I honestly tried to reach out an Olive Branch to my religious neighbors. Every time I have done this, it has not gone well in one demographic. The progressives and the mainline churches complain the loudest when criticized. They miss the accolade and magnify the hurt. They tell the people they ally for to be grateful and not complain. If they oppose you for offering constructive criticism, they feel there is a good reason for it. In their minds it is the trans person or the homeless person or the battered wife that does not understand their plight, not the institution. Andrew Lang from the UCC was a recent reminder. Prior to that, there was backlash from the UMC church. It reminds me of a night I dealt with some progressive christians when I was a taxi driver.
I need to stress the strangest point. I actually get better engagement in the conversation of LGBTQIA issues with evangelical leaders than I do from the mainline and the progressive. The evangelicals disagree with me, but they listen better. I will write about that someday. It needs to be fleshed out.
I had learned this lesson 4 years ago. At this point I had quit ministry and was driving a taxi. There was an encounter with some young progressives in 2013. I wrote about it in my book. It was towards the end of the novel. I hope you enjoy it. It was a poignant moment for me. If I had met those young people just a year or two prior, I would have been helping them, not opposing them.
The mainline church and the progressive church has problems. The privilege bubble is large. When they re allies, they are often not humble and can be rather haughty when asked to do things differently or listen.
I have more hope for many of the congregants in these spaces than I do their leaders and their authors. I see more beauty in the individuals than I do the programs.
As an atheist, I will engage in a saying of Jesus. “If any household or town refuses to welcome you or listen to your message, shake its dust from your feet as you leave.” (Matt 10:14). The house of the progressive and mainline god often rejects the message of the oppressed or downtrodden.
I hope you see beauty in the except.
Chapter 28 : We’ll Fix It
On a slow week night in Spring, I was sitting behind the Speedway gas station on Jefferson Street. It was approaching 10 in the evening and it had been dead all night. Several of us were parked behind the gas station. We were doing our usual routine on a slow night. We were smoking, laughing, gossiping, complaining, and generally sharing life. I went inside to grab a coffee and use the washroom.
When I came out, I stopped for a moment and looked at the scene before me: Cathy is sitting casual as can be, smoking a cigarette from the side open door of one of our minivans. Mark is standing by his cab with his arms moving as he enters storytelling mode. Terry’s folk/cowboy hat is tipped up as he rolls a cigarette. Demetrius is paying careful attention to every word spoken by everyone, as if what they have to say really matters. Mike is pretending to be grumpy, as always, but when he looks up from his paper every so often, you can tell he is paying more attention than he seems. I had to stop for a moment and stare at them.
The only thing missing from this scene was a campfire in the middle. This was a family gathering. We live this way 12 hours a night, 5-6 nights a week. We are pretty much all we have. Our outside lives are limited to mostly sleep and errands. Cathy lost her son and cares for feral strays. Mark has two cats and a love of literature, gaming, and storytelling. Terry is one of the most truly spiritual people I have ever met. Not religious. Spiritual. Mike is a hard and grumpy retired truck driver who, despite his tough exterior, cares about your safety and will help the indomitable Mrs. N when no one is looking. Mike is a good man who just needs to be heard. He has lived and he is wise. Demetrius is the secret-keeper of many and will likely take these secrets to his grave. He is pleasant and easy going but there is something underneath that you are pretty sure you do not want to cross. Despite that underlying current of danger, you trust him.
We have buried the same friends and fares. We have different stories about the same people and when we meet together, the scraps of the biographies of each assemble into a patchwork quilt of the person’s life, sometimes entertaining and sometimes horrific. I realized, in this moment, that this was my family and my life. Joliet at night was our city. There comes a point when it is just us, the cops, the night valets, the hookers, the drunks, and the homeless. From the Metra PD officer at the train station to the valets at the casino, from the speed trap not so well hidden on Larkin to the not-so-well-hidden prostitute giving a bj in an alleyway, from the East Side to the West Side – we own the night and we are often the moving connection, knowing who is where and up to what.
