The Beach Flats is generally regarded as one of the poorest communities in our county. I've never really been sure just exactly how to get to the Flats, so assiduously have I kept from going there. Because this is the place where all the drug busts happened, the prostitution and gang wars and all the other things that my mother warned me about. In high school, after our house was robbed, the culprits turned out to be part of a bigger drug ring that was centered in...you guessed it, the Beach Flats. So it was with a little bit of trepidation that I joined our church last Saturday morning for a workday down in the Flats.
La LuzCommunity Center, playgrounds and 2 lovely little gardens.The neighborhood was awakening slowly as the morning shadows slanted down the narrow streets; the odd crumbling beach bungalow illuminated by sunlight. Children began to appear on the sidewalks, brothers and sisters on bikes of the loud plastic wheel variety, giving each other Slug Bug punches on the arm at the sight of our silver VW Beetle.
As I said, this neighborhood is right down the street from the Boardwalk, and I was constantly glimpsing the Giant Dipper out of the corner of my eye, looming over us. By lunch time the smell of fried churros & salt air was pungent.
I was working in the community garden at Poet's Park, a little circular garden with many little pie slice plots that belong to different community members. Since this is a largely Latino community there were many plots planted out with cactus, chiles & tomatoes. Huge swathes of bright purple volunteer cosmos ran throughout the garden,along with what looked like yellow helenium, which is better known by its descriptive yet silly common name, Sneezeweed.
This garden also had that singular quality of joy mixed with holiness that seems especially native to urban gardens and other places of redemption and transformation. Beauty from ashes. I wasn't unaware either how it felt like an honor to be allowed to work in that space. The bluebird that kept a constant eye on the upturned soil, the weeds, the trash and the other women working with me-I could sense the presence of God there, and I was thankful.
About halfway through the morning an older Latina woman came in to tend her plot of geraniums and roses and began to talk to us, casually at first and then more earnestly as talk turned to matters of faith.And then there followed one of the most hair-raising gardening conversations of my life. A fervent follower of Jesus, she recounted some of the stories that have shaped her 30 years living in the Flats. Her children, drug addicts and gangbangers, miraculously saved from being killed while she sat up at home, praying. The shotgun that mysteriously jerked out of firing aim of her daughter, bullet shooting harmlessly into the sky. The rival gang that appeared out of nowhere, diverting the attention of the Norteños who were about to attack her son, while she sat at home and prayed (specifically) for a diversion, sensing that her son was in danger. Her husband, who was kicked out of his house at age 11, on the streets and addicted to heroin by age 14. She called me sister. "Sister, I am blessed of the Lord," she told me, "All my children and my grandchildren come to church with me now. They are all saved."
In the end, she told me she was doing a fundraiser to raise money for her son's missions trip to Mongolia. ("Oh sister, those poor children in Mongolia!") She was making tamales. I ordered a dozen.
She told me about how God had provided all the tamale makings, including a whole turkey, which apparently tastes just like chicken in a tamale context. This excited me, not because I've wondered about chicken substitutes in tamales, but because I have a huge turkey in my freezer, purchased on sale after Thanksgiving, and taking up too much room. "Praise You, Jesus!" she shouted, and hugged me. My mother in law kicked in another turkey and since that workday I've been back a few times, delivering turkeys, picking up fragrant tamales, and talking to the many little kids that seem to hang out on her front stoop. I love that she is giving out of her own need, raising money for children across the world, in the midst of a population that lives at or below the poverty line.
I've been invited to volunteer at the Wednesday gardening club. We'll see where this leads. It is a surprise and a blessing to see that if I do agree to volunteer there, it is in a place that already has the light of the life of God shining through it, through people like my new friend. As my buddy A.W. Tozer says, God is always previous. And now I know that a part of my town that I assumed was lost is not lost after all. It's been found all along.