Today at Martin Luther King Jr. Park in East Palo Alto 22 people (including 11 children) participated in Adopt a Park Day. We picked up litter, washed down playground structures and picnic tables, swept up leaves, ate pizza, offered free food to a few people passing through, and laughed and talked and played together. It was a fun, happy, noticeably bright day.

But to appreciate the impact of such a small gesture you’ll need some context. I mean, the ground at the park is probably already covered with litter as I type, seven hours after the cleanup. The tables and play structures will be filthy again in a week or two. So what good did we accomplish? A lot more than the eye can see.

Since moving to East Palo Alto over two years ago I’ve taken my kids to the parks here at least three days a week, oftentimes more. Most of the time we enjoy our experience. We swing and climb, play tag and hide and seek. We meet neighbors and classmates. We pet friendly dogs. We don’t really notice the graffiti and litter much anymore. For the most part we feel safe.

But it’s not unusual for there to be a darker element as well. Often the kids are not aware of this, but it can weigh heavily on me. Sometimes there are people with really foul mouths at the park, and I worry about what my kids will pick up—not just words but whole concepts. Lately there seems to be a rash of teenagers making out at the park—well, “making out” would be a very mild term for what they are doing. It got so bad one day that I asked one couple to leave.

There are often drug users at the park. (I don’t really understand why people go to the park to do drugs, but apparently it’s a good place for that activity.) More than once I have called the police to report marijuana use.  One day I was furious to see a mom smoking pot at the corner of the playground while her young children played nearby. I called the police but had some trouble with my phone connection. When I finally got through, the mom happened to walk right beside me, so I quickly ended the phone call, trembling.

Last week when we arrived at the park an older woman approached me and said, “That man over there has been walking back and forth for half an hour smoking something…well, I don’t know what it is, but the smoke is a different color; and I don’t know what else he’s on or what he might do. I don’t have a phone with me, and it’s up to you if you want to call the police or take the children and leave. But if you leave, I’ll leave, too.”

We chose to stay, and we will keep choosing to go back; but honestly sometimes I feel like our presence at the park is a tiny pinprick of light in a sea of darkness. We’re barely flickering, and the darkness is so very heavy.

To be at the park today with 22 people fighting for good and love and life was like bringing a whole blazing bonfire of light to the scene. The people who helped out probably had no idea how it lifted my spirits and lightened the weight on my heart.

Martin Luther King Jr. Park is one that we actually don’t normally frequent anymore because the drug use there is so blatant and the darkness so palpable. We were in enemy territory being there today, and I’ve no doubt that we struck our foe a heavy and lasting blow.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5