Towards the end of our big community dinner last Monday, right in the middle of this crazy obstacle course game, time stood still just long enough for me to look around.
Up front, six-year-old Tanisha and her father TT were running the course together, laughing at each other while the rest of the group shouted directions and cheered them on. TT’s been in and out of jail for as long as I’ve known him, and he and his wife Gina are always on the edge of disaster, but their love for their kids is incredibly strong. I hate the way they parent, and I hate lots of the decisions they’ve made, but I can’t help rooting for that family, and not just in games.
At the back of the room, Gina’s brother Terrell was shouting encouragement, along with his best friend Robert. Terrell is only 5’5”, but he weighs more than 250 pounds, smokes like a chimney, and has a bad case of asthma that takes him to the emergency room four or five times a year. He’s a genuinely nice kid, though, and great with his nieces and nephews, which is a good thing since he is practically unemployable and will probably live with Gina and TT forever. Robert is genuinely nice too, which is no small thing for a nineteen-year-old boy in a neighborhood like ours.
A few rows up were Danielle and her daughter Jasmine, whose two-year-old son Malcolm happened to be squirming in my arms at the moment. He had been running into danger before I scooped him up like I used to scoop up Roman, without even thinking about it. Jasmine didn’t mind, of course, partly because she was so into the game, begging her mom to be her partner in the next round. She’s still a little girl herself, after all, though just last week she finally landed a job at McDonald’s. We’re all delighted about that, since none of us much liked Jasmine’s backup plan of stripping in bars. She’s better off here, playing kids’ games with people who love her.
On the other side of the room, Ronnie and Deandra were sitting next to one another. Ronnie’s an awkward twenty-something white guy who came to us out of a halfway house, angry, suspicious, and alone. Over the past two years, however, Ronnie has not only stayed sober; he’s grown up as well, into a bright, healthy, fun-loving young man who takes care of himself and cares about his friends. Among those friends is Deandra, a gregarious but physically broken fifty-something black woman whom our fellowship has kept safe and warm for years. Deandra was smiling that night, partly because, after many years of toothless frustration, she’s finally got dentures, and partly because she loves it when we all play games together like a big happy family. If you knew her real family, you’d understand why.
Out in the kitchen, my introverted next-door neighbor Ric was doing the dishes, happy for any excuse not to play the game, while my wife Marty, who cooked for 50 tonight as usual, sat with Ric’s wife Karen, laughing with some of the younger women in the group. Among them was nineteen-year-old Tasha, who we’ve collectively mentored for the past six years, and who is just about to move from her family’s overcrowded apartment into our fellowship’s community house. Tasha usually won’t play my games either, but she and Karen had taken a run at it earlier, just for fun.
There were thirty or so other people around me, too, all of them connected to me and to one another by a web of loving relationships so tangled and unlikely that I could never fully describe it in a way that makes sense. And yet, in that frozen moment, it all made sense to me. I’m not saying my friends and I don’t struggle with ourselves and one another, or that we know what we’re doing when it comes to living by faith, or even that a few of us might not have shown up drunk or high that night. I’m just saying that, for that one moment, it wasn’t very hard for me to believe that God was the One who brought us together, or that God was in that room, whooping it up with the rest of us, having the best time of all.
On the way home afterwards, as I decided whether to give Deandra the Oxycontin left over from my ankle surgery—believing that her daughter stole her own prescription—or whether she would just sell it for beer money once I dropped her off, everything went back to not making sense, and I wondered how God slipped away on our way to the car. But then I thought, so what? I had my moment, and I still have it.
So do you, I hope.
Bart Campolo ministers through The Walnut Hills Fellowship in Cincinnati, Ohio. This article is reprinted with permission from his blog, which you can read here.