How To Love

by Rachael Hemsi

My friend Nicole Daedone did a lecture recently where she talked about every culture being who they are and bringing out their gift. It had me think of all the beautiful faces of humanity that I have met: the people who are discarded who teach us all a thing or two about what it means to be human. I loved what she said: “There isn’t anything wrong with Christian white men. That is great for them. It is just not everyone is aiming to be a white Christian man.”

During my first week as a caseworker for teen moms, I did a home visit with Raylene McKenzie. Raylene was sixteen and her son was two-and-a-half. She explained life as she saw it. She lived in an area where the gang members wore red and she had to walk through the blue gang to get to school. She said she didn’t really care which gang, but she had to pick one so one of the groups would protect her on the way to school.

She invited me into her home. She was a little embarrassed by her couch. I had to work all my home visits around the Jerry Springer Show. No one wanted to meet during Jerry Springer — any other time would do. Her mom had been in prison for armed robbery since Raylene was nine, so she was raising herself, her ten-year-old cousin who her mom had taken in before she went to prison, and her son. They were living on different relatives’ couches.

She introduced me to her son Angel. Angel was a cute kid with a great smile, and the angriest child I had ever met. His hair was cut in the typical gang hairstyle: shaved with a ponytail at the bottom. He had on gold gang chains and was dressed all in red — Raylene said, “He’s my little gangster.” He looked at me straight in the eye and said — “B*tch, shut up you, *>&%ing b*tch,” with as much anger as his little self could muster. This was different from other kids.

In gangs they say the shooters are usually between the ages of nine and thirteen because they are still concrete thinkers. They can’t yet abstract what it means to take another person’s life. Raylene was a good mom. She gave Angel all the love she had to give. All the wisdom that she knew. She went to school every day. Everyone in her life made fun of her every day for going to school. What does school have to offer? She had decided that school was important and so she went.

I think about Angel. What would it take for him to not shoot someone at the age of nine? He would have to know something inside about what it meant to be human that he was never taught. He would have to go against the people that protected him. He would have to know how to decipher that there are good things your family has to offer, and other things you can leave aside.

Our society talks to people in gangs as if they are less than. We talk about the poor as if they are unknowing. I think about Angel. If he grew up and didn’t kill anyone by the age of fifteen, he would have more self knowledge than most humans I have met. He would know he could trust himself and his instincts. He would know that you can trust your family and sometimes you have to follow something deeper inside that knows.

Raylene’s community watched out for each other. They made sure that whoever didn’t have money had enough to eat. If someone didn’t have a place to live there was always a couch. If someone’s mom was on drugs, someone else would take in the kids. Raylene was raising her cousin with nothing. They taught me a lot about what it means to be human (except during Jerry Springer; no one talks during Jerry Springer).

Co-Director of Free Food Harlem, Rachael Hemsi can be found serving meals, fundraising, or scavenging for clothing donations for our guests.

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