3 weeks ago, while on my porch, I experienced a drive-by shooting for the first time.
I haven’t quite known where to start with this one. And honestly it’s taken a few weeks to decompress, process, and figure out what I’m even trying to say or if saying anything is in order. After all, these posts can often seem ‘victimy’ or “she’s so brave” or whatever. People will think whatever.
The last year in Germantown has been…well probably like the last year in most inner city neighborhoods. Run down, more depraved, more pressure-cooked. More everything…except full of life and joy. I live on a highly trafficked street and a block or two from the dividing line of what would be considered ‘safe Germantown” and “unsafe Germantown”. Maybe people won’t admit it, but that’s how we think of it.
On one side of my house is one of my favorite people – my sweet neighbor who has become a dear friend and a teammate of sorts (we hope together) and on the other side is an abandoned house by the corner. Beside that house a street that has become known for being the epicenter of crime and drug dealing in this neighborhood (we’ll call it T Street). And I’ve watched as that has slowly crept around the corner almost like a shadow trying to cover more territory.
I either wake up or go to bed to sirens nearly every day (no exaggeration). Crime is up a little over 140% in Philly ( pretty much the case all over the country) and to-date 5 people have been murdered on T Street just this year. That’s a lot of homicides for one street. I’m two houses down from T Street and for the most part (comparatively) it’s ‘relatively’ quiet over here… if not for 3 weeks ago.
Contrary to popular opinion and many people’s experience, my 2020 was a really good year (I hope you’re still tracking with me as I’ll tie this all together eventually). I just ‘stopped’ in 2020. Stopped traveling, stopped making music (consistently), stopped doing. Just getting to have a year of rest was a priceless experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. I spent the majority of my time making art, painting things, just having fun with my hands and seeing what I could create. It’s become my favorite thing to do actually, and I’m very blessed to have that flexibility.
BUT after a while (especially as the new year started) that began to feel weird. I’d literally be sitting at my art table creating something while watching a drug deal happen next door. Or chopping homegrown organic vegetables in the kitchen watching a couple in a full-blown argument on the sidewalk. The stark contrast never escaped me. One night last fall, I was reading a book on my couch – candles lit, ambience lighting, and a shot rang out next door in front of the abandoned house. Really! Really?
Another night, around 11pm, my neighbor asked me to come help her with a woman on the street screaming up to the 2nd floor of a nearby house trying to get custody of her kids. As it turned out this woman was doped up and her sister (who was in the house) would not let her have the kids because she was not trying to put them in danger in a car with their strung-out mother. That turned into a 1-hr ordeal on the street that eventually turned into this woman sobbing in my arms and saying she didn’t think God would forgive her for all the ways she had messed up. That’s obviously not true, I told her…and the conversation stretched on as we sat there on the ground at midnight waiting for this woman’s brother to come and pick her up. Believe it or not, I’ve got a bunch more stories like this. All happening in the last year.
So where to go from here? As you can imagine I’ve felt weird about it all. But the only word I can think to properly describe how I feel is “constipated”. Yeah…sorry, I said it! This year I just “woke up” restless and constipated. Thinking, ‘how is it that I am living this peaceful life, up in my apartment doing my life, listening to my podcasts, sunlight pouring in through the windows…waking up just creating stuff, when so much is dying around me.” Hoarding happiness. Just full. Bloated really. Comfortable but so unsatisfying…and just…something was off. I can’t even explain it but this dissonance was becoming bigger and bolder.
“Just move, Joy. Go somewhere safer that doesn’t have those problems.” That’s the “logical” solution, right? I mean i do have the freedom and flexibility to do so…find a shinier neighborhood where the streets aren’t littered, the garbagemen don’t randomly skip weeks, and the homeless aren’t loitering around aimlessly.
But, it doesn’t make sense.
When the weather got a bit warmer earlier this Spring, my neighbor (the teammate) and I spent an afternoon in the park painting and just talking about life. What to do, how to do it, where life is heading, how to get there. I love talking with her b/c she is a great listening ear and nothing is ever rushed. There’s always space. And truthfully, she didn’t even really offer any particular nuggets of wisdom, but that conversation was pivotal.
