My group and I were at the shelter to help serve the evening meal. We chopped vegetables, set tables, washed floors, and wrangled the kids in for dinner. As my group was cleaning up after the food was served, I noticed a boy -- maybe around seven or eight years old -- who seemed to possess a rare calm and peaceful demeanor that stood out to me in the midst of the noise and chaos. I approached him and asked him his name.
"Quintrell," he said, quietly.
"That's a great name," I told him, smiling inside at the discovery of yet another interesting and unique "Chicago" name.
He smiled at me and seemed to be OK with my being there, which was notable in itself. You see, the kids who lived at this shelter were living right in the middle of a high-stress environment. Their mothers were single, unable to provide for their children, pushed out onto the street and eventually welcomed into the shelter. They were squeezed, seventy or eighty at a time, into a large room crowded with bunk beds and mattresses plopped on the floor, where Mom slept with sometimes three or four of her kids in one bed with the others sharing the top bunk. They were herded downstairs to the main hall for meals, where they lined up to receive a spoonful of something on their plate. And when it was playtime, the kids were led to a small rooftop playground where they could let out at least some of their energy.
My intention certainly isn't to diminish the value of this place -- God bless JPUSA for being a presence in Blood Alley -- but could you imagine growing up there?
So Quintrell, a kid I expected to be aggressive, loud, distrusting, violent even, like many of the other children I encountered at the shelter, was the polar opposite. His eyes were dim, but kind. He was subdued in contrast to the other kids, but not completely beaten down. He trusted me enough to let me sit with him. He seemed to carry a sense of "knowing", almost as if to say, "This place is hell, but I've got a light." He intrigued me because he was so different, like a wild flower growing in the desert. So we chatted a bit longer. I asked him what he liked to do for fun, how many brothers and sisters he had (eight!), and what he wanted to be when he grew up. He asked if I wanted to see his room, and when I said yes, his face lit up. He led me across the Alley, to the shelter's extension on the other side of the street, and there, up a few flights of stairs, down some long and dark corridors, I saw the place Quintrell called home. Yet another large room, littered with clothes, beds, moms, babies. It was nothing extraordinary for the eyes -- but he was proud.
We wandered back to the staircase and sat down, talking a bit longer, until I heard a loud and mighty shriek come from who-knows-where. "QUIN-TRELL!! Get ova' here, boy!"
"That's my Momma," Quintrell said, unaffected. I was still reeling from the sheer magnitude of that Momma's vocal projection when he stood up, looked at me for the last time with those kind, knowing eyes, and said, "I better go."
I told Quintrell I had fun hanging out with him and that I would be praying for him. And then he was gone.
I sat on those stairs for a while longer, thinking about the interaction. In a time when injustice and a sense of hopelessness tended to get the best of me, I had been blessed by a little boy who seemed to rise above it all. I found myself mourning Quintrell's future before it even had a chance to happen, imagining him dropping out of out school, joining a gang, maybe even being killed. I know this sounds horribly cynical, but these were the statistics and sadly, the reality so many African-American kids in Chicago faced and continue to face today. Yet I recalled the light in his eyes, the peace he somehow, against-all-odds, carried with him, and I said a prayer for Quintrell, that God would keep him and preserve him and carry him into freedom.
Quintrell, wherever you are, I hope you're there.