Recently I’ve been reading Tattoos on the Heart, in which Father Gregory Boyle tells about his 20 years of living among and loving the gang members of Los Angeles. His stories are heart-breaking—children who grow up with no one to parent them, teenagers eaten alive by shame, violence enacted as a form of self-hatred and a way to dabble with suicide. In short, he describes a world torn apart by generational poverty, drugs, alcohol, death and despair.
As I’m reading, my compassion is stirred; and yet, Father Greg’s world seems far distanced from my own. His stories contain echoes of my old favorite, The Cross and the Switchblade, and of the soul-stirring production of West Side Story I watched with my children last fall. This desperate world of gangs and deadly encounters between rivals is so cinematically familiar to me that the reality of it doesn’t want to seep in. Even with all of my experiences in the El Crucero neighborhood, the bleakness of Father Greg’s community is almost ungraspable.
And then I read this:
I had a three-state set of speaking gigs and brought along two older homies, rivals, Memo and Miguel, to help me do it. We were in Atlanta, DC, and finally Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama. After our last talk in the morning at the college, we meet a man named John who tells us of his ministry in Pritchard, Alabama, and invites us to go visit his community. We take two hours to drive and walk around in what I think is about the poorest place I’ve ever seen in the United States. Hovels and burned-out shacks and lots of people living in what people ought not to live in.
Memo and Miguel are positively bug-eyed as they walk around, meet people, and see a kind of poverty quite different than the one they know.
We return to the house where we’re staying and have half an hour to pack before leaving for the airport and our return home. We all dispatch to our own rooms, and I throw my suitcase together. I look up, and Memo is standing in my doorway, crying. He is a very big man, had been a shot caller for his barrio, and has done things in and out of prison for which he feels great shame—harm as harm. The depth of his core wound is quite something to behold. Torture, unrivalled betrayal, chilling abandonment—there is little terror of which Memo would be unfamiliar.
He’s weeping as he stands in my doorway, and I ask him what’s happening.
“That visit to Pritchard—I don’t know, it got to me. It got inside of me. I mean [and he’s crying a great deal here] how do we let people live like this?”
The Prichard, Alabama that sits less than 7 miles from where I grew up in Springhill, Alabama.
The Prichard, Alabama that is only 10 minutes up the interstate from the house I called home from age 2 until 23.
The Prichard, Alabama whose high school, Vigor, was my high school’s main football rival.
I find myself stammering here: “Wow, I didn’t know…. I had no idea….I never saw…. “
I’ll tell you what I did know.
I knew that Prichard was poor.
I knew that Prichard was where “black people” lived.
I knew that Prichard was dangerous—a place to be avoided.
Poor. Black. Dangerous.
And, like everyone else, I stayed away.
To this day I’ve never seen Prichard, Alabama.
I have many stories about racial division and inequity I could (and maybe one day will) tell you from my growing up years in southern Alabama. Stories about how I perceived the African American children who were bussed into my otherwise all-white elementary school, stories about my large high school where I sat in almost entirely white classes even though the school’s population was about 60 percent minority, stories about wanting to cross the us/them divide and not being able to find a path between the two.
But for now, I just want to share my indignation, my sorrow and my guilt.
To my neighbors for the first 2 decades of my life: I apologize to you. I am sorry I never saw where you live. I am sorry I categorized and dismissed you. I am sorry that I was scared of you and avoided you. I am sorry I never cared what your life was like. I am sorry I never prayed for you or felt compassion for your trials.
And to everyone else, I would like to ask a simple (yet profoundly difficult) question:
Who is living in your backyard?