Philadelphia overwhelmed me with its contradictions.
I wasn’t there as a tourist. I was there as a resident, of sorts, as my work had brought me there. But I was there in extremely restricted and complicated circumstances, as a Mormon missionary. Now halfway through my missionary service, I had spent my first year in four different cities, scattered throughout Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. But now I was in a truly enormous city for the first time in my life.
As a teenager, I had spent a bit of time in Salt Lake City, and I had briefly visited Seattle and Honolulu. But they had been nothing like this. Philadelphia sprawled out in every direction. On one of my first days in the city, my companion and I took an elevator to top of one of the highest buildings in the city, where tourists could walk to the four different sides of the roof deck and look out over the sprawling expanses of buildings, streets, smoke, cars, and people, with logos that read ‘north’, ‘east’, ‘south’, and ‘west’. I felt small, minuscule, forgotten somehow, and I had no space in my brain that could compare a city of this size to green Missouri countryside or the Idaho potato fields I had been raised among.
Philadelphia felt heavy as I walked through it. It was home to so much history, and in the following months I would tour some of its most sacred spaces, feeling great reverence in Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence had been signed, and underwhelming, mild curiosity at the Liberty Bell, which seemed to have no significance whatsoever. Center city Philadelphia contained beautifully manicured lawns, high-rise apartments, marble store fronts, and fancy restaurants to cater to the busloads of tourists walking the streets. Yet just a mile in any direction, the streets were suddenly teemed with diversity, crime, and poverty.
My companion and I lived in Germantown, in north Philadelphia, on the top floor of an old lawyer’s home. It was a small space, with a bedroom, a living room, an old kitchen, and a bathroom, with a small deck that overlooked a high-rise apartment building. The owner of the home, our landlord, was Edmund, a 50-something black attorney who had turned his home into apartments. He was friendly, curious about the rotating cast of young white boys occupying the top apartment where we hanged a picture of Jesus on our door. New roommates came and went constantly, every few months, but we were generally clean and quiet and he seemed to enjoy having us there. Our home was only a few blocks from the Wissahickon, a beautiful stretch of Fairmount Park that contained dense trees, public recreation, and parts of the Schuykill River dividing it. The homes and businesses around us were old and opulent, with lawns and fences and porches. Most of the families were white.
But once we crossed Chelton Street, just a block away, the inner city revealed itself. The first day I walked into this poverty stricken area, I noticed the businesses were run-down, covered with graffiti, with bars on the windows. Overweight and mentally ill beggars sat on the benches and street corners, one woman I saw daily asking, “Hey white boy, nickeldollardimequarterpenny for me?”, her words running together. As we walked the residential streets, drug paraphernalia had to be stepped over on the sidewalks, bugs scampered about, and children in diapers sat outside on couches on porches, no adults in sight. Nearly everyone in sight was black or Puerto Rican.
We knocked doors, as usual, wanting to teach all we could about our religion, often times praying that no one would answer because the stench inside the homes was so bad. When we were invited inside, we learned to always turn down food and beverages, seeing roaches scamper over our feet, mice rush past, and even human feces on the floor on occasion. We received threats on our life walking those streets.
Two days per week, we had to commute to the local Mormon church for meetings. We walked from our home four blocks to the nearest train station and rode that for four exits, then got off and caught a subway up three stops, then walked two more blocks to get on a city bus that dropped us off on the corner down from the church. The branch itself was in an old Jewish funeral home, converted into a local chapel, and the congregation was a mix of Utah transplants, men and women in the city for school or career, and local people of color who had joined the organization. The branch was rich with diversity, but nearly everyone in leadership was white and from Utah. When we brought someone new to church, we had to make sure they could arrange for their own transportation to the building, and we had to explain in advance that the church would not be able to help with financial burdens like rent or food until someone had been a member for a lengthy period of time.
