I’m not friendly with the white-shirted drug dealers who work the corners near my house yet, but at least they acknowledge me as a neighbor now, instead of looking me over as a prospective buyer or an undercover cop. It’s not fear that keeps me away from them, I think, but rather cold, hard realism. Until they fall, those hardcore guys simply are not “get-able” for anything less viscerally exciting than street life. I hate to break it to all those Christian rappers out there, but loving God and loving people does not qualify in that category.

The fact that I don’t walk up to those guys doesn’t mean that I don’t keep them in mind or pray for them when I walk by. On the contrary, I am fascinated by what goes on, and careful to notice if and when the kids we know start hanging around with the wrong people. And I am always on the lookout for Shareef.

I first saw him on a drug corner two years ago, when we moved here. Shareef is 16 now, but back then he was 14 and looked even younger. He always seemed more like the dealers’ mascot than one of them, but he was a hard-looking mascot at that, and he was out there all the time.

Everybody told me Shareef was a bad kid, so it wasn’t surprising that I only got to know him when he tried to sneak into one of our by-invitation-only dinner parties. I turned him away from that one, but, against my better judgment, I invited him for the following week and, to my great surprise, he turned up again, right on time.

As soon as I greeted him, he handed me his cell phone and told me his grandmother wanted to talk to me, to make sure he was welcome. We’d never met, but as soon as I confirmed his invitation, she spoke directly.

“You can feed him if you want, but don’t turn your back on him for a minute, or he’ll steal from you,” she said wearily. “I don’t care if it’s a church, he’ll steal or he’ll get in a fight if you don’t watch out. Understand, I love the boy … but I’ve got to warn you. He’s not right. He’s never been right.”

It was a strange beginning to what continues to be a strange relationship, with a woman who’s had her heart broken again and again, and with a kid who’s had every card stacked against him from the beginning, save one. Shareef may be a streetwise, bi-polar, learning-isabled orphan with A.D.D., a drug habit, and a well-deserved criminal record, but he is so vulnerable and so oddly charming that his grandmother and lots of other good people keep trying to help him. Unfortunately, at this point, it seems we’re overmatched.

Sometimes, when we meet on the street or when he stops by our house, Shareef is energetic and funny, and he talks about getting a job, staying clear of his dealer friends, and doing positive things with his life. Other days, when I see him hanging with the older boys, his eyes are glassy and he barely acknowledges me.

A few weeks ago, after going to the church where his grandmother serves as treasurer, he stole the offering before she could deposit it at the bank and disappeared. Knowing betrayal comes cheap on the street, she and his social worker posted signs around the neighborhood offering $50 to whoever brought him home.

A few hours later, there he was, literally kicking and screaming as three of his “friends” carried him around the corner and threw him onto her front yard in front of a laughing crowd of bystanders. At that point Shareef’s uncle, a muscular ex-con just home from prison, pinned him against a fence and scared away the crowd. I was there, too, doing what I could to help, trying to talk sense to the boy while his grandmother called the police. They locked him up for his own good, but it was ugly.

I hate it when all you can do is pray. I don’t understand prayer very well, and around here it often feels like a waste of time. I know that’s wrong, or at least wrong to say, so you don’t have to write back to me about it. Better that you should pray for me, eh?

Anyway, yesterday I was sitting at the dining room table searching for a way to start this letter when I heard someone knocking at the side door. When I opened it, there was Shareef, grinning from ear to ear.

“Hey Bart!” he exclaimed, “Can you come over to my grandmother’s house with me? I’ve got a new foster family, and I’m back on my medication, and I’m doing real good, and the man I’m living with is named Charles Smithson, and he wrote a book about overcoming drugs and police brutality, and in two weeks I’m going to a real high school, and I’m only visiting home for a little while so … can you come right now?”

So I went, and got the whole story and more. We sat on Shareef’s grandmother’s front porch, me and him and her, along with his uncle and his social worker, talking about Shareef’s good news and about Michael Vick (trust me, animal lovers, folks in the ‘hood see that one way differently than you and me) and about a bunch of other stuff that I never dreamed I’d be talking about a few years ago. I think I even got a relational “in” with the ex-con uncle. It was beautiful.

Before I left, I asked everyone for a favor. We put our hands on the boy, and I prayed out loud, thanking God for what was happening and asking for more. At the end of the day, I may not understand or often enjoy prayer, and I may hate it when it’s all you can do, but I’m definitely not above it and I never hope to be.

Bart Campolo is a veteran urban minister and activist who speaks, writes, and blogs www.bartcampolo.com about grace, faith, loving relationships and social justice. Bart is the leader of The Walnut Hills Fellowship www.thewalnuthillsfellowship.org in inner-city Cincinnati. He is also founder of Mission Year www.missionyear.org, which recruits committed young adults to live and work among the poor in inner-city neighborhoods across the USA, and executive director of EAPE, which develops and supports innovative, cost-effective mission projects around the world.

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