The high sun takes the bite out of the winter wind as it shines over Quinton, Alabama in late January. It’s one of those towns you’d miss unless you’re really looking for it, nestled around a narrow highway in the rolling hills about thirty minutes outside of Birmingham, one of those places where each house has a pickup parked in the yard and handmade signs announce Hay for Sale, instead of the usual billboards plastered with lawyers’ cheesy grins. An old high school serves as the town hall, the wood paneled walls telling of weathered, proud tradition, keeping watch over the community with quiet dignity and a fireplace welcoming folks inside. It’s part of Jefferson county, same as Birmingham, yet a world away from the shiny, towering offices and bustle of traffic viewed from the myriad network of highways snaking through Steel City.
People from all walks of life congregate around the long white trailer, the air humming with the growl of a generator, keeping the refrigerator inside running smoothly. A peek inside the open door shows baskets lining the walls end to end, stocked with bread, milk, canned beans, pasta, oranges, bananas, cabbage, peppers, soups, and all manner of other foodstuffs. A cash register is crammed into the back, and a couple shoppers are allowed into the mobile grocery store at a time to keep traffic flowing smoothly. “Corner Market, open today!” announce cheerful green banners flapping in the wind across the street, and cars trickle into the empty lot, bringing customers prepared with shopping bags or just the curious, come to investigate why a trailer would be spewing out fresh produce. Some get in and get out quickly with the groceries they came for, barely giving us a glance. Some linger, particularly if the line is long, trying the sample of Alabama Caviar offered and telling us about their grandkids visiting for the week or the current flu outbreak. Some have the squinty-eyed gaze of weathered workers used to staring into the sun in fields; some have brought a gaggle of children along, and chatter echoes as the little ones help carry sacks of groceries back to the car. One by one, they pass through the trailer, collecting what they need, paying what they can, and driving off down the quiet highway, back home to cook dinner for a waiting family as the sun sets behind the hills, the same as it does behind the Vulcan.
Twenty minutes away, Pratt City is an unassuming town across the tracks, the streets more alleys than actual roads built for driving, the parking lot we set up shop in just a plot of dirt and stubbly grass off the side of the main street. Yet if it’s the people that make a town, then Pratt is a hub of activity and community, an oasis of neighbors in a world that has forgotten what the word means. Delighted cries of “Hey, Sugar!” and “How you doing, Hon?” resound as our trailer suddenly becomes the most popular meeting place in town, at least for the local crowd of matrons. They don’t just live together; they know each other, and grocery shopping is a means to more than one kind of sustenance. They fill us in on what’s gone on in the weeks since we’ve been in town, on who’s sick and couldn’t make it out today, but they're quick to take back some of the samples to those missing faces. Ellen, the unofficial town matriarch, announces our presence to Facebook Live, entreating for all the neighbors who haven’t already come out to get down here and shop. Some of the ladies are quick to tell us places where we should go next, pointing out that the last big grocery store in Fairfield has just closed, leaving very few options for folks trying to feed their families decent food.
A food desert is a place, often times a city, that does not have ready access to nutritious, affordable, safe food. In a rising metropolis like Birmingham, where trendy restaurants are popping up every week and a suburb like Homewood has at least four grocery stores within ten minutes of each other, it’s easy to deny the gravity of the situation faced by so many of our neighbors. The hungry faces roaming the downtown streets can’t be seen from a Saturday morning brunch hotspot in Vestavia. But they’re there. They’ve always been there, a part of this city as much as the rest of us who know without a doubt where our next meal is coming from, and that it will be satisfying and prepared at least with care, and usually love. They are, this is, Birmingham. This is us.
