BOB DYLAN ONCE WROTE A MASTERPIECE called ‘Desolation Row.’ In that song Dylan writes of ‘ a blind commissioner tied to a tightrope walker, of a moaning Romeo, Cain, and Able, The Good Samaritan, The Hunch Back of Notre Dame, Einstein disguised as Robin Hood, the Phantom of the Opera, a spoon fed Casanova, complete with fishermen and skinny girls, and of Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row.’
Inner City projects are nothing like the Desolation Row in Dylan’s tune, for one reason; nobody does a whole lot of sweeping up. Garbage is lying anywhere and everywhere. Burned out cars, rat infested mattresses, broken gin bottles, all flippantly tossed and piled on top of each other, forgotten as soon their use is done. It’s as if any and all trash is an indigenous part of the inner city landscape.
Scientists and explorers, men and women with endlessly inquisitive searching minds, will travel the world over, through secluded swamps, over snowcapped mountains, and bravely confront rogue waves on distant seas for a fleeting glimpse, to see for themselves first hand, an indigenous plant, animal or bird on its native soil. Charles Audubon would kill and collect beautifully exotic birds, perform a taxidermy song and dance on their lifeless bodies thereby preserving them. Then, he would painstakingly paint his kill in incredible detail. His theory being I suppose that this discourse would allow the rest of us to see these exotically designed creatures. Mr. Audubon had quite the collection.
I once knew a little girl who had a collection of spent pistol casings. She made a necklace out of them.
The great scientific explorers never came to the inner-city, though. I never saw one risk their lives to come, witness, survey or sample the indigenous garbage of the inner-city and indeed, not least of which, the living organisms that surrounded, lived and breathed among this smoldering landscape. For one dump pile is the same as the next. Every major city has them. It’s all the same, the garbage. When garbage is piled deep upon itself, it smokes like a continuous fog ever rolling and concealing any escape for those held tight in its grasp. I was always amazed that for all the broken glass strewn and sown and reaping the reflections of a rainbows prism, and for all the barefoot children running rampant as if through fields of gold, that I did not see more bloody footprints painted on those volcanic Galapagos sidewalks.
No way around it. The projects are always polluted. Except that is, it seemed to me, in the spring. Perhaps it was the florescent green fighting to rise, shooting from the ground, in-between the barren brown worn out paths. It could have been the budding leaves on broken branched trees once again returning with the promise of hope that this summer would be different than summers prior. This summer young men wouldn’t be killed. Young women wouldn’t be raped. Prostitutes wouldn’t be pistol whipped. Children would not be taken away from delinquent teenaged mothers. Families would not be ravished and rent in two from the claws of crack addiction. There was that hope. There is also the promise that this hope will one day be fulfilled.
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Spring in Tennessee is incredible. Spring both comes and leaves early. In reality, I am positive it only lasts for two weeks, tops. Then the onslaught of unyielding ninety-degree temperatures for days on end arrive in full force. However, until the heat shows itself shimmering off the melting asphalt, those two weeks of Tennessee spring are always divine. Dogwood trees pink and white, Magnolia and Redbud trees white and purple come into bloom filling the air with scented waves that drift through our car windows and wrap around our necks like linen scarf’s as we travel down the interstates and on the quiet streets in the nicer parts of town.
In the inner-city I always smelled the trash. Yet, it seemed, if I could close my eyes and wait for the freshening breeze, even while in the confines of asphalt, brick and mortar, the smell of spring would whisk across my face. A fleeting kiss as tender as any farmers’ field pungent with the aroma of good dark soil.
Nashville’s Southern summer with its relentless heat and shirt-soaking humidity was beginning to surround what was left of our beautiful spring. Like the hounds of hell, the heat was nipping and howling and salivating all around the heels of the neighborhood. Not yet, but soon the heat would arrive bringing with it the ability to ignite short fuses that lead to powder kegs of violence and death. It was in the summer that the violence of the inner-city peaked.
