Breathing With The City

1The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.

Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7)


I can’t take it y’all, I can feel the city breathing
Chest heaving, against the flesh of the evening
Sigh before we die like the last train leaving.
– Black Star, “Respiration”

Lenny leaned securely against the darkness of the night. His jet-black figure perfectly matched the evening’s moonless flesh. It was much too late for socializing but there he stood, on 6th Street, gazing toward Ferry Ave., as I made my way home after dropping guys off from midnight basketball. After three hours of ball with fit and speedy teens, my legs and back showed my age; I needed to get home quickly for rest and pain relievers…but there was Lenny, poised in the solitude of the dark empty street. My reputation could not survive the slight of passing without shouting out to him, but I feared being dragged into 6th & Ferry’s continuous drama. Risking a delay in my homeward journey, I lowered the window of the well-worn ministry van and yelled, “Yo Lenny! What up man?”


Homicide or suicide, 
Heads or Tails
Some think life is a living hell, Some live life just living well
I live life tryna tip the scale, My way, my way, My way, my way
-The Roots, “My Way”


I loved Lenny’s potential, his destiny derailed by dysfunction, terror, travail, and despair, but still evident in the brilliant points of character that involuntarily poked through his foreboding façade. Lenny bore an image molded by evils visited on Black men in America. Hell’s troubles accompanied his deep-dark skin — pure aesthetic beauty to an artistically conscious eye but pure dread for many Americans. Suspicious eyes were constantly upon him: on the streets, in the mall, the bank, and even church. He was the brother told to take a plea in court, not because of guilt but because the public defender advises, “The jury will take one look at you and you’re done.” His fate had been sealed as his ancestors stepped foot on the shores of Jamestown Virginia in 1619, or on shores just down the street where Camden’s ferry stations auctioned slaves during the 18th century. Be it from Virginia or just down Ferry Ave., somehow the homicide/suicide deed had been prefabricated centuries before and 6th & Ferry just happened to be the place on that night.

Through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand,
 and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. – Romans 5:2


I just wanted to bear hug Lenny and carry him off to a wholly different historical and personal narrative. But I couldn’t. I was left only with the power of a simple greeting. Lenny quickly responded, “Hey, Mr. Tim!” He hard-walked toward the van. Reaching the opened window, Lenny exhaled his words as if he had held his breath throughout the evening, “Glad you stopped. I don’t know why but I just feel like just killin’ somebody tonight, like just killin’ somebody.” He spoke with a deeply driven yet oddly rational passion, as if contemplating the deed within a homicide/suicide moment he had worked through on the corner. Ill prepared to address such a pronouncement, I could only look at him as a friend and calmly suggest he go home and sleep away his frustrations, promising him things would look different in the morning. With this, he again thanked me for stopping, turned homeward, and slowly made his way through the early summer heat — his life, my life, and an intended victim’s life all intact.


Desperate brothers hanging on dark street corners often seek for God to make his presence known. They may never experience the type of divine physical visitation we see with Abraham in our Genesis 18 reading, but the incarnation is rich and full of abundant surprises — surprises even placed within our small humble words.


A downwardly-mobile, street-level, incarnational witness calls out to those living within homicide/suicide propositions, connecting people to the living, moving grace of God; it shows up in the most unexpected places and at the most unpredictable times. The good news about this, the work we are all called to, is that no heroes, formulas, or superpowers are needed to apply. The incarnation simply inspires us to continue hanging around dark streets and dark moments, risking some drama on our way home, and stopping to say, “What Up!” as we breath with the city.


Tim Merrill
Friend of Street Psalms
Founder and Director, Watu Moja