The Zone; One More Time Around

A2J Garden, 3 Blocks from The Zone.
A2J Garden, 3 Blocks from The Zone.

We’ve been rolling around this country for a few years now and Phoenix is one of our original stops. It’s a place that holds so much in terms of learning about faith and humility. Which I guess makes sense, seeing as it is the desert.

The first time we showed up Phoenix we had about $50 in our pocket, which we have found isn’t that unusual. But, two years ago when we were really just getting a taste of the nomadic life it was extremely worrisome. We still drift into the anxiety that comes when we are down to the last cent but we have always made it to the next stop and remembering that gives us faith.

That shift in perspective came the first time we visited the Zone. I’ve written about the Zone before but for those who are new to our travels, it’s a place similar to Skid Row. It is a place where physical, mental and spiritual afflictions really stand out because there are no pretenses to hide behind. It is where the rawness of humanity is found and where we are confronted with the core of our being. It is in this type of environment that texts like the ones found in Matthew or Luke make so much sense to us.

“You’re blessed when you’ve lost it all. God’s kingdom is there for the finding.
You’re blessed when you’re ravenously hungry. Then you’re ready for the Messianic meal. You’re blessed when the tears flow freely. Joy comes with the morning.”

And so, here we were a few visits later, down in the Zone with Dave, Amber and a few other from the A2J community. This time around there was a warm breeze and folks were in relatively good spirits. In fact, if you didn’t know the harsh reality of where we were you might think we were at an outdoor music festival. We gathered in a circle and played all sorts of old timey tunes, hymns and later a fella named Nick showed up and lead us all in a few Motown songs. I met a homeless woman named “Little Mar” who was about my age. She was clearly mentally ill, professing to be the Princess of Persia, as well as, one of the best crime stoppers on Americas Most Wanted. She had a strength about her, and although she was skittish, she had a generous in spirit.

"Little Mar" is sitting in the blue tank and hat, to my right.
“Little Mar” is sitting in the blue tank to my right.

As we sang “Tis So Sweet,” I began to watch her more closely. I tried to imagine what her childhood was like, did she have children, how did she get here, what did she do if she had to use the bathroom, what about when she was thirsty? I didn’t find any answers but I was in awe of her resilience and stamina to face the elements and oppression of a world that was whizzing around her at a frantic pace.

IMG_7397The added bonus was having so many other kinfolk there with us, sharing in song, listening, being present and bringing peace to a people who are constantly living in survival mode. The healing nature of the arts and music provided the space for creativity, unity and understanding.

We believe it is important to care for the widow, orphan and poor, but have learned that doesn’t always mean meeting physical needs. Sometimes, we need to go deeper and offer something of our selves. When we go to the Zone it isn’t because we feel superior or desire a pat on the back for serving the homeless. We go to the Zone to find ourselves, to look in the mirror and see that we are all made of the same mud. We go to the Zone to bring and receive healing.

And so, when that spirit of anxiety or striving tries to steal our joy we remember. We remember that day we sat and sang and shared in community with the Princess of Persia and her court.

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Phoenix Arts and Community

20130203-172550.jpgPhoenix hasn’t also been know for the arts but over the past few years the downtown district has done so much to encourage the arts. There is still work to be done, specially in The Zone, which we discovered last time around. However, we meet a community that sites just a few blocks from the desolate streets and offers a constant peaceful and creative presence. We meet Ryan Thurman through our gracious host family, The Skeens and visited his A2J community one afternoon. We were inspired by the communities commitment to their community and to each other. We heard stories of struggles and redemption in the neighborhood. One story included a woman who had been homeless for a time and found her way off of the streets into the A2J community and know offers her gift of hospitality behind the prayer house. We heard about the longing for more families to move into the neighborhood, for a deeper connection with the greater body. We immediately thought of our friends in Oakland at New Hope and our friends, in Omaha at InCommon and began to tell their story. There is something encouraging knowing that there is a global/local community out there. We’ll be thinking about them as we make our way, and encouraging folks to consider hanging with these kinfolk for a while.

We were also able to connect with a number of aspiring and professional visual artists at the Artistree Arts Conference which we offered our Songwriting Workshop, our Swimming Upstream Workshop and a performance. Our kids were able to take advantage of the sketching, journaling and graphic arts workshops offered by other practitioners.  Joel Pritchard spearheaded the event. We met Joel through Steve, with Hope thru Art and are excited to announce that Joel will be doing all of the art and design on our upcoming album. We’ll keep you posted on his work.

While at Artistree we meet John and Elli Milan, world renowned oil painters. And are especially unique in that the Milans create their paintings together. Although John and Elli are both accomplished artists on their own, their collaborations bring out a side of their work that neither could reach by themselves.  The couple says that the Spirit of God inspires their work and allows them to create together and maintain a unified vision.  The end result is aggressive and spontaneous layers of paint which create a bright and playful scenario that is interwoven with hints of narrative.  We were invited out to the Milan farm and studio in Queen Creek, AZ for lunch and had an encouraging visit, learning about their faith journey finding their purpose in creating together. We even saw the beginnings of a painting that was inspired by our album, Ashes to Beauty. We meet two of their four children, who are quite the artists in their own rite. We enjoyed the horses, chickens, dogs and cats. It was energizing to meet a family committed to one another and to creating together.