A proper upbringing

Author: William O’Brien ’81

“Don’t you realize you’re just sacrificing your children to your political ideology?” He hunched forward. The lines of his face were drawn tight, his brows furrowed with a look that hovered between anger and concern. Clearly he felt this was his fatherly and grandfatherly duty, this late-night sermon to his wayward daughter and suspect son-in-law.

Our two children were in bed. We were vacationing with family in the comfort of this South Carolina beach house, while the waves of the ocean lapped the shore not even 20 yards away. The house was comfortable, air-conditioned. A day of leisure, including our 8- and 6-year-old romping on the beach under a brilliant Southern summer sun, had yielded to the quiet of night. We sat in the TV room, glancing at the large-screen cable TV, mostly conversing in snatches, when the Colonel decided the moment was ripe for some paternal counsel.

It was an old topic, one that hovers in the air during every family get-together. Dee Dee’s very conservative parents have long harbored deep reservations about our politics, our commitments, our lifestyle. Abhorrence might be closer to the truth. Not surprisingly, the stakes intensified with the birth of our children — their grandchildren. Now, for them, it wasn’t just a matter of errant young liberal dupes who might be beyond salvaging; now, these vulnerable babies, part of their bloodline, were at risk.

So it has become an almost inevitable part of each vacation. Why do we live in the city, we are asked, why do we have our children in those schools, those neighborhoods, those unsafe situations. Sometimes it is just a brief eruption of tense conversation — concern raised, point made, fight forestalled, on to the next topic. Other times, it’s a full-fledged interrogation, a strained debate that is never fully resolved.

This was one of those times.

To find grace

Dee Dee and I both have lived in the big city for more than two decades, the last 16 of which have been together as a married couple. Our respective and common urban tenures span from our days of youthful post-college zeal and idealism to these middle-age days of balancing world-saving with child-rearing.

Back in the day, we each decided to relocate to the urban environment in large part because of our values and our faith. In particular, as white persons coming from situations of social privilege, we each felt called to displace ourselves into social situations of economic marginalization. To follow the dictum of Stokely Carmichael, we wanted our politics to be “what we saw out our front window.” Following Jesus, we felt our Christian discipleship had to be in some proximity to human brokenness and vulnerability, to there find grace, to there seek to be vehicles, however we could, of some healing.

So here we are, now pushing 50, living in a working-class, predominantly African-American neighborhood in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. My work for the past couple of decades has been in programs providing housing and services for persons who are homeless. We have both been involved in advocacy on issues of urban poverty. We attend a mostly African-American church in a highly vulnerable neighborhood in nearby North Philadelphia. We send our children to a public charter school just a few blocks from our home. We seek to live simply, responsibly, free from excess consumerism.

True, these are all conscientious, principled choices. In attempting to translate our values of compassion and justice to our social context, we try to do what we can to combat gross economic inequities and such crises as homelessness and poverty. We seek, with distressing inadequacies, to do what we can to heal the wounds of racism and to be racially responsible and undermine the very white privilege we have benefited from and others have suffered from.

It means we try, as Dee Dee puts it, to live gently on the earth and refrain as much as possible from abusing the good and holy creation.

We do not see ourselves as particularly noble or righteous. We are painfully aware of our limitations. The questions of faithfulness and social analysis get murkier as time goes on. We are constantly assessing our choices and commitments. But for now, they represent our humble and imperfect efforts to live with a measure of integrity and intentionality. It has been a mostly rich and satisfying life.

My instinctive reaction to my father-in-law’s sermonizing is to bristle in defensiveness. A part of me wants to blurt out the easy retort: His concerns are little more than manifestations of racism and classism. He looks at us through the lens of a privileged worldview skewed by naiveté and fear. I want to match judgment for judgment. I want to lunge at him with a political counterthrust.

But deeper reflection — and some painful experience — make it abundantly clear how futile such a reaction would be. And, if the truth be told, the fears he gives voice to are some I have wrestled with myself. So the evening’s conversation ended in the usual ideological stalemate.

Stress and risk

Upon arriving back in the big wicked city, I felt a need to consider more closely my father-in-law’s challenges about our children’s safety and well-being, which I realize are not entirely unfair. Sure, as a Southern patrician, his world is rife with the vestiges of racism — but we ourselves are hardly innocent. And certainly, from the vantage of his small-town world, he has been bombarded with exaggerated media images of “inner-city” horrors.

I also find myself inwardly squirming at the Colonel’s insinuation of some degree of ideology at work. I’ve known many “political activists” who are prone to be overly ideological and rigid, and I am hardly exempt. I know all too well how easy it is to become wedded to principle in ways that are unhealthy and dysfunctional. Toss in a bit of excess ego, and the resulting mix can be quite toxic. I recall not a few meetings of “nonviolent” activists marred by a palpable anger and even rage against the ubiquitous “system.” I’ve known “radical” peace communities that have been torn apart because of latent emotional violence masquerading as uncompromising conviction.

Nor can I deny that our lifestyle choices entail at least some of the undue risk and stress which the Colonel intuits. We would love to live in a house that is orderly and easy to clean. We would love, when something breaks, to just go to the nice store and buy a replacement. We would love for Luke or Thea to be in a classroom of 15 students, not 24, and to be able to afford memberships in all the nice museums and swim clubs. We would love to rest assured that our future is financially secure and that affording college for our kids is not a distant fantasy.