When I made the decision to come to Samford, I was the only one of my siblings to leave our home state of Tennessee and start fresh in a city where I knew next to no one and nothing about. My family blessed my choice so long as, Heaven forbid, I didn’t become an Alabama fan. Growing up far enough away from Nashville so that we rarely saw the need to venture downtown into the crowds, Birmingham was a mystery. My mom had a cousin who lived in the area, and she was quick to pepper him with questions about the roads, getting around, and above all making sure her baby would be safe. The main thing, he informed her, was to make sure to not go across the tracks. Samford was in a great area, and there was plenty to do in the communities around campus. There was no reason to cross the tracks. That was where things were run down, darker, more sinister than a college girl had any business getting into. And really, why would she want to? So it was better to just stay on the right side, where it was safe.
I’ve lived, at least part-time, in Birmingham for almost three years now, and I’ve crossed the tracks, both the literal and imagined ones, dozens of times. There have been no fireworks, no lightning strikes. The world does not turn from day to night on the other side of the tracks. It’s the same city as the part I live in. And coming to that realization, not out of defiance or naivety, is the beginning of reconciliation that a society at war with itself so desperately needs as well as, dare I say it, growing up. That’s not to say that the world is a place of rainbows and smiles everywhere you go. There are things to be feared and places to avoid, and with good reason. But it’s the secondhand fear, the sense of, “I was told not to go these places or associate with these people,” that breeds prejudice and even hatred. And how can we expect to love our neighbors when we refuse to even acknowledge they exist, out of fear?
I don’t pretend to be an expert, a missionary, a preacher, or an activist. I’m no better than anyone around me. I’ve lived a blessed and privileged life, and will never understand some of the struggles that my neighbors face, just like they’ll never quite understand some of mine. I’ve got two ears and a pencil, and that’s about it as far as any special skills or qualifications go. But, I’ve crossed the tracks.
The little episcopal church on the outskirts of the UAB campus certainly doesn’t look like it could provide hundreds of hot meals to any hungry soul every day of the year. It’s easily missed unless you’re looking for it, blending in to the gray and brown storefronts advertising laundry services and discount waxes and haircuts, swallowed by the honks and hums of passing cars of a city moving forward. Yet each day at 12 sharp, the small, cafeteria-style dining room transforms into a hub of activity as they flood in from the myriad downtown streets, eager to escape from the cold or the rain or just escape in general. They line up at the window, and Wolfgang, the bespectacled chef with a bushy gray ponytail and a stained apron, serves the lunch du jour until the food is gone. Some tables buzz with chatter as friends catch up after twenty-four hours apart; others eat their meal in silence before heading out the door with barely a glance at their neighbors. Some are black, some white; some are old, some young. All have weathered different roads up the same mountain to find themselves at the tables together, and the crossroads is the city we all have come to call home.
At the front of the room sits Mark, a middle-aged man with the scruff of a salt and pepper beard and a plate full of barbecue chicken. He welcomes me to his table and gamely entertains my questions about his life and experiences. He’s been coming to the Community Kitchens for twelve years, but is quick to tell me he’s not homeless. Many of the folks at St. Andrews assure me they’re not homeless; they’re just taking advantage of the free meal to save money for more important things, like rent or bills or whatever it is that week. Mark learned about the lunchtime meals by word of mouth, after he turned fifty and discovered that day-to-day living is not as easy as it was in his twenties. He grew up in Birmingham, worked for the Post Herald newspaper until it ran out of business, and is currently out of work due to the pain of a herniated disk and a pinched nerve in his neck. He’s taking pills in order to get up in the morning and trying to get disability to cover the bills until he can find a way to work again. He’s quiet about the situation, not complaining, but there’s a tightness in his shoulders, an air of frustration that pushes through the easygoing talk. He admits that being disabled almost guarantees poverty in the city, not out of incompetence or laziness but simply because life is hard, and city streets are not very kind to people who can’t work. He talks about what happened in Southside a few years back, people running the homeless out of the area because it was “bad for business.” And so for the ones who are unable to travel downtown, to the places where they might find a meal, due to disability, what’s left but poverty?
