On Monday of this week Steve Blanchard, our Minister of Christian Compassion, took the staff on a “windshield tour” of Richmond, to show us some of the places where heaven seems farthest away from our city. Steve’s conviction is that there are some things you just have to see before you can begin to feel compassion, and a lot of us don’t see these things.
Honestly, we get in our nice cars and drive from our nice neighborhoods to our nice church and drive home again. And then the preacher starts talking about bringing heaven to earth and we think, “Why bother? It’s already here!”
But it’s not in the places we went on Monday.
We started with Essex Village, an apartment complex on Laburnum Avenue, where there are 544 children, many of them living in single parent homes. The crime rate in Essex Village is twice the national average. How do you think those children sleep at night?
And then we went to Glen Lea Elementary School, which has 549 students, most of them enrolled in the free lunch program and most of those also taking advantage of the free breakfast. For many of them, these two meals are the best they get all day. And what do they eat on the weekends?
We drove around the housing projects in the East End of the city and the numbers are just staggering—the size of the projects, the number of people living there, the pitifully low income of those people—hearing all of it at once breaks your heart. Right in the center of it all is the Peter Paul Development Center, dedicated to loving and helping the children of those projects.
From there we stopped by the city jail and the intake center for the homeless. The numbers we heard there were, again, heartbreaking: six or seven inmates stuffed into a jail cell meant for four, suffering through a Richmond summer without air conditioning or fans, and for the homeless, an estimate three times higher than the “official” estimate of 800, with rumors that there may be as many as a thousand homeless children in Richmond.
Finally, we drove to the South Side for a look at Rudd’s Trailer Park on the Jefferson Davis Highway. This is where many of the Mixtecas live, the poorest of the poor from Mexico, an indigenous people group who speak Spanish as a second language and English—if they speak it at all—as a third. We’ve delivered Christmas baskets out there before, and stood inside trailers where you could see the ground beneath through holes in the floor.
As we were driving back to the church Steve asked what we were feeling and Ruth Szucs summed it up: “Overwhelmed,” she said, and we all nodded our heads. Steve’s conviction is that you have to see in order to feel, but also that you have to feel in order to act. Our next question was, “What can we do? How can we even begin to make a dent in such huge problems?” “We can,” Steve assured us. “We’re already doing a lot.” And that’s true, but I added that if we’re going to keep people from being overwhelmed we’ll probably need to break some of these problems down into bite-size pieces.
Starting with Essex Village and Glen Lea Elementary may be a good solution for us. Tutoring one child at Glen Lea, or helping with a community service day at Essex Village, may get us out from behind the windshield, off the bus, and onto the mission field.