“The beloved community is not a utopia, but a place where the barriers between people gradually come down and where the citizens make a constant effort to address even the most difficult problems of ordinary people. It is above all else an idealistic community.”
“This phone book was Ms. Addie’s beloved community,” Tom said, as we sat at a small table in a backroom at the Telfair Museum in downtown historic Savannah. A curator had retrieved the phone book from their archives, and there it sat, out of its preservation box, for us to page through as if we were unwrapping a delicate piece of fine china from tissue paper. We wore blue latex gloves and tried to appreciate its meaning in the greater context and learn from her wisdom, professionally preserved. Tom stood over us nervously advising us to be careful, and sharing small anecdotes of Ms. Reeve’s personality, decoding her, and the book a little. “Gene wasn’t Jane Fishman’s nephew. They weren’t even related, but Ms. Reeves wouldn’t listen.” Then he’d smile.
I suppose it’d be easy to forget that the people in Waddie Welcome and the Beloved Community were actually people. It’d be easy to refer to them as “characters” that follow some sort of well-written plot devised by Tom Kohler and Ms. Susan Earl. But, it is in this remembering, that things were hard, messy, difficult, frustrating, without direction, that the story becomes less of a story and becomes something greater– “real” as Nikki said. It is in the retelling (and retelling and retelling) that we discover the realness of people, the reality of hospitality, and the power of Tom’s question again, “what can people come to mean to one another?” It is in the “blending and blurring of boundaries” as Tom calls it, that we begin to glimpse the profoundly simple and powerful meaning of the beloved community.
The photos in this entry are part of a greater “story”, as Mr. Lester Johnson reminded us at his office, “the road we travel sometimes is not the one we initiate.”
In two days, Nikki, Leah, and I got a glimpse of the road Lester Johnson spoke of. We met with Susan Earl, and what Nikki interpreted as her “trying not to cry” I saw as deeply guarded respect to the story Nikki was asking her to tell. “What’s the story behind the story?” Nikki asked. (Her questions both Tom and Susan remarked afterward were hard and complicated.) There was no tearing up as she thought and as she responded to each of Nikki’s questions. She stopped speaking at times to reconsider perhaps, what words were best to be said, and what might have been better left unsaid. It’s what we all do when we speak of someone, or rather what we ought to do when we’re speaking about someone not in their presence. She told us of how circle members would leave meetings frustrated, their feelings hurt, and often didn’t know what that “next step” was supposed to be. It’s this piece of the story that I take most to heart, and appreciate. In our own story in Cincinnati, we’ve tried to be honest in the telling, but we could get better, and that’s why this space and format is so important. Things often are not as we planned, or not as well-planned, or are as we planned, but not as others carry out. Ms. Earl’s pauses were a reflection of those stories we’d rather not tell (the feelings getting hurt, the frustration over what can be done next, perhaps the thinking back on time we’d just as soon forgotten). It’s those stories that need the most telling. There is humanness in respecting it, getting it out there, and honoring it.
We met with a man named Mr. Tom Lamar at his apartment in Savannah, and he again demonstrated the power of hospitality, allowing us to enter into his home, actually, his bedroom, and question, listen. Mr. Lamar was a member of the Storytellers group, and a friend of Mr. Welcome’s. He described their meetings, and his own life, graduating school as a pharmacist and being discriminated again in finding employment. His story pieced together briefly over our one hour visit. His apartment pieced together other parts, too. The walls of his bedroom were papered with various phone numbers, addresses, calendar appointments. Some were, he explained, people who help him out with things that need done. Others were friends, and family (Tom’s living room was a testament to family — not an inch of the entertainment center and bookshelves had space due to the photos of children, formal wedding photos, candid shots of his relatives, one of people gathered around him, smiling.) Tom Kohler described Mr. Lamar’s bedroom as a great piece of “jazz music” and it garnered a large smile from Mr. Lamar. Above his bed was a large print of the “Our Father.” As Mr. Lamar lay in bed, above his right shoulder I could read “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
On the way in to Mr. Lamar’s apartment, Tom paused in front of another neighbors door which was decorated with roses, crucifixes and religious cards and mementos. He pointed out this door, an obvious home and sacred space to someone, and then pointed down the hall with its self-same doors, monotone lighting, and conservative (read: lack of) decor. An obvious metaphor between fulfillment, and emptiness.
Tom drove us to Mr. Welcome’s grave site, where Nikki and he stood with book in hand. She opened to the page of his internment and could see the trees those in attendance stood under. Tom explained that there were actually two graveside services. One, the actual burial, and about a year later when enough money had been gathered to purchase Mr. Welcome his headstone.
Our last visit was with Ms. Mary Welcome Williams, and her two sons, Antonio and Mario. We learned of her family’s life in the Cuyler-Brownsville neighborhood of Savannah. Nikki asked about how she and her family felt about the celebrity surrounding her uncle’s story. Mary replied, “I have a famous uncle!” and smiled. She followed up with laughter and remarked how wonderful it is that people still care about him, still think about him, and that his voice and life were part of something greater than himself. “Waddie’s living was not in vain. He did a lot of living before he died,” said Mary. “He made a difference.”
I wrote quickly in the coffee shop what it would mean to have everyone’s story told as respectfully and as intentionally as Mr. Welcome’s. What could it mean for others to see each other’s lives as important chapters in a greater story?
The “beloved community” is not utopia, in that it has to be a part of our world, and where we live now, and the way we live now. I think, when we’re all as worn, and frayed, and barely stitched together as Ms. Reeves’ phone book, what will matter is the community we’ve created and the others we’ve invited to join us.