Dust and Grace
There’s a street in my hometown that has seven churches on it. Some of these are huge, non-denominational mega-churches, the kind with jumbotrons, stadium seating, and lobbies full of Playstation 4s. Preachers alternate between fire-breathing screeds about sin and damnation, and dulcet-toned entreaties to give back to the Kingdom (it’s for Jesus after all). Just up the road, rusted cars on blocks sit in front of houses with walls of decaying stucco and hungry dogs chained to wire fencing.
All of those churches, and this town can’t find within itself a sliver of forgiveness, mercy, or grace. It’s an unkind place.
Unkind. If I had to use a single word to describe it, it might be that.
Now I grew up there, and I had a great childhood. Much of that was in spite of this town, I’m sure, not because of it, but it couldn’t have been all bad, so this place has to have its good parts too.
One day every Spring, the park across from my house would turn into a festival overnight, with food trucks, striped tents, balloon animals, carnival games, and the best street corn and funnel cakes you could ever have. On those long Spring and Summer evenings it was the kind of place you could run off with your friends and not come back until sunset at 8 at night, exhausted and happy.
And it could be a beautiful place too. Not the town itself so much. It was mostly squat blocks of concrete barely rising out of the high plains, but if you got to the outskirts of town, the sky stretched endlessly to a broad and curved horizon, and radiated hues of blue, purple and red you don’t often see.
Storms would rage across the plains, swift and furious, and the desert air, parched for water, would smell like rain for hours after they had gone.
I would ride my bike to the house of an old family friend and we would drink bottles of Coca Cola and build pinewood derby cars in the wood shop in his garage.
Those hills and plains are streaked with beautiful memories like veins of ore. But I have to dig for them.
Yet through it all it’s the unkindness that sticks with me. The streets are broad and sun-bleached, lined with street-lights shaped like alien heads and dusty banners adorned with American flags and crosses, promising freedom and salvation but offering no semblance of either. At night, it’s a dangerous place, plagued by knives and gun shots and a higher violent crime rate per-capita than Chicago.
There is destitution, addiction, unemployment, and loss. But these can be conveniently overlooked from the sloping sanctuaries and radiant stained glass. They don’t put those sorts of things on the jumbotron after all.
The town stays what it is, and likely always will. I’ve moved on, but I still think of it sometimes. I remember the broad green lawns, the barbecues, the tire swings hanging on sycamore trees, having to wear shoes in the park across the street because of the broken glass, and the time one of my best friends had to dodge 9mm rounds outside of a strip mall. Places, like people, can be complicated.
One late summer night, I remember sitting in the bed of my buddy’s F150 on the hills above town, with a six pack of Tecate and some cigarillos we bought from the Circle K, talking about the future, and our hopes and dreams. Far in the plains below, the low lights of the town flickered beneath a vast and starry sky. Out there, that far from the big cities and that high, the stars are magnificent, and the milky way cuts through the heavens.
I remember thinking that if those lights were to wink out, the panoply of stars and galaxies far above wouldn’t even notice, would not be diminished. There would still be so many lights in the darkness, so many other other places, so many other choices to make. And, just maybe, some of them would offer greater chances for mercy, forgiveness, and grace.