Take Back This Neighborhood – Part 1

The Fayetteville Observer Sunday, February 11, 2007 Page 1A

Take back this neighborhood

One grew up on the streets of Fayetteville and ended up in prison. The other raised a family in New Jersey, then headed south to retire. Together, they’re an unlikely team offering hope to people dragged down by poverty, crime and drugs.

A two-part report.

By April Johnston

Staff writer

It’s after 10 on a Wednesday night, and the street lamps are out on Frink Street again. Most of the houses are dark, too. Some by choice, some not. The only light comes from the glowing butt of a joint.

So when the smoker steps into the street to ask the strangers walking by for a light, it’s not because he needs one. It’s because he wants to know who they are and what they’re doing in his neighborhood.

“I’m Pastor Garner and this is Reverend Brayboy,” the first stranger says.

There is a pregnant pause. The smoker is inspecting them. He tugs at one leg of his sweat pants, pulling the bottom up over his thick calf.

“I’m Junior,” he says.

Even in the darkness, Junior appears suspicious of the strangers. He doesn’t go to church much. And he’s never seen preachers walking around this part of town in the dark before.

“You cops?” he asks.

The pastor doubles over and gives Junior a knee-slapping laugh. He’s no cop. He used to run from them, though, back when he worked this neighborhood.

He works at Open Arms Community Church now. It’s the stone building on the corner of Moore Street, by the railroad tracks.

Jessie Garner and the Rev. Hezekiah Brayboy are out tonight to introduce themselves and to invite their neighbors to Sunday service.

“We’re here to help you,” Garner tells Junior. “You know that? I expect to see you Sunday morning.”

Junior shrugs, either because he might give church a try or because he wants to get rid of them.

“Ain’t nothing wrong with hearing a good word,” he says, taking another drag of his joint.

“That’s right,” Garner says. “That’s right.”

The three men shake hands then, and the ministers walk away. But before they can make it to the next block, where working street lamps splay their light into the night fog, Junior calls out.

“Reverend Brayboy, what’s my name?”

Brayboy stops. He turns. Junior is still standing in the middle of Frink Street, legs spread wide, one pant leg hiked up.

“What’s my name?” Junior asks again. He’s upset now, challenging the bespectacled minister. “You forgot that fast, didn’t you?”

Brayboy smiles and takes a few steps in his challenger’s direction, his shiny dress shoes clicking on the asphalt.

“It’s Junior,” Brayboy tells him.

In this neighborhood, you don’t forget.

***

Just beyond downtown, there is a spot where Ramsey and Rowan streets meet and cross Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway to form a triangle. In the center of that triangle is this neighborhood, Pastor Garner’s neighborhood.

When he walked it more than two decades ago, it was sketchy but civilized.

The modest houses with aluminum siding were occupied by families struggling to stay just this side of poverty.

Drug deals were done under the cover of darkness, with winks and sleight of hand.

And if a dealer saw a buddy’s sister out when and where she shouldn’t be, he would chastise her and take her home.

Today, abandoned houses sit on every block. Orange spray paint warns “No Trespassing” at most of them. At night, when it’s cold, the homeless squeeze between the boards that cover the doors and windows, searching for a place to sleep.

Drug deals are done in the middle of the street in the middle of the day.

And if a dealer sees a buddy’s sister out when and where she shouldn’t be, he doesn’t take her home. He makes her one of his clients.

“They’re bold now, man,” Garner says. “They don’t have no respect for nothing.”

Police reports in the neighborhood from 2006 show arrests for drug violations, prostitution, theft, assault and vandalism; the kind of crimes that make people wary of wandering out at night.

Garner and the Rev. Brayboy wander anyway. While others have ignored this needy neighborhood and its overwhelming obstacles, Garner and Brayboy have united in an improbable attempt to save it.

They shake hands with the drug dealers and users, sit on their porches and tell them there’s another way.

They seek out the homeless and tell them God will ease their hunger. They feed them four days a week in the church kitchen.

They are an unlikely pair: Garner, the ex-convict turned pastor who grew up on the streets of Fayetteville, and Brayboy, the former pastor who raised five children in middle-class Jersey City, N.J.

But they share a conviction: that, somehow, they will find redemption for this forgotten neighborhood and everyone in it.

