When I was asked to write about how violence has shaped my community and impacted my life, I became overwhelmed as I thought back at all the heartache I’ve seen and been through. My husband, Ira, and I live in an inner-city neighborhood in Washington, DC, and have a ministry called Park View Kids Zone (PVKZ). We have programs that work & serve many of the kids, youth, & young adults in our community. Our house is literally the “neighborhood house”. On an average day more than thirty people will come through our doors for one reason or another; Ira and I host a big family style dinner almost every night with twenty or so neighbors from our hood. The youth gave me the title “Street Momma,” which sums up what I do and who I am.
Violence is sadly a part of my everyday life here. It’s been the fuel that helped start PVKZ. My first month of living here, I was on the scene of a homicide that happened at the entrance of our local grocery store. Seeing a 15 year old boy gunned down by another group of youth will forever haunt me. The shooting spawned community meetings where everyone just attempted to blame each other and point fingers for the violence, and I knew we had to do something to try to stop the violence amongst our youth. I knew we had to get our hands dirty. We had to do more than say hello and take care of our home. That act of violence sparked a movement in my hood where neighbors have rallied together in a group effort to provide positive activities for our youth.
I am Momma to all the hustlers and gang members in my community. My life is wrapped up in people who live in serious darkness. Over the last 4 years, we've lost twelve people to violence. A couple of nights ago, during one of our typical hood dinners the topic of violence came up. One of the main drug dealers shared that he had lost twenty close friends and family to violence. Another young man told the story of his father being shot. When he was 6 years old, after shots fired right in front of what is now our home, his mother rushed all the kids into their house down the street. They were unaware of who was being shot at, but refused to answer the door when someone started banging on it, as shots were still being fired, only to find out that it was his father who had been chased and was trying to escape the gunfire. He watched his father die on the steps of his stoop at 6 years old. Another young man shared how his first memory was of sitting in his father's lap on their front porch while someone came up and shot his father in the head. All he remembers is that he was covered in blood and the sounds of his momma screaming. That kind of trauma changes a person and it helped me understand why they live in the moment and with such little hope.
This past August, we were having a neighborhood cookout when we had a two-car drive by shooting. Two women from our community were shot and twenty-six bullets riddled our community park. All of the young kids knew exactly what to do. They ran towards to basketball court bleachers, laid flat on the ground, and covered their heads. After the incident they were shaken up and ran to our house for safety and comfort. I asked them if they had ever seen someone get shot before and they all looked at me like I had asked a dumb question. They all said "yes" and one ten year old boy said that was the fourth drive by he’d experienced in his short life.
It sounds like we live in a war zone and you might ask how we could ever feel safe living in this community. DC is experiencing an influx of wealthy young professionals who are moving into just about every neighborhood within the District. The truth is that new residents will feel very little if any effect of violence or the issues that plague the youth we work with. The most they might experience may be an iPhone getting snatched or a car window being smashed in. There are two worlds in my community and just because you physically live in a community doesn’t mean you’re a part of that community or will ever experience their realities. Many of the new residents are completely removed from the dangers our youth face and often there is little news coverage on these violent incidents.
In spite of all this, I tell people all the time that Ira and I are safer in our hood than anywhere else. I’m their Street Momma and I’m well protected. Everyone knows us and looks out for us here as if we’re family. I did have a youth turn on me and threaten to kill me this past fall, and just the other day I did have a gun put in my face at the grocery store parking lot. But God has always protected us. The youth who threatened me gave me a written apology, which doesn’t sound like a big deal though it was actually huge! He is a gang member and one of the most prideful young men I’ve ever known. For him to humble himself and apologize was a first in his life. He experienced grace and forgiveness for the first time. We are walking that out practically with him now for the entire community to see. And when a gun was placed in my face last week by a 15 year old boy, I felt the Holy Spirit with me. I supernaturally remained calm and locked eyes with that young man. He looked hurt and scared. I calmly said “Sweetie, you don’t have to do this.” He lowered his gun and said, “I can’t do this, I’m sorry,” and ran off. God protected me as my heart broke for that confused youth.
As Christians Ira and I choose to not see out of the eyes of fear. We choose to see out of the eyes of Jesus. Jesus walked amongst us, ate with us, and experienced the pain of people that society would have frowned upon. I know that if Jesus came back today, he’d want to eat at our dinner table with the gang members. Most Christians want people to enter our world and are afraid to enter their world. The only way to reach the youth in my hood has been for me to enter into their world. One of my youth summed it up beautifully the other week when someone was complaining of a crack head I had invited to dinner. The thirteen-year-old said to the group, “That’s what Jesus would do, so that’s what Mrs. A is going to do.” By living alongside them and entering into their realities, they are getting to see the light and love of Christ amongst all the darkness and pain in our hood. And in the process, we’ve learned a lot about grieving, trusting God, letting go, not taking my time with others for granted, and have experienced the Holy Spirit as our Comforter like never before.
Angela Strange is the director of ParkView Kids Zone. She and her husband Ira are intentional neighbors in an inner city neighborhood of Washington, DC. Angela and Ira attend the District Church, and have been attendees of the annual CCHF conference.