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There is no easy way to take Robbie home from our house. If you ask Google, Robbie lives 2.1 miles away and we should be able to get there in about 8 minutes if the lights cooperate and there’s no construction. If you ask our friend Roland, Robbie’s home is “not more than a couple of miles, probably make it in 45 minutes if it’s not raining.” Ask Robbie and he’ll tell you it isn’t far—sometimes he walks, but he prefers to catch a ride from one of us. But being friends with Robbie for years now means that we know that the path to our house a harrowing one for him.
Robbie is our sometimes-recovering, sometimes-using brother for whom addiction has made the neighborhoods around his home, our home, and the other homes connected to Grace and Main into a minefield of temptation. Numerous corners, streets, and porches between us stand as mute memorials to Robbie’s struggle and captivity to drugs. He may only be “not more than couple of miles” away, but his way home is a long one.
Some Sunday evenings, Robbie joins the gathered community for prayers and singing in our home. Most weeks, he stays with us in the room we’ve made a chapel as long as he can before taking a break on the front porch. He rejoins us once his nerves are a little better under control. Robbie rarely misses any of the singing and is eager to pray and sometimes lead us in a prayer. He’s sensitive and insightful, but also anxious and wary. He loves to bake for others and makes a banana pudding like you wouldn’t believe, but sometimes speaks quickly in anger. He believes strongly in the power of prayer, but has some justified doubts about what well-meaning people say. Like all of us, he’s complicated.
Robbie has been taught by the streets between us that there’s always another shoe just about ready to fall and his best hope not to be caught unawares is to keep moving and to stay one step ahead. What Sister Dorothy Day might have called the “filthy, rotten system” has offered Robbie no way out of the endless cycles of poverty and addiction, so he’s learned to leave before he’s asked to leave and to hurt before he is hurt.
Those of us who moved downtown in the early days of Grace and Main did so not because God was calling us to a particular ministry, but because God was calling us to a people and a way of life. So, we planted ourselves in the place where God was moving and started listening for what God was calling us to do with—not for—our new neighbors. But, Robbie has taught us that there were still barriers not overcome by a change of address form and turning our homes into hospitality houses.
Trust is not built easily or quickly. Indeed, genuine and reciprocal relationships are not managed, but lived out with mistakes and missteps alongside the celebrations and conversations. We’ve scared Robbie away for a few months before when we’ve tried to find ways to help. Robbie has hurt our feelings and scared us, too. No amount of relocation or planning can break down years of carefully built distrust overnight—the way home is long.
For Robbie and for us, the quickest route is often the hardest one and it is full of temptation. For Robbie, the temptations are crack and believing the world’s lies that he’s all alone. For us, the temptation is to prize efficiency over intimacy and to think more about logistics than calling. In the end, we’re all haunted by the neighborhoods that we call home.
So, we take the long way home—a circuitous route that doesn’t take us past a certain crackhouse, or past an abandoned home that holds particular meaning for all of us. At first, we came up with excuses for why we took the long way home—“Hey Robbie, you mind if we stop by the gas station first?” “If I got you some bananas from the grocery store, would you make a banana pudding for Thursday night’s meal?” “Hey Robbie, I heard there was a house over in this neighborhood that was for sale, you want to go check it out?”
Sometimes it was Robbie who came up with the excuses—“Kyle wasn’t there tonight, can we stop by his place to make sure he’s okay?” “I need to get some milk if I’m going to make that cake for Saturday.” “I heard Mary got kicked out of her apartment and is sleeping on Jackson Ave., want to go check?” But, nowadays, we try to take the long route home without explanation. We don’t need to make excuses for the right way home and, most of the time, the long way is the right way—especially if it means going there together with the people to whom you have been called. After all, it’s the journey together to which we’ve all been called, so why shorten it?