"Hello, darling. And who's this?"
"This my other friend."
While we loaded the big white van, they vied for the "shotgun" seat and radio control. I shouted for seat belts: one body, one belt; put it on and keep it on, period! They made their standard jokes about my adhering to a fictional "Sunday School handbook" and argued over radio stations. I had to turn down the volume in my head. The music was loud, and their voices slammed against it and bounced off the hard, metal interior. Someone at church had suggested that I use permission slips, like for school trips, but then I couldn't have accommodated the last-minute add-ons. Each time the ungainly van ollied over a pothole and the kids sang, "Oooooh!" in amusement park chorus, I was sorry I hadn't.
Each of us has needs, and they had many. A brother and sister had lost their mother in a fire. Years later the girl called to tell me that she was prosecuting her father for repeated, forced sexual abuse. Another boy won a bicycle when our group competed in a bike race. Within a year his mother sold the bike for drug money. Some of the kids had great parents who were absent because they worked two and three pieces of jobs. Without medical insurance, these kids received spotty health and dental care. Family therapy for the oceans of grief through which they waded only entered their lives in crises.
People in church smiled to see the youth group growing, but I suspected that churches only tolerate teens until their sexuality revs up, until they question the whack way grown-ups run things, or until they ask us to do more for them.
They asked, reasonably, for Saturday trips. Having taught at my old New England boarding school, I knew in my heart of hearts that Sundays-only work with teens was insufficient to their needs. But as the Buddha and my mother had told me, people are lazy.
"Saturdays?" Like I didn't understand.
Angel was the most articulate: "Sundays are fine for church, but really, Ms. Lorene, we need more than that."
Of course they did. We were huddled in a circle of battered folding chairs in a soup kitchen parish hall that smelled of bad digestion, swabbed over with ammonia. It was where we had coffee hour, as if in solidarity with those for whom the church universal prayed each week: "For the sick, the friendless, and the needy...for our family, friends, and neighbors, and for those who are alone...." Shame on me for making a 14-year-old spell it out.
We'd be okay if we were prodded and pushed and molded. We needed to have things instilled in us, which was sometimes misspoken as "installed." They had to instill/install things in us, as one installed a carburetor into a defective engine.
But in 11th grade, I attended St. Paul's School, where the cost to educate and board each child runs to seven or eight times the public school per-child allotment. There, on scholarship, I learned what it felt like to be among children of bankers, lawyers, and businesspeople. We were cherished; we were "great kids." Teachers, administrators, and alumni said it with assurance: just a great bunch of young people. Within each of us lay something won-derful that teachers were determined to find and help us develop. We were mar-velous. That's why they worked us so hard, and ran us into the ground at sports, and made us rewrite and practice and calculate and experiment. One day we'd be leaders, and it was their privilege to teach us. Even at our most despicable, when they had to hold up the mirror to reflect back to us the worst of our faults, it was because they knew that we could and would do better next time.
I fell into this extreme educational luxury just as the boy in my Chinese fairy-tale book fell underwater into the gorgeous jade palace of the ocean prince. I returned there to teach in my 20s. By the time I got to the Church of the Advocate at 30, I knew that if these North Philly children had been given what I had in Concord, New Hampshire, they, too, could thrive in America. Instead they were granted constant stress and a half-assed education. No need for me to make it worse with a half-assed spiritual experience. All they were asking for was Saturday.
But we humans are lazy.
From a selfish point of view, I'd already given up Sundays: church proper, that is. I'd given up the slow, regal Anglican ritual studded with African-American spirituals. I'd traded our vaulting French Gothic sanctuary hung with huge black arts–era murals for the low-ceiling mop-water funk of the parish hall. I'd given up the easy company of parishioners I'd come to love, older people who petted and spoiled me, for kids who now wanted and would always want more.
Worship helped me to connect, if even for a moment. "Only connect!" as E.M. Forster wrote in Howards End, "...the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer." But body and soul could so easily peel apart. That's why I listened to Thelonious Monk's recording of the song of the same title. He understood. One breathy topaz sound finishes, achingly, before we hear the next, which should have been—and really still was—connected to the first, if we could imagine and let go our impatience: clinging, clinging, clinging, gimme now. Like the spaces in Monk's music, like the communion bell, the Advocate's ritual called me to awareness.
And when he'd say it, in a rumbling deep voice that rolled along the six-story-high ceiling and dropped into my ear, it was as if I could imagine anything. Writing a book about the Underground Railroad, I saw the characters in that church, I heard them making love; I listened from inside her head as a woman calculated whether to leave her master, knowing that they'd kept her baby in Virginia as surety. I knew the story, but it was in that place that I felt it. With my eyes closed and Eleanor Farmer singing, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, I understood that the baby left behind was her easy baby. She'd call him her "best baby," the one who nursed easiest, the one they were most likely to sell.
In the Advocate, among those people, with those gorgeous, buck-wild murals and hand-carved stone faces around me, the top of my head opened up to allow images and words to pour through me like light. Live in fragments no longer. Thy kingdom come indeed. Thanks be to God.
Teaching Sunday School and Youth Group required that I give up that experience and hang out with the kids and their attitudes in the parish hall. We read the lesson of the day to start. Only a few could read on grade level. A few really couldn't read at all. They could sound out words but not put them together.
