For the past 13 years, I have walked the streets of Enderly Park, my west Charlotte neighborhood, on the wrong side of the tracks. Or as my wife, Helms, and I think of it, on Jesus’ side of the tracks. We have seen more joyous healings than we can remember, celebrated with impromptu block parties and spontaneous fireworks displays. We’ve also journeyed alongside folks on more than a few paths of sorrow, where oppression and anguish turn into long nights of sweat and tears and wordless prayers uttered from the gut.
Stay anywhere long enough and you’ll learn the songs people sing in the place. You’ll learn how they riff on the tunes, building new verses onto the old and new notes into the melodies. And if you dig your roots deep, you are sure to suffer a little. Maybe a lot. Suffering changes the way you walk the streets and alters the way you see the landscape. The corners become haunted with the spirits of people you have loved, folks who have transitioned to other streets in other neighborhoods or in other worlds.
One blessed memory along Tuck, the main street in Enderly Park, is our friend Skeet. He was short and thin, with sleepy-looking eyes that only half opened. Out of those eyes he saw far more than his share of trouble. Truth be told, he brought a fair portion of it on himself. His hard living was both the cause and the effect of his serious problem with alcohol. Skeet almost always had a buzz going, as he did one afternoon when he showed up on our porch.
“I’m ready to make a change,” he said. His words were slurred together.
“You getting tired of this daily existence, running from one drink to another?” I asked.
“That’s right. And I’ve got to do something different,” he replied.
“Conversion is a way of naming the gift of new eyes. Getting converted is getting your vision set right, so that the wild goodness of God comes shining through, refracted and glimmering even through broken panes.”
“I’ll help you get in the right place if you want,” I said.
He hugged me. “I know you will, ’cause you love me,” he said, and then he stumbled off the porch and headed back to the corner store. He assured me he would be back.
The next day when I caught up to him, he did not remember our conversation and was no longer keen on making changes. So it was with Skeet.
I was never exactly sure where Skeet lived. It would not have been hard to find out, but there was no need. If I wanted to find him, there was one particular corner of Tuck where he was almost always available. It was, of course, an intersection within an easy walk of the corner store. There he sat, on a milk crate turned upside down – his outdoor living room, from which he wore a rut in the sidewalk on the way to the store.
Because he never had it all together, Skeet was vulnerable to being taken advantage of. Sometimes this might mean being roughed up by a neighborhood bully looking to take his pocket change. At other times it might mean being subject to encounters with the police, who saw him as a nuisance. This resulted in more than a few stints in the county jail, though Skeet was never a danger to anyone other than himself. Other folks often talked down to him, viewing him as the worthless character standing on the corner during the middle of the day while responsible adults were at their jobs.
Viewed from that limited perspective, Skeet was the embodiment of all the problems plaguing Enderly Park. When you can only see broken windows, Skeet looked only like a broken man. But no person or neighborhood is only broken.
And what is broken is often not what is most interesting. What the folks closest to the ground knew was that Skeet helped hold Enderly Park together. The good thing about Skeet always being on the corner was that Skeet was always on the corner. He saw everything. If anything happened, Skeet witnessed it. If something went wrong at the corner store, he watched it go down. If someone was cutting school, he saw them and gave them an earful about it. When someone got arrested or went to the hospital, Skeet knew, and could help make sure a carload of neighbors went for a visit to the jail or the hospital. There was the problem of Skeet being able to communicate clearly who and what he had seen, but eventually you would figure it out if it was important enough.
“The guys on the corner build solidarity among people living on the margins, creating a natural network of mutual aid and care in a place of need.”
The urbanist Jane Jacobs noted the importance of “eyes on the street” in the life of thriving urban neighborhoods. The more eyes around, she thought, the more safe and vibrant a neighborhood becomes. The presence of people creates safer conditions for other people. A walk down a city block humming with people feels far different than a walk down a block as the only person around. Isolated spaces leave people more vulnerable to abuse or harm because there is no one else to witness what is happening. The presence of even a few strangers can change the feeling of that same walk, enabling the walker to slow down and notice the birds singing, or the careful trim work on a house or the neighbor who speaks from her porch.
Skeet had a crew of friends he spent his days on the corner with. They too were constant eyes on the street. From the outside, they looked like a well-known type – ne’er-do-wells who hang out on a stoop all day; lazy, refusing to work; beggars; likely to commit crime. From the inside, things look very different. The number of people on the corner at midday who work second- and third-shift jobs becomes plain. The deep value of the relationships forged on the corner is made obvious. The guys on the corner build solidarity among people living on the margins, creating a natural network of mutual aid and care in a place of need.
For folks like Skeet, being there becomes meaningful work that builds community. He knew that his presence in that place mattered, though no one was paying him or even thanking him. That’s one of the reasons he kept showing up, day after day. This is how vibrant community works. People take responsibility for one another. They find ways to be of use to each other, and they build meaning and pleasure from that. And they include strangers, like me, into their networks of care and solidarity, until those strangers become friends.
Conversion, like with the Apostle Paul, struck down on a street corner between Jerusalem and Damascus, is a way of naming the gift of new eyes. Getting converted is getting your vision set right, so that the wild goodness of God comes shining through, refracted and glimmering even through broken panes. Conversion makes things look different. What appears to be a burden turns out to be a gift. The brother who always looks like a problem is a brother who ought to be celebrated. And a pilgrim encountering everyday holiness becomes like Jacob at Bethel, who awakes from his slumber in the pink morning light of an ordinary Wednesday, and knows that “this place is holy, though I knew it not.”
The gift of new eyes often becomes also the gift of a new song. Or a new way to improvise on an old one.
– Adapted from Jarrell’s new book, A Riff of Love: Notes on Community and Belonging (Wipf and Stock, 2018).