Nevertheless, strolling up to 50th street, we set out for a family we had come to know when the father was shot and killed on his own front porch. We had walked the family through the funeral, a rosary novena, and a blessing of the urn and home, and wanted to check in on the mother and her young children. As we approached the house, however, we were distracted by a familiar voice.
“Brother Jim! Brother Jim!” The thick accent and energetic tone were unmistakable. A single man, neighbor to this family and known to many in the neighborhood, was eager to see us after a few months. Known for his faith and compassion, which can be enthusiastic to a fault, he can usually be seen walking the streets, handing out prayer cards, praying the rosary with struggling families, and taking time to learn the news of his neighborhood. His daily activities are not dissimilar to the work of Brothers and Sisters of Love, even if his approach can sometimes be a bit overbearing.
I tried to deny my mixed feelings at seeing our friend. While he is an incredibly friendly man with a great source of knowledge about the neighborhood, he also gets into long diatribes about religion and takes a significant chunk of time leading us into various homes for prayers and blessings that appear to be without end. I had to remind myself to love everyone.
He requested for us to visit a few struggling families he knew, and claimed they were right around the corner. Three blocks later, those mixed feelings I had shoved down were starting to surface again. Where was our guide taking us this time?
We first stumbled upon a woman who had lost her son to gun violence. Her remaining sons were both in prison, and the family had not had a chance to be together since this death. Her isolation had led her into a deep depression. We exchanged information and offered her transportation to visit her sons in the penitentiary. Her sorrow became replaced with a bit of hopeful energy.
Next we wandered north to a place where we met a grandmother overwhelmed by circumstances. Although she grew up in the area and raised her family in Back of the Yards, this 61-year-old had moved away to Oregon. Her son remained in the area and had been mixed up in the wrong crowd, leading him to the penitentiary. He had lived with his girlfriend who had six kids, most of them believed to be his. This girlfriend and the grandchildren lived in the home that now looks out on a makeshift memorial of a slain man, friend of the family.
Arriving back to the neighborhood, the grandmother was thrown into a dysfunctional and chaotic situation on her own. The children had been raising themselves, numb and oblivious to authority, discipline, and rules. No one in the home knew much about church, to her extreme dismay. Her own husband struggled with his issues of alcoholism, cheating, and HIV, and was not around to help in the situation. The neighbors and friends of the girlfriend whom she was helping were not eager to lend a hand, and would flippantly come and go as they pleased, leaving this woman in a continued state of shock and confusion.
Although she had just met us, she could sense she finally had a sounding board for the traumatic things she had been witnessing. She spoke of her desperation, her hopes for the children, and the extreme pain she felt watching what had happened to a neighborhood she once knew. It was one woman against community norms that she could not understand. Although she wanted to be able to fix things, she lacked the support for help.
We prayed with the grandmother and offered our best listening ear. Walking away after a long conversation, all of our hearts dropped leaving this woman alone with the situation she had to face. In both visits, isolation casted out the ability for love, healing, and hope.
God was not quite done with our “detour,” though. Our last stop was to a family who had a thirty-something special needs daughter. In her first year of life, illness left this daughter in a perpetual state of infancy, non-verbal, without motor skills and with minimal comprehension of the circumstances around her. We braced ourselves for another sad situation and more stories of desperation.
Instead, the door was opened by the bright smiles and cheerful greetings of her two sisters. They were over the house watching their sister so their parents could leave the home and spend some time together, taking a break from caring for their daughter. We met their sister, who laughed and gave the most innocent and beautiful smile we had seen all day. There was a theme to the upbeat conversation: support. Everyone in the family stepped up to make sure that no one had too heavy a burden to carry. They cared for the special-needs girl with great joy in their hearts, and no one resented the extra work.
The stark difference between conversations of the places we visited did not have to do with their degree of suffering. Each had their own tragedy, and had experienced many trials due to their circumstances. The great difference, however, lied in the isolation or community support they felt. The first two women were isolated and thus overwhelmed by their circumstances. They could not experience grace through their neighbor or see the light of hope and God. In the third visit, however, the family understood that they belonged to one another, and chose to be light and hope for each other.
In a similar way, the support from our unofficial tour guide led us to exactly where God wanted us to be that day. His love of our work allowed grace to flourish in the neighborhood that day.
God does not promise us a lack of suffering throughout our lives. But God does teach us that solidarity and community are necessary for overcoming the struggles. The relationship with God must not only be a personal one, but it must extend to include love of community and neighbor, so that we may all reflect God’s light to one another, holding each other up as we endure the human struggle.
–Megan Sherrier, BSL
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