Last week we Rocked the Village as we do every summer at Oak Tree, but this year was anything but routine.
Sunday night, Megan and I found ourselves standing in the middle of Marks Village, watching the flashing lights and praying with neighbors for a 4 year old little girl who was shot in the head. On Wednesday morning, she passed away. We didn’t have the honor of knowing Jurnee Coleman, but we walk past her door almost daily. She hadn’t been old enough to join in our programs yet, and her life was taken before she would have the chance.
Just a few nights before Jurnee was shot, a young man, Deterius Matthews, was also killed. These are the first murders since the barriers have been placed in Marks Village this summer in hopes of deterring crime. These lives taken give us a sobering reality check - barriers, shot spotters, and surveillance cameras do not stop bullets. Something bigger has to change.
Marks Village has the highest crime rate of all Birmingham Public Housing communities. I don't share this with you to be an alarmist, but to give you a picture of reality. We aren’t ignorantly walking into this community believing things will change the moment we speak the magical name of Jesus. We know the enemy has deep strongholds here. We know that we must be constant in prayer. We also know we must do more than just pray. We believe this is a battle worth fighting and Jesus is the source of our power to continue fighting even when it seems impossible.
I want you to see reality so that we can begin an honest conversation. In times like this it can be easy to respond in fear or judgement. Fear comes from the perspective given by the media - danger, drugs, guns, gangs - avoid the area at all cost. Judgement sneaks in when your mind has to do something with the information given, even though it is so far from your present reality that you don’t have a box to put it in. We repeat harmful stereotypes that we’ve heard in our culture like “if they’d just get a job,” “there’s no male leadership,” “living off our tax dollars,” etc. etc.
If you’ve never lived in a public housing community or been friends with people who do, you might not have a good frame-work to respond in any other way. If you don’t know the history of our city and how communities like ours came to be filled with crime and little economic opportunity, you might have simple answers and solutions when you hear these reports. You might not be familiar with the level of complex struggle here.
The problems we face on a daily basis in Marks Village are anything but simple and solutions will be anything but easy. While it won’t be easy, we do believe it’s possible to see change, but we must first change our perspective of our neighbors.
Years ago I heard the quote, “you can’t solve a problem you don’t understand, and you can’t understand from a distance.” This is one reason why proximity is a priority for us at Oak Tree. We must be present, in the brokenness with our neighbors, hearing their stories, bearing burdens with them, just like Jesus did. We will continue to show up to learn how this cycle of injustice was created, why it continues, and what we can do to better help our community. We believe it is going to take all of us working together if we want to see change come to our city. Our prayer is for His Kingdom to come in the Village as it is in heaven.
Last week people were watching. Were we going to cancel Rock the Village? Was it getting too dangerous? Would we finally say it’s too much? Would any volunteers come?
We showed up. We Rocked the Village and gave families a safe place to spend time together. We registered 113 kids at RTV last week, not including the 20+ kids that volunteers brought along to join the fun. We declared that we love this community, on the good and the bad days. We gave kids space to let out their fear and anger. We grieved with them.
I had hard moments of breaking up fights that led to crying with kids and holding them as they said they were scared and it wasn't fair. I was able to talk with them about how their fights now will impact how they fight as adults and that they have the power to stop this cycle of violence. I was able to say how Jesus is the only one who ever had a right to fight back, but He didn't, He forgave and proved that love is more powerful. I don't know if they'll remember one word of our conversations, but I believe this is where it starts. We want them to learn to fight for what is good and just, not just for survival and to prove their toughness.
Throughout the week we declared that death will not have the final say. Through tears, we reminded ourselves and our neighbors that Jesus has conquered even this and He will make it all right one day.
Despite every effort of the enemy to silence us last week, volunteers showed up each day, loved big, and shared the truth of the gospel. God is at work and He is still in control. It can be easy on weeks like this to become overwhelmed and forget to have fun with the kids. God used a few kids to remind me of this as they forced me to laugh with their silliness. Their JOY is holy defiance. I have so much to learn from them. We had Taki eating contests, we danced, we played gaga ball, we made movies re-telling the Bible stories - we let kids have fun and just be kids!
We don't have easy answers in times like this, but we can be present to love.
Thank you for stepping into a place that many refuse to go, to declare that Jesus has not forgotten His children, to love louder than the violence.
To our neighbors and friends in the Village, we are here with you, we see you, we hear you, we love you deeply.
We will press on together with heavy hope.
Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer.