The Pedagogy of Place: The Art of Coping

By Tommy Airey, the first post of a 3-part series about how we learn from our location about what is truly Divine
Every town has the same two malls: the one white people go to and the one white people used to go to.
Chris Rock

About a month ago, I drove just across 8 mile (the border between Detroit and Southfield) to visit the mall that white people used to go to. I went for one reason: it was closing that week and everything was 60-80% off. I was the only white dude in there. It felt good because it was like I was breaking Chris Rock’s rules.

On my way home, I visited my friend Dan who just got out of the hospital for attempting to drink his way through 2015. How do you cope with decades of pent-up pain, fear, anxiety and anger? Dan is 50, a native Detroiter who grew up resiliently maneuvering the foster care system and, more recently, survived a year-long bout of homelessness. He walks with a limp, has very few teeth and wears the same green sweatshirt and Dickies pants every day.

He’s moved three times in four months. The first time, he was evicted from the place he was renting a half mile from our church because the owner wasn’t paying taxes. Then, he and his wife moved into the basement of his son’s house and the city shut-off their water. Shortly after they moved into a two-story pad on the westside, his wife was robbed at gunpoint just before Christmas.

The place they live in now is in one of these vintage Detroit neighborhoods that appears to have been hit by a hurricane. Across the street, where three homes used to stand, there’s nothing but brush and an old couch. Every other house that remains standing is boarded up, ready for demolition. The street pavement looks like it was the site of a grenade tossing contest.
Scenes like this make an episode in Mark’s Gospel shimmer. When the woman anoints Jesus with really expensive perfume and the disciples go ape shit: she could have sold it and given the proceeds to poor folks, eh! But Jesus tells everyone to settle down and remember: you’ll always have the poor among you.

I’ve heard a lot of Christians quote Jesus to dismiss policies and provisions that attempt to systematically help poor folks, like Dan. But our mentor, Ched Myers, in his Binding The Strong Man (1988), proposes that Jesus wasn’t dismissing his disciples’ meager attempts to eliminate poverty, but demanding that they live in close proximity to poor and marginalized people. Where you live determines what you learn. The poor have plenty to teach us.
When I got over to Dan’s house, Mark was walking out the front door on his way to McDonald’s. Mark looks to be about 60, his neck is all jacked up, tilting his head down at a 90 degree angle. He’s mentally off, but seems to love people, probably because it gives him someone to talk to. Especially about basketball. He sleeps on the couch in the living room and often leaves at 4am “to head downtown,” leaving the door unlocked behind him. Dan is happy that Mark is leaving when the first of the month rolls around—it’ll create more space for the grandkids when they come over.

When I walked into Dan’s room, he was sitting on a sheet-less mattress that was sitting on top of two bedsprings that didn’t match. He looks pretty good for a guy with a liver that has been soaking in cheap corporate beer since he was 15. I eventually asked if there was anything I could get for him. His wife asked if I would pick them up a pack of hot dogs, buns and some Pepsi and 7-Up (she likes mixing them). I drove to Dollar General two blocks away, just across the street from Mark at McDonalds.

I didn’t tell Dan’s wife that I went to Dollar General. For some reason, she hates it. When Dan was in the hospital two weeks ago, she pleaded with me to take her to Family Dollar, about three miles from their home. I impulsively bought a couple boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and when I was bee lining it for the register, Dan’s wife came up behind me bear hugging at least 10 packages of Easter candy.

Me: “Oh, the grandkids are going be so happy.”
Her: “No, no. This is for me.”

When the pain, fear, anxiety and anger overwhelm us, we gotta cope somehow. Don’t we?

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