When Evangelina was fourteen, Ruthie and I took her on weekly visits to the DeKalb County Jail to see her brother, Nick.
He sat down on the other side of the glass and looked at the three of us. His hair hung a little longer each week. He looked weary and edgy, worn by the rhythm of sunless days in his cell, unsure what would happen at his trial.
When she took up the phone, he asked how she was.
"Bored," she said. Her response was the same each time she visited him.
After Nick was convicted and moved to a prison out of town, Evangelina moved in with her boyfriend, Walter. A few months later, shortly after our son Jack was born, Evangelina told us that she was pregnant. We learned that her sister Sarah was also expecting.
We run an after-school program out of our apartment, so three days a week, thirty kids ask these sisters for help with homework, receive meals from their hands, and learn from them. New lives are growing, and bellies are getting bigger to make space. The fact that they are pregnant is now clear to everyone in the room.
We work out of an Evangelical church, and we are commissioned Southern Baptist missionaries. There's an obvious tension between those facts and the composition of our team. Miguel, who we appointed to direct the after-school program, is bisexual. Several of the teenagers with whom we work are atheist or agnostic.
We are asked in a few different ways why we elevate these neighbors to leadership positions or give them a platform to speak. It's kind of them to overlook Ruthie's and my own oddities, but we could easily add our own problems to the question. Why us?
There is a story Americans have bought and sold in which God's saving work is mainly about getting individual people out of Hell and into Heaven. With this at the center, the Christian work of reconciliation and relationship and neighborhood and discipleship gets hammered into something flat, and real people get squeezed out.
Our work is for the people who get squeezed out. We believe that God places them at the center of His story in this world, so we do too.
Evangelina, Sarah, Miguel, and the other neighbors with whom we live and work are really of this neighborhood. They bear all the sins, pains, and potency of this place. They're central to the story.
We invite our neighbors into the story of our own lives and into the Christian work of giving water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, clothes to the naked. We welcome the sojourner together. It's important to us that together, we are recognizable as inadequate to the task.
We're working to reconcile the life of Christ, the life of this neighborhood, and our own lives in a way that is recognizable as good. It takes a lot of time, more love than we have, and unlimited grace to even get these three stories in the same room.
We almost never know if we're doing the right thing in each moment. When should we speak against the hold of sin, and when should we praise what is good? How can we do both in the lives that come into our home?
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed. It grows too slowly for our taste. We have to trust a seed that seems so frail and small. It weathers the seasons that tear us apart, the losses that wound us, our own fumbling words and tired work.
This afternoon, Evangelina will knock on our door. Miguel or I will let her in, and she will collapse on the couch in her coat, running a hand over her belly, feeling for a kick from Austin.
She's been changing in perceptible ways to get ready for the new life. She and Walter have diligently cleaned and decorated their apartment. She told us that she comes to the after-school program to practice the patience she knows she needs.
She is becoming a better friend, listening more closely to our conversations about God, putting her hand to the work, and joining us when we go to church. I wouldn't have imagined any of these changes a year ago.
I'll ask her, "How're you feeling today?" and Evangelina will smile and say, “Ok,” then add, "Heavy," or "Tired."
In the quiet of our apartment, before the room fills with kids asking for help, I think about all the time and teaching and serving work we do, and all the fundraising and writing and speaking, and I want to know where it's all going. It might seem modest, but this conversation with Evangelina is where my thoughts land and find some peace.