With the summer came our Saturday Night Live outreaches. Every Saturday in the park we would set up a food court, games for the children, a stage for live music, maybe a few testimonies, and plenty of chairs in the shade for folks to hear the Gospel without passing out from heat stroke. Every Saturday was always hot, at times seemingly unbearable, but the people came, so we set the Church up, outside, in the heat. The children came because it was a distraction from a vacant home life. The adults came because the food was free. Free food is the best of calling cards. We cooked and handed out 280 hamburgers and 120 hot dogs every Saturday.
So it was before the attack of summer that I went out into the neighborhood walking in the remnants of spring with invitations in my hand. Going from door to door letting the community know that Saturday evenings in the park would once again be cranking up in a few weeks. I took with me a young man named Jack who had recently graduated from the University of Florida. Jack was mulling over the possibilities and ramifications of joining the ministry or helping out in some way. He had never been in any inner-city projects so I asked if he would like to walk in with me. I knew he was apprehensive, but he didn’t show it, so he came along. Me on the other hand, I’ve gone walking through the projects a thousand times and I am always apprehensive.
On the occasions that I did find myself going from door to door, I always had to get over myself. Doing such a thing, going and knocking on doors, is something I never envisioned myself doing. Never. I never thought I would be one of ‘those’ people. You know, like the Mormon Missionaries, or the Jehovah’s Witnesses, plodding incessantly along through a neighborhood, bracing myself for insult and injury, judgments and accusations, rudeness and indifference. It was for the love of Christ and for the love of those in the neighborhood that I endeavored to persevere through that, which for me, was way, way, way, (and it’s out of here folks, home run! Touch ’em all) beyond my comfort zone. Sure, talking to people is, if I let it be, easy for me. My confession is, knocking on the doors themselves and standing there waiting for someone to come answer, someone who possibly doesn’t want to talk to me in the first place, has always been a personal stretch. It felt like fifty job interviews taking place in one hour’s time.
I often laughed to myself, smiling, and shaking my head in genuine bewilderment, that here I was, once again, going from door to door, inviting people to a Jesus party. This was my life? Am I actually doing this? Are these my knuckles rapping on this screen door with screen and window torn and busted out? Is this me trying to sound sincere and not like a used car salesman? Is this me trying to act like I’m not scared and that I belong, as I walk through a group of gang-bangers as they block my intended route? Is this me, a quiet boy from the Great White North walking through the Deep Dark South?
We must embrace and venture out into the unknown. We should purpose to put ourselves into situations that we are totally unfamiliar with. We need to explore. It is in exploration that we discover God and ourselves. We find the substance of what we are truly made of when in the role of a pilgrim on a sojourn. We need to drive across the country without the aid of maps. We need to backpack across continents. We need to wander the streets of New York and eat a dirty water hot dog while we are there. We need to taste and swallow ethnic foods, eating with our fingers. We need to scuba the Great Barrier Reef. We need to walk through public housing projects discovering and touching life and listen to the breathing heaving souls that abide and reside within its borders.
A beautifully glorious spring day of my life, alive and well in the inner-city projects, with invitations in my hand that offered hamburgers and hot dogs, baked beans, chips, Kool-Aid, and Jesus. Walking with a young man who I am sure was already nervous, compounded by the fact that his tenured and tempered guide was laughing at times audibly to himself and unable to offer any comforting words of encouragement, advice, or wisdom for his first mission into the ‘hood.
I honestly liked Jack and very much enjoyed his company. He was a thinker. An intellectual. I always thought of him as Christian Playboy. He was in his early twenties and a good looking kid. Sometimes I would have a few pints of Guinness with him at a local pub. He always had women approaching him, flirting and eyeballing him. He noticed but didn’t pay it any mind. He was of good character and I admired that. If I was his age and with his looks, I don’t know how I would have handled the temptations. I, I probably would have handled the women and left the temptations untouched. I asked him about it one time. He just tilted his head, raised his eyebrows, smiled, and said, “I’m holding out, I’m waiting.”