Most of the negativity comes from the body sitting next to Mark, a gray-haired, scholarly-looking man who could be a few years younger but has the air of someone who’s taken a long look at the world and has decided he doesn’t like what he’s seen. When I ask Robert how he’s doing, he’s cagey with the details, muttering darkly that life beats you when you’re down, and it’s not going to get better soon. I wait for more, but he doesn’t offer it, launching instead into a description of what he thinks the root of the problem is: the government, namely the president, who is the biggest conman in office. He declares that Trump is a horrible businessman and the only person he knows who could run a casino into the ground, and that our government is rigged so that decent folks can’t be elected.
“Our country glorifies the millionaire, not the man who touches a million souls,” he says darkly, pointing out that we have the best legal system that money can buy—if you’re rich. I listen and only halfway understand the political jargon; he’s far more educated in the matter than I am, and it’s that education that feeds his bitterness at his situation. He’s better than eating in a community kitchen. It’s obvious that he thinks so. Yet here he is, stuck next to a slow-talking, out-of-work newspaper writer and a naïve college girl who could never possibly understand how unfair life is, tied to the lunchtime meal that allows him to survive. After wading through the politics, Robert divulges that he’s a Type I diabetic, dependent upon insulin, and he simply cannot afford to not eat. He’s not like the other guys, who can miss a meal every now and then. He tells me one time his blood sugar dropped below 50, so he had the shakes and everything, and was lucky enough to have a glucose tablet on hand. Otherwise… He trails off, focusing on his food for a minute, as if remembering just how vital the chicken is, even if he’d rather not be sitting at that table. He continues, the tone less cutting, more resigned. Frustrated, like Mark. He can’t get a job, because they won’t feed him, and social security won’t cover Type I diabetes. For a guy who has to plan his day around where he can get a meal, work is a lesser priority, not when he wants to simply survive. Birmingham has quite a few places to go for food if one can get to them; he’s eaten at the firehouse when he’s had to, among others. But it’s a growing city, chasing things like progress and profit, a haven for outside developers looking for cheap real estate to buy and then sell to local business people at a ridiculously high price, and it’s that development that is pushing the homeless shelters out of downtown. Because who wants a soup kitchen, with all the baggage it carries, in the middle of all the glittering shops and restaurants, high rise apartments, parks and remodeled history that make Birmingham the up and coming city that it is?
“People think that all homeless are drug addicts, alcoholics, or are begging for money or a handout. That’s not the case for most of us. But people see a dirty, smelly person on the streets, and they don’t care how they got that way, they’re just offended and turn up their nose. They don’t care to get to know us. Don’t ask why we’re like this. Never do,” says Melissa, a forty-three-year-old mother from Jacksonville, Florida. She sits at an empty table in a chair almost too deep for her short frame, one leg propped up because some days it’s too swollen to walk on. The blood clots in that leg are what keep her from getting a job as the public thinks she should, since she can’t stand and work an eight-hour shift required by most employers. If I’d had to guess, I would have said she’s older than the man beside her, Leon, though he’s ten years her senior. The two met in Florida, on the streets, when Leon came down looking for work opportunities after Hurricane Katrina stormed through. After eight years down south, Leon brought Melissa to his home of Birmingham, and they’ve been inseparable ever since.
“My family won’t have anything to do with me, because I’m with him,” Melissa admits, gesturing affectionately to the watchful, coffee-skinned man lounging in the chair to her right. “He’s black, I’m white, and they think he’s not a good person for me. But he’s the only one who’s ever been good to me. He’s the best I can find.”
“Only the best you can find?” Leon exclaims, sitting up in joking outrage. Melissa blushes, shaking her head and backpedaling with a laugh.