We know the gas station attendants, the regulars at the donut shop, the regulars at the bars and casinos, and the cops. We are a community of people in the alternate reality of a night that occupies the same space as the day but lives by different rules. It is more brutal and less forgiving but it is also more honest and always beautiful. I am not sure if that is despite or because of the danger.
I am home here. I am the man I want to be. No one wants me to be Pastor Pat, the savior. I am a cab driver and have permission to be myself. This is the group of people who accept me and, despite our issues with each other, we are there for each other when the chips are down. Hell, I spend more time here than I do at my place.
I do not know how long I was standing there staring at them but Terry looked at me and took notice.
“You having a vision or something, dude?” He asked.
“Nah, I just…” how do you say “I love you” to people you have never said it to before? “The mind drifted into the moment.”
“Was the moment good?”
“Yeah, man. When I was a pastor I lived for expectations and agendas. I never let myself just be, Terry.” He nodded at what I said and took a drag from his cigarette.
Then, the moment of the night’s tranquility was broken. One by one, our pagers started to go off. The lull had died and the calls were rolling in again. We started looking at our pages and writing in our logs, getting set to head out to our next fares.
I turned on my ignition and looked at my page. All it said was to pick up at the Super 8 by the mall, multiple stops, cash up front, round trip. I called dispatch to ask what was up.
“22, I don’t know what to tell you. They tried to impress me with their vocabulary like I’ve never been to college and were pretty condescending. I think they want a night tour of Joliet to start a business. Get some cash up front and let me know when you are done with them.”
“10-4, dispatch. This will be fun.”
I had a feeling this would be a long run. On the way to the mall, I had a quick smoke and ran some air freshener through the taxi. I pulled up to the motel and was about to ask dispatch for a call out when three young people came out. Two were young men wearing skinny jeans and mechanic jackets even though it is doubtful either of them had ever so much as done an oil change. Their beards were bushy and their beanies were colorful. The third was a woman wearing a white v neck t-shirt, jeans, horned rimmed glasses, and Tom’s shoes with no socks. The two men sat in back and the girl asked if she could sit up front. They were hipsters but not dangerous, so I allowed it. She looked at me and mentioned the dispatcher asked for cash up front. She asked how much I needed.
“Well, let me ask you this.” I said, “Where do you want to go?”
“We are hoping you could help us with that. There’s no Uber or Lyft out here and the cab from another company we called did not know your city well. You know the area well?”
“Yes, I do. So what did you have in mind?”
“I am not sure you will understand what it is we are trying to accomplish.”
I was beginning to see what dispatch meant about them being condescending. “Try me. Every so often my synapses actually connect and form strange things like memories, cognition, and bad jokes.”
“We are intentional social justice entrepreneurs looking for third spaces* for others to interact and collaborate. We are hoping someone local with a lower-middle-class understanding can help us find the right spot to form community and improve social infrastructure.”
Oh f*ck me, I thought. “Is this a spiritual venture?”
“We are not what you would consider traditional Christian,” she said, “We are generative and transformative followers of Jesus, part of an emerging conversation of faith.”
“Okay. Got it. So are we talking intentional community New Monastic style like Rutga house or Shane Claibourn’s crew? That’ll take us to residential areas with heavy foreclosure. Coffeehouse-sized retail space? Art studio-sized retail? Small warehouse for food pantry? Vacant plots for community gardens?”
“Oh, you do get it,” she sounded surprised. “Art studio-sized retail in lower-income area and some foreclosures. All of it has to be within the public transportation infrastructure, please.”
“And bike paths,” said one of the bearded twins in back.
“And bike paths,” I echoed. “I will even show you where to get PBR.”
“I love PBR. How did you know?” He sounded shocked.
“Lucky guess.” I grinned.
