"Why would you do that to your family?"
This is the most common question people ask me when they discover that I chose to live in the "hood," despite the ability to move elsewhere.
As I try to answer, here are a couple of follow-up questions I would like you to wrestle with: Why does the thought of living in an underserved neighborhood bother you? And what good could come from Christians living in underserved areas?
After I became a Christian, Philippians 2:3-4 dramatically challenged my faith walk: "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others."
Does this just mean to be polite, was this Scripture for some of the time or should it inform my entire calling?
I grew up in Roseland, one of the most crime-ridden neighborhoods in Chicago. This failed to stop my parents from always having people over from our church and neighborhood — feeding, loving and praying with them. My house was home to many, and my neighbors were my friends.
However, society made it clear that my goal should be to educate and elevate — attend great schools, graduate and leave the brokenness of Roseland. People from church, school and even my group of friends repeatedly told me that my gifts could help me leave the hood — how, one day, I could be well off and raise a family in a well-run community; how the aim of my life should be to make it out and never look back.
I questioned that thinking, considering what I believed about Jesus. If everyone was made in the image of God, why were so many people, including Christians, willing to forget and discard people? How could I consider others more important than myself if my decisions only concerned the betterment of myself?
What's worse is, as I grew, I began to see a wicked, corrupt system that sought to intentionally separate, organize and classify people into upper-class, middle-class and lower-class groupings. The poor are looked down on instead of loved, and the rich are admired. I looked at my city and others alike and wondered, "Why can I tell where the rich and poor live based on the ethnicity which lives there and the amenities offered? Why was the separation so drastic, and what should I learn from it?"
Then I moved in with a family from West Garfield Park, Chicago — another dangerous neighborhood — and studied Nehemiah for a year. The book begins with Nehemiah being visited by a group of men from Judah who bear bad news about Israel.
"And they said to me, 'The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire,'" Nehemiah 1:3 reads.
Nehemiah's Prayer (1:4-7)
"As soon as I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. And I said, 'O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father's house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses."
This overwhelmed me. When the Assyrians conquered Israel, they took the best and the brightest into captivity — the leaders, teachers, physicians and lay workers. Anyone who was considered more of a burden than a benefit was left behind — the uneducated, sick, dying and afflicted.
Nearly 80 years later, Nehemiah heard about his city in ruin — gates destroyed, wall demolished and people in great shame. It was a broken city with hurting people much like my neighborhood.
We call it brain drain. When people from an impoverished area show talent, they are enticed to get up and get out as soon as they can — move to a safer, better area and leave this part of the city broken; people made in God's image left to fend for themselves in a broken world.
Nehemiah's response to this news is one of the reasons I decided to raise my family in the hood for as long as possible. When he heard the news, he wept — for days.
He did not argue about who to blame. He saw God's children in shambles, and he mourned for them — for days. Not only that, but he also repented himself: "Confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father's house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses."
Nehemiah could have cursed the Assyrians. He could have told his people to pull themselves up by their boot straps and work harder to fix their city. Instead, he bore responsibility and said my people have sinned, and I have sinned. Then he got to work.
From Israel to Chicago
As I read Nehemiah, I wondered what happened to the poor neighborhoods of Chicago. We didn’t have people take us into captivity, did we?
I learned about the Great Migration, when blacks from the south fled the terrorism of a KKK-dominated, Jim Crow south and traveled north for work. This massive influx of southern blacks was met in the North by white flight. Established white families left the city for the suburbs. People, who for hundreds of years were not allowed to read or own anything, now looked to enjoy the full gamut of freedoms that the Creator had bestowed on them.
Except this society did not want that. Tools, including redlining, were created to oppress people of color and sustain the caste system.
Redlining was a method that kept black families from owning homes in predominately white neighborhoods. Owners would flat out refuse to sell to people of color. They would either offer ridiculous interest rates or raise the price so high that a black family would be left with no choice but to walk away.
Newspapers even used smear campaigns to terrify white owners about the danger of a savage black family possibly moving next door, helping white families feel justified about supporting this system.
In an article headlined "The Case for Reparations," Ta-nehisi Coates wrote the following about a Mississippi transplant to Chicago named Clyde Ross.