“Oh, you know what I meant! We’ve been together over nine years. I just love him.” Leon is currently unemployed, though not for lack of skills or expertise. He’s a natural handyman, and worked for a while as a car mechanic to support the two of them. The irony was, he wasn’t making enough to afford a car, despite the lot full of perfectly running models that his boss wouldn’t let him borrow for a reasonable price. People are quick to point out Birmingham’s public transportation system when they want the homeless to just get a job already and get off the streets. But the many of the buses stop running at six, the earliest time Leon got off. By the time he could get to the closest bus stop, his ride home had shut down for the night, and he would be stranded on the opposite side of town from Melissa. Something had to go, and losing the job was infinitely more appealing than losing the girl and the home they’d made together.
“I grew up middle class,” Leon explains. “Mom, Dad, and grandparents all in one house. My granddad retired from the coal mine, my dad was a surveyor for the city, and my mom and grandmother worked in restaurants. Mom bought all our food in bulk, and we had a garden. We had one hundred, two hundred dollars’ allowance. We had everything, and we didn’t spend money because we didn’t need to. Everything was provided. I didn’t have a hard life. I still don’t. I just don’t dwell on what I don’t have.”
Melissa’s road wasn’t quite so smooth, even if things with Leon have been better. She found herself on the streets after her daughter’s father molested the girl, and he was their place to live. Since there was no way she was staying with such a monster, and she didn’t want her kids to live on the streets, she transferred custody to her aunt to try and give them a better chance. Legal red tape followed, as her aunt’s house was deemed unsafe and her children were put into the system. Her daughter was adopted, and is now fourteen, though Melissa can’t watch her grow up. Her son is seventeen, diagnosed with ADHD and Asperger’s, and is currently in a home for mental health in Orlando that he’ll graduate from in a year. She isn’t supposed to have contact, but she sneaks a phone call here and there, chuckling wryly that she’ll go to jail for talking to her son, she doesn’t care. Leon listens thoughtfully as Melissa talks about her children, a quiet pillar of support.
“We don’t have it as hard as some people. We’ve got a tent. As long as you got something to eat and somewhere to stay, you’re good. People don’t mess with us, where we’re at. You can have a few friends on the streets, but you can’t really let people know where you’re staying, you know? The main thing is finding something to do, to beat the boredom. That’s why the library is great; we go there almost every day.”
The library seems to be a popular choice among the city’s wanderers, a quiet haven away from the bustle of smoggy streets, the doors always open and holding countless worlds to escape into, both through the internet and books. Tracy, a sharp-eyed woman with a tongue to match, goes for the computers. She was in the Navy for four years and is a semester away from a nursing degree, but right now she’s concentrating on writing a novel, a book of poetry. The poems seem a little at odds with the harsh crack of her voice and her pointed gaze as we talk. When asked if it’s harder being on the streets as a woman, she looks at me as if I’d spit in her soup and quickly tells me no, that she grew up with seven brothers and has military experience, so she doesn’t stay in women’s shelters. She had her son during Hurricane Andrew on Thanksgiving, came to Alabama from New Orleans because of Katrina, and though she hates our state, she’s not going back. She landed first in Montgomery before coming to Birmingham, and was quick to learn exactly how the government treats the homeless.
“Nobody likes Montgomery. There’s too many police trying to tell you what to do, but none of them come when you need them,” she gripes, tearing off a hunk of bread and jabbing it into her stew. She’s become an active attendee at city council meetings, speaking on behalf of the homeless, bringing the voices of the ones in the shelters because they can’t leave; otherwise, they’ll lose their bed. The image of this middle-aged, bushy-haired woman marching into a city council meeting in an oversized Alabama sweatshirt and letting the government members hear it makes me smile, but despite her prickly exterior, she cares, and cares enough to do something about it, which is more than a lot of folks can say.
“We’re still a part of Jefferson County. We still exist, even on the streets.”
