One November day in 2010, much to my surprise and joy, I found a lesson somewhere I thought I’d already learned: Humble beginnings of people with humble hearts produce huge results.
For nearly eleven years, I have lived in a small city in the Northern part of Arizona called Kingman. Just about the only great thing Kingman has been known for is it’s location on the historic Route 66. The other things it has become known for are less than appealing. Most prominently, Kingman has problems with drug addiction, abuse, prejudice and a people who are set in their ways.
As of May 2011 there have already been about 166 people arrested for drug charges in Kingman. According to a recent study, approximately 1,316 marijuana users, 576 people abusing prescription drugs, 215 cocaine addicts, 97 people using hallucinogens, 54 people who use inhalants and 12 heroin addicts have been checked into rehabilitation centers. This only includes those who are getting help but many more remain addicted to the lifestyle. Since Kingman’s population is approximately 30,000 people, these numbers don’t seem high in comparison to other cities but the problems are still just as real.
I‘ve spent a great deal of my life moving due to my father’s job. When people learn that I am from California they always ask which part. I usually just say “Southern” because I lived in so many different places, it’s hard to say which city is my hometown. I have lived in Duarte, Azusa, Pasadena, Longview, Bellflower, Ontario, Los Angeles, Huntington and my longest stay was in Glendora.
I have lived in town homes, apartments, houses and even motel rooms. I’ve lived in some scary neighborhoods, ones where I was not even allowed to play in own my front yard. I’ve also lived in neighborhoods that were so safe they had won awards and instant friendships happened the day we backed the U-Haul into the driveway. By the age of eleven, I had never stayed anywhere longer than a few years at a time. I didn’t know a different life and though I always longed for a place to call home, I never wanted Kingman to be that place.
For years I tried hard to find a way to a new land, irritated and fixed on anywhere but Kingman. Rather than face what I disliked about the environment around me, I wanted to run until I found something I liked better. To me, this seemed like the answer to my problems. I didn’t realize until that November day that I had never learned how to truly commit to anything. I knew how to make my life look sensible and stable, but I was really missing out on everything. I didn’t deal with the fact that I didn’t have that much compassion for my community or unconditional love for my neighbors.
“Rather than confront what I disliked about the environment around me, I wanted to run until I found something I liked better. To me, this seemed like the answer to my problems.”
On that November day, a group from my church gathered together in one of the worst neighborhoods in the area. We went to the small park in the middle of the neighborhood with the intention of putting on a program for the locals. Our hope was to entertain the crowd while showing them that God cares about their needs. We had a team ready to pray for people and brought our bus ministry leader to offer rides to anyone who wanted to come to church the next day. We had planned this for months, we had everything from skits to live music, games and prizes. Many people put a great amount of work into this, it was a good group of volunteers.
We came early in the freezing cold to set up our equipment and canvas the neighborhood. A small crowd began to gather and we got ready for our assigned activities. By the book, we did everything right. We were prepared to put on a great program and to see a lot of people. It wasn’t until the end of the day that we realized “by the book” didn’t really do anything for these people (and to be perfectly honest, I feel some people never came to that realization at all). The crowd grew smaller and smaller within the first hour. By the afternoon, the only people left were the volunteers. We had failed, but no one wanted to admit it. We began to clean up and load the equipment into various vehicles.
A few people tried to remind everyone that we gave the day a good effort, but those affirmations were quickly drowned out by outright complaints. My heart sank into my stomach. As I stood on the sidelines with some of my friends, complaining with them about the small turn-out and the disinterested looks of passersby, I stopped myself and it was all I could do not to cry. It occurred to me on that day that I was doing community service, but there was not an ounce of love or compassion in my heart for these people. We had set out to do a great program, but it was all for self in the first place. It made us feel good to know we were getting involved but the hearts of the hurting people we were there to serve became an afterthought.
During the planning stages, all I could think about was how much this program could benefit me and the image I wanted to convey to the community around me. I was prideful about it, thinking about how we were one of the few churches in the area that did anything like this. I was thinking about how “down to earth” we must have been and how much more “relatable” we were to all different groups of people. I was consumed with how positive this would look and if there were any great changes in Kingman, we could get all the glory and credit for it. I wanted the reputation but not the responsibility.
As I drove home that day, I was completely broken. I pulled over and wept as I prayed. All I could do was ask God when I had become so dispassionate and selfish. Realizing that I may as well have just been sitting at home on the couch that day, I went home and shared the most candid conversation with some of my mentors and friends of the church. I came to the realization that I didn’t care what happened to the city or the people inside of it as long as I could get some credit for trying to do good in a bad situation.
As much as I had fought it on that defeated day, I knew there was a purpose for me in this city that feeds on a feast of apathy and defeat. I came to terms with my reoccurring feeling that the monotony was almost unbearable at times. I have looked in the eyes of my neighbors and made conversation to answer how they got here and why they couldn’t leave.
