You Gotta Serve Somebody
By Murphy Davis
Vol. 12, No. 4, 1990, pp. 1-5
I want to begin by saying a word about my life in the Open Door Community since this so deeply affects anything else I would say.
We are a residential Christian Community of 32 folks. We are African-American, white, Hispanic, young and old, women and men, formerly homeless, formerly prisoners and those of us who have always been housed, Ph.D.’s and illiterates, from backgrounds of the middle class, obscene wealth, and utter poverty.
As a family we live together, eat together, worship, work, and sing together, share our money and other resources, and try to understand, learn from, and love each other.
Out of our family life and shared faith we live a life of servanthood and advocacy among and on behalf of the homeless poor of Atlanta: many more than 10,000 men, women, children and families who have nowhere to go; and servanthood and advocacy among and on behalf of prisoners in our state: the many and increasing thousands of women, men and children who live in cages. We particularly work among the 111 people who are on death row in Georgia.
As a way of beginning to discuss the challenge of service, let me introduce you to three friends.
First there’s Charlie. When I left home yesterday morning Charlie was lying in the sunshine in our front yard waiting for the soup kitchen to open. He is, like hundreds of thousands of men and women and children across this land, homeless.
Charlie has been a working man since he was 17 years old. The last job he held was one he had for five years. He
had worked his way up to four dollars an hour. But at age 45, Charlie was slowing down a little and the employer realized there were any number of 22-year-olds to be had for the minimum wage.
So Charlie was fired. He had no savings and no benefits. The weeks and months of job hunting were fruitless: “Sorry,” they all said, “but you know we’re really looking for somebody a little younger.” The strain on Charlie’s marriage grew to the breaking point. By the time he found himself with no job and no family and no home, he began to wonder what kind of a sorry excuse for a man he was anyway.
He gets an occasional job out of a labor pool. He crawls out of his cat hole at 4:30 a.m. and goes to sit in a dingy room full of hopeless humanity and prays for eight hours of work. Usually there’s nothing for Charlie. But if he does go to work, he goes out hungry, and the soup kitchens will be long closed by the time he gets back. The best he can expect, though his employer for the day might pay the labor pool seven dollars an hour for his work, is the minimum wage minus a few bucks for transportation, hard-hat rental, and all-maybe he’ll have $19 or $21 at the end of a day.
The only place that will cash his labor pool check is a liquor store across the street-with a purchase, that is. So by nightfall the best he’s looking at is a bottle, a pack of cigarettes, and sixteen bucks. Try to live on it.
Charlie gets locked up a lot. From time to time he does twenty to forty days in the City Prison farm for the terrible crime of public urination. We jail those who relieve themselves in public even though Atlanta has not one single public toilet. In other words, there is not a legal alternative. The money we spend in one year of punishing this
heinous crime we could build and maintain public toilets all over the city. But for doing what every human body must do Charlie goes to jail.
Charlie also did ten months on a one-year sentence for criminal trespass. That was from the time he was caught sleeping in an abandoned warehouse. He has another court charge pending because he went into Underground Atlanta and walked down the street. The police told him he didn’t belong because he stank. So he was arrested.
When the pain gets to be too much for him, Charlie drinks. As he lay in the sunshine in our front yard yesterday a car drove by. A young man stuck his head out the window and screamed, “Get a job, you bums!” Charlie raised his head for a minute and dropped it on his arm again.
Next I’d like for you to meet Jerome. Jerome was young, African-American, poor and retarded. He was executed by the state of Georgia in June 1986. He was convicted of being involved with another man who killed a woman in Columbus, Ga.
When Jerome got his death warrant, the Georgia Association for Retarded Citizens got involved in his case. GARC examined him extensively, confirmed that he was clinically retarded, and made a passionate appeal on his behalf.
But our society had long ago given up on Jerome. I read one school record from the time he was about eleven. A counselor wrote this advice to Jerome’s teachers and guides: “Jerome is slow and probably unfit for anything other than simple factory work. He’s not worth your time.”
The admonition was apparently heeded. Nobody wasted any time on Jerome. His mama loved him, but her life was hard. She was a maid for the county sheriff end though she worked more than full time, she was paid so little that her family had to depend on government surplus powdered eggs and milk to keep from going hungry.
His life was one of degradation and neglect but Jerome, in his own simple way, tried to do right. When the state set his execution date they sent their own psychiatrist to examine him. Jerome tried his best on the intelligence test and he was very proud. The shrink said that he wasn’t quite retarded enough to be spared from the electric chair.
The doctor was paid and Jerome died with 2,300 volts of electricity through his body once, twice, three times.
Before he died Jerome said to me one of the wisest things I’ve ever heard. We had been talking about prison life and Jerome looked at me and said: “You know-peoples was not made to dog around. Peoples was made to be respected.”
Third, I’d like for you to meet Nancy. If you had met Nancy a few years back you would not have expected her to end up with a ruined life.
She was a school teacher and her second marriage was to a prominent lawyer in a small Georgia town. He had once worked for the state attorney general’s office and had friends in high places.
For all his prominence Nancy’s husband was a violent man. Soon after they were married he began to have outbursts that would leave Nancy bruised or with an occasional broken tooth or bone. Didn’t Nancy’s coworkers and friends and family wonder that she was “falling down the stairs” so often?
But we learn from Nancy that the problem of male violence against women and children cuts across every class line and every racial line. Our leaders like to talk about Willie Horton and stranger violence against women on the streets, and it’s a problem. But we most often avoid the most obvious truth. And that truth is that the very most dangerous place for a woman to be in the United States of America is in a relationship with a man.
