I’ve always wanted to do a homeschooling podcast with my son. We’ve talked about it so many times — what we’d talk about, how long it would be, yadda, yadda, yadda. We even purchased the equipment together, but I keep putting it off. “I’ll do it after I do this. It won’t work unless I do that. We need to plan for this.” Then I listened to a podcast by Dr. Neichelle Guidry called Modern Faith. In that podcast, she said, “What are the dreams of your heart? What are the ideas that you’ve had that you’ve said it’s too big for me? What are the things that are so big that you’ve talked yourself out of it? Unearth that thing.” She had my attention. But my mind immediately started moving to action when I heard her say, “I’m trusting in God to give me everything I need to walk this path of manifesting my goals, dreams, and ideas. I’m not sitting on them any longer— whether it’s a new mind, or a new heart, or new habits.” I’m recording my first podcast this week.
Dr. Guidry’s voice is soothing, soft-spoken, and powerful at the same time. She speaks authentically about the world around her and inspiring and motivating millennial women of color to lead and get out of their comfort zones. Though honestly, her messages will resonate with any generation. Dr. Guidry is currently the Dean of the Chapel and Director of the WISDOM Center at Spelman College. She is a graduate of Clark Atlanta University (2007, BA) and Yale Divinity School (2010, M.Div.). In 2017, she earned a Doctor of Philosophy in the area of Liturgical Studies with a concentration in Homiletics at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. Before her current position at Spellman, Dr. Guidry was the 2016 Preacher/Pastor-In-Residence at the Black Theology and Leadership Institute at Princeton Theological Seminary. And she served as the Associate Pastor to Young Adults and the Liaison to Worship and Arts Ministries in the Office of the Senior Pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago for six years. She was listed as one of “12 New Faces of Black Leadership” in TIME Magazine in January 2015.
Urban Faith had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Guidry about her approach to ministry, the new season of her podcast Modern Faith, and the woman she admires most in the Bible.
There have been exhaustive conversations about reaching the millennial generation and older generations. Still, I’m wondering, given your work at Spelman, what you see in Generation Z and how they worship and their attitudes about the church? That’s an interesting question because, in years past, I used to be heavy in these conversations about the church and millennials. Then I just got really tired of both conversations because millennials became very commodified in the church. It became less and less about a relationship and a whole lot more about how do we get them? It perturbed me because we began to speak of human beings in the same way that we spoke of material goods. And to me, it illuminated how capitalist inclinations of the church. Our preoccupation with numbers is an ethical issue, a moral issue, and a leadership issue that cuts across so many different areas in the life of the church. This is, in part, why I choose to do ministry in the college setting. In the college setting, I can think about my ministry as a curriculum. I can think about what it means to teach compassion, not just to preach about it. I can provide humanizing frameworks, language, praxes to my students. This is important because these tools empower our students to move beyond hearing me preach a sermon or a Bible study on compassion or kindness, and to embody these characteristics in the world. In some sense, Generation Z is very similar to the millennials, where if there is a disconnect between what a faith leader talks about and how they’re walking in life, we don’t believe it. And that’s why I really think the millennial generation was the pivot generation for the church. And as the emerging generation, generation Z is going to build on the ground that millennials have broken, the challenges that the millennials have raised to the church and to leaders, and they’re going to run with it. And I see my position as being a support to their disruptive work. I love to see Holy disruption. I believe that that’s exactly what Jesus did himself and still does through us.
I saw on your site, shepreaches.com, that you’ve not only got inspirational messages, but downloadable tools ministry leaders can use in their own circles. What are your goals for the future of the site and also your podcast, Modern Faith? I’ve gotten into podcasting as a way of democratizing the content that was laid on my heart to share. I have a heart for people who have a deep spiritual yearning and desire to connect with God, but have no interest or trust in institutionalized church. Many faith leaders are scrambling right now because of COVID-19, but there have been a lot of us that have been utilizing technology, social media, and digital media for community building. When I started shepreaches.com in 2012, I was kind of in a first wave of millennials doing digital ministry. It was an amazing time. But time has evolved, so have my own life and ministry. Furthermore, as the Gospel has been ransacked in quality over the past four years and the dominant narrative in the United States around Christianity has been the conservative evangelical witness, I really felt like we need more progressive, inclusive, and justice-oriented voices doing public theology. There needs to be more radically loving, just, and inclusive Christian voices that are also a part of this. And I’m not the only one. There are so many.
