Every Thursday at 12:00 I walk up and down Brookland Park inviting people to prayer. Honestly, this is my favorite part of the week. I like the feeling of being near our neighbors and doing something that lets them know we care. My last stop before prayer is always Carl’s Barber Shop (all these names are changed.) I save Carl’s for last because I know that Carl will give me a thirty minute sermon complete with alter call. Carl’s sermons are well crafted, but deeply confusing. Dissertations on the correct spelling, importance and pronunciation of God’s name are followed by moments of poetry all conglomerating in, to my ears, a confusing ball of verbal gloop. After 30 minutes of nodding and smiling I make my excuses, vow to see him again next week and walk across the street with my head spinning.
Last week I walked into Carl’s only to find we weren’t alone. A well dressed man in a little bow tie was handing out newspapers to everyone in the shop. I smiled and nodded at the man and asked Carl if he had anything we could pray for this week. As soon as the words left my mouth I knew I was in trouble. Mr. Bow Tie began a theological discussion on the nature of the trinity, the truth of the Koran and the importance of overthrowing the man. Carl followed up with a short teaching on one of his favorite topics, the importance of the correct name of God. I was in the middle of the two men smiling and looking back and forth from Carl to Bow Tie. During this discussion I saw one of our neighbors and close friends, Martin, standing in the corner. After a while Martin shook his head, nodded at me and walked out. In the back of my mind a small and very arrogant voice said, “okay smart guy, prove that seminary degree wasn’t a fluke and come up with something so smart everyone in the room will know they’re wrong and you’re right,” but I just stood there smiling and nodding, nodding and smiling. After a while, I saw my chance, made my excuses and darted back to our building.
Later that day Marvin dropped by the Embrace office. He asked me what I thought about Carl and Bow Tie’s conversation. I admitted that I had no idea what had happened and was glad to walk out. Marvin told me he’d known both men for years, and considered them friends. A few hours after my exit he dropped by and had a long talk with Carl. He tried to correct Carl’s errors and find out what was really going on. Marvin’s wisdom and obvious care for his friends reminded me of something it’s very easy to forget, when we enter a neighborhood we’re walking on the outer threads of a web of relationships that are decades in the making. We’re outsiders just begining to understand the history that already exists between our neighbors. When we stop listening and act like we have all the answers we can steal the initiative, and destroy our new and fragile relationships. Our role is to coach and train leaders to build a neighborhood and the only way to do that is by listening to those who already know the relationships and allow our community leaders do what they do best, care for their neighbors. I’ve still got a lot to learn about Brookland Park Boulevard, but in the future I’ll talk less and smile and nod more.