Whether poetry or lobbying or watching Youtube videos at the library, there has to be an outlet, because otherwise, you’ll either explode or find yourself in some very dark places. Chris is a long and lean man with a graying beard and a worn toboggan perched on his head, tucking into his bowl of gumbo to ward off the chill brought on by spending the day out in the unexpected cold front in late March. He’s got skin as rich as a coffee bean and a deep, rumbling voice that could be the narrator for a nature documentary, soothing and inviting. He grew up in Piedmont and moved to Birmingham to work as a carpenter, but when his car broke down, he couldn’t get to work and had to quit. He’s been living on the streets for two months, and the stress shows in his face, how he’s slouched into the chair like he’d rather grow roots to it than head back out into the cold again. His family has all passed away, he doesn’t know anyone in town, and it’s hard. It’s hard being alone, wearing the same dirty clothes day in and day out, sleeping in abandoned houses, in doorways, under bridges. Anywhere the cops won’t mess with you and you can escape the rain. There are shelters, but you never know if you’ll get in, and you can only stay for twenty-one days. Plus, the doors shut at five, so if you get there a little too late, you’re out of luck. You just walk all day and hope someone asks you if you want to work. He tells me about the recent storm that ripped apart Jacksonville State, how the firehouse was offering chances to go work on the cleanup crew. But things like that are temporary. The streets, and the darkness they hold, are constant.
“There’s so much temptation out here. Drugs and alcohol and such,” he says, and I have to lean in to hear as he trails off, lost in memory. “I’m trying to get off it. But it’s all mental. Once you know how good it makes you feel, you want more, even if you know you shouldn’t, because everything else makes you feel so bad. People look at you like you’re different, and it’s the same with the others out here. Everyone’s criminal-minded because it’s just you out here. You never know if someone’s going to snap. You’re tired of waiting on work. So you do things you regret.” He looks me in the eye, and it’s like years have gone by in the twenty minutes we’ve been talking, aging him another decade. “I know that I can do better than this.”
Chris is fifty-four years old, and despite the hard turn his life has taken recently, he’s quick to say he wants fifty-four more. He doesn’t strike me as a struggling drug addict, with his bashful smile and easy way of talking. He loves country music and dreams of traveling, taking the old Route 66 and just seeing where it goes, maybe ending up in Montana under the big skies one day. He thanks God every day for just waking him up, and though the weariness in his eyes is obvious, there’s no trace of bitterness in his voice, even when talking about the monsters the streets make of men.
“My family was close; I was an only child,” he says, leaning back in his seat, the plastic creaking beneath his lanky frame. “I was taught to respect everybody, especially my elders. Yes ma’am, no sir, all that. Even out here, I try to keep a good attitude. Say hello to folks, not be rude, turn the other cheek. Some guys out here, they’ll jump all over you if you so much as bump them. I know it’s about survival. But I’ve always thought, if we’d both just have a good attitude, we’ll get through it.”
Birmingham, in true Southern fashion, is a city of churches. Big churches with sweeping stone facades and intricate stain glass windows, steeples that regally pepper the skyline. Small churches with decades, even centuries of history written into the cracks of their humble brick walls, the hallways echoing with timeless hymns sung by believers young and old who never stopped trusting in the words. There are morning churches, night churches, online churches. But only one that meets in a parking lot in the middle of downtown.
The Church at Southside began as a calling on the lives of Keith Akins and his family to follow Jesus’s command to go to the ends of the earth and make disciples of all the nations, even the ones society would rather forget. They first met, all six or so of them, in the family’s home one Sunday morning, sharing a meal together and worshipping. Within a year, the church has grown to at least a hundred of the city’s homeless making their way to the parking lot off of 25th street where a hot meal is served until the food, provided by the Community Food Bank, runs out, with many of them staying for the time of worship and a brief sermon after. It has a different feel than the Community Kitchens, more open and relaxed. People smile more. They say thank you as they receive their meals, sit together at the round tables, catching up after a long week, welcoming new faces to the service. Church, at least in the traditional sense, can be one of the more uncomfortable places when you’ve got a little dirt on your shoes and a few bags over your shoulder, visible or not. But not here. Though no one’s wearing colorful, flowing dresses, no shirts are tucked in, there’s no worship band with lyrics on a jumbo screen, and crackers and grape juice have been exchanged for biscuits and gravy, communion is palpable, perhaps in a way that gets lost between the pulpit and hundreds of pews of a grander worship service. Not to detract from what those bigger churches do, with services that touch hundreds of lives and ministries and missions extending to every corner of the earth. But the first church met in the apostles’ home, where everyone knew everyone’s name, and they shared a meal together while reminiscing about their time walking with the Lord. There’s something about gathering around the table that’s always worked and yet has somehow faded into the bustle of society, something that is now taken for granted until one no longer has a table, or even a meal.
