in the inner city
like we call it
we think a lot about uptown
and the silent nights
and the houses straight as
and the pastel lights
and we hang on to our no place
happy to be alive
and in the inner city
like we call it
a poem by the late Lucille Clifton
I found myself turning to this poem after two conversations this week. In both of these conversations I found myself frustrated and I was talking with a friend today about it and I thought of this poem. By the way Lucille Clifton's poetry rocks - at least all that I've seen. This is the first poem in a collection entitled "good woman: poems and a memoir 1969-1980."
The first conversation was with a person I don't know very well. She and I serve on a committee together that meets every few months. But that is mostly work - and we don't have much chance to visit. This week it wasn't a meeting, it was a social event. The person I was talking with began to tell me about the good work that she was a part of at a community center on the southside of Indianapolis. I listened with interest.
At one point she was talking about how this community center did a great job of "breaking the cycle of poverty." And then in the very next breath she talked about it as a great place because people were coming there in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generations. If the cycle was being broken, I wondered out loud, then how was it that generations still need to be making use of the community center. She seemed flummoxed by the question.
She talked about the parents who are "all in jail." I said that I found that hard to believe. She talked about drug addiction and other issues - but mainly she focused her discussion on how the community center she was involved in was changing the values that the young people who come there grow up with from their home life. I was appalled at both the naivete and the bigotry of this statement.
I dare say that this woman does not know any of the parents of the young people of that community center. Let me say that I don't know them either. But I know that people say the same thing about parents in my neighborhood - and that these things are not true about the parents I know. What do you think it does to young people who attend these community centers and hear good, well meaning people like my conversation partner talk about their parents in this way? What does that make the young people think about themselves?
Yes, there are parents who are lousy. But I've not seen that income level makes much difference in that. And the values of those in the inner city that I know are not discernibly different than the values of people in the culture at large.
Later this week I was with a gathering of clergy and one of them asked me about the sports program at Tabernacle Presbyterian. It is a well known and well established program. The person commented that this sports program had made a difference in people's lives (which, by the way, I'm sure it has). But when I pressed him about what he meant - he talked about how it was reversing negative trends in the neighborhood. I talked with him about that - because Tab has been doing that program for over 40 years - about the same length of time Broadway has been running a summer program - and other churches in our neighborhood as well. And yet things continue to be (as one neighbor put it recently) "as bad as they are."
When I think of all the money invested in these efforts to "make things better" - I'm sure we would be counting in the millions of dollars by now. And there is very little to show for it. It has, I'm certain, helped a few people beat the odds - but it is a long way from helping change the odds for everyone. And that really is what the people of our congregations around here (and at community centers) would say we are trying to do.
In the clergy discussion the people around the table quickly agreed. But then the conversation then again turned to how lousy the parents are and that this is where we really need to focus our work. In some ways I think they are right - that's where we need to focus our work - but not because the parents are lousy - but because the parents need what we all need - people who will believe in us and love us and see the great gifts that we have. And they need institutions that will not put them down, but will function as investors in the life of the Spirit in their lives; shining a light on the wonder that is who they are.
We need folks who will see our communities not as places that need to be fixed (overwhelmingly by people who have problems of their own that they are often running away from) - but as places that are full to overflowing with grace and love and Spirit and hope and mercy. As places that are, in fact, built on very sound values. The values of David and Delores and Jewel and Dorothea and Nora and Arthur and Yusuf - just to name a few of the good folks who live less than a block from Broadway. I can tell you that these folks are not perfect, but have as finely rooted values as all the other non-perfect people I know, including myself.
And so, Lucille Clifton's poem, to me shines a light on a place of beauty. Often un-recognized. But beautiful. Truly.