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Archive for the ‘Stories from Neighbors’ Category

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.

Julius

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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.

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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.”

MGUFCandid

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.”

MGUFPose

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.”

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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.

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Nestled in the heart of the McLaughlin neighborhood, at 245 Irwin, is a very special place. Reminiscent of the mom and pop stores of days gone by, Direct Connection is much more than a simple candy store. Stepping through the door, I am transported back to my childhood and walks to the corner store, where they knew the names of all the neighborhood children, and we were always greeted with a smile, and perhaps a hug if needed. Then walking home with a pocketful of penny candy, or maybe a delicious ice cream treat., just like you find at Direct Connection.

Miss Sue
When you enter, you notice the walls are filled with an eclectic assortment of collectibles. Shelves, wooden crates & boxes, and even a hook or two hold everything from pop bottles to polar bears. There are tins and trays, posters and puzzles, coffee mugs and even a few plush characters we all know and love. Although most of these items are not for sale, they definitely add to the charm as you browse the items that are.
Near the front of the store is the grocery section. Here you will find an assortment of canned goods, condiments, bread and other items. There’s even a freezer stocked with frozen dinners and entrees, and a cooler with milk, juices, and sodas. This is also where you will find shelves of knick-knacks and gift items. Back on the other side, nearer the door, is the freezer of those wonderful ice cream treats. They’re just the thing on a hot summer day.
Next, you’ll see the sales counter, which contains a display case of handmade jewelry for sale. On top of this case sits an antique cash register dating back to 1914. Originally used at Montgomery Wards, it’s now only for show. At the corner of the counter is the modern cash register used for ringing up sales.
Finally, at the back of the store is the candy corner. Shelves containing colorful buckets and bins of assorted two penny candies are set low so little hands can more easily make their selections, . Nearby is a selection of twenty-five cent lollipops and other treats, including a variety of Wonka candies. This may be part of the reason that neighborhood children affectionately call owner Steve Counselor “Mr. Wonka”, along with his friendly demeanor and obvious love for them. A love that is shared by his fiancé and Direct Connection operator, Sue Howe, known as Miss Sue to these same children.

Register
There are some items you won’t find here. Things like cigarettes, alcohol, or unhealthy energy drinks. “There are other stores in the area where people can find these things.” says Miss Sue, “I’m proud to say, there is nothing in this store that a child can’t buy safely.” This is why the children of the neighborhood have come to know Direct Connection as a safe haven.  Parents also know this. It’s not unusual to see a small child walking proudly to the store to buy a treat while his mother watches from the yard to make sure he gets there safely.
Steve and Sue opened the store four years ago. They sold t-shirts, handmade jewelry, and knick-knacks. They soon transitioned to candy and it has grown from there. During these four years they have also become very invested in the neighborhood. Spending time in conversation I was touched to observe various children and adults stopping in and each one was greeted by name. The most moving though was one particular young man. He stopped in while we were talking to drop off an envelope. Inside was an invitation to his graduation open house. It was obvious, looking into his face, that, over the past four years, Sue and Steve have become a very special part of his life. Equally as obvious was the love and joy in Sues eyes as she turned to me and said, “I’m so proud of that boy. He’s worked hard for this.”
So stop in some day for a loaf of bread or maybe a tasty little treat. The store is open from noon to 6:00 on Monday through Saturday. Let’s all support this wonderful little store and help them grow. Tell them Jeff sent you!

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Micah Rinsema sits under the dining room table, an infant in a diaper, spinning an empty beer bottle.  I venture under and ask him how long he’s been there.

“Under the table?” he asks.

“In this house, how about.”

“I’ve been here seven months now.  Just had my baptism.  You should have been there; there were a diverse bunch of people there – just all over the place.  That’s life

 in this town.”

He keeps fidgeting with the beer bottle, straight-faced and sober, with that unflinching stare that infants have yet to surrender to the world.

“What is it like here?” I ask.

“Under the table?” he asks.

“In this house, how about.”

Dan and Sarah

“Well, day to day it’s a house.  We do the normal stuff.  But the current that flows through here…  It’s like this – My parents spent four years in Japan teaching English before they came to Muskegon.  That shaped how they saw the world, and how they wanted to live in it.  You realize you matter this much.”  He indicates his full height.  “Which, in their case, is a metaphor.”