Joe Garner has not always been homeless, or so he tells me as we sit together after church has let out and the congregation members are making their way to the van for groceries, taking what they need while leaving enough food so everyone can get something to help them get through the week. He’s only been on the streets for a few weeks, though it’s not his first go around, only the latest in a life that’s been pockmarked with hardships that most people can’t even wrap their heads around. His mother left his father and married another man when he was young, searching for security and finding cruelty. Joe watched his stepfather beat his mother and was himself a punching bag at times, trying to shield his siblings from the abuse. As the second oldest, sacrifice was second nature. He had one or two outfits to call his own, so his siblings could have more to wear, and would often go to school hungry and try to salvage anything edible from the garbage cans. He dropped out of school at fifteen. Not because he was dumb, or didn’t want to put in the work. He was simply too hungry to study. He got a job at the grocery store shortly after and has been working hard ever since, moving on to a restaurant, where he climbed to an assistant manager position before someone accused him of stealing and cost him his job.
Joe doesn’t say much about his current situation, whether or not he’s been able to find work or how he gets by. Those things don’t matter as much, because if there’s one thing that’s evident in his life, it’s God. He’s quick to say that God found him, and since he’s had a relationship with him, he’s been content whatever comes his way.
“God showed up one night when I was in bed,” he says, gaze far away as he remembers. He’s got a faded jacket on and is comfortable in the cold iron chair, looking like he could sit for ages and not have a worry in the world. “Something came over me, the Holy Spirit. From where I was lying, that point all the way back to my childhood, God showed me all the sins I’d ever done—hatred, stealing, drugs, everything. And I was just in bed crying uncontrollably, just tears of deep repentance that night, but He was there with me. He showed me that He’d been watching over me, even as a child. He showed me a vision of my little sister, who’d passed away when I was a kid. I was too young to remember her, but somehow I saw her. That was God.” He takes a deep breath, savoring the warm air as it enters his lungs. “I’m constantly praising God every day. I’m so undeserving, still have hang-ups. I ask Him, why do you love me so much, why have you saved me from death so many times?” He goes on to tell me that he’s almost been killed three times, his deep voice rumbling nonchalantly as if he’s describing the weather. He’s been shot on the streets, held at knife point, and had a car fall on top of him. I almost don’t catch the last one, he says it so casually, and I ask him to back up and explain. He’d been doing repairs on a ’68 Oldsmobile when something went terribly wrong and he wound up holding the entire weight of the car up with his chest, trying to keep breathing while calmly explaining to panicked helpers how to get it off of him. He didn’t break any ribs, but it sure did hurt the next day.
“I don’t ask why anymore,” he says, giving a grateful glance to the sky and his Savior watching over him. “I just accept His love and try to love back. Being on the streets, each day brings a new challenge. Where to eat, of course, but also with people. Some people give a sour face, or turn their heads to keep from speaking to you, ‘cause you look different than them. But the sun shines on all of us. I don’t know if they’re believers or not. Even though they seem hateful, God loves them, too, and so I try to. It was hard, growing up in the 60's. For the longest time I just couldn’t love white people. I hated them, because they hated me just because of the color of my skin, not for anything I did or didn’t do. And there’s still so much racism; it’s hard. But God loves white people the same as He loves me, and so I try to, too.”
