He called me again this week as he does so often. He did not call to ask for anything in particular even though the two of us knew he needed an awful lot. He simply wanted to get together for a hamburger so he could talk freely and be comforted by a listening ear without having to hear a lecture about what I think he ought to do. It was not my place to heap the weight of middle class, self-righteous judgment on this intelligent, truly good, 26 year old who simply wants to overcome his misfortune and advance in life the way he wants (the way he deserves). That day my role was to just be there so he’d feel a little less alone – somewhat less worthless and miserable if only for a short while. It was a time for communion, so we met at McDonald’s and launched into yet another of umpteen-hundred such conversations. Many previous ones had taken me on a roller coaster of empathy, enlightenment, frustration, anger, compassion, confusion, the desire to strangle him and the urge to go way overboard trying to help, and I knew it would be the same this time. It is always just so frustrating and yet humbling at the same time when I listen knowing I cannot offer clear cut solutions. However, listen I did, one more time. He wanted to talk because he quite simply wants to find a job to make a way for himself and his family but he was feeling despondent. He just can’t seem to catch a good break.
He, and other intelligent, articulate, unaddicted, non-gang affiliated young adults in our city today, were dealt a bad hand in life from birth. They are not bad, they are just in bad situations. Their stories are not excuses; they are just explanations of the way things are for people growing up poor in the wrong zip codes.
His mom died when he was a young teen. His dad is on alcohol, on the streets everyday and selling loose cigarettes for a living on another side of the city, therefore, parental support has been out of the question for him for a very long time. He has no living grandparents or godparents, and there are no uncles, aunts, cousins or siblings in positions to assist him. In fact, he’d be hard pressed to identify a family member or neighbor with a sustainable job. To complicate matters, when he was 19 years old, foolish and with the wrong person, he made a (non-violent, non-sex related related) mistake. As a result he picked up a four year prison sentence. While serving his time, he received no letters from home and no visitors, and he had no place to go after he got out. However he was eventually released at which time he entered a transitional program that offered some hope and a chance to complete his high school diploma. He graduated and also met and married the love of his life there.
So then, one might wonder why he does not get a job to work his way to a better life. The answer is sociologically complex, but a simple answer is that he’d love to work but can’t because of the way things are. As hard as he tries, he can only find positions at minimum wage or less, and for limited hours. When he does hear of jobs, door after door shuts in his face because he lacks transportation to and from far off locations, he does not possess needed skills, or companies have non-hiring policies for felony ex-offenders. He, and so many others black and brown young people with few resources or support networks, mistakes hanging over their heads, limited education and assumptions that they are dumb or thugs, find it virtually impossible to improve their lives.
“So how does he make it,” you may wonder? Though he often grows weary and wants to give up, he smiles and perseveres. He tries to not to burden others with his troubles. He calls out to God with silent humility. He continues to hope and believe justice will prevail. He tries to advance using whatever meager resources he can scrounge up. He maintains with unbelievable inner-strength. He resists the temptations of lawless quick fixes on the street, and I am honored that he finds comfort in me just listening to him vent. Then, “How do I make it,” you may wonder? Well, I’m not the hero in this story, he is; but I simply try to be there for him without playing the role of judge. I can’t always do what he or I would like to, but I can, at very least, be fully present to the relationship. It’s really interesting, as much as he needs in life, our relationship (kinship) is so important and fulfilling for him and for me as well. I might not have money to give or the lead on a job that’s right for him, but I can be there for him just as he is for me as well. Sometimes, us just showing up for each other makes a world of difference. i
Vince Guider leads the North Lawndale Kinship Initiative at Old St. Patrick’s Church