Yesterday we were driving down a stretch of Cleveland the kids had never been on. My son spoke up from the backseat, “Mommy, I don’t want to go into this spookytown.”
I looked around me and tried to see what he saw. The town wasn’t spooky, it was tired. It was worn out. It wasn’t sparkling and new. There weren’t mansions lining the streets and artisan bread shops. There was little green space and garbage lined the sidewalks from the recent snow melt.
It was the inner city. Not a ghost town.
My oldest daughter asked why everyone was smoking. And Margo screamed out, “That man just littered!”
I realized right then how much I have sheltered my kids from the city of Cleveland. As we drove further towards my volunteering gig in Slavic village, the kids saw houses boarded up. Factories shuttered. Stores unopened. People walking everywhere. Heads down. Slow and steady.
There were no grocery stores. No restaurants. The streets are lined by houses that I often pray no one lives in.
But I also know, inside these neighborhoods are families who love each other. Kids who can make a difference where they live. Helpers who are investing heavily in organizations because they believe that a city needs to work together to change lives. There are houses well loved. Not everyone is hungry.
But also in these neighborhoods are people hurting. People who need jobs. Kids who need fathers. Families who need food and safe and reliable housing. People who need choices and opportunities.
People who need hope.
When I worked at the library I once had a boy tell me he stayed in bed until the very last minute during the winter. Underneath his nest of blankets he was warm. When he had to get up, he jumped out of bed and ran to school or the library depending on the day just so he could be warm.
It broke my heart because I knew he wasn’t the only one.
We turned from that road onto another. It wasn’t so scary to the kids. The kids recognized fast food restaurants and the streets boasted commerce, no matter how small. This wasn’t spookytown anymore.
What I realized, is my kids saw poverty and couldn’t imagine anyone living there. They thought it was a ghost town. Abandoned. Forgotten.
And the inner city is abandoned and forgotten most of the time, just not in the way they realized.
We arrived at the health center and we got to work. I interacted with a boy a year older than Margo. Margo helped him on the iPad with his numbers and colors. The older two flew through games that usually frustrate the kids I work with. My oldest daughter watched a boy her age care for his newborn brother. And she was flabbergasted at the responsibility he had.
And all I could think about while I was there is the disparity between opportunities. My kids will always have choices. What schools they go to, what activities they play, how they spend their free time, what food they want to eat. They dress in shorts in the winter because our house is always warm. We go to the pool in the summer when it is too hot to think. We take vacations, go to the lake. Walking is for fun and not for going somewhere. We eat out a restaurants and have so much food we end up throwing some of it away each week.
We play, we read, we talk to each other because we have the space and energy to do that.
I have four grocery stores within 5 minutes of me. four stores I can drive to, stores that I don’t have to figure out a bus schedule, or how I will get the food home. There are so many schools nearby they hold open houses. You can tour and pick the best one for your children. There are rec leagues, private lessons, sports centers all over advertising for your kid’s time.
The streets are maintained. Our electricity lines worked on. Streets cleaned. Garbage picked up by neighbors as they stroll through the neighborhoods.
We have so many opportunities and possibilities on this side of town and there lies the difference between us and the inner city.
On the way back home we passed through the same streets. We saw a house being torn down. The kids wondered why that house was and the one next to it wasn’t. It was in the same disrepair.
The difference, someone lived in the house next door.
I don’t know if the trip affected the kids. Will it change how they interact with poverty and race relations in our city as they grow up? I know one trip can’t do that, but repeated exposure to those who suffer so close to us has to.
Except most of the time we hide from it.
When I drove everyday to work in central Cleveland, I couldn’t ignore what happened in front of me. I saw it, I felt it, and it hurt. I loved the people I met and talked to each day. It reminded me we aren’t different. We all want the same things in life.
We want to be known, chosen and loved. We want to take care of our families and loved ones. We want meaningful work. We want a safe place to live and a warm house to surround us. We want friends to surround us and a long life to look forward to.
When I stopped working at the library, I started to forget that I was a part of the solution. I forgot that I had the power to change the city.
One neighborhood at a time.
When I pulled into the garage and turned off the car, I felt certain I couldn’t let the kids ignore the rest of the city. They could live most of their childhood without being exposed to those “spookytowns” but I know I don’t want that for them.
I want their hearts to be soft, open and willing to fight for places in our cities that have been forgotten. But in order for that to happen, I have to take them outside the comfort of here and allow them to see the world as it sometimes can be.
I don’t want them to say the poor will always be with us. I want them to understand that and try to change it anyway.
The only way the inner city will improve is if we step outside our neighborhoods and serve.
What is one thing you can do to change the lives of those living in poverty? We all can do something. What is your thing? And what will it take for you to have the confidence to go and do it?