Nevermore…

photo credit: flickr

photo credit: flickr

By Acasia O.

Baltimore has a place in my heart and a chapter in my book.  Random fact: I started my loc journey at a natural hair salon in Baltimore, MD six years ago.  During that time, I was one of roughly 15 participants in a summer research internship (RISE) for underrepresented minorities and had secured a great opportunity to conduct research through Johns Hopkins University’s pediatric AIDS clinic.

That summer was sweet like penny candy, soft serve ice cream and Domino Sugar. My love and I were in our second consecutive summer health research internship together and enjoying Charm City, making frequent trips to Dominion Ice Cream, taking walks around the campus hand-in-hand while fireflies flashed us a thumbs up and crickets chirped their shrill tunes. We stayed on the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus, shuttled the bumpy streets to the medical campus in East Baltimore daily, where for 10 weeks, we worked a 9-5 that offered mentorship, and required seminar attendance and delivering a final presentation on our 10 weeks of data collection and research conclusions. Those were the days of crashing ultimate frisbee games, waiting for the shuttle in a long line in sweltering heat and learning the news of Michael Jackson’s death.  Those were the days of watching Robin Thicke at Artscape in his former glory, and running downstairs every evening to catch a dorm-cooked meal by my love.

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Photo Source: Flickr

Those were also the days when I was reminded that walking home in broad daylight didn’t exempt you from assault, burglary or battery.  Those were the days when, one morning on my way to work, I learned that a gang shot up the memorial service of a rival gang member and a shooting was reported right near Johns Hopkins University Hospital.  For those who know or have spent any significant time in Baltimore you know it has its thorns, to put it lightly.  I would often marvel at the pockets of ‘safety,’ surrounded by a sea of poverty and waves of insecurity.  While my now husband earned his Masters in Public Health at Hopkins, nary a day went by during the school year when I wasn’t worried about him. But beyond the constant news reports and alerts of shootings and beyond the boarded up row houses and broken glass windows and flashing blue lights at the lamp posts on the corner down Charles Street.  Beyond the massively huge and saturated graveyards, the constant cry of the ambulance and the littered pot hole marked streets is a city with a noteworthy story to share and hear.

"Washmonument" by Brlaw8 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Washmonument.jpg#/media/File:Washmonument.jpg

“Washmonument” by Brlaw8 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

The residual energy and grit of Baltimore’s industrial heyday lingers over it like dust particles that
dance and sway in a beam of light.  The one-eyed mascot of the Natty Boh brewery watches over Charm city, donning his signature handlebar mustache. It’s the home of the Ravens, Orioles, sister city to Bremerhaven, Germany (Chris’ birthplace!) and stomping grounds of Cab Calloway, Edgar Allen Poe, Babe Ruth, Jada Pinkett Smith and Nancy Pelosi to name a few.   I felt and still feel a certain way about Baltimore.  It was home for 10 weeks one summer and my biweekly weekend get away when visiting my love during grad school. It’s the place where I lost my favorite earring in the harbor near Fells Point, and the spot where I witnessed my husband run his first marathon. It’s the city that I would visit almost every year in high school when my folks took their youth group to visit the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum.  It’s the city where I trekked to to complete my Masters’ Thesis and the city where I fell in love with Old Bay and scotch bonnet hot sauce on my boiled oysters, Hot Mustard’s Korean Bip Bim Bap and an ice cold beer at The Brewer’s Art.

It’s also the city where, like Jesus did at the news of Lazarus’ death, I wept while driving past the Baltimore City Detention Center, a tomb in its own right, holding broken men and women beguiled by the lure of fast cash and easy money and those falsely accused and slandered by “a system whereby they lynch men.”   It’s the city where mayors move in and out of office like 18-wheelers at the truck station, only a matter of time before they fall asleep at the wheel or break down to the pressure of the power pipe as either a victim themselves or a perpetrator complicit in the schemes and crimes against humanity that plague cities largely inhabited by people of color.   It’s a city where the level of poverty in some neighborhoods makes you wonder if you’re driving through a 3rd-world nation despite being in a major U.S. city.

