Seven months ago, a fight broke out across the street from us, two men fighting over one woman while her son watched. We thought the ex-boyfriend might have been abusive because we had seen a change in the boy after this man came into their lives. The boy was different, less talkative, more guarded. And then, on the eve of summer break, one warm evening in late May, police were stringing crime scene tape across the road and blue lights were flashing across our windows for hours while I sat and stared at the surreal first blue, then white, then blue again pattern lighting up our living room wall. The ex-boyfriend had become aggressive; the new boyfriend had jumped in to protect our neighbor and her son and lives were shattered.
It was a tough Friday night.
Saturday wasn't much better.
My husband and I went across the street and into the yard where a small blood stained brick still lay in the yard, past some scattered glass, and up on the narrow porch where we knocked and waited for the mom to open the door. We were beyond stunned when a man, the new boyfriend, opened the door. He looked hard, really tough. And he said nothing as we stammered through our little speech. Only when he realized that we'd brought our friend some food and a Bible did he show a glimmer of a smile and say anything. "Thanks." But as he closed the door, he still looked tough as nails and we walked away wondering to ourselves why he wasn't in jail. I had seen him in the police car the night before. And where was the mom? Was she okay? What was going on?
The next day, I went to church but realized it was a mistake. The congregation started singing one of my favorite songs, "Days of Elijah" and deep grief just welled up inside me. A tsunami of emotion that I just could not control. I tried, really. But it was like using a bottle cap to plug a leak in a water main. In only the second time in my 6 decades of life, I bolted from sanctuary, I busted out into the lobby, just looking for a private place to have a meltdown. But like someone who is overcome with nausea in a public place, the gut-wrenching sobs just poured out of me there in the front lobby, no less. And people came to comfort me when all that I wanted was a quiet place to be a washed-out, wrung-out mess.
And at that point, I couldn't even articulate what really bothered me.
Because what really bothered me was that suddenly church, pristine, glistening white, stained glass, and all spiffed up, seemed like a fairy tale. And God seemed, momentarily, the same way. I kept seeing blue lights strobing across my living room window and I kept replaying the words of my neighbors as we huddled on the street corner at 2 a.m. that Friday night/Saturday morning. I kept hearing words like, "I heard yelling but I didn't think it was serious until I heard her scream..." "I didn't even realize the detective's card said "homicide" on it until later." "They said his face was a bloodied mess; the boy saw everything."
And I honestly couldn't reconcile such a violent Friday night with such a spiffed up, happy-faced Sunday morning. And so I bolted from the sanctuary and I really came undone.
And people prayed. Tissue helps :) And life came right-side up again, sort of. But when I went across the street the next week to offer help, the neighbor I knew was not the same. She wouldn't look at me or hardly speak and she was so subdued and I knew things would never be right for her again.
Or for her son.
And I just cried out to God, asking Him what possible good could come from all this?
But He didn't answer me and life rocked on in the 'hood the same way it always does.
And the witnesses - the ladies that I huddled with that awful Friday night - came together for four weeks for a Bible study. Ironically, what we'd seen and heard formed a bond between us. The first Bible study night, we shed tears together and somehow those tears washed away a few of the barriers between us. But some of them also had issues and some of them had had experience with domestic abuse and the last time they had attended regular Bible studies, their feet didn't reach the floor so this grown-up study was an experiment that didn't make it. The course was 8 weeks and after 4, one lady erected a wall of silence and hasn't spoken to me since. And that was 6 months ago. The other lady still speaks but is still struggling. Life is super hard for her and it's about all she can do, health-wise and emotionally, to make it through each day. But still she talks to me.
But still, reality is, the Bible study, along with all my hopes for it, fell flat.
And I wondered, where is God in all this?
Does no one else care about these few streets in the hood besides us?
And would we even care if we didn't live here? If these weren't our neighbors?
And why was most everyone else whom we knew when our son was little - why were all of them smart enough to move while we were dumb enough to stay? Was it because we feared the wrong thing? We feared going into major debt more than we feared living in an area that was transitioning into a high crime place that now even the police seem to avoid?
And then three months ago, my neighbor, the one who would never be the same again, whose life was busted into pieces last May when a man, a former boyfriend, died in her yard - that same neighbor came over and knocked on my door. She was determined. She said she had to work on Sundays for a while and she wanted to know if we could take her son to church.
Once again I was stunned.
After church I took the boy to his favorite, 5 star restaurant - Burger King. And then a few weeks later, the boys, like the loaves and the fish, multiplied - a little. And there were two boys instead of one. And the first two lunches at Burger King, I was struggling for what to say. One boy liked to regale me with step-by-step, blow-by-blow descriptions of the comedies he loves. I hardly ever watch movies. I was clueless so I tried to smile where he seemed to expect it while all the time I was thinking: should he be watching stuff like this?
I prayed for a change of topics and got what I asked for but not what I wanted. The boys started talking to me about their favorite sport. Four wheelers. I could see that Sunday lunches were going to be tough and I told my husband I might need his help because I don't speak middle school boys' lingo. It was awkward.
Another Sunday, a different topic. Football. This was more hopeful because I had seen 4 games when I was in high school. I knew what a touch down was. I knew it wasn't necessarily a good thing when they threw a red flag on the ground.
But still, I barely kept my head above the conversational waters. I came home feeling mentally challenged and worn out. I told Phil I thought I needed a man to go with me but I knew he was needed elsewhere. So we soldiered on, so to speak.
And then one Sunday suddenly the boys and I clicked. We laughed and I really "got it". I teasingly corrected one of the guys and he accepted it good-naturedly. And then there was a quick, impromptu hug initiated by one of the boys right before they hopped out of the car - a hug that left me wondering: did that really happen? A drive-by hug. So cool.
And the next time another ungainly hug right before jumping from the car, lest the young girls watching from the window see something so unmanly as a big, bad guy throwing one arm around a fat grandmother's neck when she isn't even theirs. So uncool. And yet so very cool. And I realized that drive-by hugs can make my heart sing.
And then this morning. My husband came busting into the bedroom and shot me a look that told me he was nonplussed. His expression clearly said, "Help!" I was mostly dressed, just lacking shoes. So I hastily exited the bedroom and went into the living room to see what was up. And I was stopped short when I realized the man across the street, our neighbor, the one who was in the fight that awful Friday night seven months ago, was sitting in our living room reading the Bible we gave to his girlfriend the day after the fight.
He was dressed up in a conservative suit because he understands that you dress up for God. I was wearing leather running shoes, casual slacks and a sweater, very unspiffed-up for God - my normal Sunday attire.
He was quiet but attentive through both hours of church. Afterwards he opened up and shared his testimony over lunch. It was quite a narrative, sprinkled liberally with words like "prison", "alcohol", "drugs", "AA", "God", and "second chances" along with the frequently repeated phrase, "I know I shouldn't still be here." And "I know God is the one who is keeping me here."
And then the plans for the future - his aspiration is to go to Bible College; his need is to not give into cravings the next time they come calling. We feel from listening to him that there is a very real chance that he will. But for today, he was dressed up for God, sitting in church, listening.
And then tonight. Phil took the boys to church for Christmas music.
And on the way home, he told them to get on their knees tonight and ask God to come into their hearts and he told them what all that meant. The talkative one, who makes us all laugh, said, "Yes, sir." The quiet one didn't say anything but we know from the past weeks that he takes things deep into his heart. They both do.
Afterwards, Phil hugged me and prayed out loud for the boys and cried for them.
And I know God heard.
And I know that Sunday morning is just as real as Friday night.
And sometimes in His grace, they merge.