The Bench on Oak Street

There’s a bench on the sidewalk of Oak Street.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

In the last few months of the covid-19 pandemic, I’ve seen many neighbors out my kitchen window stopping to take it in, admiring the words and images, or sitting with friends and enjoying the shade of the large sugar maples that grace the street with their cover. If I’m out in the yard, neighbors walking by will stop and talk to me about it, and I’ll tell them the story of how it came to be.

Last June, to kick off the summer in celebration, our neighbors came together for an awesome barbecue on the block. We blocked off the street, and replaced thru-traffic with food, games, music, and even some limbo rockin’. Neighbors brought potluck items they were eager to share, and opened themselves up for conversation and friendship.

We placed an old pew on the street, with paints and paintbrushes, and invited neighbors to cover it in images and words in response to this question: “What is the neighborhood you hope for?”

I still get emotional when I look at it. There are lots of rainbows and hearts that, apart from just being easy to draw, are calls to love and the beauty of diversity. There are words like justice, peace, acceptance, compassion, belonging and open doors. There are images like one hand lifting another, a garden blooming through a rainstorm, people of different colors holding hands, an umbrella that shelters a heart and says “love all.” A young child has drawn a stop sign with the words “Stop Racism.”

Here’s why I can’t shake this bench: I believe in what we hope for. Neighbors, in all their differences and for all their diverse life experiences, for all their shortcomings and all their biases, they individually and collectively hope for something truly beautiful. I remember the gratitude I felt looking around at those gathered at the block party, like a depiction of all those rainbow drawings: white, black and brown, young and old, gay and straight, male, female and non-binary, folks from various economic backgrounds, of various developmental abilities, some who were raised here and some who immigrated or came as refugees. And yet, when it’s time to name our hopes, this is where we have the opportunity to create something beautiful together. I can not find a single hope shared on this old pew that doesn’t also burn in my own heart. In our hope, unity is possible.

But are these hopes foolish fantasy? Are we daring our children to dream and long for something incredibly beautiful we know they will never find? Is it all just the wishful thinking of naive idealists….or is another world really possible?

As I stood before my neighbors, asking them to seal their hopes on a neighborhood pew, I offered an invitation to take steps towards actually creating the neighborhood we hope for. I wanted to believe that we could create together, to dream together, to hope together.

There is a charge going out to neighbors across the nation, and I’m tuning in from Oak Street. It’s not an easy one to hear. In the wake of the horrific murder of George Floyd by four Minnesota police officers, BIPOC leaders and voices across the country are calling us to see the ways in which hope has been deferred. We are being asked to awaken to the fact that systems and structures in our nation and neighborhoods have been created not out of beauty, togetherness and equality, but on foundations of racism and white supremacy. Teachers are urging us to examine the centuries of oppression through colonization, genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, mass incarceration and all forms of systemic racism, and it’s getting harder for white people like me to ignore their prophetic voices.

These voices matter, and if we do not hear them, we will not move toward what we all hope for. In the neighborhood, our prosperity is tied up together. If there is not justice for one, there is not justice for all. If there is no peace for all, there is no peace for me. Our brothers and sisters are shining a light on all that is broken (and have been for decades, as have their ancestors) and we must receive this as the gift that it is. If we want to be part of creating something truly beautiful, we are going to have to do the work of dismantling and repairing what was broken. It will require listening, learning, lamenting, and then actually getting to work. It may not be comfortable, may not be easy, but hope without truth is delusional.

In Proverbs we hear that “a hope deferred will make the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” As I look upon our collective hopes, I wonder if this audacious bench is just leading to sickened hearts. There is so much destruction and pain and trauma and brokenness. There is so much to dismantle and tear down and root out. It all may be too much.

But then I remember that the marchers are moving forward.

Their longing is in their feet.

It is rolling off their tongues.

They have made a pathway toward another possible world.

They are still daring to hope and still getting out to do the work.

And they’re inviting us to join freedom’s march.

There’s work to do.

Perhaps one day we can sit on our bench of hopes together and find that it’s shaded by a tree of life, when longing is fulfilled and Shalom inhabits the streets.