There Are No Pretenders Here

by DL Mayfield

photo by k mayfield

photo by k mayfield


In 1981 Jane Byrne, Chicago’s first female mayor, moved into the most infamous subsidized housing complexes in the city—Cabrini Green, home to 13,000 residents. In the first few months of 1981, already 11 people had been killed and 37 wounded by gunfire, mostly over drugs. Byrne and her husband moved into an apartment and vowed to stay until “people could look out the windows and not get shot”. They were escorted by round-the-clock security, police following them wherever they went. In the lobby of the building where the mayor was staying was a poem written by one of the residents:

I live in Cabrini-Green.

I’ve met some of the finest people I’ve ever seen

While living in Cabrini-Green.

Most of you are afraid of our neighborhood.

But did you know?

So are we.

But we are here, you see,

Not because we want to be.

The mayor will stay as long as it takes, the aids told the ever-gathering press. The mayor will shine a spotlight on all that is bad, all that is wrong; the mayor will make everything right.

The mayor moved out after only three weeks; and life went on in Cabrini-Green.


I’m done pretending I’m poor, she said to me, self-assured and almost nonchalantly. I’m educated and I didn’t grow up poor, so why should I pretend to be what I’m not? She lived near the co-op, was a counselor at a nice school, provided a safe and wonderful home for her children, was involved in her church and some amazing outreaches to single mother’s in the neighborhood. But she had stopped doing what I was doing, which was living and working with the poor.

Her words stuck with me, stinging just a little, unearthing a question I had long tried to keep buried: Am I pretending, too?

I also come from a solidly middle-class upbringing, I arrived in my poor neighborhood with a master’s degree and starry eyes about incarnational living, I feel every day the shock of how there are two America’s, living side-by-side. And every day I was here, in this apartment complex, this neighborhood, this park, my validity was being challenged.

I have options, a safety net, the ability for mobility (be it upwards, or in the case of me and my family, downwards), a networks of friends and supporters, a lifetime of good relationships, a life free of the traumas that so many have experienced. I am not the same as my neighbors,

But I live here, have stayed for awhile, and will be here until as long as God tells me too. I deal with the roaches, the mice, the ants. I struggle to cook and feed my family, pay for unexpected bills. My daughter doesn’t have a yard to play in, our belongings are crammed tight into small spaces, We listen to the sounds of the neighborhood, some joyful, some frightening, and they effect us. Because we live here.

As we ease ever more into a life where the goals are less about money, achievement, safety, and recognition, we have started to realize that our biggest barriers to relationship is not that we come from privileged backgrounds—and that we are pretending to be poor—but it comes from something far deeper and stickier than I have let myself dwell on.

For years now, I have been pretending to love people who are different from myself.


The thing about moving in somewhere is that you have to stick around long enough for the sheen to wear off; for fears and prejudices and hurts to bubble up to the surface. For me, moving into low-income housing was born out a desire to see if Jesus really meant all that he said: that the poor and the sick and the broken would be blessed, blessed, blessed in his kingdom.

And I have been blessed, just by my geography, of camping out in neighborhoods far from where I grew up. The lessons are painful, joyful, so beautiful they will make your heart burst (there is a reason many artists and poets came out of Cabrini-Green). And there has not been a day where I haven’t been confronted by my own desire to withdraw into my own world, to seek out relationships with people who believe like me, act like me, look like me—perhaps the greatest sin of our world today.

I am done pretending that I desire true reconciliation and diversity in my life. Because the truth of it is–it hurts. It is hard. It is a thousand little deaths of your own preferences, your own sense of superiority. I don’t desire it.

But Christ does.

So I stay. I seek out the Other America. I am not pretending, but I am opening myself to love and be loved, especially by those neighbors whom Jesus was always talking about–the poor and the marginalized. Not as a stunt, or out of guilt, or with misguided intentions about the “good” that I will be doing or bringing.

In the end, I stay because I’ve met some of the finest people I’ve ever known, living in my own Cabrini-Green.

12 Responses to “There Are No Pretenders Here”

  1. kelley nikondeha January 8, 2014 at 10:07 am #

    There are good reasons to stay in uneasy places – not pretending, but remaining present to God’s own goodness in the hard places, to witness to realities many ignore, seeing what ought not be so invisible. Maybe a quick visit is a bit of pretending, but the longer you stay and wrestle with your own motives, the more it moves from pretense to genuine presence, I imagine. So glad you have eyes to see and ears to hear what’s happening in your own Cabrini-Green.

  2. Marilyn January 8, 2014 at 10:27 am #

    Love this. “Sticking around for the shean to wear off” – this is so true. I remember a few years ago remembering the words of a friend of ours who said “If you hate the people God has called you to live among then you need to either Repent or Move” I’ve had to do so much repenting through the years as I realize how much I love the city until I hate it. Thank you once again for writing about these hard things that I don’t want to admit.

  3. idelette January 8, 2014 at 10:30 am #


    Especially this: “I am done pretending that I desire true reconciliation and diversity in my life. Because the truth of it is–it hurts. It is hard. It is a thousand little deaths of your own preferences, your own sense of superiority. I don’t desire it.”

