By Michael Romain
Thursday, May 30, 2013, Maywood — Zach Dickson has been on mission trips to places like Mississippi, Ohio, Florida, Tennessee and Guatemala. In Guatemala, he helped build 10×12 foot tin houses that slept eight people. “A lot of the families are headed by single women,” he said. In order to access the families, Dickson had to travel seven hours by bus through back mountains. Once he and his fellow missionaries arrived, the local kids began shouting, “Gringos! Gringos!” — “White people! White people!”
Dickson is a senior at Tipton-Rosemark High School in Millington, TN, about a half-hour’s drive from Memphis. He and about eighteen other students in his graduating class had come to Maywood by charter bus to clean up the Village’s littered parks, to prayer-walk troubled blocks and evangelize.
Before the students got to Bosco, I walked around the park with Phyllis Duncan (host of the Maywood Show on Comcast and President of Mothers Of Murdered Sons), who showed me where a young boy broke his leg while walking down a flight of dilapidated steps on the jungle gym. The steps had since been removed, replaced by a ledge to nowhere — or more accurately, about a three or four foot fall to the wood-chipped surface. She also showed me the park benches that, before replacement wood was added, were hazardous to sit on. You might fall right through them.
“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” Dickson said. He’d walked up to me a few moments after our mutual introduction. I immediately tagged him as the group’s de facto leader. His curiosity drew me in, it was disarming, and I found myself eager to answer whatever question he seemed so eager to pose. “Do you know how you get to heaven?” he asked. Several minutes conversing with Dickson, who is tall and wiry and translucently impassioned (he reminded me of the basketball player Tyler Hansbrough), revealed his expertise at this.
I found his appeal both inspiring and troubling. At one point, he brought home rather vividly how the houses he’d help build in Guatemala were nothing compared to the homes in Maywood. “I don’t know if you live here, but…” Not far from here, I told him. Well, if I thought these houses in Maywood looked bad, I should see the ones in Guatemala — tin roofs, tin siding. I didn’t know whether to pity myself or the Guatemalans. And for a split second (despite my best intentions to be journalistic about the whole thing), I began to feel like one of those children shouting, “Gringos! Gringos!”
The whole scene was, quite frankly, slightly disturbing to me — a black resident of an overwhelmingly black suburb observing this crowd of bright-eyed, promising, compassionate white kids doing for us what we can’t seem to do for ourselves. There was no way for me not to be uncomfortable standing in Bosco Park, observing this town in which I was born and raised being turned into a mission, being compared to a Third World country.
However, my discomfort had nothing to do with the students themselves and everything to do with social and historical dynamics that are hard to fully grasp. These kids had nothing to do with the blight and apathy that caused them to be here in the first place. They were only trying to be part of the solution. Yet, it’s still rather troubling that Maywood, a suburb just a rock’s toss away from places like River Forest and Oak Park, attracts missionaries at all. There is no way for me to ignore the historical resonance of this moment and the psychological associations that disturb my awareness, overcasting this well-intentioned scene with varying tones of black and gray.
I actually admire the students. They were all courteous, polite, eager to be apart of something bigger and more substantial than themselves. They’re models for their generation. And they were efficient. We could not have been out there for more than an hour before Bosco Park, infamous for its perennial decrepitude, was picked spotless with time left for them to play basketball with some of the children who’d been at the park since before my arrival with Ms. Duncan.
Things get grayer when one considers the fact that this missionary effort I witnessed isn’t something forced on Maywood by outside do-gooders. The students from Memphis were brought here through the creative efforts of John Yi, himself a Maywoodian. Yi, an ordained minister and current President of Neighbors of Maywood Community Organization (NoMCO), moved here five years ago with the intention of starting a church. But the first thing he and his wife realized is that there are a lot of churches in Maywood.
“We wanted to be in a place where there were a lot of needs,” Yi said, recounting the couple’s decision to relocate. “But once you realize how many churches there are, you realize that’s not the solution.”
On a survey that the Yis conducted themselves, more than 95 percent of Maywoodians polled claimed to be born-again Christians. “Maywood’s problem isn’t that it needs more churches or people who claim to be Christians,” Yi said. “It needs more people who live out the teachings of Jesus publicly….who follow the Great Commission…If people have a vital relationship with Jesus, it will change their community.”
Guided, in part, by this field work, the Yis changed course, instead opting to start an organization called The Community in Maywood. The organization falls under the umbrella of the Yis’ place of worship, Chicagoland Community Church. One of their most popular forms of outreach is outdoor vacation Bible school. When the Yis moved here five years ago, they noticed that the parks were severely underutilized. Yi connected the dots. Empty parks presented a significant safety issue.
“If we’re in the park, if we’re physically present in parks, that alone will deter crime,” Yi said. In addition to conducting Bible studies in the parks, his organization also leads massive cleanup efforts in collaboration with a variety of religious groups (many with Southern Baptist affiliations), numerous YMCAs and other social service organizations throughout the area.
Each year, Yi gets hundreds of volunteers from all over the country requesting to come to Maywood to clean up and pray and witness to residents. They typically pay their own way, while Yi and his team secure housing for them in churches and in YMCAs. “To be able to get all these different parties to come to the table and make it happen is huge,” he said.
Yi’s initiative is fascinating for its simplicity and practicality. It’s low-cost, efficient, innovative, imaginative — and revealing. To fight apathy and discouragement, sometimes all it takes is one bold, counterintuitive act. Yi found that the parks were empty, in part, because people thought them dangerous. So he decided to crowd the danger out by congregating people in the parks.
As Yi and I were sitting and chatting on one of those freshly repaired park benches, a kid no more than twelve walked up to the fence and enthusiastically asked John when the vacation Bible school would begin, a good indication of the program’s reception among the local youth. I asked Yi how receptive residents as a whole have been to the missionaries.
“When you bring all these white kids to a black neighborhood, ” Yi said, “they stick out like a sore thumb.” But for the most part, the general reception has been gracious and the residents appreciative. Yi recalled the attitude of one Maywoodian, who responded to the missionaries frankly. “You’re doing for us what we won’t do for ourselves.” That’s the part, for me, where things get complex and saddening. It’s a matter that can be dissected an infinite number of ways. In the meantime, perhaps it might be more effective to simply learn from the example these teenagers have set.
“Picking up trash in the park is important,” Yi said, “but its not as important as engaging people. That’s what we need in our town — people caring about each other with their time and actions.”
As he said this, we spotted one of the student volunteers tending to a young boy who’d gotten hurt while playing basketball on the park’s mini court a few moments earlier. Some other local kids were riding their bikes toward the park exits. They didn’t leave, however, before one of the Memphis students, a girl named Brooke Creasy, waved her goodbyes, calling them all by their names.VFP