My family and I live in a house on the border between upper middle-class comfort and a vast impoverished segment of downtown. We fall within neither one of these economic categories. There are drug sales that go down regularly on the street next to our house, and there are shootings and prostitution within a couple of blocks of where we live. Before we moved to China in June 2019, and before COVID, we used to have homeless persons knock on our door for money and food. We also have a very large population with mental health issues in our area. Our house sits on a main thoroughfare to downtown and to a convenience store in the area. We live in a food desert, so a lot of people walk down to the convenience store and to the local food bank for food. There are a few regular pedestrians that pass our house every day who are clearly mentally ill. They will mumble to themselves, yell at the sky, swear at the ground, urinate on the building across the street, and sometimes they’ll direct their attention to one of us as we sit on our front porch. We say Hi and wave to most of them, but there are a few that we know to just let pass as they seem to be triggered by unexpected human engagement, or they simply are looking to yell at anyone who engages them in conversation.
One recent evening, my wife and oldest daughter and I decided to go for a walk in the historic neighborhood behind us. It’s a pleasant place to walk and there are pleasant people to chat with as you go. We made our way through the neighborhood and got to another major downtown road with the intention of turning around. As we were approaching the corner, we heard glass shattering and then around the high-hedged corner walked a man that looked familiar. His name did not come to mind right away, but I recognized him and wanted to see if he was ok. Ashlee, who stood several yards behind me with our daughter, recognized him immediately. She had run-ins with him before. He was a regular beggar around town who had a habit of targeting white families for money and attention. He used to talk about the gospel and then ask to pray, and then ask for money. But recently he has become more unstable, apparently attacking a few people and spending some time in jail. Ashlee knew that from conversations with friends, but I only knew that I had sat on my porch with this man, before leaving for China, and had read the Bible with him and prayed with him. He was on mental health medication, and I had seen him explode with anger on people before, but he had never done so with me.
When I approached him that evening, to ask if he was OK, he said he was alright. I asked him if he was sure there wasn’t anything I could do for him. He seemed more disturbed than usual, and I wanted him to know that I cared for him. He paused for a second and then walked over to me and asked, “Do you think there is a curse on this city?” I said that the only curse that I was aware of was the curse of sin, which affects all of us. He got angrier and yelled, “I’m not talkin about that, I’m talking about the curse of people not being able to find jobs and being poor!” Seeking to relay some sympathy and common ground, I told him that I had lost my job recently and was still looking for one. Again, this made him more frustrated and then he began to tell me that I wouldn’t have trouble finding a job because of who I was. I told him that I was trusting God to open that door for me and that we, as always, needed to put our faith in God. He knew this about me. We had talked at length on my front porch before about Christ and faith. But this time he started using the “F” word in reference to God and yelling that if there was a God that people wouldn’t be going through what they were going through. I recognized that he was not going to calm down so easily. He walked over to address my wife and daughter, as I moved to stay between them. He asked my wife a similar question, and my wife attempted to be sweet with a soft answer, but he then yelled at her to stop smiling and kept yelling the “F” word at her and about God. I kept his attention on me the best I could and continued to engage him softly about trusting God. I realize that he had no desire to talk of God, but I knew he wanted to get in an argument about racism and social status, and I knew that wouldn’t go anywhere healthy in that moment. He eventually began to walk on down the street screaming about God while we waited at the corner for a while, until he was a couple of blocks ahead of us.
The situation wasn’t over yet, though, as we turned around and headed back to our house in the direction that he had walked, we recognized that he was waiting on the corner. As we approached from behind on the other side of the street, he began cursing at us again and then began to follow us. He followed us another block until we turned a corner and took a different route home than we planned. He said a yelled a few more angry words and I then said goodbye to him and he stopped following us.
This situation is not unique to us. This is a situation that many in downtown Lynchburg face from time-time. Most individuals with mental illnesses that walk the streets in our neighborhood are friendly or simply don’t engage, even when greeted with a happy hello. I know full-well the many different factors that play into the circumstances that these precious people are in. Poverty, drug-abuse, physical abuse, and countless other factors from childhood on have negatively affected the lives of many in our neighborhood. Honestly, it would be a whole lot easier to live in another place, but we don’t make our decisions solely on our safety. We seek to go where the Spirit leads, and sometimes that’s to an uncomfortable place. Sometimes you know what kind of a place you are moving to, and sometimes you don’t, but when you follow God you know that you are where you are supposed to be and that He is there with you.
I think about racial and social justice issues almost every single day. My black neighbors on either side of my house are friends. We have chats often and have exchanged numbers. We even have a cordial relationship with the neighbor that sells drugs. It’s a complex relationship, but we’re seeking to do our best to be good neighbors. There’s not an easy “anti-racism” button to faithfully live in our context. Ashlee and I have four daughters who we care deeply about and who draw the unwanted attention of men in this neighborhood when they are seen outside. We wish that wasn’t the case, but it is. I wish I didn’t have to watch our youngest daughter so closely when she plays in the tree in the front yard, as I know there will be at least one man with a mental health issue that walks by on the sidewalk while she is playing. Life isn’t about Twitter threads and Facebook Activism. It’s about the awkward and daily work of trying to be a good neighbor and show the love of Christ, while also keeping your family safe as you show your family the love of Christ through your care for them. My children learn that black lives matter by watching Ashlee and I take the time and energy to love on the black men and women that pass in front of our house and knock on our door, by recognizing that their dad is not afraid to engage in caring conversation and listen to black men who are not mentally well, by recognizing that we periodically worship with our brothers and sisters in Christ at the historic black Baptist church across the street, and by being called upon to help host countless black men and women, boys and girls, in our home for fellowship, meals, and parties.
I’m not saying that every white Christian family that cares for impoverished and oppressed black citizens needs to find a predominately black neighborhood to move into, but I am saying that Tweeting and posting about how much you care is best understood and received when it is paired with a more tangible direct relationship with and service to those in need. Not everyone has black neighbors, and there should be no guilt in that, but please recognize that consistently living day in and day out among those black citizens who need our love the most is not as easy as saying “black lives matter.”