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Photo source: Flickr

The murder of Freddie Gray while in police custody adds yet another stain on Baltimore’s already tarnished tapestry. And while the city, for the last few years, has been striving to make progress in revamping its image and reversing its reputation of heroin abuse, teen pregnancy and violence, my hope is that the latest attention on the city will result in people asking the question “Why?” Why is Baltimore in the state that it’s been in for decades?  And why would people loot, riot, vandalize or whatever you choose to call it all in the name of justice?  And why don’t more people see the pain of a people who are so broken, so ignored and so undervalued that they manage to destroy their own property and streets while crying out? It might not make sense, but neither does redlining, education disparities and breaking your own neck, spine and voice box.

When a person is suicidal, while some would ask “why?” and do what they can to prevent a suicidal attempt, I would hope that folks wouldn’t mock or try to attack that person for trying to take their own life.  When someone is the victim of abuse, neglect or financial assault, we don’t lambaste them, taunt them or shame them.  But folks have and they do and that’s the problem.  Baltimore is, in my observation, in need of radical transformation.  I often wondered what it would take for the city to bounce back and clean up its act.  I have often wondered why it was left behind and ignored. And with everything that’s been going on over the last week, I wonder what it will take to restore the city. How long before the systems and environments have to be radically changed before we see the healthy transformation?

When a city’s gangs unite in solidarity to protest injustice, you begin to wonder if you’re in the twilight zone. But, if you’re like me, you also begin to wonder if there will ever be a day when these gangs can take their influence to positively transform their neighborhoods.  And further, you wonder if there will ever be a day when politicians and law enforcement officers stop feeding off the power pump and start striking at the root of the problems instead of pruning the symptoms. But ultimately, when will people start to understand that the Baltimores and the Fergusons and the Oaklands of the country are manifesting symptoms of a larger problem that, if not properly addressed, will continue to fester and eventually explode?

Photo credit: flickr

Photo credit: flickr

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That God Doesn’t Exist

by Elise Lockamy

God “is somewhere around,” she says.  “We just can’t find him.”

I knew He was coming.  In this New York Times series featuring the life and times of a homeless child in the City, I knew God was going to show up.

In the piece, readers learn that Dasani is the oldest of eight, with an acute awareness of her social status and family role.  She is intelligent – and not just streetwise; she’s academically gifted too.  She wears responsibility as a chosen chip on her shoulder, bearing through it by fighting those around her when the weight becomes too heavy.  Her mother and stepfather are (recovering) addicts. They have some income but are unable to manage it.  Their lives, it seems, depict ebbs and flows of favor – as when Dasani’s mom inherited $49,000 after her own mother’s death – and despair – as when Dasani’s stepfather’s tax refund is garnished to pay back child support.  The family has been living in deplorable conditions in the Auburn shelter in Brooklyn for close to three years.

As the polished writer details the individual and socio-political dimensions of Dasani’s life and homelessness in New York City, I see something.  I see that there is no mention of the family’s faith life, or religion. Why should there be?  In a life described as this one, how could faith or God possibly exist?

I read on, past the “we just can’t find Him” quote, and find myself enamored by the descriptions of Brooklyn life. The mention of Brownsville takes me back to my childhood.  I remember corner stores and train rides.  Gypsy cabs and dollar vans.  Kings Plaza and 99 cent stores.  Mr. Frosty and open fire hydrants.  After school pit stops at the nearby Chinese restaurant for chicken wings and French fries, and maybe some apple sticks.  I remember walks in Prospect Park, and bike rides up and down Bergen Street.  I remember all our neighbors, the village that raised both me and my dad.  I remember the building down the street my cousin and I were told to stay out of.  The empty lots we were told not to walk by.  I even remember the stray bullet that killed Mr. Mike, the neighborhood handy man.

And I remember the moment, years later, when it finally hit me that God had given my parents a dream, a vision, and had lifted me out of something.  I had already matriculated from Milton Academy and Georgetown University and was riding the bus to my (seemingly) dilapidated graduate school apartment.  There were “Teach for America” posters lining the advertising space. I read something to the effect of – “Only 1 in 10 students from low-income neighborhoods graduate from college”.  That’s me, Lord!  That’s me!  And then – why me, Lord?  Why me?

Elise (left) with peers, Milton Academy graduation, June 2005

Elise (left) with peers, Milton Academy graduation, June 2005

Elise (center) with sisters, Georgetown University graduation, May 2009.

Elise (center) with sisters, Georgetown University graduation, May 2009.

“I don’t dream at all,” she says. “Even when I try.”

Dasani does not dream.  She only knows lack.  She only sees lack.  And there’s no one, not even a God, to correct her vision, to show her dreams, to show her faith, hope, and love.

