Poodles, Pit Bulls and Grandma

Poodles, Pit Bulls and Grandma

Poodles, Pit Bulls and Grandma

Color it hopeful in 1936 when Grandpa defied the Great Depression and bought two lots among the wheat fields of southeast Los Angeles. At the time, he was only working part time as a carpenter and had his mother, wife, and two young sons to support. But with the help of his father-in-law and some friends from the church, he started building a house.

The family of five moved in before it was completed. They nailed lids from tin cans over the knot holes in the subfloor, and it was years before Grandpa could afford to finish plastering all the inside walls.

But they made the house a home. The family planted a large garden. Great grandma died. A third son was born. More houses were built on their street. And the rough-hewn community tried to ignore the distant war in Europe while it struggled to make a life, not just a living.

The hope seemed justified.

Color it secure in the fifties. The war was over. Grandpa had steady full-time work. The community became a city. Victory gardens and gravel driveways gave way to lawns and white picket fences. My dad came back from the war and went to college. His younger brother married the girl across the street. And the youngest son attended a private high school thanks to the new affluence.

They called themselves an All American City back then. Properly translated, this meant that the realtors effectively discriminated against the Blacks and Hispanics from surrounding communities. It was an all-white city. Neat and lovely. A trifle smug.

And oh, so secure.

Color it shocked and shattered in the sixties. Discrimination became illegal. The nearby ghetto overflowed and white flight turned into sheer panic. Weeds flourished around the boarded-up houses. The tax base declined. City services deteriorated.

Grandpa looked at the grim reality and determined to stay where his roots were. Then he died.

Grandma lived. And she, too, decided to stay.

Her friends who had fled were shocked.

Color it raw in the eighties as poverty and racism bred violence and suspicion. The picket fences disappeared while wrought iron bars secured many doors and windows. The cute, pampered poodles were replaced with Pit Bulls and Dobermans. Half the people drove old clunkers while the rest had serious car alarms installed. And you wore red, black, or blue jackets ONLY if you belonged to one of the gangs that was competing for turf on Grandma's street. The suburb became a ghetto.

And the ghetto's raw, undressed wounds festered.

In the midst of the bloodshed, immorality, violence and filth, Satan's greatest triumph was a smothering cloud of suspicion that crushed the spirit of neighborliness. People lived and died in brutal isolation, neither caring for their neighbors, nor being cared for by them.

Each person found a valid reason to cut off his neighbors.

The black lady two doors north looked the other way while her two adult sons peddled drugs out of the garage. She pretended it wasn't happening, because they helped her pay the rent.

The gang members despised her for not having the courage to openly join their gang. The other neighbors despised her for not having the courage to kick her sons out. So she lived in proud and painful isolation.

The old white couple on the corner was trapped. They had not moved out when they could, and now property values had dropped so much, they could not afford to move anywhere. Fear crippled them. The man would not walk from the house to the garage without a loaded gun.

Census takers labeled households as Black, Hispanic, Asian or Arabic. Parents taught their kids some different terms for labeling and deriding their neighbors.

The kids learned well.

Even racial loyalties succumbed to division and alienation. The affluent Mexican trader had no use for the illegal Mexican immigrant across the street. The Mexican laborer looked down on the family from El Salvador. And the black gang members threw rocks at other black kids who dared to play with the solitary white boy on that street.

But while Satan rejoiced over his brutal masterpiece of fragmentation and hate, my 80-year-old Grandma lived there alone and penetrated the isolation of many families.

She went to visit the mother of the drug dealers. Grandma heard about the injury that kept her neighbor home from work for months. Grandma's gift of companionship was a welcome break from the endless, lonely days of low back pain, punctuated by TV commercials that mocked her poverty.

Grandma visited the older white couple hoping that her love would serve as an antidote to the poison of bitterness that was consuming their lives.

She listened patiently to the woman with a speech impediment, whom others mocked. She drove poor people to the market, the doctor and the cemetery. She baked cookies, pies and cakes on holidays, birthdays and many ordinary days.

Through her listening, she heard the anguish, hopelessness and fear of old and young alike. Their isolation hurt her. She began to learn Spanish when she was in her seventies, so she could build one more bridge to her most isolated neighbors.

She gave the gift of friendship to the lonely on her street. She included in her life those who had been excluded from society. She believed in those who were struggling so badly they did not believe in themselves. And on a street full of degradation, she gave the gift of dignity to people who found it nowhere else.

So Grandma brought healing to thousands of big and little wounds that The Destroyer had inflicted on people's souls and spirits.

And then she died.

As I stood looking at her casket, I thought of the organizations whose job it was to fill the black hole of human needs on that street. The welfare system has its limitless fund of inequities and insensitivity. The dozens of big and little churches have Deacon Boards and Care Committees. The service clubs have their fine mottos and monthly meetings. And the politicians are always on the job with lofty campaign rhetoric.

But they have failed to meet the needs Grandma was meeting, because they are cursed with the American vice of building institutions instead of promoting intimacy.

And they are not alone in this failure. Put your church in the balance and weigh it.

Do you have a constitution and bylaws? Pastors, elders and deacons? Boards, committees and policy stalemates? Membership lists, elections and appointment procedures? Bulletins, newsletters and devotional booklets?

That's nice. (I think).

Now, listen to God: 'Pure religion and undefiled before God our Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world."

So tell me about the ministry to widows in your church. Who has mastered the complexities of the local mortuaries? Can someone guide a brand new widow through the process of burying her husband without her being riled or robbed by the undertakers?

Does anyone in your church understand all seven steps of the grieving process? Can you offer genuine help as the widow learns to live without her husband?

Who in your church has learned the skills and developed contacts to help the widow with government red tape? Where are the lawyers in your church who will donate time to needy widows instead of devouring their meager resources?

How many workdays has your church had this year? One a month? Wonderful. Did you spend all twelve of those workdays beautifying your own church property? Please tell me that at least one morning this year you washed windows, pruned trees, replaced screen doors and fixed leaky faucets for the widows in (AND OUT OF...?) your church.

Tell me about the godly sons and daughters in your church who will structure their entire lives so they can bring an aged, widowed mother into their own home instead of stashing her in a "rest home" like an old worn-out shoe.


All right, then tell me about your church's ministry to the fatherless - not only to the orphans but also to the victims of divorce and the children born of lust.

How is your church fulfilling the dozens of commands to deal kindly with the aliens in the land? And those in prison? And the poor? And the sick? And the homeless?

Enough, already!

You know and I know that 95% of the Christian churches in America, including yours, spend most of their time and money serving whole people, not broken ones. But we always send a little money to support the organizations that are supposed to heal the brokenness in our world.

Our fine institutions represent good intentions. But when they don't heal the wounded, they aren't good enough.

It is high time for us to bring all our ministries with a foundation of individual human contact and compassion, like Grandma did, instead of with the sterility of another organizational meeting, another budget proposal and yet another promotional effort.

Let's color it effective, by personally reflecting Christ's love into our society's brokenness, as He did.

Arthur Burk
Lynwood, CA