A boy in our neigborhood was killed last night.  when police stopped a car he was riding in, he fled.  police chased him.  there was an altercation.  then the gun shot.  we don’t know details.  all we know is that a young man in our community lost his life today.

Tonight neighbors gather in the back alley, where julius died. we are circled around a small memorial for julius.  A few stuffed bears and a couple dozen flickering candles lie in the place where julius fell. Above, on the fence hangs some flimsy posterboard with penned phrases like, “He’s in a better place” and “RIP julius.” We stand tightly, shoulder to shoulder, holding candles that drip hot wax on our hands.  Pastors from our neighborhood churches cry out in loud, inspired voices, “We serve a god who does not make mistakes.” But this, I wonder?  Even this?  For what purpose is this?

We wonder and we hold tighter to the candles, putting our hope in each small flame, sheltering them from the soft summer nite breeze.  We wonder and we raise the candles together, believing that this life will not be forgotten.  We will not forget.  We wonder and we grasp onto each others’ hands, with a strong sense of connection and purpose:  that only when we truly love each other will we be the community of SHALOM we long for.

We wonder.  And in the loose warmth between our clasped palms, we feel the Spirit nudging us to believe.


New in Town

Titling an interview with Tom and Renee Pastoor “New in Town” is what those in the writing business would call irony, given their thirty one years of residence in the neighborhood.  But that is where they took me, to a time when they were new in town.

“We bought the house dirt cheap.  We met Ray and Isabell Squires, who were our neighbors and really, kind of second grandparents to our children.”

TomReneeWe quickly had to pause our interview for the welcome interuption of neighborhood kids wanting to talk to Tom.  Here is a scene and a continuation of the investment in the lives his neighbor’s children.  And here, in a way, is Ray, who had done the same.

“So Ray and Isabell were like grandparents to our kids.  They took care of them while we were doing projects around the house.  I learned a lot from Ray.  He helped me do some roofing on the garage.  He was in his mid-seventies, and he carried the rolled roofing, on his shoulder, up the ladder, to show me how to do it.  I learned a lot from him about being resourceful and being a gardener.  He had the most beautiful garden.  Basically, we’ve inherited his garden.  He graduated from Michigan College, before it was Michigan State, and had a degree in horticulture and animal husbandry.”

GardenRenee gave me a tour of their backyard, and the garden that Ray planted, and she and Tom had improved on.  It’s incredibly beautiful, almost magical to someone whose imagination tends to carry him away.

“When Ray was a little boy, he had hearing loss.  Six or seven years old.  When he got old, he related to me how difficult that was, to be a boy and not be able to hear.  He got pretty emotional about it, and Ray was a pretty tough guy.  He was one of the original garden boys.  There was a guy named McLouth that had a garden out by Mona Lake, by the Henry Street float bridge.  And these kids from the neighborhood would go there and learn about gardening.  I think it’s pretty fitting that we’re doing the same thing right across the street from his house.”

HouseDoorIn the park, across the street from his house, Tom teaches the neighborhood kids about gardening.  I’m beginning to think everyone in the neighborhood is a gardener.  I had no idea when I got involved with McLaughlin that it’s agricultural roots ran so deep.

And in coming full circle, the kids painted a mural on the fence in the new park, right behind the garden where Tom works with them.  And on that mural, they painted Ray’s old house.


This week, I finish up with the McLaughlin Grows crew…

How long you guys been working here?

Michael:  “6 to 8 weeks.”

You guys like it?

Shaquille: “Yeah, it’s cool.  Teaches us life skills.”

How did you get this job?

Michael:  “At the pocket park, they had something going on, on a Saturday.  I went up there to help, and Michael Espinoza told me about it, that they had a summer job program going on, and would I be interested.  I said yeah.”

Shaquille:  “I got the job because I live in the neighborhood.  Trying to help out the community.”

Just for the summer, for you guys?

Michael:  “Yeah.  They’re trying to work it out so we can stay longer.”

And what do you think of Teri?

Michael:  “She’s laid back.”

Shaquille:  “She’s nice.”

Michael:  “She’s strict on us just enough.  Tells us a lot about the plants.  Most of us didn’t know anything about plants; we just know about the food.  And she told us the different plants, and what they do.”

Farm Rows

Is there a lot to learn?  I don’t really do gardening…er, farming, myself.

Shaquille:  “There’s a lot of work.”

AJ :  “A lot weeding.”

Michael:  “Leveling off the beds even.  Watering.”

AJ :  “Turning them over.”

