Walking through the streets of Jaipur, India, I would take my head scarf and bury my nose. The smell of urination, animal excrement, and decaying garbage mixed with the sand and desert heat to create a thickness almost unbearable. Children and adults alike would be picking through these garbage heaps to find anything they could sell or eat. Women with babies would stand on the corners begging for a coin. Several families would be crowded in a one or two room shack, floors caked in filth with piles of random items that have been hoarded “just in case.” Women were mostly invisible on the streets, and if they were seen, they would have their heads down to avoid all the cat-calls and inappropriate attention from the men, who were standing around with nothing to do but smoke because they had no work.
Walking through the streets of Chicago and visiting our friends in their homes, I cannot help but notice that the poor neighborhoods of Chicago and poor neighborhoods of Northwest India are more similar than most of us would care to admit. Entering homes invokes some of the same smells, and the floors and walls are often below layers of dirt. Families of double-digits squeeze into tiny apartments, with foam pads, blankets and other makeshift beds sprawled across the floors. Guys are near garbage cans searching for leftovers and plenty of our neighbors are working the streets for a dollar or two. I have not known a single woman who has made the walk past 55th andAshland without at least one inappropriate sexual comment from the group of guys hanging around. Despite garbage services in America, litter out-numbers the grass in front lawns.
There is one major difference: While there is no standard code or housing welfare in India, the housing conditions in the United States have a legal code aimed to prevent people from living in substandard conditions. Despite this, the homes we visit typically fall below that code in some way. Throughout Chicago, our friends crowd together in homes with cracked windows and warped floors that landlords will not fix. Within these walls are toxic mold and other harmful agents that children and adults alike must breathe in as they sleep. They awake to rashes, breathing problems, and other medical ailments, but have nowhere to escape. No matter how many grievances are placed, these issues are often neglected.
Most of us would last five minutes in a place like this. We would put up complaints, evacuate from the toxins, and file class-action lawsuits against the injustice. But these friends of BSL have nowhere to go. In fact, they consider themselves lucky that they have a place at all, and with the help of BSL often have to fight CHA (Chicago Housing Authority) in order to remain in public housing, where they can scrape the money together to have a roof over their heads.
As often as we complain that kids have poor attendance and records in school, or that the poor should seek jobs and fight for themselves, we must realize the discomfort it takes to live like this. How hard must it be to even get a night’s rest, knowing your family is being medically harmed, and fighting among the 12 other household members for the one bathroom to get ready in the morning? I cannot imagine an 8-year-old having the concentration to make it through their homework among the constant distractions of a crowded living space, or being well enough to get to school when they are constantly fighting illnesses caused by their living conditions. How depressing must it be to look at your window and see boarded up lots and broken glass bottles in every direction? This image is all you can provide for your family. Now, imagine gathering the confidence to go out into an entirely different world to find a job. How would you fare?
I cannot help but reflect: Where is the social sin that has allowed this to happen in America? Where is the root of the neglect? Where did we lose the idea that we belong to a community that extends beyond our family and friends? The answers led me back to fear. The majority of our nation has learned to fear words like “projects” and “poor neighborhoods.” We choose safety over our Christian commitment to love, and abandon the poor community. We do not buy homes in the area, or frequent the stores, or invest financially in any way. Our fear further isolates these areas, so businesses and builders alike all flee, diminishing any chance of improvement. There is a cycle: Neighborhoods lose income and vitality, the desperation of poverty leads to violence, and violence creates unsafe neighborhoods that cause further isolation from sources of income and vitality.
Only the courage to choose love over fear can break this cycle. Brothers and Sisters of Love believes that love casts out fear. How can we love these communities back to health? Will you join us in loving our neighbor? No one should have to live like this. And no one will, if we would only make the commitment to cast out fear in the name of Christian love. Will you?
–Megan Sherrier, BSL
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