Friends Show Up

Denise is one of my oldest friends.

Her great-aunt was my next door neighbor. Some of my earliest memories of playing with other kids involve her. We would play in her aunt’s yard, making mud pies where the tractor had wallowed out a hole.

In the fifth grade, I would change schools from the small Christian academy I had attended to the public school in the next county. She and I were now in the same grade, and we would be schoolmates until high school graduation when she chose a college and I chose the Marines.

Her mother was a constant presence in my life. First, it was when she would come to visit her aunt, and she and her aunt would chat while Denise and I would play in the yard. When I went to Junior High, she was the manager of the school cafeteria, and I would see her every day at lunch. More than once I would forget my lunch money and she would slip me in.

Denise and her mother are two of the few people in my life who still call me by my first and middle name together. Basically, the only people who do that are people who knew me before the age of 10 or so.

A few months ago, Denise’s mom took a turn for the worse, and this past Friday night she passed away, surrounded by her family.

So tomorrow I will get in the car and drive the three hours to go home, to walk into a funeral home I have been in dozens of times because that is where my people go, and see my old friend and say goodbye to her mother.

And this is why I moved back to Mississippi. Because I suck at being a friend, but even I know that friends show up. And it is much easier to show up when you live three hours away than when you live 12.

I spent most of my life running away – from my childhood, my upbringing, my class, my people, and from Mississippi itself. I always thought of all of that as a weakness I had to compensate for. It has only been in recent years that I realized that all of that was actually not only a strength but a superpower.

It’s good for people to forget who you are.

I once heard Rob Bell say that between book projects, he always has this fear that people will forget about him. That he will disappear from the memory of folks, and so no one will buy his next book, or come to his next event. He told this to his therapist, and his therapist basically told him to get over himself. Besides, his therapist said, “It’s probably good for them to forget you for a while.”

The last few months for me have been… interesting. After 11 years of focused ministry in one place, where I had come to know many ministers, lawyers, judges, members of the media, and politicians, I practically feel invisible here. I don’t know who to call if I need something, or to effect change for someone else. I don’t know what agency does what yet, and who to refer someone to.

People don’t take my calls here sometimes, because they have no idea who I am. I am often stuck in waiting rooms that I would not have been stuck in back in Raleigh. I get the cold shoulder from people I want appointments with. I don’t have any positional power here. I don’t run a well-known org here, I don’t appear on the media on the regular, I don’t speak in their churches. Here, I am a nobody.

I spent most of the last 18 months either getting ready to move here, moving here, or unpacking after moving here, so vocationally I am having some recognition issues as well. I used to preach every week – but here I have only done that about once a month.  I used to generate tons of written content for our website, but the last few months most of my creative work has been planning and cerebral.

Will the internet remember who I am? Will my future work be recognized and respected by people who have followed my work so far? I already see my numbers of “friends” drop on Facebook because I no longer talk as much about issues like homelessness as I once did.

Nobody here knows who I am, and I am OK with that for now. It is too easy to coast on the work you once did, on the laurels you once won, on the story of who you once were. Soon you become Al Bundy, forever regaling folks with reenactments of your winning touchdown in the big high school game.

Exile vs Immigrant

A few days ago, Renee and I were talking about how different moving to Jackson was compared to moving to Raleigh in 2007.

There are lots of ways in which it is different, but the biggest one for me is that we intentionally moved here to start a new life, whereas Raleigh felt like a place to live for a while.

Put another way, in Raleigh I was in exile, whereas in Jackson, I feel like an immigrant.

If you are in exile, you leave one place for another, but there is always the hope you will be able to return. Immigrants, however, plan on building a life in, and living in, the new place.

It’s like the difference between renting a home and owning one. The owned home will always be cared for more by its occupant because they have committed to it for the long haul. They are not just sleeping in a home but investing in it, caring for it with the hope that it will take care of them, too. The renter does the minimum because it does not make sense to invest in a place you will not be staying.

So we are immigrants here, and planning on being here for the long term. Here we will build new routines, be hospitable, and build unlikely friendships. We will work to take care of our new city, with the hope that it will take care of us, too.

