Monday was the MLK Jr. holiday, and I went downtown to the Civil Rights Museum. It was a beautiful day, warmish, sunny, and lots of people were out. I ran across two students I had in class last year and was able to do a number of interviews with people of all ages. All in all, a good day. I haven’t been inside the Museum since the recent renovations, but I plan to before long. Next month, February, the theme for our Words3 Reading at Holy Communion will be “Lift Every Voice.” I’m not sure how I’ll approach that one, but I may do some interviews of people who have been around for a while, recall the days before the Civil Rights Movement, and can speak about the changes that brought about. The older people in Memphis, like older people everywhere, are living libraries.
It’s Christmas Eve in Memphis. Cold, wet, and bleak.
But there is hope. The following piece was written by my friend Terry Sanford Smith and posted on his FB page today:
The littlest child
Hidden in a manger still
I sing “Silent Night”
The light of the world
Coming down to bring real joy
Unending love given all
Who will believe it
It is verifiable
Please consider this story
Don’t take others’ word for it
Religious or atheist
You can decide this
Consider all things
Get all the information
Respect your judgment
Listen to your broken heart
Listen to the heart of God
I’m given a mind
A heart, soul and a body
Time to consider
What is true – what is not true
I have chosen to believe
The littlest child
Hidden in a manger
Was the Son of God
I am alive to live it
I am free to share the joy
Death has no power
I have chosen where to stand
Has taken place in my soul
Both now and forever more
Although I posted this piece on the Connecting Memphis website and FB page, I’m posting it again here. Marco and I spent some time in conversation yesterday, and he really helped me understand some things in a way I hadn’t before.
“People hear the lyrics in rap music and automatically get turned off, but systemic racism and inequality are more vulgar than any language in my songs. As an artist, I’m responding to what I’ve seen growing up in north Memphis; the lyrics reflect what’s actually happening. If we’re not aware of the vulgarity out here, we can’t address it. Yeah, I could do Kumbaya songs about blacks and whites all together and make people feel good, but that’s not the reality. Those kinds of lyrics shelter people and lie to them. They make people feel like there is no racism in the world. If you’re offended by what you hear in rap songs, then work to change things.
“You say you care about the city? Then get out in the neighborhoods and talk to people. Don’t just go in and pick up trash or paint a mural. That doesn’t change what’s underneath. Don’t just take field trips and go back feeling like you’ve really done something. Listen to people, ask them what they need, get their input. Partner with them and help them get connected to resources. Empower them. Ask them: ‘What do you want and how can we accomplish it together?’
“When those with power and resources talk about helping the city, they don’t ask community members for input, so they’re not invested in what’s being done. They buy up buildings and open coffee shops and boutiques, but those are not for the neighborhood. The people who live here don’t even know about them. They’re here so white people can feel comfortable coming to this area, but white people can’t float these newly gentrified businesses forever. They can’t sustain them. The neighborhood needs to have input into what’s being done.
“People living here don’t have the resources or the ability to get the resources to make their dreams come true. A kid in Silicon Valley has an idea for an app and has access to all the funding and help he needs, but a kid here with the same idea has no way to make it happen. That’s why kids give up, get angry, and then take it on other people. We need to connect people with resources and figure out ways to work together.
“I want to encourage kids to hold onto their dreams. That’s why I’m mentoring at East High School where I graduated. And that’s why I created the ‘Books on Beale’ benefit concert: we donated 500 books to a community library and raised $20,000 for literacy the first year we did it. I want to give back to my neighborhood. Yes, my career is coming along well, but volunteering and helping out my community are more important to me than a paycheck.”
Website for Marco Pave, Hip-Hop/Rap Artist: http://marcopave.com
There’s an interesting interview with Marco on the ilovememphis blog.