That’s the part that’s not obvious from the outside, the part that gets hidden beneath the grime, the baggy clothes, the days-old smell of body odor and the outdoors. It’s easy, particularly in the South, to say all the right things about faith, to say we’ll pray for someone on Sunday morning without giving them a second thought throughout the week or to adamantly work for the Kingdom of God without actually getting our hands dirty. It’s easy to proclaim our love for the Lord without really knowing Him, to proudly call ourselves born and raised Baptists or Methodists or whatever else while forgetting that the original Christians were simply that—just Christians. A Christian is one who imitates Christ and joyfully shares the gospel, whether from a pulpit or a city street. And the gospel is alive and well on the streets; it rings loud and true amid the honks of car horns and the shouts of passerby, if one only takes the time to look and listen for it. It shines in the scraggly-bearded face of an old black man dressed in heavy sweatshirts to keep his wasted frame warm as he hunches over the table, peering at me with earnest light in his eyes. He introduces himself as Stone Cold, a nickname branded on him by his history selling and using drugs, a past that got him locked in prison with eight life sentences, buried underground in a pit for five years, where guards lowered his food to him in a bucket and he shoveled his waste into that same bucket, the stench and hopelessness overwhelming with every passing day.
“They put me in that hole to destroy my brain,” he tells me, raspy voice jumping from a shout to a whisper and back with every sentence. “I had my days marked on a wall, and only had a few left. I should have died in prison. But I got me a Bible, read about Paul. He did a lot of his writing in prison, you know? And that was when I realized, everything is alright in Christ. I wanted to die for a while. But I made a deal with Jesus, and God showed me it’s not where you been, but where you’re going. He blessed me to not believe what my friends and enemies say about me. I used to cry about it, what they did to me in prison. They tried to break me. But I don’t cry no more. This isn’t where we’re supposed to stay.”
His dad was killed when he was four from gang violence, and in high school he worked two jobs, as a paper boy and washing dishes, to help his mom out. His school didn’t have football, but somehow he ended up playing and earned a contract with the Dallas Cowboys. I’m not sure how many of the things he told me were true and which were products of a traumatic tour in Vietnam followed by a hard life living on the streets, where most everyone you meet either looks down on you as a piece of trash or wants to beat you senseless to take whatever’s in your pockets. The only certainty in our conversation was his love for the Lord, and how that had seen him through all the dark and winding roads. Scripture punctuates his sentences as naturally as breathing, verses from John’s Gospel affirming the goodness and grace of God and psalms to push back at the darkness. In one of the quieter moments, he tells me about his wife, Beverly, who died of a brain aneurysm three years before. The light in his eyes doesn’t so much dim when he talks about her as take on a different glow, warmer and softer. He says his grandmother picked her out among his classmates as the girl he would marry when he was in the ninth grade, which of course is the surest way to scare off a fifteen-year-old boy. But sure enough, grandma was right, and his voice is low, whispery as he recalls her.
“She was a gift from God,” he says, a wistful smile on his face, still in love despite the turns life has taken. “She was everything right. I didn’t deserve her, not with the things I was doing. We had money, fancy hotels and living. I gave her everything but me.” He looks me in the eyes, his vision clear as he leans across the table. “If you meet a boy and you love him, and one day you want to marry him, you may think it’s good and right. But girl, if he’s doing drugs, rethink it. ‘Cause he won’t give you his heart.” Before we part ways, he shakes my hand with a wide smile, reintroducing himself as Abraham, a new name for a new man, a father, a wanderer, and just maybe, a prophet in his own way.
