The Fayetteville Observer Monday, February 12, 2007 Page 1A
Take back this neighborhood
One soul at a time
It takes patience and perseverance to build trust among the homeless and drug-addicted people they meet on the street. For Jessie Garner and Hezekiah Brayboy, there’s no giving up. One soul at a time
A Second of a two-part series
By April Johnston
It starts as a gentle tapping of drumstick against drum.And then it gets louder and more insistent.
And the keyboard joins in.
And someone starts clapping.
And someone else starts singing.
And two more start dancing.
And, suddenly, there is a party in the worship room of Open Arms Community Church .
At the center of it, bounding down the far aisle like James Brown bounding onto a stage, is Pastor Jessie Garner.
He is dressed in a brown suit this Sunday and is wearing, as always, an eye-twinkling smile.
“I do believe that some of you realize it is a good morning,” he calls into his microphone at a decibel level that makes eardrums rattle.
“Hallelujah!” his congregation answers.
“Praise God!” they say.
Garner lets a low laugh into his microphone and raises his eyebrows in a way that tells his congregation he knows something they don’t.
“I have a feeling that somebody who came looking is going to get what they’re looking for,” he finally reveals with a wink.
This is Garner’s hope every Sunday, because he knows most of the people who have squeezed themselves into the church’s six short pews are looking for something, anything. And he believes God is the only one who can provide it.
Because the God Garner knows isn’t an angry God. He won’t make his followers pay an eternity for their mistakes and he won’t cast aside those who err again.
Garner’s God is more patient than that. He’s the kind of God who waits for the fallen to pick themselves up and forgives human error. And then forgives again.
“It’s good to know God never stops seeking us. He never stops chasing us,” Garner likes to say.
As a former convict who spent almost two decades in prison for his mistakes, Garner understands that fostering faith takes time.
That’s why he’s willing to walk the same darkened streets again and again and give the same people the same message night after endless night.
Because someday, someone is going to listen.
Six months ago, Jerome Johnson did.
And on this Sunday in January, he is seated near the rear of the church, wearing a blue suit and staring at Garner as though the pastor is speaking only to him.
“Are you willing this morning?” Garner asks, pacing the aisle next to Johnson, his voice rising with every word. “Are you going to give God a sign of praise?”
Johnson claps his hands and raises them into the air, his palms flattened as if they are pressed against a wall.
“No one knows what you’ve been going through but you and God,” Garner yells.
Johnson jumps to his feet, his long body towering over everyone around him, and throws his fists into the air.
His eyes are shining with tears.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
It was 2004. Jerome Johnson stirred from a restless sleep in the back of a car at Brown’s Garage on Hillsboro Street. Someone was knocking at his window.
He looked up through the fogged glass and saw Jessie Garner, pastor of that stone church on Moore Street, peering back.
He wanted to talk — again.
Johnson had met Garner one afternoon while he was walking along the railroad tracks near Moore Street. The pastor called to him from the church yard.
“What’s going on, son?”
From that day forward, Garner wouldn’t let Johnson be. He stopped him on the street and knocked on his window at night.
“Hey, brother, how you doin’?” Garner would say. “Come by and see me. You know God wants to use you. You need to come on in. You’re killing yourself out here.”
Johnson already knew that. He had been on the streets for more than a decade.
It all began in 1986, when a friend offered him drugs and said, “Try it.”
He did. And he wasn’t impressed.
“Man, you’re wasting your money,” Johnson told him.
But two weeks later, Johnson used again. And again. And, soon, he couldn’t stop.
But in that early haze of addiction, Johnson managed to make one rule: Don’t take it home with you.
Johnson’s father was a well-known preacher. And that, in large part, is what kept Johnson on the street and what eventually pulled him off it.
Johnson was never a stellar student — he didn’t really learn to read until after he graduated from high school — but his father and his younger brother told him God would still allow him to mold his world into whatever shape he wanted.
They would have been sorely disappointed in the shape he chose.
So Johnson moved to the streets. For a long time, he lived under a bridge and, on the coldest nights, slept in abandoned houses.
He got clean for a while in the late 1990s, ran a drug rehabilitation facility in Charlotte and was offered another job in Houston.
Instead, he did what any recovering addict knows he should not: he returned to the city where he used and the people he used with.
And, not surprisingly, he relapsed.
At his lowest point, Johnson was jumped on the railroad tracks by Moore Street, hit in the face with metal rods and left for dead.
Three days after he was released from the hospital, he smoked crack.
So he didn’t need Garner to remind him that he was killing himself.
But he did need Garner to remind him there was another way.
Because Garner believes what Johnson’s father believed: that God would allow Johnson to reshape his world.
Johnson throws a damp dish towel over his shoulder and points to the man sauntering toward the long counter that separates the Open Arms kitchen from the dining room.
“You need something?” Johnson asks.
The man nods.
“Yeah, please,” he answers.
