Racisim and Alcoholism

So I am from Alabama, the Heart of Dixie as it was called when I was growing up. I grew up on a farm north of a mid-size southern city known for its tolerance and diversity and my private school was integrated with the kids of most of the non-white professionals in our little town. Black kids, South Asian kids, Koreans and Chinese kids were my friends. But I knew racists. My grandparents used the “n” word. I once saw a cross burning driving back from Nashville late one night and I knew people who spoke in demeaning terms about the entire black community, depicting them all as untrustworthy and lazy, things I knew not to be true.

Out on the farm, a black family lived in a rental house at the back of the property and worked the land, fixed the fences and cared for the livestock. The children of this family, 21 of them aged one to about 20, we’re my best friends and we played and later worked together every summer and many days after school. I grew up knowing there was something different about the way they lived. About their expectations of themselves and of me. It bothered me on some level I could not then understand.

Recently I have been thinking about racism in the context of the immigration fracas going on in America this year. Like the racists I knew in growing up in Alabama, there are people who legitimately believe that a Syrian Terrorist is going to move in next door to them and blow up their local church. While that is about as likely as one of my friends from school doing that, some people believe it. They read hyperbolic media reports designed to scare people and they are scared. After all, they’ve never actually met a Syrian person and they have no personal experience or context that would push back on the media reports and the statements of their less well-travelled and/or well-read neighbors and friends.

I also have also had considerable experience with alcoholism and alcoholics. My wife and I helped run a homeless ministry for five or six years, we have some alcoholism in both of our families and we own a beer and wine store. There are homeless guys I know who have lost every single thing and relationship they had and they still choose it over a better life. I don’t know many who have beaten it, most are dead of organ failure, Esophageal varices or some related malady. The ones who did beat it usually had something in common, they were inspired by someone or something to finally put it down and choose a better life. Someone got through to them and they had a transformational experience that made them see what life could be life without the drink.

In my opinion. That’s what we have to do with the racists and undereducated people who think other cultures are a threat. So let me pose a question, do you think the homeless guys would stop drinking if I called them names, denigrated their pasts, their actions, their beliefs and their culture, such as it is? I think they’d pull away from someone like that and tune them out. Worse, I think they’d be hostile towards someone like that.

Why do we think racists are different? They have a world-view that is uninformed and leading them down the wrong path. They probably inherited it to some extent from their parents and family and peer group. They honestly believe their way is the only real way to live. When we yell at them, threaten them and insist they change their views it only drives the wedge deeper and convinces them we are crazy and could never be relevant in their lives.

So here’s my takeaway. When you encounter someone who is against more immigration into America or someone who does not believe all the claims about Climate Change, try not to hit them with your “Science Matters” sign.

Instead, try and get to know them. See what makes them tick.

Maybe stop insulting them.

Introduce the anti-immigration guy to your immigrant/first gen friends, there are a lot of them in Huntsville and most are KILLING it (not killing red necks but starting companies, inventing things, hiring people and generally kicking ass).

And don’t call the Climate Change person a “Denier”, thats insulting and just incorrect. I personally do not doubt the science but I do doubt the guy with an agenda telling me about the science. The earth is warming, and I think we are contributing, but how much? Will it really stop rising if we reduce CO2 emmisions? I keep seeing that chart that shows temp rise with and without the Paris Accords but is there any evidence at all that will work? Again, I don’t doubt the science but not every climate change assertion made by Al Gore is real. There is overreach in their arguments that also happen to line up nicely with their social goals, adding more suspicion and cynicism from critical thinkers, like me.

Slowly, and with some finesse, you can convince people that a life where you include people produces a better quality of life and they will make new friends in the process. But there has to be a relationship first.

We have to learn how to do this again in our country. How to reach across the aisle and across the street to engage each other in an honest discussion. Today all we do is yell insults at each other and it won’t change the mind of a racist any more than it will change that of an alcoholic.

Teach a Kid to Learn

So I am kind of overcommitted in my personal life.  I am a little obsessed with people.  People in general.  I like people.  People are some of my favorite…  oh you get the idea.  So because I love people so much, I find it very distressing that some people don’t think they have a chance in life.

Some people are not aware that they have what it takes to live a happier, more productive life within them.  It bugs me.  Because it’s not true.