I addressed the woman, “Okay. I have a few sites in mind. It will take us near downtown. On the East Side and some spots on the West Side just past the canal and maybe Little Mexico. It will take about $20 to get there and another $20 to get back. So how much more do you want to spend?”
“Another $60 or $70. Do you think that will cover what you have in mind?”
“Yeah. We can even stop in front of a few spots if you want.” I said.
“Okay, my name is Simone, by the way.”
“Simone, my name is Patrick, good to meet you.” I started the meter and got on the radio. “22 to dispatch.”
“Go ahead 22.”
“I’m 10-6, will radio in when I am 10-5, this could be awhile.”
“10-4, 22, let me know. Board is under control.”
“So,” Simone started, “You know about the emergent movement? How is that?”
“Long story and not very interesting,” I said, “So tell me what you have in mind. Elevator pitch, please.”
“Well, we are looking to have a coffee house with opportunities for people to create. Open mic and art. A place to express themselves. We eventually want it to become a more tangible expression of change where they can address the systemic causes of their poverty and pain. Then we want to challenge the systems that enslave them.”
“Which systems, exactly?”
“Wal-Mart. Insurance companies. Things like that.”
“Gotcha. And the house? Will that be new monastic?”
“Not at first. That will be where we will live,” she replied.
I took them to some vacant retail spaces in downtown Joliet, on the east side by Little Mexico, and along Eastern and Washington. I then showed them some areas off Jefferson just west of the canal. I also included some residential areas near all the spaces and pointed out the Pace Bus System stops.
They asked me questions about the demographics of each area, zoning regulations and so forth. A few spaces caught their interest and they asked me to stop so they could walk about. They did not like much in the Hispanic area and seemed nervous with the homes in the East Side. Some aspects of downtown and Jefferson appealed to them. In other words, they liked the areas where people made less than where they grew up but not the areas where the poverty was, where the gunshots rang in the night.
I was beginning to notice some things in the conversation that were starting to bother me. Disconnects. I was trying to be respectful and get this high fare over with but some of the things they said concerned me. They were all out of the cab, walking around a vacant house, looking at it, and admiring the tree house in the back yard. This was our final stop before heading back. The meter was at about $65 at this point. I heard one of the young men speak about the house being in a safe area so they could have some space from “them.”
I got out of the cab, walked up to them, and lit a cigarette. Oh, that first drag felt amazing. “Lemme ask you a question. Will coffeehouse staff and art directors be paid?”
“Well, yes,” said the young man, “and above minimum wage.”
“Who are you hiring? Who is your staff?”
Simone spoke. “Us to start. We will bring in other friends to work the coffeehouse as it grows.”
“How do you expect to solve the poverty and lack of health care when you are employing employable white people with college degrees? Why Joliet? How did you find it?”
“We spoke to some people at an emergent church in Chicago.”
“Wicker Park Grace?” I asked.
“Yes. What are you getting at…driver?” That was a firm reminder of who and what I was and I was fine with that.
“Simone,” said one of the bearded twins, “Look at his tat. The one on his left forearm. He’s an Outlaw Preacher.”
“Are you?” Simone asked.
“I was. I was also ordained through the Progressive Christian Alliance. I was at the Wild Goose Festival last year and I had a progressive church one town over for five years. There is a lot more to that story but it doesn’t matter. Look, I need to show you some things. It may put you over budget.”
“It’s okay, sir,” Simone said.
“Simone,” I said as we got into the taxi, “how did I go from driver to sir?”
“Well, um. I didn’t know you were who you were.” She did not have an answer.
“No, you assumed I was what you determined me to be. Big mistake. The Imago Dei has no caste system in your philosophy. Live that sh*t.”
I took them on my tour. I narrated as I went.
“This is the bus stop my homeless friend Willie May died in. She died of exposure. She had a coat but a coat drive can only go so far when the wind chill is 40 below zero. Her chicken place is across the street. She liked it better there than a pantry. She got to choose what she wanted and was called by her name and treated as a customer. She was kicked out of every shelter here because she was a pain in the ass. It was not her fault she was mentally unstable. She needed meds and therapy but she got a death sentence. She had a great smile and a horrible singing voice that made lovely music.”
