“They’re having a party,” the youngest boy says in a rushed, breathy voice. “And we’re invited. It starts at 8:00. Like right on the dot of 8:00.”
I’m cleaning the kitchen when he makes the announcement and I’m in no mood for a late night party in the cul-de-sac. My arms are elbow deep in the sink and the counter is twelve inches deep in dishes.
“Are you sure it’s a party?” I ask him. “For what? It’s a Tuesday night.”
“Graduation!!!” he says. “I think somebody graduated from school.”
I sigh into the sink after he’s run back out the front door, but even in the sighing I know where I’ll spend my evening.
And so, at a few minutes after that 8:00 on the dot, I find myself in the cul-de-sac with twelve children and only fifteen sparklers.
After dinner, when the sky is still ribboned in shades of pink, we stand in the cul-de-sac at the end of Avent Circle and watch our kids wave sparklers.
The Man makes small talk with the kids’ mama and I make small talk with the oldest girl. The girl holds the lighter and she is busy doling out the sparklers, lighting each one as she passes them around.
The boys are in the middle of the road, tossing a Nerf football, and the air is so thick I can scarcely breathe. It’s stale, hot air, the kind ripe for rain with no rain in sight and the mosquitoes swarm in their own sort of heat. I feel dirty standing on bits of broken glass and cigarette butts out here in no man’s land, but the kids are howling in laughter so I pull up a piece of sidewalk and stay.
“I can’t feed them in the summer anymore,” I hear her say to the Man. The mama is talking, and from my piece of sidewalk, I can hear every word. “They’re getting older and I just can’t do it.”
I shuffle my feet and busy myself with my baby and I sigh another heavy sigh. The awkward, in-need-of-things conversations still make me feel queasy and inadequate and uncomfortable so I retreat to some place inside myself, etching across my mind the things I hear and see and smell.
Well, we can’t feed them all summer either, I think to myself. I’ve already fed them two meals this week.
I swat mosquitoes and watch the Man enter into the places I’ve not yet learned to go. He’s good at compassion and kind words and all the things I’m not.
After long, hard minutes pass and the sparklers are spent, the mama and the Man run out of words.
And I gather my babies and run home, my heart cracking under the pressure of poverty that now had names and faces.
That sparkler party changed my life. The fifteen sparklers and twelve children and the mama with too many mouths to feed rocked my nice little life on the prettiest little street in my neighborhood.
The harsh reality that this mama could not afford to feed her kids for the ten weeks of summer break coupled with the crushing fact that Jesus had invited us to have a front row seat into their lives turned my life upside down.
How could we possibly feed this family all summer long? We couldn’t. It was plain and simple.
We spent hours round our farm table talking out all the ways we could help the poor.
“Let’s just put it on Facebook,” I’d said. “Surely someone will help us.”
So we did.
And y’all can I tell you something? Jesus sent people from all over our city to help us feed the family down the street.
He sent so many people and so much food we were able to feed eight families for three months and with each sack of groceries delivered, He began to break our hearts enough to hold the poor.And somewhere amid all the heart breaking, we stopped referring to them as the poor. We began to call them our neighbors. And when we began to call them our neighbors, something broke loose in us.
We began to make plans and dream dreams and see every person that crossed our path as our neighbor.
When we thought of holidays, we no longer thought only about our family. We thought about our entire neighborhood.
When we went to the grocery, we thought about who else could use an extra gallon of milk.
When evenings got cold, we cranked up the heat and considered the friend three doors down. Was she warm enough?
The thin line from being the poor to being our neighbors had snapped and when it snapped Jesus had pinged open a whole new way of living.
He had turned our serving the poor into loving our neighbors.
And because we love our neighbors, we move to serve them.