Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security; to fair trials, to work, to rest and leisure. But food, clothing and housing don’t come up until Article 25 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That seems strange, considering that the rest won’t amount to much without a decent meal and a warm bed. In his unpublished essay The Invisible Border: Profiles of the Working Poor in America, Keith Flynn writes, “For the nearly 50 million Americans living in poverty, the most in more than half a century, getting a meal on the table has never been harder.”
Flynn, the editor of the Asheville Poetry Review, has been working on the forthcoming collection Prosperity Gospel: Portraits of the Great Recession with award-winning photographer Charter Weeks. The two traveled thousands of miles and conducted hundred of interviews. And though the project doesn’t focus solely on homelessness, that was what caught Flynn’s attention, especially as he became aware of the work being done right here in Asheville by the Rev. Amy Cantrell and the BeLoved Community.
“Over and over again, when I was talking to folks in homeless camps in town, they would mention Amy and what an angel she was and how much that organization meant to them,” says Flynn. “I felt honored to meet her. Very few people can so eloquently describe their mission and the precepts of social justice and also have such a constantly changing strategy to combat the sort of problems she’s confronted with.”
The BeLoved House, on Grove Street, is an intentional community dedicated to serving the poor and homeless. Besides feeding 75 to 150 people a day, Cantrell and her housemates provide psychological counseling and art therapy and have organized a street musicians’ guild.
Flynn is a musician himself, fronting rock outfits Crystal Zoo and The Holy Men. Bill Altman, a longtime collaborator, is one of a number of musical artists who’ve answered Flynn’s call and agreed to lend their talents to a benefit for the BeLoved Community. The event, which takes place Sunday, Nov. 17, at Diana Wortham Theatre, will feature writers Ron Rash, Patricia Smith, R.B. Morris and Flynn with bands and musicians like Free Planet Radio, Ten Cent Poetry, Jonathan Scales, Susi Gott Séguret and others.
The format is battle-tested: “About six years ago I bought a hundred-year-old church and moved it to the top of a mountain out in Madison County,” says Flynn. There he’s been producing a show called LIVE at White Rock Hall, which pairs nationally known authors with musicians.
“There is a return to the idea of poets collaborating with musicians,” says Flynn. “It’s not a unique idea, necessarily, but there’s drama and unexpected astonishments that take place as you improvise live.”
The upcoming benefit, which will stage such collaborations on a grander scale, is already star-powered: Smith won the 2013 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for her book Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah. And two major motion pictures based on the works of local author Rash are currently in production.
Flynn knows about harnessing talent and celebrity for good: He launched the annual fundraiser that became the Warren Haynes Christmas Jam. “For the first six or seven years, I ran it,” says Flynn. “At a certain point, it outgrew the clubs.” By then, Haynes’ career had taken off, and when the rocker lent his name to the jam, it became a national event, raising more than $1 million to date for Habitat for Humanity.
Now, Flynn is trying to apply that model to the BeLoved benefit, creating an annual showcase at which audiences can experience “national literary figures and musicians and get to watch that collaboration.”
That’s the dream, but meanwhile, for many people, reality remains far colder and harder. Through his research, Flynn learned that 49 million Americans currently live in poverty — 16 million of them children. “For the first time in American history, the Department of Education reported that more than one million students enrolled in school are registered as homeless,” Flynn writes. A congressional study conducted in January revealed that more than half the food banks in this country are unable to meet the increased demand and must regularly turn people away. Meanwhile, notes Flynn, “A homeless person costs an American city $3,333, on average, per month.”
As a writer, musician and perhaps a voice of the people, Flynn feels a call to promote social justice. Proceeds from the BeLoved benefit will go not only to the homeless outreach group but to a sponsorship program enabling high school and university students to attend for free. “In other countries, the poets are barely able to distinguish between their political sensibility and their feeling for the common man,” says Flynn. “I absolutely believe it’s our responsibility as artists to give back to our communities, but also to shed light on what’s really taking place in our country.”
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
what: Keith Flynn and Live at White Rock Hall presents a Benefit for the BeLoved Community
where: Diana Wortham Theatre
when: Sunday, Nov. 17 at 7 p.m.
$30 adults/$20 students