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.