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‚Äôre blessed when you‚Äôve lost it all.¬†God‚Äôs kingdom is there for the finding.
You‚Äôre blessed when you‚Äôre ravenously hungry.¬†Then you‚Äôre ready for the Messianic meal.¬†You‚Äôre 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 uniÔ¨Āed 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.

“The Zone” Phoenix, AZ

The Zone is an area in Phoenix, where all of those down trodden and tired are corralled by the local government into a three block radios. I believe the idea of keeping them in this area is so¬†they can be monitored and kept under raps. It’s a dark and lawless place filled with double murders, prostitutes, child trafficking, drug lords, mentally ill, refuges and rovers. It’s a few blocks down from the government buildings and the business district of Phoenix. So, the contact with the outside world is mostly from the law and business men/women coming down to get there fix, whether drugs or sex.

Our friend, Steve and his team, are a breath of fresh air and visits these folks regularly. They call their efforts Hope Thru Art. Their purpose is to bring a spirit of healing and peace into that hard environment through the arts. On a practical level, they hang raw and unassuming “disposable art;” installations that can be disassembled by those who choose to take. For instance, Steve might hang the letters HOPE on a fence and then using clothes pins he’d frost the piece with layers of colorful photographs of nature scenes and poems. The impact these installations have on this artistically poverty-stricken population is profound.

We spent a few hours on Saturday afternoon with Steve and Dave down in the Zone. I brought my mandolin, Grace sang, Craig and Banjo brought a drum and our friend Cindy came along and played her instruments. Our first stop was the four corners, this was where folks claimed their status. There was the prostitute corner, the drug dealer corner (which happened to be the only one under shade) and the corners where folks were just trying to get by. ¬†A middle-aged man approached us asking, “what’s you gonna play?” ¬†The first song that came out of my mouth was “I got a home in glory land.” He beamed and began to sing along. More folks gathered around and after about 15 minutes in the sun we decided to cross over to the shaded side of the corners. There we meet Lorenzo, who had kind eyes and a warm spirit. He was so excited that we were there and began to bless us with encouraging words. He ended up staying close by our sides the whole afternoon, singing along to all the old hymns and folk tunes, hand to his ear to hear the harmonies.

After about 20 more minutes on the corner we were ready to walk into the heart of the zone. The rectangle yard was large with a few buildings and a fence around it. Folks were sprawled out on the ground, benches and picnic tables, all trying to find shade and comfort. There was a level of tension in the air and folks who seemed apathetic could be arouse immediately if they felt threatened. We sat down in one corner of the yard welcomed by an old Mexican fella. He asked if we spoke Spanish and Steve answered. A huge smile came over the fella’s face as he realized he was about to receive his own personal concert. I wished at that moment I knew even just one folk tune in Spanish and vowed to learn one. More folks gathered around. A few young fella’s, who looked as if they were once soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan, a woman who wore a badge and acted as if she were the nurses aid in the village but was not, a few older fella’s with anger in their eyes and a number of young girls walked by with vacant looks in their eyes totally unimpressed by of our presence. A man named David came by and asked for prayer for protection and safety. A 30 something¬†black woman ¬†(I’ll call her Stella as she would not give me her name) sat quietly nearby. She had a sneaky grin and at one point she blurted out, “Ya’ll know Amazing Grace?” “Yes,” I answered. “Then play it,” she demanded. I said, “only if you sing along.” She smiled and, we played it happily.

We continued to play gentle tunes of hope and rest. At one point an old Chevy pulled up and a fella jumped out and opened the passenger door. He began to hand out brown bags. Folks flocked over and took a lunch. One man yelled out, “there burgers” which brought a larger crowd. Upon further inspection they were peanut butter and jelly and the crowd pulled back. Someone gave Stella a bag and she looked apathetically at it. She was sitting behind the angry fella’s and began to break off pieces of her sandwich and toss them in their direction. The pieces would bounce off of there heads and she would giggle. The fuse blew and they were up at her. Within seconds, a few other men jumped up to stop the angry men. They walked off in a huff, all the while we were singing “Swing Low.” She continued to throw the sandwich, aiming further at another happier fella. He just laughed it off. I tried to engage with her by moving over onto the bench next to her. She ignored me. I touched her shoulder and asked her to sing along. She answered, “What’s their problem, I’m throwing it at the birds.” I looked over and sure enough about fifty feet past the men was a few pigeons. I laughed, she cracked a little cheeky smile. We both knew that she was really aiming at those men and using the birds as an excuse.

That night, I dreamt about Stella. Only in the dream she was a very wealthy woman, still the same disposition, but wealth beyond measure. Everyone knew she was wealthy and would put up with her ill spirit because they all wanted something from her. It was said that she paid her cleaning lady, $15,000 a week to clean her house. I heard whispers in my ear about ways to get her to hire me and if I could just clean for one week, all of my needs would be met. I approached the lady with this mindset and when she open the door the scene morphed into Stella sitting on the bench in the Zone. She sat vacant with a sneer on her face. The woundedness the same in the rich woman as in the woman in the zone. I woke up.

At the end of the day, we are all made of the same mud. At the end of the day whether we have wealth or not, the condition of our souls is what matters.  Regardless of circumstance and status,  we are all apart of  the precious precious tapestry of humankind.

KINEO HOUSE:

We meet Steve at Cornerstone Music Festival. Steve also connected us with the Kineo House, and they were our hosts for the weekend. They are a beautiful picture of folks committed to sharing in community and caring for those around them. They were compassionate and possessed a desire to bless and serve each other and their surrounding area. We were encouraged by their openness to us and their genuine offer to pray for us as we continue our journey.¬†We can’t wait to come back and spend more time sharing in community with Steve and our hosts at the Kineo House.

CONNECTING OF THE SAINTS:

Our original contact for Phoenix was a little folk venue called Fiddlers Dream. It’s an all acoustic venue hosted by a handful of sweet and dedicated¬†folkies.¬†¬†We were delighted to share in song with them all. Specially our host, Bill, who expressed a great desire to sing with other musicians on a stage someday. So, we invited him up to sing a little Johnny Cash with us.

Through that booking a kindred and gentle soul named Cindy and her hubby, Alan, contacted us and offered us hospitality, friendship and the added bonus of Cindy’s gift with the tin whistle and bodhran. Besides sharing a lovely meal together, Cindy joined us the whole weekend and by the end of our time together a deep spiritual friendship rooted. Alan and Cindy are our family now and we look joyward to meeting down the line.

Our last stop in Phoenix was in Chandler, AZ at a church called The Grove. It’s one of those big mega churches where everything is beautiful and runs like clockwork. It was a bit of a culture shock after our day down in the Zone but The Hommel’s, our hosts and friend of my parents, were welcoming and cared for us with a meal and opportunity to relax. It took me a moment but after processing the dream I had, I realized that my prejudice towards those with wealth, fame or status was burdensome. That morning my heart was heavy as I began to take steps towards rebuking and confessing my false belief system. We can not be all things to all people if we see them with disdain or if there is any hinderance because of jealousy, insecurities or twisted thinking. It’s easy to care for and love the obvious but much harder when the souls around us tap into our own desire for power and security.

That evening we enjoyed a concert on the lawn with a handful of engaging and encouraging folks and once again we were blown away by the provision offered and allowing us to keep on our way. We came to AZ with our last dollar and we leave with just enough to get to CO, by a few groceries and pay for the $200 hoses to fix the oil leak in the engine. A powerful weekend emotionally, spiritually and physically. Just one more reminder that we are not in this alone but apart of a bigger picture. We continue on filled with gratefulness, joy and ready for more hard lessons to be put to the test.