Dasani is not so far removed from me.  Growing up, I am sure there were a few Dasani’s in my classrooms.  And that’s when the tangle begins.  Father, what you did for me, surely you can do for Dasani.  Surely.  Surely.  I can hardly imagine a God who neglects his little ones.  Hardly.  Hardly.  Because I sometimes do.  I think back to emotionally trying times in my life, and remember feeling all alone. God you are not here.  You’ve left us!  You’ve left me.  And there – in those moments – I am an orphan. Orphaned and foundation-less. Homeless.

I scour the Word for relief.  Not unlike the scouring Dasani’s parents resort to in the form of begging, stealing, and using.  I am led to Matthew 25, The Parable of the Talents.  Servant one is given 5 talents, servant two is given two, and servant three is given one – each servant receiving according to his abilities.  When the Master departs, servant one gleans five more talents, and servant two gleans two more.  Upon the Master’s return, they both present 10 and 4 talents back to him accordingly.  As a reward, he allows them to “enter into joy” and equips them to be in charge of even more.  But as for servant three, well he has nothing but the one talent to present back to his Master.  The Master inquires, “why didn’t you increase what I provided to you?”  The servant responds – “well, I knew you to be a harsh and hard man…”

Harsh and hard.  This harsh and hard God has abandoned Dasani and her family.  The harsh and hard God I know has turned his face from me many times and the past.  Why? Because a harsh and hard God does not exist.  He is not present because He is not real.

God is love.  Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13 remind me that love is patient and kind.  My God, the one I have come to call Lover, Savior, Redeemer, and Provider, is not harsh and hard.  He is the embodiment of all that is good.  With this in mind, I turn back to Dasani and her family. God is somewhere around.  The reality of their circumstances presses them to rely on a harsh and hard God image, because the loving God, the one their spirit knows and cries out to, wouldn’t leave them in this state.

The Master takes away the one talent from the third servant, relegates him to the “outer darkness”, and asks, “Did you really know me?”

If God is real, and is love, then Dasani would not face the life obstacles that she does.

No, see, when God is real, and is love [in our thinking, in our dreams, in our inner-being] then we face obstacles and triumph as overcomers in and through him.

At the end of the piece we learn that Dasani’s family has been relocated to an apartment in Harlem – one with bedrooms and a kitchen.  Dasani is now close to the park where she trains with an athletic team.  Dasani’s Brooklyn school – the one in which she grows close to an inspiring teacher, Ms. Hester – is making arrangements for Dasani, and two of her siblings, to remain enrolled there. They are working on bus pickup as to not exacerbate the children with an hour long commute each way.

At the end of the piece I see God, in all his loving kindness – in the teacher, the principal, the investigative reporter, and the supermarket patron who allows Dasani’s stepfather to fill up a cart with groceries that this Samaritan will pay for.  I see it.  I see Him. Maybe now, His omnipresence will begin to fill Dasani’s heart.  Maybe now, she will find Him.

The Most Despicable Term I’ve Ever Heard

by Elise Lockamy

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I can hear my mother’s voice now.

“You let her do that to you!  You are not a garbage can! DO NOT ACCEPT TRASH!”

With her words in the back of my mind, I grow disheartened when I hear the term “white trash”. Themes persist in its denotations – backwards, derogatory, disparaging, inferior, rural South, underprivileged, uneducated, and poor.  Google Images of trailer parks, confederate flags, tattooed toothless bearded pot-bellied men, and guests of the Jerry Springer show flood my search results.  The sloth of society.  The meth users. The social service leeches. The ones of questionable hygiene and moral stature.  White trash.

We throw away items that have lost their use and value.  We no longer need the empty peanut butter jar, used aluminum foil, or the comb with missing teeth.  As I stare into my trash can I realize that I, by various means of consumption, have used up the items I discarded until they’re no longer valuable to me.  Is it the same with this perceived underclass?  Have we, the other, positioned ourselves to use up a group of people – in this case poor whites – until they are no longer valuable to us?

I believe “white trash” is a cover-up term.  Those in positions of power and access choose not to acknowledge (the social and public policy failure that is) poverty amongst white Americans and thus relegate them to a disposable sector of society.   We create social labels to categorize and distance ourselves from the other.  In this case, “white trash” is the crab pot.  I firmly believe the wall built to section off poor whites will reveal itself to be a two-way mirror for society’s ruling class.  They too will see their own faces in the faces of America’s poor.