“This is one of the homeless shelters that kicked her out. They also kicked out a toddler with big brown eyes named Austin in the middle of the night. I tried to help. I couldn’t. I reached out to mainline churches and all my emergent and progressive friends. My cries for Austin fell on deaf ears.”
“Just around the wall here is a concrete bench. See? That hooker there is taking it in the rear by that guy. She is in her 20’s, does a little meth, and drinks. She gets johns in the trailer park and the old folks home. She loves scented candles and Febreeze and 90’s pop. Her pimp drives a black Escalade with spinny wheels on the East Side. Likes to tailgate a lot. There is your human trafficking. She has a nice smile and, in rare moments, it’s real. She wants to go to Disney World someday. She’ll probably die before that sh*t ever happens.”
“Okay. I am stopping here for a moment. We get pickups here a lot. This is all public aid. Food delivery does not happen here so they have to take cabs to get their pizza or Chinese. Wait for it…window shades will part soon to check us out…there. In a moment, a black man or two in their twenties will come out. They will be casing us. Oh, here they are. We should go now.”
“Here is a coffeehouse. Great place, great coffee. The people who you wanna reach cannot afford it. We go to Home Cut Donuts or the gas station or just brew that sh*t at home.”
“Here is the Friends of Community public art building. They have been doing art therapy, working with people, and beautifying the community since you were in diapers. They are closing soon because no one gives a f*ck. Between fares I used to talk to some kids here – Carlos, Katrina, Lequisha, and Jake. They have hopes and dreams and desires and live in poverty.”
“This motel has a lot of incall and outcall hookers and drug dealers. Sometimes I pick up ministers and aldermen from a neighboring city here. They speak of ending poverty but they do not mean it. They end poverty, they have one less place to get blow and blow jobs. You will have to collaborate with those hypocritical f*ckers.”
Simone was in tears. “Can we get back now?” On the way back to the hotel I told her the names of the people who struggle, their interests, their dreams, their pain, their favorite movies, and what they look like.
“What the hell is your point, dude?” said one of the bearded twins. “You heard her, we don’t want to see or hear anymore.”
“Then stay out of my city. I live in this 12 hours a night, 6 nights a week. These are not f*cking rescue pets. They are human beings with names and stories. They are your peers, your equals. The last thing they need is the great white hipster f*cking savior serving them lattes and jazz and the liberal Jesus who is only marginally better than conservative Christ.”
“You learned all this driving?”
“What if we did an Uber here? We could do like you.”
“You do that, we are competitors and I will shut your ass down. You will put my friends and family out of work. These drivers, some of them live in trailers or motels and sh*t. Many of them do not have cars and the manager lets them take cabs home so they can buy groceries or do laundry or take kids to school. He sits at their death bed until they breathe their last. Our lives are short. In the last year, I have felt my body and my mind suffer from exhaustion and lack of nutrition. You can teach me about organic food all you want but when all you can afford is Ramen noodles and beef in a tube, you eat what you can and hope for the best. It ain’t much but it is all we got and I will defend our turf.”
We got back to the hotel. The fare was $119. I was given $140 by Simone, who was still crying. The bearded twins left as well, though one of them came back and looked at me and said, “Thank you. They think you’re an asshole but I didn’t see people. What do I do?”
“See people. Get to know them. Fall in love with them. No strategy for that, no plan. That is the first step. Get to know them as peers and equals. Everyone I talked about is my equal.”
“I know man, you love them.”
“Yeah. I do.”
He walked away.
“Car 22 to dispatch.”
“10-5 on Simone. Fare was $119.”
“10-4, 22. The board is pretty quiet tonight. You wanna gas it up and go home?”
“10-4. I’m done.”
* Third space is a special place for community building. Meant to be a separate place from the norm to foster relationships and belonging.