Milestones in the inner city or markers of hope are everywhere if you are attuned to seeing them. Sometimes it is hard to do when there is so much violence; the bad news seems to be the thing that gets our attention first.
But I think of a garden, actually several gardens in the city that are being planted and tended to by young and old alike. Two generations brought together by their love of seeing things grow.
I think about Walnut Way, a neighborhood revitalization group that has transformed a neighborhood not that far from our church that was once drug infested, litter strewn and filled with boarded up houses but now has homes that are filled with proud homeowners who in the summer sit on their porches and talk to each other.
Residents have formed a walking group that meets every morning for a brisk walk. This is not merely about being committed to a healthy way of life. Ultimately, this is about a community overcoming its fear of those negative elements and reclaiming its life.
Some years ago there was a very well-known radio personality whose son was murdered by a young man. Both the shooter and the victim lived in the neighborhood. I knew the woman who was the radio personality. I stopped by her home a day after her son was murdered.
When I walked in, the house was filled with many people who had come to offer their support. I remember praying with her and all of the folks in the house. As I proceeded to leave, this woman walked me outside, and she pointed to a house not far from where she lived. She told me that that was the house where the young man who shot her son lived. She then said something that was quite amazing to me:
“Pastor, both of us are mothers and both of us are hurting, but as I have looked out of my window I haven’t seen anybody going in and out of that mother’s house. Pastor, I want to ask you just one favor: if you would stop by that mother’s house and have prayer with her and let her know that I have no hatred towards her or her son. We are mothers and we will have to live with our pain, but we will have to live together in this community, and the only way that we will be able to do that is by forgiving each other.”
I left her porch and I honored her request. In due time these two women met, and at that first meeting they held each other for a long time.
We hear so much about the violence and the anger that explodes into violence and people holding onto bitterness, but this story demonstrates an incredible moment of grace that inspires me even now as I recall the story and those two women meeting for the first time. And I know the words of Paul in Ephesians 2 are more than mere poetry. They ring with a powerful and dynamic reality.
In Christ, the dividing wall of hostility has been broken down, and through the blood of Jesus we have peace.
A few weeks ago I presided at the funeral of a member who was 76 years old, but what I remember about him was when he approached me one Sunday after we had celebrated several baptisms. In that brief conversation he said to me, “Pastor, I want to be baptized.” A few weeks later I presided at his baptism. He was 70 years old. He lived the last seven years in the fullness of his baptism. Person after person spoke about his quiet service. He became a light in his neighborhood and in his community, providing assistance to people that he did not know.
He was a faithful volunteer in our meal program, where every Wednesday you would find him at the dishwasher with his apron on, and when he was done, he would hang up his apron and quietly slip out the door. For all of the negative things that we say about young people, this quiet soldier always made sure that every young person who was old enough to work would have a job for the summer.
Sometimes the city can be a hard place to live, but whenever I find my hope wavering, I make it a point to stop by Walnut Way and sit with those awesome people who decided that they were not going to give the community to gangs or drugs. I think of Venice Williams, a strong, dynamic and faith-filled woman who believes that gardens can grow in a seemingly desolate valley. I think of Pete, this beloved Child of God who by the grace of God overcame his own demons and then set out on a path to bless others in the same way that he had been blessed.
And, of course, I will never forget two women, mothers who both lost their sons but found each other through the gift and acceptance of forgiveness.
Ken Wheeler is a retired pastor. He most recently served at Cross Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Milwaukee, where he is now the director of the Bread of Healing Empowerment Ministry. He served 18 years as an assistant to the bishop of the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the ELCA.