It happened again.
I was the luncheon speaker at a conference for Christian foundation executives. The talk certainly began well enough. I read Jeremiah's exhortation to the exiles to seek the peace of their city as the friendly, khaki-and-polo clad audience made its way back from the Hilton's ample buffet. While the executives finished Caesar salads, I reflected on the difference between urban and suburban ministry. During roast beef sandwiches, I described our shift to a more Trinitarian urban ministry model. Over brownies, I talked about coaching an urban youth swim team.
I told them about dropping Randall, one of our young swimmers, at his house after a meet late one July evening where a half-dozen adults partied on his front porch. "Randall swam great!" I shouted to the crowd. No one paid attention. Randall got out of the car holding his crumpled ribbon and towel. A woman left the party to meet the little boy. "Get the — inside," she snarled.
I told them about Martin, an eleven-year-old wisp of a boy with sad blue eyes and ribs sticking out everywhere, who shocked us all last February by pushing down his best friend and saying, "I've killed three men, nigger, and now I'm gonna to kill you." Martin has never killed anybody. But he knows people who have. Two months later, a social worker called to tell me that the Department of Children's Services had picked up Martin at school after "something ugly" happened in his home. Martin and I have spent three years together, yet I may never see him again.
I told them about Reverend Arnold, the courageous pastor who works with neighborhood gangs and sees our little swim team as a possible way of escape for kids with too much time on their hands in the summer. "I hate it when it gets warm outside," he told me once. "The kids start shooting."
Then I told them about my fear of being shot when I drive through the neighborhoods on angry summer nights. And then I began to weep. At first, the tears came slowly and then were followed by gut-wrenching sobs. Unable to see my notes anymore, I sat down at the nearest table. The good people I had been paid to minister to gathered around and ministered to me.
Profane thoughts raced through my mind as I escaped through the Hilton lobby after my meltdown: "You better get your s— together," I muttered to myself. "Or you won't make it through the summer."
Living with the Great Sadness
For some reason, I find it nearly impossible to talk about the children I've come to love on our swim team without crying. I've wept over them in pulpits, in restaurants, with reporters, and on pool decks. To be fair, many children on our team, though resource challenged, are not suffering like Randall and Martin. It's the ones who are that keep me up at night.
Am I depressed? I don't think so. Most days, I've got good energy and I don't feel blue. Am I burned out? No. Yet even when I feel refreshed, I still can't talk about the kids without my eyes welling up. So what's happening?
Here's my theory. For the first time in my life I am truly in a relationship with the most vulnerable members of my community. Randall's pain has become my pain. Martin's nightmare has become my nightmare.
My sadness is perhaps a part of being human. A friend of mine has a child waging war against a serious mental illness. He says he lives with a Great Sadness. I think I do too. I feel the Great Sadness when a ten-year-old tells me he's joined the Young Crips, a deadly gang in his neighborhood. I feel the Great Sadness when I discover I'm more racist than I ever thought. I feel the Great Sadness when Randall and I are reading a menu in McDonald's and I realize that Randall can't read.