The next morning, I woke up to the idea of “Paint on the Porch”. Like a lightbulb moment. So crystal clear. A weekly hangout on my porch for the kids on T street to have a safe space where they can create things. A spot that is strictly about life, not death. I was shocked by the simplicity of it and also excited for the challenge and implications of countering a culture of generational cycles that have led to so much death and trauma for the neighbors, more specifically the kids, on that street. An opportunity to push back the darkness and offer an alternative.
I had learned over some time that the kids didn’t get out much and that there was a spirit of fear more or less hovering over T street and that if anyone was trying to ‘get out’, start fresh, it was much easier said than done. And the wheel was reinventing itself generation to generation.
I told my teammate friend my Paint on the Porch idea, made little flyers, walked the block, talked to parents from house to house, my friend messaged the block captain, talked to the same parents, and shared with anyone she could on T street.
No one came. For 4 weeks straight, sitting on the porch, just the two of us waiting for the kids on T street to show up. No one.
By week 5 I was ready to call it- half-heartedly setting up the porch with supplies other neighbors had donated. I was just over it. But I peaked over the banister and… 4 T street girls were walking over! Hesitant but excited. I was just as excited. Maybe a little giddy
The following weeks I got the opportunity of getting to know the girls more. One week 4 girls, another week 6, but 3 who came (and still come) consistently.
Flash-forward to 3 weeks ago. On week 8 of Paint on the Porch, as the girls were gathering their artwork to leave, all of a sudden we heard gun shots rapid-firing on their street. It took a second to realize that the sound was growing louder and that the shooter was in a vehicle headed our way. This was 5:45 in the evening. As soon as we all understood what was happening, chaos broke out on the porch. The girls ran back and forth trying to figure out where to hide, one child ran behind my house, and I sped over to open my front door.
When the girls realized the front door had been unlocked the whole time they ran into the house. As I shut the front door, I saw the black pickup truck turn the corner continuing to fire. His last shots stopped at the abandoned house next door.
All together in the house, with my neighbor and the girls, we called their parents and checked to make sure everyone was ok. My neighbor’s husband came looking for her, and another set of neighbors came to the window checking to make sure the kids were ok. One of the moms walked over to pick up her kids after things had settled on T street.
If I’m being honest, the girls handled things better than my friend and I…it was not their first time. I didn’t realize till 30 minutes later that my whole body was clenched like a fist. But I could not shake the idea that the girls (who live in that first house on the corner, mind you) were cleaning up their projects to take home…and what might have happened if they had left even a minute sooner?
“Riveting story, Joy”, “get out of there, Joy”, “you’re a hero, Joy”. Nope not looking for that. I am however facing a very clear fork in the road in my life as it relates to how I look at and respond to the things that are literally chewing away at the hope and joy around me.
Somehow even with all the talk about justice in our country, we still think we can make a post on social media and sit back believing we have done our part. This perhaps was the weirdest part of my life last year as i woke up daily creating carefully curated inspirational Instagram posts with all the wreckage around me. It was just weird.
Watching from the window is no longer an option. Window screen, computer screen, phone screen, TV screen. No longer an option.
Two weeks ago I realized, hey if there are people who are very actively, forcefully, and publicly trying to tear this neighborhood down then I need to, very actively, forcefully, and publicly work to push back against that reality. And only one thing gets rid of the dark…
In this season it means telling these kids a much better story: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future'” (Jeremiah 29:11)
Why am I saying all of this — I’m saying this because things are getting crazy in the world, you guys. Whether you live in the city or out of it (that doesn’t matter). What does matter is that we have an opportunity to actively push back against darkness. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot comprehend it.” John 1:5 Just stepping over the darkness, turning our backs to it, ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. Tweaking it to make it more palpable, acceptable, or manageable only makes things worse. Yet our world is so good at this…because it’s just easier.
And guess what, pushing back the darkness will take actual work. It will require more than a few taps on your keyboard. It will require some effort and boldness. And if you’re doing it right, it will require you stepping out of your comfort zone. You will be uncomfortable.
I am saying this because as so much crumbles and dies around us, there are only two options: DO something about it, or remain cynical about how everyone else is destroying your ideal life.
This isn’t a soapbox. Actually there is no more time for soapboxes and looking good with your words. Go. Do.
That’s really all I have to say. Thank you for reading and please know I love you and am rooting for you.