The voice on the phone sounded familiar, but his smooth street lingo was missing, now faint, halting, a whisper.
“Mr. Kevin,” (long pause) “Hurry!”
Mo Brown lived in Brooklyn, on a dark treeless street. We met up on his stoop, where he explained that he and his family were moving out, “tonight!” While I followed him up the narrow stairway, I heard screams of children, followed by shouting. The scent of curry, mildew, and stale beer sidled up to me. When I reached the apartment, others were there, his brothers, and his mom. They were shoving things in black plastic bags.
Mo’s mom moved toward me.
“Thank you for coming. Sorry for the mess…it’s just that we got the news today.” I smiled and hugged her.
“Glad to be here,” I lied. By the looks of things, it was going to be a long night.
I picked up a bag and started stuffing.
A year before, I had passed out fliers across the street from Mo’s school, to announce ‘Soul Session.’ He admitted later that he brought his friends to that first meeting to eat pizza, period! They showed up as locusts, devoured our food, and then exited! But the next week they loitered long enough to begin a conversation. Soon after, they were drawn to the Savior we prayed they would come to love.
It took a while for Mo and his posse to trust me; raised in under-served areas of East New York, a kind of no fly zone for folks like me. However, when I met their Moms, aunts, and grandmothers, I learned that skin color mattered very little. For them, I was the gift of advocacy, demonstrative love, and a voice at the moment of clarity that would help steer their most cherished out of chaos, rife with bravado and seduction, into the arms of God. These strong women helped unearth in me prejudice, ignorance and greed; a gift no training on earth could have showed me.
But, God wasn’t finished.
Helping Mo and his family move out let me see enough, smell enough, grieve enough and sweat enough to be introduced to a savage gospel, not just a saving one. The image of Jesus suffering kept coming back to my mind. With every lift of a heavy bag, every busted seam, every time I bent over and asked, “Mo, do you want this?” and he would shake his head, yes; but then tried to pick it up, only to fall to pieces in my hands…something, someone grabbed and shook me. ‘You think you see, but you are ignorant to the work of the gospel, this anvil on which I strike and mold your stiffest resistance to love.’
I thought ministry was a conversation, but I learned that night, it’s about immersion. The son of Man denied the drug-wine potion offered to Him on the cross because He wanted to feel and understand the suffering of man, to immerse Himself in our deepest hell. For many years without knowing, I drank the drug-wine offered. Out of fear I pretended that an outline of the message would be enough to break chains forged in the furnace of choices made by students. Tonight, I denied the cup. With each misstep, with each reminder of the screams and the chaos, the broken furniture and the hurried anxious look on Mo’s face, with each load of their possessions I would feel and begin to understand the greater story that led to this moment, a far more tragic tale than being evicted from a tenement. It is a history of separation, familia obliteration, racism and unequal rights. Choices made by others under which they lived, while so many others had died. I had read about these, but tonight I had seen it’s anguished face, and a Savior suffering in their steed.
It was the final load, just Mo and me in the van. A young disciple riding shotgun, fresh off the streets, with memories of being shot at in a park the day before we met. With memories of his own heart trusting in a God he barely understood. We were too tired for words. I stopped at a bodega, and placed some cash in his palm. “Buy enough for everyone.” While he was in the store I began to look around. The soft lights of a room four stories up caught my attention. Instead of wondering why the window shades were dangling, I thought, how beautiful that soft lit room. I watched a group of men loiter next to the dumpster, the red glow of cigarettes, faint laughter. I wondered if there was a Mo among them. What was their story, and how could I help them see what Mo and others had experienced. I watched Mo bound across the street, with his wide- receiver stride, and remembered how eager he had been to explain his nickname, the number 10 jersey assigned to him freshman year. Suddenly, he was not Mo-Brown-number-ten, but a beautiful testament of God dying on a cross to break chains of depravity and depravation.
It happened in a place called Brooklyn.
A young man and his family taught me a savage gospel, the kind that moves hands to carry heavy black bags, stuffed with broken dreams.