Boy In the Hood

This is an article that my friend Jay Watson wrote for his website Refried Times:


I once heard a speaker talk about the difference between knowing and experiencing. He said his mother used to tell him there were starving children in Africa, and they would have no problem eating the meatloaf that had been put before him; who hasn’t had that experience. I’m not real sure who invented meatloaf, but in my book, no rewards for them. The speaker went on later to say, that it wasn’t until he stepped off a worn out bus into a small town in Africa and held a child dying of starvation in his arms that he experienced it. Big difference between knowing and experiencing.

One of my friends I roomed with in college, moved from Texas to Memphis, Tennessee, for a church plant a few years ago. I knew all about it. He had told me about the house he lived in, where it was, all about his family, and some exciting things that had been in the works at his church. I had politely listened, shared my stories with him, then would hang up the phone and go back to my life. John had been a close friend for over a decade, and I’ve always figured we’d be friends for a few more, but it wasn’t until I experienced a small weekend in his life that I realized the amazing things he is a part of.

You know that neighborhood you pass by on the interstate and are thankful you don’t live anywhere near? That is where John and his wife Ashleigh have made a conscious choice to live and interact with everyone around them – an attempt to be salt and light. His family lives upon the very ground that once held the first housing projects created for government housing in the United States. Among one of the poorest zip codes, the government felt the need to tear down the projects and build houses and a neighborhood that might have a chance. John’s neighbors are on assisted living, some of them having trouble paying rent at barely 30.00 a month.

I visited John with a church group. We were coming to Memphis to be salt and light for a weekend. Upon arriving, I met John’s new best friend. Tony is thirteen years old, and lives a few streets over. Tony has seven brothers and sisters, and his mom carries the financial and parental load for all of them. Tony’s mom doesn’t miss work; she can’t afford to miss one day.

My group fell in love with Tony. He was a love-able comedian who brought laughter and fun wherever he went. It was almost as though he had come on the trip with us. I could see why John and his family enjoyed having him around.

While my group picked up trash and helped to straighten up a place where most had given up on years ago, I sat and watched John interact with Tony. Tony loved John, and his children. John’s oldest son is two and Tony watched out for him like a mother hen. While I was watching this and thinking of the difference John’s family might make on Tony, John leaned over to me and said, “About seven months ago, Tony stole my credit card, and charged four thousand dollars to it.”

Stunned, I thought about what I would have done. I asked John what happened after that, he said, “We cried, we took everything back, and it took several months to earn trust again.” As much as race is a factor to overcome, class is the ultimate cultural barrier. Thinking about whether I would let my children even visit this tough a place, I watched John bringing hope to little Tony. John was practicing forgiveness and discipline in a lasting way.

Our group participated in a block party, and fed hundreds, we put on a choir performance with lights, and smoke, and of course pizza. Hundreds more came to that, and several made decisions for Christ. We left with a smile on our face for being salt and light over the weekend. John took the names of the people that started their journey with Christ, and will follow up with them. At the end of every event, or if anyone would ask, we’d point them to John and tell them he lives right down the street.

On the way out, I asked him about Tony. John told me, “If we can get him out and off to college, educate and disciple him, the goal is to bring him back to this neighborhood, and help him to make a difference right here in the place where he’s from.” I thought about the task before John. It isn’t short term, or temporary, but a journey to transformational living for a young man that happened to live a couple of streets over from someone who wouldn’t have normally lived there.

I thought about how hard all of this would be, as I drove back to my suburb nestled in safety. I will never forget my experience, and knowing will never be the same. I saw something in John and Tony that I see less and less of these days: joy.


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