Michael:  “After we got past the hard stuff, all we really do is weed and plant and water.  That’s all.  The first couple weeks were hard.  We had to turn the dirt over, then make all these beds.  Then we had to plant them all, and they cut the tree down.  That’s where all these wood chips came from.  Instead of picking up all the wood chips, we decided to just make a path out of them.”

What do you guys think about the neighborhood in general?  Do you like living here?

Michael:  “It’s a pretty good neighborhood.  Pretty decent.”

Now, are you the football player?

Michael:  “Yeah.”

What position?

Michael:  “Safety.”

What are your plans for the future?

Michael:  “I’m going into the criminal justice field.  Corrections officer maybe.”

Shaquille:  “You’re gonna see me; I’m gonna be a famous lawyer.”

So what are you working on today?

Michael:  “We’re planting these tomatoes we got from the prison.  Those ones we planted are diseased.  Blight, I think it’s called.”

Shaquille:  “And they got bronchitis.  Couple of them have AIDS.”

So what’s your favorite part about working here?

AJ :  “Getting money.”

Shaquille:  “Helping out the community.  Making it look much better than it did.”

Michael:  “At first it was just an empty lot.  There were glass bottles, trash.”

AJ :  “You could get cut out here.”

Michael:  “I used to cut through this yard, then one day I was walking and there was a fence up.  I was like, when did they put a fence up here?”

How about your least favorite thing?

AJ :  “When it’s hot.  Too hot.”

Shaquille:  “Yeah, you gotta weed.”

AJ :  “And the sun’s about to kill you.”

Michael:  “Other than that, it’s pretty fun.  Everybody gets along.  A lot of people pass by and ask what’s going on.”

AJ :  “Sometimes they drop us off something.”

Shaquille:  “You get little kids that walk up and down that are excited about what’s going on.”

I stopped back at the McLaughlin Grows Urban Farm to catch up with Teri’s crew.  I interrupted them replanting some tomato plants, and so as not to shut down the entire operation, I only interviewed half the crew at a time.  And since it’s ladies first, here is my interview with Darcelle, Tiana, and Porche.

How do you like working out here?

Darcell: “It’s really fun.”

Tiyanna:  “The neighbors come past and compliment it a lot.”

Darcell:  “Something to do for the summer.”

Porche: “Something positive.  Making a difference.”

Darcell:  “Helping our neighborhood.”


How did you get this job?

Tiyanna:  “My mom told me about Bethany Housing hiring and Mike Espinoza put us in the groups he thought would fit us.”

Darcell:  “My coach helped me.”

Porche:  “Well I go to Bethany church.  Most of the people at Bethany are involved in Community EnCompass.”

What sport do you play?

Darcell:  “I play basketball.”

What’s the worst part about working here?

Darcell: “There is no worst part.”

Porche:  “If it’s too hot or if it’s raining out.”

Tiyanna:  “Well, sometimes it’s better if it’s raining, but then mosquitoes come up.”

Darcell:  “Besides the sun, there is no worst part.”

Does everyone get along pretty well?

“We’re okay.”  “Love/hate situation.”  “We get along good.  We might have our ups and downs, but you know.”  “It’s girls against boys sometimes.”

Have you learned a lot working here?

Porche: “I have.”

Darcell:“I learned a lot.  I didn’t think gardening was like this.”

Tiyanna: “I appreciate farmers more, honestly.  I don’t know how they stand out there in the sun and do this all day, no breaks.  Shout out to all the farmers; I love you guys.”

You like working for Teri?

Tiyanna:  “Yeah, Teri’s a cool boss.”

Darcell:  “She’s real nice.”

Porche:  “She tolerates us.”

Darcell:  “A little too much.  But she helps us a lot.  She puts up with us when she really doesn’t have to.”

Porche:  “And she makes gardening easy.”

Darcell:  “She’s not hard; she doesn’t boss you around.”

What do like best about working here?

Tiyanna:  “I like the laughter.  The work environment.  It’s not like one of those jobs where you punch in and can’t wait to leave.”

Darcell:  “It’s fun because we all get along with each other.”


What do you hope to see for this place in the future?

Tiyanna:  “I hope to see it filled with younger people than us.  Instead of hanging out on the street, they can be in here, making it better.  We can hopefully open up more beds and stuff.”

My City’s Farm

“Grand Rapids doesn’t have anything like this; Holland doesn’t have anything like this, so for little old Muskegon to pop up and kinda be the pioneers in a way is kind of a cool thing.”

