This is a mean season in Walnut Hills. Jobs are scarce. Government programs are tightening their belts. Groceries are running out. Rents are due. People are scared. On every busy corner around here, somebody is holding up a sign asking for help. It used to be you knew those folks were junkies, but these days you don’t need a habit to be that desperate. Every non-expatriate family in our fellowship is in some kind of trouble.
Last night I had to tell Diana’s not-yet-twenty-year-old daughter that she can’t keep staying with her mom because, if she gets caught, HUD will throw them both out of the cheap-but-highly-regulated apartment we rent to keep Diana off the street. We found her a place, but it won’t last long unless she finds work, and the felony on her record makes that a long shot, even with our help.
Dena called a few days before that, crying that she had nothing to feed her four kids until their food stamps arrived. I know she and her husband smoke and drink and manage their money worse than Bernie Madoff on his worst day, but hungry kids are hungry kids. Anyway, the food I took over doesn’t change the fact that they are four months behind on their rent.
I could go on, but you get the picture. In a world where almost everyone is one check away from homeless, it feels like all the checks have stopped at once. Nobody here has any savings. Nobody has any rich family members to bail them out. Unskilled, unhealthy, and often unemployable, these people weren’t making it very well even when times were good. Now they’re not making it at all.
The question, of course, is what are the rest of us to do?
Loaning money to people who can never pay it back doesn’t work, but standing by while they get evicted ends friendships almost as surely. Taking people into our homes sounds good, but only if those people are both willing and able to do what it takes to be independent again. In this neighborhood, in this economy, we need another answer.
Almost every day, somebody sends me an article about some new program that miraculously transforms inner-city nightmares like ours into dreams come true. When I look more closely, however, I find that those programs are expensive and only seem to work for the most highly-motivated poor people. They are beautiful experiments, but they aren’t scalable.
Almost every night, we expatriates here have a conversation about somebody we love who is in trouble. We take turns coming up with ideas and shooting them down: She doesn’t read well enough for that. He won't show up. She can’t be on her feet more that an hour. Her mom won’t help. He’s drinking again. They’ll spend the money on something else.
Over and over, we try to work out problems that have no solutions. Over and over, we end up right back where we started; living and eating, laughing and crying, walking and talking together with dear people we can almost never really help. We have jobs and cars and houses and bank accounts, and most of us believe in God, but none of it really matters when it comes to making a difference in this place.
I’m not trying to bum you out. Believe it or not, I’m trying to draw you in. I figure that if enough of us lie awake wondering what to do for the rest of us, then maybe one of us will find a new answer after all.
In the meantime, especially during this mean season, God help us all.
PS For those of you wondering, I love my new job. After six years in Walnut Hills, peace in the Middle East actually seems quite doable to me! I spent two amazing weeks in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan last month, but right now my focus is on inspiring good people - people like you - to organize Abrahamic 9/11 Walks in their own neighborhoods all over the world. Think about it: Wouldn’t it be great if 9/11 became a day for Christians, Muslims, Jewish people, and everyone else to step over boundaries and walk kindly with ‘the other’? If you want to help, let me know!
Bart Campolo ministers through The Walnut Hills Fellowship in Cincinnati, Ohio. This article is reprinted with permission from his blog, which you can read here.