Johnson disappears for a few long moments before reappearing with a steaming plate of spaghetti.
“Sorry it took so long,” he tells the man as he hands the Styrofoam plate over.
“It’s OK,” he says with a smile. “It’s still a blessing.”
The Rev. Hezekiah Brayboy, who has been watching the exchange from a distance, nods his approval.
Johnson, he says, is one of the Open Arms success stories.
Even in the darkest days of his crack cocaine addiction, Johnson still went to church.
He’d clean himself up best he could and settle into a back pew. It was a lingering lesson from his father.
But too many congregations, too many pastors ignored the homeless man in their midst. They either did not want — or did not know how — to help a man whose life was ruled by addiction.
Garner and Brayboy were different.
“Just acknowledge God every day, even if you’re drinking or taking drugs,” Garner told Johnson.
And a year and a half after he met Garner on the railroad tracks, Johnson became a member of Open Arms Community Church .
He’s been clean for months now, living in a rented house that he sometimes shares with homeless men who are also trying to get their lives in order.
He works as often as he can, sometimes with Garner, laying carpet, but mostly for other people, roofing, framing and placing stucco and stone.
When he’s not working, he’s with Brayboy in the Open Arms kitchen, feeding the people he used to live with on the streets.
“I just love helping people,” he says. “I know everybody, who’s on drugs, who’s not, and I deal with them like I always did.”
The lines on Johnson’s face, the dark circles under his eyes and the scar on his lip — a reminder of the beating he took on the railroad tracks — say that Johnson’s 46 years haven’t been easy.
But the way his eyes shine when he talks about God giving him another chance — about the way God sent Pastor Garner to save him — say that his next years are going to be better.
He has plans to open a Christian recovery house for homeless addicts in the Open Arms neighborhood. And he finally got to go home.
He was just in time.
His father, the preacher, is on dialysis. He may not live long.
So Johnson spends what time he can at his father’s house, rubbing his feet and his back.
And showing his father that his life is finally changing.
“I have not arrived, but I’m better today,” Johnson says. “God is my director now.”
One night in mid-October, when the air was still warm and muggy even after the sun had set, Garner and Brayboy spotted Nick, a neighborhood regular, standing under a tree on Frink Street.
His body, long and lanky, was covered in dark clothing and barely visible in the night.
His hand was wrapped in white medical tape and his eyes, wide and dancing, betrayed his secret: that he had used that night.
But Nick shook Brayboy’s hand and he shook Garner’s hand and he said this:
“Hey, preacher man. You don’t never catch nobody down here like this. I never seen a preacher walk down here in the dark. I love that. That’s how I know it’s real.”
Garner smiled at him.
“Well, it’s a new day,” he promised.
Nearly 100 new days later, Garner and Brayboy are still on the street. It’s colder now. They zip their coats and hide bare hands in warm pockets.
“It’s quiet tonight, doc,” Garner says to Brayboy.
Some of the neighborhood regulars have been locked up for their crimes; others have driven to Florida to pick fruit and make money.
And a few, like Jerome Johnson, have chosen another way.
It’s the few that keep Garner and Brayboy walking. Because, sometimes, doing this job in this neighborhood is exhausting.
“We have a lot of sleepless nights,” Garner says. “We do a lot of praying.”
“And we’re a little crazy,” Brayboy adds.
“You have to be a little insane, don’t you?”
But it is the way they confront adversity with blind faith and pure persistence that makes people believe in their cause.
They have come to rely on a group of dedicated volunteers and generous donors to keep the daily lunch operating.
And they believe their two latest ideas — pitching military tents in the church yard and transforming an abandoned warehouse into a homeless shelter and rehabilitation center — will receive adequate funding if the city approves them.
“I don’t care what they say, it’s going to happen,” Garner says as he and Brayboy walk the railroad tracks by Moore Street, discussing the logistics of their new ventures.
“Somewhere, it’s got to end,” he says.
“I think that’s why we’re down here,” Brayboy tells him.
Because if Garner and Brayboy don’t find an end to the struggle on their streets, they fear no one else will.
And the residents understand that about them. They say Garner and Brayboy are the only two ministers they know who came to the community and then became part of the community.
They are, simply, people who can be trusted.
Garner and Brayboy worked tirelessly to achieve that goal. So on this cold January night, when the pastor and the minister end their walk with a chat in front of their church, they are a little dismayed by what they see:
An unfamiliar figure moving out of the darkness. It is a woman with short, cropped hair. She’s headed for the railroad tracks.
“How you doin’ tonight?” Garner calls.
And then he shakes his head and hangs it low, as if someone has just given him terrible news.
“That’s a new face,” he says.
It’s someone else he and Brayboy will have to seek out at night. Someone else they will have to invite to Sunday service to meet God. Someone else they will have to convince it’s OK to trust them.
And they will.
Because they have to.
Because on that night back in October, they promised a new day.