I saw a kid (young man) standing down the hall from our office at the Youth Enterprise office door looking for staff (office was closed). I went out to help him find who he was looking for...and then we had one of those unspoken "Hey, I know you" moments of recognition. It took me a minute to place him, because the last time I saw him he was about 10 years old.
"Hey, Cody." He placed me first. I was still playing through my mental list of neighborhood kids I had met over the years, but my "search function" is awfully slow. Then it clicked...it was Johnny.
Johnny was the kid who lived downstairs when I first moved into south Minneapolis as an Urban Neighbor in an Urban Homeworks house. He was one of the first kids that went from being a "statistic" to being a living, breathing example of "a poor black kid." His mother, "Honey," was a hardworking single mom, had 5 kids (all from the same dad) ages 5 to 15. I remember the mornings when she would have to take a taxi at 5:30 AM to the 'burbs for her job. She asked if we (the clueless 4 white guys and 1 not-quite-as-clueless Asian guy) could check in on them in the morning, to make sure they got out the door for school. So we did. Usually Johnny and his little brother, "Q", would be up and at it already at 7 AM, eating their breakfast. Johnny would be ironing he and Q's school uniform. Feeding his brother, ironing his clothes, getting ready to go to elementary school, at age 8. Meanwhile, his mom was 15 miles away, trying to concentrate on her telemarketing job:
What a clash of realities. When I was an 8 year old kid, growing up in the sheltered lap of middle-class white America, my mom's biggest existential concerns [God bless her] were whether or not it was safe for me to ride my bike to school because the road shoulder was not ideal in width, or if I'd crack my head open jumping my BMX bike off of homemade jumps (I'll give her that one).
After Johnny and I chit-chatted a bit, caught up on the "what's so-and-so been up to" stuff, we parted ways. Then it hit me. When I got back to my office, I felt a stirring…an excitement, a joy to see Johnny again and even more so because he is involved with something really good (Youth Enterprise's mission is "equipping youth living in urban communities with relevant life and business skills grounded in the hope of Christ"). But entwined with the warm-fuzzies was a deeper hard-to-describe , odd feeling. Not a whole lot different than that stuff that churns around in you when you run into an “ex”...when you know there was/is a shared history or connection in which you both shared some really good stuff. And some really NOT so good stuff. Things did NOT end well with his mother and the family.
Urban Homeworks (we) had to ask her to leave because she had relatives dealing drugs out of the house and would not (or could not most likely) put an end to it. We tried to do everything "right": she was served an eviction notice, with ample time and options. Yet, when it came down to the midnight hour (literally), the last minute of the last hour of her tenancy, our staff had to go to her house with a police escort because Honey had made quite a few threatening statements prior that. And we knew her well enough to know that she was not bluffing. And I don't blame her. She was the mama bear and we were kicking her and her cubs out of their den, regardless of whether or not we were "right" in doing so.
I cut my “urban teeth” on those first few years in that Urban Homeworks house, and I can’t separate it from that family. I hope I didn’t leave too many bite-marks in the process. Those years kicked my butt in many ways…but for the better. And I have a feeling it might have kicked their butts too…but I dread that perhaps it wasn’t for the better. Those years, and that family, lit the fire under the cauldron of my own racial attitudes, white privilege stuff, arrogant classist assumptions, etc. Since then, this white-boy's cauldron has reached the boiling point. The dross is slowly rising to the surface, I am refining. And in many ways I am NOT the same Cody I as an Urban Neighbor. Thanks be to God…and thanks be to Honey.
I got Johnny and Honey's number. I really want to call Honey, to tell her how much I have grown because of her, through her. But I can't help but wonder...was my growth was probably at her expense? And thats why when I think about doing it...the stirring inside begins again.