The church was always cold. It had a high ceiling and a low budget. The faded carpeted floor sloped gently to the stage at the front, making it difficult to use the round tables in the back. The old white church, complete with steeple, looked as if it had been plucked from a small town on the prairie and set down in the middle of run-down houses and liquor stores. Police frequented the neighborhood, breaking up fights, busting houses, and solving murders. The new congregation was intentional, lacking the numbers but having the heart.
In this city, which was sadly typical, the infant mortality rate for minority children was sky high. Only 7 out of 1000 white babies died, yet for African-Americans, they lost 19. Their risk for their babies dying is 2.7 times higher than for a white mother. Over a 5 year period, 12,489 white babies were born and 93 died. But in that same time period, only 2,635 black babies were born and yet 43 died. The statistics are abysmal and seem overwhelming.
But a plan developed. Forms were filled out, volunteers assembled, and other churches were brought on board. An official Teen MOPS group was formed, poised to help a deep need.
So this lower-middle class white girl, who grew up poor, drove herself down to the bad part of town twice a month, doors locked, and nerves shaking. We set up those tables, propping them up on blocks so they would sit level. We put out the tablecloths and the centerpieces. We provided food, clothes, and diapers.
Each week the girls came, these 15-19 year olds, heavily pregnant, pushing toddlers in strollers that they had lugged on and off the city bus.
Suddenly I knew the difference between poor and poverty.
I had no idea. NO IDEA what life was like in the inner-city. My life had never intersected with anyone this different from me. I didn’t even know how to process it.
It was the little things that got me.
It was the time I drove a girl and her boyfriend home (yes, this woman who was so terrified now drove people home to apartments in the ghetto) in November. I had asked them about their Thanksgiving plans. “Well, we were going to go to my mom’s house and then her cousin’s house, but the city buses don’t run that day. If it’s too cold and snowy to walk that far, we’ll probably just have to stay home or find someone to give us a ride. Don’t worry, we’ll figure it out.”
In my world, we make holiday plans weeks in advance. But to not know until the day of, to be so dependant on public transportation and the weather that you can’t have a family holiday – I just had no idea.
It was the girl who was 17, in foster care, with one baby, who was so determined to succeed that she gritted it out with her foster mother who routinely didn’t feed her and kicked her out. She was determined to stick it out because at 18, she would get free money from the state for college. I didn’t know the state gave free college to foster kids. She tried so hard to get a job, but unless it was within walking distance, she was dependant upon bus schedules, and making those work with her school schedule, plus child care, made it nearly impossible.
I had no idea getting a part time job was so hard and had so many obstacles.
During the 2000 election, the first one I could vote in, I proudly created my own VRWC sticker on the computer. So to come face to face to face with all of these girls who depended on Planned Parenthood was a shock. I didn’t know that girls who didn’t choose abortions went to Planned Parenthood. I had never heard this side of the story.
And what would it have hurt for me to hear it? Why, in all of those abstinence-only speeches, where they scared you on the failure of condoms and condemned PP, why did they not explain that some people need them? Why did they not explain that abstinence is a foreign concept in the inner-city? I didn’t realize how cloistered the church’s view of sexuality was. What do we have to lose from listening to other people?
Instead of asking to understand, why do people just ask us to stop with the war on women language? Instead of asking to understand, why do people just ask us to stop arguing about civil rights? Instead of asking to understand, why do people dismiss every aspect of immigration except the legality? What do we have to lose by hearing a different narrative?
It does not affect my life if Planned Parenthood gets funded or de-funded. But it affects their lives. It does not affect my life one way or the other if Mexican teenagers who have lived their whole lives in America get drivers licenses. It does not affect my life if a company supports or does not support equality. But it affects others.
So why would I want to be part of something that brings pain and limitations, especially when it doesn’t affect me?
It doesn’t cost me much to open my eyes to a world of pain around me. It doesn’t cost me anything to validate the experiences of others. What do we have to lose by listening to the stories of those who have been victimized, abused, or oppressed? What is the risk here? What is the reason we are so obtuse to pain?
We ran that group for 2 years until the church ran out of money to support it and had to move out of that cold building. During that time, we saw girls come and go, and babies born. We visited them in the hospital and hosted baby showers. A few months after the program ended I saw one of our girls on the news. She was one of our regulars. We saw her go from pregnant to labor, to infant health issues, and now, the channel 3 news broadcast his death, the death of a toddler casting suspicion on every family member.
It wasn’t enough. A meeting twice a month isn’t enough to change the statistics, to change a life.
Statistics exist for a reason. Not so we can dismiss them or turn them into weapons. But so we can help the people behind them.
We have to learn to see faces instead of statistics. We have to remember that behind every face is a story.
We have to invest in others to actually change the world.
But first we have to acknowledge that others exist.