By Gary Gunderson
One thousand seven hundred thirty-nine and one-tenth miles. One hundred and seventy people in 15 conversations about being both brave and smart enough for the communities that hold our heart and hands. No pipers piping, but a half dozen hospital presidents, dozens of VP’s, lead clergy and directors of all sorts of human service organizations. No small number of cops and EMS heroes. A lot to take in.
It isn’t hard these days to find “best practice,” harder to find brave practice sustained over time in the ways that humans sustain things, three laps past reason and science. Yet in streets in towns that others would run from as fire, we find people moving toward the flame, somehow hearts strangely warmed in the process, finding strength not just deep within as if spirituality lies hidden in the private places. Instead, we found people who look for all the world to be otherwise rational, finding delight investing in work for the lost and least. We heard not a peep about sacrifice, virtue or high-mindedness.
Huntington is the icon in this reversal of expectations, but far from alone. When CNN comes, as it likes to do, they want dark-lit silhouettes of degradation to titillate suburban fantasies. You can find that, of course. Last Monday there were eight overdoses, all reversed, but all ugly. All will be visited by the Quick Response Team (QRT) and maybe one or two accepting the invitation to treatment. They will all receive a bag with a sandwich, condoms and some information about harm reduction. The ones who may not be ready for treatment usually are ready for a prayer, offered up without judgement, free as grace itself, by one of the volunteer clergy. Hard to get a video of what happens in the space between a handful of humans standing in the flow of death drawn to life.
Perhaps that’s the mystery Jonas Salk was writing of when he wrote of the survival of the wisest. He noticed that life moves between eras in which the old one fails, enters a “point of discontinuity” before it finds another era in which life finds its way. He was writing of the species, but it could apply to each and every city we saw along the way. All these towns were once home to the people of the many tribes who lived in the land below the Inland Sea for millennia. Eventually the Iroquois subjugated the ones along the big rivers not long before they were in turn overrun by the better armed white tribes speaking French, then English. Impossible to imagine that all the endless carpet of trees could ever be exhausted, but they were just in time for the unmeasurable wealth of ore, coal and coke which drew the rails and immigrants of many dialects. Huntington was the trailhead of the C&O, manufactured hundreds of thousands of rail cars. Cleveland nearly invented the robber-baron era of oil, steel and rail. Dayton, did the same with cars (what’s a car without a starter engine?). Indianapolis, the Stutz Bearcat. Each town is square miles of stone architecture (and empty offices), now monuments to a lost era. Fields of solar panels all along the way now; the highest hills topped with wind turbines.
The wealthy heirs and their philanthropies can step from one era to the next. The workers and their children face a discontinuity too far to bridge, spirit failing on the banks. It takes more than one generation to find the way across, and utterly soul-breaking to imagine doing it one person at a time. No more cruel fantasy than the idea that someone can cross over the vast discontinuity by ourselves. At the very moment we most need each other, we are left to stare at our dumb phones, suckered into distrust of the few things capable of staying afloat in the cold water, our government and communities of faith. We most need to distinguish between hope and distraction, fact and fantasy. What are we to do with our handful of years that would be worthy of the air we breathe?
What we saw
It will take a couple of months to fully discern what we saw, write up our notes, test them with those we visited and then corrected, share them with you. It is possible to drive 1,739.1 miles just to pass on inspiring stories of individual heroic acts of mercy. And one could abstract didactics of rational best practices of earnest professionals cannily weaving policy, reimbursement streams and philanthropy—the kind of thing you hear in professional conferences. And it’s not enough to say “both.” We live in a time proud to be both hard-hearted and hard-headed. The story that matters is the one about people giving themselves to the work of mercy and justice with all the intelligence and courage they can muster together. That’s what we saw.
