About four months ago, I edited an article we published at work on one of our websites. This article discussed the problem of injustice and how we can become more aware of the injustices around us, since awareness is the beginning of action. The author of the article, Sarah Arthur, a valued voice in the world of youth ministry whom I greatly admire, said, “Change your zip code.” She went into detail about how simply moving into the neighborhood gives us new eyes and more genuine compassion. It compels us to care about injustices because they aren’t happening to someone else. Sarah posited that when you change your zip code and move into a neighborhood where injustice runs rampant, those injustices become a part of your own life. They happen to you too. You own them.
Sarah’s article inspired me, and here is my response to it, some of which I sent to her.
I did change my zip code—not because I had the specific intent to become aware of injustices (or even to do anything about them—at first) but because I wanted to purchase my own home.
To the dismay of my parents—who (understandably) don’t like to imagine their 26-year-old, unmarried, youngest child in precarious situations—the house I found that I fell irrevocably in love with, the one that felt like home as soon as I stepped in the front door, was—is—located in an urban part of town, where violence and poverty are both prevalent.
I’ve lived there 8 months now and have gone from never dialing 911 in my life to not hesitating to call when something happens on my street. I have lived by myself for more than four years now and have always felt 100% safe. Now I feel 100% reliant on God for my safety. My house has been broken into. I’ve cowered below my bedroom window with the cops on the phone while peeking just over the sill to watch someone shoot a gun and two guys get into a fistfight at 3am on the portion of the street directly in front of my property. People have been arrested in my front yard.
What a wakeup call it has been to live where I live now. Most of the time, when I tell people where I live, they blink and ask, “Really??” I live in a neighborhood where the color of my skin stands out pretty starkly. And ever since I moved in, I have been confronted time and time again by prejudices I didn’t even know I had—latent prejudices drilled into me by the suburban school, economic, and social systems in which I was raised. Some of these prejudices have even been fostered by spiritual institutions. They are prejudices so natural feeling and so deeply ingrained that I don’t even realize they are prejudices until I’m standing in conversation with one of my neighbors and silently wondering, Did he break into my home? Or walking my dog(s) down the street and fighting the urge to cross to the other side to avoid passing closely by a dark-skinned, hat-wearing, baggy-pants-clad strange young man.
My point is, changing my zip code has revealed to me how much I have to learn, how far I have to go, how much space there is for me to grow. My intent in moving in was not to become aware of injustice or to do anything to help. But my worldview has expanded since I moved in, and God has slowly been working on my heart ever since so that, maybe, heightened awareness might lead to a desire—maybe even a need—to do something.
Thus far, my desire to get to know my neighbors has battled with the knowledge that I need to be smart about my personal safety. As a young, single, and somewhat small white girl, it doesn’t seem particularly prudent to go knocking on strangers’ doors all by myself. But God has provided small opportunities here and there for me to open up.
In the fall, I befriended Jackie, the crossing guard for the elementary school across the street. She parks her car right outside my house and stands on the corner at the end of my walk. Often, in the mornings, Soren has run down to the corner to greet her, and he is the reason I met Jackie in the first place. Our conversations are short and superficial, sticking to surface-level topics that can be covered in the 45 seconds it takes Soren to do his business. But every morning that she is there, she never fails to say hello to me, and I call her by name, hoping to communicate by doing that the message that she is valuable and important and worth remembering.
Over the course of the summer I befriended a young man who lives in the house behind mine and often walks up and down the sidewalk in front of my house. His name is Antwon, and I have wondered a time or two what his story is because he often walks alone, early in the morning, and mumbles to himself. I don’t think he has a job, and many days in the summer, I came home from work to find him throwing a football in the field across from our houses. Always by himself. So I don’t know if there’s something going on there mentally, but our conversations are often stilted and sporadic. We jump from topic to topic, sometimes without really finishing what we started discussing. But Antwon makes me feel welcome in the neighborhood. He has asked me on more than one occasion how I like living there and even once asked me, “Where did you grow up? Because you sure don’t seem like you’re from around here.”
But the main reason I’m intrigued by Antwon is that I think he goes unnoticed most of the time. Just like with Jackie, I call out to him by name whenever I see him. One day I had just come home from work and was climbing the steps to my porch when I happened to turn around and see Antwon shuffling along on the sidewalk, as usual. I called out, “Hey, Antwon! How are you?” He stopped and we chatted for no more than five minutes.
But when we said goodbye and I turned to go inside, he called to me, “Hey. Thanks for saying hi to me.” I told him of course and then had to rush inside so he wouldn’t see the tears welling up in my eyes.
Keeron and Keevon (not sure of the spelling) live next door to me. They are in third and fourth grade, and they like to tease Soren. They are really sweet boys with a penchant for mischief, and I really hope they are receiving a good education and upbringing so their mischievous spirits don’t get them into serious trouble when they’re teenagers. One day Soren and I spent an hour outside with them in the front yard. I gave them tips on playing with Soren (he likes to fetch), so they took turns finding big sticks and throwing them across the yard for Soren to chase and return. They told me about the costumes they wore for Halloween and how on Friday nights they like to go out for pizza and a movie (I assume with a parent or guardian).
It’s been a slow process, but God knows how to handle me, and he has been gradually molding and softening my heart toward my neighbors.
And this morning, I experienced a neighbor’s selfless kindness for the first time since moving into this house. The snowplows were on top of things this morning after the 6+ inches of snow we got last night, and when I went out to try to go to work, I found that my car was buried in mounds of snow. After I spent 30 fruitless minutes trying to free my car and ultimately getting it pretty badly stuck (and sitting sideways in the road), a neighbor walked down from a house up the street with a shovel. He efficiently dug my car out of the drifts. I thanked him profusely and drove away fast because I was late to work. As I turned off my street, though, I mentally kicked myself when I realized I hadn’t gotten his name. But I won’t soon forget his kindness.
On Saturday of this week, I’m getting a housemate. A male. (When I told one of my friends this, she said, “Eeee! You’ve always wanted to live with a boy!” And this is true. I’ve always thought it would be fun to have a guy roommate. But that’s beside the point.) The point is, I hope that living with a guy will help me make more progress in my quest to befriend my neighbors. I hope that having some muscle mass living under my roof will embolden me and encourage me to go more out of my way when it comes to having conversations with people on the block, learning people’s names, and generally being more of a friendly presence on the street. I don’t want to be simply “that little white girl on the corner with the little black dog.”
So how can you help? Pray for me. Pray for Jordan (my new housemate). And pray for my neighbors. Sharing life and attempting to foster community is not always easy. But it’s exactly what I want to do.