There are few places I go in this town where people don’t talk about how much they hate it. They spout off on long rants as though they still care, but most only filibuster their way into postponing. Unfortunately, most of these people are all talk, nothing but complainers. As they gripe about all that’s wrong with this place, they only (inadvertently, I’m sure) add to the problem just as I have.
Instead of cleaning the dirty streets everyone only wants to complain about the trash they see blowing in the wind. Instead of telling the teenager in the hooker heels and mini-skirt that she’s beautiful and doesn’t need to objectify herself, they only label her a “slut” and walk away, taking her self-esteem with them. Instead of being the voice for the abused child as they can’t speak, everyone simply minds “their own business.” Instead of helping someone to avoid the same problem that ruined them, they’d rather have a misery buddy to hang with in a dead-end situation.
I have lived my last ten years in confusion, pain, joy, curiosity and above all, a hunger for knowledge. I have traveled to many places, but I always stay grounded in this small city in the Northernmost part of Arizona. Believing things would be different, glamorous and possibly better, I have revisited places of my past and set trails in new ones only to discover that problems like those of Kingman are present everywhere you go.
“I came to the realization that I didn’t care what happened to the city or the people inside of it as long as I could get some credit for trying to do good in a bad situation.”
The world is broken, not just Kingman Arizona. There are people who are actively doing things about it, but what about this part of world in front of me?
There are many great companies and organizations I can support to help people in need. One of my favorites is TOMS, a for-profit company that acts as a non-profit. When anyone buys a pair of shoes from them, they will give a pair to a person in need. In 2011, they began a program for vision care in which they sell eyewear and for every pair purchased, they provide glasses, medical care or surgery for people who otherwise couldn’t afford it. Knowing this, I can buy 50 pairs of TOMS and feel great about the fact that I helped some amazing people get shoes on their feet, but does that really do anything for the people in my neck of the woods?
Another organization that is helping to change the world is To Write Love on Her Arms. Their goal is to share hope with those dealing with self-injury, depression, addictions or suicidal thoughts. They try to close the distance between treatment centers and those that need help by directly providing a way for people to go into treatment. The most common way of supporting their mission is through the purchase of their merchandise. With that in mind, I can own half a dozen items from To Write Love on Her Arms but is that going to physically help prevent concern of suicide in my own community? Shouldn’t I extend similar care to those around me?
In Los Angeles there is a mission called The Dream Center. It is located in the inner city near the city limits of Hollywood. On average, the mission houses close to 500 people and their ministry reaches 35,000 people a week by serving the entire community in any way possible, offering to fill physical, mental or spiritual needs. With over forty services offered, they help gang members, orphans, prostitutes, released prisoners, drug addicts, unwed mothers, AIDS victims, the homeless and other various subculture groups.
Always looking for volunteers, one of the most popular ways of getting involved with The Dream Center is to sign up for their summer missionary program. During this time, people spend a week at the mission and help with as many programs as they’d like to be involved with. I can spend a week at The Dream Center and help with every project they’ve got going out there. I can pray for drug addicts, I can sit and cry with a prostitute, I can give soup to a homeless little boy and his mother and I can dance around on a puppet stage with orphaned children, but what does that do for the people hurting here, right in front of me?
I’m not saying it’s bad to support ministries and organizations. I fully advocate working with the companies, non-profits and churches that actually will help others (like the great ones mentioned above. They are all amazing and I will continue to support them however I can). What I am saying is that I’ve done all the things listed above — okay, I’ve yet to buy 50 pairs of TOMS– but how much of it effects the world immediately around me? None that I can think of.
Why should I leave it all on the shoulders of those great organizations as though I don’t have hands too? Why should I make my purchase and then go nap on the couch when there are people who need help right in my neighborhood, too? This is not just a part-time job where I do my time and then I’m off the clock until the next big donation comes up. How disgusting. When exactly did charity become a fashion?
It’s time to stop outsourcing love and get our hands dirty! Time to stop labeling all the “ugly things” in our communities and start liberating instead. I have missed so many opportunities because I was too busy trying to live my “own” life separate from my “charitable” life. My “ministry time” and my “me time” had no business sharing a vehicle or time slot, but something broke inside of me on that November day. Like a dam bursting from the simple prick of a sewing needle, my heart was filled with compassion, hope and purpose–something I had not felt within or about these city limits for quite some time. I feel awake and above all, I feel humble knowing it is only to the glory of God that great things will happen in this city.
All from an afternoon in the freezing cold at a park with no name, with nothing more than a bass guitar, some strangers and some neighbors. My name is Sara Napier and I am home/ traveling/on the mission field/affecting change/watching hearts heal/living in Kingman, Arizona.