is quiet again. I am not afraid anymore. I am furious.

Those lousy ghetto bastards—my exact words at 2 a.m.—brought their ignorant violence into our yard on purpose. They weren't running away from anything. They had a plan. They brought an audience. I don't know their names, of course, but I know them just the same, because once they get that careless, they are all the same. Before I can stop myself, I hope aloud that they drive themselves off a bridge before they make any more babies. Across the room, Marty wonders aloud what happened to the kind and hopeful man who brought her to this place four years ago, in the name of Love. Finally, we turn on the light and call our daughter. Until she gets home, there is no use trying to sleep.

Hours later, everyone else is safe in bed, but I am in the bathroom, sitting, thinking, wishing I could pray. Beside the tub, Marty has left a book of poems. Reading them, I gradually forget who and where I am. And then I find this:

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn,
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
To buy me, and snaps the purse shut,
when death comes
like the measle-pox
When death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
And I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
And each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth

When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it is over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

And suddenly, just as suddenly as those gunshots awakened me, I too don’t want to end up simply having visited this world, or even this neighborhood. I don’t want to end up angry or bitter. No, I want to believe in my heart that each life, and each name, and each body is indeed something precious, both to God and to me. I want to remarry amazement.

I sit alone for a long time, silently thankful for Mary Oliver, the poet, and for Marty Campolo, my conscience in many ways, and for Grace herself, who gives us all our second chances, and then I go back to bed. Tomorrow is Monday, and we in the fellowship will be eating our supper together.

I wrote this up the day after it happened, early in the summer. Honestly, two days after that, life on Hemlock Street went back to normal, which is to say, life for us and our friends here went back to being pretty terrific. We might be more fearful if such thugs came that close again, or if they were aiming at us, but they haven’t, and they aren’t, so we’re not. If you really want to scare us these days, forget bullets and focus on that force of evil which truly threatens to destroy the good life we share here in Walnut Hills: Bedbugs. Think I’m kidding? Read next month’s letter.

BART CAMPOLO is a veteran urban minister and activist who speaks and writes about grace, faith, loving relationships and social justice. He's leader of The Walnut Hills Fellowship.]]>
<![CDATA[Make Goodness Recession-Proof]]>

For as long as I have been writing Christmas letters, I have assumed the folks reading were better off and more stable than our neighbors here in Walnut Hills. This year, however, I am not so sure.

Oh, I know the economic crisis hasn’t brought you down to worried-about-your-next-meal status, but I also know that most of us don’t measure our well-being in absolute terms.---

Instead, we compare how we are doing right now against our past experiences and expectations. By that standard, I think, it isn’t the permanently unemployed or the perpetually dependent who are hurting most these days but those folks who are used to working hard, paying their own way and even looking out for the less fortunate.

People keep asking me if this economic crisis is going to stop us from caring for our neighbors. Happily, the answer is no. We may have to do it differently, but the good news about having almost no programming is that there is almost no programming to cut when money gets tight. Our Monday dinners may be more potatoes and less meat, and our vacation next summer may be a day-trip to Indianapolis instead of a weekend in Chicago, but beyond that nothing much will change. Our relationships here are practically recession-proof.

For many other ministries I know, however, things are much worse. An old friend of mine neatly summarized the problem: “When budgets get tight,” he said, “goodness is almost always the first thing to go.”

As ministry supporters ourselves, Marty and I know just what he is talking about. All of a sudden, as we are facing difficult choices about our kids’ educations, we realize we can’t give away as much money as we used to. Even so, we don’t have to look very far to see people in much worse shape, who can’t afford for us — for any of us — to stop caring.

So then, instead of another story, this month I am writing to you with a simple request: As we settle into what may be a long hard time, don’t let your goodness to others be the first, or the second, or even the hundredth thing to go. Like our little fellowship here in Walnut Hills, you may need to care for your people in different ways than you are used to, and you may not be able to send as much money to ministries like ours, but for God’s sake, and for the sake of his neediest children, keep doing what you can. And as you do, know that we are praying for you, with both concern and thanksgiving.