Most people are self-limiting, held back by their own nagging doubts and passivity.  But it’s not hard to wake people up from this stupor.  It only requires that someone draw near to them, look them hard in the eye and say WAKE UP!  You can read a book and you can be inspired and you can get an education and BOOM!  You can live in a house, own your own car and send your kids to a decent school, where hopefully they won’t have it as hard as you did.   For almost any poor person, that is possible.  Not easy but possible.

So because I have seen people benefit from this path so often. I am very committed to education.  In addition to my real job as CEO of a real estate technology company, I am also (over)engaged in several projects to try and make Huntsville a smarter city.

I am Chairman of the Board of Randolph School, the premier K-12 education institution in the area and the only Independent School between Nashville and Birmingham.

I am also Chairman of the Board of The Village of Promise, a 501(c)(3) focused on intervening in the cycle of generational poverty in Huntsville, specifically University Place Elementary School.  Village of Promise was started by a friend of mine and a friend of the Randolph family, Bobby Bradley in who’s own life education was transformational.

Also, I am on the Board of a “second hand store” owned by my wife Julie and I in the Lincoln Village neighborhood.  It’s called Village Marketplace and it’s mission is to provide: recovery employment, low-cost goods to the area and steady funding to our partners, the Boys & Girls Club of North Alabama, The Village of Promise and Lincoln Academy, a christian school in the Lincoln Village neighborhood.

What all these things have in common is an effort to help people who want to help themselves.  Education across the spectrum is helpful and life-changing and people have to be taught that no one can stop them from living a better life, unless they just don’t go.

My Friend Mack

So the last few days have been a little on the rough side.  My friend Gina called me late Friday and said she was concerned about our friend Mack.  She was not sure why, she was just worried about him.  He usually calls me a couple of time each day and he had not been doing that.  I agreed, I was worried too and Gina and I promised to check on him the next morning, Saturday morning, at our usual homeless breakfast.  So I went to Johnson Towers at about 11AM and banged on the door.  I did not know then that it was too late, Mack was already gone.

In early 2009 I went with some friends from church out on a Saturday morning to do a service project.  The City arranged the event as a day of service so we made sandwiches and went to Lincoln Village.  We learned that people in Lincoln Village are not particularly hungry.  They’d like a pack of cigarettes or some gas money but ham sandwiches, not so much.  So we regrouped and tried Tent City, where the homeless are camped under an interstate highway bridge.  There, we met Mack.

The homeless men lay old carpets and boards over the rough gravel under the bridges.  Then they put down a pallet, like a little wooden box used to stack merchandise on.  The things that forklifts pickup, you know the thing.  About 5×5 feet and maybe 6 inches thick made of wood.  They put their tents on these things to keep them off the ground and out of the wet.  Although my friend Mike P says that you can hear rats moving around under there.  He likes his better on the ground.


Mack lived there when we met. He wore a Carhartt coverall and a ball cap and his ears were blue in the winter.  His nose too.  I once found him face down in his tent, covered with blankets.  I was sure he was dead and sort of kicked his lifeless boot sticking out.  It startled him and he bounded out of the tent ready to “stick” someone with his pocket knife.  Mack was not a mean guy, not at all.  He lived in a jungle and some of that behavior just rubs off on a person after a few years.  And Mack lived on the streets for at least four years, that’s how long I’ve known him.

Afraid Mack would freeze to death, two years ago we decided to check him into a local flophouse motel with instructions to “cut back” and “get better”.  He made a fairly pathetic effort that was unsuccessful and we decided that getting him off the streets had helped, at first, then it stopped helping.  So, we told Mack to pack it up and head back to the tents.  That was very hard for us to do.  But, it was Spring and nice outside and maybe the shock of it would pull him out of his haze.

Back in the tents he reengaged with a local agency committed to getting these guys get housing and in short order, he got an apartment at Johnson Towers.  He called it his Little House on the Praire.  Mack was no Laura Ingals but he cherished his refuge from the camps and it helped him.  He slowed his drinking and seemed to be committed to getting better.  Until he wasn’t.  Then he started drinking more and more.  He sold his food  stamps and collected cans for money and basically sought to keep alcohol in his system, pretty much at all costs.

