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.
For weeks, I have dreaded Fridays at the Chicago Tribune. Friday was the day that folks got tapped on the shoulder or called at home to tell them that they had been laid off. The company is going through a “reduction in force” to help keep the lights on. To pay the bills, employees have been used as collateral. So far, nearly 80 in the newsroom have been put on the block.
The fear of working with an ax over one’s head is enough to drive anyone mad. I tried my best to be a reassuring voice in the midst of it all.
We each had our own logic about how it would go down. There were talks of employees being taken to off-site locations to hear that it was curtains. Others feared that they would take an elevator ride to the balcony, be given the news, and then forced to jump.
Then it happened. I got tapped. It was on a Friday. One of the managing editors caught me while I was in the middle of editing a story for the Web. He said, “Emeri, do you have a minute?”
I knew. In one quick flash, my whole journalistic life passed before my eyes.
I thought about my days as a cub reporter at a small paper in Louisiana. I thought about how I spent my first day as a copy editor editing stories on 9/11 at Newsday. My mind drifted to the five years I spent at the Baltimore Sun. Then, I thought about how proud I was every time I walked into the Gothic Tribune Tower and how finally I was happy with my job. I loved my co-workers and the paper. I wasn’t stressed. Now, 11 months after reaching euphoria, it would all be gone.
I walked slowly to his office and took a seat. With no compassion or a hint of emotion, he looked at me and said, “Your position has been eliminated.” Just like that. I felt like I was just a faceless person on the “Older Worker Benefit Protection Act List.”
He didn’t care that I came to work nearly an hour early each day to get ahead. He didn’t know that I was the person who made that big catch in a story about a little girl’s death that made him so proud. Nor was he concerned that I worked my way up the chain to get to the mothership.
At the end of the day, I was just “Editor, Subject Asst. Age 30.” I was handed an envelope with my name on it. And, after a brief talk, I placed my badge on his desk and walked out of his office. I could take being fired. At least when you are fired, you know that you have done something wrong. However, when you are laid off without any rhyme or reason, it is much harder to swallow.
Maybe he thought I would finish my shift. I didn’t. I said goodbye quickly to the metro editor, logged off my computer, placed my nameplate in my bag, and left. Mama always taught me to never let them see you cry. I chatted briefly with a co-worker outside the building and hailed a cab. Once inside, I became human again and cried.
I informed my mother that the nightmare I had the night before about losing my job was now a reality. She reassured me that God didn’t bring me this far to leave me and that everything happens for a reason.
I got home at 10:50.
I slowly pulled out the blue folder and arranged each bundle neatly on the floor.
There was a ton of mind-numbing paperwork to sort through, and I couldn’t even wrap my mind around it. I took a deep breath, said a quick prayer and realized that while my position had been eliminated, I wasn’t. I had two degrees and was an adjunct professor at Columbia College. My ultimate goal was to make the transition from newspapers to academia.
I just didn’t know my path would shift so abruptly.
A simple e-mail to my supervisor at the college turned into a blessing in the storm on that dark Friday. I wrote not asking for a job, but to just inform her of my situation. She gave me more classes to teach. I guess it’s true that when God closes a door, he opens a window. At 10:15 Friday morning, my position was eliminated. By 5:30 Friday evening, my other position had expanded.
God was putting me back on track to making my goal a reality. I cried again. This time not because I was broken, but because I was made anew.
But that’s not how the story ends. God opened another door for me.
Soon after I left the Tribune, I was contacted by an editor from Microsoft. I interviewed for an editing position with MSN.com and I got the job. The folks at Columbia College were very understanding, even though I was conflicted about it. But they encouraged me to take it. So, after losing my dream job, I walked into a bigger blessing that I could not have foreseen for myself.
Attendees at the Congressional Black Caucus’ 2020 National Black Leadership Summit stand and applaud keynote speaker the Rev. William Barber II on Feb. 4, 2020, in Washington. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
The Rev. William Barber II brought his message about supporting the needy to the Capitol, urging an “emergency convening” hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus to mobilize poor voters in the upcoming election.
“There’s no way we can inspire people to move with the normal politics that doesn’t fully address poverty,” said Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and the keynoter on Feb. 4 at the caucus’s National Black Leadership Summit.
“When you can work a full-time job at minimum wage and still not be able to afford a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in this country, that’s poor. And if we can’t see that and if we don’t acknowledge that poverty then we are refusing to call upon these witnesses among us.”
