I actually published a book!

Finally I have compiled a number of “Other People’s Children” into a book that will move you and inspire you. I wrote and edited more chapters to meet the deadline as well. Nothing like impending open heart surgery and a good 40% off coupon to get things onto the front burner, eh?

Seriously:

This little book is an invitation to YOU to step into a new comfort zone with your sisters and brothers in this world. We are all frightened children trying to find the silk edge of the blanket at times. Let us be kind.

The plan is, that this is just the first of several little volumes. This book contains 16 original paintings by me, plus one ‘artistic photograph’, so it is a large undertaking. The book is 8″x10″ in full color so you can appreciate the art along with the stories.

Buy a hard copy. You will want to hold this in your hands. Then you will want to give more copies as gifts.

Ya Gotta Have Art!

art
“Art is the symbol of the two noblest human efforts: to construct and to refrain from destruction.” – Evelyn Waugh

My art has become an obsession. I now have four paths for my art, and it consumes most of my waking hours. This is probably an improvement over thinking about the current election cycle, no?

The first path is decorative; the faux finish subway tiles, including the cartoon characters, etc. The second path is painting portraits to illustrate my book: “Other People’s Children”. These are portraits of people whom I have known who society has labeled throwaways: the homeless, prisoners, etc. The third path is a challenge from my psychologist to explore the abstract. This is a tall order, as I believe in order to do abstract well, one must have a firm grasp on realism. You see my problem.

heidnikThe fourth is meta in that it goes beyond all of these to challenge my own stated belief in the universal pro-life position. I need to paint a portrait of serial killer Gary Heidnik that is done with love and respect, recognizing that he was born with all of the same potential and hope that I was. I was once in his presence and could feel evil emanating from him before I turned to see who it was. Yet, immediately I was struck by the fact he was still alive. There was still hope for change, still potential for good. He was still a fellow human being. We should never go down the rabbit hole to attempt to understand why he did what he did, yet there are those two words of Jesus of Nazaeth that keep calling me up short: “Condemn Not!”

Pops

I never learned Pops’ name. Everyone just called him Pops. He was happier than any man had a right to be who was living homeless in the parks or under the bridges. I wondered if he was simple minded, truly spiritually disciplined, or  was just born happy. Scientists tell us that people’s happiness centers in their brains develop differently in the womb. At any rate, he took the lessons his mama taught him seriously! If he couldn’t say something nice, he wouldn’t say anything at all. He wasn’t homeless for being lazy. He was always busy. He had a big shopping cart. He used it to collect recyclables to turn in for cash.

He would go around to the renovation and demolition sites and ask for any of the metal they would part with. Many times the union men would have him go in and do some of the particularly dirty work, up in the vents, etc., in exchange for the metal and all the wire. They usually didn’t get much, if anything for the wire, unless it was stripped. Pops would recycle all the aluminum, steel, copper and tin. He would keep the wire. He also snagged cords from the blinds on these jobs. Pops would then painstakingly strip the used copper electrical wire. He would then wind it into crosses. He used the salvaged cord from the blinds to tie necklaces for them. He always wore one and had several more on his person. He was in the habit of giving these cross necklaces away. He would say, “Just trust Jesus” or “Jesus loves you” and offer you a cross. If you told him he had already given him one, no matter, please accept another.

Over the years, Pops offered me four crosses. I passed three of them onto others. Pops eventually did succumb to the dementia that comes with Alzheimer’s. He spent his last year or so living on the street in a large crate with a loving community of four other men living in adjacent shipping crates under a parking ramp bridge. These men looked after him with sensitivity and love rarely seen in nursing homes with all the amenities. They knew just how to deal with him when he was present and when he ‘went off’. It was tragic, yet also beautiful, to witness. Pops was reaping loving care in the roughest of circumstances from the most unlikely caregivers after sowing a lifetime of simple love and cheer.

I have to say, though, to witness this in the USA in 2002, and to have no way to intervene to get him to a properly heated space with proper treatment, because we as a people lack the compassion to muster the political will to provide universal, easy to access healthcare as a basic human right, was heartbreaking.

