This summer, while on my porch, I experienced a drive-by shooting for the first time.
Germantown, my beloved neighbourhood here in Philadelphia, has probably been like most inner-city neighbourhoods this past year: destitute, depressed, run down, pressure-cooked. I live on a high-traffic street and a block or two from the dividing line of what would be considered “safe Germantown” and “unsafe Germantown.” On one side of my house is my neighbour, who has become a dear friend and a teammate of sorts: we hope together. On the other side is an abandoned house by the corner, and beside that, a street that has become known as the local epicentre of crime and drug dealing. We’ll call it “T Street.” As the COVID-19 pandemic has swept across the world, I’ve watched as the drug culture has slowly turned the bend and crept around my street corner, like a shadow trying to cover more territory.
And this is where my pandemic story begins.
Unlike many people’s experience, my 2020 was a good year. As a full-time artist who has spent most of the last sixteen years on the road, stopping was a big deal. I stopped touring, stopped making music, stopped doing.
Experiencing rest for a full year was priceless. I spent the majority of the time painting things, building things, using my hands, and experimenting with what I could create. What I was making wasn’t very good, but the unfamiliar outlet provided a way to express myself without the burden of expectation—that haunting feeling that you need to outdo your last project in order to keep fans impressed. It also provided a visual way to engage fans whom I could no longer connect with in person. For the first time in my adult life, art came with no strings attached. No self-imposed deadlines or obligations to share. No rules except to feel. Feel and heal.
But after a while, especially as the new year rolled in, what had become a treasured practice of peace began to feel off. I’d be sitting at my art table creating something while watching a drug deal happen next door. I’d be chopping homegrown, organic vegetables in the kitchen while watching a couple unleash a full-blown argument on the sidewalk. A contrast was cracking open, becoming ever more impossible to ignore.
One night, while reading a book on my couch and enjoying a dimly lit candle, a shot rang out next door in front of the abandoned house. The next morning, I walked outside to a trail of blood that snaked up my sidewalk past my house, ending at the gas station on the corner where the man who had apparently shot himself had ultimately been apprehended.
Another night, around eleven, my neighbour asked me to help her with a woman on the street who was screaming up to the second floor of a nearby house, “Give me my kids! Give me my kids!” As it turned out, this woman was doped up and her sister (who was inside the house) would not let the children leave. She didn’t want her nieces and nephew heading home with their strung-out mother at the wheel. It became an hour-long ordeal that ended with the mother sobbing in my arms, saying she didn’t think God would forgive her for all the ways she had messed up. “That’s obviously not true,” I told her, and the conversation stretched on as we sat there on the ground at midnight waiting for her brother to come and pick her up.
I have many stories like this, and as the stories began to pile up at the beginning of 2021, the season of rest I was enjoying slowly morphed into a season of restlessness. How could I be living this simple, peaceful existence of making art, prop-styling my apartment for mini photoshoots, listening to my podcasts, eating fresh produce from my garden? How could I justify waking up and creating in my comfort, when so much around me was dying?
Something was off. I was hoarding happiness and it didn’t feel . . . happy. I felt bloated, that kind of “Thanksgiving full” where you overeat and it’s just not fun anymore. There was a dissonance growing, and it was becoming bolder and bigger.
How could I be living this simple, peaceful existence of making art, prop-styling my apartment for mini photoshoots, listening to my podcasts, eating fresh produce from my garden? How could I justify waking up and creating in my comfort, when so much around me was dying?
“Just move, Joy,” well-meaning family and friends told me. “Go somewhere safer that doesn’t have these problems.” Theirs was a rational solution; I do have the freedom, flexibility, and resources to move, to find a shinier neighbourhood where the streets aren’t littered, the garbagemen don’t randomly skip weeks, and the homeless aren’t loitering around aimlessly. The change of pace would actually be refreshing.
But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t supposed to move. The same, slow attentiveness that had blossomed in me over a year of creating for its own sake was now making me uncomfortably aware of proximate pain I could no longer ignore. I was looking for a synthesis, a way to connect both of my worlds.
