It’s early October two years ago. The handwriting on the envelope is becoming more familiar now, but the return address is new. He has just moved across the country to Beulah Street.
We’ve been writing letters for a few months, pretty innocently we think, just two Facebook acquaintances from a former season of life together being a little bit silly and archaic. He got new stationary, rectangular ivory thickness, and needed someone to write to; I’m a quasi-luddite afraid of a world a hundred years from now in which there are no letters. We have friends and theo-nerdy interests in common, enough to make the letters lively. And somewhere God grinned and said, “Watch this.”
It’s early October a year ago. I have just made the somewhat tortured decision for maybe a third time in two months that no, I should not do doctoral work yet, and maybe ever. Yes, I will trust my friends who suggest academia might have addictive qualities that are killing me. Yes, I will trust them when they say I could be reducing myself to a smidgeon of my giftings, going that way. No, I don’t love this idea of giving up the only plans I’ve had for years.
Living somewhere in community sounds like a lot of terror, but my beloved mentor dreams that I could go do that for a year and re-learn how I am loved; it doesn’t matter where. I write a letter, probably angsty and full of all the feelings about watching the only world I’ve imagined fall away. I get a letter in return that says, “I selfishly hope you’ll consider coming to Houston for a year.”
I wonder if he’s thought about how much Houston is in Texas. I’m not going to Texas. Or this is what I think, but what I write in response is something like, “Hm, interesting invitation. I’ll think about it.” I’m pretty determined not to think about it actually, but somehow in the following months, it becomes the only reasonable consideration, the one open door I can see.
In March, I visit Houston for a weekend, just to see. I come expecting cowboys and tumbleweeds, because this is the only Texas I know about, but there are live oaks with branches like the winding arms of the old folks in church as a child who would reach down to greet me, and everything is green and misty. I’m surprised to be a bit smitten.
Saturday morning, he takes me to the places in the city that mean something to him. We end up driving the streets in the bottoms of Third Ward, past the chess tree where African American men in their midlife sit on milk crates caught up in an intense game. Chickens scratch in the ditches. We’re five minutes from downtown, but it feels inflected with something rural. The lots are huge and overgrown, and many things a little bit shabby. We turn on Beulah Street, and he shows me the house he lived in the year before, two pecan trees on the property line.
As we drive out of Third Ward back toward his house in another neighborhood, I say aloud, “I just want to live here.” It feels both strange and true.
When the decision is made last spring to come, I speak to a potential landlord. She has a house on Paris Street which she thinks could work for the boy and I, and I’m game. But at the end of the conversation, she mentions, “Oh, there’s also a good chance that the house Tommy lived in for Mission Year on Beulah Street might come open in July. Are you interested?”
Wouldn’t that be something, I think. I wrote letters to that address for a year.
August, we move to Beulah Street, the boy and I, but also Tommy and two of his former housemates, to try our hand at community. One moves on soon and expectedly. We are thrilled for him, aching for ourselves, and send him with homemade jam and love letters in his suitcases one morning too early in more than one way. The other stays to become my bunk-mate, hearkening back to childhood days of sharing a room with my sisters, and all of it weirdly feels like a coming home, yet I’ve never lived here before. I have watched this place unfold in Tommy through his letters, shaping him, moving him, and sometimes I can hear the echoes of other voices I know, his housemates from that year who I have grown to love simply through his love of them.
It also hardly feels like home.
I realize immediately how deeply racism has made its way into me, even if it’s only the pedestrian ignorant kind where I think I’m not racist until I realize I lock the door four ways and obsessively check it again before bed. I’m scared to walk down my street, though most of my neighbors are elderly.
And for the first few weeks, I’m hyper-aware of my whiteness in a place where black is normative. The boy goes to the middle school in our neighborhood, one of two white children in the whole school, and I’m the only white parent at open house. Nearly everyone I see here is black, so much so that when I see someone else who is white on the sidewalk, I wonder if they’re lost. And I begin to realize that black life isn’t the caricature I’ve carried within me my whole life. Things feel remarkably normal here in many ways. I realize how little I know, and how much my body needs to catch up to my convictions.
I want to be here. In some ways, something in me has always wanted to be here, though living in a de facto segregated economically oppressed area is the exact situation I’ve spent a lot of my life like a good white girl avoiding. This is the inner city, the place of hushed tones and fear, the “wrong side of town” – a phrase I’ve come to loathe.
But on the whole, life in Third Ward hardly matches any picture I’ve been given by the media or by legend. Yesterday running on the bike trail that cuts across Beulah, I passed a dead end a few streets over where four folks were sitting on their lawn chairs, deep in conversation, caught in the shade of a tree.
It’s true, parts of the neighborhood seem grim; this is undeniable. But the shock of being here has worn off a little, and I’m slowly more capable of paying better attention to the goodness here too, the beauty – like my neighbor who feeds a hundred pigeons in our street every morning, the kind voices from the porches, the two men the boy and I see walking together every day on the way to school. Fear is giving way to curiosity, and racism is slowly giving way to repentance, though I fear it’ll be a long haul. I want to be here precisely because of how it is hard, and how much I want this stuff worked out of me.
I tell you the story of how I got here in part because I realize how strange it is for me to be here at all, and in part because I can mark the activity of God along the way. None of this is what I imagined for my post-seminary life; my imagination was smaller.
But these past months have been about receiving abundance on its own terms – embracing the surprise and the challenges as gift, welcoming the unexpected, being open to the strangeness of new landscapes, both in Texas and in my own body. This is a season I couldn’t have made up, and one I was invited into through friendship. Beulah is my street, but also stands for the grace of God moving me and moving with me, drawing me beyond myself and into better surprise, giving me deeper awareness of my own belovedness, stretching me. I was like a bonsai, trimmed to be a tree fit to a small pot. But here I stretch out like the branches of the live oak to become what I can be in this place.