Fear of Death in the Inner-City and in the presence of Elephant and Piggie


- Jeff Gentry

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about mortality. Before I had children, I never thought about death all that much. Now that two little lives, and one bigger, beautiful, vital one is tied to mine I think about it far more often.

Is this conscious fear of death evidence of a subconscious terror that explains my desperate hope for resurrection? I don’t know. But I’m pondering it, that’s for sure.

In the midst of my pitiful suburban goth phase I’ve stumbled into two books. The first book is called Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago. Our America is a lengthy transcript of an award-winning public radio series that featured two African-American teenagers who live in and among Chicago’s Ida B. Wells housing projects.

Their stories about chemically riven families, murdered five year-olds, and oft-strafed open fields, are heart-breaking and jarring. According to LeAlan, the book’s primary narrator, if you aren’t streetwise by the time you’re ten in the Ida Wells, you’re either dead or soon will be.

As these teenagers tell stories about nonexistent fathers, inexplicable murders, and projects-cum-concentration camps, the subtext of their prose screams: “I want to make it out of here alive.” Fortunately, Wikipedia and Google suggests that both boys survived and, to varying degrees, are thriving as men.

In the midst of reading Our America, I yielded to David Plotz’s cocktail chatter commendation and picked up We Are in a Book! This children’s book by the author of the Knuffle Bunny series, narrates Elephant and Piggie’s elation at finding themselves in the midst of a plot that is attended to by readers. After Elephant and Piggie find great humor in manipulating the reader, Elephant is terrified when he realizes that his story will end. Piggie slyly navigates Elephant’s fear of mortality by scheming with him to ensure that the reader will read the story again.

Our America ends in the context of utter poverty, urban violence, and the author’s repeated petition: “I hope I survive. I hope I survive. I hope I survive.” We Are in a Book ended in a comfortable suburban living room where a father whose gotten more breaks than not and sometimes – with a certain amount of shame – considers his role as a well-educated generalist a cross, silently thought: “I hope there’s something beyond this life. I hope there’s something beyond this life. I hope there’s something beyond this life.”

God forgive me. Christ guide me through the needle. Spirit help me find the grace to stand behind – or in God’s mercy walk beside – the true heirs of your kingdom.

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Jeff Gentry is Christian, father, pastor, and provocateur who lives in Beverly, Massachusetts. During the week Jeff serves as the Community Relations Director for Triangle, an organization that provides infinite possibilities for people with disabilities. Jeff also serves on the U.S. Board of Directors for Kupenda, a Christian organization that provides educational access, advocacy, and access to medical care for youth with disabilities in western Kenya. In recent years Jeff has served as a homechurch pastor and an associate pastor at The Gathering in Salem. He currently worships with his family at Christ Church of Hamilton Wenham and serves as a facilitator for the Greater Boston Emergent Cohort. A fourth generation St. Louis Cardinals fan, Jeff lives in fear that his children will root for the Boston Red Sox. Jeff and a couple of conspirators infrequently blog at The Inconsistent Adopted. You can follow him on twitter @jeffgentry13.