What will you cover in the new season of your podcast? So, the next episodes specifically deal with the Coronavirus, its implications and how we can spiritually survive this global experience. I’ll be talking about the kind of spiritual principles that are emerging for me about finding a balance between being informed and becoming a little too immersed in the news cycle. So, I will cover topics such as, some of the spiritual and mental health practices for self-care and spiritual wellness that can keep us in that healthy center.
And then there’s going to be a few episodes that focus specifically on spiritual discipline. Many of us have more time on our hands right now. And so people were talking a lot about taking up new hobbies, taking online courses, and staying connected via virtual hangouts. And I want to add practicing spiritual discipline into the mix.
That’s interesting you mention mental health. How do you think the faith community and the Black church handle mental health issues? Do you think there is still that stigma, even now? In a Black History Month sermon in chapel, I talked about this mental health, and I expressed my joy at seeing how not only are we, as Blacks throughout Diaspora, talking more about mental health, but we are also going into mental health professions and creating more resources. There’s so much out there now. There’s research, podcasts, books, conferences, and even social media accounts that solely promote Black mental health and flourishing.
In my past, I’ve wrestled with my mental health. When I was in high school, I, like many teenagers, had some anxiety and some depression. I know personally how going through such experiences can feel like “hell on earth.” So many people struggle with mental illness and have bad theology thrown at them when our mental health requires going to find a professional and perhaps even taking some medication. I see the de-stigmatization that’s right now as a movement of God because Black people were dying in silence and shame, while our operative theologies were often in support of Black death.
It’s taken time, and it’s taken education, and it’s taken broadening our thought patterns and our belief systems to come to a place where there are people like me, people like Melva Sampson, Candace Benbow, Lyvonne Briggs, and many more Black women of faith who talk openly about being women of faith and having serious self-care and mental health practices, including therapy.
Which woman of the Bible do you admire the most? My heroine in the Word of God is Deborah in the book of Judges. As a woman of power, she had the seat of power and the seat of leisure at the same time. But, when her people were in trouble, she got out of that seat of power and went to the battlefield. We see her willingness to leave her seat of power and comfort, to the very front line for her people. One of the most powerful things about Deborah is when she prophesied that God was going to give the victory to a woman, she wasn’t even signifying herself. She was talking about Jael. What I love about her model is that, even if it’s not me, even if I’m not the one that’s going to get the shine and the glory, another sister is. She’s my hero in the Bible.
To fight the spread of coronavirus, government officials have asked Americans to swallow a hard pill: Stay away from each other.
In times of societal stress, such a demand runs counter to what evolution has hard-wired people to do: Seek out and support each other as families, friends and communities. We yearn to huddle together. The warmth of our breath and bodies, of holding hands and hugging, of talking and listening, is a primary source of soothing. These connections are pivotal for responding to and maximizing our survival in times of stress.
But as with any pill, there are side effects. As psychologicalscientists at the University of Washington’s Center for the Science of Social Connection, our lab studies social connectedness, why it is important and how to maximize its benefits. Our clinical and research experiences help us understand the side effects of social distancing and suggest strategies for addressing them.
For those who must be quarantined because they are infected with the virus, this research has one important implication: Depriving the sick of social connection and physical closeness unfortunately may make it harder for them to defeat infection. For example, lonely college students respond more weakly to influenza vaccinations than do non-lonely students.
There are other costs. Loneliness makes people feel more vulnerable and anxious in social interactions. An official mandate to socially distance and isolate may increase what psychologists call intergroup anxiety, the natural threat and distrust people feel when interacting with those who are different.
While social distancing and isolation are in effect, there are things everyone can do to mitigate their downsides.
Now is the time to reach out to friends and family and connect with them however you can. Let people know how much you care about them. While live human connection is best, a phone call, with a real voice, is better than text, and a videochat is better than a phone call.
We believe such social technology-faciliated connections will aid all of us in staying as healthy as possible during this time. Although research on this is not comprehensive, we think it’s valuable to use social technology to mitigate the effects of loneliness and isolation for those who are sick.