About a month ago Mack got out of jail for hitting his girlfriend, for the second time since August.  We told Mack that we were going to stop paying his $50/month rent at Johnson Towers.  That he was not getting better and that actually, he was getting worse.  His choices were to just go back to the streets, or to seek out a rehab facility where he could go.  We gave him several phone numbers and helped him fill out an application for The Way.  He was left with instructions to call them every day, or twice a day, or ten times a day to tell them he was dying to get better, so they’d give him a bed and save his life.

I did not talk to Mack much last week but when I did he said he’d tried to call them.  His speech was slurred, at 9:15AM, and he was not sure what day it was.  I told him to please stop drinking and call The Way when he was sober and beg them to admit him.  He said he’d try but he’d dropped his phone in the toilet and the screen was not working.  I told him that was one more excuse and reminded him that there was a phone in the lobby.  We agreed to leave it alone.  He’d call when he was ready or go to the camps.

I expected him Saturday at Tent City.  After Gina called I was more worried but still expected to see him walking up through the old Cleveland Cemetery.  He didn’t come so I stopped in to check and bang on his door again after cleaning up at church.  I tried the door and found it locked.  So I left a note and left, assuming that he was staying with someone.  But when I came back Monday morning and my note was still there, I knew he was inside.

Shirley and Huntsville Public Housing Security came up and opened the door.  Mack was sitting on his couch as if he was still watching TV.  He appeared to have just passed out.  I hope he died there, in his sleep, out of it.

He was not behaving like a man committed to life, and he got what he chose at the very young age of 49.  It’s very sad to see someone commit suicide, even a long slow one like Mack’s.  It makes me angry on some level, suicide has always made me angry.  I should probably pray about that while I am praying for Mack.

Y’all add Timothy “Mack” McElyea to your prayer lists… he and his family could use it.

Saturday Homeless Breakfast

So I was reading about homelessness tonight preparing for a breakfast meeting in the morning.  Instead of preparing an email to share with my fellows in the morning I thought I’d just make a post out of it!

The breakfasts have grown dramatically in the last 4 to 6 weeks.  We always run out of food and we always see new faces.  We’re not sure what’s caused the increase but it’s noticeable.  Is this a good thing?  It shows that people need our ministry but volume can’t be a good measure.  If that was the case we could just make breakfast for the 14,000 or so poor people in West Huntsville!  Or not.

While we love seeing our friends on Saturday morning, and some have certainly become friends, we’d love to be alone one day, eating our biscuits and gravy without any poor people in need of it.  But that’s not likely and we have to remind ourselves why and what we are doing.
So I have been trolling around looking for some “best practices”  and I ran across this from CA:  There are two threads here for me: Christ and Leadership.  So Christ has to come first, He taught me to love others just because.  That’s the first reason to be in Tent City, just because.   The second reason, I am calling it leadership, is to lead homeless people out of their circumstances.   Effecting change in the life of a street person is not easy, and it usually ends in “failure”.  But over time we’ve learned this simple truth: effecting change is not the mission.  Showing up and expressing concern, listening to troubles and concerns and praying and helping where possible is the goal.  It’s impossible to fail at this most important objective unless you don’t go.  And while you are demonstrating interest in them and yes, love for them even in their filth, change can happen.

Each Sunday afternoon 40-50 homeless and poor individuals participate in our trash clean up program. This is the first step in their attempt to increase confidence and ultimately obtain a full time job and housing. We are proud that so many have graduated our program and are now completely self-supporting and off all government assistance. Food on Foot

 They are concentrating on transitioning people from the streets into temporary housing, something our friends at www.FirstStopInc.org are very good at.  But they also have developed a homeless-to-work program.  We’ve put together a program at Village Marketplace where people just off the streets are given a room for a day’s (sober) work.  Wonder if we could ask breakfast people to sign up for a work day the following Sunday afternoon like they do in LA?  Then select from the regulars on the clean up crew for Recovery Jobs?