It would be easier not to have to negotiate the endless complexities of racial relations in this screwed-up country. It would be easier to attend a church that isn’t vandalized by the troubled inner-city kids it is ministering to. It would be nice not having to hear gunshots at night.

Sure, I have my battery of counterarguments: While our neighborhood might be less “safe” for our children in some senses, the lifestyle of their more mainstream cousins carries its risks of psychological harm from the mind-rot of television and the consumer poison of the malls — both of which are practically nonexistent in our children’s lives. And I can argue for the richness my children experience in their exposure to human diversity and for the spiritual value of not being insulated from the realities of human suffering. But the debate rages on.

Just a few weeks after this latest grilling from Grandang about the well-being of our offspring, I was gifted with a moment of grace.

Neighborly festival

At the nonprofit where I work, which operates several supportive housing facilities for persons who were homeless and who live with chronic mental illness or addiction, we hold periodic community celebrations. These potlatches are a kind of informal community arts festival, held on a Saturday afternoon. A local church lays out a great spread of food for the group that can number up to 50 people. The room is arranged with several tables, some laden with an array of art supplies for creative tinkering. Other tables feature checkers and chess boards. Up front is a piano, often a guitar or two, assorted percussion instruments and a microphone.

For three hours or so, anyone who is so inclined can come up to the mike to sing, rap, read poems or share whatever expressions fit the mood of the event. We have a pile of music books for folks who want to try a bit of singing but can’t think of a song or recall lyrics. Talent is optional.

We have our usual performers. Richard reads his poetry. Carolyn plays classical tunes, a bit haltingly, on her guitar. Miss Marjory, who sings in her church choir, belts out a spiritual. Not infrequently we get into a gospel groove, and a series of spiritually minded singers turn the event into a revival. A volunteer from the church leads the group in African drumming. And we have the occasional surprise: an elderly gentleman from our mental health residence, who is usually shut down and stoic, decides to come to the mike and sing, wrapping his raspy voice around an old blues number. Another resident, hunching quietly over the art table, creates a canvas of brilliant color and startling design.

The beauty of these potlatches is the wondrous experience of a community where all the social labels and definitions melt away. True, some folks in the room have lived on the streets, struggled with mental illness or addiction; others have enjoyed material security. Some come from the inner city, some from the suburbs. Folks are of all hues and shapes and sizes. For a few hours, we all eat, sing, recite, draw, paint and whatever. We enjoy the various expressions of creativity and the miraculous tapestry of human dignity and spirit.

These potlatches are joyful occasions for me. Since their earliest days, I have brought my children. When they grew beyond being mere babes in arms, they have gotten involved in the creative stew, usually at the art table. More recently, now at ages 10 and 8, they have begun to come to the microphone. My daughter, a pixie blonde and a bit of a diva, does her full-throated rendition of “Tomorrow” from Annie.

The gifts of children

A short while back, I was in my office on a Monday morning following a potlatch the previous Saturday. Hyacinth, one of the residents who lives in her own apartment in the building where I work, poked her head in my office. Like all the residents there, she had spent years on the streets, but her mental health was now stable and she was doing quite well, working and thriving. She didn’t mean to interrupt, she said, but she just wanted to thank me for bringing my family to the potlatch. “We don’t see children here very often, and it means a lot to us.” She went on to mention how especially delighted she was at my daughter’s singing. “She has a great voice, and I love listening to her.”

Hyacinth’s words were a balm to me. I was deeply moved and grateful. A few days later, as I was still struggling over the recent dialogue with the Colonel, I thought of Hyacinth and the potlatch and my children. Yes, I realize the grandparents are worried that the big-city environment harbors unseen dangers and unnecessary risks for our children. I realize they think it grossly imprudent to put my children in socially vulnerable settings and expose them to the fragilities and wounds of inner-city life.

But Hyacinth offered a different gloss on the matter: At the potlatch, we choose to put our children in a setting where they are interacting with men and women who have lived through painful and tenuous realities, who have existed on the edge of desperation, violence and mortality. At the same time, my children are present to this world in a healing and affirming way. They offer their beauty, their gifts, their innocence to these men and women. In small ways, they enhance the sense of home for those who have been homeless.

Perhaps the exposure to human frailty will equip them in later lives to honestly confront their own struggles and vulnerabilities. In the meantime, they participate in a community that I believe reflects the reign of God, the “beloved community” Dr. King spoke of — one that brings people together across social divides into a place of goodness and dignity.

Yes, I want to be a responsible parent and keep my children secure. I don’t want them to be pawns of my own political ideology. I am also aware that parenting is an ever unfolding experience of on-the-job training, so I would do well to listen to other voices and perspective along the way, including the chary critiques of my in-laws. But for now, I have been given a graced awareness that my young son and daughter contribute, in some small but real way, to what the Jewish mystics call the tikkun olam, the healing of the world.

The next time they are in town, maybe I’ll invite Grandang and Nana to a potlatch, and they can watch their granddaughter belt out a number to her adoring fans. Maybe, in that moment, all of us will come a little closer to knowing the truest form of security.

William O’Brien has been involved in issues of homelessness and poverty for more than 20 years in Philadelphia. He worked on the editorial staff of The Other Side, an independent progressive Christian magazine, and coordinates a grassroots program called The Alternative Seminary (www.alternativeseminary.net).