What you say when connecting also matters. If you are stressed and upset, talking about your feelings can help. You may or may not feel better, but you will feel less alone. If you’re on the receiving end of this kind of sharing, resist the impulse to dismiss, debate or tell the other person not to worry. Your task is to listen and convey that you understand their feelings and accept them. This process – one person sharing something vulnerable, and the other responding with understanding and care – is the basic dance step of good, close relationships.
Human touch is also vital for well-being. If you are distancing with people who are close to you and healthy, don’t forget the positive impact of a gentle hug, or holding someone’s hand. Safe, mutually consenting physical touch leads to the release of oxytocin. Sometimes called the “love hormone,” oxytocin helps regulate your fight or flight system and calms your body in times of stress.
Other actions can help boost your and others’ well-being as you’re adapting to a world of social distancing.
Embrace others, figuratively. Be aware of your tendency to circle the wagons around your group. Importantly, even though it doesn’t always feel this way, you’re not born with a fixed group that you trust and fixed groups that you distrust. These feelings and associations are flexible and change with context. Imagine, for example, who feels safe and familiar to you when at work versus at a family dinner versus at a football game. Now is the time to expand how you define your group identities. This is a global pandemic. Human beings are in, the coronavirus is out.
Be generous. The practical side of this idea of expanding your identities is an encouragement to be generous, broadly speaking. Giving to others in times of need not only helps the recipient, it enhances the giver’s well-being, too. If you feel compelled to go to the grocery store to stock up on toilet paper, consider checking in with people you know who are more vulnerable and see what they might need. Give them some of that toilet paper. Help others around you, including neighbors you may not know well, people with whom you don’t usually feel a sense of kinship and people experiencing homelessness. Doing so combats the impulse to build walls. It puts you in touch with the better angels of your nature, and gives these angels voice and purpose.
Finally, remember to breathe. In this moment, with all the stress and anxiety, many people feel overwhelmed and disconnected. But you’re still here and those around you are in this chaos with you, too. A few conscious, gentle breaths can restore that connection, slow your mind and give you clarity, at least for a moment or two.
This coronavirus crisis may not end soon. Things may get worse. As people hunker down, the negative side effects of social distancing and isolation will shift and evolve. What feels manageable today may not feel manageable tomorrow.
As psychologists, we are concerned that the lack of social connections, increased stress, disruptions and losses of livelihoods and routines will tip some people toward depression. We are concerned about increased family conflict as people are forced to navigate unusual amounts of time together, many in confined spaces.
Flexibility is adaptive. Building a foundation of healthy coping, maintaining awareness of the side effects of our necessary societal changes, and staying connected to our values and to each other are imperative. Human beings have great capacity for empathy and caring in times of suffering. Maintaining social distance doesn’t need to change that.
Johnnie Jones III was saddened back in the early ‘90s by how young baseball players with athletic ability in his neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago were lost once they aged out of the local league.
“They were excellent athletes, but they couldn’t read. As soon as they got to the age where they were too old to play in the league, most of them wouldn’t even graduate from high school and the ones that did just kind of found jobs. College wasn’t even an option because of their grades,” said Jones.
When he saw that these students couldn’t see what was possible for their lives beyond high school it inspired him in 1992 to start the Make A Difference Youth Foundation. Jones, who has a Bachelor of Science in Computer Information Systems from Roosevelt University, believed that if kids could see other young people who looked like them on college campuses, they could see a future for themselves.
“I was not enjoying seeing kids that were being cheered for their athletic abilities and then all of a sudden sitting on park benches and maybe going to a gang or selling drugs or something because there was nothing else for them to do,” said Jones.
In “Chi-Town: Enabling Greatness,” which Jones self-published in December 2016 he tells the story of the Foundation which aimed to work with kids from elementary school through high school so that they would be prepared for college and have a good idea of what they wanted to study. As part of his foundation, he created an after-school group called Teens for a New Tomorrow (TFANT) to give teenage kids a place to go. In the early days, Jones met with 20 high school students on in the locker room at Gately Stadium, a small football stadium where many Chicago public schools played their games as most high schools didn’t have a stadium. That number grew to 50 and during football season they were forced to meet in the parking lot.
Jones meeting in the locker room at Gately Stadium.
Initially, they focused on developing the student’s leadership skills. The kids held official roles as they learned how to organize, plan, and facilitate the meetings. Eventually, Jones found an office. It had a big hole in the middle of the floor where you could actually see the basement below, but it was a place to meet. He has faced obstacles every step but says God always found a way to get him through the tough times.
