Real Mission: A Walk Around the Block
"Melanie, go down to Mrs. Evangelopolous’ house and help her write a check to some repair men.” My dad ordered me sternly with an unspoken “and put some pep in your step."
It wasn’t a ‘when you get around to it’ kind of directive; it was a ‘go, and go right now’ kind of request that I have become more and more familiar with now that I am a parent.
I grew up in a predominately white upper-middle-class neighborhood in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri where the yards were large, and the cars were new. My parents both landed in St. Louis in their mid-twenties, my mom from a small rural town in Southern Illinois where everyone was white save for the Latino migrant workers who harvested the strawberries and peaches in the summer time, and lived in temporary housing outside of town. My dad was an almost city boy, growing up in Alton, Illinois, just across the river from St. Louis. He was one of the only Greek kids in Alton, but his family was well-known as his grandfather owned the only candy factory and movie theater in town and his dad was the county judge. A real ‘American Dream Success Story.'
Together, my parents chose a neighborhood where they could start fresh together, no longer tied to who they were, or where they came from. They bought a house in a beautiful neighborhood with great schools and very little-known crime. They bought a home in a neighborhood that was recommended by family and friends, a place where there were other people ‘like us’ nearby.
Now, I say that my neighborhood was predominately white because tucked in amidst the homogeny were several Greek families that blended in nicely save for the small statues of saints that filled many front yard gardens and the occasional lamb roast in the driveway.
We didn’t try to stand out. We tried to blend in. Assimilation was our key to “success” and passing as white was the way to stay safe in a place where we didn’t really belong.
Mrs. Evangelopolous, who lived down the street, spoke English well-enough, but there were some things that just weren’t part of her American repertoire; like writing checks to repair men. More specifically, white repair men. You would have thought I floated across the threshold with a halo above my head the day I showed up to write that check, because the truth was, she felt uncomfortable being home alone with grown men who looked and sounded different from her. That’s why she called my dad. And that’s why we lived in that neighborhood.
Our neighborhood was safe in some people’s eyes, but that day she felt the danger of being a woman of color in a sea of whiteness. Had those men been Greek, she wouldn’t have called, but these men didn’t speak her language, they didn’t look like her, and she didn’t feel safe around them.
As human beings we have been socially conditioned to surround ourselves with people who look and sound and think like us, and it takes a great deal of effort to trust that our common humanity is enough of a commonality to keep us safe and secure where we dwell.
We lived near other Greek people because we needed to be near to one another, and we lived in a white neighborhood because deep down we didn’t want being different to be a deterrent to achieving the social status that our grandparents had so desperately sought for us. We lived where we lived because we wanted to prove that all people could belong. But the reality was that we were occasionally reminded that it wasn’t safe to be different.
Turns out, my neighborhood wasn’t safe for everyone. A reality covered up by manicured lawns, concealed behind white picket fences.
That same week that I wrote the check for Mrs. Evangelopolous, I gave my friend Krista a ride home from our school in the suburbs. Krista was a Black classmate of mine who came to our school as a part of our district’s desegregation program that was instituted in the 1960s. A program that ended just a few years ago, after all of the city schools had completely fallen into ruin because of a lack of public funding.
“Drop me off up here at the corner,” she said.
“Don’t be silly, I’ll drive you home. To your front door,” I replied.
“No. This is good, right here,” she retorted.
“Krista, I’m seriously happy to drive you home. We’re already close,” I countered.
“No! It’s not safe for you. I already feel bad having you come down here. This is far enough. Turn around and go home."
There it was. The reality, that every day she had to venture into a neighborhood, in to a school, that wasn’t safe for her; and the only way for her to relay that reality to me was to starkly remind me that boundaries had been drawn for us. She wasn’t welcome in my neighborhood and I wasn’t welcome in hers.
My classmate and friend who would later that year become my first college roommate had to remind me, a ‘white girl from the burbs,’ that I didn’t belong on her street. The main intersection was far enough. Society wasn’t ready for us to drive down that rode together, and to be honest, that day, at age seventeen, neither were we.
I realized that week that some people choose their neighborhoods, and some people’s neighborhoods are chosen for them. I learned that a walk around the block isn’t a pleasant experience for everyone and that race is a bold boundary line inscribed on the maps of our cities and towns that says, ‘This is far enough. You don’t belong here.'
Jesus grew up in the small town of Nazareth. The very small town of Nazareth. Modern scholars estimate that there were not more than four hundred people living in Nazareth during Jesus’s lifetime. There was one well where the women drew water for their families. There was one language (Aramaic), and one ethnicity (Jewish).
A short trek into the city of Sepphoris was a good reminder to citizens of Nazareth why they lived in such a homogeneous town. The urban Greek-influenced nearby city might as well have placed a sign on the border that read, ‘This is far enough. You don’t belong here.
It is likely that Jesus and his father and brothers worked in the city as carpenters and traveled home at night to Nazareth, a place where they felt like they belonged.
Imagine then, how it must have hurt to realize in his early-thirties that Nazareth was not at all where he belonged, and that the radical inclusion of God was not welcomed in his own hometown (Matthew 13:54-58; Mark 6:1-6; Luke 4:14-30; John 4:43-46a).
I often wonder if he was lamenting or prophesying when he declared that "Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." -Luke 9:58; Mathew 8:20.
Jesus didn’t belong in Nazareth because Jesus was not at home in a place where all people did not belong. Jesus didn’t belong in Nazareth because the radical inclusion of God was not welcomed in such a homogenous society. Jesus didn’t belong in Nazareth because all of God’s people would not feel at home in Nazareth.
I wonder, if you took a walk around your block today, would you be able to say with confidence that Jesus was honored in your hometown? Or would there be a sign on your street that read, “That’s far enough Jesus. You don’t belong here."
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