One of Embrace Richmond’s core values is “enduring optimism.”  We work hard to stay positive. To see the challenges we face as opportunities for growth.  I have personally seen some miraculous things happen when people tap into hope and work together to release the “power of we.”

But over the past few weeks, as we have been mapping the dreams of neighbors in emerging neighborhoods across Metro Richmond.  I have come face to face with darkness as I have sat with youth in seven different neighborhoods and listened to their stories.

As I shared in a recent post titled “Metal Detectors to Keep the Bad People Out,” the concern that weighs heaviest on the hearts of my Hillside friends is safety.  Just a week after sharing that post, a man was murdered in Hillside and he was not the first to die in the streets this summer.  With almost daily gunfire, the entire community lives everyday on high alert, just waiting for the next attack.

As we are nearing the end of our dream catcher project for the summer of 2015, we are getting some very clear images of what the neighbors care most about.  At this point in the project, I am asking the youth to choose which issues they care most about that have emerged from their listening effort.  In most communities, the youth care about things like more youth activities or unity in the community.  When I asked this question in Hillside, all seven of youth said reducing gun violence.  When Mrs. Patrice asked them how many of them had personally lost someone to gun violence, ALL of them raised their hands.  I just wanted to cry.  I can’t imagine the trauma these kids have gone through.  I was speechless.  I was humbled.  I was angry that kids in our own country feel like they are growing up in a war zone.

Of the seven neighborhoods that we are working in this summer, Hillside court has the most violence.  However, they are not the only youth who feel like they live in a state of high alert.  In our Northside team, one young man asked if a school could be considered “a community.”  He shared that if he could change anything he would change his school.  He and the other students in our circle then shared what it was like to be a student in Richmond Public High Schools.

One of our young ladies shared a story with us from the past year.

“The day of the riot, when the security officer was beaten and hospitalized, I was looking for my best friend.  I saw them coming at her with a knife, so I ran to save her and I fell and broke my ankle.  It was the day before our first basketball game.  I will never forget that day. After that they put three officers on my campus.  But I know how to survive.  I don’t talk to anyone at school, not even my best friend.  I keep my head down, I go to class and I just pray no one messes with me.  If they do, I have my cousins who will fight for me so I don’t get “banked” in the cafeteria.  They have my back but I don’t hang out with them and I don’t talk to them. If they are fighting with another group, I don’t want any part of that.  I’m just glad, they have my back.”

Another one of our students who is new to RPS is not quite so lucky.

“I just moved here and everyone else runs with a group.  I don’t know anyone so if anyone were to jump me, it is just me.  I hate my school.  I don’t have any friends and no one has my back.”

These youth live in a constant state of fear which became very clear to me when one student shared this:

“When I am at school, I am not safe.  When I am home, in my community, I am not safe.” She then looked at me with those beautiful brown eyes and said, “Where is a safe place?  I don’t even know what that is.”

My heart broke open even wider looking at that young girl pleading for a place to simply be herself, to let her guard down, to be accepted and loved for who she is.

This same young lady was attacked in her bed by one of her mothers boyfriends just two weeks later.

So my enduring optimism is wavering in this season.  The darkness all around these kids is real.  I can’t just put on a happy face and pretend it does not exist and I can’t wave my magic wand and make it all go away.

So, what do you do with the darkness?

For now, all I can do is sit, and pray, and wait for God to show us the next faithful step.  Please join me in praying for the youth of our city, for more light and less darkness in their lives.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:5