I’ve lived in Billings my entire life, and I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve grown up with, and maintained, a pretty negative view of the South Side. “Don’t go there.” “Don’t hang out there.” “Don’t hang out with people who hang out there.” “And, by all means, don’t live there!” “Housing may be cheap, but there’s a reason!” “It’s not safe.” “It’s not worth it.” “If you can avoid it…do it.”
This was the mantra of my childhood – the warnings following me as I became an adult and moved out on my own. Even in my Christian circles, after I explained the internship I would soon be participating in with CLDI, I received comments like these: “Oh, you’re actually going to live there? I’ve heard it’s pretty rough on that side of the tracks. Have fun with that.” “Will you be getting a gun?” “Aren’t you scared something bad might happen?” “What if someone slashes your tires or breaks your windows? You should take a junkier car.”
Billings’ residents regularly joke about the South Side being our “ghetto,” knowing full and well that, in Montana, there is precious little chance our streets will ever hold a candle to the horror and poverty experienced daily in cities like Chicago, Atlanta, and the like. So, with grateful sighs of relief, we laugh at the thought of our “wanna-be” gangsters. We shake our heads at the crazy drug addicts. We look down our noses at those coming out of prison, and we return to our daily lives, without giving the neighborhood another thought. And yet, the fear remains. As it turns out, our jokes are only funny as long as we don’t have to go there. We desperately desire for the South Side to stay in its box.
I knew coming into this internship that I would be fighting against 24 years of stigma built up in my heart around my new home on the South Side. But it didn’t take long to realize, I really knew nothing about the community I was entering. I was naïve to both the severity of the poverty and educational issues and blind to 100% of the good and quirky things God has, in all His gracious wisdom, tucked away in the neighborhood. I was confronted with the Gospel of Jesus Christ in an entirely new way, and it was only in believing that His grace is truly big enough and good news enough for everyone, that I could open my eyes and see what He sees. Curious as to what that might be? To put it simply, God sees people.
I’ll start at home, and work my way out. It’s been three years since I’ve had a roommate of any sort, and now I have three. Each of them are quite different from one another, including myself. We have different ways of approaching problems, discussing our convictions, serving in our ministries, showing and receiving love, and engaging the community around us. But we each passionately love Jesus and desire for His healing love to be known. It has been a beautiful thing to notice our differences and yet also rejoice in our common Savior together. We celebrate in each other’s victories and sympathize with one another on hard days. There is an ever present flow of encouragement and an openness to speak hard truths in moments in need of rebuke. We’ve become a family that only the Lord could have knit together. And together, we welcome our neighbors.
Down the street a few houses, lives a little boy and his mother. We are particularly fond of the boy. He is in first grade, and he loves super heroes. Our little friend is especially likable in the way that he is always ready to invite you into his world. He’s a ninja one day, batman the next, and in between games, he’d really love for you to come over for some hot apple cider. His mom has also professed to be an atheist. In God’s goodness, He has put it on her heart to bring him to us. She recognizes that her son has big questions about life and about God, and that she can’t answer them all. So, when needed, she’s invited us to answer those questions for him. It’s been incredibly humbling to be given such a task, and I thank God often for the opportunity to love this boy and speak truth into his life. I pray that God will continue to unfold moments in which to demonstrate Christ and shape his view of our Father in Heaven.
Behind us, on the other side of the block, lives “Miss Maddie.” She is an older woman, recently widowed. She has an incredible garden in her back yard, complete with plum trees and more tomatoes than most people know what to do with. She worked at the public library for 30 years, and her favorite features in the house were built by her husband. Miss Maddie and I met when she showed up on our porch one day and tersely knocked on the door to ask if she could have some of our extra river rock. She made a point to tell me where she lived, and the next week, while on a prayer walk together, my roommates and I stopped by her house to say hello. There was no hesitation in inviting us inside and whipping up a bit of tea. It is here that we learned of her husband’s recent passing. After quite a bit of conversation, she paused and said, “You know…I was just starting to feel real down and gloomy about everything…and then you all showed up.” What an incredible experience it was to be a blessing in that moment. We were clearly directed and led by God to bring light to a stranger in a time of need that we knew nothing about. In days since, Maddie has attended our neighborhood bonfires in the driveway, and she has joined us for dinner in our home. I think it’s a continual toss up as to who walks away more blessed by whom.
Moving a few more blocks from home, we cross State Ave. to find the corner where some of the most interesting parts of my day often take place; the corner of State Ave. and Jackson St., home of our 3Gs gas station. This is my post as a crosswalk guard for the elementary school children every afternoon. Each shift offers something just a little bit different. I have waited at the corner as kids approach me in a chattering fever, eager to tell me as much as possible about their day in the 3 minutes it takes for the light to change and walk across the street. I have also stood confused in the wind as I witness full on melt-downs over candy falling off of construction paper art projects. “Noooo! Not the Reese’s peanut butter cup!” But day in and day out, one boy has consistently made it easy to enjoy my time there.
This boy is a third grader, and he always has some sort of adventure in progress as he makes his way home. More often than not, he is carrying a stick and hitting it on things to test out just how good of a stick it is (if it escapes the beatings unscathed, it is a particularly good one). Because of all this adventuring, he is usually the last kid for me to escort across the street, which, incidentally, has given us a bit more time to chat. We’ve ventured back over his path together to rescue lost gloves after the first snow. He’s proudly demonstrated his ability to speak Spanish, and I’ve helped him to understand the science behind why we shiver when we get cold. We also talk about all the chores he has to do and some of the hard things that confuse him about his parents’ schedules. He loves math and wants to be a teacher when he grows up. The window into this boy’s life has been such a blessing each day. I’m grateful for his openness, and I pray for opportunities to walk through the gospel with him.