    I have been on a journey of laying down this sense of superiority–a different way and a different journey from yours. My journey, nonetheless. And I think it’s important to name that too. How we have to die to the ugliness within us. [shudder]

    Thanks for not pulling punches. That story of the mayor … made me ache. How many times have I walked away from a good intention after lots of fanfare? Sobering.

    You rock.

  4. Briana Meade January 8, 2014 at 10:44 am #

    I notice this tendency in me in the smallest of situations: a tendency to push people away that are different than me, to find solace in similar people who share the same struggles as me–I think sometimes I do it to keep relationships that make me “feel” good about myself, to barter the loneliness for a sense of self found from other peoples’ affirmation of who I am and my lifestyle. What do I really want? To care for everybody, regardless of lifestyle, race, gender, and creed. A steep uphill journey. But a worthy one that exposes our prejudices. I really need the reminder that Jesus takes those too–that is my outer covering of prejudice, shame, and pride that I show in my everyday life towards other people.If he takes that, I’m free to engage without needing to be affirmed.

    • DL Mayfield January 9, 2014 at 1:21 pm #

      oh gosh. the need to be affirmed. so intensely strong, isn’t it? in my own life, it feels like it definitely has to get kicked out of me a bit (especially when you enter the waters as a writer–which brings about it’s own entirely new set of vulnerabilities!).

  5. KC January 8, 2014 at 7:39 pm #

    Half of me wants to do this sort of thing, to live “with the poor” and build community there. The other half recoils as I think of how my stress levels go up every time our current neighbors get in a shouting match and I just want to move somewhere where that anger/desperation isn’t part of daily life, where I don’t share any walls with people whose noises are likely to intrude on my sleep, my peace… and definitely don’t want to move somewhere where that’s amplified by however many times it would be in an even lower-income location.

    It’s an odd tug-of-war. I want the ministry without the mess.

  6. Courtney January 9, 2014 at 8:24 am #

    Thank you, thank you for sharing this! My husband and I have been living in the most violent neighborhood in Columbus for three years now. The sheen is long gone. It’s hard. Sometimes I long for the country. I want space and quiet and golden fields and stargazing. But for now, it seems, we’re called to these places. And there is so much beauty to be found in our neighborhood–so many incredible people, so many heart lessons to be learned. So we stay, even when it hurts and I might just flip out if I have to pick up one more beer can from our sidewalk. Thank you for not pretending this downward mobility is some sort of glamorous sacrifice. It’s not. It’s often ugly and more difficult than I really want to admit. I’m not like my neighbors either, but they’re still my neighbors, and I love them.

    • DL Mayfield January 9, 2014 at 1:34 pm #

      thank you so much for your thoughts, Courtney. your experience is encouraging to me! life definitely is not glamorous . . . but on the good days it is so vibrant and thrilling and ALIVE, you know? which helps when we get stared down in the face by violence or our own selfishness.

  7. Emily Heitzman January 9, 2014 at 11:24 am #

    Beautiful. It is such a fine line we often struggle with: “pretending” versus “opening [ourselves] to love and be loved.” Yet, when we are willing to stay because we are open to encounter and get to know “the finest people” we will ever know, God can touch us in ways we would never even imagine.

  8. Bev Murrill January 10, 2014 at 4:01 am #

    It’s a very tough gig you’ve made a decision to live. Reminds me of Jesus, who left heaven to live for years and years on earth. How tough it must have been, and because of you, people are seeing who Jesus is just a little bit more than they did before.

  9. Mark Wenzel January 10, 2014 at 2:13 pm #

    When we moved into our home 5 years ago, we did not intentionally move into a “challenging” neighborhood. We bought what we could afford at the time, and what was convenient to jobs. We’ve learned that we are probably the most highly educated people on our block, and may also be the most well-off. We are challenged by this, and by the alcoholic next door, and the domestic violence, the drug house, the registered sex offender, the drunks wandering from the bar and to and from the liquor store. We are challenged by the mother who leaves her 3 young children locked in the house so she can go to work. Slowly, in little ways, we understand that God blesses our being there. When the daughter, who couldn’t wait to move out, tells her friends, ‘if you need a safe place, go to my parents’ house.’ What can I say? Lord is this where you want me? What quiet influence are we? What noisier influence can we be? Am I light? Am I hope? Not because we have it all together. The police have been to our door too.

  10. Diana Trautwein January 24, 2014 at 12:39 am #

    I want to leave a comment here that’s encouraging and hopeful. So I’ll say that I’m grateful for your commitment and for your honesty. And I’m challenged by your words, recognizing that this could never be me. I find myself praying for you from time to time, that you will be well and safe, that you will make deep connections with neighbors and that the life you live will feel good and right and nourishing to you. Because I believe that’s part of God’s call, too – to discover what makes our hearts sing and then to offer that back to God and the work of the kingdom. I also believe that song will not be the same for everyone.

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