Post by Vincent Guider
As a boy, it took me several trips to summer camp before I finally learned to swim. It took three summers, to be exact. Despite everything African American boys learn growing up on the South Side of Chicago, swimming skills are not usually among them. Many inner city boys still grow up hesitant about venturing into or even near deep water. There simply aren’t enough safe swimming places, instructors, or chances to go to summer camps to make it happen.
I did not learn to swim because I was afraid of the water. Also, there was no one I trusted enough to ease me in and teach me how to do it. Instead of getting in and trying for myself, I spent the better part of swim time standing on the side of the pool, looking in and imagining the worst. While so many other kids seemed to be having a ball diving, floating, doing pool tricks, and swimming, my fears kept me out of the water. I knew how much I was missing out, but I was just so scared.
It anguished me on sweltering days. Opportunity after opportunity would come and go without me taking the plunge. I wish I had enough gall to just jump in and be done with it. Most often I merely stuck my toes in, testing the water and then retreated back to a safe, dry spot on the pool deck. I’d sit in the shade and conjure up excuses as to why it wasn’t the right time for me to get into the water. I couldn’t imagine myself enduring the shock of that sudden change of temperature when I first dove in. I was afraid of water going up my nose and into my eyes causing me to gag and tear up. I knew I wouldn’t be able to breathe with my face in the water. I even imagined myself drowning and nobody coming to my rescue. There were also times I’d remember videos I’d seen about racist adults pouring bleach into whites only pools where black children were trying to swim. So many internal forces kept me out of the water.
Sometimes I look back on those days and shake my head with shame at how fearful and hesitant I was. Still, I know I just was not ready to get in yet. I also needed time and coaching to be comfortable, get into the water, and eventually become a swimmer. Then, it finally happened. After my third summer at camp, I learned to hold my breath under water, paddle, kick my feet, and eventually swim on my own. I started in the shallow end and moved to the deeper water over time. It was not until I was able to overcome my fears and vizualise myself surviving in the pool that I could even begin to experience its soothing pleasures. Interestingly enough, it was one initial plunge that made me crave getting in again and again and again. Today I am proficient in the water and ever so relieved that I am. With the right amount of coaching and time, I finally overcame my nagging fears and swam. As I look back on those summers I think to myself, “Man, I sure wasted time and missed out on a good and important thing!”
My reticence to enter the water as a boy reminds me of how daunting the North Lawndale Kinship Initiative can be for some. The notion of Old St. Pat’s people venturing into a Chicago West Side neighborhood with a bad reputation seems too scary and potentially dangerous for some to even consider trying. When fears take over us, the stereotypes and worst case scenarios make us cling to our safe, familiar places rather than venturing out. Let’s face it, we have either thought or heard, “North Lawndale is a dangerous neighborhood, isn’t it? People get shot, robbed, and raped there don’t they? Anyway, why should we try to get to know those people? Do they care about getting to know us? Why don’t they work harder to improve their own situations? Neighborhoods that are so poor and black are just too risky to venture into”. There is not enough room in this article to justly address each of those statements, and there is a more important point to be made here. It is only when we immerse ourselves into unfamiliar community settings that we are able to comfort, support and enjoy one another as a human family. Rather than merely looking in and considering the risks, now is the time for us to move forward together in our common humanity. It can refresh us in ways we may have never imagined.
The North Lawndale Kinship Initiative is a movement aptly inspired and named from Fr. Greg Boyle’s book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. In it, Fr. Boyle, a Jesuit Priest, tells of his work at Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles. In this ministry, for which he uses the term ‘kinship’, he and his staff serve alongside former gang members and those entering society after incarceration. Fr. Boyle writes, “Close both eyes see with the other one. Then we are no longer saddled by the burden of our persistent judgments our ceaseless withholding our constant exclusion. Our sphere has widened and we find ourselves quite unexpectedly in a new expansive location in a place of endless acceptance and infinite love.”
Both Fr. Boyle and true kinship beckon us beyond friendly smiles, polite handshakes, and comfortable conversations. It calls us to delve deeper into the lives of those whose experiences are quite different from our own. It requires us to do more than merely show up to help with a service project and leave feeling satisfied yet void of having having made real, human connections. Kinship means we show up for the people more so than the project. We value learning names, sharing stories, making relationships, touching hearts and accompanying people in their real circumstances. Kinship is a call away from our safe spaces so that we may strengthen human ties with others, regardless of how things may have seemed before we took the plunge into the community. Kinship is love in action.
The next time we enter and leave the beautiful Old St. Pat’s Sanctuary, let us be conscious of the sacred sign situated in the main aisle. The holy water font is there as an invitation for us to dip into the cool, cleansing water and then bless ourselves with the sign of this cross. We do this every time we enter and leave. This ritual commemorates our baptism into Christ and it reminds us that we are in kinship with the Holy Spirit and each other. Our blessing in the holy water should signify to the world that our faith helps us to overcome fears, separations and inhibitions that lead to sin. We go in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The congregation of St. Agatha Catholic Church, our North Lawndale Kinship partner says it so loudly and appropriately at the concluding rite of every Mass - “Let us go out and BE church after church.”
Vince Guider Old St. Pat’s Director of the North Lawndale Kinship Initiative.