I could tell endless stories of the names and faces I’ve met this week. I walked into Bethel Temple a week ago, carrying the weight of recent life events with very little idea of what I was getting myself into and the problems plaguing North Philadelphia. This area has largely been cast in a negative light by those outside the community. The opioid crisis is rampant here along with poverty, homelessness, and open heroin use everywhere you look. But what lies within this community is so much more than that bleak picture. I want to start by quoting a text I sent a few days ago:
“Saw my first overdose today and tried to help him. The first thing he said to me when he woke up was, ‘I’m just embarrassed.’ These are real people hurting and struggling. Most aren’t criminals and almost all want out but are held tight in chemical bondage. It’s such a powerful visual of Satan’s hold on the world. I truly believe this is where Jesus would be ministering and healing if he were here today.”
Chemical bondage. Once locked in, it can be so hard to break the chains. I looked in that man’s eyes and saw a peer. We were about the same age. He reminded me of someone I knew from home. I’ll admit that at times in the past I had the quick judgment of drug addicts as dangerous and criminals. When I looked into his eyes, though, all I saw was the pain and brokenness caused by the tight hold of drugs in his life.
There was another young man I screened on the steps of his house, also close to my age. His blood pressure was a little high, and when I got to ‘stress’ in the list of causes of increased blood pressure, he said, “Well, I’m definitely stressed.” I asked him to tell me about why he was stressed and his response was, “Look around. Why wouldn’t I be stressed?” He walked back in shortly after and hugged his kids.
In reference to the strength and willingness of this community to allow us into their homes, so hospitable and giving, one of the speakers this week told us, “Grace flows down and pools in the lowest places.” It’s not hard to find grace in this neighborhood. As many times as that grace has been directed at us, I can’t help but contrast it with more affluent neighborhoods. I can’t imagine someone going door to door offering free health screenings getting many positive responses. I find it even harder to picture someone inviting those people into their homes, insisting they sit down and get out of the heat, offering water and even food. Yet I’ve experienced that so many times here, in an area where they have every reason not to trust us in their homes.
Yes, this is a broken neighborhood. It’s so easy to be distracted by the outward appearance that you miss the grace flowing freely throughout – a mother’s love, a child’s laughter, a man’s faith. People dying, people living. Grace.