Merry Christmas,
Bart Campolo

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

<![CDATA[The Camaraderie and Draw of Hopelessness]]> Twelve years ago a dear friend of ours took a badly neglected baby boy away from his crack head mother and made him her own. That boy, David (name changed to protect his anonymity), is now a strong, quiet, menacingly handsome teenager who adores his “Mom” and grudgingly appreciates our fellowship, but is increasingly attracted to street life. Well loved as he is, we will lose him before long.

Inner-city street life now is like crack cocaine was back in the 80s: So potent that almost anyone who tastes it becomes an instant addict. The difference is that while I never understood how anyone who had seen a crack zombie could even consider trying that stuff, I know all too well why boys are drawn to the corner like moths to a flame. To paraphrase the title of Chris Hedges' recent book about the narcotic nature of war, street life is a force that gives them meaning.

As a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, Hedges saw war up close in the Balkans, the Middle East, and Central America, but his descriptions of the ways desperate people mythologize the glories of conflict, demonize their enemies, corrupt their own language and culture, and becoming preoccupied with grim perversities of sex and violence remind me of behaviors I see in Walnut Hills, and not only among the hardcore soldiers of the drug trade. In a very real sense, many of our neighbors here embrace the physical and emotional intensity of their daily struggle for survival the way WWII General George Patton embraced combat. “Compared to war,” he said, “all other forms of human endeavors shrink to insignificance. God, I love it so!”

Young David is not so eloquent, but he and the older boys he admires feel much the same. Their gun battles and fistfights, their ceaseless movement from house to house, their ready money and easy sex and their constant vigilance against the police and the other gangs, create for them a sense of immediacy and camaraderie that no classroom, sports program, or regular job can match. Hustling for food, shelter, the next dollar or the next high does the same thing, not only for junkies and prostitutes, but also for lots of ordinary poor people navigating the traps and hazards of underclass America. There is no peace in the midst of these struggles, but there is plenty of drama, excitement, and singular purpose. Again, street life is a force which gives them meaning.

What street life does not give, I have come to understand, is true friendship. Instead, the various street soldiers I know here experience that same kind of closeness that real soldiers find in combat, which Hedges describes as comradeship. The essential difference, he writes, is that where friends find in their relationships a heightened awareness of their individual identities, comrades suppress--and thereby escape--such self-awareness in the pursuit of a common purpose. In their shared struggle for survival, they learn to value one another primarily on the basis of shared danger and immediate utility.

In other words, David has a better chance of taking a bullet for one of his buddies on the corner than he does of discovering the other boy’s fondest hopes or deepest fears, or his own for that matter. They may be together for decades, in and out of prison, drunk and high and straight, fighting side by side for money, or women, or whatever they mean by respect, without ever really understanding what makes each of them uniquely precious.

It isn’t just the boys on the corner, either. It is the girls who flock to them, too, and their babies, and all the others who get caught up in the madness they make out there. No matter how long they live that life together, in the end they are always alone.

That is the real horror of street life, I think: Not that we will lose David, but that he will lose himself, and in the process, everything else in the world that matters. In the Bible, they call it his soul.

The longer I live here, the more helpless I feel. If only true love was even half as attractive as it is beautiful.

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

<![CDATA[Philip K. Dick's Religious Awakening]]>

I became vaguely aware of Philip K. Dick a decade ago. An author of more than 100 works of science fiction, he died suddenly in 1982 just as his work began to be recognized by the mainstream. This was the year that Blade Runner, which was based on Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, was released in theaters. In the years since then, more of Dick's body of work -- which often deals with questions of metaphysics, delusions and self-identity -- has seeped into the public consciousness. The films Minority Report, Total Recall and A Scanner Darkly are all based on his work.---

I began to seriously delve into Dick's books this year and have found myself addicted to his altered and alternate world view. The strangeness of his work is an extension of the author's paranoid, mystical outlook on his own life. R. Crumb's illustrated story of Dick's journey into the divine (or descent into madness, which Crumb admits may be the same thing) is an enthralling read. It's an interesting way to reflect on your own emotional and spritual experiences and attempt to divine which are ghosts in the machine and which are just the machine.