Hundreds of politicians, faith leaders, union representatives and others gathered in the Congressional Auditorium of the Capitol Visitor Center to discuss ways of ensuring more people of color are included in the upcoming once-a-decade census and the national elections this year.
“This is the state of our union: Every state that is a racist voter suppression state is a red state, and it’s also a high poverty state,” Barber said, speaking as the results of the Iowa caucuses remained unknown and giving his own analysis of the country hours before President Donald Trump was set to give his State of the Union address.
“If you organize 2 to 10 percent of the poor around an agenda, you can fundamentally shift every election,” Barber predicted, citing statistics from a forthcoming study done by his organization.
Barber said more attention needs to be paid to voters in the South and voters who are black and poor, asserting they can help change policies and the political direction of a state.
“If the black caucus and black preachers don’t demand that candidates focus on what is impacting 61 percent of black people then we are abdicating our power and our reason for existence,” he said.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who sat in the front of the auditorium and was called up later in the summit, also addressed voter mobilization, encouraging the summit attendees to consider college students and high school students. “We have the power,” the longtime civil right activist predicted, “to register 2 million new voters.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, left, speaks as Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, right, holds the microphone during the Congressional Black Caucus’ 2020 National Black Leadership Summit on Feb. 4, 2020, in Washington. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
In his speech, Barber also urged moving “from convenience to conscience” and relying less on political consultants.
“They say somebody will accuse you of socialism,” he said. “Well, according to some folks’ definition of socialism, Jesus was a socialist.”
Barber brought some of the standing-room-only audience to its feet when he cited “interlocking injustices” such as racism, militarism and ecological devastation and called out “a distorted religious narrative in white evangelicalism that says the only thing God is concerned about is prayer in school, being against gay people, being against a woman’s right to choose.”
In 2018, Barber helped relaunch the Poor People’s Campaign, the last campaign of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who likewise decried the “triple evils” of poverty, racism and militarism. The North Carolina pastor and former state NAACP chair helped lead a gathering of the newer campaign, dubbed “A National Call for Moral Revival,” to the National Mall last June and plans another on June 20.
“What America needs right now is an endorsement of ideas, not personality,” he added. “The question is not who can beat Trump but who can enliven, expand and inspire the country and the electorate.”
Recently, while watching the news, I was saddened, like many Americans to hear of the Jersey City shooting, an incident of blatant anti-semitism against the orthodox Jewish community, in which two armed assailants stormed a kosher market killing four innocent people and losing their own lives. With the rise of hate crimes in America, I was saddened, but not surprised. But when it later came to my attention that the perpetrators of the violence were Black, I must admit that I was shocked. As the main recipients of America’s bigotry, we ought to know better. To imitate the actions of one’s oppressor is to become the oppressor. That was the brilliance of the American Civil Rights Movement led by a commitment to non-violence, for indeed, as Dr. King taught, “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.”
Dr. Clarence B. Jones is the Director of The USF Institute for Nonviolence and Social Justice, and the former personal attorney and speechwriter to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Again, I woke up and heard the news: “An intruder with a large knife burst into the home of a Hasidic rabbi in a New York suburb on Saturday night, stabbing and wounding five people just as they were gathering to light candles for Hanukkah, officials and a witness said.”
I thought, “O no, not again! I hope the person who did this was not Black!” My shock turned to dismay when it was revealed that the machete-wielding intruder was indeed a black man.
The history and ill-effects of racism perpetrated against the African American community require that we know better, and thus do better — that we express our differences and grievances by a more enlightened means, which is the great lesson of the American Civil Rights Movement, of which I was honored to play a part. King is quoted as saying, “Somewhere somebody must have some sense. Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love.”
When I was 29, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was 31, from February 1960 to April 4th, 1968, the date of his assassination, I served first as a political advisor, then personal lawyer and draft speechwriter (excluding his sermons) for Dr. King. No African American leader of his stature worked and spoke so unequivocally against anti-semitism.
Now, 89 in ten days, and Director of the University of San Francisco’s Institute for Nonviolence and Social Justice, I thought to myself, “What would Martin Say? What would he expect ME to say and do?”
Dr. King would remind me that in 1936, Martin Niemoeller, a Lutheran Minister and early Nazi supporter, later imprisoned for opposing Hitler’s regime said:
“First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
This year, the Anti-Defamation League and others have repeatedly cited the unprecedented incidents of anti-semitic terror occurring in our nation. As Rabbi Joachim Printz memorialized in his speech immediately before Dr. King took the podium at the March on Washington, he said these words, “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence…America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent”.
