Written by Gabe LePage //
Elijah Libbett never knew I was the one who messed with the skunk. I was taking a walk around my neighborhood in the Southeast side of Grand Rapids, resting my mind from studying for exams. As I was walking down the street, a man in front of me pointed at me. I kept walking. He pointed at me again, saying, “No look!” He was actually pointing behind me. I had just walked by a wounded skunk.
The neighborhood I lived in was lower income and, demographically, a mix of African Americans, Caucasians, Latinos, and Africans. I spent most of my life at school—a primarily white college. Over the past several months, I had been thinking a lot about suffering and not just passing it by. It was so easy to ignore the reality of poverty and struggle that went on just down the street. When I saw the skunk, I resolved to engage.
Boldly I said, “Should somebody do something about this?”
The man on the street was very excited by this idea. Events proceeded quickly down a treacherous path.
“Yeah, come on. Somebody should do something. Let’s do something.” He took me around the side of the BBQ restaurant we were in front of.
“You take this stick and crush its skull, and I’ll pick it up with this rag.” Upon reflection, that didn’t seem fair, but he gave me the large stick and picked up the rag. As we walked up to the skunk, a small crowd gathered. I began to think twice. A small child across the street yelled, “Nooo!”
“What are you, chicken? I’ll do it. I’ll do it.” Well, I couldn’t let him do it; it was a terrible idea. So I let fly and hit the skunk right on the neck. It swung its body around right towards me.
“Aw, you missed!” We all backed up and scattered. I slowly realized the smell of skunk was traveling with me, very strongly.
The owner of the restaurant, Elijah Libbett, walked out onto the sidewalk, “Man, somebody done messed with it.”
The first lesson Elijah taught me was something I failed to learn in classes. He had already called the Department of Natural Resources to pick up the skunk. My international development classes taught listening to local experts before attempting solutions, but apparently, I had not learned my lesson. Elijah had already solved the problem.
It was several years before I began hanging out at his restaurant almost weekly, talking about justice issues like poverty and gentrification and our shared faith in Jesus Christ. After graduating college, still trying to attend to issues I could easily walk away from, I started a one-year internship learning about Asset Based Community Development. It was my job to listen to stories of the neighborhood and to create settings where residents’ gifts could be recognized and celebrated. At first, Elijah didn’t trust me, brushing off efforts to have a joint prayer meeting with folks from different churches and races. Elijah had been burned a lot by churches and institutions, and he would not start something until trust was built between people.
He did something that many churches and institutions could not do. He had opened doors and treated people as human in ways a bureaucratic system cannot. Elijah was almost blind and could not drive, so he spent most of his time at the restaurant. He had been a gang member when he was younger, so could relate to many of the young men in the neighborhood who had to make decisions about school, gangs, and how to deal with conflict. People knew that they could call Elijah at two in the morning, and he would help sort out a dispute.
When Elijah was in prison, he was transformed by a relationship with Jesus, so he was also willing to treat police officers, church leaders, and business people as people. He stayed put on his “stump,” as he called it, doing what God called him to do.
From his stump, he advocated against gun violence, not to city officials, but to the young men themselves. He organized with mothers to sit on the side of the street with pictures of their children who had been killed, making young men think twice.
He invested in youth, working with a non-profit next door to run a youth program and encourage them in their small-business endeavors and in school.
He spoke out against the market forces pushing the poor out of our area, and shared that story with me in a way the majority of people around me in school and church were not telling it. He did not talk about the poor, but identified with the poor. The issues he faced were not other people’s, but those of his own home and livelihood. He felt what he called “the push.”
He made the point that churches and non-profits often invested first in buildings and cleaning up the exterior: “They put out flower pots, and the next day, the pots are broken.” Elijah emphasized investing in people before buildings, the issue at the heart of the gentrification problem. Businesses and churches invested millions in new construction and plans for new buildings, but less comparatively in relationship.
He also made the point that they didn’t know how to relate to lower income black men. I asked him about this, and he pointed up to an electric transformer above the sidewalk. “When that breaks, who do you call?” You call an electrician. You call somebody who knows how to solve the problem. That is exactly what I did not do when I bashed the skunk on its neck and exactly what institutions fail to do when they attempt to solve neighborhood problems with master plans written behind closed doors. Elijah knew how to talk and relate. Elijah was present.
Elijah never told me what to do. He was a true prophet in that he left me free to listen to God, to listen to others, and to respond with what was on my heart. He taught me to care for the people around me and use my own locus of influence to honor God and seek justice. He encouraged me that I had a part to play that involved loving people where I was and listening to the living God. As I get personally engaged and honor the expertise available, that is where God can use me best.
Gabe LePage was born and baptized in Nairobi, Kenya and confirmed in Lookout Mountain, TN. He studied International Development and Geography at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI before becoming an agricultural intern at ECHO, an organization committed to fighting global hunger through sustainable agricultural solutions. His piece is written about his experience the year after college working as a Community Connector and learning about Asset Based Community Development.