Meeting Christ in the Inner City

Last week, a desperate unwed teen mother taught me the true meaning of the Cross.

Teresa has grown up in the impoverished West Side of inner city Denver. Like many families in this community, her family is ensnared in generational poverty and generational abuse. She came to me to find housing, after being abandoned by her child’s father – but her needs far exceeded shelter. Sobbing in grief, bewilderment and rage, Teresa poured out her life story.

A homeless teenage mother, the inheritor of a legacy of violence.

Living with her addicted and dysfunctional mother, she had been repeatedly sexually abused as a child by a cousin and by her mother’s boyfriend. When she was eleven, her stepfather, her one source of emotional support and safety, left the family; she was devastated, and plunged herself into a journey of self-destruction through drugs and alcohol. She dropped out of high school when she got pregnant. But since the birth of her daughter, she has been struggling to turn her life around, to establish a stable foundation for her child. And Teresa’s fierce love for her daughter was what was so remarkable – no: mind-blowing, life-shaking – about her visit to my office.

Violence is woven into the fabric of life in this community. And because that violence is unacknowledged, suppressed and untreated, it gets passed on from generation to generation: suffering people who have been abused, knowing no other way to discharge their anguish and pain, become abusers themselves. The sins of the fathers are visited upon their children, and their children, and their children. Teresa is the inheritor of that violent legacy, and has suffered its effects in her body and being.

But Teresa is determined that the transmission of violence will end with her. She cried out, over and over, “My daughter will not have the life that I had!” Teresa has resolved that her daughter will not be abused, will not be abandoned, will not be mistreated – that she will be cherished, protected, believed in, supported.

She is determined that the transmission of violence will end with her.

The depth and difficulty of Teresa’s resolution are staggering – as are its profound ramifications. Her body and being have been battered by violence, and her life has been tragically distorted by its effects. But she is electing, heroically and painfully, not to transmit that violence on to others. She has absorbed the violence into herself, and in the searing crucible of her suffering, she is turning it into love. Teresa is, in her own life and body, halting the transmission of anger and trauma, by choosing to respond to violence with nonviolence. She is transmuting the deathly power of violence into the quickening power of new life and new ways of being together.

Isn’t that what Jesus did on the cross? He took the terrible power of human violence into himself, and broke it. Broke it in and through his own broken body and unbroken spirit. He suffered all of the horror and trauma that a violent, insecure, retributive world could wield. But he did not return violence for violence, did not reciprocate violence to the perpetrators or pass it on to others. He met violence with nonviolence, vengeance with grace, blind reenactment with intentional new life. He endured the violence that was inflicted upon him, and through the redemptive power and love of God, he transfigured it into reconciliation and renewal.

Isn’t that what Jesus did on the cross?

A Christ figure walked into my office last week. Her suffering, courage, passion and love shook me to my core, and shattered my superficial and complacent beliefs – or were they non-beliefs? – about the harsh and transformative reality of the cross in today’s world. I stand before her in awe, heartbreak and gratitude.

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