Up until fourth grade I lived in the city of South Bend on one of those quintessential small town streets where everyone knew everyone, kids played outside until the street lights came on, we all played at one anothers house, and we were all one happy family. Summer was all about riding bikes, fireworks, BBQs, swimming in Doug’s pool, endless games of football, and weekends at the lake. Winter was endless fort building and snow ball fights while avoiding shoveling the walk. At least, that’s how I remember it. I loved my street growing up. It was a safe place to play with friends.
Until the summer between my 1st and 2nd grade year.
One day I was riding my bike with a friend when we spotted something no kid could resist… wet concrete. The city had paved our street and replaced the concrete that went around a sewer grate right in the middle of my street, just a few doors from my house. The traffic cones were like syrens calling a weary sailor. We left our bikes in the grass, grabbed some sticks, and dashed for the land of the forbidden.
The first thing we did was write our names. Then, my friend started furiously writing cuss words. He was number four in an Irish-Catholic family of seven. With two older brothers and a fire chief father he magically knew millions of cuss words and how to spell them. Not to be left out I spelled out the only cuss word I was confident I could spell: Dam.
Proud of our vandalism we grabbed our bikes and took off to the park. Within minutes we had completely forgotten about our misdemeanor and moved on to other dubious acts like racing empty beer bottles down the slides and ghost riding our bikes down the hill of death.
The next day, on my way over to the same friends house, I circled my bike around that sewer drain to see how things turned out. I was fixated on my name. “Adam.” How cool was that? Forever in the lore of Tonti Street everyone would know that I had placed my name on that sewer. One day, archeologists would dig up our block and they’d know that Adam lived there. I was an instant legend.
Ecstatic, I jumped back on my bike. As I got a few pedals away, with my pride cutting through the summer air like a bottle rocket, I heard my name called out. I turned around to see one of the old geezers coming off his covered porch and waving me to come over to him. Our block was a mix of old timers and young families who had bought homes from estates of their former neighbors. I wheeled my bike around to gain momentum and sailed up his driveway to his front steps. Surely, he had seen my street art and wanted to congratulate the artist.
I was dead wrong. While I had seen him mow his lawn and trim his bushes I had never talked to this man before. His size and demeanor were intimidating. He came down his steps with a limp and put his giant hand on my 7 year old shoulder. I remember looking up at him but not seeing much further than the anchor tattoo of the Navy on his forearm. Every sensor in my brain was telling me to run. I was convinced that he was going to grab me and pull me into his garage where he’d chop me up with his hedge clippers.
“Son, I see you and your friend wrote in that concrete yesterday. You know you wrote some bad things and you’re going to have to clean that up somehow.” 25 years later and I still have no idea how he expected me to erase words from hard concrete. A jackhammer was simply not in the arsenal of a 7 year old. “If you don’t take care of that I’m going to tell your mom.” If his firm grip on my shoulder hadn’t scared me, the threat of telling my mom that I wrote “dam” in concrete on our street sent my flight instinct over the top. I wiggled my way free, jumped on my bike, and got out of there.
The Power of Fear
Those 15 seconds put more fear into me than I had never experienced. Worse yet, I was now deathly afraid to go anywhere near that man’s house… and he lived 4 doors down and across the street! The sanctuary of my block came tumbling down. I had constant nightmares starring that man. He was my Frankenstein. I still remember a recurring dream where I woke up hearing his voice on my front porch talking to my mom. In the dream I ran downstairs with a John Rambo-styled machine gun and peppered him with bullets until he completely disappeared. As a young child living halfway between reality and fantasy, all of my fantasies had me as a superhero and him as the villain.
It’s amazing how 15 seconds of fear can terrorize you for years.
The effect of this fear was actualized in my behavior. From that day forward I never went down that side of the street unless I was convinced he was gone. If I didn’t see his car drive away I was certain he sat on his porch staring at me, waiting for his moment to get me once and for all.
I began riding my bike down the alley so as to avoid his glare. When school began, I didn’t go out the front door anymore, instead I climbed over the back fence and cut through neighbors yards to meet up with classmates for the walk to school. Halloween? Forget about it. I went to friends houses. On and on it went for more than two years. Those 15 seconds of terror changed how I felt about where I lived.
A couple of years later my mom told us we were moving from the city to the suburbs. While my brother was upset that he’d lose all of his friends I was happy to start over and get away from the scary old neighbor. Little did I know that the dark streets of suburbia had their own things to be afraid of… but that’s another story for another time.
My point here is that fear, no matter how irrational at times, often leads us to action. Sometimes that action is good, it protects us, while other times it leads us to do weird things like climbing fences to avoid the glare of an old man. Sometimes they are based in something imagined. While other times fears are based on something very real.
Fear is one of the root motivators of all of our actions. If you serve in ministry… getting to the bottom of what you are afraid of helps you a lot. More importantly, building trust with people so that they will share their fears will help you discover how to best serve them.