Celé Beauty closed down, and I almost didn’t notice. I’ve made that walk down Heath Ave, past the elementary school, past the Target and onto the 225th Street train stop everyday for almost 5 years, yet it took me four days to see the “CLOSED” signs slapped onto the windows of the beauty store-now-turned-Footlocker.
The day I finally saw them, I kept walking, a strange, sad feeling twisting in my chest. Why did it close? How? Did rents rise? What happened to her? Her being the Dominican woman who nodded at me every time I entered the store, her brown arms resting languidly on her glass counter throne. As I wandered the aisles, rifling through the seemingly endless lines of curly hair conditioners, mousses, puddings, and creams (natural hair products always seem to be marketed like desserts), I overheard her exchanges with other customers in rapid-fire Spanish which whirled in the air like salsa music. I could tell they were returning customers by how her voice took on a laughing quality as she farewelled them, like the warm undercurve of a smile.
“Gracias Mami. Dios te bendiga,” she said as she passed the crinkling plastic bag over the counter and into my waiting hands. “Gracias–ten un buen dia.” My voice stumbled in the delivery, but she acknowledged my attempt with another nod, and as I rushed out the door.
I regret now that I never asked for her name.
It’s at this point that I should explain that I’m a transplant to the South Bronx. I wasn’t born here, I didn’t walk these streets as a kid unless I was making the trek from the suburbs to visit my abuela. So when I first moved to Kingsbridge Heights as a new grad student, my self-consciousness about my status as an outsider was like an itch on my neck, inescapable as I learned to navigate my way around the neighborhood. Because I was brown, I was constantly on edge, afraid someone would try to engage me in conversation in Spanish. I knew some Spanish but wasn’t fluent, and fear leadened my tongue, stilting my words in the places where they should flow.
I didn’t feel like I belonged in the neighborhood–and part of me resigned myself to that. I didn’t vote in local elections. I didn’t speak much to my neighbors unless they initiated conversation, and even when they did I tried to smile and flee as soon as possible. I didn’t attempt to learn much about the area I walked through everyday. My phone became my blinders to the world around me as my eyes fixed on the device on my hand. It gave me an excuse to become a recluse in my digital cave, avoiding contact with anyone who could make me feel the least bit uncomfortable.
When a stranger asked me where I lived, I proudly told them “The Bronx,” but if I was honest with myself, I had less to do with the Bronx than a person in Wisconsin hearing about it on the news.
My discomfort centered on my perceived identity as a foreigner to my neighborhood and the insecurities raveled to that. Because I already felt distant from my own Dominican heritage, distant from the lands from which my family originated, I could easily rationalize why I didn’t get too involved in my neighborhood. In doing this, I fulfilled every trope of the Disaffected Millennial previous generations agonize over so often.
Millennials. I hear the scoffing in yet another article trying to pass as credible news. They’re screwing up the world, don’t-cha know it? My generation is supposed to be self-absorbed, nomadic, lacking roots. We are coddled snowflakes without a place to land and settle. And if you looked at my story in a certain light, you could justify that kind of assessment.
But what I think previous generations don’t always grasp or even seek to empathize with millennials is that the problem cannot be reduced to “they don’t care.” We do care. I can’t speak to all millennials, but from what I’ve observed, many of us do care about our world and about multiple communities across geographic and ethnic lines and so many other lines of identity and experience. We care more than we know how to deal with in a way that doesn’t drag us down under the weight of it all.
How do you root yourself when there are so many people, so many causes demanding your attention as well as your heart? Those of us who remember life before 9/11 and endured the years that followed inherited a world that we don’t easily trust. Our innocence was scraped away by headlines of wars and government corruption, racist rants from elected officials, images of school shootings and police brutality. Is it no wonder then that the idea of drawing close to one place is daunting? Why invest oneself deeply to one place when it all can change so easily? That’s inviting inevitable loss.
It’s hard to sort through priorities when there is so much to care about and grieve over. It’s hard figuring out how to make this process usable and beneficial to others rather than trying to carry the weight of every injustice and call it “being progressive.” It’s even harder now during this COVID-19 crisis.
Sometimes it feels like a lose-lose situation. I could flit from place to place like a scolded Millennial is expected to, and in a place like New York City, it’s more acceptable. I could get a pass for never knowing my neighbors’ names except for when I pass them on my way out of the apartment. But there is a reason loneliness is one of the biggest epidemics in NYC–and it’s existed for far longer than COVID-19.
When your pattern is to remain in your bubble and only interact with others on your terms, there is no soil where intimacy could be cultivated. You cannot be known if others are not allowed entrance into your space (mentally and emotionally since the physical is restricted from us right now). You cannot truly know others and care for them if you never take the time to draw close to them and examine the interconnectedness between you.
What is Essential
The COVID-19 crisis exposes the distances that already existed between us. There are systemic distances between the rich and poor and those well-off enough not to worry about how their grocery bills will be covered. There are racial distances so historically established and emotionally disconnected that we cannot empathize with black and brown field laborers and sanitation workers and Instacart shoppers until we recognize them as “essential workers,” as if their dignity as humans was not essential to us before. They are only “essential” now because we’ve been forced to recognize our dependence on their labor.
