Inner City Diary
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When the boogeyman is you...
April 7, 2002
The rag-tag group of guys occupied the back rows in the church once a month. It seemed everyone else moved forward a few rows, just to give them space.

It was 1980 in the Cabrini-Green Housing Project in downtown Chicago, and I was working in a church which was right in the heart of that housing project. Our church decided that they would sponsor a basketball team comprised of young men from the neighbourhood. The only condition for being on the team was that they attend one church service every month.

The guys would pick a Sunday, come to church together and everyone cleared out the back benches of the church to avoid the scary looking crew. And they were a tough bunch, many with criminal records and a reputation as grizzled vets of neighbourhood gang wars.

I was assigned the job of coaching and coordinating the team. As the only white face on a black team in a black neighbourhood, I was quickly dubbed the “White Shadow.” We had a great time. Some of those guys could have been stars at any level if not for personal problems, academic and substance abuse issues. We practiced together weekly and then traveled to gyms in some of the toughest neighbourhoods in the city to play against other teams.

But this time was different. I could sense the tension during the ride. Since none of us owned cars, friends of the guys gave us a lift and quickly drove away once we were safely inside the gym.

We were playing a white team from one of Chicago’s white neighbourhoods – on their home turf. After winning the game, our guys called their friends for a ride home.  When the first requests were met with refusals, I suggested we walk to the bus stop and get home via public transit.

The guys fell silent, and gave me that “Are you crazy” look. Not understanding, I asked what was so wrong with my idea. They responded, “There’s no way we’re walking a block in this white neighbourhood and waiting at a bus stop.”

I didn’t get it. This was considered a nice, lily-white neighbourhood. We were the ones who came from the “bad” part of town. I knew the toughness of our guys and was aware that some of them probably had weapons tucked into their gym bags. I couldn’t believe they were afraid of walking a few blocks and waiting for a bus. The thought of our team of gangsters being afraid of walking in a nice white neighbourhood actually made me laugh.

But they didn’t see the humor. I suggested that they had nothing to worry about because I would tell the “scary white people” that they were with me as a church basketball team. They responded, “They’ll just call you a nigger-lover, and beat you the same as us.”

It was then I realized that these tough guys were more scared in a “nice” white community, than I was in their “bad” black community. Despite my protests, we ended up hiding in the corner of the building for some cars which came to take us home to the projects.

It was my first experience with the fear of whites. Irrational racial fear was not unfamiliar. Lots of whites kept warning me about working in the “black” Chicago projects. No matter how much I assured them that things were going well, they stayed afraid – for me and for themselves.

It never occurred to me that “white folk” were as scary to blacks as blacks were to whites.

I’ve seen it here too. The look of fear and suspicion. Whites afraid of Natives, Asians and others. Natives afraid of whites and Asians.

And as long as people are afraid, they won’t talk. And if they won’t talk, they don’t even have a chance of knowing each other – let alone caring for each other. There’s an old saying to the effect that “perfect love casts out fear.” The converse is true as well – “perfect fear casts out love.”

I’ve found that it’s worth the effort to live beyond my fears. It seems that much of my time lately is spent encouraging others to do the same.
Copyright 2002
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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514 Maryland Street
Winnipeg, Mb R3G 1M5
(204) 775-4929