I was on my way to the mall. I didn’t have any particular purpose in going there, other than to window shop. It just sounded like fun, and I wanted to relax and enjoy my day out on my own. As I drove down the freeway, I asked God to guide my path throughout the day.
I wasn’t far from my exit when I saw signs for a road that led to what I thought was nowhere good. And suddenly I was getting off the freeway and heading down this road, not really sure why or where I was going.
For the next hour I drove through some of the worst parts of Milwaukee. I drove, my heart growing heavier, the veins in my head pounding with the weight of the oppressive darkness around me. I drove and I cried over what I saw.
I saw large, old houses that were once probably beautiful family homes. Now they were slumping into the ground, windows boarded up, paint peeling, weeds overtaking the sidewalk. Only I knew these houses were not unoccupied. They are now home to two, three, maybe four families with countless children.
I saw big, run-down apartment complexes. Brown brick, brown shutters hanging off their hinges, brown shingles on damaged roofs, brown grass and brown weeds. The total lack of any color other than brown made me feel suffocated just driving past. Yet again, I knew these buildings were full of families. People. Children.
On what seemed like every other corner, I saw a day care center. Most were painted colorfully, with sweet names like “Learning Through Love”. It was obvious some effort was being made to give the children left in these dark little holes something to look forward to. But behind the colorful paint, the buildings were old, small, cramped. Any small windows had thick curtains hanging in them, blocking any light from entering the building. Chain link fences to the side of some of the centers separated a few plastic slides and playhouses from the street. And there were so many of them. I couldn’t help thinking of the number of children who were being left in these tiny places for ten or twelve hours a day, six days a week.
I drove past so much darkness. As I kept going, it just got worse. Narrow streets marred with potholes. There were no longer fast food restaurants or pharmacies on the street corners. It was like everything that was bright and civilized had abandoned these streets. But the streets themselves were not abandoned. They were full of people. People who lived there. People who worked there.
I shivered a little as I came across the neighborhood that had been in the news so much over the past year because of the violence and rioting in its streets. I stuck to the main roads for the most part, only glancing down narrow alleys and dark streets that were home to thousands of our state’s–and even our country’s–poorest and most disadvantaged people. I felt no fear as I drove, even as I heard in my head the voices of the nice, sensible, middle-class people who have never lived in danger and poverty warning me, “Now don’t go down that way. That’s where all the poor black people live. It’s not safe for a white woman, especially alone.” I heard those voices and I kept going. I knew the voice of my God was more important, and He didn’t so much speak to me as He urged my heart, “Keep going.”
After a while I realized I wasn’t quite sure where I was anymore. For the first time, I felt a flurry of nervousness in the pit of my stomach. God’s urging began to get crowded out by my concern for my own personal safety. I instinctively reached for my phone and pulled up Google Maps so I could get my bearings, and felt relief when I saw signs for the freeway. I navigated to the mall I still intended to go to, but the heaviness in my heart had not let up yet. In fact, it grew even stronger as I realized how quickly I had wanted to escape all this. Not only had I wanted to, but I COULD. An app on my smart phone would tell me which streets to take, and large blue signs pointed to the on-ramp for the freeway that would get me out of this place and on to the safety and comfort to which I am accustomed.
But that little boy, walking alone down the street in the roughest part of Milwaukee? That homeless man, carrying all his earthly possessions in big bags strapped around his neck? The families living piled on top of each other in cramped, dilapidated homes? The children playing in those parks and hoping they could make it home to dinner without being shot or witnessing violence? They couldn’t escape. Not like I could. So instead of heading towards the freeway like I knew I “should”, I turned abruptly down one of those side streets. My heart pounded and my stomach sickened as the poverty and darkness grew even deeper. I made it down one block before heading back towards the main street. Not so much because of fear, but because my heart just couldn’t handle it.
I cried the hardest when I finally passed the sign welcoming me to the next neighborhood–the more affluent, comfortable neighborhood where I would find the new mall and the trendy restaurants and the big, brightly-lit grocery stores. I cried as I left the darkness because I felt like I was leaving so many hurting, lost souls behind.
How could I, when my Jesus never left a soul behind? Even in the darkness, I could feel His presence so strongly. If Jesus still walked this earth as a man, I believe these very streets would be the ones where He would spend most of His time. This would be where He would be at home, with these broken, hurting ones.
And so I left asking myself so many questions. If these streets were good enough for Jesus, why are they not good enough for me? If Jesus chose to be homeless, wandering in search of lonely, broken souls who needed His touch, why do I feel that I need–no, deserve!–a big, up-to-date kitchen and a spacious backyard?
Lately, I’ve been asking God to bring lost, broken people to my kitchen table, to sit with my family and be healed with the balm of God’s love. But that’s a tall order when, honestly–I don’t know that many lost people. My friends are Christians; good, church-going families with a few kids and modest houses, just like me. So how do I find these lost ones? Last night at bedtime, Jordan read to the kids the parable of the shepherd who has 99 sheep that are safe, and he leaves them all to go in search of the one sheep who was lost.
Jesus SEEKS OUT the lost.
If I am not putting myself in a position to minister to the lost, how do I expect them to show up at my table? And an even bigger question than that looms in my mind. What about my children? What do my husband and I want for our children?
What does God want from us?
I don’t have answers now. But this journey is to be continued…