The first big project he worked on with the kids was hosting a citywide mock election. Local tech company ANET Internet Services donated the website development for the project. It was a huge hit. More than 20,000 high school kids all across the city registered and voted for alderman and the mayor. After the election, the kids were granted an opportunity to visit City Hall and meet Mayor Richard M. Daley who was so impressed by the project that he awarded Jones’ foundation a $25,000 community block grant to continue his work — a gift that was renewed for ten years. With the money, Jones was able to fix up the hole in the office, put in a bathroom, do some necessary remodeling, hire college students as tutors, and pay for the general upkeep of the space.
After he made the fixes the owner sold the building sold. When the new owner came in, he raised the rent three times what Jones had been paying and told him that “kids don’t make money.” The foundation had to go. Around the same time, Jones received a letter from America’s Promise, Colin Powell’s foundation.
Jones was being considered for a large grant but they would need to see his location in two weeks to make sure it met certain physical and electrical standards. It was an unfortunate situation, but God had a plan. Not long after he knew he would be forced to move his foundation, Jones happened to be in a pizza place in a mall next door to his office when he saw a “For Rent” sign posted. He went in and talked to the owner about his foundation. She was a retired teacher who owned a daycare and welcomed renting to an educational group.
Jones was upfront about his financial situation.
“I said, this is the money I have that comes in from the city, and this is all I can afford. She said, ‘That’s fine.’ So just out of the blue from me getting some pizza, the place next door just happened to be up for rent. That’s how blessings come,” said Jones.
And the blessings continued. The office had been a former hair salon and had twenty sinks on the wall he had to remove. Jones had no idea how he would do it in time for the visit from Colin Powell’s foundation, but more blessings came.
One of the parents came by to check out the new facility, saw the sinks, and removed them that same night for free. He was a professional plumber, single dad, and grateful for how the organization helped his daughter.
Jones (right) and the former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones III (left).
“As a single dad, having a place to know my daughter was safe every day, that meant the world to me. So, getting an opportunity to do something back for you guys, not a problem at all,” Jones recalls that parent saying.
Then, a neighbor helped him do the needed drywall and painting, all with an agreement that he could pay in the future. Next, an electrician who Jones had helped get a computer when he was first starting out, offered to do all the wiring for free.
In two weeks, everything was done and in 2000 the Make A Difference Foundation was one of the ten organizations from around the nation, and the only organization from the Midwest selected to receive a new computer lab by means of Colin Powell’s “PowerUP” initiative. Hewlett Packard, AOL, Gateway and Cisco Systems were sponsors of PowerUP and provided each PowerUP site with computers, free AOL accounts for the kids in the program and Cisco networking equipment. The next year, they got a special award and an extra $35,000 for being the National PowerUp Site of the Year.
“He had a vision. He always thinks outside the box, and he would come up with things that no other organization would come up with that he felt the kids could do. And he was always challenging them, exposing them to experiences that they would not otherwise have had,” said Elaine Jones (no family relation), an active and dedicated volunteer whose daughter participated in the program.
By 2007, Jones’ group had expanded its mission to include community service projects and college campus visits. The students were required to do forty hours of community service, but they often logged more than 200. He had established relationships with college admissions recruiters, and some would even send a complimentary bus to pick up the kids in his program to visit their schools. The foundation had received many more grants and was able to support a summer camp for elementary schoolers and field trips. With two locations in Chicago and a staff, the bills mounted up to $25,000 a month with rent and electricity.
More than 5,000 students have gone through the Make a Difference Foundation programs since its inception back in 1992. Many of the students went on to attend colleges such as Princeton, Drake, and Duke, and credit his program for who they are today. Courtney Barnes is one of those students.
Courtney Barnes on a field trip when she was in high school.
“I think Teens for a New Tomorrow (TFANT) really influenced why I wanted to pursue a career in policy, specifically around racial equity and dismantling systemic racism and doing so by reaching out to our community, specifically our young people and working with them in ways that we can rewrite that narrative of this is what it looks like,” says Barnes, who graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in political science and government and a master’s in public administration. Barnes is currently Manager of Foundation Relations for Mercy Home for Boys and Girls, a residential care facility for boys and girls who have housing instability.