“Tell me about them,” I say.

“He’s Canadian; she’s from New York or Iowa or something.  They met in college.”  He states these facts and dismisses them with his hand.  “They’re on these different, parallel paths.  Paths to make things better.  He works with one group of people through Muskegon Area First, and she works with Community EnCompass.  I mean, the paths aren’t always smooth.  Sometimes their work is at odds.  But ultimately, they want the same things.”

“And what about your path?  What do you think your chances are?” I asked.

“How do you mean?”

“Because you’re black.  Because your parents are white.  And the world is persistently hard on those who don’t run away.”

“I’m the beginning of a journey, if you’ll give me a moment’s license to be poetic.  I’ll have to go places light and dark; there are no illusions about that.  I hope that I will have many fathers and many mothers, because I am many things.”

“Tell me of hope.”

Home“Hope is the great human choice.  We control so little; we’re born not knowing who we are.  We’re searching for love, holding desperately to life.  There’s nothing we have that can’t be taken from us.  But there’s always hope.”

“Where is this hope? I want to see it.”

“It’s here in this neighborhood.  It’s too easy to see the cracks in the sidewalk, the bullet hole in the window, the porches that are ready to fall down, but if you look inside the people who live here, there are these beautiful hopes and dreams.  There’s a vision for this place – that God’s finger will touch the earth here, and it will be a preview of heaven.  And it’s already begun.  Step out and look around.”

“From under the table?” I ask.

“From this house.”

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            We grow up in our imperfect worlds, and they make us who we are.  We learn our limits, and we know that we can’t fix the world, but we try.  We try to fix the things that hurts us.

            I sat in a little bistro on 3rd street called Mia & Grace, talking with Carlos Avrard, fellow Mosaic Way-er and coordinator of the Healthy Neighborhood Project in McLaughlin. 

“They have muffalettas here,” he said as he explained the place.

I set out my digital recorder and give him a simple directive: get me to now.

            He told me fondly about New Orleans – the food, the music, the weather, the drive-thru alcohol stands – the diversity he encountered on every side.

“We moved a lot, though, around,” he said.  He went to eight different schools in his thirteen years, never setting down any roots.  Then he tells me in a quiet sort of way that he’s envious of people who have long-term friendships, the kind that stretch back into childhood.

Carlos

     He met his wife, Sarah, in college.  They hung out in a Hardee’s one of the first nights he was there.  “She knew right away,” he said.  After graduation, they moved to Michigan.  The church they attended was located in McLaughlin at the time.  Starting Mosaic Way has seen them come full circle.

            “The diversity, that’s a good, healthy thing, that there’s not people who look like you and think like you.  There’s a vibrancy in that,” he said of the mosaic McLaughlin neighborhood.

            We arrived at now, so now what?  These days Carlos is remodeling his house and continuing his work with the neighborhood.

“One cool thing about our home remodel project – where we’re taking this home built over a hundred years ago and it’s sturdy and it has all this character to it, but has all this work that’s required – I’m kinda paralleling this home remodel project to this neighborhood.  Where as we’re spending ourselves and putting in effort and money into restoring this home in a way, of pouring passion and energy – and granted, it’s one little piece of this neighborhood, but paralleling that to this community, putting in effort, putting in time, pouring ourselves and our passions toward seeing this community be restored in a way. And I think those two parallels of the struggles that we deal with on the house, of knowing it’s not a quick fix and it’s not gonna be easy and we’re gonna have to be patient; we’re gonna have frustrations and roadblocks.  The same is true for this neighborhood, that it’s not going to be a quick fix; we’re gonna have to deal with the frustration and the roadblocks and all those things.  As you kinda dig into this stuff you find that you bust open a wall, and you find out what the plumbing and electrical is like below it.  Whereas, you knock on a door, you find a neighbor that has issues or something…  So that’s been an interesting thing that’s been echoing in my head a lot that this house remodel project in a nutshell is kind of symbolic in a way of this neighborhood.  You know we can’t do this house remodeling on our own; we can’t have this neighborhood redo itself on its own.  It requires other people.  Community and folks for support and all those things.”

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