"Look up, sugar pie," I'd say after a boy had mouthed the words to a Bible verse. Then I'd read back to him, conversationally, with emphasis, the words that he'd said. A wealthy man threw a banquet, but all his friends made excuses why they couldn't come, so he sent his servant to bring in anybody off the street: "What's it talking about?"
"Ms. Lorene, the boy can't read!"
"You can't read, either. You can't do a lot of things."
"Okay, okay, okay. Tell me what this verse is saying to you. Listen to it again, will you?" I kept eye contact. Stay connected.
"Did they mean anybody?"
"Tol' you he can't read."
"Anybody who'd come," I remember saying. "So, he'd have come here to the soup kitchen and invited everybody who hadn't gotten a ticket yet."
"That's a shame you don't have no friends to come party with you."
"What's it talking about?" I asked again, two or three times, while they laughed at the idea of the wealthy landowner loading up the regulars.
"Listen, hey! What if he came this morning to get us?"
My mind went through our congregation. Two men from the soup kitchen were likely there that day: one, a tall, aloof man who heard voices and collected girls' barrettes off the street to decorate his lapel; the other, a short, grunting character with a bad eye that swoll up and oozed a creamy yellow discharge. He tried to come to Sunday School and get in on the discussion sometimes, but we didn't let him because he frightened the younger ones.
("I'll just sit by the door. 'S all right if I just sit by the door, isn't it?"
"It means," Jason said, "that Jesus tried to get all the regular people, but they were too big and impor'ant, so then he came for e'ybody else."
Laughter breaks out suddenly like rain. Or tears.
We left the advocate after 15 years. My husband, profoundly touched by the spirit of the place, went into the seminary. We followed as his career took him to other churches, first as a seminarian, then a curate, and now as rector of his own parish. At first we cried. Now we're clergy family.
Okay, guys, two commandments: Love God, love people. Give it up.
Sometimes I meet the young adults who were once at the Advocate. In the years since our beach trip, the boys are as likely as not to have spent time in jail. The girls have had babies. One is being raised by someone else. They struggle: to help raise younger siblings, to earn a living, to make relationships better than those they inherited. They always recall that trip to the beach—the big, splashy sunshine and cold salt water.
And when they do, I recall my terror as they rushed into the surf.
"I could swim," Jason assured me, shouting, his voice cracking.
No he couldn't; any fool could see that. I remember feeling big and vulnerable. I was pregnant with our younger daughter. But even without the pregnancy, I could never have swum well enough to save them.
I remember that revelation—Jesus!—that I could only save myself. What kind of adult would go through life with just enough for herself? Just enough swimming skill, or time or love or money? Why pray for abundance and live out of scarcity? What would I do if the undertow sucked one of them down and out? Why had I brought them here in the first place?
My kid could swim, of course. She whispered it to me, as if reading my mind. "I could get him."
She was 8.
"Everybody out! Out! On the beach. Now!"
Uh-oh. Now we're in trouble.
Jesus, we just got here.
"I'm going to go into the water," I said. "And I'm going to place myself at the edge of where you can go. No farther. I can't protect you otherwise."
My daughter, the athlete, looked at me as if to ask whether this dictum could possibly refer to her, too. At 3, in this same ocean, she told me, "Don't touch me, Mommy!"—then looked around to make sure that I stayed just behind her, absorbing the shock of waves. "But don't let me fall."
But I wasn't protecting these children. I hadn't taught them to read. I hadn't taught them to swim. All we had done was pray together. We had meditated: Roll up the light of love in a ball at your feet, pull it over your legs and body and face. One tiny girl who acted as a parent to her brother asked to be allowed to imagine him inside the light with her. We'd held up a mirror, and they'd said to the dark faces that they only partially approved: I am made in the image of God. We sang to carve into the place our covenant: Here, in this space, no adult would harm them: This little light of mine / I'm gonna let it shine.
No doubt those children had everything to do with my founding, at the Advocate, an organization to infuse our inner city with the healing and educational power of African-American arts and letters. In the past ten years, Art Sanctuary has mushroomed into a full-time not-for-profit with a staff of six and year-round programs that reach up to 10,000 people a year. I hadn't planned on running a business, but that's what was required. The North Stars teen after-school program is only one component, but it's the one that most closely mirrors the aims of that first youth group. Its handpicked team of fabulous faculty teaches love and discipline along with the poetry, dance, and music. North Stars has transformed the lives of hundreds of young people, a great bunch of kids. All but one have graduated from high school, and nearly 90 percent have gone on to higher education.
Last year the child with whom I was pregnant on the white-van beach trip joined the program. And my older daughter, now in her 20s, has added to her university research job a weekend gig, leading inner-city youths in northern New Jersey on rock-climbing wilderness excursions. The journey to connection is longer than we could have known, stretching unbroken, like the ocean from our little New Jersey beach to Lisbon, Portugal, offering the hope of love but no guarantees.
Lorene Cary has written Black Ice, a memoir; two novels, The Price of a Child and Pride and Free!, a collection of real-life stories for children about the Underground Railroad. Art Sanctuary, which she founded and directs, celebrated 10years in June.