“I want them to know that there is life beyond the hood. And there’s life beyond that narrative of whatever they’re writing for our young black boys and girls. TFANT was that for me. I want to be that person for those young people.”
But when the markets crashed in 2008 funding for the foundation was hit hard. With the economic downturn, all of the grants dried up. Jones tried to keep the offices open with his own funds, but it wasn’t enough because the organization had grown so big. Plus, Morgan Stanley, the company where Jones worked, had layoffs, and he was out of work. He had to close up both of his offices and donate the supplies and equipment to another nonprofit. It was heartbreaking.
“I got two letters from kids when we shut down, begging us not to shut down the organization down, I never got over those letters. One said, ‘This is the only safe place I have to go to.’ When you’re reading those things, you kind of look and go, ‘I wish there was something I could have done,’ but I wasn’t in that position,” said Jones. “I’ve never been so crushed in my life than I was the day I had to lock all those offices and turn in the keys and then just say, ‘that’s it.’ So my success in technology, a lot of it was driven on, ‘I’ve got to make enough money so I can do this again and not let it fail.'”
The organization was able to hang on for a few more years. Jones did some consulting work in North Carolina and South Carolina
Karime Bolivar on the right is now in med school. This was Karime and her little brother at a community service project in Arkansas while she was in high school.
before eventually taking an IT position in Arkansas at Walmart. But he still tried to remain involved with the kids. Elaine was now at the helm, able to keep the service projects end of the organization going for a while. They worked together, had a core group of students still involved, and schools would send over other students to take on college trips or do community service projects.
“We even rented SMU campus buildings for a weekend and flew Native American students from a reservation in Michigan to hold a student-led conference with students from Chicago and Dallas. That was the biggest time that God stepped in! Elaine was our lead chaperone and got left by the plane at O’Hare airport, trying to help a late student make the flight. The plane was headed to the runway for takeoff and a chaperone called me from the plane to let me know the plane left Elaine. A flight attendant overheard the call and told the pilot. The pilot turned the plane around! A United Airlines flight was turned around, and they picked up Elaine. God has been good!” said Jones.
In 2013, Elaine could no longer manage the organization and it stopped operating in Chicago. But that wasn’t the end for the Foundation. In 2014, Jones brought it back to life in Arkansas. This time, with a new strategy. Instead of depending on outside funding, he has chosen to finance it himself. Even as it limits how many people he can help, but he can keep the organization running without fear of being shuttered.
“It’s knowing that this is something that is not me — it’s God. We couldn’t fail because God had a way for it. We should never have been in People Magazine. We should never have met Colin Powell. We should never have gotten a grant from the mayor. Everything that was happening was steps that were placed for us to succeed. And when we had to shut down in Chicago, it still wasn’t the end of God’s plan because it started right back up in Arkansas. And the first two graduates we have from Arkansas, one’s in medical school, and the other one’s going to medical school next year,” said Jones.
Four years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the novelist James Baldwin would write on the pages of Esquire magazine, “Since Martin’s death, in Memphis, and that tremendous day in Atlanta, something has altered in me, something has gone away.”
Baldwin wrote about how “the act of faith” – that is, his belief that the movement would change white Americans and ultimately America – maintained him through the years of the black freedom movement, through marches and petitions and torturous setbacks.
After King’s death, Baldwin found it hard to keep that faith.
Nearly two weeks after King’s funeral, in April of 1968, King’s confidant and former strategist Wyatt Tee Walker tried to renew this faith. Drawing on a tradition of black faith, Walker encouraged a grieving community to embrace hope even in the face of despair.
Black public faith has a storied place in American life.
The black church has been a place of fellowship and affirmation from colonial America to modern day, empowering individuals to undertake public acts to transform politics and society.
The 19th-century National Negro Convention movement, which ran from 1831 to 1864, demonstrated this black faith in action. Its leaders advocated for the abolition of slavery and full citizenship for African Americans. One activist reflected years later that the “colored conventions” were “almost as frequent as church meetings.”
These practices on Sunday morning, he noted served to “recharge the worshipers’ energy” so they could deal with the “rigors and racism of ‘a cruel, cruel world’ from Monday though Saturday.”
It was this faith that empowered many African Americans to maintain their faith in the possibilities of democracy while facing entrenched white opposition to their civil rights. Marches, sit-ins, demonstrations and mass meetings were all public displays of black faith.