I have to admit that I do not come home happy or comfortable. Not because we failed to see many examples of brilliance and passion. The smartest thing we saw was the largest employee-owned business rising up in the wasteland of Cleveland. Evergreen Growers’s LED-lit hydroponic farm cover thousands of square feet in efficient greens supplying local hospitals, restaurants and, now, Nestle. It pays property taxes. And it employees 42 people, including a number of former felons. Evergreen is the nucleus of three other businesses rising up with the same brilliance and values.
How you think about the future rests on how you think about that number and what it has taken to produce it. I could point to Brigid ’s Path in Dayton, Project Hope in Huntington or Shepherd’s Center in Indianapolis—all brilliant, deep and tough.
We rode in deep red country with impeachment updates on the radio. As last year, it just didn’t come up in conversation and not out of fear. I saw three old signs for My Trump—one per 579.7 miles—something less than an uprising. My sense is that people have few expectations that help is on the way from DC or Jesus or anywhere else. Yea, the planet is probably melting and the neighbor is gonna OD again. What are we supposed to do?
As we were turning South, we met in the fellowship hall of Redeemer Church in Bloomington, filled with young generous Spirit pouring out to hundreds of people who need care. They are happy trade away efficiency for relationship. I wondered if I was looking at the end of the church as we know it or the beginning of a new one. Yes. And I wondered if I was looking at the end of healthcare as we know it or the beginning of a new kind entirely. Yes. If Spirit or healing could work across the wires and screens, we wouldn’t have the ever-rising rates of anxiety, depression and dependencies. Pretty much everyone along the road trip knows about “social determinants” and even “closed loop” referrals. Those are a very thin gruel when people are starving for food that lasts. More than once we heard that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, but connection. We heard physicians and clergy speak the same way about the whole metabolic array driving the tides of chronic conditions. If health could come from transactional little bits of services, then Amazon and Walmart will surely do it better. Healing is not a transaction; closer to mercy, maybe even closer to renewing the connection of human community.
As Ben, the police officer on the Huntington QRT said, we can’t hammer our way out of this mess. Or pill our way. Or medicate our way. Or counsel. And we certainly can’t wait in the ED or sanctuary for people to crawl over the sidewalk at the last possible moment. The opposite of that kind of walking despair looks like Shane and Adam, the EMS and Police Officer watching for the 6,500 people on the streets of the near Eastside of Indianapolis. Backed up by the wide-ranging ministries of the Shepherd’s Center, the two men are eyeball to eyeball and heart to heart; they don’t look away or turn hard. They take every possible bit available from government, church and human kindness that might look like hope to those on these very tough streets. It doesn’t always work. They’ve held babies that had no business dying and offered kindness to elders that nobody else seems to even know at all. On these streets, someone does care. Maybe other streets will call up other hands and hearts, too.
It is not very different for any other body of healing work that has touched your mind and spirit. My brother has poured several years into a plot of land owned by the Presbyterian Church where he attends. It is less than two of the two million acres the Chesapeake watershed, so a bit early to declare the environmental catastrophe over. But here, at least, the invasive plants are giving way to the Oak and Walnut the land wants to rise up.
We may be too little and too late.
It is surely delusional to think our words will heal our land and the people who live on it. But it may be that the god who so loves the world, loves it enough to raise up enough of us to give our hands and feet to the work of healing. It is going to take a couple of months to digest this packed one week. We talked to dozens of people in intense conversations. We’ll share out notes with them to make sure we heard what we they actually said. And then reflect deeply before sharing back with you and others who may want to know.
Is it enough? In time? That is not for us to calculate. Is there work worth going that is right and smart enough to matter to someone. Certainly. That we saw and that we know.
The last hundreds of miles were through heavy grey rain. But we woke to bright sunlight and gathered with two handfuls of people for the early service as the light streamed through the old stained glass. We broke bread, dipped it in the poor Methodist excuse for wine, grateful for the chance to pass the peace with people who won’t give up. After the service, we talked with the pastor about the next steps on our harm reduction program and how to get our housing project off the drawing board. Felt like everyone we met with across the miles. And home.