Act like you have been there before

When I was a younger man, I was often starstruck.

I had the good fortune early in my career to meet people who, in their circle, were famous or at least respected. And because I was insecure as hell, I would try to show them how much I knew and that I wasn’t just a punk kid who had bluffed his way into the room. (Despite my being a punk kid who had often bluffed himself into the room.)

Maybe you have seen people like that – eager to show their worth, eager to show they belong, and so they hog the space and generally look desperate.

That was before I learned that relationships are more important than fame and that relationships take time to develop and nurture. I would try to tell the person everything I knew, and I would end up verbally vomiting on them.

One day somebody took me aside and told me what I was doing. Then they gave me a powerful piece of advice.

“If there is someone you know well, you don’t worry about telling them everything you ever want to tell them, because you will see them again. Your problem is that you are afraid you will never see this famous person again, so you have to tell them everything, and instead of looking wise, you just look desperate. So don’t tell them everything the first time you meet them. Act like you have been there before, and like you assume you will be coming back. This increases the odds that you actually will be.”

Eat the meat, spit out the bones

Since I have been in Jackson, I have been trying to intentionally place myself in situations and circles I would not normally be in. I am seeking out unlikely friendships and attempting to avoid homogeneity in my relationships.

Which is why at 5:30 on a Tuesday morning I am in a living room in a part of town I don’t live in, surrounded by people who are much more conservative than me in any way you can think of – theologically, politically, socially – and we are there to study the sacred text we are all committed to, although we often derive different precepts from it.

It’s hard for me.

There, I said it. It’s hard to wake up at 4:30 AM to go sit with people who think very differently than you do about issues that matter to you a great deal. But what I have consistently found is that no one person (or even ideology) has a corner on all the wisdom there is in the world, and so I find myself taking notes and jotting down ideas that I hear in that room that I would never have considered otherwise.

I had a mentor once who told me that you could learn anywhere and from anyone.

“Take what is useful, and ignore what is not. Eat the meat, and spit out the bones,” he said.

An old school way to circumvent Facebook’s algorithm

Having just moved to a new city, I am meeting lots of new people, and some of them I add as friends on Facebook. But since I have never interacted with them before, I seldom see them in my news feed. Thanks, Facebook (not).

In addition, I have some relatives who seldom post anything to Facebook, and since the algorithm is focused on engagement, I never see their posts either.

Neither of these scenarios makes me happy. So I developed an old-school workaround.

Here is how I do it.

Basically, I just pull up the page for anyone I want to stay on top of, and then bookmark it to a folder in my bookmark bar that I creatively called “Facebook.” Then, whenever I want to check on folks (I do this once a week or so) I right click on the folder and then click “Open all”, which then opens all of those pages in new tabs. I look at each page briefly to see what, if anything, has been updated. I also make it a point to click “like” or comment on their recent posts, which will, theoretically, over time teach Facebook that I want to see their stuff.

You could also use this to keep track of family, or old high school friends whose updates you never see, etc.

The most Mississippi story ever

On the night of June 11, 1963, Dr. James Hardy performed the first successful lung transplant from one human to another. That happened at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, in Jackson, MS. Because of that doctor’s work, and that surgery, and his transplantation of a chimpanzee heart to a human (also at the University Medical Center, in Jackson MS) the following year, there are many, many thousands of people – including my wife – who are alive today who otherwise would have died.

About twenty-four hours later, on a quiet street in Jackson MS, a civil rights worker named Medgar Evers was shot down in his driveway by Byron De La Beckwith, a white supremacist. He was taken by ambulance to the University of Mississippi Medical Center, which according to some reports, initially would not admit him to the emergency room because of his race until it was explained who he was. He died of his injuries. His murderer would be free for more than 30 years before being convicted.

And that 24 hours is the most goddamned emblematic story of Mississippi I know. Horror and hope, death and resurrection, terror and triumph – all in the same 24 hours, in the same city, at the same damned hospital, even. Mississippi is the best place I know. And the worst place I know. It will suck you in with its charms. And it will break your heart.