This past Wednesday was the Fourth of July.
The jazz band for which a friend of mine plays had a gig in Fort Worth, in a neighborhood that used to be called the Hospital District, but what apparently is now being dubbed the South Side. For decades, the Hospital District has indeed housed several of the city's largest hospitals, but in between their large campuses with modern buildings has withered the rest of the neighborhood. White flight, high crime, and rampant drug abuse had turned it into an ordinary urban ghetto, with boarded-up houses, empty storefronts, rusting warehouses, and homeless men wandering around aimlessly or huddling in shadows.
During the past several years, starting with a bold renovation of an elaborate Depression-era schoolhouse from decaying hulk into an elegant apartment building for urban pioneers, the South Side has been making a comeback. Many of the boarded-up homes have been torn down, and boutiques and trendy little bistros have opened up in some of the otherwise vacant commercial structures. New townhome communities have been built, along with more traditional apartment complexes which have a percentage of their units set aside as affordable housing.
There's still a long way to go before this neighborhood is back on its feet as a viable, vibrant community, but it's already come a long way.
In this transitional neighborhood sits a new park, which is pretty much simply a big green lawn. It's lined by new trees, but the only shade afforded this space comes from a row of 3-story townhouses flanking the park's western side. Some two-story buildings newly-constructed as doctors offices squat on the southern end of the park, and to the north a good vista of the downtown skyline adds some urban ambiance.
A few blocks away, in a less ambitious remake of this old neighborhood, next to a dollar store and a 7-11 convenience store, sits a relatively new Whataburger fast-food restaurant. But don't squinch up your nose just yet - as fast food goes, Whataburger, based in Corpus Christi, Texas, has some pretty satisfying food. I'm partial to their jalapeno-and-cheese burger.
This being a neighborhood still more down-on-its-heels than up-and-coming, and being a holiday evening to boot, the Whataburger was nearly empty, except for a group of young Hispanics. One of the Whataburger employees, a young, overweight Hispanic woman with bright yellow eyelid makeup, came out to the seating area to mess around with her smartphone, and this group of Hispanics got up and started "witnessing" to the employee. Only it was "witnessing" for a prosperity gospel crusade going on in Fort Worth this week from 9 in the morning until 8 at night.
Can you imagine? When the young Hispanic woman to whom they were "witnessing" gasped at the times, the prosperity gospel people quickly calmed her down. "Oh, you don't need to go all day. You can come and go as you like."
Sounds like that's some must-have information they're giving out at that conference, doesn't it?
You know me - I was itching to blurt out something profound about the heresy of what they were saying. But after a few minutes, I couldn't tell if maybe they knew the employee. They were all young and Hispanic, and all extremely casual as they interacted. Finally, the Whataburger employee, hoping to cut to the chase, said that she was nearly two months pregnant, and she didn't think she could last all that time sitting in seminars. She was quite overweight, so she looked like an expectant mother, and they understood. They quickly left, and I realized I'd blown my chance to blow their silly religion out of the water.
Since it was now just the two of us on that side of the restaurant (two homeless men were nursing soft drinks on the other side) I called out to the employee with a smile on my face, "do you really think God wants you to be financially successful?"
She looked up from her smartphone and shrugged her shoulders. "I wasn't really paying any attention," she smiled back, obviously relieved they'd gone. "I didn't understand what they were talking about."
So much for the prosperity gospel's allure.
Then she told me her niece was in the hospital and she was trying to find out if she was OK. That explains her fidgeting with her phone. Nobody would answer the phone in her hospital room, and being a hospital, her family likely had turned their own cell phones off, since that's what we're supposed to do in a hospital.
However, she wanted to know what was going on so if she needed to, she could take a different bus in the direction of the hospital. Her bus home in the other direction was due at the stop across the street from the Whataburger any minute.
Ahh, yes... relying on public transportation. Of course, I hadn't thought anything about transportation. Doesn't everybody have a car here? Obviously not. Owning my own car, I forget how you need to operate on a totally different schedule when you use mass transit. Especially in a place like Fort Worth, where buses are few and far between.
That's when I stepped completely out of character. Seeing the concern and frustration on her face, even with the yellow paint on her wide eyelids, I offered to take her to the hospital so she could save her money for her bus fare home.
"Your niece is at Cook Childrens? That's right near where I'm going - just down the street." I suddenly realized I sounded like a pervert or murderer, soliciting my next victim.
Either she was too desperate to care whether or not I was a pervert or murderer, or she knew she could fight me off, or she genuinely appreciated my offer of assistance, but she readily accepted the ride. She had gone off the clock just as I'd arrived, so she was ready to go. Just let her get a Sprite and small fries for her niece - earlier, her family had told her she wasn't eating any of the hospital's food.
We walked to my three-year old Honda Accord, and the woman gasped. "Such a nice car! I never get to ride in cars like this!"
She floored me. It is a Honda. I know people for whom Hondas are what the help drive. "Aw, it's just a Honda," I stammered.
"No, seriously!" she continued. "My world is those crappy Dodge Neons," and she gestured to a beat-up old Chrysler product sitting in the 7-11's parking lot.
"I hope I don't spill anything in here!"
I was hoping the same thing, of course, but I didn't tell her that.
Being the good, obedient, born-again evangelical that I am, I tried to formulate in my mind a good way of broaching the subject of salvation, hell, Christ, sin, and eternal life. Any of those would do for starters, I figured. But I needn't have bothered - my new friend had already begun to do all of the talking.
I learned she was living with her somewhat abusive father but was already signed-up for a rare opening for a Section 8 apartment - located, as I discovered, in the newish apartment complex next-door to the elegant former school.
"Dude! There's a waiting list for that place! People are calling them all the time, but the manager says the next one up is mine!"
Sure enough, the children's hospital wasn't far away at all, and before I knew it, we were pulling up to the entrance. I felt like parking the car and saying I needed to talk about God and Jesus and His wonderful plan for your life, but no, the time was up. She was already thanking me profusely.
So what could I do? "Oh, please; you're very welcome," I demurred. "I'm glad I could help. I hope your niece gets better soon!"
"Oh, so do I! So do I!" my new friend gushed. "She's like a daughter to me! I don't have any kids of my own, and I don't want none - at least, not right now!"
And with that, she was out of the car, with the car door closing behind her. She was half-way through the revolving doors, and it hit me:
She doesn't want any kids now? Didn't she tell those prosperity gospel folks she was almost two months pregnant?
Looking back now, I wonder if I shouldn't have parked the car, run inside, and checked with my friend about whether she was lying about being pregnant, or if she was considering terminating her pregnancy or what? But I didn't. I shot up a quick prayer, hoping she had simply lied to get rid of those people in the Whataburger. And that something I did or said to her would somehow, in some way, sometime, help point her to Christ.
Maybe I failed Wednesday night in Evangelism 101. But as I drove the short distance to the park where my friend's jazz band would be playing, I was glad I could leave the whole thing in God's hands.
Oddly enough, my friend has a month-long gig at this park for all the Wednesdays in July. Enough of a reason to check back at the Whataburger, don't you think?