***

Gerald Scaife tugs on the straps of his backpack and hangs his head.

Garner tenses his muscles like a boxer about to take a punch.

They are stuck in a stand-off of sorts.

Scaife is deciding whether or not to tell Garner his troubles. Garner is waiting for Scaife to trust him.

And he knows it might not happen. Not tonight. Maybe not ever.

But when Garner sees a young man walking along Orange Street in the dark, he has to try.

“How you doing tonight?” Garner sings as he walks by, Brayboy following silently in his wake.

Scaife stops, exchanges pleasantries with the strangers and appears ready to move on when Garner asks if anything is troubling him.

The standoff ensues.

Until, finally, Scaife relents.

“The street swallowed me up,” he says, head still hanging, eyes staring at the pavement.

“Why’d you let it do that?” Garner asks.

Scaife guffaws and finally meets Garner’s gaze.

“Because I was young and dumb.”

Garner smiles. He knows a little about being young and dumb.

He remembers what it felt like to stand on the corner of Moore Street on a winter evening in 1979, his long black coat nearly sweeping the asphalt, his hat tipped to one side and his pockets full of drugs and money.

“I thought I was it,” Garner says.

But by February 1980, being it was over. Garner was just 27 years old, and he was about to begin what he calls his tour of North Carolina and Georgia.

For 18 years, he jumped from state to state, prison to prison, serving out a life term for armed robbery.

At first he fought, exhausting every legal path that could lead him out of prison and a few illegal ones, too. By 1992, he had a year tacked onto his sentence for an escape attempt and no options left.

So he said to himself: “I’ve tried everything else; I’m going to try God.”

The warden at Augusta State Medical Prison, the last stop on his tour, recognized something changed in Garner. There was a stillness where restlessness had lived before. So when dying prisoners needed someone to talk to, the warden sent Garner to their bedside.

When the parole board reviewed Garner’s records in 1999, the now model inmate got what he had been looking for since the day he was locked up: freedom.

Six years later, Garner’s church sits where he stood more than two decades ago with his pockets full of drugs and money.

So when he tells a desperate Scaife to, “Keep the faith, man,” he doesn’t utter it as an empty cliche. He means it.

Once Garner and Brayboy are a block from where they met Scaife and well out of earshot, they talk about what they can do for him.

“He got caught up in something, and his life stopped,” Brayboy says. “He hasn’t grown up since. There might be a lot of truth to his story. He puts an application in; no one wants to hire him. He’s at the crossroads right now. He’s either going to do something really positive or something really negative.”

Garner shakes his head.

“Everyone down here is at the crossroads or beyond,” he says. “This is it.”

And he and Brayboy need to — have to — find a way to catch the people in this neighborhood before their last chance slips away.

It consumes them.

“I can’t sleep,” Garner says. “I sit down to a good meal, and I can’t eat. It balls up in my mouth thinking about these people.”

***

A November rain is falling on Fayetteville and meteorologists have issued a tornado watch, so the Open Arms kitchen, where volunteers serve a free hot lunch, is unusually empty.

Kimberly Bates is there, though, in the corner, like she is nearly every day. An oversized gray sweat shirt hangs on her shoulders. Her blond hair is tied up on top of her head. And a plate of hot food sits on the table before her.

Bates is what Open Arms volunteer Evelyn Velez calls the “next homeless.” She has just enough money to pay her rent and not enough money to buy groceries.

For three months, not so long ago, Bates didn’t have the money for either. She spent her days in parks and her nights sleeping on the porch of the City Rescue Mission, waiting for a bed to open.

She had to send her 12-year-old daughter to live with her aunt in Hope Mills and wash her clothes in a creek.

In those three months, she learned more about life than she had in 35 years.

And Brayboy, who is sitting next to her with his arms crossed over his chest, wants to hear all about it.

“Everybody’s got a story,” Brayboy says. “I sit there and listen to them all.”

He’s heard about the 18-year-old girl who sleeps in a truck because her parents kicked her out of their house and the woman who lost her child because she was trading sex for money and drugs.

But Brayboy is especially interested in Bates because she speaks the way he does: frankly and with the aid of numbers and facts.

“I lived with my mom for a while,” Bates tells Brayboy between bites of her tuna melt. “She got $600 a month, spent $500 of it on rent and the rest on electricity.”