Cross Pops made for me.
Cross Pops made for me.

When I was chrismated in 1999 in the Orthodox Church, my godfather, Alex Smerkanich, gave me a very nice, shiny, real gold cross, on a gold chain. I lost it, one dark winter night, while serving the homeless at 18th and Vine. So I had Pops cross blessed on the holy table at St. Philip’s and I started wearing that instead; in memory of Pops and for all my homeless brothers and sisters. When I started to tear out the wiring to rewire our house, I saved the old wire. I strip it and I make crosses like Pops did and give them away, for people to remember Pops and his simplicity; to remember all my homeless brothers and sisters; to work to end homelessness; to work for universal healthcare. It’s pro-life!

I painted Pops from memory. I made him younger than I ever saw him to reflect his childlike faith and unsinkable optimism. Yet I included his white hair and long white beard to reflect what a gift of wisdom this was. I made a small cross out of salvaged doorbell wire and fastened it to the canvas on the necklace.

Oscar

My fourth portrait is another one from memory. This time, I am reaching even further back into the dusty recesses of my brain; over 20 years back, to paint my friend, Oscar. My painting is now officially therapy. My doctor prescribed it after she noticed that my blood pressure went down 20 points in 4 minutes just talking about it.

I shared Oscar’s story more than 20 years ago in a TKJ newsletter shortly after he had died. Oscar was in his early 50s. It was 1992. I was 37. We were serving on the sidewalk on the City Hall side of JFK Plaza at that time, more commonly called the Love Park because of the world famous LOVE art in front of the fountain there. We would see Oscar on occasion. Every time he came, he made it a point to seek me out afterward to say how thankful he was for what we did. He would say how special that I am for doing this. I always deflected by saying something like, “I’m just doing what Jesus compels me to do. I wouldn’t be happy if I didn’t do it. It is Jesus who loves you.” He would reply, “I don’t believe in any of that god stuff. I just know that you are really special and I am truly grateful. Thank you!”

Oscar
Oscar

At times, we would talk about history or philosophy or the arts. He was well educated. He had had a good paying job at one point. I don’t know if I ever learned how he ended up on the street. He had used cocaine and had suffered a couple of heart attacks as a result. He is among the most civilized people I have ever known, with a twinkle in the eye and a Bohemian side.

Hurricane Andrew hit Homestead, FL, in August of 1992. Church groups were sending clothing and supplies down to the more than 100,000 families whose homes had been destroyed. Word got out that people were having a hard time surviving because it was it slow process to get any cash to buy necessities. So people started tucking cash into the pockets of clothing to short circuit that process, and get money into people’s hands quickly. Several bags of men’s clothing did not fit onto a truck bound for Homestead, so they got re-directed to The King’s Jubilee. They told me about the potential money in the pockets. Between working full-time, leading a Bible study at Graterford prison that afternoon while Bethann made the soup, coordinating with the Pottstown and SC serving sites, somehow searching pockets got missed.

When we gave away the clothing that night, it was a free for all, like always. There was one garment no one seemed to want. It was a corduroy sportcoat with suede elbow patches. Oscar grabbed it and put it on. It fit. It was warm. He said, “I’m not proud. It’s warm. It’s clean.” The others laughed and called him professor. Who knows? Perhaps, that’s what he had been. He disappeared for a couple weeks. When he came back, he told me what happened. Later that night, he checked the pockets of the sportcoat and found a $50 bill. He told me that he wished he could say he did something productive or constructive with it. Alas, he said, he had a good meal at a fancy restaurant and went on a week long bender. He said, “I’m sorry. But it’s been a long time since I had such a good time and could forget about all of this. Thank you. Can you forgive me?”

I told him there was nothing to forgive. He found the money. It was his to do with what he wanted. If he got some relief, well, who am I to judge? (I am weeping as I type this.) His eyes welled up and he thanked me again with a hug. The next time he thanked me for serving all the guys on the street. He said, “I thank God for you, Cranford.” My eyes welled up with tears.