Paint on the Porch
As the weather turned from winter to spring, my neighbour (that teammate of hope) and I spent an afternoon in the park painting and talking about life: what to do, how to do it, where things were going, and how to get there. I love talking with her because she is a great listener and nothing is ever rushed. There’s always time and space to exist in the tensions. As she and I wrestled aloud with life’s uncertainty, a seemingly insignificant conversation birthed something unexpected.
I woke up the next morning to the idea of “Paint on the Porch.” Like a lightbulb turning on, the vision was clear: I would offer a weekly hangout on my front porch for the kids on T Street to have a safe space where they could create things. Anything. Everything. A spot that would be strictly about life, not death.
I was shocked by the simplicity of it. I was also animated by the challenging invitation it offered to counter the generational cycles that have led to so much death and trauma for my neighbours, especially the kids. It was an opportunity to push back the darkness and offer an alternative.
Much of what I knew about “unsafe Germantown” was by passive observation: the far too frequent gun shots in the middle of the night, the cop-car lights reflecting off the houses, the talk of the five T Street murders that happened within the first six months of 2021. I had noticed that the kids there didn’t seem to get out much, and if anyone was going to move away and start fresh, it was much easier said than done.
I shared the Paint on the Porch idea with my neighbour, made flyers, walked the block, and talked to parents from house to house. My neighbour messaged the block captain, talked to the same parents, and shared with anyone she could.
No one came.
For weeks straight, the two of us sat on the porch waiting for the kids on T Street to show up.
By the fifth week I was ready to call it—half-heartedly setting up the porch with supplies other neighbours had donated while considering all the reasons why this wasn’t working. Was it because they didn’t know me? Was it because they didn’t “get” it? I imagined them thinking, “Who needs art when you can’t pay your bills?” Maybe the hesitation was because it cost nothing? I had a number of parents ask me, “How much?” and then stare skeptically when I responded (maybe a little too enthusiastically), “It’s free!” All of that on top of the fact that many of the doors I knocked on were answered by parents who were visibly under the influence. So maybe they just didn’t understand what I was saying?
As my mind circled through all these questions for yet another week, I peeked over the banister to see four T Street girls walking over. They seemed hesitant, but also giddy. I felt my excitement returning.
Over the following weeks I had the opportunity to get to know the girls. One week four girls, another week six. The number changed from week to week, but I could always tell they looked forward to coming. They would approach with nervous smiles but eventually break out into uninhibited laughter and exploration. I could also tell that they were unsure of me. “Who is this lady? Why is she opening up her porch? Why are we making crafts in the first place?” I repeatedly got the sense that they were testing me with their comments and blatant disregard for my porch rules. It was frustrating but also endearing as I laid down the law and reinforced my rules: “Please don’t flick paint at each other . . . and don’t squeeze the whole bottle out . . . and don’t run around the porch when you know you have paint on your sneakers . . . unless you plan to do the cleaning!” Whether they knew it or not, I recognized it as some kind of initiation. “Can we trust Ms. Joy? Can she handle us?” Once I passed the test, they began to show up on my porch randomly throughout the week asking if we could make art, or stop outside my window to tell me about their day.
On the eighth week of Paint on the Porch, as the girls were gathering their artwork to leave, we heard gun shots firing rapidly down their street. It took only a split second to realize that the sound was growing louder and that the shooter was in a vehicle headed our way.
It was 5:45 in the evening. As soon as we understood what was happening, chaos broke out on the porch. The girls ran back and forth looking for a place to hide and one child ran behind my house.
I sped over to open my front door. When the girls realized it had been unlocked all along, they ran inside. Upon shutting the door, I saw a black pickup truck turn the corner with shots continuing to fire from the vehicle. The last shots stopped at the abandoned house next door.
All together inside with my neighbour and the girls, we called their parents and guardians and checked to make sure everyone was okay. Once things settled, a mother walked over to pick up the girls.