We’re trying to deal with these questions:

  • If more people show up, should we just make more food?  Is there an end to that?
  • How can we more purposefully fulfill our mission by making relationships with the campers when the numbers are so large?
  •  The community certainly has many needs, how can we refer people to the correct service agencies and not duplicate mission efforts?
  • How can we raise awareness so we can acquire more supports and more funding?
  • How can we modify what we serve, how we serve, when we serve, etc to maximise engagement with the campers?
  • How can we engage other churches to participate and amplify our efforts?
Of course, any and all suggestions are welcome, and if I don’t like them I’ll just delete them!  I am after all King of the Universe on my own blog!  Later, love you guys…

Cancer resources for a new friend

A friend of a friend was diagnosed with a small OM tumor recently.  They reached out to me since they knew I had the same thing and I tried to provide them with some information.  After I wrote the email I realized that others could benefit from this information so I included the email here on my blog.

If you ever have a question and want an authoritative answer, Renee Zalinsky at Jefferson is amazing.

Renee M. Zalinsky, RN, OCN 
Senior Cancer Care Coordinator
Jefferson Kimmel Cancer Center Network
1015 Chestnut Street, Suite 622
Philadelphia, PA 19107
Direct 215-955-3158
Fax 215-955-1020
E-Mail: Renee.M.Zalinsky@jeffersonhospital.org

The OM Blog is at this address: OCU-MEL@listserv.icors.org. Subscription information can be found here: http://www.lsoft.com/scripts/wl.exe?SL1=OCU-MEL&H=LISTSERV.ICORS.ORG. I have to warn you about the blog. It’s frequented by amazing wonderful angels and thank God they are in my life. They are however, as a rule, sicker than most and not a good sample of how people live with OM. If you are well, you are not really hanging around the cancer chat room! But, they are amazing and informative and helpful and can answer ANY question you might have, although the answer is often “call Renee!”.

Next is the link to the Will’s Eye Center in Philadelphia. They have lots of good information on their site. Also, this is the link to the OMF Meeting in a few weeks. My wife Julie and I plan on going so we can tell you anything we learn in a few weeks.

Finally, a few books for you:

Same Kind of Different as Me

Heaven is For Real

Crazy Love

I heard you were Christians so this is heavy with Jesus but He’s the Man so….!

Love you guys and thanks for reaching out.

Parting thought. How long would you have to live to have lived a good life? Longer than this I know!!! But still, how long? My father lived to be 74 so that’s what I expected I suppose, if I even recall thinking about it at all. I know people who lived very rich lives, and sadly died in their thirties. And people who are in their 80’s but who are bitter and lost and alone. So, I think we can say that a life is measured by it’s depth, not it’s length. How do you add depth to life? I think it’s through relationships with His children: friends and family, of course, but also others that don’t know me, and maybe don’t know Jesus either. I don’t start with Jesus, neither did He usually, I start with love. Love in the form of genuine interest in life of some stranger. This has led me into homeless camps in Huntsville and into the lives of a 1/2 dozen lost and broken addicts. Me (and a small group of crazy people) do genealogy for them, to connect them to their lost lives, We take them breakfast on Saturdays and give them rides to doctors appointments during the week etc. While there, we connect with them and learn their stories and where they’re from, we sometimes come in contact with their relatives and become a conduit for reunion and communication. Through them, I no longer live my life for myself. I live it (or try to live it) so I am used by Him to do his work. I think that’s what heaven is too, when we get to do that, or something like that, in praise of Him forever. How long will He allow me to do that? I don’t know. It does not really matter to be truthful, but I hope it’s a long time! If not, I KNOW that I have used my time well, showing love for my family and friends but also love for people who ignore my love or even disdain the attention.

Peace and Grace Jeff and Suzanne. I pray healing and comfort and peace for you and your family and friends.

The start of something big in Lincoln Village!

A new shopping experience is coming to Lincoln Village this fall. Julie and I have rented a building at 1000 Meridian Street just north of Brooks and Collier and on the other side of the street, at the corner of Meridian and King. The new shop will feature clothes and other goods for the neighborhood plus a wide array of gifts and other stuff you’ll want. And coffee.

The objective is to provide a sustatainable revenue stream for local antipoverty campaigns working in the area and it’s going to work.  It’s all going to work because of the HUGE army of people being this effort, Julie and I are just trying to be the catalyst to get it rolling… It’s also going to work because of the management team of Dusty and Tristan Graham who dropped into our lives (how’d that happen?) and turned out to have tons of experience just when we needed it. It’s going to work because of the GREAT partners we already have onboard, including:

  • The Village, a 501c3 focused on finding street people and connecting them with services.
  • Lincoln Village Ministries, a 501c3 focused on breaking the cycle of generational poverty in the Lincoln Mill neighborhood.
  • The Village of Promise, a 501c3 focused on breaking the cycle of generational poverty in the University Place neighborhood.
  • First Stop, a 501c3 focused on engaging with the homeless community in the area.

