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Of Church and State and Crips and Bloods

December 13, 2011

We began with a prayer.  But we were not at church.  We were at Newark’s Juvenile Detention Center for a meeting of new volunteers.  I thought the praying odd since the meeting’s intent distinctly civic.  I thought it odder still that we referred to a municipal employee like Miss Weathers, the Director of Volunteer Services, as Sister Weathers.  By time Sister Weathers asked us to introduce ourselves, saying, “Keep it brief and try not to preach” I caught on.

Virtually every one of the volunteers was a Pentecostal. Ordained or not, these folks preached.  They no sooner introduced themselves than they began quoting scripture.  The rest would listen with eyes closed, swaying and humming, “Praise Jesus. Um humm. Sweet Jesus.”

My nonreligious status added an interesting sheen to the experience and I wasn’t yet sure how I felt about it.  I already knew how I felt about the guard who observed the obvious (that I was the only white person present) and proceeded to joke that my car would be stolen.  As if the power of race were so far reaching that thieves would detect residual whiteness on a two ton empty hunk of metal.  It’s easy to forget the power of race nowadays.  And not simply because of our first black President.  I tend to forget because I live in racially mixed, middle class suburb of New Jersey where class is now the force that binds.

Not so Newark.  When I got lost in the South Ward I was regarded as a curiosity.  The teenagers I stopped for directions sniggered that I must be from DYFS, though one observed my handbag and demurred, “No, too fine. Probably a lawyer.”  And the fellows in slow riding narc cars surely assumed I was there to cop dope.  These were the roles assigned to white women in black neighborhoods, as I well knew from having lived in West Harlem as a college student thirty years ago.  But West Harlem has since evolved into an ethnically mixed, gentrified neighborhood brimming with bistros and Starbucks.

Newark is where I can’t find a cup of coffee.  Unless it’s from one of the many McDonald’s.  And next door to all those fast food joints and liquor stores are the churches.  Store front churches with neon crosses feebly competing against mighty Golden Arches and Big Macs.

In such circumstances it’s tempting to assume a snarky posture against religion.  It was an easy enough pose in college, when I swapped my Catholic upbringing for secular humanism.  But here, in this room, I’m reminded that for many the alternative to God can be something quite bleak.

A young Latino man introduces himself.  He has tear drops tattooed beneath one eye.  He tells us that he’s murdered many.  He was saved while serving fifteen in Trenton.  He wants to mentor boys by bringing Jesus into jail as someone had once done for him.  He rhapsodizes salvation as the group sways and prays.  The next volunteer introduces herself and thanks Jesus for the Christians who raised her daughters while she served ten for armed robbery.  On it goes.

Forty minutes pass and we’re still on introductions.  In another twenty minutes the center goes on lockdown and we must leave.  I wonder when Sister Weathers will get to the pertinent stuff:  How old are my students? What is the schedule?  The curriculum?  I tap my pen impatiently.

It’s my turn to introduce myself. I begin by announcing that I am here as an academic tutor, not a Christian mentor.  I explain that I teach at the College of Saint Elizabeth in nearby Morristown.  I see the blank stares and realize that upscale Morristown, though indubitably nearby, might just as well be another planet.

“Our college actively recruits from Newark,” I say, “So I have a lot of students from this neighborhood.”

Faces still blank.

“But we get the lucky kids.  I’ve always wondered if educators could do a better job reaching at-risk kids earlier.”

I get a slight response here.  The rhetoric is hitting them with a bit more familiarity.  But only a bit.  I still have not struck a chord.

Then, without forethought or reason, I blurt out, “I am also a recovering alcoholic with two years’ sober.”

The room implodes.  I get the same love as the Latino guy with the teardrop tattoos.  Instinctively, I am gratified.  Guilt ensues just as fast.

Did I pander?  Did I fake a bond that I, a middle aged, middle class white woman could never truly have?  It so happens I am an addict.  It’s also true that addiction bequeaths terrible personal, professional and legal woes.  But did saying so make me one of those dreadful Americans who tell folks ravaged by poverty, “I can relate.  You see, my Irish great-grandpa also had nothing when he came here.  I’m just like you”?

I hadn’t time to overthink it.  The people beside me were already issuing hugs.  In that moment, I was both humbled and glad to be human.  And this, yes, did make me just like them.  It occurred to me that a thirteen year old with murder on his sheet might just respond to these volunteers.  To their empathy if not their God. Or, like me, see the two as much the same thing.

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