By Bob Lupton
Randolf Street, Saturday morning, 10 am. All is quiet except for a barking dog in someone’s back yard. A van enters the street and comes to a stop in front of a shabby, shotgun house midway down the block. A teenage boy emerges from the front door of the house, rubbing sleep from his eyes. A few moments later, his brother joins him on the front stoop.
And from a house across the street, a third teen emerges. Within five minutes, there are eight young black men gathered around the back of the van, pulling out shovels and rakes, trying on leather work gloves, and opening industrial size trash bags. They deploy at one end of Randolf and begin filling their bags with debris they collect from the curbsides and vacant lots.
More dogs are barking now. Several curious neighbors peer out their front windows. A couple adults step out on their front porches and wave. It is an unusual sight to see kids from the ‘hood – youth they watch hanging out on the street corners – taking the initiative to improve the community. One man ventures out and begins picking up some trash that has accumulated in his yard. Another fires up a mower and begins cutting an overgrown lot next to his house.
One of the teens gives him a hand dragging several discarded tires out to the curb to be picked up with Monday morning waste collection. Eventually, a dozen or more neighbors are pitching in. By the time the morning is over, the two-block-long Randolf Street is looking better than it has in many months.
A few minutes before noon, the eight young men load up their tools and supplies, jump into the van, and head out for a McDonald’s feast and an afternoon of mini-bike riding that their leader has promised them. Grateful neighbors smile and wave as the van pulls away.
Two miles across town, in another inner-city neighborhood, a van filled with twelve eager teenagers turns onto Carter Street. It stops in front of an overgrown playground partially enclosed by a rusted chain-link fence. The young people pile out, unlock the trailer hitched to the back bumper, and begin unpacking ladders, a power mower, a gas edger, several cans of paint, brushes, and other assorted supplies. It is obvious that they have been well primed for this challenge.
Each has an assigned responsibility: mowing, edging, scraping, painting, replacing broken chains on the swing, filling muddy holes with fresh sand. A couple neighbors walk past, glance at the activity, and continue walking. None of the teenagers notice the residents who watch from behind the curtains of their living room windows.
Three hours of hard work and this neglected Carter Street park becomes an attractive playground once again. Assignment completed, the youth load up and head back to the campus of their private high school, rightfully proud of their accomplishment. They feel very good that they have made life better for some needy children (and completed one of the requirements for their civics course).
Notice any difference between these two Saturday morning service projects? Both engaged youth in significant work. Both improved a neighborhood. But do you notice the unique effects on the community? Randolf neighborhood teens taking the lead to clean up their own block inspires other neighbors to join in. Neighborly relationships are enhanced. A hint of pride stirs in the community. There’s a reasonable chance that some of the neighbors may make on-going efforts to keep their street picked up.
On Carter Street, the volunteer young people performed their service while neighbors looked on. It is unclear who invited these outsiders, but we can be fairly certain it wasn’t the residents on Carter. If neighbors had planned the work day and invited outside reinforcements to join them, there would have been a welcoming committee to greet the visitors.
It would have been a joint effort with neighbors taking the lead, organizing the work, and maybe even providing Cokes and snacks for their guests. Instead, neighbors stayed out of sight behind their curtains, doubtless feeling a bit embarrassed for allowing their community to become so run down. And probably resentful of being viewed as objects of pity.
Come to think of it, I may have been the guilty offender who invited service groups into the neighborhood without involving residents in the planning. Actually, it was my neighbor Virgil who confronted me on this very issue one Saturday morning. We were sitting on my front porch when a fourteen-passenger church van came slowly down the street, filled with teenagers waving and smiling. That’s when Virgil blurted out: “I just hate it when those volunteers come down here. They insult you and don’t even know they’re doing it.”
I was shocked. Volunteers had done amazing work in our community – erected playgrounds, beautified the landscape, even built Virgil’s house! How could he say he hated the involvement of volunteers? I pushed back, feeling more than a little defensive since I had been the one organizing much of this service.
“Don’t get me wrong. They do some good things,” Virgil admitted, “but it’s humiliating being treated like a poor person. Plus, those church folk treat us like we’re pagans, like we don’t know nothing about faith. I think they’re the ones that don’t know much about faith.”
His words came with surprising force, like they had been building inside him for some time. “I’ll bet none of them have ever been desperate, no food in the house, no money, no one to cry out to but God. Then see God do a miracle…food arrives, or a check comes in the mail. I’ll bet they don’t know anything about that kind of faith.”
“So should we just not do these service projects any more?” I asked him. “Are they just too demeaning to folks in the neighborhood?”
“No, they do good,” Virgil began to calm. “But it would sure help if we did the inviting. And the neighborhood decided what projects we wanted help with. It would be a lot better if we were the ones doing the organizing and supervising. It’s hard having outsiders telling us what to do.” I was taking notes. “And another thing,” he continued, “it would be good if we had time to sit down with the volunteers and share with them how God is at work in our community…in our lives.”
Virgil, perhaps unknowingly, had laid out the principles that would reshape the way our ministry would conduct future volunteer service projects.
- The community initiates (sets priorities)
- The community does the inviting
- The community leads the project
- Mutual sharing of faith journeys
Thank you, Virgil, for enduring our insensitivity. Thank you for your honesty.