In retrospect, they handled things much better than my friend and I did. It was clearly not their first go-around. In fact, I didn’t realize until thirty minutes later that my whole body had been clenched like a fist.
I could not wrap my mind around the gravity of the moment or ignore the fact that the girls (who live in that first house on the corner) were cleaning up their projects to leave right when the shooting began. What might have happened if they had left even a minute sooner? What might have happened?
And where do we go from here?
Grow Deep, Not Wide
It’s impossible to walk out of my house and not feel the weight of this small, three square miles of world I live in. I’ve nicknamed the feeling “secondhand grief.” Having spent my entire adult life travelling the country, going into other people’s neighbourhoods to sing them songs of hope, I have felt an undeniable repositioning during this pandemic . . . an invitation from the Father to grow deep, not wide.
“Do not measure this next season of life by social-media metrics, album sales, or tickets sold,” I’ve sensed him saying to me. “Your popularity will not save you.”
Having spent my entire adult life travelling the country, going into other people’s neighbourhoods to sing them songs of hope, I have felt an undeniable repositioning during this pandemic . . . an invitation from the Father to grow deep, not wide.
We often like to aim these admonitions at tweenage TikTokers or high-profile public figures. But the body of Christ needs these reminders too, because even if we can’t admit it, most of us are governed by the same metrics. For instance, how efficient are we at making it through the day and dropping the things that slow us down (like real heart-to-heart conversations)? Or what percentage of pews is filled now that civic life has reopened? And then of course the very loud metric of this past year: How well-liked are we after publishing our latest politically correct social-media post?
One of the joys of being homebound in this season has been starting a garden. I’d made multiple attempts in past years but was never around long enough to keep anything alive. The gift of gardening, as I see it, is that it tells us who we are—or, perhaps more accurately, who we’re supposed to be. Each time I plant a new seed in the soil and expectantly wait for it to emerge, I question the possibility of something so small transforming into something so abundant. It seems like the most impossible miracle. And yet it happens every day, everywhere, all the time. And as I watch this process play out over and over again, it never ceases to amaze.
The soil and the seed tell us something crucial about the kingdom of God. It can’t be an accident that so many of Jesus’s parables involve farmers and land. It can’t be an accident that the gospel story begins and ends in a garden.
Grow deep, not wide.
The thing about growing deep is that it can’t be measured—not by standardized, mainstream, capitalist standards. Growing downward happens in hidden space, beneath the level of others’ awareness. But the deeper a root goes, the stronger it becomes. And the stronger it becomes the better its fruit will be. And each seed from its fruit will bear even more fruit. Good fruit! The return is exponential, and the generative cycle never ends. Pure abundance. It’s immeasurable.
In this fascinating supernatural mathematical equation, “wide” is actually a natural by-product of “deep,” not its adversary or competitor. But it doesn’t work the other way around. Growth without the support of a strong foundation always leads to disaster, a disaster we too often witness in public life: a pastor crushed by the weight of his own success and church growth, a marriage destroyed by each partner’s default to the office in difficult times, a business that can’t keep employees because it treats employees as commodities. All shallow roots.
But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash. (Matthew 7:26–27 NIV)
Something else I’ve noticed while gardening is that a plant with good roots can withstand even the worst of weather conditions. Who would have thought that a bed full of vegetable stems skinnier than my pinky finger could survive Hurricane Ida’s torrential Philly downpour and be my daily source of sustenance? And yet that’s precisely what’s occurred.
Grow deep, not wide.
This call to grow deep is the assignment that the body of Christ seems to have lost sight of somewhere along the way. Yet it was always the mission. We were always meant to perplex the world by our prioritization of people over progress, hearts over headway, quality over quantity. Never should the things we do hold more value than the people we do them with. And never should the things we have take precedence over those who provide them.
