The Cost of Getting Proximate

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Leslie Verner -Proximity3

Bryan Stevenson changed my life.

Last year, his book, Just Mercy, crushed the last of my illusions about justice in the United States. A few months after reading it—sleep deprived with a 12-day-old newborn—I drove to hear Stevenson speak in the auditorium of a nearby university. I nursed my infant with one arm and scribbled illegible notes with my other hand. But two words rattled me, transfixed me. They altered the course of our life, in fact.

“Get proximate.”

I stopped writing and looked up as he spoke. “Get close to the problems instead of trying to solve them from a distance. Get proximate to the poor and be willing to do uncomfortable things,” he said.

Was I willing not to just visit, talk about, or pray for those living in the margins, but actually move there?

For the past two years after moving from the city of Chicago, we rented a house in a nearly all-white area of Colorado snuggled up against the Rocky Mountains. The middle class neighborhood was made up of retirees with large campers parked in their driveways and a few young families. People didn’t bother locking their doors and I would have felt safe walking down our pitch black street late at night under a jubilee of stars. We were within walking distance of a huge new park with a splash pad, a giant wooden playground, a Frisbee golf course and tennis courts.

But as we began to search for a home to buy, I sensed God nudging us towards something other than safe, secure and comfortable. As we looked for houses in the nearby college town, I picked subdivisions where the neighborhood school had a high percentage of non-white students and free lunch recipients.

I drove around neighborhoods near trailer parks and run-down apartment complexes, ashamed that though I’d be willing to live near them, I wasn’t willing to actually live in a low income neighborhood just to be proximate to the poor.

Buying a home holds a mirror to our prejudices, privilege and values. It blasts holes in our claim to love our neighbor when we begin to realize we meant the neighbor just like us.

God never assures us safe or comfortable. He doesn’t urge us to pray for “smooth journeys” or perfect health. In fact, the gospel message juxtaposed against American culture is starkly counter-cultural. Jesus wandered from house to house, keeping company with the misfits of society. He touched the untouchable and dined with the outcast. In the end, he gave up the right to protect himself and willingly died so these misfits could experience belonging. This is the gospel. So why do Sunday mornings at church always feel so polished and pristine?

We finally bought a home. Though the city is 82 percent white, the neighborhood school is 73 percent white. Fifty-two percent of the students have free or reduced lunch. It is not a drastic shift, but it is a small step toward a wider community of neighbors.

The city we moved to is double the size of the one we left. The hum of life murmurs at a low level. We now hear sirens, see bikers buzz past our picture window and hear Thai, Arabic and Hindi spoken at the grocery store. For the first time in my life, there is an African American family living across the street. My children are also beginning to recognize Spanish being spoken at the public library or MacDonald’s play place. I have plenty of opportunities to eavesdrop on unsuspecting Chinese people who don’t know I spent five years in China. From a diversity-standpoint, this feels like a good decision.

But what about the increase in homelessness and crime—does Jesus really want us to move closer to that?

Before moving (and in rebellion against the inner voice that warns us we’re googling too far) I searched online to see if there were any sex offenders in the neighborhood. There are. The site also offered all the registered felons. There were many—even on the route my kids will one day walk to school. I joined the local online forum for our neighborhood and learned that three cars were broken into last week and an unsolved murder a few streets away was solved. Fear began pawing at me, whispering that I am right to shelter and shield my children.

Proximity costs us.

Our first visit to the neighborhood park, which, according to our next-door neighbor is next to “the projects” (though still a country club compared to places I’ve visited in Chicago) we met a Hispanic boy and his younger cousin, who only spoke Spanish. I smiled, inwardly patting myself on the back for “finding diversity.” But then the younger boy tried to kick my son off the ladder and the older one pulled out a pen to tag the equipment, so I suggested my kids go to the swings.

Two teenagers wearing all black, ears plugged with ear buds and legs kicking high into the air on the swings ignored the cues from my children, so we headed to the jungle gym. One side was covered with bright orange netting to keep kids off the broken slide. A man sat on his porch behind the park fence, blaring hard rock music as he sat looking at his phone. The park was littered with garbage, so I wasn’t surprised when my three-year-old dubbed the park, “Trash Park.” We picked up some of the garbage, then headed back home.

I missed our old park.

My friend’s mom used to respond to her whining with a simple retort: “You are not entitled to this.” I thought of this as I pushed the stroller back to our new house.

I am not entitled to a safe, clean, comfortable or easy life—and neither are my children.

I have not arrived, nor do I have elaborate tales of transforming or being transformed by this very small step to be more proximate to people who are different from us. And I acknowledge this is nothing compared to those choosing to move their families to war-ravaged countries, polluted cities or slums to serve the poorest of the poor. We are taking a very tiny step in that regard. (Fortunately God is not in the habit of comparing His children.)

I’m awkwardly aware of my privilege even as I write this. But I hope that by intentionally placing our family closer to poverty and diversity, that the cries of those in the margins will seem louder than they once were. Sometimes the only way for crying voices to be amplified is to lean in closer to hear them. With this small step, I hope we are in a greater position to hear.

What can you do to get more proximate—to poverty, prisoners, homeless or those living in the margins of society? What sacrifices would that require of you?

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Leslie Verner
I am a goer who is learning how to stay. I’ve traveled all over the world and lived in northwest China for five years before God U-turned my life and brought me back to the U.S. to get married to an actor in Chicago. I’m a former middle school teacher, mama to three little ones and like American cuisine the least. I currently live in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and write regularly about faith, justice, family and cross-cultural issues at Scraping Raisins.
Leslie Verner
Leslie Verner

Latest posts by Leslie Verner (see all)

  • James 2 gets lived out in vivid shame every Sunday morning when I cringe over the behavior of kids and adults I snap-judge as “less than” and prefer the company of the people who look and act like me. Listening to and valuing the poor who worship with me has been a challenge and shows me my true heart.