At the end of each quarter, we’ll be distributing income to these groups to help advance their critical work.  They are changing Huntsville one relationship at a time and we are committed to help them.  Watch for more information coming up!  We’ll start accepting items for donation in the next few weeks.  Thanks everyone!  This will be fun!!!


New Board Post: The Village, Inc

Hi all, I have again demonstrating my inability to say no buy joining another local non-profit’s Board of Directors.  The Village is a homeless outreach agency I’ve been working with for about three years both in the field with their outreach staff and volunteers and on their website.  I built them a WordPress site at www.villageoutreach.org.

The existing board members have all been there for years and have really done a great job keeping the organization going.  They were gracious enough to ask, and I think I can add to their group, so I agreed.  It is indeed an honor to serve.  I hope that in 2012 we can create a close partnership with the other agencies in our space.  Our goal is to fit ourselves into the existing continuum of care, filling in gaps where they exist.

If you are interested in the homeless, or in any aspect of working with the poor, please contact me or reply to this post!


Downtown Rescue Mission delivers the goods for the poor!

The Downtown Rescue Mission is not really downtown.  It’s actually at the old Westminster Christian Academy campus off of Evangel, near University Drive and Sparkman.  But wherever the place is located, its a big deal.  The campus is large, 80,000+ square feet housing an average of 200 people each night.  They have both transient and in-house treatment programs for men and women.  They also accept children up to 13, and they currently have about 40 kids.

I toured the facility with VillageOutreach.org‘s Melissa Hiley who has been hyper critical of the DRM.  In the 90’s she vividly recalls a person dying because the Mission closed and would not let people in after a certain time.  Now, the center has a 40 degree policy, it says that rules are suspended if the temps fall below 40 degrees.  That’s a logical compassionate policy and Melissa was impressed.

Overall, I think The Village can have a partnership with DRM, one that will benefit the street people of Huntsville greatly.  How cool is that?

Mezza Luna Fund/Friend Raiser a huge success

Thanks so much to everyone who came out to the Fund/Friend Raiser last night!!!  We have a great turnout, extended cooperation between local poverty agencies, missions and ministries.  I saw the Village of Promise founder (Bobby Bradley) talking to a Downtown Rescue Mission board member (Scott Martin) and Lincoln Village founder (Mark Stearns).  I saw First Stop staff hugging The Village staff, and board members from both agencies coming together.  Maybe old rivalries and conflicts can become less relevant in the face of mutual love for the poor and homeless.

Altogether, our “friend raising” exceeded 100 new contacts and in dollars raised, we should be over $10,000.  Thanks again everyone for your help and show of support with your donations and your presence.  So here’s how to keep that mo going!

www.VillageOutreach.org – The Village Inc’s website, supporting Melissa and April and their Board with fund raising and marketing. The Village is a 501(3)(c) and is engaged in 24/7 monitoring of the camps.  Melissa and April and their host of volunteers physically visit an average of 2 or 3 camps per day, assessing disease states, mental function and simple physical needs like toiletries. I am proud to serve on the Board of Directors.

www.getcloaks.com – Mark Stearns homeless shelter project, I was wearing one during many of the announcements and drawings at the event.  Please donate to this cause!  We need more $$ to order more cloaks.  The first batch will be distributed in New Orleans during the BCS Championship game.

www.firststopinc.com – daytime homeless support on Stokes Street.  First Stop has housed dozens of homeless people just this year by walking them through the various hoops required to get housing from Section 8 and Huntsville Housing Authority.  They offer a Day Room, a washer and dryer, case management, a mailing address and a phone number the campers can use to keep in touch with family and a warm plate of food most mornings.  Their work is supported by a HUD grant, by the City of Huntsville and by donations from people like you!  First Stop is a 501(c)(3) organization.

www.downtownrescuemission.org –  The Downtown Rescue Mission is a nonprofit organization serving the homeless living throughout northern Alabama and southern Tennessee. For more than 30 years, we have saved numerous lives and have had a profound impact on thousands of others by providing Christ-filled, enriched and compassionate services to those in desperate need.

www.villagepromise.com – Bobby Bradley and Gloria Batts started Village of Promise in 2010 to begin a long-term effort to break the cycle of generational poverty in Huntsville.  Inspired by her experience working with Lincoln Village Ministries and the Lincoln Village Preservation Corp for years, Bobby is initially focusing on University Place Elementary School with a Harlem Children Zone style “full-wrapper” program. I am proud to serve on Bobby’s Board of Directors.

