August 10, 2014 by Kyle
There is a bus that channels through some of the most-important and colorful communities in Philadelphia. Starting at 23rd and Venango the 33 bus snakes it way through some bumpy urban terrain. At various locations on this transit route, you might drive under a dark regional train bridge that almost appears to be a doorway to an abandoned netherworld. I spent a lot of my childhood on the corner of 22nd and Allegheny waiting for this bus observing my surroundings–I learned early on that you could never be too careful. The bus traveled from North Philly to Center City and Penn’s Landing, but the reality is that everyone was not on the bus for a ride. The ride to work around 5th and Market was long, but it was a gateway to see how the other half of Philadelphia lived. The Lord had my back many times as I rode this bus to and from work and other spots downtown Philly. In my younger days, I frequented the Sam Eric theater located at 19th and Chestnut Street. The theater is no longer open, but back in the day it was the safest theater where many from my neighborhood would go on a Saturday or Sunday to catch flicks in the 80’s and 90’s.
Most of what was on display during the hood portion of the route was poverty and the impact of decades of neglect. The former glory of Philadelphia was unfiltered and without apology on this journey through the urban underworld. There are myriads of decaying three-story brownstones that resemble a toothless addict at the end of a brutal journey.
I was more interested in the narrative underway on the streets than the events on the bus. I would make my way to the mid section in order to look out the window at how folks lived and survived. In most cases, survival was not a word that would describe the desperate state of families and communities along the route. These families were there, but there wasn’t much that flourished. You could count the number of trash heaps, syringes, tiny zip lock bags and used condoms that littered the street. There were fields of jagged, snappy weeds that claimed public space. This place
Jesus gives a parable about loving your neighbor in Luke 10 and within a short parable He answers the question posed by this defensive expert of the Law. The question, “And, who is my neighbor?” may have sounded cute to the Bible expert, but it revealed common thinking among tribal minded people. Jesus provides the backdrop of a dangerous roadway where an injustice has taken place–a man is robbed, beaten and left for dead. In this story, Jesus makes a point about responsibility. Is it easy for people to observe the pain and suffering of others and turn a blind eye? It’s easy for church folk to ignore suffering in order to maintain their comfort. In Jesus’ narrative, a priest and Levite go down the road past a man who is half dead–they ignore him. Why did they ignore him? It could be that they imagined he was dead and avoiding being ceremonially unclean was more of a priority than helping this man. We can inquire ‘why’ all day, but the reality is that hurting people can be a distraction.
It may be easy to ignore a dying community. Many ignore communities that are in crisis with what they consider to be good theology. They quote, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me'” (Matthew 26:11) The perpetual presence of poverty relieves many of responsibility to the ‘…least of these.’ Many will avoid showing compassion to the ‘other’ within our world and misuse scripture to feel comfort in their inaction. Consumers seek to get their way, but reconcilers are focused on restoring our world. The Samaritan man observed the man who had been beaten and robbed and in response provided hope. The neighborhoods along route 33 needs ongoing, sustaining grace. Sustained grace is more than a word or full throat-ed sermonette on hell and damnation shouted through a bullhorn or even an outside worship service complete with the unintelligible rhetoric used by a dead or dying congregation. The complexity and tragedy of poverty is not washed away with afterschool programs, food bags or street preaching. While these are important, they fall short of the sacrificial and costly work of discipleship. The extent of the resurrection of Jesus Christ must be first understood and believed. I also believe that we, the church, must go a step further and introduce the full extent of what it means to live a resurrected life in the midst of the valley of dry bones.
I can remember counting the number of churches I saw on Ridge Avenue. This was the part of the route that showcased the most decay. As the 33 descended further and further into this graveyard for the living, it stumbled on a massive wall. There was the dichotomy of a walled off private school in the middle of a North Philly neighborhood. You would think that its presence would create more hope than angst, but it did not. The things that preached hope on this route were the murals displayed on the side of row homes throughout the neighborhood. Sometimes art is a signal that all is not lost and there are better days ahead. Check out the artwork below.
Back in my younger days I wondered how the other half lived. I was provided with a keyhole into that world via the 33 bus. I was very familiar with those who lived around 22nd and 19th street and below Ridge Avenue, but the folks beyond Ridge and down 19th Street will be part 2 of this blog post.