Inner City Diary
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Why burning house gave us a warm glow
September 9, 2001
The cheers and applause seemed oddly out of place.

It was another community meeting, with residents and business owners discussing specific locations of trouble and hope in our inner-city neighbourhood. As we shared addresses of suspected drug and prostitution houses, the location of a recent house fire was highlighted.

Everyone seemed to know that the house was totally gutted by the fire. It was mentioned that a man was rescued from the roof of the building, afraid of the flames, screaming for help. That’s when the applause started. It was plainly not for the rescue, but rather the predicament of that specific man up on a roof begging for help.

The fact of the matter is that his house was frequented by many known prostitutes and drug dealers, making the short stops normally associated with “couriers.” He often made calls from pay phones, seemingly negotiating very important “deals.” When he noticed he was being observed, he would glare in an intimidating manner at anyone who seemed poised to interrupt his business. He cultivated the appearance and all the trappings of one of the neighbourhood “bad guys.”

We reported the problems to police. We heard the typical responses… “It takes time & money to mount an investigation.” “Everyone may know what’s happening there, but you need evidence to prove it in court.” “We’ll work on it.”

So we wait, not quite sure what we’re waiting for. Our social problem of drug dealing and prostitution is recast as a budget and personnel problem for police and as a legal problem for the courts. The explanations do little more than multiply our frustrations and feelings of helplessness as we see more strung-out youths and parents visit the house. It seems that the people with the “logical” explanations usually live elsewhere, while the people with the “emotional” reactions can’t turn around without bumping into the problem.

One day, while waiting, we smell smoke. People meet to watch the flames and thick smoke fill the house, and whisper quietly during the rescue. There was lots of speculation about what started the fire.

Whatever the cause, residents saw the irony in the fact that a man who helps destroy the lives of others having his own residence destroyed. We heard a man who regularly disregards the plight of others having to plead his own case from the roof of a burning building. We noted the poetic justice of this man experiencing some of the fear he works to cultivate in others.

The people at this meeting are generally quiet, law-abiding, high-hoping residents. Seniors. Young parents with children. Students. Many on limited incomes. Some could live elsewhere, but have chosen to stay at home in this neighbourhood for a variety of reasons. We like it here, and do what we can to improve things.

In my heart, I know our cheers were not for the pain of the man we believe to be a pimp and drug dealer. Most would be quick to point out that they take no pleasure in anyone’s suffering - even the “bad guys.” That’s probably because we still remember being “bad guys” to someone else.

I suppose the cheers were for a spark of hope, rekindled in some odd way by that fire, that the world is not just in the hands of frustrated cops and angry residents. We got a glimpse of how the paper justice of our legal system is sometimes trumped by another rule which is also offended by the drug dealing and prostitution associated with this house. As one resident put it, “Too many bad things happen to good people. It’s a relief to be reminded, in one way or another, that bad things happen to the bad guys too.”

We’re thankful this man’s life was spared. Maybe he’ll wake up and change. In the meantime, we occasionally get to relieve some tension when evil eventually turns on itself. It’s bizarre, and we feel a little guilty, but can you blame us for applauding?.
Copyright 2001
Rev. Harry Lehotsky
Rev. Harry Lehotsky is Director of New Life Ministries, a community ministry in the inner-city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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Contact info:
New Life Ministries
514 Maryland Street
Winnipeg, Mb R3G 1M5
(204) 775-4929
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