What If I Grew Up There?

Tom Arthur

While I was a college student, I volunteered at a boys club that worked with African-American boys in the projects on the south side of Chicago. There I met Mike, a thirteen-year-old who looked more like he was eighteen. Mike was a little intimidating on the outside, but on the inside he was just a kid. The kid came out when he smiled.

Teen n Mentor2 TSP 145132958Mike came to our boys club every Saturday morning. We picked up a group of elementary and teenage boys and took them to a local park to play sports and to do some devotions. Over the years, I got to know Mike pretty well. I was stunned to learn that he had been shot in both legs, being caught in gang cross-fire on two different occasions. Any problems I had faced while growing up were small compared to his.

Over a three-month period, Mike stopped showing up for boys club. I found out he was in the local psychiatric hospital after attempting suicide. I was glad he was getting help, but I was sad about the circumstances that had led him to such a desperate act.

The last time I saw Mike, he was nineteen. I hadn’t seen him in several years, but he told me that he had been thinking about me. I was surprised. Then he explained, “I thought I wouldn’t live long enough to see you again.” We had a good visit; and then I left the projects to go back home, a luxury Mike didn’t have.

Social “isms”

Growing up, I never thought of myself as a participant in racism or classism. I didn’t think that people of one race were better than people of another race or that rich people were better than poor people. In school, I got upset when we studied the segregation laws in our country’s history. But what I encountered through Mike and in the projects of Chicago changed my thinking about racism and classism.

inner city Ftr TSP 116708634I came to realize that prejudice has to do with our beliefs and attitudes toward other people, while racism and classism have to do with the systems that give privilege to one group over another, intentionally or not. Racism and classism are built into many of the structures in which we live. I came to see that while I was not prejudiced, I did participate in these “isms” simply by living in our culture. I realized that if I had been born into Mike’s circumstances in the projects, I probably would have faced the same challenges as any other person who grows up there. Through my experiences with Mike, I came to recognize a call in my own life to work to overcome the social and economic systems and structures that perpetuate inequality.


Interview a friend or another person who grew up in social, cultural, or economic circumstances unlike your own. Write about what it might have been like for you to grow up in similar circumstances. Then listen for God’s leading. How can you help all people to grow up with the love and resources they need to thrive?

Tom Arthur is the pastor of Sycamore Creek Church in Lansing, Michigan. In addition to his call to be a pastor, he is called to racial and economic reconciliation. Sometimes he’s not sure what that means, but at other times it’s crystal clear.

—from devozine (July/August 2014). Copyright © 2014 by The Upper Room®. All rights reserved.

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