I have had the privilege of living in several large cities in different areas of the country, and in each of these cities there are lines that clearly define where some people belong and where some people don’t belong. Sometimes these lines are invisible, but sometimes they are so clearly marked that we take them for granted because we seem them as often as we do our own hands.
After a brief hiatus, our reGROUP team is now back in the Orange County Jail on Wednesday evenings to lead a healing and recovery group with about 20 women inside the Female Detention Center. Not only does this mean going to the jail after a long work day, but it also means navigating Orlando traffic in the midst of all of its crazy. If you are not familiar with Orlando, there are about 2.4 million people here who all seem to head in the same direction between the hours of 4:00 and 7:00pm. They all seem to do this on the same route – I4 – and apparently all stop for no reason at all of the same places. Then, add in the fact that most of the population here is elderly, or from all different countries and driving traditions, and don’t forget that we now see about 66 MILLION tourists per year here in Orlando. And guess where all of those touristy theme parks are located? Just off of I4! And guess where the jail is? You got it. A stone’s throw from I4.
So on Wednesday evenings, I have to get creative. Last night, I decided to take “back roads” to travel the 25 miles from home to the jail, which took me through parts of town in which I don’t normally visit. Heading North on Curry Ford Road, you may notice new shopping centers, stucco houses, and subdivisions with winsome names like “Monaco” or “Dean’s Reserve”. As you head further North, the houses get smaller, the stores get older, and the signs magically transform from the English language to the Spanish language. Then you turn on to Fern Creek, where you see a delightful mix of newly-old homes, people jogging with their dogs, and fairy lights on porches. As you approach Kaley, you slow down because you are now on cobblestone streets that line the always trendy Thornton Park. Then you approach downtown Orlando, bordered by the beautiful new-ish Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, The Amway Center, stunning hotels, and countless corporate headquarters. As you cross under I4 (and the wrath of Hades looms above you), you enter a very different world.
This is the line to which I referred a few paragraphs ago. This is the line of demarcation between the haves and the have nots, the innocent and the seemingly-always-guilty, the employed and the “lazy”, the glass windows and the plywood boards. This line exists in every city I have lived in, whether it be Charleston, Memphis, Berkeley, or Orlando.
Last night, as I drove out of downtown and into the area known as “Paramore”, my heart started aching. I realized that when I take a convenient route like I4 or 408 to the jail each week, I miss the neighborhoods where most of the women in jail live when they are not incarcerated. These neighborhoods – like Paramore, Pine Hills, Holden Heights, and others – are full of barely-standing homes, liquor stores guarded by iron window bars, topless dance clubs, pawn shops, and fast food restaurants. You won’t find a farmer’s market or Whole Foods around here. There isn’t even a Publix. The mood around these neighborhoods is depressing at best. And it makes me sick and heartbroken all at the same time.
It also makes me really curious…who drew that line? Who decided that, at one time, South Parkway in Memphis was once THE place for young families to buy a new home and start a family and now it is the birthplace of many violent rap songs? Who decided that Holden Heights would be home to so much crime, while a few blocks away Millennia would house one of the largest and most expensive malls I have ever visited?
The more I look around at my surroundings, the more I start to question how things got this bad and who made these decisions along the way. Where did all of these lines come from that we are afraid to cross? Are our fears valid? Some would say, from very real experiences, “yes”. Others would shout an emphatic “No!” and encourage people to leave their comfort zones.
I don’t have the answers. All I know is that as long as their are lines, there are people who are “in” and people who are “out”, and that is not ok. Regardless of zip code, we all share very similar DNA and experience the same joy, grief, anger, hope, pain, anxiety, fear, humor, and sense of wonder. My fear is that if we continue to live between the lines, we will forget just how human the person “across the way” is. Human like you, and like me.