Deftly navigating the tension between hope and despair, Walker based his message on the response of the Hebrew prophet Elisha in the Book of Kings who faced crisis and despair with an invading Syrian army, widespread famine and people ready to give up.
Drawing inspiration from the faith of the community, Elisha encouraged the community to keep faith in their nation.
Horizon of hope
Elisha’s example powered Walker’s message. At Princeton, Walker encouraged the black seminarians not to countenance a nostalgia for the past. In moments of deep discouragement, Walker said, distressed people tend to retreat into a romanticized past.
“In the jargon of the street,” Walker said, “it sounds like this: ‘Child, don’t you wish it was like it was back in the good old days… .”
“And yet,” he declared, “not by any wishing or hoping or praying or anything else can we find any day when things were better. There was no such day!”
Walker proceeded to caution his audience against maintaining the status quo. Walker proclaimed, “Whatever dream of life it is we envision for our children, ourselves, our community, our church, we will never bring it to our fingertips unless it begins first with some initial risk.”
For Walker, challenging the status quo was a fundamental aspect of existence.
“The elemental character of life is one that is moving and dynamic,” he said.
Walker closed his sermon by urging the audience to embrace hope-filled struggle. But he did not deny the desperate reality.
Instead, in the face of despair, he urged the young seminarians to take a risk of faith and build a future that has not been. For Walker, that meant “doing, trying, moving toward things which have never been tried before.”
Hope in democracy
The lasting testament of black public faith is its affirmation of new possibilities during moments of deep doubt. Rather than relying on a myth of the past or upholding the status quo, Walker offered the seminarians at Princeton a new vision of a political community.
“What I’m saying to you,” Walker declared, “is that I have the ultimate faith that we are going to find a tranquility with justice in this nation, in this world. We must! And it is conceivable it could happen in our time.”
A few days ago, I was sitting on top of the world, thrilled with the launch of my new book. And then, just a few hours later, I came crashing back down to Earth as I learned that the job I had for 14 years was gone, as I was laid off. Due to the coronavirus, it was explained to me the company had to close.
Naturally, I was pretty distraught. I have a wife and two kids that I’d been providing for, and I hadn’t been in a situation where I needed to be concerned about paying the bills and buying food, not for a long time.
And, since Congress hasn’t gotten its act together with a stimulus package yet, I was staring a harsh reality in the face of NOT being able to provide any more. Very scary.
I shared my feelings on a live broadcast on Twitter, reaching out to folks who have commiserated with me over the years, showing that we are all going through something real and that the fallout from non-action to this crisis has severe, personal consequences.
The reaction was overwhelmingly positive, with many folks sending their well wishes, prayers, love, and suggestions. Quite a few had recommended that I start a GoFundMe so that they could donate. And I said no, that’s usually what folks do when they are in a desperate situation, and I’d much rather work things out on my own.
It was inevitable that at least ONE jerk would strike out at me…
…because that’s what they do. Trolls are pretty horrible, and I usually just block them. But what one particular troll said was SO disgusting, so repugnant, I had to screenshot it. He wrote: “You’re unemployed and going to be homeless. Hopefully you f*cking kill yourself.”
I reported it, and proceeded to let those words recede to the back of my mind, locked in a box that reads “NEVER OPEN THIS BOX AGAIN.” But that comment kept picking at me and picking — like picking at a scab that just won’t heal.
Because I had already experienced homelessness, and it wasn’t pretty.
My homeless situation was not something that I could blame on anything or anyone but myself. After all, I had been the beneficiary of an excellent private school education: I had a scholarship to The Dalton School, an exclusive prep school from which I received an extraordinary head start. And I had a family and friends that loved me.
But addiction doesn’t discriminate…
…and it affects people from every walk of life, every social class, every educational background. During much of the nineties, I fought a recurring battle with drug addiction to crack cocaine, in and out of drug rehabs with relapse after relapse.
In 1993, after having prematurely left one rehab, I went back to work (as a graphic designer). The money was decent, but my head most certainly was not right. I rented a room above the apartment where my then-wife lived with her mother-in-law and our two sons.
Within three weeks, I had relapsed, and when I showed up at my mother-in-law’s house asking for money at 3 a.m., my now ex-wife told me, “You need to leave that woman’s house upstairs. Because if you steal anything from her, you will humiliate me and my whole family.” She was right: I would have DEFINITELY stolen something, anything, everything I could. So I left.
