He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” – Matthew 13:31-32
When I was a seminarian I used to go for Breakfast and prayer at a nearby shelter where one of my best teachers, Sr. Norberta, was the Director. Having a former career as a parochial school principal was a transferable skill and she kept the lines for breakfast, the shower and the social worker pretty orderly. Inevitably a fight would break out once in a while but Norberta’s “nun” voice was enough to calm things back down, except for one morning.
My friend Glenn and I were laughing at the breakfast table over grey coffee and yesterday’s Dunkin Donuts when two guys got into a fist fight. Norberta went over to break it up and one of the guys shoved her against the wall. Instantly, a group of people jumped in, shielded Norberta, backed off the guys and made them leave.
Norberta was fine but I was trembling mess, suddenly aware of how quickly and easily she could get really hurt, I told Glenn her job was too dangerous. Glenn laughed and said, “Are you kidding? Did you see how many people jumped in when that guy laid a hand on Sister?”
Glenn turned on a lightbulb in my head. People can be desperate, hurting and angry, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t other things simultaneously like concernedabout others and kind. In the years to come, by looking around more carefully to see if that was actually true I saw that it is.
By extension and thanks to Glenn, I no longer believe in “bad neighborhoods”. Of course where there’s poverty there will be crimes of desperation and opportunism, but there will also be many more times over acts of kindness and people who want better things and tools to make them happen. The neighborhood by Triangle Park in Jersey City is my latest example.
Nine months ago, in what several people warned me was a “bad neighborhood” in Greenville, the Episcopal churches of Jersey City signed a lease for a storefront on Old Bergen Road. The first thing we did after getting the keys was hire a DJ, buy lots of hotdogs, balloons and face paints and hold a block party in Triangle Park: a small, overgrown, litter strewn, benchless pocket park across the street. At least a hundred of our new neighbors turned out. They said it was the first time they’d seen the park used for decades. We told them who we were, promised we weren’t trying to make Episcopalians out of them and asked what they hoped would happen at the storefront we were renting. They said a lot of things, but most of all they hoped the community would come together at the storefront to fix the park. They explained that the only activity in it usually were drug transactions and people walking their dogs and not cleaning up, which is why the city removed the benches to reduce loitering and it was an eye sore instead of an oasis.
Hearing all of this at the block party, Grace Church’s own Joyce Davison insisted that bulbs be planted in Triangle Park last fall. Knowing that saying “no” was not an option, some of our new neighbors like Ruben who runs children’s summer programs in the neighborhood, Virginia who owns a bridal shop down the street and I showed up the day the city dropped off gardening supplies in the park. A few people who saw what was going on from their windows came over and together we planted tulips, raked leaves and picked up the trash. We left feeling dirty, sore and hopeful.
Not long afterwards, the Triangle Park Neighborhood Association was formed at our storefront, (now christened “The Triangle Park Community Center”) and immediately work started to reclaim the park. After months of our planning, Mayor Fulop accepted an invitation to come to the Neighborhood Association meeting in March. He left having committed $50,000 for immediate improvements to the park and promising that in June, Old Bergen Rd by the park will be closed off and made into a pedestrian plaza for a trial period. Tables, chairs and chess boards will be set up in the street right outside Triangle Community Center’s door. The Neighborhood Association’s President, David Crowder and the dozens of now active members have created a summer program schedule for the park that includes movies under the stars, a flea market and a Field Day for children in late August. Plans are also under way to entirely revitalize the Triangle Park in 2019.
All of this is happening while the tulips Joyce made us plant in the last fall have come into full bloom. I’ve been surprised no one has picked any, not even one, but I should know better by now. Just like the sun coaxing the leaves out from the ground, everyone responds to love.
And let me repeat: there is no such thing as a bad neighborhood.
Your sister in Christ,