Being willing

I have been in Jackson since the end of June. During that time, I have been in at least 30 or 35 meetings. If it was an open meeting, I showed up.

As such, I have sat in meetings of the school board, various neighborhood associations, people’s assemblies, businessmen’s network meetings, liberal groups, conservative groups. I have sat with white supremacists and black nationalists. Queer folks as well as people who think they don’t know any queer folks. I have talked to people experiencing homelessness and “social entrepreneurs.”

And I listened, and I took notes, confident that the intersection of my gifts and the world’s needs would intersect, as they do for each of us. I have almost filled two composition books with notes.

Why? Because I am trying to figure out what is mine to do here. Because the easy thing to do would have been to use my white and male privilege to swoop in as The Great Hughsis and launch my six-point plan to fix whatever, but the right thing to do is to see what is already happening and see how I can bring my gifts to bear there*.

Basically, my whole theory of ministry is that it is about looking and listening, and then, when a need shows up, being willing.

In the movie The Shootist, John Wayne plays an aged gunfighter, John Books, who is eaten up with cancer. The movie is all the more poignant because while he was filming this movie, Wayne himself was eaten up with cancer.

My favorite scene in the movie comes when the young boy, an aspiring gunfighter himself, remarks about how fast a draw Books must have been when he was younger. Wayne looks at the boy and tells him,

“It’s not always being fast or even accurate that counts, it’s being willing. I found out early that most men, regardless of cause or need, aren’t willing. They blink an eye or draw a breath before they pull the trigger–and I won’t.”

More and more, my prayer is less that I am good, and more that I am willing.

*41 days after we got here, I think it hit. It’s early days yet so I won’t say more, but this week three separate threads all came together and said, “Hey, whatcha think of this? And more importantly, whatcha gonna do with it, now that you know?”

What I am doing in Jackson

As of this evening, Renee and I have been in Jackson MS for 35 days. We are living in a tiny, temporary apartment downtown just a block or so from the capitol building, where us and three cats are trying to make the best of it while we wait for our house in Raleigh to close so we can buy a house here.

Since our moving here, people have been asking what, exactly, it is we are up to down here, professionally. So I wanted to give you an update.

Thanks to the generosity of a donor who agreed to cover my salary, I was recruited by Open Door Mennonite Church to start a Peace and Justice Center here in Jackson. If you are familiar with my work around homelessness in Raleigh, nothing we will be up to here should surprise you, except there are amazing folks working around homelessness here, and the pressing needs in Jackson center around hunger and education.

But while the emphasis is different, the core problem is not – the solution to the world’s issues is, and always will be, community. Our community contains everything we need to live a good life. Whether what we need is housing, food, an adequate education or just a life worth living, we can find all of it in our community. So, it makes sense to me that the only way to work for justice long term is to build communities.

So the Peace and Justice Center here will be a place where unlikely relationships can happen, and where meals can be shared and where people can experience their own power as they exercise agency and choice over their lives. (Sounds familiar, yes?)

My core competency for the last 11 years has been community building among diverse populations. I was made for this.

It is early days yet. I have a building of sorts – it is a Quonset hut with a broken air conditioner, but I have a window unit in the room I am using for an office. The floor is scattered with books I brought, but there isn’t a budget for bookshelves yet, and the internet hasn’t been installed yet, anyway.

The building was, the last time it was used 8 years ago, a daycare, so there is a timeout closet and tiny toilets and primary colors to go with the leaky roof. But it is a start and will be a place to hold meetings and if we ever get the budget to fix the AC, a place to hold weekly community building meals and after-school programs and local community-building educational programs.  It may surprise you to learn this, but an all metal building in the middle of a Mississippi summer is just unbearably hot to be in if the air conditioning doesn’t work.

Meanwhile, I am meeting lots of folks already doing good work down here, and I am trying to figure out where the gaps are and how a Peace and Justice Center can be useful. In a place as historically troubled as Jackson, it is not a question of finding work to be done, but rather discerning what of the overwhelming amount of work there is to be done is mine to do.

I am partnering with Open Door Mennonite to do this. They are acting as fiscal sponsor for donations while we get things off the ground, they donated the use of the building, and they have called me to be their (unpaid) Community Pastor, which is something like a combination of the roles of associate pastor and parish priest. Basically, it is my job to help them engage the neighborhood, and city, around them.  I preach once a month or so, and there are potlucks and diversity and lots of hugs. Renee and I feel loved and welcomed.

So that is our story. We are trying to build a new life here, with a new organization, a new faith community, and tackle new problems.

Here is how you can stay in touch, help, and know what’s up.

If you want to keep up with me personally, and know what is going on in our lives, what I am thinking about, reading, working on and generally have access to my inner life, I suggest you sign up for my weekly newsletter (I call it The Hughsletter. I know, cute, right?).

If you want to know more about the work of The Southern Peace and Justice Center (most ambitious name ever!) you can go to our website in progress and give us your email address. The site will be launched at the end of August.

By the way – the Southern Peace and Justice Center already has a Facebook account. Do me a solid and “like” that page, would you?

Someone asked if I am still doing my speaking and consulting work – I am, but it has slowed down a lot as I am getting things here off the ground. If you have something amazing we should work together on, send me an email to hughlh at gmail.