Of course we know this. Yet somehow we still use measurements to prove how important our work is. If we can measure what we do, where we go, or what we own, we can ascribe value to those things and justify the amount of time we devote to them in the first place. If those activities involve people (e.g., an NGO in a third world country, a soup kitchen, a clothing drive), we feel that much more empowered.
“It’s for the people,” we say. But most times we sacrifice true long-haul transformation in a person’s life for a short-lived stint stamped with a photo op. “I was there, I handed them a plate. They were grateful and I did a good thing. And I have a picture to prove it.” Somehow even with all the talk about justice in our country, we still think we can post on social media and sit back believing we have done our part.
As a musician trying to “make it” in an era that requires relentless hustle to build a brand and a platform, I’ve long struggled with this question of what people over progress really looks like. The fear of losing years of built momentum, or worse, having wasted almost two decades of adulthood can be debilitating. It’s certainly an interesting mind game to juxtapose performing for an audience of three hundred (or the rare three thousand) people with showing up for three girls every week. No photo ops, no masses to validate my platform, no lyrics thrown out into the wind that hopefully land on the right ears. Painting on the porch is just an opportunity to live what I’ve been singing about my whole life.
And while I don’t discount all the years spent pursuing a craft and a career that I believe God gave me and has blessed—I have many stories of his grace making my path fruitful, and I have saved countless emails from fans sharing how a song ushered them through a difficult season of life—I nonetheless have always been able to conveniently duck in and duck out, making myself sparse. The undercurrent of optionality has always been there.
Now I (we) have an opportunity to take our macro-level, mostly theoretical good ideas (or lyrics, in my case) and live by them. Theoretical, not because they’re not true, but because most of us have spent more time talking about justice, change, and service than actually doing anything about them.
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. (James 1:22–24)
The thing with transformation is that it doesn’t happen overnight. It is almost always a slow process of planting, watering, weeding, pruning, and repeating, over and over again. This process requires the gift of presence, time, and sticking around long enough to know what’s needed and when. Remember those multiple failed attempts at gardening that never went anywhere because I was never around long enough to keep anything alive?
Paint on the Porch still happens every week. As I continue to grow in relationship with the girls, I look for small opportunities to plant eternal truths in their hearts. In between their TikTok breaks, runs to the corner store for snacks, and the sobering conversations of who shot whom, each moment with them has been a priceless opportunity to grow deep. When they pass by walking their dog and stop to tell me about their school day, I gladly poke my head out the window of my second-floor art room to hear about the juicy adventures of middle-school girls. It brings me great joy to know they want to engage and that the porch is a place they want to linger.
My next steps are a bit uncertain but are guided by this resolve to be present—to grow deep and wait with expectation for the fruit. I am reminded of this passage my mother made me memorize as a child:
And he will be like a tree planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season,
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers. (Psalm 1:3 NASB)
In this verse is a promise—a promise that when we are rooted and connected to the source, we prosper. Firmly planted in God’s garden where the ground is never dry, and every seed yields its fruit.
Maybe you’ve heard this expression before, but the kingdom of God is upside down. We say it all the time in the church because the gospel doesn’t follow the model of any man-made system. It is not defined by the greatest army (Judges 7), the largest congregation (Genesis 18:22–33), the most eloquent speech (Exodus 4:10–13), the most religious characters (1 Kings 18:20–38), the most popular personality (Proverbs 18:24). It was never and has never been about overnight successes, public platforms, or biggest buildings. It has always revolved around the miracle of a tiny seed.
I suppose my second-hand grief often surfaces from the realization that there is a lack of “seeds” here in Germantown. Many have taken their offerings, moved out of the city, and planted in already fertile ground. Others have simply gone someplace else to enjoy the abundance of someone else. But saddest of all, those who remain feel like they never had anything to plant in the first place.
This is the challenge.
Tend the garden.
It will take some time, but every seed
even just one
every deeply rooted seed
planted by rivers of water
The Living One
will bring forth fruit.
The return will be exponential, supernatural, incalculable, immeasurable.