Walking the streets of Germantown could be frightening. We had to avoid small groups of men standing on street corners, as they would almost assuredly mug or assault us, something we narrowly avoided many times. We had to be in by dark each night, which in the winter was by 5 pm, leaving us to entertain ourselves with board games and church magazines and music, leading to some very long and boring nights with no television or entertainment. We saw dozens and dozens of churches, visiting some along the way, and I began to learn for the first time what life outside of Idaho was like in real depth. Episcopalians, Catholics, Methodists, Jews, Seventh-Day Adventists, Lutherans, Apostolic Christians, Muslims, Hari Krishnas, Buddhists. Wealths of belief systems in and out of the bounds of Christianity. In one church, full of beautiful black people, a church choir clapped and sang as the congregation danced and praised with hands in the air, feet moving in joy, as the pastor healed members of the audience with hands to foreheads. In another, the Church on the Move, a white pastor prayed as a man with a full drum set serenaded him, and he begged God to inspire the people of the congregation to give generously to the church coffers so his would could expand. In a branch of the Hebrew Israelites, we were offered bread pudding and lemonade and given seats on the front row, while the pastor gave a passionate sermon on the devil white man’s day in hell when the black race, the true children of Moses, rose out of captivity to claim and inherit the Earth. We walked past churches with names rich in character, like the Bread of Life, All Glory to God Church, and one small Apostolic branch on a street corner named St. James Chapel Fire-Baptized Congregation Holy Church of God of the Americas.
In a city park one Monday afternoon, we were stopped by a group of black teenagers playing basketball, and they invited us to join. My companion and I were both severely uncoordinated and politely declined, but the young men took the chance to question us, noticing our missionary tags curiously.
One young black man in a white tank top and camouflage shorts, was shocked beyond belief that I was halfway across the United States on my own without my family, yet not in college.
“Man, I ain’t never been outside Philly, and you from god-damn Idaho? Damn, cracker.”
I’d been called ‘cracker’ on the streets a number of times now, and learned that for many it was a term used innocently, just a cultural word for white people, but for some others it was a term of derision, with anger and resentment buried behind it as subtext. This young man used it the first way.
“So what you gonna do after this, college back at home or something?”
“Yeah, I’m going to go to college in Idaho, not far from where I grew up.”
He dribbled the ball a bit. “Man, ain’t no one in my family been to college. If I keep out of the gangs, I maybe get a job for a few years, but I won’t even finish school. Most my friends end up in jail. I mean, you got to steal to survive around here, and just hope you ain’t get caught.”
I talked to the young man a bit more, learning he already had a child with a girl who was 16, and that she was raising the son he didn’t see very often. He asked me more questions, about my mom, if I had a girl or not, and what this Jesus stuff was all about anyway. And I provided him with canned answers about the Book of Mormon, offering him a copy (which he rejected), inviting him to church sometimes. Feeling elevated with self-importance, I gave him a small speech before we walked away.
“You have to realize that you can do anything you set your mind to. It’s the American dream, to work hard and raise yourself up from your circumstances, to leave a clean and honest life, and to find truth in God. You can go to college, have a career, provide for your son. You can do whatever you set your mind to.”
The young man dribbled the ball once more, then turned away, rolling his eyes. “Man, you don’t know nothing about life. Have fun in Idaho with your college.” Then he turned back. “They have any gangs there?”
“No.” I admitted.
“Any of your friends in jail?”
I thought hard. “Um, one kid that I knew in high school was.”
“Growing up, you have food every night?”
“And your moms, she had a job?”
“And you finished high school, had a job or whatever, and then came to do your missionary thing before you go back to college, right?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
He dribbled again. “Enjoy what you got. But don’t pretend to know what I got.”
And then he went back to his game. That young man would cross my mind nearly every day during my nine months in Philadelphia, and frequently once I enrolled in a social work program in college, began doing therapy, and had children of my own. I still wonder what became of him, and I still wish I could go back and apologize for my arrogance and assumptions. Philadelphia had only started to teach me about the world, and I had a lot to learn.