The community of Hillside Court witnessed three shootings and three murders in the first three weeks of this year. While Hillside has always been a rough community, this was over the top even for them. As you can imagine, the community was gripped by fear of their neighbors and equally paralyzed by their distrust of the police. As we did a community interest survey’s and asked the residents, “If you had a magic wand and could do anything for your community, what would you do?”, the unanimous response was “Make the neighborhood safer.”
We heard this cry and thought that the right answer was to have greater collaboration between the community and the police, so we invited the police to come and share information about a neighborhood watch program. It became clear very quickly that this was not the right answer at this time for this community. We heard things like “I am no snitch”, “I don’t ever want to be seen with the police”, and “The only way to stay alive in this place is if you see nothing and say nothing.”
I was baffled. In my neighborhood, if there is a safety issue, you call the police. I quickly learned that Hillside Court has its own culture and it is a culture driven by fear. We heard stories of police brutality and harassment and I quickly learned why there was such a high level of distrust by the community. Most everyone I know in the community has a family member or close friend who is in jail and many have had their own run in with the law.
I thought I had the answer but I clearly heard God saying, “Shut up and listen!” at every turn.
I am thankful to Jay Van Groningen of Communities First Association for his skill and experience in doing community development work. We decided to use Jay’s community listening approach to hear the community’s answer to this perplexing issue and I was astonished at what I learned.
Two weeks ago we conducted our first public “listening session” in which we gathered concerned citizens together and asked them these questions in this order. We then recorded their responses on a flip chart. More than 30 residents showed up to participate.
1.) What do you like best about your neighborhood? This solicited responses like affordability, senior residents who care for the neighborhood, outside groups like Embrace and local churches that help the community.
2.) If you could wave a magic wand and make your community safer what would you do? This is where it got really interesting. It was apparent within a few minutes that the majority of the citizens were concerned, not for their own safety, but for the safety of the children who are often playing in the streets with no adult supervision. As we listened, it became obvious that many of the older residents blamed the younger single mothers for not supervising the children. Thankfully there were several younger single moms in the room who voiced their need for a break and the fact that they had babies and could not possibly care for the babies and watch the older children at the same time.
3.) What are you willing to do to help make the streets safer for the children? We had individuals volunteer to monitor the bus stops, others said they would help build more playgrounds so it would be easier for the moms to see the areas where the children were playing, but the most exciting outcome was a group of older moms and grandmothers who offered to support the young single moms, to help them with their children and to mentor and encourage them. In total we had 10 people volunteered for specific tasks.
4.) Who is willing to take a leadership role and insure this all happens? I think I shocked everyone when I said that Embrace would support the community but that we had no intention of leading the initiative. This community is so used to having outside groups come in and “do it for them” that though we never indicated that we would, that was the assumption. There was a moment of tension as everyone looked around the room and then thankfully Patrice boldly raised her hand. Joe and Debra soon followed and we had our leadership team.
5.) Will the rest of you commit to support and pray for this team and these leaders? Throughout our time together the issue of prayer and the need for spiritual renewal had come up. Everyone in that room knew that this small band of people had a momentous task ahead of them if they hoped to make the streets of Hillside safer for the children. It was during this time of prayer that I heard God clearly say to us all, “Be still and know that I am God, psalm 43:10” Or, my translation, “Shut up, listen, and trust.”
I don’t know if this newly formed Community Action Team will succeed. I honestly don’t think that is as important as the fact that we gave the power back to the community. Walking into that meeting, they felt powerless over the criminal element that was terrorizing them and powerless over their own fear of the police. They heard everyone telling them what to do and no one taking the time to listen to them. They felt dependent on outsiders who come and go as funding streams change. However, at the end of that meeting, I could feel a sense of ownership and pride in that room and it was a glorious thing to witness!
Long ago someone told me that if we do things for people that they can do for themselves, that we are “dis-empowering” them and creating dependency. This community can do all the things they noted were important. The key is to get out of the way and let them. I honestly was shocked that a meeting about safety led to a support group for single moms, bus monitors and playgrounds. However, the more I have reflected upon this conversation, the more I see the wisdom and Divine hand in it all. I think we would all be better ministers if we learned to “shut up, listen, and trust” a bit more.
Please pray for our community leaders, the children of Hillside court and those who have historically terrorized our residents. Pray for safety especially as we move into the summer months which historically have high crime rates. Also pray for our Embrace team and I as we seek to “shut up, listen, and trust” more in the future.