From a summer in Memphis.
Willie Lee Ross’s attic door wasn’t open for ten years straight.
After his mother died, Mr. Ross inherited her house on Eva Street – the house I’m helping to repair with Service Over Self this summer. His mother had lived in that house for most of her life. She had raised 11 children in that house. And Mr. Ross said when that house became his, he just didn’t feel like he could sift through those memories quite yet.
Though Mr. Ross’s attic acted phenomenally as a time vessel, the quality of its old insulation made it a poor protector of his house. So, on Tuesday, a great group of high schoolers from the Memphis suburb of Germantown helped me carry years of Ross history down the attic stairs and out the back door to make way for new insulation.
By lunchtime, there were piles rising high in the backyard grass of framed family photos, yellowing yearbooks and decaying bags of clothing.
As Mr. Ross walked through those isles of memories, he chose which ones he would keep and which ones would join our dumpster of broken wood and dirty shingles.
At the time, I was too worried about figuring out the new instillation to realize how big of a moment this was. Later that day he came up to me to thank me and the Germantown crew once again for cleaning out his attic.
“I know this house is talking to you,” he said to me. “Today, it’s sure been whispering to me.”
And as I thought about that beautiful statement, I was taken by how true it was. Clearing out that attic told a great amount about faces I would never see. It whispered to me reminders of how everything we hold dear from this world will one day collect dust in untouched attics. Removing shingles from the top of Mr. Ross’s roof – poorly laid shingles lacking any sort of tar paper beneath – shouted a story of the damage laziness and greed can bring.
The house has told me every day for the past two weeks that I cannot do this job at all if I rely on my own strength and intelligence. It’s murmured that if you really look, even in brokenness, you can find beauty.
I carried down a photo with a brown and gold trim frame that was brittle from years of rain soaking those memories sitting in the attic. The photo itself was almost too faint, but you could still see the portrait of a woman smiling at the camera. As soon as I set it down outside, Mr. Ross picked it back up. He would later tell me that this was a photo of his mother. But for now, his face simply broke into a giant grin.
From a summer in Memphis.
A red brick house on Eva Street in Binghampton stands with a leaky roof and a sign in front of it sporting the letters “SOS”.
SOS – Service Over Self.
Those word stand for the nonprofit I’m working for this summer. But what do they really mean? What does “service” mean to my generation in American society? Do we ever genuinely “serve over ourselves?”
You see, I see this problem growing every spring break and every summer. I’ve even been a part of this problem. It’s a problem of young people spending a week of their year “serving” the “less fortunate” and then retreating right back to their comfortable way of living.
Let’s first clarify the word “service.” It is not synonymous with pitying. It is not some gift the rich bestow on the poor. And merely being a warm body on your mission or service trip – as in just going along for the ride because that’s what your friends are doing or to spice up your résumé – certainly doesn’t count as service. Instagraming a photo of the houses in Binghampton with a Bible verse as a caption does not equate to picking up a hammer and attempting to improve the qualify of life for people in that area. True service isn’t interested in making you look good.
And, incredibly, true service is what I saw reflected in so many people this past week. Campers from eight churches joined the SOS summer staff for our first week of camp, which mostly consisted of deshingling roofs under a hot Memphis sun. Granted, some campers viewed service as showing up in Memphis but checking out at the worksite. That was me once, and Lord knows that’s unavoidable so long as apathy and lazyness are still alive and well.
But what really excited and encouraged me were the kids who didn’t show up so they could humble brag on Facebook about how they single-handily saved inner-city Memphis. Instead, these kids showed up, not to make themselves look good, but to serve with gentle, genuine and humble hearts.
What I hope week one of camp showed these kids, and what it certainly showed me, is that we are called to serve everyone because we are called to love everyone. Service is synonymous with love. When I view service in that sense, I cease to see it as a gift only “wealthy” folks can give. I cease to see it as one week or one summer out of my year. Living in service becomes a lifestyle I can lead everyday.
I see service as a call to love others, who are just as broken as I am, as closely as I can to the way Christ loves me. I choose to serve over myself, because I am able to recognize ever so slightly that I’m not the most important person in my story. And thank God for that.
Campers just arrived here in the Bing for week two. More roofing, lessons and challenges are no doubt in store as the summer continues to pick up steam. And I have no doubt this week will bring more living and breathing examples of what true service means.
From a summer in Memphis.
Three houses sit on Princeton Avenue in the inner-city Memphis neighborhood of Binghampton.
Three houses, with porch swings and well-kept yards, sit on what used to be abandoned lots, filled to the waist with grass and broken bottles.
This street is a small picture of a movement that has been playing out across Binghampton for the past ten years.
Families, which have been predominately young and white, are moving into and building houses in a neighborhood, which has been predominately poor and black.
But Binghampton was not always this way. The neighborhood that now sits in the center of a sprawling city had a strong economy built on lumber mills in the early 1900s. Railroad tracks were laid out that cut the neighborhood into two — one side to the east and one to the west. As Memphis traversed through economic recessions and the civil rights movement, Binghampton grew poorer and poorer.
In the ’70s, refugees from all over the world began relocating to the west side. Today, one-third of the people you’ll find in west Bing are from Sudan, Afganistan, Somalia and many other war-torn places. On the east side, 99.9 percent of the people you’ll find are African-American.
Nathan Cook of Christ Community Ministries spoke to me and other SOS interns about the history of Binghampton, highlighting the community’s brokenness. Lester School, a Bing middle school, has had the lowest test scores in the state of Tennessee. Cook said just eight percent of the entire school was on grade level. The elementary has since been converted to a charter school, a decision met by much public outcry.
If the education system is the platform from which young men and women get their spring into society, then the education system in Binghampton is clear evidence of the cycle of poverty that has had a grip on the community for generations.
So, my question is — do we really believe that cycle can be broken? After this week in SOS staff training, I chose optimism and believe it can. But what I’ve also learned is it won’t be broken easily or quickly.
Princeton Avenue is a perfect example of this. As part of our training for the urban homecare camp we’ll be apart of this summer, the SOS summer staff got to spend some time with families that have moved into the Binghampton area with the hope of furthering it’s revitalization.
I got to hang out in the living room of the Perrys, who are raising their three children in a lovely house they built on Princeton. I could write a whole separate post on this visit, but what I’ll say is this — the Perrys moved into Binghampton with a kingdom mentality. Seeing the cycle of poverty being perpetuated everyday is incredibly hard and discouraging, but the Perrys have hope that by offering up their lives as an example, things might start to change. Change won’t come quickly, maybe even not in their lifetimes, but that’s not stopping the Perrys from living in community with their neighbors, getting to know them and helping them as best they can.
And the Perrys are just one of about 100 families that have moved into this inner-city neighborhood of Memphis.
As I look to camp starting at SOS next week, I’m incredibly exciting about finally becoming a small part of this community I’ve learned so much about. Stories like the Perrys restore my hope that rejuvenation is happening in poverty-stricken places in our world, one abandoned lot at a time.