[Ross] had tried to get a legitimate mortgage, but was told by a loan officer that there was no financing available. The truth was that there was no financing for people like Clyde Ross. From the 1930s through the 1960s, black people across the country were largely cut out of the legitimate home-mortgage market through means both legal and extralegal. Chicago whites employed every measure, from “restrictive covenants” to bombings, to keep their neighborhoods segregated.
Their efforts were buttressed by the federal government. In 1934, Congress created the Federal Housing Administration. The FHA insured private mortgages, causing a drop in interest rates and a decline in the size of the down payment required to buy a house. But an insured mortgage was not a possibility for Clyde Ross. The FHA had adopted a system of maps that rated neighborhoods according to their perceived stability. On the maps, green areas, rated “A,” indicated “in demand” neighborhoods that, as one appraiser put it, lacked “a single foreigner or Negro.”
These neighborhoods were considered excellent prospects for insurance. Neighborhoods where black people lived were rated “D” and were usually considered ineligible for FHA backing. They were colored in red. Neither the percentage of black people living there nor their social class mattered. Black people were viewed as a contagion. Redlining went beyond FHA-backed loans and spread to the entire mortgage industry, which was already rife with racism, excluding black people from most legitimate means of obtaining a mortgage.
If this wickedness is true, I cannot look at people created in the image of God who are stuck in this vicious loop and shame them by looking for the nearest exit out of their lives. My family and I need to stay and rebuild the walls.
Please do not misunderstand me. The road is difficult, and we are often ill-equipped to deal with the PTSD, abuse and lack of resourcing here. After half a millennia of being violently and criminally abused and mistreated, many poor people created their own system of survival.
The Irish and Italians created mafias. Blacks created gangs and organizations like the Black Panthers to provide resources and protection from those who tried to maintain the status quo. These organizations, and the government's response to them, were often violent and criminal, much like the actions and ideas that caused them to exist in the first place.
So why live in the hood again?
When Adam sinned, the earth was cursed.
God promised that hard work would be Adam's only way to eat, and the land itself would fight against him. He would sweat, thorns would prick him and these would be daily occurrences. The world does not lean into good. Because of sin, the earth actively fights against good — at every turn. Our curse is that we have to work extremely hard to make it good.
There are people who lie in the hood. There are people who look out for themselves first in the hood. There are people who are violent in the hood. But those traits exist in every type of person in every neighborhood. Look at who were America's presidential candidates.
My wife and I surveyed the landscape of schooling, grocery stores, safety, policing, economic development, shopping and healthy churches and found that neighborhoods with predominately people of color were consistently in ruin. We have committed to reinvesting in those neighborhoods in every way that we can — to share the Gospel with the sick, abused, forgotten and hated.
We know that it is "more dangerous," but who protects me? The police or God? The gates or God? The people in Sandy Hook Elementary School thought they were safe. The people in the Aurora, Colorado movie theater thought they were safe. The people in the Orlando nightclub thought they were safe, and then they weren't.
Tragedy can strike at anytime. We are all one moment away from calamity. God either keeps us, or he doesn't.
But we must rebuild the wall. We must weep and mourn for our broken communities. If I deserve a neighborhood with a good school and grocery store, so does everyone else created by my Father.
I decided to live in the hood for as long as possible because my children need to know that mommy and daddy trusted God above all else — that we did not seek our own comfort or even theirs, but that we followed our Father and trusted Him with everything. He has been extremely faithful to us.
We do not buy into the idea that if we live in the right area, send our children to the right schools and take the right vacations, they will become good people. Our Father, by his grace, will help my wife and I lead our children to the cross, and our neighborhood is one of the tools He will use.
I do not believe everyone should move to the hood for a variety of reasons (an entirely different article). I do believe, however, you should wrestle with why you don't want to live in those neighborhoods.
By God's grace, we want to train and disciple people in rebuilding cities. We do not want to care from a distance. We want to enter into the brokenness and intercede.
When Christ saw us broken, lost and desperate, He came down and dwelt among us. We aim to do the same.
Kareem Manuel is an associate director of the Atlanta University Center for The Navigators, an international Christian outreach ministry. Through small-group Bible studies and life-on-life discipleship, Navigators come alongside people and teach them to be Christ’s followers as they study and apply the Word of God to chart their lives. Then they train them to pass what they have learned on to others.
First photo courtesy of Cliff.