Editor’s Note: Donovan and I have known each other for nearly two years now, first meeting shortly after I moved into the North Side of Wilmington, Delaware. Our shared community - the small city he grew up in and the neighborhood I was new to - had recently seen an escalation in violent crime. This interview came after a series of conversations on violence in our neighborhoods.
So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” – Initial report of the spies in Canaan, Numbers 13:32-33
I grew up in the suburbs and had never seen or heard a firearm discharged. That changed once I moved into inner city Wilmington. Here, gun violence escalated enough in 2012 to earn the city a top ranking as “worst place to raise your children” by Parenting Magazine.[i] When I first moved in, I regularly listened to gunfire at night. My neighbors, patients, and friends have told me accounts of being shot in the face, pistol-whipped, and threatened at gunpoint. My most reliable and informative witnesses have been children, a fact that continues to disturb me.
As a parent of three small children I have come to cherish the quiet moments that come after we wrestle our three children into bed. My wife and I can finally relax, talk, watch TV, and read without interruption. Moving to the inner city and getting involved with teenagers and our neighbors’ lives has meant that this sacred time gets interrupted quite often. Most nights there are knocks at the door for kids needing rides, neighbors with medical issues, kids wanting to talk, a schizophrenic wanting some orange juice, etc. These times of interruption often prove to be the most fruitful in terms of forming relationships and sharing about the love of Jesus. In fact I think if we only shared at convenient times we might never share.
For forty-some years now, the Church of the Saviour has been in Washington, D.C., and we now have health services in various places in the city. We also run housing ministries, job programs, programs for children. My own family has been here since 1976. This is where God has called us to invest our lives.
Oftentimes when people who know Philadelphia’s neighborhoods find out where I live, and that I walk or bike to work most days, they either look at me with concern for my sanity or with admiration for my bravery. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked “Is it safe there?” and I never know how to answer. Is it safe? No, not really. There have been several shootings on the block or near the block where I live within the past year. There are guys who stand on the street corners at all hours of the day and night, conducting shady “business” deals. It is common for a guy on a dirt bike or ATV to ride up the street popping a wheelie the whole way, shattering the normal neighborhood sounds with their loud engines. My heart still breaks over the story in the newspaper about a 10-month old who lived within a block of me that died with track marks — track marks!— on his body. This is not a “safe” neighborhood.