I live in Ensley, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Birmingham, Alabama. For the last nineteen years I’ve been hospitaller at Mary’s House, a Catholic Worker house of hospitality primarily for families. I sleep in what was a sun porch, a small room with lots of windows tacked on to the back to the house. When I get up in the morning I usually peek outside to check the weather and the state of the garden. We have a big lot, and raised beds that I plant hopefully every spring with varying results.
I walk the dog early, especially in summer when it approaches 80 by 8 am. We check out the neighborhood, looking to see what vacant house has been newly broken into, how far the vandalism has progressed, and whether another house or two has burned overnight. We also greet our neighbors who are out doing early yard work or having a smoke on their porches. We meet (or avoid) most of the stray dogs, and greet the chained watchdogs with due respect. Sometimes we share the sidewalk with someone staggering, or shambling, or talking to him or herself. Mostly it’s just us and the other householders out enjoying the cool of the day.
Ensley used to be a bustling little city of its own. Now the brickworks and industrial infrastructure stand idly crumbling, never having recovered from the steel exodus many years ago. The people of Ensley struggle. Young people who have prospered have moved on to better neighborhoods; elders who remain here don’t have the money for repairs – or even for bills. Houses deteriorate, and when the elders die their houses sit empty and unclaimed for years, moldering away amidst weeds and trash.
Ensley is full of poor and forgotten folks: our city schools are wretched, our streets are cracking and decaying, we have blocks of boarded-up stores and a church on every block. With the exception of a few revitalization efforts, Ensley has been left to fend for itself. The people of Ensley get ignored or written off in a city short-hand: high-crime district, dangerous neighborhood, wouldn’t want to live there. I have known parents who wouldn’t allow their children to come for a work-day at Mary’s House, fearing for their safety.
As we walk the early-morning sidewalks, Jackson and I also see the hope, the people in fast-food uniforms heading for the bus stops, the children going off with their backpacks for school or being dropped at day-care centers. We nod to the pastor from God’s House who’s out walking, and greet the woman down the street who wheels her wheelchair to the dollar store while the day is cool. We note the new ramp on one house, the weeded flower bed on another, admire the Habitat houses looking so neat and clean. Ensley is a meeting ground of hope and despair, poverty and determination, addiction and recovery. Ensley is what I see each morning, the place where I live my beliefs and which shapes my theology.
Years ago when we lived at the edge of the Trident Nuclear Submarine base on Washington’s Kitsap Peninsula, we said we lived “in the belly of the beast”. The Trident submarine and missile system, we said, was necessary to protect our way of life, a way which leaves much of the world’s population in poverty. We moved here to Birmingham to track trains carrying nuclear weapons, and to become acquainted in a visceral way with the people who suffer because of our spending on weapons.
Now, here in Ensley, we live in the belly of the beast as well.
In Ensley the specific nature of the American beast becomes clear: it is primarily the Black poor who are being devoured here. In a conspiracy of silence we ignore the fact that this country, and especially this state, is built on centuries of oppression and exploitation of people with black and brown skin who were kidnapped from their homes and forced to labor as animals to benefit white landowners. We ignore the years of de facto slavery that followed Emancipation; we ignore the structures of racism that continue to define our society, and the way in which people of color and poor people generally are disenfranchised and forced into a shadow caste by voting restrictions and the prison/parole system.
As a white person born with the concomitant white-skin privilege, I struggle to see the world through other eyes. As a person convinced that a nonviolent revolution is the only final answer to the questions of war and injustice in our world, I battle my own lethargy and despair to discover new, Gospel ways of living my beliefs. As a follower of Jesus’ way, I try to live his simple teachings about loving the enemy and sharing possessions. I fail often. I hope that sharing these struggles might open some questions for all of us, and perhaps help us to see together a new way forward.
Shelley Douglass is a Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace. She is the hospitaller at Mary’s House Catholic Worker in Birmingham, a member of Holy Family Parish, and active especially against war and the death penalty.