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My Life In A ‘Sh*thole’

Reader: My family chooses to live in a poor part of the city -- and we are blessed by it

(Note from Rod: Here is a letter I just received. It’s really thoughtful, powerful, and challenging. I’m not going to put the reader’s name on it unless she agrees to that, but I didn’t want to waste a second posting it and sharing it with you. The reader’s name is Alicia, but she asks me to withhold her last name. This is exactly the kind of feedback — and pushback — I want to hear and need to hear. Thank you, reader. If your experience has been the same as this reader’s, or the opposite, I would like to hear from you too. Please take this reader’s letter as a model.)

I know I am a few days late in responding to your article “Of Shitholes And Second Thoughts” but I just saw it today. I don’t know much about immigration and I’ve never visited developing countries, but you use a domestic example as an underlying principal of how we should view immigration.

In the Section 8 housing example you not only showed your ignorance in how Section 8 housing works and what has caused poor neighborhoods, what you express has been contrary to my experience. There is truth in the fact that corrupt and oppressive governments can make living conditions very bad for people, but that is different than saying that the people living in those places are the cause of those terrible conditions or hopelessly poisoned by it.

When you say, “Do you want the people who turned their neighborhood a shithole to bring the shithole to your street?” it sounds like you are saying that you believe the conditions of those places are caused by the people who live there and they have been hopelessly corrupted by that place no matter what environment they move to. As you have considered the experiences of people living in or visiting developing countries, I hope you will also consider my experience of living in neighborhoods in the U.S. many would label “shitholes.”

I will admit that I haven’t followed you closely and I disagree with your politics, but I have respected you as a Christian conservative who seems to be thoughtful.  So, I was surprised to see an excerpt from “Of Shitholes And Second Thoughts” that expressed such unchristian and unloving views and seemed to say those feelings and ideas are ok. I want to respond to you as a Christian, from my experience of following Jesus in places you label “shitholes”.

I grew up in rural South Central Pennsylvania in a community with a large number of Christians, after college the first place I chose to live was the West Side of Chicago in East Garfield Park, my husband and I then moved to the suburbs of Akron for a job, and now live with our three children in North Philly after a very intentional choice to move to an under resourced neighborhood.  You say no one would consider a housing project being built in their neighborhood as good news. “Drive over to the poor part of town, and see what a shithole it is. Do you want the people who turned their neighborhood a shithole to bring the shithole to your street? No, you don’t. Be honest, you don’t.”

You would probably consider my North Philly neighborhood a shithole. You would drive through and you would see blocks that have trash on the sidewalk, abandoned buildings, cars and houses with broken windows, you might see a loud, aggressive argument on the sidewalk, you might smell weed in the air, and you would see the memorial to the last victim of a shooting on our block. You can drive through and see all the negative to support your view that this place is a shithole to be avoided, with people to keep far from your family.

But this is what you won’t see driving by, you won’t see the community on our block, how the people know each other, watch out for each other’s kids and support each other.

You won’t see the joy at High School graduation parties as the neighbors and family who helped the graduate make it to graduation despite so many obstacles, rejoice and celebrate.

You won’t see the time our neighbor brought us homemade soup when she heard we were all sick.  You won’t see the many times that other neighbors drop food off for us since we have small kids, or make sure they give our kids bags of goodies at Halloween and Christmas.

You won’t see the moms who work long hours at minimum wage at a fast food restaurant, day care center, or retail outlet only to come home and give everything they have left to their children.

You won’t see the exhaustion in their eyes. You won’t see how my kids’ faces light up when they see the men in our community and church who joke with them, play with them, or always have a treat for them. You probably won’t see the joy in the friendships my kids have made with the other kids at their schools and church. You won’t see how these people who have a lot less than me in what the world values have given me so much.

In my North Philly neighborhood I have experienced a sense of community, support and involvement with each other that I did not experience in my nice Christian neighborhood growing up, or in the middle class suburbs of Akron.

So you are wrong.  You are wrong about Section 8 housing.  It is a voucher so people can choose where to live, not a housing development.  You are wrong about the people in poor neighborhoods turning their neighborhood into “shitholes,” government policies such as redlining did that along with the widespread prejudice against the poor that you express.

But more than that, you are wrong that nobody would consider living next door to the poor to be good news, you are wrong that I don’t want their culture in my neighborhood.  Twice I have intentionally chosen to live in poor neighborhoods, and those decision were two of the best decisions I have ever made.  I am not a missionary. I hope my presence in my neighborhood makes it a better place, but I have gained far more from my neighbors than I have given. Yes, poverty is terrible, it wears people down, it makes people desperate, and makes their sin and brokenness more obvious.

