by Elise Lockamy
God “is somewhere around,” she says. “We just can’t find him.”
I knew He was coming. In this New York Times series featuring the life and times of a homeless child in the City, I knew God was going to show up.
In the piece, readers learn that Dasani is the oldest of eight, with an acute awareness of her social status and family role. She is intelligent – and not just streetwise; she’s academically gifted too. She wears responsibility as a chosen chip on her shoulder, bearing through it by fighting those around her when the weight becomes too heavy. Her mother and stepfather are (recovering) addicts. They have some income but are unable to manage it. Their lives, it seems, depict ebbs and flows of favor – as when Dasani’s mom inherited $49,000 after her own mother’s death – and despair – as when Dasani’s stepfather’s tax refund is garnished to pay back child support. The family has been living in deplorable conditions in the Auburn shelter in Brooklyn for close to three years.
As the polished writer details the individual and socio-political dimensions of Dasani’s life and homelessness in New York City, I see something. I see that there is no mention of the family’s faith life, or religion. Why should there be? In a life described as this one, how could faith or God possibly exist?
I read on, past the “we just can’t find Him” quote, and find myself enamored by the descriptions of Brooklyn life. The mention of Brownsville takes me back to my childhood. I remember corner stores and train rides. Gypsy cabs and dollar vans. Kings Plaza and 99 cent stores. Mr. Frosty and open fire hydrants. After school pit stops at the nearby Chinese restaurant for chicken wings and French fries, and maybe some apple sticks. I remember walks in Prospect Park, and bike rides up and down Bergen Street. I remember all our neighbors, the village that raised both me and my dad. I remember the building down the street my cousin and I were told to stay out of. The empty lots we were told not to walk by. I even remember the stray bullet that killed Mr. Mike, the neighborhood handy man.
And I remember the moment, years later, when it finally hit me that God had given my parents a dream, a vision, and had lifted me out of something. I had already matriculated from Milton Academy and Georgetown University and was riding the bus to my (seemingly) dilapidated graduate school apartment. There were “Teach for America” posters lining the advertising space. I read something to the effect of – “Only 1 in 10 students from low-income neighborhoods graduate from college”. That’s me, Lord! That’s me! And then – why me, Lord? Why me?
Elise (left) with peers, Milton Academy graduation, June 2005
Elise (center) with sisters, Georgetown University graduation, May 2009.
“I don’t dream at all,” she says. “Even when I try.”
Dasani does not dream. She only knows lack. She only sees lack. And there’s no one, not even a God, to correct her vision, to show her dreams, to show her faith, hope, and love.
Dasani is not so far removed from me. Growing up, I am sure there were a few Dasani’s in my classrooms. And that’s when the tangle begins. Father, what you did for me, surely you can do for Dasani. Surely. Surely. I can hardly imagine a God who neglects his little ones. Hardly. Hardly. Because I sometimes do. I think back to emotionally trying times in my life, and remember feeling all alone. God you are not here. You’ve left us! You’ve left me. And there – in those moments – I am an orphan. Orphaned and foundation-less. Homeless.
I scour the Word for relief. Not unlike the scouring Dasani’s parents resort to in the form of begging, stealing, and using. I am led to Matthew 25, The Parable of the Talents. Servant one is given 5 talents, servant two is given two, and servant three is given one – each servant receiving according to his abilities. When the Master departs, servant one gleans five more talents, and servant two gleans two more. Upon the Master’s return, they both present 10 and 4 talents back to him accordingly. As a reward, he allows them to “enter into joy” and equips them to be in charge of even more. But as for servant three, well he has nothing but the one talent to present back to his Master. The Master inquires, “why didn’t you increase what I provided to you?” The servant responds – “well, I knew you to be a harsh and hard man…”
Harsh and hard. This harsh and hard God has abandoned Dasani and her family. The harsh and hard God I know has turned his face from me many times and the past. Why? Because a harsh and hard God does not exist. He is not present because He is not real.
God is love. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13 remind me that love is patient and kind. My God, the one I have come to call Lover, Savior, Redeemer, and Provider, is not harsh and hard. He is the embodiment of all that is good. With this in mind, I turn back to Dasani and her family. God is somewhere around. The reality of their circumstances presses them to rely on a harsh and hard God image, because the loving God, the one their spirit knows and cries out to, wouldn’t leave them in this state.
The Master takes away the one talent from the third servant, relegates him to the “outer darkness”, and asks, “Did you really know me?”
If God is real, and is love, then Dasani would not face the life obstacles that she does.
No, see, when God is real, and is love [in our thinking, in our dreams, in our inner-being] then we face obstacles and triumph as overcomers in and through him.
At the end of the piece we learn that Dasani’s family has been relocated to an apartment in Harlem – one with bedrooms and a kitchen. Dasani is now close to the park where she trains with an athletic team. Dasani’s Brooklyn school – the one in which she grows close to an inspiring teacher, Ms. Hester – is making arrangements for Dasani, and two of her siblings, to remain enrolled there. They are working on bus pickup as to not exacerbate the children with an hour long commute each way.
At the end of the piece I see God, in all his loving kindness – in the teacher, the principal, the investigative reporter, and the supermarket patron who allows Dasani’s stepfather to fill up a cart with groceries that this Samaritan will pay for. I see it. I see Him. Maybe now, His omnipresence will begin to fill Dasani’s heart. Maybe now, she will find Him.