Jack’s parents owned a Christian publishing company. He drove a new BMW. He didn’t work but had family money in his pockets and an apartment in the high rent district. He always had the latest cell phones and electronics. He seemed to enjoy the material things in his life, but he was not taken with them at all. Indeed, he was in exceptional young man, from good stock. For fun, he would watch Hollywood movies or translate the sermons of Charles Wesley into modern vernacular. He was not in the truest essence of the word a ‘playboy’, but if ever there was such a thing in the Christian lexicon, Jack would be it.
One night I met Jack for a pint and he brought with him an essay that he was raving over. Jack enjoyed theology, but despised religion and church conformity. I once told him a quote by the 19th-century revivalist Sam Jones, who said, “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout theology or botany, but I love Jesus and flowers.” To which Jack replied, “Right on! That’s where it’s at!” So, Jack starts telling me about this essay he just read, and how ‘Stinkin’ cool God is.’
The premise of the article was this; That God absolutely 100% enjoys His creation. All of His creation. He is awash with love and adoration, delighting in watching His creation, His progeny, frolic and play in the world He created for them. For example; God loves to watch all the species of African deer that He created. The Sable Antelopes with their black wooly manes. The Gazelle’s who are small, swift, and graceful. The Impala with their combination of speed and incredible agility. Springboks with their spiraled horns. The powerful, intimidating, and menacing water buffalo. God loves their unique markings. The curvature of their antlers. He should. He made them. He loves to see them mate and create and raise their young. But, God… also loves lions, and He very much enjoys to watch the lions chase, catch and eat the beautiful African deer. He doesn’t mind the lion’s red soaked smiles one iota.
Creation providing for Creation, approved by Divine Design.
The radiant sun rises from the dark of night and circuits across the sky. Clouds gorge themselves with rain and then burst open wide pouring forth their bounty as the dry ground drinks in the plunder. Winds filled with oxygen stroke the grass of the plains, and the grass grows. Families of field mice plump and juicy nibble on the lush green grass. They chew on the stalks and harvest any kernels that may have fallen to the ground loosened by the wind. Golden Eagles with tapered feathers and wings glide effortlessly on jet streams. The sun warm upon their backs casting shadows that fly swiftly like unexpected death across the ground. Their ever watchful eyes scanning down upon God’s Creation. With the blink of that eye the Golden Eagle has taken the form of a rocket-propelled grenade and as a rifle round splitting the sky is diving down so fast that the sound he unleashes is left behind him. His talons massive and filed razor sharp quickly extend giving the plump, juicy field mouse no chance and nary a clue to what had just taken his life. The field mouse is torn into pieces and swallowed. What was once his body travels through the internal workings of the Golden Eagle and the passage of his journey ends by becoming natural waste returned once again to the ground. He becomes fertilizer. He fertilizes the grass which was once his home. The fertilizer fuels the growth of the wind stroked grass. The beautiful African deer eat the fertilized grass making them plump and juicy. Then the lions eat the deer. It is all concurrent. All fulfilling and nothing is wasted in God’s Divine Design.
I made my first trip to Africa in December of 2003. The pastor I worked for had been invited to teach and speak at a worship school in Nairobi, Kenya, which was conducting its graduation week. I tagged along as a secondary teacher, and to lead worship for a few of the assemblies. These functions were to last for a week. Then, we were to go to one of Nairobi’s slums for a week and hook up with a few of the local ministries working and living with the poor. However, the first part of our trip was a brief two-day safari on the Masai Mara.
The Masai Mara is majestic, profound and old. The hills are stained with a purple hue and echo an ancient rhythm. The air is sweet, simultaneously filled with the fragrance of both life and death. Perhaps this is the birthplace of Darwin’s Natural Selection. Perhaps the African plains are where God decided to create evolution. Many times during those two days I was unable to see due to the seemingly uncontrollable tears in my eyes. I was overwhelmed with what I was given to witness.
I saw the lions and they saw me.
The Lions didn’t blink.