I don’t know if he had found faith, or if he was just being gracious and kind to please me. It was the last time I saw Oscar. He died of a heart attack at 53. I attempted to paint this from memory. It is a poor likeness. The beret and the neck scarf are there. The beard, long, full hair, and brown eyes are there. I tried to convey both his thoughtfulness and the mischief, with the intent stare, the tilt of the head, and the slight smile.

I need to start selling these paintings. We live in a small house. I need to keep painting. I will need more paint. My contact info. is at the bottom of the page to make an offer.  This one is 20″ x 16″. Thanks.

Thank You, Everybody!

As I am writing this, on Saturday evening, it is just Bethann and me in the house. Last week at this time, we had a house full. Our rent party was a roaring success! I was amazed at the variety of people who showed up and then there all those who sent well wishes and checks or cash with others, by mail, electronically, or the next day at church. One friend brought six other friends with him. So we made some new friends!

The evening started with Tadesse Abay offering a blessing for the food in his native Ethiopian. I don’t understand Ethiopian, but I know he did more than pray for the food. He blessed our home and family and our continued ministry. It was a real honor to receive this blessing from such an honorable and godly man.

Kevin Paige was an amazing minstrel. He started out playing the ukulele in the kitchen. He moved to the front parlor and played more on the ukulele. I walked through at one point and he was playing “The Girl From Ipanema” and a half dozen little kids were dancing like it was a rock song, looking like the kids in the Charlie Brown Christmas special. It was a happening! He switched to the guitar and then to the Dobro, at some point. Deacon Herman played a few songs by Dylan and a couple of his own. It was great. It wasn’t like a concert. It was party music. Conversations kept going. Kids were dancing and playing.

We met these friends over the span of nearly 40 years, but there is one thing they all have in common. They have all been involved in the work of The King’s Jubilee at some point, from the first person who responded to the first ever newsletter in February 1989 to the friend who drove me home from Phila. in the TKJ-mobile two nights earlier.

We received over $4,000 in gifts plus a sizable gift from the church. We used $500 as a first fruits offering to help a neighbor restore his electric service; and $300 to The King’s Jubilee to buy a computer for a recently homeless, faithful volunteer who needs a laptop for community college.

I started negotiations with the mortgage company for a loan modification to hopefully lower the interest rate, so we can manage better. I mailed in the payment to cure the default. When I spoke to the loan modification counselor and told him about how much we received in gifts, he was amazed. I told him that we have a lot of friends who care. We are quite frankly amazed! We need to send him a copy of the blog entry advertising the rent party and other evidence so the bank knows the story.

There are some takeaways for me from this. The first is that when one gets in trouble, one should not just go down quietly. I have heard of people watching their neighbors being evicted and they didn’t have a clue beforehand they were in trouble. If they had, they may have done something to help. People got through the Great Depression by working together. Of course, back then, people didn’t have cars, air conditioning, in-home entertainment and large suburban lots to keep them separated from one another. Make an effort to get to know your neighbors. Then there are people who work hard and still fall on hard times, but don’t have any friends who can help. This brings up the problem posed by the question, “Who is my neighbor?” We all know that Jesus answered with that it is the one who is in need, according to the parable of the Good Samaritan. That is where ministries like The King’s Jubilee come in. It is also why we need to protect our safety net as a society. If we can come together to help a friend or neighbor, why can’t we learn from the parable of the Good Samaritan and as a society help every neighbor?

We are trying to write thank you notes or send thank you emails to all who gave. We are not sure if we are remembering all who gave, since there were bills slipped in handshakes and stuffed in pockets. Just know that we are very grateful and feel very blessed to be surrounded by such a community of caring and generous souls. May God bless you all!

Rent Party at Charming House

charming gateWhen a realtor describes a house as charming, we have four words of advice: RUN FOR YOUR LIFE! Our house is charming. It is possibly the oldest house in town. The new part was built in 1845 to be the hotel for the railroad when it came through. The last owner was an Irish woodworker. He did some lovely work on the trim. He made a nice back door and beautiful window over the kitchen sink. Why he used single pane glass is beyond me. He restored the hardware to period. He did level the floor in one of the rooms. He made it into one house out of three tiny apartments. (sort of) It still had three electric meters with two wire, knob and tube and old romex to much of the house.