And lastly – we are going to need money to make it all work. Like I said, because of a donor’s generosity my salary is covered, but that is all that is covered. We have zero budget right now, and I fronted the web hosting fees out of my own pocket as we prepare to launch. If you want to be part of our early support team and help us get this thing off the ground, please go here and make a one-time or recurring donation. Your donations are tax deductible as a donation to Open Door Mennonite Church, who is managing our money for us as we get the paperwork ready to launch the new nonprofit.

As I get ready to build another thing from scratch, someone the other day asked me if I was afraid. “No. Just excited. And grateful.”

I am excited I get to do this work, and grateful I get to do Justice work in my native state of Mississippi. I am grateful for that, and grateful for your love, prayers and financial support that makes all that happen.

Thank you for that.

Saying goodbye to Carolina Beach

Carolina Beach

When we got married, we had no money. We spent a total of $300 on the wedding and reception, combined, and even that was incredibly stressful. Her ring came from a pawn shop. I didn’t have a ring for the first year we were married – we couldn’t afford it. A friend bought Renee’s dress, and another friend gave us their house for the reception.

It was really, really, tight.

So when a friend gave us the use of their condo in Carolina Beach for a week so we could have a honeymoon, it was a dream come true. At the wedding we had been given nearly a thousand dollars in cash from guests who would come up and slip folded bills in our hands, so we had the money to enjoy ourselves that week.

That was the week we fell in love with Carolina Beach.

It is a small beach town, with cheesy bright colored buildings, seasonal shops, restaurants of variable quality, and a pretty nice boardwalk along the dunes. That week we found new restaurants we liked, we walked along the beach for hours, went to the nearby aquarium, rode the ferry, and slept with the sliding glass door open so we could fall asleep to the crashing of the waves.

The Deck House is a restaurant in a converted church just off the main drag, and we ate there the first night we were in town at a friend’s recommendation. It felt decadent to eat there, and we instantly fell in love with it. I don’t think we have spent the night in Carolina Beach since without eating there at least once.

Next door is Kure Beach with a massive wooden dock that juts out into the ocean, where old men fish and the seagulls wait patiently for bait droppings and fish cleanings. We learned that if you bought popcorn in the bait shop, the seagulls would flock to you like you were St. Francis and that it would delight any small children who happened to be nearby.

There is a small island bookshop that sold overpriced used books and a few new books, but we believe in supporting what we want more of, so we always would spend an hour or so in that shop, and always buy a book or four. It is next door to the fifties themed diner, and just down the street from the coffee shop.

Up the road a few miles is the dock where I scattered a friend’s ashes, and down the road is the causeway where I love to sit on the rocks and watch the ferry go by while the waves lap at my feet.

We have been there probably 30 times over the last nine years. We have watched businesses change hands and improve, or fail. We have been there in every possible season, every possible weather. We learned that the week before Memorial Day is the best combination of affordability and seasonal shops being open, developed favorite restaurants and must do’s anytime we are there. We have even talked of moving there.

And now we are moving 12 hours away.

In some ways, moving away from there is harder than moving away from Raleigh. Carolina Beach was where we went to get away. It is where we went to relax, and where we began to be a family. We dreamed there, and we dreamed of there.

So last Thursday, we went one last time to say goodbye.

We ate at a restaurant we liked. We walked the boardwalk. We swung on the swings and talked about the future and reminisced about the past. We walked out on the pier and watched the waves and the seagulls. We bought a couple of used books. We got sunburned, ate donuts, watched the birds dart into the receding waves in search of food. Along the way, I wept some. Several times, in fact.

And then we drove the two hours home.

Being a regular

There is a coffee shop near my office that I go to most days. Actually, more than that – it is part of my routine.

I always go there on my way to the office. It is on the way, and it is part of how I tell my brain that it is time to shift to work mode. Most mornings, I show up there about 8:50 AM.

Because I am a regular there, several neat things happen. For example, I get to know the staff, and they get to know me. We aren’t going to each other’s house for dinner or anything, but they know the coffee I like and how I like it. It is generally the same crew working, so I know their names and we laugh at common jokes and doesn’t that make the world a little better?

Other people on the same schedule as I am are also there every morning at 8:50 AM. The college professor from the college around the corner. The slightly smarmy businessman standing in front of the building waiting on his 9:00 AM meeting to show up. The soccer mom in a minivan who shows up with her 3-year-old, and every morning they have long, endearing, discussions in line about what he is going to order when it is their turn.

I try hard to be a regular at places. I am all for exploring, but there is something to be said for being a regular part of someone’s day, and they are a regular part of yours.

When I first arrived in Raleigh, I was looking for a third place to hang out and write. The third day I was here, I wandered into Morning Times, and the barista asked me my name. The next day when I came back, she used my name in greeting me, and I am now a regular there, too. I have, conservatively, spent $3,000 there over the last 11 years.

One of the things I am most dreading about my upcoming move is losing all of my regular spots. The corner table in the library. The bookstore I like to browse when my head is full. The table at Morning Times where I like to write and, when not writing, gazing at the street traffic going by. The bench in the park where I people watch. The banter with Hannah the barista in the mornings.

But one of the things I am most excited about is looking for those places in my new home in Jackson, too.