I never expected to receive love advice from an underfed ex-drug dealer/potential former running back for the Cowboys. Just like I never thought I’d have an in-depth discussion on social injustice with a University of Montevallo-educated aspiring author minutes before praying over him as he tearfully yearns to get back into rehab for a cocaine addiction, a nasty habit picked up after a divorce and a turn in prison. Yet Michael says that the four years and seven months he spent incarcerated was the best thing that ever happened, because it gave him the chance to spend time with himself and become the man he wants to be—straightforward, intelligent, and passionate about elevating the underdog. He wants to give the homeless a platform, show them that they can be more than what society says about them. He’s not beaten down by life on the streets. He sleeps outside so he can see the stars and watch the sunrise every morning. Outside, God’s voice isn’t blocked, and he wakes up with simple gratefulness for the creation he gets to be a part of. He grew up as a Muslim for twenty years before converting to Christianity, and despite his new faith and assurance of God’s grace and work in the world, he’s quick to point out the great deception it can be. A lot of people don’t sit down and unveil the history of the Bible, how it all fits and works together. They just bounce from the verses they like to the latest book released by a popular author, twisting truth around to make it pretty. They become not ministers, but psychologists in a country where the number one religion is neither theism nor atheism but rather materialism.
“We have to name our demons,” he says as we sit on a stone wall, enjoying the warm sunshine after days of finicky Alabama spring weather. “Acknowledge they exist so we can do something about them, and do it not for our own gain, but for God. And we can’t give up on compassion, no matter how hard life out here gets. The other night, I came across someone who obviously hadn’t eaten in a while. I hadn’t either, and I had three dollars in my pocket. I didn’t know what I would do after, but I bought the guy some food with that last three dollars, and he went on his way. Not five minutes later, a lady came up to me and asked if I had just bought that guy dinner, and where I was going to eat. I told her yeah, and I didn’t know, but that was okay. And she took me to a restaurant for a nice meal, paid for everything! You never know who’s going to come across your path, and it doesn’t matter. Our calling is to enrich the lives of others, and you can’t do that if you’re not paying attention or you’re stepping on people trying to get ahead.”
The streets, whether in Birmingham or Nashville or San Diego or Detroit, can be a dark and broken place, a pit dug deep into the dirt from which hope of escape is no more than the flickering flame of a candle almost spent, much like the pit Abraham talked of. Yet to only see and recognize the darkness is to miss half the story, like looking into the night sky and being overwhelmed by the infinite, empty black and forgetting the fact that countless brilliant stars are pushing back at the darkness threatening to swallow them up. There is no such thing as a perfect city, because the people who call it home are far from perfect themselves. They all have dreams, goals, struggles, gifts, demons, light and darkness within them. The story of a Mountain Brook mother driving her children to school and soccer practice is no more important or wonderful than that of a sixty-year-old Southside native living on the streets after losing his job at the airport for trying to take his clinically depressed brother on the vacation of a lifetime, or than that of a twenty-one-year-old college student studying nutrition and attempting to pop the comfortable bubbles humans like to suffocate themselves in. The shrill-voiced senior with ancient glasses taped together who shops at the Corner Market has as much to offer as the sharp-dressed businessman who picks up groceries at Whole Foods. The stories abound. From the outside, Crayo and Devon appear to be average construction workers, dark skin smudged with grime from the demolition jobs they scored that day. A passerby on the streets would never dream that Crayo is a skilled metalworker, crafting jewelry that rivals that of the big name corporations, or that Devon is an aspiring entrepreneur planning to start her own trucking company, a go-get-it woman not afraid to step into a man’s world, the only female in her mechanics class. Statistics don’t tell those kinds of stories. That’s where people come in, people who are willing to pick up the purpose we’ve lost to the age of progress and sit down and truly listen and live with their neighbors. It may not solve all the problems, just like in no way do I expect this compilation of stories to end hunger or change the world. But it’s a start. It’s a nod of the head instead of a shake. A smile instead of a look the other way. This is us, Birmingham. May we not forget it but embrace it, so that one day instead of being remembered for our divisions, we may be known for gathering around the table together.