The oil burner was on its last. The old iron pipes to the upstairs bathroom were mostly occluded. The drains weren’t much better, but the switch plates had fairies and waterlilies on them. The wood trim in the kitchen has charming little crosses drilled in it. I have basically replaced the heat system, the plumbing and the electrical service. I am working on rewiring, bit by bit, sorting out the mess. I won’t even start on the shape of the barn. But they say the value of real estate is mainly location. It is a great location.

We were rebuilding the barn to make the ministry and the business more efficient. Then I got sick. That messed everything up. There have been a series of setbacks. Bishop Thomas really wants to see a team of college kids come here to help finish the barn. I don’t know how that is going to happen. Bethann lost her job last summer. We have to pay for Cobra health insurance out of pocket. That takes more than her Unemployment Compensation. We had the court case against the city to keep the ministry going. that put the business on hold and hurt the business. We were both sick around Christmas, so that hurt the business. I was very sick last month, so that hurt the business again. We are on the verge of being able to make some major progress in helping the homeless in Philadelphia, if we had a basic facility there and could be full time working at that, instead of being distracted by the icon business. At the same time, we are on the verge of possibly losing our house, losing our current base of operations, and joining the ranks of the homeless ourselves.

So we are making an appeal.

We are having a rent party this Saturday evening, March 16, starting at 6:30. Since it is Cheesefare Sunday next week, we will be serving vegetarian chili, “Tender Hearted Shepherd’s Pie” (vegan), some cheese and veggies, chips and dip, dessert, etc. The $10 cover charge includes the food and soft drinks. Beer and wine will be available for additional donations. If you want to play an instrument to add to the festivities, please make it unplugged. Kevin Paige is bringing his guitar and his keyboard and his great talents to make music. We are hoping that the Ackers will favor us with some music as well. We are clearing out the furniture, so if you want to dance, you may.

We live at:
27 North Front St.  (in the middle of beautiful downtown)
Souderton, PA 18964

Call or email to let us know if you plan to attend, so we know how much food and drink to prepare.
phone: 267:497-0267
cjoseph@shoutforjoy.us  (If you can’t attend, but want to help, you can Paypal gifts to this email. If it is designated as a gift from one Paypal account to another, neither one is charged fees. Thanks! God bless you!)

Here is the link to RSVP on Facebook.

It’s a cheap date for a good cause. We are going to try to have green beer in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. Hey, I was tickled that the first one to RSVP to say that he was coming was Philly rock legend Kenn Kweder! Please come join the fun.

It’s Probably Cancer

A doctor read my MRIs and concluded that I had a tumor about the size of a large plum or small apple attached to the interior side of my spine at T-11, T-12 and L-1. I was told to schedule a biopsy for oncology after I had been off of Valium for at least four days; so, next Tuesday. Then I was to wait another six days for them to read the results of the biopsy, then meet with the oncologist to discuss possible treatment options. Well, didn’t that just make Bethann’s and my day!

I was literally screaming in pain, had to stop the Valium, and face the high likelihood that I had cancer on my spine. I was facing the immediate reality of trying to cope at home for ten more days with exquisite pain in my back that seemed to be growing every day. I found someone else to go down to the city for The King’s Jubilee that night. I don’t remember who. You know who you are: Thank you and may God bless you!

“Crazy is as crazy does.”

A painting from memory of Brad, acrylic on canvas 11"x14" by Cranford Coulter
A painting from memory of Brad, acrylic on canvas 11″x14″ by Cranford Coulter

After serving on the street tonight with The King’s Jubilee, I had occasion to recall a homeless man, Brad, whom I met almost twenty years ago on a similar late spring evening. He was under 25, white, of slight build, literate. He had just found himself homeless. His mom had moved in with her boyfriend and there was no room for him. His dad had disappeared several years before. Brad was afraid of what might happen to him on the streets. Nothing in his life had prepared him for this. He felt completely vulnerable.