There are social distances walled between us, the wall between my neighbor’s apartment and mine, the walls that divide my neighborhood block. But these walls are not just physical; they are often unconscious barriers we set up so we can preserve our own interests and avoid losing anything. We experience tension between our desire to care for other people and our craving for security.
In a time when we are charged to participate in “social distancing,” we must be wary of distancing ourselves further from our neighbors, especially those experiencing further marginalization.
I can bunker in my apartment, work remotely, and stock enough groceries for the month ahead. Not everyone has that privilege. When I come into an awareness of that, how does that reshape my relationship to my neighbors? To my local community?
I have been so convicted in this area during this time of quarantine. Now I am really learning about who lives in my neighborhood, what their needs are, and what community partnerships form the bloodlines of my block. I see people coming together on Instagram and formulating local systems to deliver groceries to elderly folks. I watch my abuela endlessly tapping on her phone, connecting to her vast network of fellow immigrants mapping out each other’s needs and how to address them. I look out the window and see Lucía, the Dominican woman who travels from Washington Heights to her friends’ homes in the Bronx to bring them fresh groceries-banana and yuca and yams-out of her own limited finances.
For the Flourishing of All
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.
We need to consider these words more than ever now as we evaluate the distances in our society that do real harm to our neighbors. We must not seek to “return to normal” after this crisis, but to emerge as people who are better neighbors and who glorify God by how we care for others sincerely and sacrificially. When we root ourselves in Jesus and choose to follow Him, He cultivates a deeper love of community in our lives.
We don’t follow Jesus just so we as individuals flourish; instead, there is a call to the collective here in Romans 12, a call to seek the flourishing of others which transcends our anxieties about our own needs or even how we fit into our communities. When we bring before God all the tensions we feel in connection to our neighborhoods, God clarifies our positioning and illuminates what caring for our neighbors looks like in whatever space we find ourselves. It could be as simple as putting on a mask when we go outside or practicing physical distancing because our neighbors’ welfare matters that much to us.
I acknowledge that “community” can be construed in any number of ways. Our lifestyle practices and daily choices impact both people in our local space and others in places that seem far and foreign to us. We have a responsibility to care for both. How God calls me to act in my neighborhood and engage in the communities I’m connected to will likely look a little different from where you are, but the root is the same: God’s love is our filter through which we see people and value their significance.
Within the call of Romans 12, no walls exist. There is no America-first. There is only the permeability of God’s love which shapes us into people who can receive graciously from our neighbors and also give generously to them. This love also provides reassurance for those of us still working out how we relate to our neighborhoods.
Planted and Rooted
I am still a child of diaspora. My family, far-flung from the Caribbean islands, and not-so-farther-back, Africa and Europe and Asia, has conceived and reconceived its borders so many times that figuring out where my roots are is a complicated thing. But this tangle of identities and histories and distances does not have to form a barrier that prevents me from engaging with my neighborhood, which is also constantly changing and reworking its borders. Instead, I can see myself as now part of the story of the Bronx simply by being present here. I’m woven into stories that existed long before me, but I am also a weaver: I can choose to make a difference towards the future of my neighborhood.
There are stories of early vibrancy and development, then redevelopment and broken promises. There are stories of ever-creeping, ever-rising rents and independent storeowners pushed out to be replaced by wealthy chains. There are stories of family reunions in America and whispers of deportation. It’s my story of the brown and black people I’ve seen making it work and making it their mission to greet a stranger like me with a smile and call me “Mami” even though most of the time I feel like an awkward girl rather than a woman in this community.
I’m getting educated in my neighborhood daily–and I’m now choosing to be. I’m looking at the little choices that make up my lifestyle and asking how that is also connected to my neighborhood. How and where do I invest my money? Where do I spend the most time? Whose names do I know?
New York City is not my millennial playground. This doesn’t mean Broadway shows downtown or that restaurant in Brooklyn I used to post about on Instagram is bad–far from it. But I don’t believe God positioned me in this city to only seek my own pleasure and use my neighborhood as my hotel to sleep in and not a place with real people to care for. If I know God loves my neighbors and wants them to live well, how can I not lift my eyes to my neighbor and speak to her.
I have a long way to go in this. It’s a shift in me still in motion, and I have so much to learn–but that is not something I feel shame about anymore. God doesn’t give me a guilt trip about the areas where I have fallen short, but He does call me to keep stepping up to be fully present where I already am because He knows that one way of fully inhabiting my humanity is embracing the humanity of other people.
I’m not a lost child of the diaspora who can never find a home. I’m not some previous generations’ projection of a Millennial, and neither do I seek their approval. And I’m not just an outsider to the Bronx. I am here, even more acutely right now because my world has narrowed to my Bronx apartment and the back lot behind it. Yet within these constraints, I am still part of my neighborhood, and I am called to love it. God’s love bridges all distances and calls us into this restorative work. So here I remain, my roots growing, expanding, and delving deep.
Interested in engaging your local neighborhood or connecting to resources in the Bronx? I’m sharing my community doc with a summary of different resources, and you are welcome to circulate it to your neighbors. It’s not exhaustive by any means, but it’s a way to start.