My friend and I took approximately four hundred photographs during those two days. Pictures and video’s of lions eating a kill. A lightning fast cheetah resting in the shade conserving his speed. Giraffes elegantly running with their spotted elongated necks. Prehistoric crocodiles lurking in the slow moving river. Elephants with their enormous ears flared warning us not to come any closer. Hippos basking in the sun-caked mud. Vultures gleaning the bones of wildebeest slain in the night, zebras spooked and galloping away surprisingly quick despite being created heavy in the belly and short in the leg. I took snapshots of the expansive African sky that held colors I’ve never known existed, which then melted with the setting sun into a great psychedelic watercolor. Picture upon a picture of God revealing His glory. As gloriously breathtaking as the Masai Mara was, these sights, not surprisingly, was not what God wanted us to have, or take home and frame upon the walls of our office. Not one picture we took on the Masai Mara was saved. Our digital camera cards were somehow, and only momentarily, destroyed. All four hundred of our photographs were forever lost. They just vanished. An interesting miracle indeed.
The next day we flew from the plains of Kenya back to Nairobi, where we were to meet with local ministries who worked and shared their lives with those who lived in the slums. The slum we spent the next week in was next to the Nairobi International Airport. I don’t know if this slum had a name, as the slum Kibera does, it was only called the Soweto. This Soweto, believe it or not, was one of Nairobi’s smallest. Within the borders of this Soweto 250,000 souls categorically did not exist. People with no electricity. No clean water. No transportation. No Hospitals. It seemed mostly inhabited by orphans. A rank river polluted with human waste ran through the Soweto. Banana trees lined the river but they too were rancid from their roots sucking like straws the stream of pungent sewage. You could eat the banana’s hanging from the trees but you would become violently ill. So these hungry souls could only look upon these plump, juicy yellow bananas, this forbidden fruit.
Scattered throughout the Soweto were massive garbage heaps. They were smoldering. On these huge heaps of garbage, one could see movement, small dark things rummaging through the waste. Giant slum rats?
No look closer.
They are children.
They are children searching for something to eat. They are children searching for something to wear. They are children searching for something to sell. Children searching to survive.
The houses were made from scraps of corrugated tin and wood piecemealed together; tied together with twine, or mortared in with brown dust cement that washed away with the next wind-swept rain. The churches, though, were beautiful. The radiance of the sun bounced and played off the clean corrugated tin. The dirt floors were seemingly swept or raked. I walked in these shelters purposed for assembly and felt life. I felt home. At one of the churches the pastor has all the little children recite some poetry for us in English.
“I wake up in the morning,
I brush my teeth and comb my hair,
I button my clothes and say my prayers…”
Basically, it was a little poem about getting up and getting ready for school. I almost passed it off, thinking to myself, ‘Aw, that’s a cute little diddy.” Then it occurred to me, these children are orphans, aids orphans. Little children, four, five, six years old…living collectively somewhere, together hiding somewhere in the night…if they weren’t taught this little poem about brushing their teeth and combing their hair, who would teach them? They came to this small church school every day, where they were fed one meal from the church kitchen, which was a pot outside over an open fire, and they were taught the basic human living and most importantly given unconditional love and acceptance. The Pastor of the church didn’t have the means to keep all these children himself. It wasn’t a large church building mind you, and I don’t think he had a board of directors establishing a salary or discussing a raise in his salary. But here was one man doing his best with what he had. He gave of his time and of his supply.
One afternoon I spoke with a Kenyan pastor who was the same age as I was. We connected instantly. Perhaps because he and my oldest son shared the same name. Perhaps because we saw ourselves in each other. I saw myself as a black African pastor, he saw himself as a white American pastor. He had a precious spirit. Though he seemingly in my Western eyes had nothing, he and his wife offered everything to me; food, shelter, companionship, and time to explain this…life…that was surrounding me for the first time. Until you are personally bestowed such gracious hospitality by someone who has nothing, you honestly don’t understand what hospitality is.
In the book of Genesis, we read a little story of Jacob and Esau, the sons of Isaac.
One day Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, starved. Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stew – I’m starved!”
Jacob said, “Make me a trade: my stew as your rights as the firstborn.”
Esau said, “I’m starving! What good is a birthright if I’m dead?”