The next week, Brad came to eat with us again. This time, he was all disheveled and he was talking to himself and arguing with himself the whole time he was in the line. I was able to speak with him privately after everyone had eaten and the crowd had dispersed. He told me that a couple of the old hands on the street told him that the number one rule of the street is that you never mess with a crazy person. So he decided to start acting crazy as a defense, so nobody would mess with him. He learned to survive and cope on the street. I tried to direct him to programs that might help him get off the street, but space was very limited, and he didn’t fit into any of the usual categories.

After a few months, Brad stopped coming by to eat with us. A few more months passed and he showed up again. He was acting like a full-blown, psychotic, paranoid schizophrenic or someone on a very bad trip. The problem was he wasn’t acting anymore. He had fully inhabited the role he had chosen and had forcibly driven himself crazy; like method acting gone terribly wrong. I still see him from time to time. Some nights he is better than others. Instead of the frightened young man, he is now a quite aggressive 40 something man and is quite direct in asking for or demanding what he wants. It reminds me of a program I heard on the radio about bullies. A psychologist described aggression as preemptive fear.

The irony with Brad is that his crazy behavior is not irrational. On one level, it has served him well. He is still alive after spending almost 20 years on the street, because no one messes with a crazy person.

Rosalie, Pete, Jerome & Pops

Rosalie was born about two weeks before me in 1955. We’re both partially of Irish descent. We grew up at the same time in different parts of the same country in two very different worlds.

I first met Rosalie in 1985 when she was an inmate in the Women’s Detention Facility at the Philadelphia House of Corrections. We were both just exiting out twenties. She was a wild thing with a head of thick, curly, frizzy, red hair. I had a lot more brown than white in my beard and hair, wore no moustache and had aviator wireframe glasses. (They were the closest thing I could find to round at the time.) 

Rosie told me her sad story of abuse and love. This was the first time I had heard this sort of tale, which by now has became all too familiar, of a woman who is physically abused by her mate, yet loves him still, to the point of endangering their children. Rosie was vivacious, persuasive, irrepressibly happy and a tease.

I saw her on and off through my four years as a chaplain in the Philadelphia prisons. She was one of our first students in the tutoring program I started in the WDF. She always was telling the tutors and the guards what a great guy I was, followed by some kind of left-handed compliment.

It was sometime in 1990, about the time we were turning 35, while I was serving sandwiches, iced tea and goodies at the wall of the “Love Park”, I heard this woman holler: “Hey Rev! How ya been?” Rosie ran up to me and gave me a big hug.

Since then, we have seen Rosie from time to time. Sometimes she was a regular customer. Other times, she would just stop by to say hello and catch up on the news.

We met her brother, Pete. Rosie had a couple of different boyfriends that she introduced to us. Then she got serious about Jerome several years ago. Pete befriended an older man whom he would look out for and help out. We only ever knew him as Pops. Pops got housing assistance. So Pete and Rosie and Jerome moved in with him. It was a way of surviving off the street by pooling their resources. Some nights we would take them all home after we were done serving.

Rosalie and Jerome got married several years ago by Judge Valentine on Valentine’s Day at City Hall. They all got evicted from the house. Rosie and Jerome ended up getting violent with each other. Jerome was arrested. There was a restraining order. Jerome says it was a horse apiece, that Rosie gave as good as she got, and I can believe it. She was feisty. They divorced.

For a time Rosie lived in New Jersey with relatives, but she still came over about once a month to see us and let us know she was all right. Her relatives moved and she was back on the street.

In 2005, about the time we were turning 50, Rosalie was diagnosed with leukemia. She went through one round of chemo. It seemed she was doing better, then not so much. She went through another round in the Spring of 2006. This is while living on the street. Her brother and Pops and a few other guys were looking out for her and trying to provide protection and moral support. Finally some health worker was able to figure out a way for her to get a room in a group home, as she was about to start her third round of chemo.

Pops passed away last year. Pete got a good job and a place of his own. Jerome spent most of the last year in jail. He just got out. Rosalie passed away sometime around our 53rd birthdays.

Rosie was a joy to know. She always gave thanks to God for even the smallest acts of kindness. I consider it a privilege and blessing to have been counted among her friends. May her memory be eternal.