What about Mattie?

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Mattie* is a saint. That's how her family and friends describe her. She's one of those nurturing housing project grandmothers to whom children and adults alike are drawn for affirmation and counsel. In the midst of the chaotic and often dangerous life in the project, Mattie's deep faith has been her anchor. Her unfailing mother-love has been the one constant refuge that has sustained her family while their lives have been torn apart by the anarchy of the street. Mattie is raising her three grandchildren. Her daughter - the children's mother - is addicted to crack cocaine and lives a desperate existence in the never-ending pursuit of the next fix. Periodically her daughter shows up unannounced at Mattie's apartment to see the children and to crash on the living room sofa. This presents a troubling dilemma for Mattie. Her daughter is not on the lease and cannot legally stay there. Of even greater concern are the problems - the friends, the drugs, the trouble - that always seem to follow her daughter. When Mattie refuses to allow her in, her daughter threatens to take the children - a ploy that strikes terror to Mattie's huge maternal heart. "Just for one night" turns into a week. And soon the chaos that accompanies addiction again invades her home. It will inevitably escalate until a volatile police intervention is required to restore order to the household.

Mattie wants out. She wants desperately to see her grandchildren grow up in a hope-full place where playgrounds are safe and where healthy families work and play together. She wants an end to the bedlam. Her heart longs for peace. When she first heard about the new mixed-income community that we are developing right in her neighborhood, it seemed almost too good to be true. But it is true. And it is happening right now before her eyes. Her dilapidated public housing project is being demolished and with it goes the criminal enterprise that for so long has been entrenched there. For the same dollar Mattie pays for her government apartment she can rent a new, finely constructed, privately managed town home where half of the neighbors are middle-income, upwardly mobile and committed to being involved in community life. It is the answer to her prayers. Or so it would seem.

But there is a problem. Mattie's heart has been too big. She has loved her wayward children and her alcoholic nephew too much. She has taken them (and their problems) into her home too many times, has accumulated too many "incident reports" on her rental record. She claims all that will change as soon as she is in a new environment. She will be stronger there and have the support of property management. But Mattie will not get in. As much as our management team desires to help her realize her dream for a better life, as much as they appreciate her loving spirit and know that her spiritual depth could richly enhance community life, they must reject her application. They must choose the best interests of the whole community over the potential benefit for one family.

Some of our ministry staff are very upset by this. Our family counselor who has walked with Mattie through some of her darkest days and who shared the bright hope of a new beginning, is distraught. Surely there must be some other alternatives in the community - like the Swazey Avenue neighborhood where we are buying up crack houses and mobilizing new neighbor-leaders to move in and help turn the area around. Mattie's nurturing influence is needed on Swazey, to be sure. But her love is not tough enough to withstand the pressures from loved ones with life-controlling problems who will surely follow her where ever she moves. No, I cannot offer Mattie housing on Swazey either. I will not do this to the community. It is becoming obvious to me that those called to minister to individuals often fulfill a distinctly different role from those called to rebuild communities. These roles are not mutually exclusive but they certainly can lead to tension. Compassionate counselor-types who spend themselves in redemptive relationships have an abiding faith in the potential of people to overcome adversity. They are faithful and longsuffering, and live with the expectation of miracles. They will go into dangerous neighborhoods, walk past drug dealers, step over passed-out derelicts, sit on nasty couches in dingy apartments just to maintain personal contact with some child or mother who needs to know someone cares. Against overwhelming odds, often for decades, they offer rides, financial assistance, prayer and counsel, tenaciously holding to the hope that their client-friend will someday make it out.

Community developer-types, on the other hand, may be equally compassionate but demonstrate their care in different ways. They look at troubled inner-city families and see the structures, systems and dynamics of power that strangle hope from their lives. Community developers realize how vital to growth is a healthy environment, how essential the neighbors who are committed to parenting each others' children and working together to make their streets safe. When they see dangerous neighborhoods controlled by drug dealers, their response is to organize crime watches, confront slumlords, and shut down crack houses. They convene task forces, write letters, lobby elected officials, sell visions, broker deals, and slog through the endless quagmire of community politics, driven by the belief that healthy community is a Divine grace that will produce strong families and secure children.

Counselors and community developers have essentially the same goals. Often they may find themselves engaged in some of the same activities. Sometimes both roles are even packaged together in the same person. Eventually, however, personality and gift-set lead a person onto one path or the other, either toward inviolate individual relationships or toward the primacy of neighborhood integrity. The good news is that both are vitally important. Like the classic relationship between the right of the individual vs. the good of society, optimal equilibrium will be found in the dynamic tension between the two. Counselors and community developers need each other for balance.

And what about Mattie? The better life for which she longs hinges on the agonizing decision that she and all families with addicted members must at some point face: where does love end and enabling begin? In the mean time she will still have a supportive friend with a counselor's heart to be her prayer partner and confidant.

* I've changed her name and enough details to honor confidentiality

Bob Lupton

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