Thanks again so much for your support and friendship.

Please Don’t Feed the Homeless!

Maybe you’ve seen our new bumper stickers around town that say “Please Don’t Feed the Homeless!” If they made you come to our website then they worked as intended!! Welcome!  First we want you to know that we DO NOT want the homeless to be hungry.  Thankfully, in Huntsville, we have very few really hungry homeless people.  There are plenty of missions and churches and food kitchens for people to find food.  But, what we really need is relationships.  If you have any desire to actually get to know someone who lives in a tent under a bridge, not just toss them food from the curb, then we need to know you, and vice versa.

Mezza Luna Fundraiser coming up December 18

Save the Date!  Sunday night December 18 we are gathering at Mezza Luna in Jones Valley for a fund raiser.  You know you’d go to Mezza Luna anyway so check out  www.villageoutreach.org and see what your donations will help to support.  Melissa calls me alot, to tell me what she did out in the camps.  I also follow her tweets @villageoutreach and you should read them.  Just last week there was a stabbing, a prostitute pushed into a fire, a prostitute cutting herself, several new campers and 3+ inches of rain!

So, if you’d like to learn more, or if you’d just like to go to Mezza Luna on a Sunday, stay tuned for more information!!!

Help Village Outreach!

One of the most important measure of the civility of any society is how it treats the lowest in our midst, the people who are so sick or so weak or so broken that they cannot even manage to live Fortunately for them, and for our salvation, there are organizations in Huntsville focused on helping these people. To learn more browse to www.villageoutreach.org and follow Melissa Hiley on Twitter at this address.  http://twitter.com/#!/villageoutreach.

Mac Update

Great news about Tim, or Mack as we know him. He’s been awarded housing and has moved into Johnson Towers on Seminole near The Sally. He has a couch, a TV (thanks to Andrew) and some kitchen stuff. He needs a bed, a twin I think, and some company. He had been living in a communal camp environment with about a dozen friends for three years. Sitting on the couch and watching movies by himself will drive him nuts and fast. He has walked back to camp every day so far, just to hangout and see his buddies. I’d rather he left all that behind him but he has nothing else to engage in really. We hope that we can find him a good situation, maybe that he could walk to, about three days a week. If he could get into a pattern, maybe he will stick in housing and stay off the streets for good. Hopes and prayers that it ends that way, In the mean time, congratulations Mack and welcome to the rest of your life as the New Mack!!!

Pete Update, back in the hospital

Last Thursday Pete was admitted to Huntsville Main with a high fever and cuts to his tounge. He was put on a ventilator and was believed to have a neurological issue. Were still not sure what happened almost a week later but the best guess is seizures related to coming off of alcohol. Please go by and visit him. Also pray that it works out for him to enter treatment straight from the hospital. Bill and Tom from The Way are trying to work that out. More later…

Tent City Saturday

Hi folks. We’re headed out to Tent City again this Saturday morning. If you’d like to tag along please meet me at 113 Clinton Street downtown at 8AM and we can carpool, or you can follow me. It’s easy and a fun way to start your Saturday. Seriously, I know it does not seem like it would be but strangely, it is! If you’d like to bring something we could use C batteries, blankets, water (always), and any functional tents or tarps or other camping stuff would be great. We meet earlier in the morning at the Church and make breakfast so we’ll bring all that stuff. Let me know you’ll be there so I can tell the rest of the group.

Oh and there are a few safety rules. No kids younger than high school. Do not leave the group without an escort. Do not give out your last name and do not give anyone money. Do not give out your cell phone number or your home address. If someone asks for help, there are multiple agencies and ministries that already do a great job. See someone in the group for a list of local phone numbers and addresses. Women please dress modestly. That’s about all, it’s not as scary as it sounds. We’ll be done about 9 or 9:30AM.