Jacob said, “First, swear to me.” And he did it. On oath, Esau traded away his rights as the first born. Jacob gave him bread and the stew of lentils. He ate and drank, got up and left. That’s how Esau shrugged off his rights as the firstborn.” Genesis 25 The Message.
With tears in his eyes, this dear African brother of mine told me stories of poor villagers who were starving. He spoke of young Christians who were starving…who would, when men of another faith and belief would come into their villages and say, “If you renounce Christ, if you forsake Him, we will feed you. We will give you food and water, sustenance for life if you choose obedience and allegiance to our God.” My friend cried as he spoke of these little baby sheep left alone without resource or aid, left alone to the wolf… would sadly renounce Christ, who gave up their birthright for a bowl of stew.
It would be easy for any of us to say, “How could they? They must not have actually been saved! They must not have truly loved the Lord!” But, it is not our daughters and sons looking up at us with hollowed eye sockets, bloated bellies and East African black flies licking the dry spittle from the corners of our children’s mouths. Trusting that starvation leads to the promise of a better life is not the easiest medicine to swallow.
Men of faith have always suffered persecution, and, we as men of faith have sadly at times stayed warm in our beds while we knew others were without.
For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup – where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense? James 2 The Message
I read a poem one time of a man who walked next to a wall. On the other side of the wall is where the poor and indigent breathed. The man couldn’t bring himself to climb over the wall and meet the poor face to face, so, he threw flowers over the wall.
Many times I have heard a message in a Sunday morning church where we are told ‘some are senders and some are goers, reapers, and sowers.
Yes, that is fine, and true. Yet, the Lord is a relational God. He wants each of our hands on the plow and not merely buying the team of oxen.
I laid on the floor that night in an African ‘home’ adjacent to the Soweto, a home without running water, with my head resting against my dusty backpack, I thought how we Westerners over spiritualize the Gospel of Jesus when in reality it is a very practical Gospel indeed.
It is a gospel of food.
It is a gospel of water.
It is a gospel of clothing.
It is, being the answer to our own prayers.
It is a Gospel that was meant and intended for face to face encounters.
We men of faith, forget to add our natural to God’s super. We gaze at the stars and clouds that lead to heaven searching for answers, neglecting to remember that we are wearing two coats and Desolation Row is eye level.
I stand naked looking at myself in a full-length mirror.
I am plump and juicy.
So there we were young Jack and myself walking through the projects, knocking on doors, talking to folks on their porches, inviting them to come to Saturday Night Live, the weekly summer outreach. Come one and all, come as you are. Yes, come get your hamburgers and hot dogs. Yes, come let us stand together as one man, let us believe in the good of each other. Let us help one another for the sake of love.
It was on one such porch that Jack and I spoke with an elderly woman. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. We said hi and asked if we could we come up and chat for a minute? She was a hospitable woman you could tell. She had a kind face. She had no hair and no teeth. She did have a very large bottle of beer between her legs. The bottle was dripping sweat in the heat as she sat in her folding lawn chair.
She said she had never heard of our ministry, she asked, “How long Y’all been here?”
“And you been feedin’ folks in the park all that time?”
“No, just the last seven years.”
“Mmm…Don’t recollect ever seeing you in the park.”
“Well, we’ve been there…and we’ve been missing you…you need to come, here’s an invitation. I am personally inviting you to come. Why I’ll even come and pick you up if you like?”
“Oh now, that’s okay. I still can get around you know.” She laughed. It was a good laugh. Deep and meaty.
I thanked her for her time, told her I looked forward to seeing her. As Jack and I walked away, she called out to us.
“Hey! Now I know who you are…you’re those folks in the park every Saturday.”
I smiled, “Yes, that’s right.”
“Pastor, I have to say, Y’all have some damn fine BBQ…I remember now! I’ll be there!”
We were all smiling, me, Jack, and the old woman on the porch. As we turned the corner, Jack turned to me laughing and asked, “You don’t serve BBQ do you? Just burgers and dogs right?”
Yep, just burgers and dogs.
I spent the rest of the afternoon feeling plump and juicy.