Everyone can be great because anyone can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't even have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve ... You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love...— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
A couple of days ago, I was sitting at my favorite table in Firestorm Café and Books talking with Brian. He's a friend of mine and also pastor of Haywood Street Congregation. Yah, it’s “Reverend Brian” Combs. He’s a good guy and has done a lot of work with and for the homeless during the time he’s been here in Asheville. He’s always good for a cup of coffee too.
Brian and I got to talking about the status of the homeless here in Asheville and Buncombe County. We both agree that a lot has been accomplished, and we both agree that a lot more needs to be done.
After listening to my 30-minute, patented spiel on how the government burearacacy can’t do anything to fix the problem, Brian asks me if I would have a few minutes to spare to see something he’d like to show me.
We jump in his pickup and head out to West Asheville. After turning off Haywood Road and snaking down Virginia Street, we pull up in the end of a cul-de-sac where there are two houses being built by Habitat for Humanity. As Brian hops out and starts to head to the one on the right, I get the camera gear unpacked and dialed in.
I catch up with Brian, who's climbed up the scaffolding beside one of the houses. With him are two guys he introduces as Charles and Aaron. Charles tells me he’s been doing this volunteer work for several months, and Aaron lets me know that this is his first day.
I watch as Brian, Charles and Aaron scramble around the rickety scaffolding as if they’ve been doing it their whole lives. The chatter and banter never stop as Aaron hands a piece of siding to Brian to hold it in place, and Charles drives the nails in with the precision of a pro.
A steady rhythm develops and an almost cadence-like feel settles in.
Aaron picks up the siding, hands it to Brian, who swings it into place and holds it as Charles drives the nails. This unchoreographed dance continues for about 30 minutes until the site supervisor comes by and says it’s time for lunch.
Donated by a local restaurant, lunch is eaten by all the workers in the future living room. Old folks next to not-so-old folks. Retirees next to people who have taken a few days off to help Habitat build this home. The talk is animated, and you can tell that friendships are being built along with the structure.
Just about everyone on the job site is a volunteer. While Habitat has one or two paid staff on-site to oversee the job's technical aspects, the majority are wearing the green “Habitat for Humanity” T- shirts. That is, all except for Brian and my two new friends, Charles and Aaron.
Brian, I think, sees my confusion. Being the kind, tactful person he is, he doesn’t make fun of my ignorance. He explains that Charles and Aaron are homeless themselves. Each month for the past two years, Brian has been meeting the homeless in town and bringing them out to the various job sites that Habitat for Humanity has, scattered around Buncombe County. Sometimes he only brings a few, but he has brought as many as eleven folks out to work.
I pack up the camera gear as Brian heads back to his pick up to give me a lift into town. Climbing in the passenger seat, Brian turns to me and says, “Everyone wants to feel like they have some value – even the homeless.”
His words resonated with me as I pondered what I had just witnessed: Two homeless guys voluntarily slinging hammers and sawing lumber so that someone else could have a home.
When the banks cooked their books, they got a bail out and paid record bonuses. When Wall Street rigged the game they weren’t forgotten — they were bailed out and received large bonuses also. Meanwhile, we see record numbers of people at or below the poverty level and they get nothing.
Warren Buffet notoriously said, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
While more and more people become homeless, we have the top 2 percent making record amounts of money. The majority of the corporations in this country pay no income tax, and we have watched the redistribution of wealth go from the poor and middle class to the top 2 percent. While this is happening, we hear some folks wanting to give the corporations and the rich more tax breaks while they destroy every safety net to help the poor and middle class.
We read story after story about people who have traded down in income just to survive and those lucky enough to be treading water scared that they could be next.
If we are the wealthiest nation on the planet, why do we have so many homeless? If we continue to hear people slam the homeless by telling us that it is the fault of the homeless that they live on the street, then we start to have a callous attitude about them.
We are watching the destruction of America’s middle class that is true.
But more importantly, we are watching the fight for our moral compass.
Photographer Jerry Nelson is president of the Asheville Homeless Network.