Post Author: Helms Jarrell
I know we’re not supposed to have favorites, but let me tell you about my favorite. I met her ten years ago. Her brother was an active member of our neighborhood youth group. He’d walk a few blocks from his house to ours to hang out or participate in an activity. Then, he moved. Their new house was only a mile away and it was important to us that we kept our connection, so one of us would volunteer regularly to go and pick him up for activities. I hadn’t before spent much time at his house, but now I was making several trips a week to his front door.
I wasn’t sure who’d answer the door when I knocked. There were six siblings, a parent, and often a friend of the family staying there. After a few visits, I learned to expect that she and her little sister would be the ones to greet me. I took this front door opportunity to introduce myself and strike up a conversation. Then, I simply asked, “Would you like to go with us?” The girls looked sheepishly back at their mother. Once they got the nod to go ahead, they bounded out the door with excitement and a tad bit of nervousness.
After a short time living away from the neighborhood, the family moved back. Ten years later and these girls have become family. Some seasons in our relationship, we have gone only a few hours between visits. They’ve gone on just about every youth trip, babysat my children, taken care of our dog and house when we were away, listened intently as I’ve preached sermons, gone with us on family vacations, and have nurtured me in some of my most tender moments.
You know the blurry line of being in ministry and being in relationship? Nature or nurture – we’re taught to set boundaries. We’re not supposed to fall in love with the ones to whom we minister. Some might advise refraining even from friendships with congregants. Yet, we’re called to a ministry of love and authenticity. Plus, we are humans who have a deep capacity and desire to love and be loved. This makes boundaries tricky to set and keep.
I never get it right. I always fall in love. This was no exception. She was ten years old when we met, so our relationship was something like neighborhood minister lady and child. But as we spent more time together, we became something akin to mother and daughter. When the youth group would go on trips, she would opt to sit up front so she could talk to me – and have more leg room. When she had to go to the hospital for seizures, I was the first person they called.
With time, we became something more like friends. My children called her their sister, they begged for her to stay overnight. She knew me better than most people did. She knows the things about me that I try to keep hidden. Eight years into our relationship, this one had become many things to me: confidant, grounding presence, helper, caregiver, friend.
And then she went to college. We take a lot of time coaching and introducing our neighborhood youth to college possibilities. We traveled to just about every HBCU in our state and several other schools along the way. When it was time for her to apply, I helped her. When it was time to go to open house, I sponsored her trip. I was excited, and wanted, to see her grow.
We threw a big party for her a week before she moved to North Carolina Central University. I contacted everyone I knew in Durham, two hours away from me, where she’d be attending college and asked them to support her with visits and gifts. We visited her on move-in weekend. Our boys said their final goodbyes to their sister. We took pictures to commemorate the momentous occasion. Everything was in place. She was going to do so well.
I didn’t do so well. We got home and everything was business as usual. Same twice-monthly community meals, youth programming, neighborhood community building. But nothing was the same. She wasn’t there. I tried to be a “big girl” and tuck my feelings away. “Focus on the youth you have,” I said to myself. I felt ashamed that I was so sad, that her absence was such a big loss to me. The youth dynamics and some of the participants changed when she wasn’t there, maybe because she wasn’t there. And I was changing. She had tethered me in a way that I hadn’t realized and now I felt afloat.
In her first months at college, I sent notes, care packages, and made a couple of visits. Before the holidays came, I checked on her plans and touched base to see if she needed money for transportation home. She wasn’t coming home, she told me. Time moved on, distance got longer and our relationship shifted. No longer was I mother, minister, mentor, or friend. I was only a memory.
I’ll admit, I was more than a memory. I was also a money provider. After about nine months into her college career, I’d hear from her occasionally. She’d send a single sentence, every time asking for money. I wanted so badly to keep us connected and I truly did want to see her succeed at school. I knew how much this meant to her. So, we set up a monthly draft to her account and collected monetary gifts from others, sending it directly to the school. If this was the only connection we were going to have, at least it’d be something.
It is sophomore year and she didn’t come home for the summer or holiday break. We haven’t seen each other in six months. Last month, there was radio silence and a request for pizza money. The month before that, it was more silence and a request for grocery money. Then a message:“Hey Sister Helms, I got called by a potential job. I need a couple dollars for the Uber there if possible.”
I’d had enough. With a tear in my eye and a knot in my throat, I said no. “I don’t want to sound cold or mean. I don’t want to do anything that would upset you or make you feel negatively toward me. But, the only communication you have had with me is to ask me for money. I think you know I don’t want you to dislike me and that’s why you ask me, because I am safe. I want to remain a safe person for you. I also want to be more to you than a money provider. I hope you will understand.” She responded, “I understand, and ok.” Then, nothing.
It had been two weeks since I said no. Then I got this message, “Hey Sister Helms, how have you been?” It was not much, but it was something. I messaged back with a couple of updates and she responded with an emoji heart. I decided to interpret her response this way: “Take heart. Our story isn’t over yet.”
Rev. Helms Jarrell is a member of the QC Family Tree community in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she and other residents seek to be kinfolk rooted in discipleship in West Charlotte through practices of creativity, prayer, and welcome.
QC Family Tree is a neighborhood-based community development ministry with a faith lens and a creative practice. Helms and her family build community in a neighborhood that bears the wounds of economic injustice and racial oppression. Helms sees her role in the community as learner, momma, creator, gardener, yogi, pastor, artist, and welcomer.
Helms is a graduate of Appalachian State University where she studied Communication. She received her MDiv from Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. Her home church, First Baptist Church, Raleigh, is the church that ordained Helms to ministry in 2003.
Image by: Lesley Ann Hix Tommey
Used with permission