Cracking the Architecture of Despair

I had a wonderful time Tuesday night at the Servant Leadership School in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Thanks to Tim Kumfer, I was able to debut material from my upcoming book Who Killed Donte Manning?: The Story of an American Neighborhood. It’s due out in May 2009 from Apprentice House press at Loyola College in Baltimore.

I appreciated the response from the audience who asked the essential question of our day – and maybe any day: How do we maintain hope in times of despair?

Since we were talking about urban architecture and how it influences the soul of a community, I answered citing Mark 13:1-2 as an example. And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” and Jesus replied, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.”

When we survey the “great buildings” around us – which we might understand to be the overarching architecture of despair – we hear Jesus saying: See this mighty facade meant to intimidate you and make you feel small and helpless? I say to you: Not one pebble of despair will remain because I will destabilize these monuments to might by cracking their foundations with hope.

Hope is a decision we have to make every day. Just like they say in A.A., you’ve just got to be hopeful for the next 24 hours. We are surrounded by a world that is addicted to despair. The addiction is to hopelessness, and therefore helplessness. But we can decide to resist that addiction by being intentional about choosing to live in hope. We make that decision every day, one day at a time.

One thing that helps us choose hope is by breaking down the architecture of despair into its component parts. Learn the details of the stories inside that architecture. In every way and in all places, the actual human stories within the facades will reveal – yes, terror, yes, great injustice – and also, always, human ingenuity, compassion, love, acts of kindness, an irrational acts of hope that crack the foundations of the architecture of despair..

Keeping an Eye on Things

When I want to see live gospel stories, I go to the Amoco station at 14th and Euclid in my Washington, D.C., neighborhood.

One Saturday morning I stopped at the gas station for a cup of coffee. I was standing at the front door lowering my lips to a steaming Styrofoam cup when the Wonder Bread truck pulled up to unload the weekend deliveries. The driver opened the cargo bay doors and began off-loading flats of bread.

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Across the parking lot, a woman in her late 40s saw the truck full of bread and made directly for it. She was thin. Her clothes were not clean. Her face was drawn with cold.

The driver seemed nervous to leave her standing next to his open bay doors as he wheeled the deliveries into the store. He glanced at me as if to say, “Keep an eye on things.” She did indeed appear to be weighing whether she could grab a couple of loaves and run. She didn’t.

When the driver returned, she asked him very politely, but with a certain level of desperation, if she could have some bread.

“Sister,” he said, “it’s not mine to give.” She asked again, for just one loaf. With some anguish, he turned his back on her, saying again, “It’s not mine to give.” She walked away.

The driver looked at me, embarrassed. He seemed genuinely ashamed that he didn’t give bread to a sister in need.

The driver was correct in saying that the bread was not his to give. There are inventories to be filled and every item must be accounted for, lest he be accused of stealing. In one sense, the bread is “owned” by Interstate Bakeries Corp. In another sense, a more human sense, bread is to be shared.

In the crisp morning air, Jesus’ question in Luke’s gospel was stretched like a spiritual tension wire between the delivery driver and myself—Who among you, when your child asks for bread, would give a stone?

LAST AUTUMN, another scene unfolded at that same intersection. I attended an impromptu prayer service on the sidewalk across from the gas station. A young man, Erlin, had been killed there in a gang altercation two nights earlier. The word went through the neighborhood that his mother wanted to pray.

Twenty people were crowded around a scrawny maple tree. Someone had taped Erlin’s picture to the trunk. His elementary-school-age nieces and nephews held votive candles purchased at the dollar store.

Erlin’s buddies from his “crew” were there too. They lined up behind his mother, forming a kind of honor guard. They wore dark glasses. A few had guns shoved down the front of their nylon running pants. Some, out of respect for his mother, had put their weapons—thick chains and baseball bats with nails hammered into the ends—behind the dumpster a few yards away.

A woman from Erlin’s church led prayers. The little kids said they hoped “Uncle Erlin” was in heaven. Local activists pleaded for an end to the violence, begging his crew not to retaliate.

Finally, his mother asked to speak. In her soft Jamaican accent, she said how much she loved her son. She said he struggled to do the right thing, and that watching him struggle had broken her heart.

Then she turned to his friends—his fellow gang members—and said the most amazing thing. “He was my son,” she said. “You were his brothers. Now you are my sons and I am your mother. Now we are family. This is the way it is.” She expected his “brothers” to be at her table for jerk chicken and potatoes any time they were hungry. She expected them to help her fix things around the apartment. They must come to her with their problems, and she would pray for each of them every day.

In the gathering dark, I heard the line from John’s gospel echo and twist. “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing by, he said, ‘Woman, behold your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.”

There is nothing at the intersection of 14th and Euclid to mark the miraculous moment when the kinship model of Erlin’s family shifted. Nothing to mark his mother’s blunt and radical understanding of what makes a family. But the plain prayers of children and ordinary people have soaked the dusty ground. The blood of a young man, who struggled to do the right thing, anoints the place—like on a sacrificial altar.

Ownership vs. kinship. Bread alongside blood. Where do you go to see the gospel unfold?

Reprinted with permission from Sojourners, (800) 714-7474, www.sojo.net.

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