‘When you are told all your life you’re dumb, unworthy, you start believing it. God changed that for me.”
Jerry, from Youngstown, Tenn., hesitated to be interviewed by Chris Arnade, the author of a new book, Dignity: Seeing Respect in Back Row America. “I don’t know my ABCs, so I can’t really talk right,” Jerry told Arnade. “I got nothing of worth to say, not anything anybody would want to read about.” Arnade talks him into it, suggesting that it might be an opportunity to help others.
Jerry was raised “dirt poor” in a military family, “the son of parents who married and divorced three times,” and his father “was abusive and didn’t provide.” He tells Arnade that when they ate, “it was good we got from the mess hall or hunting.” He says that one month, all they ate was cake mix, because those were the leftovers his father managed to bring home.
“I was always called dumb by everyone, my teachers, other students. Pretty soon I dropped out of school. . . . I made it the only way I knew how, with my body. But you know what they say: The harder you work, the less you make.”
He “drank and smoked some weed,” he goes on to explain. “I did drugs to feel happiness and joy and forget all my pains and problems. . . . I felt so dumb; nobody wanted me. They were a lifesaver. I would have killed myself without them. I tried a few times, put a gun to my head, but thought of all the people I had to raise.” He confessed too that when he broke his neck in 1993, “they started pushing pain pills on me, and soon I was hooked.” There is such heartache and beauty in his words: “I am ashamed by my dealing and buying of pills. Shamed. That isn’t who I am.” Beauty because he is able to see his dignity in the midst of a past that includes things he isn’t proud of.
He is grateful for his religious faith. “I got saved at 50,” he tells Arnade. “I changed me. I had never felt worthy of being saved. I was too dumb. Now I understand I am worthy of the Lord.”
In Dignity, Arnade describes Jerry:
He lives on a small plot of land in a valley far from most things, in a home held together by attachments and additions he built himself. His wife is confined to a bed off the living room, disabled from years of illness. He spends much of his time caring for her or driving her from appointments in a van with a bumper sticker that reads, “Got Christ? It’s Hell without him.” He is a big man and moves slowly, hobbled from injuries and pain from a lifetime of manual labor. The worst pain is from a broken neck when he fell from a ladder that ended most of the work he could do. It was an injury that led to him being prescribed pain pills and then, when doctors cut his prescription, buying heroin.
Arnade is a former Wall Street trader who started walking in a part of the Bronx where he had been told not to go. He eventually would get in his car and travel to similar places around the country. One of the things he found there was a sustaining faith.
After attending “hundreds of different services,” he “couldn’t ignore the value in faith, not as a scientist, not as a person who claimed to want to learn from others.” At first, he saw it as a “utility,” but “there was more to it than that,” he realized. “My biases, my years steeped in rationality and privilege, [were] limiting a deeper understanding.” Perhaps, he writes, “religion was right, or at least as right as anything could be.” But, he admits, “getting there requires a level of intellectual humility that I am not sure I have” — which sounds more than a little bit like humility.
He explains that he was used to thinking he had all the answers — the luxury of delusion. “With a great job and a great apartment in a great neighborhood, it is easy to feel we have nothing for which we need to be absolved. The fundamental fallibility of humans seems outdated, distant, and confined to a few distant others. It’s not hard to imagine that you can have everything under control.”
But there is no such delusion on the streets he spent time on:
You cannot ignore death there, and you cannot ignore human fallibility. It is easier to see that everyone is a sinner, everyone is fallible, and everyone is mortal. It is easier to see that there are things just too deep, too important, or too great for us to know. It is far easier to recognize that one must come to peace with the idea that “we don’t and never will have this under control.” It is far easier to see religion not just as useful but as true.
. . . Their communities have been shattered, their sense of place and purpose ruptured, leaving them with no confidence in ‘worldly’ institutions and with a clearer sense of the importance, value, and necessity of faith in something beyond material.”
There’s something Arnade encountered on the streets that captures our shared humanity. These people have something that many of us make much more complicated, with layers of false protection that separates us from one another. At a time of wall-building, Arnade scales some and finds hope amid tremendous pain. He finds people trying their best, in some of the harshest realities. It’s a book to encounter, and all proceeds are going to groups helping people with addiction and homelessness, and to help the people featured in the book live with a little more help. The world is better today because of Chris Arnade’s work with Dignity, and you can contribute to it by reading it and looking into the eyes of the people who opened their hearts and lives to him. You may also find some of the faith, hope, and love you need today.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.