But the culture in the “nice” areas I have lived in have been more destructive to my Christian faith. The materialism, the idolization of success, the pride at not being like “those” people, not to mention all the sin that was hidden away under a veneer of respectability, is far worse to those trying to see their need for Jesus and accept his grace. So I don’t want my neighborhood to be gentrified, because that would mean importing the “destructive culture” of the middle class to the neighborhood I love.

I think my childhood would have been better if there had been more Section 8 housing in my neighborhood, I think I would have rejoiced at more Section 8 housing coming to my neighborhood in Akron, and I think my children are blessed to live, be friends with, and be loved on by the people in my “shithole” neighborhood with their “destructive culture.” And maybe you should consider that driving through a community with the goal of seeing what a “shithole it is” will not give you a good perspective of the way God’s grace and love is at work in the people of that place.

I also want to say that I am disappointed in you attacks on Jemar Tisby.  I have listened to his podcast for the past couple of years and it is clear that he is a fellow Christian with conservative theology who interacts with the world in a way that is filled with grace.  I hope you will consider his gracious response to you and not feel the need to label people who disagree with you on the role race plays in our society “professional race-baiters”.  I also hope you will see that those with few worldly possessions have many gifts to offer those of us with many.  I pray that you will be blessed by proximity to the poor in the same way that my family and I have been.

UPDATE: Check out this comment from Zachary Wilson:

Thank you for posting this and your willingness to field arguments from people that disagree with you. I have been following this thread for the last day or so and feel like I have to chime in. I grew up in rural Southern Colorado a place full of beauty,isolation, and unfortunately an astounding amount of poverty.

I am the descendant of coal miners, farmers, and teachers. All who dealt with the loss of children due to lack of medical resources but who still through faith and a hope worked hard so their children would have a better future and life then they did.

My father came from a broken home and turned things around and has been one of the few people in my life who has never gone back on his word. His example has proven to me that cycles can be broken (even if it is difficult).

Now living in the city I am extremely thankful that I have the virtues instilled in me by growing up in a lower middle class household. I am thankful I had to work every summer on my uncle’s farm just so I could eventually have enough money to by a computer. I am thankful that clothing, nice cars, and material possessions aren’t the primary focus of my life.

However a few things I grew up with that I do not want my son to experience. Watching his close friends lose siblings to violence or drugs. I do not want him to experience having to waste hours in the classroom desperately trying to learn something while the other kids heckle the teacher.

These type of things can happen anywhere but I think it is perfectly reasonable to recognize the virtues and vices inherent to any area that one finds themselves. Without this discussion how are we going to identify the vices and problems that surround us and work towards solution.

I suppose my point finally being is that chronic problems and vices are to be found everywhere be it rich, poor, urban , or rural.

I think ultimately it is important to recognize that the problem is ultimately sin and the fallen human condition. People of character arise in all walks of life. However to claim that this is the property of any particular class of people is false as all have their own particular vices.

UPDATE.2: And this comment:

Rod, as I think you know, I have been a teacher in an inner city high school for over a decade now. In that time I have seen many amazing, beautiful things accomplished because people from all walks of life made the decision to take a real and sincere interest in the lives of those students and families living in the surrounding neighborhoods.

But this is not that story. Just last Friday morning I awoke to the news that there had been a shooting overnight in the neighborhood in which my school is located. Each time this happens I instinctively brace myself for the worst case scenario, and for the third time in my teaching career at this school just such a scenario became reality. An amazing student I had had in my class just 2 years ago was senselessly shot and murdered in an alley on her way home for work for what appears to be according to the police nothing more than an armed robbery looking for drug money. I have many close African American friends who are not only teachers in this school, but are actually graduates from this school that have returned to teach here.
We often have the discussions that are going on in your blog right now. But with one exception, none of those of those African American teachers/former students have chosen to move back into the neighborhood. It is because they all have attested to the fact that the chaos and dysfunction that they struggled so hard to break free from is something they have absolutely no desire to now see their own children struggle with. And the one teacher who is living in the immediate neighborhood surrounding the school does so because she is living with and caring for her mother. And she began asking me as soon as her daughter was pre-school age what type of home schooling curriculum I used for my children and what information I might have regarding some of the religious private schools in the surrounding communities.

And all of these teachers are still part of the community. They still go to family birthday parties and visit friends in the neighborhood and attend church at their community churches. They love their neighborhood and all of the people living in it, and chose to come back and work in it for that reason. But they were not willing to sacrifice their family’s safety and prosperity over what they would call a misplaced sense of loyalty. In the end it was not about being socially “right” or “wrong”. For them personally It was about individuals weighing all of the endless factors that go into being a family and part of a community and whether or not the values of that community make it acceptable for you to continue to be a part of it at the closest levels and whether or not you sacrifice what you perceive to be the greater good for your own family. Everyone should be able to make this decision without being shouted down or disrespected regardless of what they choose.



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