Brayboy chortles.

“I’m no Einstein, but those figures just don’t work,” he says. “I don’t know if the system is outdated or if it was structured wrong to begin with, but I know it isn’t working.”

Brayboy is a bit of an oddity in this neighborhood.

The former pastor and Chrysler Corp. employee, who preached to people in suits and played golf on weekends, came to Fayetteville only a few years ago when he and his wife were looking for a cheap, warm place to retire.

His wire-rimmed glasses, shiny, shaved head and smart clothes make him look something like a college professor.

He speaks with a soft voice that sometimes gets lost in the chaos of the Open Arms kitchen and keeps his head full of figures that the average person wouldn’t know but that he can recite on command: There are 936 churches in Cumberland County and only 15 have programs to help the homeless.

Despite his ostensible differences, the homeless and hungry who come for lunch warm quickly to Brayboy, who is there for four hours nearly every day.

Maybe it’s because they sense he’s done this sort of work before. In Jersey City, Brayboy joined with pastors from other churches and the local police force to help the needy at the street level.

Maybe it’s because they see the compassion in his eyes and hear the unwavering optimism in his voice.

“He’s my buddy,” lunch regular Terrance Smith says. “I come in here and talk to him. He doesn’t say anything negative; it’s all positive.”

Or perhaps it’s just because he listens, no matter who the person or how long the tale.

“Every day you think you’ve heard it all, and tomorrow you get a whole new set of stories,” he says.

***

It’s quiet in the Open Arms neighborhood tonight.

One of their own has been killed — shot to death in another neighborhood — and no one feels much like being out tonight.

Besides, police cars are sitting stationary in the streets, their lights dimmed, simultaneously waiting for trouble and warning the residents against making any.

Garner and Brayboy have heard whispers that the victim is Junior, the young man they met on Frink Street all those weeks ago, and that his mother wants to speak to them.

But they don’t go looking for her or asking questions. That, they know, would chase her away.

“There’s a certain language you use down here and know not to use,” Garner says.

So he waits for Junior’s mother.

And that night, as he and Brayboy are walking Frink Street in nearly the same spot where they first met her son, she finally calls out to him.

“Pastor!”

In an instant, Garner is holding her shaking frame in his arms, whispering things only she can hear.

This is Garner’s way. He moves among the neighborhood residents as if he’s one of them, because he once was.

Brayboy hangs back. No one asked for him, and he knows it’s better to show respect than to show pity.

After a few long minutes, Garner rejoins Brayboy in the street and they silently walk away.

The whispers have been confirmed — Junior is dead — and neither man has words to describe his frustration. They tried reaching out to Junior. But they couldn’t save him.

It reminds them just how overwhelming the task is that they undertook nearly two years ago.

It’s not until they arrive back at Open Arms that the silence is broken by a tearful woman on a teetering bicycle.

She parks herself in front of Garner and tells him this story:

The man she’s been staying with told her she better give him $30 or start looking for another place to live.

“Pastor, can I get $2?” she asks, sobbing so hard her voice gets caught in her throat. “I already gave him $28. Please, Pastor, just $2 or he’ll kick me out.”

Garner looks at her, his eyes somehow drilling past her tears and her twisted expression.

He tells her no.

“You know I don’t give anybody any money,” he says, his voice soft and stern, like he’s a teacher talking to a schoolgirl.

She hangs her head over the handlebars of her bicycle and wails, but Garner ignores her tantrum.

He decided long ago this would be his policy; one wailing woman will not sway him. He’s been on the other side. He knows all the stories. He’s used most of them, too.

When he was desperate for drug money, he told people he needed to buy a bus ticket home to see his mama.

She lived in Fayetteville.

“I’ll go over there with you and straighten it out,” Garner offers.

But her eyes narrow into slits.

“Forget it,” she spits, suddenly composed, and rides away, over the railroad tracks and into the darkness.

Brayboy shakes his head.

“You’re fighting a battle for them, and they don’t care about the battle,” he says.

Garner nods, his eyes still locked on the spot where the woman’s figure disappeared.

“They just want results,” he says.

And, suddenly, the two men with the unshakeable resolve to save this neighborhood look shaken.