some days, left; other days, right.

One of the things I love about Sacramento, the city I grew up in and eventually moved back to after a decade away, is that there is no “good side” or “bad side” of town. Wired Magazine even published an article last year that specifically called out Sacramento as being one of the most racially integrated cities in the nation.

I can trace my desire to adopt back to being a kid in Sacramento’s public schools. I had a mom and a dad who were married to each other and loved me and happily provided for all my basic needs. Many of my classmates did not. Even in elementary school, it seemed like simple math to me: 

My family had plenty of love to go around
there were a lot of kids out there that needed loving families
I could adopt a baby one day.

A couple decades, nine years of marriage, and one biological baby later, we were there. We went through the lengthy and grueling process of becoming certified to adopt through the Sacramento County foster system, and on a totally ordinary October day, a miracle happened. The social worker called and told us there was a baby boy in the NICU that needed parents. My heart was outside my body. Two weeks later, we brought him home, and six months after that, we legally adopted him. My heart still hasn’t recovered.

The first few months with Noah were indeed miraculous, but they were also very, very hard. I had an 18 month-old that garnered many “you’ve got your hands full with that one” comments, and since Noah was born prematurely we were told that we should not take him in public for three months so that his immune system could catch up. I was essentially on house arrest with a wild toddler and a newborn that I hadn’t been expecting. It’s safe to say that I wasn’t at my best during a lot of those early days.

So we walked.

We went for almost daily walks to get outside the house while Noah stayed under a shroud in the stroller. We lived in a neighborhood that was just a few blocks away from one the best neighborhoods in Sacramento, and in the other direction, just a few blocks away from one of the worst. I grew up here, so it all felt normal to me. Some days we went left; some days we went right. My favorite coffee shop was in the ghetto – part of the grassroots “gentrification” effort – but there were usually more kids to play with in the fancy park.

On one of the days that I chose the coffee shop, I noticed the gathering in the parking lot of the church. It’s an almost exclusively black congregation, and I was always struck by the disparity between what Sundays looked like compared to the rest of the week. I’m pretty sure this congregation invented the term ‘Sunday best.’ Little old ladies in tweed skirt suits and pillbox hats. Huge men in brightly colored three piece suits with fedoras. Boys in shiny penny loafers and girls with the tightest braids you’ve ever seen. On Sundays, we all agreed to pretend this was not, in fact, one of the worst neighborhoods in town. It was just church.

On Tuesdays, though, a few church members always gathered to set out tables of groceries to give away to anyone who showed up. On Tuesdays, we knew what neighborhood we lived in. I had witnessed it from afar many times – the volunteers getting set up, the needy lining up and waiting patiently until everyone was ready. It warmed my heart and I was grateful to be a spectator of something good happening in the world.

On this particular Tuesday, as I pushed my $600 double stroller towards a $4 latte, one of the church volunteers called out to me.

“Hey Mama, you need something to eat?”

I yelled back that I was “all good,” but she persisted.

Grabbing her friend by the arm and coming out to the sidewalk where I had barely broken my stride, she assured me, “Everybody needs to eat! We got food for them babies if you won’t take it.”

I explained that I loved what they were doing, and that since my family was fortunate enough to be able to buy all the food we needed, I wanted to leave the food there for someone that really needed it.

“Alright alright,” she conceded, “but at least let us pray for you. Everybody could use some prayer, amen?”

“Amen!” I responded, because what the hell else was I going to say?

“Whatchu need prayer for?”

“Well, you can pray for Noah,” I said, opening the sunshade of the stroller so they could see his tiny face. “He’s our foster child right now, but we’re hoping to adopt him. He was born prematurely and surrendered at the hospital, and, well, he could just use a lot of prayer.”

“Oh,” she said, at about one quarter of the volume and enthusiasm with which she had said everything else. She looked at Noah. She looked away. “I got kids in the system.”

The foster system. She had kids of her own who had been taken away from her and were being raised by strangers like me. That’s what she was telling me. She was on the other side of the equation.

My heart, which was still outside my body then, was seared by the pain of her words. If I learned one thing through that long and grueling foster parent certification course, it’s that there’s no use for judgment here. There is an enormous need for compassion.

“That must be so hard,” I told her, having hardly ever meant anything as much as I meant that.

"It was", she told me. But she went on to say that she was grateful for people like me who had love to give, and she hoped her kid’s foster mom was as nice as I was.

And then, right there on the sidewalk in the middle of the ‘hood on a Tuesday morning, we put our arms around each other and she prayed for me. She prayed that I’d have wisdom to be a good mother. She prayed for Noah, that he would be healthy and loved. We were all different parts of the system, and had a million reasons to be skeptical of each other, but in that moment, we were mothers, and neighbors. I was humbled and grateful to accept the prayers that she offered us that day.

There is no use for judgment here.

Written by Anna Quinlan. Photo by N'tima Preusser