    • It is so much easier to be friends with people just like us, isn’t it? That’s why I kind of love my online friends…they all think like I do! But I think it’s great that your church has people that are so different from you. Most of the time I don’t feel that way about the churches I’ve attended.

  • Honestly, you can take “big” steps like moving to another country and still insulate yourself. In the Middle East when life got stressful I found myself spending more time in a big mall, at home, in safe places. And that was before kids. Of course I fear for them more than myself so I know I will still have to push myself from insulating us even in South Asia. Thank you for this push! I know God is honored by the little steps you are modeling for your family. Keep stepping!

    • So true. Sometimes it’s even easier to live in a bubble overseas and fall into the “us and them” syndrome. I can imagine it’s even easier to do this when you have children because we so naturally want to protect them. But even a handful of relationships go a long way in humanizing people who we are tempted to put in the “them” category. I’m sure your family will be intentional about building relationships. So excited for you!

  • We intentionally moved to our neighborhood because it is one of the most diverse in the state. As I started volunteering at Bea’s school, working with moms learning English from all over the world, I realized that we are moving to diversity and at the same time contributing to gentrification. A friend told me that I cannot take that on. That we are in this neighborhood for a reason; that our kids are contributing to our school for a reason; that we are learning from our neighbors for a reason. It’s hard living intentionally, isn’t it? Because the more I learn, the more I understand I don’t know. Thank you for bringing us on your journey, for asking these questions, too.

    • Yeah, I was just thinking about the gentrification question. We’ll have to save that discussion for another post! But I agree with your friend that sometimes we just have to jump in and live the life God is calling us to and try and figure out where we fit in the larger issues later. I love how you are doing that!

  • Rea

    This is such a hard but good thing to remember. Last year I read “Subversive Jesus” by Craig Greenfield which worked through a lot of the same questions. I don’t have any easy answers. We have no plans to move any time soon, so what does being willing to be proximate mean for my fairly homogeneous middle-class neighborhood? The other evening I went to a vigil for DACA in another part of our small city and was reminded that there is diversity in our city that I never see.

    For now, maybe it just looks like the small things. What substitute teaching assignments do I take? I could happily do nothing but sub at my kid’s middle school, but maybe I push myself to sub at the one that houses the ELL program and the special ed program, the one where over 75% of the students are on the free or reduced lunch program. The one where less than 50% of the students are white. It’s a harder assignment. More behavior issues, more difficulty communicating with students. A day there is typically exhausting. But maybe sometimes I need to pass up comfortable and easy to take the assignments that often go unfilled. Maybe that is my small step of proximity, showing students that yes, I want to be there.

    • I’m learning that it takes intentionally swimming against the stream because we will naturally do what is easier and more comfortable for us. That looks different for every person. I love your ideas and I think every small step counts and potentially has larger ramifications than we can imagine. This week, being intentional about being proximate means trying to decide if I want to go to the more run-down grocery store less than a mile from my house, or the beautiful new one three miles away where every single customer is white. As a person of privilege, I have options. I’m still living in the tension of these questions. Anyway, thanks for thinking these things through with me!

  • We’re getting ready to move soon, and all of these things are things my husband and I have been talking about. I desperately want a house with a yard in a safe neighborhood, but I also want (and I loved how you put) to be proximate. We’ve been under immense stress overseas the last several years, and there is a part of me that desperately wants to be somewhere quiet and safe. (And I’m terrified of the part of me that thinks I deserve that.) These words are exactly what I need to hear. Thank you so much for your honesty.

    • That makes total sense. But if we have a car, we are also usually at the very least within driving distance of a place that is quiet and safe. (You may notice I still have pretty pictures to post on Instagram for this reason;-) ) Plus I’m sure you will find even the “unsafe” neighborhoods in the U.S. pretty immaculate compared to many places in other countries. But God sees your heart and will lead you.

  • Lisa Sands Scandrette

    Leslie, thanks for being honest about these challenges and tensions. We’ve lived in our neighborhood (Mission District of San Francisco) for almost 20 years now. It’s taught me so many things. I am still learning and growing in understanding of the people who share this neighborhood with me and my place in it. Would love to sit down with you and Annie Rim and have a nice long conversation about the complexities, about gentrification and about proximity and engagement!

    • Yes! There are so many things to discuss! But for now, I’m just going to bumble around, say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing and hopefully learn something along the way!

      • Lisa Sands Scandrette

        Leslie, that’s exactly how I’ve been learning. Perhaps how we all do!

  • Joy Howard

    I was one of those teenagers on the swings in a park that probably a lot of people would look down on. I’d bet a lot of money on the possibility that the teenagers weren’t deliberately ignoring your kids’ cues or trying to be mean by keeping your kids away from the swings. They are just kids themselves even if they look too old for swings. Parks can be safe, good places even if at first glance, there is garbage. Park swings are safer than alleys and sometimes safer than one’s home living room, although I was lucky to have a loving home that was safe.

    Can I encourage you to please keep going to the park? Maybe you could bring a garbage bag and gloves and fill up the bag while your kids play. Bring bubbles and share with the other kids. Put on your playground monitor persona and help the other little ones learn how to play that is fun for everyone and doesn’t involve pushing. Say “hey there” to the teenagers with a soft smile. After awhile, they will speak back to you once they realize you aren’t going to yell at them or call the cops because you feel threatened just by their presence. Just imagine how amazing this park could be in 2 years if you love it and love the kids in it every day.

    • Yes, we are still going to the park;-) I used to work with teenagers, so I’m trying to see the kids I knew in the faces of the ones hanging out there. But I appreciate your encouragement and I know I need to do better about seeing things from other people’s perspectives.