Shifting from “Them” to “Us” in Baltimore

Did you hear the big news in Baltimore?  No, not that news.  This news.  500 new mentor inquiries in a couple of days.  An incredible display of interest.  So do I think this signals a momentous shift in our country’s future?  Not quite.  I have reservations about even an outpouring of goodwill such as this.  But here is why a story like this gives me hope for the present and the future.

It is a sign of:

(1)  Concern:  A response like this shows that people are aware of Baltimore.  They are aware of the struggles of its people.  They recognize that something needs to be done.  Clearly the death of Freddie Gray and the subsequent violence have provoked deep emotions in America.  It is hopeful to see that it has gone beyond mere titillation, that it is a cause to be confronted.  Mentoring organizations are wonderful examples of political community at work.  They are not “political” in the traditional sense, but in the grand sense that they provide vital vision and resources to our communal life.

(2)  Care:  It has gone even beyond the status of a cause to be confronted.  People must care about the youth of Baltimore.  500 people saw Baltimore youth destroying property and actually had sympathy for them when so many only offered condemnation.  Signing up to mentor a young person is not something one does in a fit of anger, but in tender, resolute concern.  The coordinator of Big Brothers Big Sisters, Terry Hickey, expressed his own wonder at the response. "I was worried people would see the images on TV of young people looting... you don't know how people are going to react to the image of young teens running through the streets…But people are having their own epiphany, they are saying, 'It just dawned on me that by being an adult in one kid's life I can make a real difference."

(3)  Action:  And that belief has led people to take concrete action.  Whether all these people are really qualified or prepared to be mentors is beside the point.  People want to do something.  And they want to do more than dialogue.  They want to be part of community transformation.  They are ready to invest themselves in this.  And this can hardly be understated because it means that people, on some level see this as a communal issue.  Some may stand by and say, “Why can’t they get their act together?”  Instead, a large number of people have taken the more excellent way and said, “How can we work together?”

But let’s pray that these are just the beginning.  This little ray of hope could turn into something more meaningful and lasting.  But if, and only if, these mentors and others like them take the following paths of growth.  These are the transformations we must challenge ourselves to take if we really love our communities. 

(1)  Concern to Advocacy:  Will we not only have an awareness of the so-called problems, but a deep understanding of the relevant issues?  Mentoring a youth is powerful – and statistics show that.  But are we ready to advocate and argue about why so many youth are in need of mentoring in the first place?  We need to be the type of people who are asking the higher order questions about city planning, race, and economics.  Being a concerned citizen is wonderful.  Being an advocate is powerful.

(2)  Care to Compassion:  Will we embrace people by embracing the original meaning of compassion, to suffer with?  Mentoring, by its nature can be a great, mutual relationship.  Mentor and mentee learn and grow together across differences that are sometimes just age, but also can span race and economy.  But it is also possible to remain distant, aloof, and even condescending as we try to “help those in need.”  It is possible to care about someone, but to never enter into their world and their eyes.  People are first and foremost resourceful, beautiful divine image-bearers.  People are not projects.  So will we discover and affirm and build the resources and goodness already present in our communities?  Will we even see them as our communities?

(3)  Action to Development: Will we move beyond trying to “fix” things and instead build community?  Nothing could be more dangerous here than indulging a savior complex.  People do not normally sweep in from the outside and make everything better.  Quite the opposite.  But if we choose development over hand-outs and relationships over condescension incredible change can happen.  What does the community really need?  And has anyone bothered to ask? 

So this article is my prayer.  Lord, in your mercy, may these mentors grow real relationships built on compassion.  May they see the bigger picture.  And may we all invest in a community that we can truly call our own. 

--Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI. . Photo courtesy of Dorret.