Darkness will not win
Last Tuesday, we started the fourth year of our flag football league in the neighborhood park. Just a week before March edges its way into spring, winter seems to be making a comeback and the day stays bitter cold even as the sun shines high overhead. With Adam teaching at the neighborhood high school this year, much of the logistics and organization for football has landed squarely on my shoulders, which means I am running around like a crazy person taking pictures and answering questions and making sure everything gets set up. The sun sinks slowly, temperatures dipping even farther north while my kids run wild and I scold Isaiah for pressing buttons on the scoreboards and changing the number of fouls and timeouts. I don’t know how to fix it, and shrug apologetically at the referee. Three out of the four scheduled teams show up, so we quickly throw together our own boys, who aren’t supposed to have a game this week. Forty 14-18 year olds from all across Atlanta play and laugh and tease each other and insist that I take their pictures and don’t miss their touchdowns. Friends from our church grill hot dogs, and kids too young to play set out the chips and condiments in neat rows on the stone wall Caden dove into a few years ago. He was rushed for stitches in his forehead, our only flag football injury to date. My kids play with their friends, running around in their own football games which mostly consist of appeasing Zay who wails anytime someone takes away his ball.
After the games, Adam gathers the boys, slick with sweat and ready for hot dogs, for a quick devotional and prayer before we eat. I help my own little ones squirt ketchup on hot dogs when I notice a fight brewing between players from our neighborhood and a guy who was there with another team. We know some of the boys involved; in fact, I just finished a conversation with one of them who explained to me how hard he’s trying to stay out of trouble. I offered to help him find a job, and we made plans to work on it later in the week.
Sighing, I ask a friend to watch Caden while I hoist Zay higher on my hip and head over to help calm simmering tempers. Earlier today I mentioned to someone that I’m surprised we haven’t had a fight yet, after six years of flag football for adolescent boys from the “wrong side of the tracks,” many of whom find themselves swept up in a life of gangs or just scratching out survival alongside failing school systems and poverty sitting heavy on newly broadening shoulders. I should have known better than to say that out loud.
Someone has a gun, we hear. And I catch its glint as we corral the boys further from the fray and coaches take the other boy involved to their van. Adrenaline remains high, evidenced by stiffened fists and a sidestepping of my gaze in attempts to re-engage in the near-brawl. Zay squirms to get down, but I hold him tight and Adam and I look the boys straight on until they meet our eyes without shifting. “Don’t do this,” I tell them: “don’t be who they think you are, don’t cave to the lies the world heaps on your back like a yoke.” I hold one of the boy’s hands to steady us both, and I say “I have my baby here because I trust you.”
“I know” he nods.
“You are more, you are better than this,” Adam continues, “we care about you and we won’t stop showing up for you, but they won’t let us play football in this neighborhood, which is changing so quickly, if you guys can’t be something they aren’t expecting. Show them who we know you are.”
They agree, and we all steady our ragged breathing while they eat hot dogs and cheetos and head off beneath streetlights towards home. I shiver under the deepening night sky, and shake a little while buckling kids and small neighbors into our minivan to tuck safe into warm beds. Once home, I pull off shoes, brush teeth, and say prayers. Caden’s eyes flutter closed before we whisper amen. Zay pads out of his room four times, far less than usual, and my patience remains uncharacteristically unwavering while I lift him back into his bunk bed and bend to press a kiss on his forehead and tuck the quilt under his chin.
I lay on the couch and wish we had wine. Adam cleans up the field and drives all the boys home, and Ray (her boyfriend plays football, she lives with us and was at the game) comes through the front door and I startle. “That was scary,” she says, perching next to me on the couch. I agree and tears well unexpectedly, dripping heavily from the corners of my eyes. Soon I am nearing sobs and she doesn’t quite know how to respond. “See,” she says, “this is why I don’t help people like y’all do, these folks do too much.” I nod through tears, and think about quitting.
Maybe we should cancel football, I text a friend who left the park just minutes before the fight.
I think of holding my two-year-old in front of middle schoolers who have poor prefrontal cortex development, and also guns. I question all my life choices and tremble slightly at how things might have gone differently.
My phone dings. My friend responds: No. Darkness will not win.
Four days later is Sunday morning, another cold day with deceptive sunshine and crisp blue skies. Two of the boys we originally met through flag football are getting baptized at our little church. They attend with us faithfully, though I cant promise they don’t fall asleep or spend inordinate amounts of time on their phones during sermon. One week, they literally brought blankets in from our van and laid across the pews. Neither were involved in the fight at football on Tuesday. But this morning, I watch them on the front row. Occasionally, I tap their shoulder lightly and whisper that they need to pull it together, or put away their phone. They dance a little during worship, and wear hoodies with their good sneakers, pulling them off when it’s time to share testimonies and get dunked in the galvanized tub. Occasionally during the service, Zay tells me loudly he is going to hop in the water, and I shush him and distract him with a snack. The pews are full this morning, and the kids squirm to see who will be first under the water. There are eight people in line, and the two boys bring up the rear, ducking their heads shyly and grinning occasionally at me with my camera or towards their friends who video with phones from the front row.
Adam reads their testimonies, and they talk about hope. About family, about death, and about fresh starts. They don’t use all the right words, but they say all the right things. They remind me of joy and grace, and the whole church shakes with laughter when they grow dramatic over the temperature of the water. Soon, they are plunged beneath the water and raised sputtering out to borrowed towels. They change into dry clothes with loud commentary in my office, right next to the baptismal. One of the other boys bangs on the door to tell them to pipe down, and we raise our right hands to leave with a benediction: Go now in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Peace be with you. And also with you.
Darkness will not win.
And we will keep showing up, we will keep speaking truth and hope over these young men and to each other, until we all believe it firmly enough to be raised to new life again.