We moved into our neighborhood right as we graduated from Covenant Seminary. It was, undoubtedly, a significant shift from anything we had experienced so far and we had a learning curve. Thankfully, we were surrounded by other families who had been loving and living in the community for many years which we needed as much of our expectations of what this would look like were immediately shaken. Within a few weeks we had our first of three cars hit or totaled by a high-speed police chase down our street [and another eventually stolen], been nearly in the middle of a police shootout and generally had our eyes opened to life "in the city". We'd be lying if we told you that each of these experiences didn't make us wrestle with whether or not to stay -- this wasn't easy and I liked my car and my safety as well as anyone. But, these experiences also gave us a great opportunity to wrestle out in our own hearts why we were here. It was during that heart wrestle with the Lord that a little knock came on our front door and I met Barry.
Barry was probably 6 years old and he was looking for an apple and some ice water which I gave him as he skipped off down the street...until the next day. The next day, he returned in search of an apple, orange and water with extra ice and this time he had brought his sister Shea and cousin Terrance. That began a relationship with them that carried on for several years. They didn't know their dad and lived with their mom who rarely left her bedroom in an slumlord apartment two doors down. He was regularly suspended from his under-performing school for his anger and outbursts [which he admitted were usually because the teacher asked him to read and he couldn't] and so, he would come and hang out at my house. His mom didn't have a car which meant that at the beginning of every month she would pay an uncle to drive her to Save-A-Lot where she would spend all of her food stamps on non-perishable food items as their refrigerator did not regularly work and electricity was occasionally shut-off for periods of time. This meant that these kiddos often went with little to no healthy food ever in the house and often little to no food of any kind by the middle of the month. And so...we stocked up on apples.
There were many moments that I will forever remember with Barry that include trying to explain why we did not have a gaming system and how that did not, in fact, make us "lame" since he clearly enjoyed hanging out here anyway. Helping him understand that people don't actually like for their homes and cars to be "egged"...and then helping him learn how to clean egg off homes and cars. And, playing pirate like a moron in my backyard on an infant toy. But, one of my favorite moments of all time with Barry came when he was hanging out with us in our backyard on a summer evening as the sun was setting. As it grew dark, Barry noticed some fireflies flickering in the alley and empty lot behind our house. As I asked this little tough guy if he'd like to catch one with me his eyes filled with fear, but he shook his head "yes." So, together we caught a firefly and he jumped as I handed to him and let it go. So...we caught another and he let that one go too -- this cycle continued until he was convinced that it would not sting him. At that point, he cupped it in his hands and put his eye up to it and marveled at the cool factor of a bug "whose butt glowed." We laughed together and in the tenderness of that moment I got to talk with Barry about how cool it was that God cared enough to make bugs as intricate as lightning bugs and that the same God had created Barry unlike anyone else with beautiful gifts to share with the world because He loved Barry like crazy and he mattered to God and to the world. The tough guy melted for a moment and he just looked at me trying to decide whether or not I was kidding. I stuck my hand on his shoulder and stated it again. He wiped his eye, shook his little head, and ran off down the alley. We continued to play regularly and have moments of fun mixed with madness and then one day his family was just gone. Eventually we learned that his family moved to a different low-income housing project downtown, but we lost contact with him. Odds are high that this little "tough guy" whose tenderness teared up at a loving word of encouragement and jumped at the encounter of a firefly will join a gang as they are often the only "family" that kids like Barry have to offer a sense of acceptance and protection on the street -- in fact, gangs had already been recruiting him at 6!)
I pray often for Barry. And, while I didn't always love cleaning egg off my car or playing pirate in the cold -- I am deeply thankful for the moments we had together as they helped me understand why God cares so deeply for these places that can often seem too dark or to broken to make much of a difference. The God who cares enough to create bugs "whose butts glow" and sends them out to be little lights in the darkness surely loves Barry enough to send His people out to be light into this darkness. These weren't programs or massive "ministry" initiatives -- they were seemingly insignificant extensions of mercy and homes where he was safe and cared for, prayed over and encouraged, disciplined but still loved. Most of the time they felt like tiny meaningless flickers of light against a vast sea of darkness, but they matter. It's beautiful, it's simple, and challenging -- and it is a little glimpse of the restoration of the Kingdom of God breaking into brokenness that you and I and Barry and the world so desperately needs. Sometimes it's big, but most of the time it's apples and fireflies and, if you will, it's the light of the world calling you and I to head out and let "our butts glow" in the darkness...