I first met Melvona Hicks about twenty years ago. As the newly hired “Parish Missioner” of my then church I was sent out to the parish: everyplace within walking distance of our physical address. My job was to talk to strangers and find out how my community of faith could be “Good News” to people outside of Sunday worship. For weeks people looked at me like a used car salesman but I kept starting conversations across the invisible lines that separated the well healed and struggling by neighborhood.
Most of the time it was the moms who were willing to shoot the breeze with me while they watched their kids in the playgrounds and from the stoops. I asked them about the neighborhood, the schools, things they loved and didn’t about where they lived and finished with this: If the church put money and time into working on things they wished would change, would they help?
Melvona was one of these moms. She had three daughters but I noticed other kids ran to her too with scraped knees and to ask for a dollar for soda. She called them all “Boo” and asked knowing questions like how their Grandfather was doing now and if they lost that tooth yet,
Melvona said “yes” to my invitation on behalf of the church. I understood right away that I’d found the lucky penny because everyone stopped to talk with her. After a couple of weeks of planning a summer program with her I discovered she hadn’t finished high school but was a street debate champion; no one won an argument with her. Ever. Also, she an ego the size of Texas, a colorful vocabulary, a heart of gold and was the funniest person in any room.
I mark meeting her as the beginning of one of the longest, hottest most exhausting summers of my life. Together, we made the “Helping Hands Kids Summer Program” calendar, handed out flyers, organized a rotation of parent volunteers, and all through July and August we played games with the kids using supplies I’d bring to the basketball court by bike: Yoo-hoo, graham crackers, jump ropes and hula hoops.
Half way through that summer Melvona confronted me for the first of many times. She was the reason the kids came, she was working just as hard as a volunteer as I was as a staff person for my church and she needed a job. So why was I paid to help run this program and she wasn’t? We yelled and screamed at each other until I figured out she was right and learned to write grants to stipend her and the other moms for all of the after school and summer programs we would lead in the years to come.
One fall, uninvited, I banged on Melvona’s apartment door for the hundredth time to talk about a field trip, a homeless kid or to collect permission slips. From under a pile of half folded laundry Melvona asked me why I thought it was okay for me to be “up in her business” at her house all the time and never invite her to mine. When she’d finished telling me how sick she was of me I told her, with trembling hands and pounding heart, that I was gay and had a wife. Furthermore, my wife and I officially invited her to Thanksgiving dinner. It was the only time Mel looked sorry and sheepish after tearing into me. She showed up at Rose’s and my apartment on Thanksgiving with her kids and a sweet potato pie. From then on, once in a while Mel would whisper in my year about certain kids, “That one looks like he has some sugar in his tank… do you think he’s on your team?”
Melvona died suddenly a few months ago. Her youngest daughter, now a beautiful young woman also named Melvona you may know from the toy circle at church, invited me to say a few words at her burial. I felt sheepish standing in front of her family who knew me better in shorts than in a collar and with peanut butter crackers instead of a prayer book.
I’m sorry I’ll spend the rest of my time on this planet without her and more than that, I’m sorry she didn’t get to see her daughter graduate from college. Melvona took me under her wing when I was not yet a priest, held up a mirror to my privilege- based assumptions, lent me her confidence and her social currency, loved and shaped me more into who I want to be: a Christian.
A few members of Grace and the other two Episcopal Churches in Jersey City are going to meet on a corner in Greenville this Saturday by a storefront we hope to rent. We’re going to split up for a half hour and start talking to people on the streets. We’ll ask about the neighborhood, their kids, the schools, things they love and don’t about where they live. After a bunch of conversations like that we’ll start asking if the church put money and time into working alongside them to change things they want to see changed, would they help?
If you wind up getting involved in this ministry at some point your Melvona will probably show up: someone who breaks your heart and makes you grow, whose happiness gets tangled up in yours, and who you never would have met it if weren’t for church.