Before my husband and I got married, we agreed to get a new place—a home with space for our separate things and for the new memories we’d build together. We searched (and bickered) for months and finally found a house weeks before the ceremony.
It took a while to invite people, seeing as we didn’t have a table, sofa, or chairs. Eventually, though, friends and family trickled in—moving furniture, installing blinds, or lending a lawn mower. My husband would lead them on a grand tour, and we’d all ogle this and that, as friends do when they’re truly happy for one another. But inevitably, by the time our loved ones rolled out of the driveway, many had left demeaning remarks about our neighborhood, and each comment festered like a splinter in my skin.
The most common questions I got were, Do you feel safe? and Do you go on runs alone? A friend chastised us for leaving a couple of rakes on our back porch because “someone will steal them.” One family member actually told another that we lived in “the ghetto” and that she was afraid to walk her kids from the car to my front door. Someone else joked that my husband and I were “practically missionaries” in our neighborhood. It wouldn’t surprise me if my friends and family don’t remember these comments, flippant and casual as they were, but I remember every one.
Our home is located in a lower-income neighborhood—what many people consider an eyesore of the city. Though there’s a wide range of incomes here, the median falls around $27,000, and the majority of our neighbors have a high school diploma and work in administrative, food service, and facility positions. Most households are renters, led by single mothers. The middle school at the end of my street is a Title 1 school that supplies two-thirds of the students with free lunch, and its halls become emptier each year as parents try to find better opportunities for their kids. Our visitors probably wouldn’t know these statistics, but they gather as much from the boarded-up homes and empty warehouses, neglected potholes, trash scattered across lawns and sidewalks, and people making use of public transportation.
Many of our loved ones had left demeaning remarks about our neighborhood, and each comment festered like a splinter in my skin.
Like anyone else, my husband and I took many typical factors into consideration before landing on our home: price, square footage, commute times, and a sense of community. The large porch, walkable restaurants, and involved neighbors eager to bring us into their fold were bonuses. And though it was never written down as a “must-have,” joining ranks with people of different socioeconomic status was important to me. Over the course of my life, I’ve watched many people upgrade and expand their lives, creating starkly wealthy neighborhoods next to impoverished ones. But what I hadn’t seen was people of many incomes, occupations, and lifestyles proudly inhabiting the same neighborhood. I wanted to be a part of that, to dispel the notion that some places, homes, and lives are worth more than others.
So yes, I remember the disparaging comments from people we love and respect—who share our blood, who watched us marry, and who would visit again and again for tacos and game nights—and their words stung. But seeing that judgment came so easily from people who love us, I wondered if I’d ever done the same. Had I harassed my friends or family over something they were passionate about?
This same question arises whenever I come across Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Reading the Beatitudes, I’m quick to align myself with those who suffer—that is, until He blesses those who are persecuted for righteousness (Matt. 5:10), which is something I’ve never faced and probably never will. Most everything about me falls in line with majority culture in the United States: my education, wealth, skin color, religion. And while those very things are often what protect me from persecution, they also beg me to ask the inverse: Have I ever made someone else feel persecuted? Though our world cannot easily be divided into those who give or receive persecution, if ever I were to fall into one category, it would be the side of power. I believe this to be true of me even if only in little ways, such as whenever I’ve thought a person wearing a turban might be dangerous or a panhandler lazy. Or how easily I could see myself in my friend when she asked if my neighborhood was safe. I cannot pretend to know what systemic oppression feels like, but I can ask myself if I’ve ever played a part in someone else’s.
I cannot pretend to know what systemic oppression feels like, but I can ask myself if I’ve ever played a part in someone else’s.
Immediately after Jesus blesses the persecuted, He continues, “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me” (Matt. 5:11). I’m certainly capable of insulting others and saying evil things, but because of Jesus? I didn’t think that was possible until fellow Christians questioned our home. I never explicitly told them why we moved where we moved—my answer was always location or price or something generic. But at the center of it all was my belief that Jesus wants everyone to know his or her inherent, unearned worth. And claiming this neighborhood was my way to let an overlooked group of people know they weren’t a stepping-stone but a place to land, to nurture, and to call home.
The pastor of my church often says that people have good reasons for the choices they make and that, if you’d shared their experiences, you might make the same decisions they did. It’s something I wish my friends and family had considered before they let their feelings about our neighborhood slip out. But in a way, I’m grateful for it, too. Moments like these walk me through tough but necessary self-reflection and remind me that Jesus’ love runs deep, whether it’s visible to us or not.
Illustration by Adam Cruft