The Camaraderie and Draw of Hopelessness

Twelve years ago a dear friend of ours took a badly neglected baby boy away from his crack head mother and made him her own. That boy, David (name changed to protect his anonymity), is now a strong, quiet, menacingly handsome teenager who adores his “Mom” and grudgingly appreciates our fellowship, but is increasingly attracted to street life. Well loved as he is, we will lose him before long.

Inner-city street life now is like crack cocaine was back in the 80s: So potent that almost anyone who tastes it becomes an instant addict. The difference is that while I never understood how anyone who had seen a crack zombie could even consider trying that stuff, I know all too well why boys are drawn to the corner like moths to a flame. To paraphrase the title of Chris Hedges' recent book about the narcotic nature of war, street life is a force that gives them meaning.

As a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, Hedges saw war up close in the Balkans, the Middle East, and Central America, but his descriptions of the ways desperate people mythologize the glories of conflict, demonize their enemies, corrupt their own language and culture, and becoming preoccupied with grim perversities of sex and violence remind me of behaviors I see in Walnut Hills, and not only among the hardcore soldiers of the drug trade. In a very real sense, many of our neighbors here embrace the physical and emotional intensity of their daily struggle for survival the way WWII General George Patton embraced combat. “Compared to war,” he said, “all other forms of human endeavors shrink to insignificance. God, I love it so!”

Young David is not so eloquent, but he and the older boys he admires feel much the same. Their gun battles and fistfights, their ceaseless movement from house to house, their ready money and easy sex and their constant vigilance against the police and the other gangs, create for them a sense of immediacy and camaraderie that no classroom, sports program, or regular job can match. Hustling for food, shelter, the next dollar or the next high does the same thing, not only for junkies and prostitutes, but also for lots of ordinary poor people navigating the traps and hazards of underclass America. There is no peace in the midst of these struggles, but there is plenty of drama, excitement, and singular purpose. Again, street life is a force which gives them meaning.

What street life does not give, I have come to understand, is true friendship. Instead, the various street soldiers I know here experience that same kind of closeness that real soldiers find in combat, which Hedges describes as comradeship. The essential difference, he writes, is that where friends find in their relationships a heightened awareness of their individual identities, comrades suppress—and thereby escape—such self-awareness in the pursuit of a common purpose. In their shared struggle for survival, they learn to value one another primarily on the basis of shared danger and immediate utility.

In other words, David has a better chance of taking a bullet for one of his buddies on the corner than he does of discovering the other boy’s fondest hopes or deepest fears, or his own for that matter. They may be together for decades, in and out of prison, drunk and high and straight, fighting side by side for money, or women, or whatever they mean by respect, without ever really understanding what makes each of them uniquely precious.

It isn’t just the boys on the corner, either. It is the girls who flock to them, too, and their babies, and all the others who get caught up in the madness they make out there. No matter how long they live that life together, in the end they are always alone.

That is the real horror of street life, I think: Not that we will lose David, but that he will lose himself, and in the process, everything else in the world that matters. In the Bible, they call it his soul.

The longer I live here, the more helpless I feel. If only true love was even half as attractive as it is beautiful.

BART CAMPOLO is a veteran urban minister and activist who speaks and writes about grace, faith, loving relationships and social justice. He's leader of The Walnut Hills Fellowship.

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