Believe that King would call upon the moral leaders of the Black community to lift their voices in support of our Jewish brothers and sisters, a community from out of the trauma of the Holocaust understood persecution and hate and that stood with the Black community during the Civil Rights Movement. I know because I was there. I made the phone calls to Jewish labor leaders and donors, attorneys, educators and rabbis. So today, I call upon the African American community to condemn anti-semitism with the same vigor that we condemn its evil twin of racism.
Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated.” The wisdom of King once again. And in this light, I further call upon leaders of the Black and Jewish communities, to rekindle the great alliance that leads our country in the expansion of civility and civil rights for all people. Together, we must continue to be the moral compass that America so desperately needs.
January 20, 2020, our nation will again commemorate our national weekend, celebrating the legacy of Dr. King. The twin issues of ubiquitous gun violence and resurgent anti-semitism and racism should be the cornerstone of our commemoration of Dr. King’s 91st birthday. Please consider joining me and other leaders across the nation in partnering with the Philos Project’s campaign against anti-semitism and racism as they provide leadership and education on this issue. Visit www.philosproject.org or email [email protected] for more information.
All week long, African Americans have been celebrating Kwanzaa across the U.S.
Perhaps you may attend a Kwanzaa celebration at your church or even participate in Kwanzaa in the comforts of your own home, but do you really know why? What is Kwanzaa and why do so many African Americans choose to celebrate the holiday?
Dr. Maulana Ron Karenga created and developed Kwanzaa in 1966. Dr. Karenga is an author, professor, and scholar-activist who is passionate about sustaining Pan-African culture in America with an emphasis on celebrating the family and the community.
There are three main ideas that are foundational to sustaining Kwanzaa tradition. The first idea is to reinstate rootedness in African culture. The second is to serve as a consistent, annual, public celebration to strengthen and confirm the bonds between people of the African diaspora. And finally, Kwanzaa is to familiarize and support the “Nguzo Saba,” also known as the “Seven Principles,” which are each celebrated during the seven days following Christmas.
These seven principles represent the values of African communication. They include the following:
Umoja or Unity
Kujichagulia or Self-Determination
Ujima or Collective Work and Responsibility
Ujamaa or Cooperative Economics
Nia or Purpose
Kuumba or Creativity
Imani or Faith.
People celebrate Kwanzaa in numerous ways and have different practices that have been incorporated into their celebrations.
Are you unsure as to how you and your family can participate in a Kwanzaa celebration? A good way to start is to decorate your home or living quarters with the symbols of Kwanzaa.
First start by putting a green tablecloth over a table that is centrally based in the space in the space you intend to decorate. Then, place the Mkeka, a woven mat or straw that represents the factual cornerstone of African descent, on top of the tablecloth.
Place the Mazao, the fruit or crops placed in a bowl, on top of the Mkeka symbolizing the culture’s productivity. Next, place the Kinara, a seven-pronged candle holder, on the tablecloth. The Kinara should include the Mishumaa Saba, seven candles that represent the seven central principles of Kwanzaa.
The three candles placed on the left are red, symbolizing struggle, the three candles to the right are green, symbolizing hope, and one candle placed in the center is black, symbolizing those who draw their heritage from Africa or simply just the African American people. The candles are lit each day in a certain order, and the black candle is always first.
Next, include the Muhindi, or ears of corn, used to symbolize each child. However, if there are no children present, place two ears to represent the children within the community.
Also, include Zawadi, gifts for the children, on the table. And finally, don’t forget the Kikombe cha Umoja, a cup to symbolize family and unity within the community.
You may also choose to decorate the rest of your home with Kwanzaa flags, called Bendera, and posters focusing on the seven principles of Kwanzaa. Some children usually take pleasure in making these flags or they may be purchased instead. African national and tribal flags can also be created to symbolize the seven principles.
Other ways to celebrate may include learning Kwanzaa greetings, such as “Habari Gani,” which is a traditional Swahili greeting for “What is the news?”
Other activities for celebrating Kwanzaa is to have a ceremony, which may include lighting the candles, musical selections played on the drums, readings of the African Pledge and the Principles of Blackness, reflections on the Pan-African colors, discussing African principles for that day and/or reciting chapters in African heritage. Be creative!
Have you and your family been participating in your own Kwanzaa traditions? Share them below.