Today, I was part of a community.
Seventy-five people from my church convened at an old public school building in the Brookside neighborhood on the near-East side of Indianapolis to wash walls, serve hotdogs, and play basketball with local kids. The building is being repurposed as a classical, Christian school, which hopefully will stimulate community revitalization. We went to clean and feed and redeem, to accomplish something bigger than ourselves.
But something even bigger than that was going on. More than 600 other people from our church were scattered throughout other Indianapolis neighborhoods and non-profit centers, working for God’s glory and the good of our city. United in purpose, we divided to cover more ground, to extend the influence.
We were in community, coming from community, going into community. An intricate texture of belonging.
And also excluding.
We met on the Northside of town, in the multi-million dollar addition of our church. Then we drove south, into the heart of our city, as the architecture changed, and the buildings went from manicured to abandoned. Our instructions included leaving all valuables at home. And at one point, there were five of us — white, single women, 30 and above — sitting at a picnic table with four African American boys with no coats who were eating free hotdogs we served to them. They were all under eight, and they had come alone.
I have thought a lot about that community since we got back in the car and drove North again. I wonder what I have to offer beyond pity or paltry efforts. I wonder what I can learn from a group of eight-year-old boys who will suffer the attention of childless women. And I think that I can do less when I try to work by myself and more when I work in community.
In community, from community, to community.
As a writer, I experience this muddling of community as I seek to find a perspective, an audience, a story. Whose am I? Whose voice do I represent? Whose story can I tell with authenticity? With fresh eyes?
In a panel discussion on “Community Expectations: Artistic Explorations” during the recent Festival of Faith Writing at Calvin College, poet Julie Spicher Kasdorf said that she writes “to explain myself,” but that she also is an “interpreter of the community to the community and to the world.”
Does that mean I speak as a Christian to a non-Christian world? Or am I interpreting my Northside life to an inner city audience? Or as a resident of Indianapolis, am I the voice of believers and unbelievers, of rich and poor to a larger national audience?
Ruben Martinez, who also sat on the Community Expectations panel, talked about writing from both within and outside of a community after reading an essay he wrote about his drug-dealing neighbors. He was a Latino man writing about Latino neighbors. He shared a sense of heritage with them, yet because of education, travel, and career opportunities, he was living a different reality.
“Being a spokesperson [for my community] was antithetical to my writing values,” Martinez said, emphasizing his desire to tell the truth with an authentic voice. And yet, “Community begins with our neighbors,” he concluded.
When the panel ended, I wondered about the “in” and “out” of community. If Martinez could write from both within and outside of a community, could I, conversely, write from both outside of and within a community?
When I asked him the question, he said, “You have to begin from where you are.”
In other words, if I want to speak for eight-year-old black boys whose mothers don’t know where they are, I have to start by speaking for myself.
I don’t know where he lives or if his mamma even knew he was with us, eating a hotdog with ketchup at a picnic table with a bunch of white women. I don’t even know if the little boy – couldn’t be more than six years old – even has a mamma, since his older brother who was with him said they lived with their grandma.
But when Baby-Josh, as the older boys called him, came running back to the table with his coat tails flapping in the wind, it didn’t matter if he was black and I wasn’t. Or if he liked hotdogs and I ate only local, organic vegetables. All I wanted to do was zip that coat for him so that he wouldn’t be cold anymore.