Thus began my adventures in homelessness. They were not glamorous.
When I started out, I didn’t even consider myself homeless; I was so busy getting high, I didn’t need to sleep or eat for days at a time. I somehow managed to borrow money from folks whose bridges I hadn’t yet burned, with whom I still had some credibility.
This was before the look (and smell) of homelessness took hold of me. As it turns out, when you go for months without a shower, without washing your hair, or brushing your teeth, or changing your clothes, you REALLY smell—the kind of odor that clears a subway car in a hurry.
So, officially fitting the description of a homeless guy, I stayed in buildings, on rooftops, wherever I could lay my head for a few hours before being awoken by a cop banging his nightstick, screaming at me to get off the train, or someone chasing me out of a building for trespassing.
To make the transformation complete, I started collecting cans and bottles, but that was really hard, time-consuming work, and using a wire hanger to break into people’s cars to steal the change from their ashtrays. I was a petty thief; I never mugged or robbed anyone, because that wasn’t my nature — I stole when they weren’t looking.
Eventually, so much of my soul had been replaced by crack-driven urges.
I began to shake a cup for donations. I will never forget the look of disgust mixed with bewilderment at my position: WTF is this young guy doing, shaking a cup for change? Well, it was cold, and malnutrition had made me weak, so begging for change was the EASIEST way to score more drugs.
One day, while I was shaking a cup near Union Square in Manhattan, I asked a young woman who recognized me from The Dalton School. A part of me, buried deep beneath the layers of addiction, felt utter shame and humiliation as she reached into her purse to give me some money.
My Christmas Light.
Later that night, on Christmas Eve, I asked a doorman for money, and he asked me what had happened to me. He looked into my eyes and said he could tell that was NOT the way I was meant to live. He asked me if I’d say a prayer with him, and I told him, “But I’m Muslim.” And he said, well, it doesn’t look like your God is listening to you, so let’s pray.
Why was this guy wasting his time WITH ME? In my mind, I was a complete and total failure, having been in and out of rehabs, where the lesson never seemed to stick, where I always seemed to outsmart myself. I wasn’t even worth the time, I thought. His sincere concern for me felt undeserved. I wasn’t worthy.
Fine, I said, just wanting to get to the part where he gave me money. But then, on Christmas Eve, it started snowing. And I don’t remember the words he was using, but he asked God to help me, and he said within two weeks I would be helped. I barely realized that I was crying at the time when he handed me some money.
Two weeks later, I was in rehab.
Fast forward to today:
I haven’t shaken a cup for donations in over two decades, as I have managed to string together 16 and a half years of sobriety, and the sting of humiliation is somehow STILL fresh in my memory from that episode.
But suddenly, the circumstances have changed. I’m not high anymore. I think of others now, instead of just myself. My three sons from that first marriage are fully grown and working, but I now have two little ones who traveled across the globe with their mom (my wife) from New Zealand to be with me.
We’ve had a serious talk, my wife and I, about asking for help. It goes against every fiber in my body right now – even when hauling groceries into the house, I like to be Mr. “I-can-handle-all-15-of-these-bags-myself” husband. And I am stubborn. And proud.
But that pride, I have found, can be a dangerous drug, too. The kids are now fully aware of the situation, but they do not yet know how dire it is. I’m in debt over my head, with mounting bills and no job, and my ex-boss has forbidden me to work freelance for our previous clients – even though I was the ONLY designer he had on staff.
While I didn’t sign a non-compete agreement with my former boss (none of us did), he is a Breitbart-reading Trump supporter who kept video cameras pointed at our computers to ensure we didn’t surf the web (while he stayed on Breitbart and Facebook), and couldn’t WAIT for a good reason to get rid of me. And so, here I find myself asking for help, buried all the way at the bottom of this impossibly-long written piece, secretly hoping that most of you will have given up reading at this point. If you folks who are still reading at this point can spare $5, or even $1, every single dollar is appreciated and welcome. My Cashapp account is $MAJIDPADELLAN. My Venmo account is @Majid-Padellan.
My pride is kicking my butt right now, and I am certain that this piece will open me to more attacks from nasty trolls, but the memory of homelessness is even stronger, and I don’t want to expose my wife and kids to it.