Excellent interview with Duke University students: http://readcontra.com/2014/11/rap-as-a-community-tool-marco-pave-speaks/
I spent a couple of hours earlier this week walking the neighborhood around Foote Homes (near Vance & Lauderdale, up the street from Booker T. Washington High School). I met a number of people and did several interviews for Connecting Memphis, but the man whose words impacted me most was not willing to have his photo made, so we just talked. He identified himself as an O.G. ‘What is an O.G.?’ I asked him. ‘Original Gangster,’ was his reply.
He’s lived in Foote Homes since the 70’s, and he talked at length about the cycle of despair: poverty, inadequate education, kids not having anywhere to go, gang activity, drug-dealing, not having enough to take care of one’s family, unemployment, petty crimes, incarceration, pay-offs within the legal system, single parent homes, the entwinement of wealth and political leadership, having no future. There was so much pain in his eyes. He wasn’t looking for a handout. He was desperate for hope. Not only for himself, but for the young kids in his neighborhood who are coming along behind him.
An older woman, Vickie, joined us after a few minutes, and O.G. left to get something from the corner store. While he was gone, she told me that O.G. had “grown up nice”, but that he hadn’t done so well since his mother passed away a couple of years ago, that he was just lost. She offered to walk me to my car, and I accepted. A few moments later, O.G. came back across the street and walked through the housing project with us. When we got to my car, the three of us talked for another minute or two. I hugged Vickie and said to O.G.: “You know, you’re lucky to have someone in your life who cares so much about you. I can tell she really does.” O.G. held out his arms and I hugged him too. Vickie told me to ask around for her the next time I was there. I will.
God must cry himself to sleep every night.
I walked into the Mediterranean Pita Sandwich and Grill at 4514 Summer Avenue in hopes of doing an interview with Chef Mustafa for Connecting Memphis, and ended up eating a meal that rivaled anything I’ve ever tasted. Lamb kabobs, chicken kabobs, falafel, hummus, pita bread, rice, tea, soup – good grief! It was so delicious! The man is an artist! He’s a master chef with 40 years experience who does ALL of the cooking himself. For dessert, I had a sweet called harissa which had a sort of grainy texture and tasted of honey. Absolutely amazingly scrumptious! Read his story (and see more pix!) at http://www.connectingmemphis.com/memphis/mustafa or on FB at http://www.facebook.com/connectingmemphis.
I met Kevin last week on the outskirts of Orange Mound. It was a warm November day, and we sat on the curb talking for 20 minutes or so, strangers from two completely different worlds.
“I go to 3 or 4 funerals a year,” he told me. “Guys I’ve grown up with, that I’ve known my whole life. They’re like my little brothers, and they’re dead, and it hurts me so bad. A couple of them died in car wrecks, but the rest were shot. Shot. Shot. Shot. Shot. Shot. The hatred grows every day. I don’t go to football games anymore or clubs or basketball games. There’s so much going on out here. What is this ‘point-em-out, knock-em-out’? And why you be 25 and still fighting over something that happened in the 11th grade? It’s outrageous. You watch the news, and it’s a tear-jerker every day: shooting, robbery, cancer. How do you not be afraid all the time? I lot of times I just want to move away. What is the song on that TV show? ‘Sometimes I want to go where nobody knows my name.'”
I wrote on my note cards as he spoke, took his photo, said goodbye and then cried off and on all afternoon.
You know the feeling, when hearing someone’s story is so painful you can hardly bear it and your heart breaks into a million tiny pieces. Or when it’s so beautiful you can hardly bear its light.
Verrecco’s story is one of those: “The happiest day of my life,” he said, “was when my son was born. It got me thinking about his future and my future. I liked showing him things and guiding and teaching him, even without words. He mimicked everything I did. I wouldn’t always think about what I was doing, but then he would say, ‘Well, Daddy, you do it!’ It made me want to do the right thing all the time.”
Sorrow and joy, fear and hope, darkness and light — they are part of all of us. They are our humanity.
