We could hear the movie playing as we pulled into the crowded parking lot. It was Friday night, and the small development was alive with motion and sound. As we walked towards the hum of the generator we saw a small crowd on a little patch of grass under a tree, and in the dark I could see the movement of children around the tree. As we got closer, I saw several people from church, some chairs and of course the free soda that always will draw the kids.
The development itself was…well, poor. Poor and shabby, as poverty goes. Poverty on Cape Cod probably looks better than most places. The little duplex homes dropped next to each other were not the high rise projects of Mattapan or the Bronx. But I learned after we pastored a small church in Pawtucket, Rhode Island for five years that poverty is as much of a spiritual problem as it is a physical problem. You can think poor and have much more than 80% of the earth’s population. Or you can think blessed and live with next to nothing.
As I watched the children play last night I realized children don’t naturally know or understand this poverty culture. They are kids, and they love to play. As I surveyed the scene, I noticed some blankets spread on the dirty grass. In the midst of cigarette butts, empty cans and a sad lawn lay three giggling girls wrapped in comforters. The oldest girl adjusted the pillows and sometimes scolded the younger girls for drinking soda near the blankets.
“Are you all having a sleep-over?” I asked as I sat down in a chair beside them.
“No!” they laughed. “Not outside!” I laughed with them and said, “Then you are counting the stars?” More laughter. We talked about the movie, about who Jesus is. I always love to ask children what they know about Jesus. Their answers are refreshingly honest and clear.
“He’s your friend?” the smallest one half-stated, half-asked.
“Yes, He’s my very best friend,” I answered, “and He definitely wants to be your best friend too!”
They pondered this, someone who would always be there, always love them; someone they could even always talk to — a big plus for girls. Then typical of children, they were off, running through the dark night, tagging and screaming, You’re It! and even allowing a little boy who had been watching from up in a tree to join in.
I remember being in Soweto, South Africa, crowned the world’s largest ghetto, and marveling at the children there. It confounded me that kids who were so poor, like hungry-malnourished poor, still carried this same playfulness, as they fashioned sticks, wire, tires into toys. Their play seemed even more pure and free than the play of much more materially fortunate kids of the West. They were unencumbered by greed and entitlement.
Kids all grow up. I did, you did. As I watched these girls, my heart tugged at the familiarity of a girls’ sleep-over, of my boys’ sleep-overs, and the merciless hand of time. I wanted to draw them close to me and say, “Remember this time, the innocence, the joy. And remember Jesus is a friend. Always.
A screen door opened as the movie drew to an end and a woman, young appearing, called into the coolness of the night, her voice soft and tired. I smiled at her, and she smiled back, maybe just a touch suspicious. Another church group coming into the projects. Well I guess it can’t hurt. She beckoned the little boy in and closed both doors tight. I heard a lock slide into place. There had been another murder here over the summer.
The girls giggled some more as we loaded up the truck.
“Who’s your best friend?” I said and the little one looked straight at me with a brave smile.
“Jesus” she said.
It didn’t look like much was accomplished that night. We picked up the garbage, packed up the chairs and drove away, from lives we know little of. Like the children of Soweto, kids will always play on the threadbare lawns of this low income housing development. But by the time they reach high school, many dreams will be stashed, hope derailed. Poverty isolates. They will see they are different, and that it may always be this way.
I grew up needing nothing material, but finding as a young woman that I lacked everything. I was spiritually destitute, and as poverty always dictates, I felt unworthy of anything better than what I could rip-off. I knew there was a God; I just didn’t think He had noticed me. I never dreamed He would actually want to be my best friend.
I like to think that someday a young girl who became a young woman who is caught in this despair, in the grinding millstone of poverty, will look up in the sky and see the stars and remember a night long ago, lying on the ground while a movie played outdoors; and her heart will recall the innocence and joy. And she will remember the One who is a friend always. She will remember saying, Jesus.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3