The most dangerous place for a child to be in the United States of America is in a family.
Hear it! Most women and children who are victims of
violence are victimized at home. That’s how deep our sickness is.
For Nancy the sickness was eventually fatal. One night her husband came across the room toward her with a 2×4 in his hand. She turned, picked up his gun and shot him dead.
She was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
She really and truly tried to make the best of her life in prison. She taught other prisoners to read. She wrote letters for the illiterate. She helped to set up a special program for mothers and solicited transportation for their children to be able to visit.
The prison doctor told her that the lump that developed in her breast was benign. When it grew he insisted that it was “nothing to worry about” and accused her of malingering.
When she finally got another biopsy, itwas too late. This “dangerous criminal” was sent home in a wheelchair to spend the two remaining months of her life with her teenage son and her elderly parents.
Now that you have met my three friends I can discuss the challenge of service. The title of this article should actually have been, “You Gonna Have to Serve Somebody.” Bob Dylan sings that song:
You might like to wear cotton
Might like to wear silk
Might like to drink whiskey
Might like to drink milk
Might like to eat caviar
Might like to eat bread
May be sleepin’ on the floor
or sleepin’ on a kingsize bed
But you gonna have to serve somebody…
It may be the Devil or it may be the Lord
But you gonna have to serve somebody.
The point is: Everybody is serving somebody or something.
Not having made a decision does not mean we are not serving. I really believe that anyone, especially of the middle or upper class, who is not serving her oppressed neighbor is serving the status quo.
In other words, as long as our neighbors are being oppressed among us–and they are–and we are not serving them, then we are serving those who benefit because of our neighbor’s oppression.
We would not have homeless people if it did not benefit someone. We would not be spending millions, billions of dollars a year at every federal, state, county and municipal level to build prisons and jails if it didn’t benefit somebody. Don’t tell me we’ve got all these billions and we can’t build housing for people. Where do you think crime comes from? Despair! But prison construction is big business. Beware when you raise a question.
The oppression of some benefits others. Our government speaks, for example, of “acceptable levels of unemployment.” Meaning, of course, that a certain level of unemployment is actually good for the economy.
Tell that to the unemployed!
You gonna have to serve somebody. The question is who?
In traditional terms, when we talk about serving our neighbors, we really have in mind charity.
That’s a great word: caritas. Love; passionate caring; compassion; advocating love; stand-up love.
But charity is often taken to be serving somebody a bowl of soup and thinking that’s it.
The bowl of soup is critical. A hungry person has to cat and the sooner the better.
But let a love for justice walk hand in hand so that at the very same time we serve the food we ask, “Why is my neighbor hungry?” What’s going on in our system that creates so much hunger in a land where we throw away more food than any people in human history ever dreamed of!
Charity and justice together provide a night’s shelter while asking why? Why? Why are all these thousands of people homeless? Women and men and boys and girls and families?
We have huge quantities of construction materials–and buildings every where–church buildings, college buildings, government buildings, so many of them standing empty most of the time.
Why? Why are so many of our neighbors homeless?
At many points in history women have taken important roles in the struggle for justice for the oppressed. One group of our foremothers who are a resource for us today is the ASWPL–the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching.
After the Civil War, African -American people were freed from chattel slavery. But Southern whites were determined to maintain a tight social control. In three decades after the war it is estimated that more than 10,000 African-Americans were lynched.
Gradually the myth of the black rapist became the excuse for lynchings well into the twentieth century. And it was done in the name of Southern white women.
Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Mary Tolbert: bold, courageous, outspoken African women, stood up, protested, pleaded with their white sisters to take up the cause. “Because it is done in your name,” they argued, “you are the very ones who can stop it.”
It took about 35 years to get some real action. But in 1930, Jessie Daniel Ames joined with white church women from around the South to form the ASWPL.
Their motto as they picked up the crusade against lynching was “Not in our Names.”
They were tireless in their petition drives, meetings, letter writing, and demonstrations and in taking on their own men. Their effectiveness in bringing to an end the public acceptance of lynching is a reminder to us of the power of women working together to end oppression.
The crusade against lynching had its problems, but it was genuinely an interracial womens’ movement: the sort we need so desperately today.
Do you know? Do you have any idea how much the poor and your oppressed neighbor need you? Do you have any idea how much your life, your service, your compassion and love is needed by the many who suffer because of injustice?
Oppression in the form of racism, sexism, war and poverty is causing death and destruction around the world and right under our noses. The flagrant destruction of the earth and its precious resources and the destruction of human hope and human dignity are a part of the same death-dealing spirit that says: Serve yourself. Take what’s yours and then get yourself a gun and an insurance policy to protect it. Use up whatever you want right now and let somebody else worry about it tomorrow.
Our earth and the earth’s people (most of whom are in this very moment poor and hungry ) need us to give our lives to service of our neighbors toward the goals of justice and social transformation.
It is so easy to be blinded by our class, our privilege, and yes, even blinded by our educations and educational institutions.
But in these days our ignorance of our neighbors’ plight–whether willful or unwitting ignorance–our silence and our inaction mean, literally and powerfully, service to a public policy that is killing our neighbors at home and around the world.
You gonna have to serve somebody.
Murphy Davis is the Open Door Community’s Southern Prison Ministry Director. This article is adapted from a symposium talk in May 1990 at Converse College. (Open Door Community, 910 Ponce de Leon Avenue, Atlanta, GA 30306-4212; (404)-874-9652.)