When I started the Connecting Memphis project back in August, I didn’t really know what to expect. The idea was (and is) to photograph and conduct short interviews with people of all ages, ethnicities, economic situations, and areas of the city and to post these on the Connecting Memphis website and Facebook page. The idea was (and is) to build understanding, compassion, and respect between people who are different from each other, at least on the outside. The idea was (and is) to encourage us all to see each other as human beings, not as categories to be dismissed, resented, or feared.
But there was just this tiny little fly in the ointment: I’m a card-carrying introvert whose idea of a slice of hell is to mingle at a party all evening and make witty conversation with strangers. I’ve never considered myself that good at meeting people. So, there was that.
But something, God, I believe, kept me coming back and back to the idea of combining photography, writing, faith, and community, to honoring his image in every human being, to playing my one small part in building bridges in the city that I call home.
Even though I’ve interviewed and photographed dozens and dozens of complete strangers now, it still takes a lot of courage for me to approach people. Some days I head to Midtown or Binghamton or Downtown or Orange Mound or East Memphis with my camera, note cards, and a pen, hoping it will rain or I’ll remember that today is the day I’m scheduled for a root canal. There are many times when I want to say, “Hmm, what do you know? Nobody’s out today. I think I’ll just go home, curl up with a good book, and have a little chocolate.”
But talking one-on-one and providing a place for people to tell their stories is something I can do, even if I do have to give myself an extra push on occasion. When I finally get out of my car and talk with that first man or woman, I remember why this is important. Every, every time, I am struck anew with how heartbreakingly beautiful every single person is and how much joy, sorrow, fear, regret, and love each one of us carries inside. And every time, I think: This. This is why we need to connect. We have so much more in common than we had ever imagined, and we need to live in community, not in isolation.
Like everybody else on the planet, my life has been a mash-up of the best and the worst. I’ve experienced rejection, loss of relationships, unemployment, deaths in the family, severe depression, chronic physical pain, unbearable job demands, guilt, and regret. I know how hard it is to be a single parent and to watch helplessly as my children make terrible decisions. I know what it feels like when life is so hard it seems like it would be easier just to die. But I’ve also known what it is to listen to my grandmother’s stories, to love deeply, to hold a baby in my arms, and to sit around a table with friends who know how messed up I am and who still love me.
But that’s all of us, really. The specifics are different, but that’s everybody’s story: the person to the left of you, the one to your right, the homeless, the poor, the wealthy, the old, the young, those with brown skin or white skin, the athletic, the disabled, the uneducated, the scholar, the professional, the jobless, the quiet, the gregarious, the attractive, and the homely. Everyone has a story. We’re all so messed up and so beautiful at exactly the same time.
When we take time to listen to another person’s story, we are saying, “I hear you. I see you. You are valuable.” Compassion and respect are extended across the lines that divide us.
People are doing this every day, everywhere you look, all over this city, in a multitude of ways. The way I’ve chosen to do it is just one way.
In the beginning of this story, I mentioned Kevin, the young man I met last week. As we talked that afternoon, I asked him, “What do you think is the solution to all this hatred?”
“Faith,” he said, “and prayer. There might not be an answer right when you ask, but when you pray, it’s like the layaway plan. It’ll be there for when you need it.”
I think Kevin is right. Praying for God to show us how to cross those lines of division might leave us bewildered and confused for a long time, but I think the ideas and courage will be there when we need them.
Someone contacted me recently, asking, “How does a person qualify for an interview with Connecting Memphis?” I wanted to say, “If you breathe air, you’re totally qualified.” But I thought that might have come across as a little snarky, so I worded my response differently. Qualify to be heard? We don’t need to qualify to be heard. Every single person bears the image of God and is worthy of being heard.
However we express it, whatever form it takes, in whatever small or large ways, when we make the effort to let someone know that they matter, we stand on holy ground.
There’s a Carole King song from my youth that has always struck me as so poignant. It goes like this:
I have often asked myself the reason for sadness
In a world where tears are just a lullaby
If there’s any answer, maybe love can end the madness
Maybe not, oh, but we can only try.
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