Wilkens Avenue Mennonite Church — known by many of the residents of Mt. Clare, Baltimore, as just “the church down the street” rather than it’s actual name – has some of it’s heaviest traffic on Thursday nights for Narcotics Anonymous. It was somewhere that I never expected to be on the second night of the BUP program. Though I understood the serious problems with drugs and poverty that many in this part of the city faced, I definitely didn’t see how us sitting in the back of an NA meeting was going to help anyone.
I think it was a question that a lot of us were facing as we, the 10 or so college students who had only just met each other, sat together in the back of the church basement. While most of the guests there that evening passed us by without vocally recognizing the clear fact that we were out of place, one woman and her friend sat right beside us, and said asked what we were almost unanimously thinking:
“What are you doing here?”
My heart was racing. I grabbed my friend Colette’s hand and we exchanged worried glances as the woman went on about how she wouldn’t be here if she didn’t have to be here – why would a bunch of college students who had never tried drugs and probably never would be “sitting in” on an NA meeting? We had worried that we might make the NA members feel uncomfortable or unwilling to share, that we were just coming as spectators to something that wasn’t just some sob story to them – it was life.
After a few moments of awkward silence someone explained what the Baltimore Urban Program was about, that we were trying to invest in the neighborhood, etc., etc., but the exchange really got me thinking, what was I doing here?
When I told many of my friends and family about me doing the Baltimore Urban Program, I was hit with a wide variety of responses, the most common by far being “Will you be safe?” There was also a lot of “Oh, bless your heart!” or “That’s going to be really hard.”
And, I mean, it was. The first day of being here, when running an afternoon program for elementary-schoolers we met in the neighborhood, I kept catching myself feeling badly for kids who were coming out. I noticed how many of them were out playing without supervision, or the older siblings who were responsible for three or four younger ones. I kept catching my mind wandering to their futures, and how different it would look from mine, and how sorry I felt that I could do more to help them out.
And then I realized that I was being a total jerk.
Pity is somehow both a useless and dangerous emotion. It takes this superior, prideful feeling of condescension and makes it seem like its empathy when it’s really not. It’s putting ourselves in a position of power, and considering other people as less than ourselves. Pity is something Jesus never did with the people he interacted with – people who were blind or lame or poor or sick didn’t need more pity. They needed love – love that affirmed them and dispelled the lies of the world that they weren’t good enough or weren’t going to amount to anything.
Just because the life experience of people living in Mt. Clare is different than mine isn’t to say it’s lesser. In fact, I think the first step of getting ready for my summer is embracing the reality that I will probably learn more and grow more because of the people in Mt. Clare than they could ever learn from me.
We are all hit with the earth-shattering condition of sin and brokenness. As my friend Megan said, the people here just are a little bit more honest about their brokenness. I could use some of that clarity and openness in my life.
So, from now on, I want to be able to look at every experience that I’m stepping into at BUP and be able to know why I am here – I am here to learn.
We ended up learning so much the night at the NA meeting. The woman who confronted us was actually the keynote speaker for the night. She gave an incredible talk about her struggle with addiction, cancer, and how she finds God daily in her struggle to stay clean – and somehow, a talk meant for a secular group of former narcotic addicts had given me so many insights about the Lord that I never would have known otherwise.
So at this moment, I am learning how little I know about people’s lives here, and how dangerous jumping to conclusions can be. I am learning how to love people in a way that doesn’t assume or belittle or take what could’ve been a real relationship and turn it into a prideful mission for me.
I am learning about the deep-seeded sin of racism in our country, and in the wake of Charleston, I am learning how to discuss these issues in a way that can be helpful, but still firm in the reality that loving your neighbor means we cannot continue in silence.
I am learning how not to let anger consume me when I see injustice. I am learning not to give in to hopelessness when there is a sin condition that is much more in-your-face. I am learning to keep believing that the brokenness I see in other people is no greater than what I see in myself, and that the grace and love of God is big enough to cover both those conditions.
And I am so grateful for grace, patience and support – both from the Father and my friends – as I continue to learn.
— Rachel Guthall