But that’s not all that has happened at the 3Gs! This is also where I met “Jeff”, the neighborhood’s eclectic pizza man. Jeff is probably in his 50s. He has long, grey hair that he pulls back and tucks into a large, knitted hat. It’s colorful and flat in the way that it’s stitched. Similar to something you’d, perhaps, see on Bob Marley’s head. I see him standing and walking around the area often, usually with a duct taped pizza box. After discovering that no one really knew much about him, I approached him one afternoon, during the 45 minute lull that happens between kids at the crosswalk. I then spent almost the entirety of the next 45 minutes listening to him tell me about his life and his thoughts on topics ranging from politics, to his theory on why “people’s physical attractiveness or beauty is related to a wrongly imposed sense of competition our society places on young children.” Jeff is a poster child for the peace movement in the 70s. He never enlisted in the army as a young man, but he could regularly be found on street corners holding up peace signs and protesting the wars. He is a self-proclaimed Buddhist and believes in reincarnation.
His dream has always been to open up an organic, healthy restaurant. But as the course of life has had it, this has not been possible. Jeff has pretty serious medical issues involving his back, his knees, and the control of his muscles. Because of this, he has not worked or driven his truck in six years. He still possesses a driver’s license, but he fears causing an accident because of an inability to grip the steering wheel properly any longer. Despite the back and knee issues, he has since been walking everywhere, only recently allowing himself to take the bus when necessary. On top of all of this, he continues to grow a vibrant garden at his home. It’s from here that he pulls vegetables to make home-made pizzas in his kitchen. He then loads them into his duct-tape pizza box, and heads out into the neighborhood to sell slices for a dollar a piece. The pizzas look and smell delicious, and many friendly faces wave at him from cars or stop as they’re walking by, knowing the treasure he holds in the box. Apparently, Jeff has not been able to eat these pizzas himself, however, due to an extraordinary number of food allergies. He simply takes the high demand for more pizza as proof that they’re as delicious as they appear. With colder months coming, I imagine I will be seeing a lot less of Jeff, but I pray for future conversations with him in which I can share the peace and joy that comes through knowing the One true God, Jesus Christ.
Moving on a bit further up Jackson St., past the elementary school and past the middle school, rests a house owned by CLDI on 316 Jefferson St. This house is a beacon for all the kids in the area, many of whom, live in the surrounding houses on that block. It is here that we allow our lives to regularly intersect with the youth, by simply giving them a place to be. We play games, help with homework, cook meals, offer prayer, and spark gospel conversations. It is within the walls of this house that my relationship began to grow with one of the young girls who frequents there. She is a smart, sassy young lady who is a walking testament to God’s goodness and grace. She began hanging out around those at CLDI when she was an unruly, bratty fifth grader. Now a freshman in high school, she has since given her life to Jesus and allowed Him to transform her into a godly young lady, leading her peers in their own pursuits of Christ. It’s been a privilege to walk alongside her in her journey with the Lord these last few months. There is probably not a more encouraging story that I could be a part of, and I’ve had the honor of meeting in a discipleship-type setting with her, as we go through a book together. What has grown out of these weekly meetings is a gift that is difficult to put into words. The Lord has created a space for vulnerability, honesty, accountability, and prayer. Yes, we have Christ, but life is still hard, and our sin is still real, and having someone to openly speak with about these things, trusting that they will hear you and point you back to Christ, is a blessing. And it is one that goes both ways. We cry together when raw wounds are exposed and always find reasons to laugh together. This friendship has encouraged, challenged, and grown me in many ways, and I’m sure it will continue to do so, as God works through our time together.
Another unique opportunity I’ve had at the 316 house has presented itself on Thursday afternoons. Every week, after finishing up my shift at the crosswalk, I open up the house to fourth and fifth grade girls, and we cook together. There are about four of them that consistently come, and I treasure the time we spend together. Conversations flow easily, as I supervise the dish for the week. We’ve made everything from cookies to mashed potatoes to chicken pot pies—all from scratch. After finishing the dish, or while it’s in the oven, we sit down and read a page from a devotional book together. The floor is then open for discussion. When I first introduced the book, I was bracing myself for short attention spans and an eagerness to move on to playing games. But God had other plans. What’s happened instead has been an outpouring of questions and excitement. More often than not, I end up cutting the conversation short for time’s sake, promising to pick it up again the following week. The girls have even asked to come to church with me. So, each Sunday that I’m home, I load up the girls and their younger siblings in my Jeep, and we venture across town for church and a bit of hot chocolate. Their hunger for God’s truth has been a joy to witness each week.
Truly, the list could go on. In my short time on the South Side, I have learned so much about humility, grace, intentionality and love. I can’t say that every negative idea about the South Side has been erased, especially as some of them are not entirely unfounded, but I have been challenged to look into the eyes of individuals and remember that they are loved by God, made in the image of God, and we are all the same in that. Different as our lives may be in many ways, we are in equally desperate need of God’s grace. It is easy for us to think of buildings and public spaces when we hear the word “community.” The “framework” of a space, if you will. But it is not the things in an area that create the sense of welcome and belonging. It is the people. True community is formed by people loving and caring for one another in genuine relationship. That can only come about through seeking out individuals, and believing and declaring Imago Dei over them. “You are made in the image of God, and that makes you intrinsically valuable, beautiful, and loved.”
– Ashley Hatmaker, 2016-2017 CLDI Intern