I traipse across the Urban Ag site, as the smart people are calling it these days, to where Terry waits for me with soil-black hands.  “This is going to be a working interview.”  I kneel down and help mound dirt around some new transplants.  This is going to be a cool interview.

Like everyone involved in this project, she gets excited as she talks.

Teri and her daughter Aurora

Teri and her daughter Aurora

Teri grew up in Muskegon and lived in the area ever since.  She went to Michigan State in 2007 to learn how to do this.  It was the very first year of the program; only eleven people participated.  She tells me she likes to work outdoors, likes physical labor.  This job combines all the things she loves.

“I get paid to play in the dirt all day.”

The farm is located behind Goodwill, who generously allows the farm to use their land and water.  It employs a handful of high school-aged workers – Teri’s crew – for the summer, and I want to come back and meet them.  Planting began on June 8th.

“My crew was saying, ‘Can you believe that a few weeks ago, this was just a field?’ It recreates that relationship with ‘where does our food come from?’  Well, I know my farmer; I know who grew it.  It’s a different way of doing food,” Teri says.


We’re interrupted by a neighbor inquiring about tomatoes.  The relationship with the community goes back before this site was ever around.  It’s been a tradition since the community gardens were planted around the neighborhood, from which this micro enterprise was born.  “It started out with me and Mike Jackson,” Sarah Rinsema-Sybenga once told me, “on the lot which is right across from Bethany, which is now the Gentle Garden, with a rototiller, one day, tears streaming down my face, cause I’m like, ‘Where are the neighbors?  This is not how it’s supposed to be.’  And Mike getting behind this beast of a rototiller and tilling up the soil.  Neighbors eventually got onboard with the vision, too.  So it moved from one community garden to six or seven community gardens or pocket parks.”

Terry picks a handful of basil for me to take home, and tells me a recipe to use it in, which I immediately forget, having worked third shift the night before.  That’s why I have the digital recorder.

Then I pop by the Community EnCompass offices to get a little more background information from Carlos.  Sarah pops her head out of her office.  “Is that basil I smell?  You know what you should do with it?”  She gives another recipe which dissolves in the water of my sleep-deprived mind.

A local healthy good advocate named Chris Bedford came to Community EnCompass and gave them the idea of expanding the community gardening program into a micro enterprise, in part to serve as an economic engine in the neighborhood.  An entrepreneur with the Community Foundation liked the idea and provided funds for the next two and a half years, to get it off the ground.

G & L has already bought all the tomatoes the farm can grow this year, and talks are underway with Mia & Grace and the Baker Culinary Arts Institute.

I make it home to my apartment, handful of basil held before me, amputated bits of plants sticking through my fingers.  Shadow* gasps in horror and faints at the sight.

McLaughlin Urban Ag Logo

*Shadow is the name of a plant, and is my memorial to my residents who have died.  Also, to finish the basil story, I eventually put it with some ground turkey, onion, olive oil, rice, and then ate it.

Thoughts From Lori

Kensington 1903-2009

Its  odd what you get used to, living in the shadow of  Kensington, a large three story brownstone with ten apartments & too much litter. Kensington itself was tall, dark & handsome with a foreboding manner with its red bricks & art deco lighting, you just knew you’d be safe inside; no big bad wolf could blow that place down. Many people lived there and even though some of the traffic through there was bad, you do get used to your neighbors and the routines of life around you.

Kensington burned Monday June 29th and I am amazed at the loss I feel, although I really only lost some noise, drug deals, and a reason for some cautious paranoia.

I did have an amazing cat live in my back yard all last summer that belonged to someone there (his name was Niet).  He died in the fire.

Perhaps that’s the grief I really feel. Knowing it was in his apartment that the fire started in, and feeling the heat, choking on the smoke, watching the tenants huddled together as they lost all that they had. The grief was crushing.

Watching the rest of  Kensington being torn down was like watching an autopsy as the Y incision ripped apart the wood floors, snapping the marble stairwell, claw foot tubs and little girl’s bicycles tumbling out like intestines, stopping only when the last leaded glass window shattered.

You could actually hear Kensington moan. Maybe it was the radiators.

I no longer live in the shadow of Kensington. I’ll never get to see the little girl get her training wheels off her pink bike or look for Neit in the window on the second floor right side.

I do still hear the beeping of the smoke alarms though buried in the rubble as if a heart monitor is calling out to say I ‘m still here. But nobody’s there: not the little girl, not the yappy dogs, not the cat, not even the shadow… all because of a cigarette.