Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Next Level

Something happened in my heart today. A piece of it sank down to the next level. A deeper, richer, but definitely harder-to-navigate place. 

Let me back up.

It all began last Spring. Over plates of lasagna, we listened to a 23-year old girl outline her vision of what she believed was going to happen in the South Bronx, one of the poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods in the US. We sat with our jaws on the table as Sara told us her story of moving to the South Bronx-on purpose. Of sitting on her front steps with plates of cookies and bowls of homemade salsa, feeding anyone who passed by and would care to talk for a moment. Of becoming the object of endless stares, as kids and moms and gang leaders and policemen all looked and wondered the same thing...why? Why are you here? In this God-forsaken place that we can only dream of leaving someday? Why?

But Sara saw the neighborhood differently. It wasn't God-forsaken. It was beautiful. It was filled with children, desperate for healthy after-school snacks and sitting in laps and having stories read to them and someone to tuck them in bed at night. It was filled with moms, young and scared and alone and in need of encouragement and someone to say, "I believe in you. I believe you can raise this child with hope, and purpose, and I believe he will go to college one day, and change the world." 

It was filled with men, who in most cases had made really bad choices. Men who decided that out of the two paths that were presented to them as boys-be poor and helpless all your life, or join a gang and deal drugs and have people watching out for you all the time-it was a no-brainer. Men who wanted to change after the prison sentence was complete, but didn't know how in the world to begin. Men who cried over the kitchen table, wishing they could see a way out.

It was filled with people. Real people, like you and me. People who had been dealt a really hard hand in life. And Sara believed that these people deserved a neighborhood they could love, be proud of, want to stay in. And she believed that with some help and support, she could begin to make that dream a reality.

"How?" we asked. "Where do you start?"

"With the babies," Sara said.

And she swiftly outlined her plan to begin Babies 101, a summer program for pregnant moms. A place to come for advice, encouragement, nutrition information, and the grand finale, a baby shower at the conclusion of the class, with everything you might need for a new bundle of joy.

"I want to grab hold of these kids when they are in their mother's wombs, and not let go until they are college graduates." 

The sincerity and faith and absolute resolve in Sara's voice and eyes made me believe. It might be possible.

"My next goal is to begin a Mommy and Me class, once the babies are born. Starting in the fall, and running the length of the school year, I want these moms to hear about infant development and growth and brain research and how they have the most important job in the world as their child's first teacher. My only challenge is that I don't have someone to lead the class."

My gulp must have been audible. My husband's look at me must have been telling. You see, Sara knew nothing about my background. She didn't know that I love kids. So much. And that I love teaching. And music. And that some of my favorite teaching moments happened with really little ones, including my own two daughters, researching and experimenting with ways that they learn best. And that in every case, I learned that music is a perfect vehicle to facilitate growth.

Fast forward to two days ago. Tuesday, our first Mommy and Me class. Had ten women signed up, and when six actually made it on a stormy morning, I was thrilled. We talked. We laughed. We began to create bonds. We sang. We bounced babies on our knees and one lady cried as she learned her first lullaby. No one ever sang her a lullaby, in her whole life. And it was thrilling to be able to give that gift to her little boys. We read Goodnight, Moon and when I revealed to them that someone had donated board books for each book we would be reading, enough to build their own personal library for their babies, they were elated. I couldn't speak for about an hour, I was so overcome with the beauty that had transpired in this tiny South Bronx room.

I came home on an absolute high, giddy with anticipation for today's class.

I got there early, excited to continue where we left off. One mom came in with her little 9-month old, about 15 minutes late. "It's OK," I told myself. "They'll come back." 

An hour later, another mom arrived. I was glad to see it was the lullaby lady. 

With only 30 minutes left in the class, two more moms came in, one brand new. We welcomed her, and she seemed really glad to be there. 

I did my best to whittle my two-hour plan down to bits and pieces that would accommodate our tiny, sporadic group. And while there were great moments, I felt a strange, sinking feeling inside. 

As we wrapped up and dismissed, an older lady from the neighborhood came in to talk to me. I told her how excited I was to have the new mom join us. She looked at me with knowing eyes, and began to tell me the young mom's story.

She was 16 years old. Her 10-month old daughter's father was 36. And extremely abusive. I remembered the cracked tooth, right in front, when she smiled. And my heart sank.

While we were talking, a mom from the Tuesday class came in. Class had been over for half an hour. She wanted her pack of diapers that we had promised to give at the end of each class.

I felt a little odd, but as I looked at her tiny baby, of course I couldn't refuse. She was grateful, and promised to come next week.

As she left, I looked up into those knowing eyes, again. Heard about crack addiction. And how the supplies we were giving were being sold at night, for drug money. My heart sank again, deeper this time.

I felt angry at myself...for being so Pollyanna and optimistic that I forgot. Forgot how years and years of one hopeless situation after another could easily lead to addiction and abuse. Forgot how little I understand about these kind of fears: electricity being turned off, because the bill's not paid. Rent coming due, and with nothing to produce, the local shelter is the only alternative. Being unqualified for any decent job, leaving prostitution or drug-dealing as the only viable alternative. 

And I realized, I hadn't really given myself to this. Or these women, or babies. Or this neighborhood. I had soaked in the beauty...the Monday night "family dinners" at Sara's place, where anyone who wanted could come and eat and have someone to talk to...the 5-year old girl who made such an impression on my family that she's become a regular house guest...the pre-teens that trust my daughters implicitly and ask them for advice. These are the moments I chose to see. 

But, while those moments count immensely, my heart had to sink down, lower, harder, to understand what these women are facing, day after day. To really care, I must wear the pain, the ugly, the sad, the incomprehensible. Only then will I be able to make any kind of difference in a life. And while deeper can be scary, it also opens up oceans of perspective. I don't want to live shallow.

So, I will return next Tuesday, a changed person. Still excited about brain research and lullabies. But stronger, and wiser, and hopefully ready to tackle the hard stuff with resolve and unending sources of love.

I'm grateful for the chance to learn about courage from Sara, almost half my age. Here's to diving deep...


  1. Such a lovely thing for you to take on, dear. This even moves my emotionally-dead self to tears. :) XOXO.

  2. Beautiful, Sloan. I remember when we learned that you were moving away, being sure that there was some purpose for you there. The really good gifts are never easy to give. My heart and prayers are with you and the fragile lives you are touching.

  3. I consider it an honor to read your blog! So proud of you and the deliberate choices you are making to live out of the comfort zone and with an eternal perspective. Praying they will see Jesus in you.

  4. Reminds me of a teen age staffer that should have been working but instead was sitting on the little bridge by the First Aid Station with a young girl showing her the new Bible that the staffers had purchased for her and telling her about the Jesus of her new book! :o)
    Freddie Pike

  5. Beautiful, Sloan. I love your courage and your heart!

  6. Wow. God has blessed you twice in this, once in the experience and another in being able to convey your experiences in this blog - keep up the good work!!

    Miss you!


  7. Wow! I sure do miss you guys. What a great story.

  8. Beautiful SLoan! Glad to catch up on your blog! :) And I was wondering who that precious 5 year old was in all your FB photos! :) Hugs friend!