My life with the Episcopalian hard-hats

by Jordan Green

I more or less backed into this volunteer stint.

At a church steering committee, a call is passed along for members of Greensboro’s eight Episcopal churches to volunteer at a Habitat for Humanity worksite on the eastern edge of Greensboro at least one of three days for a Thursday-to-Saturday “blitz.” Having available time and little money, I can’t think of a good excuse not to show up. Bring your tools and show up ready to work; breakfast and lunch will be provided – that’s the deal.

The first Saturday I show up, bleary-eyed parishioners (mainly white) and future Habitat for Humanity homeowners (mainly black, some of them immigrants from Africa) drift around the dirt patch in front of the house on Shirley Lane clutching coffee mugs and shyly greeting strangers.

Experiences like these prompt me to ask myself exactly what common bond I share with my fellow Greensboro Episcopalians. The Greensboro convocation has adopted a cute moniker, calling itself the “G8,” after the “Group of 8” industrialized nations, which meets periodically to coordinate global economic policy. It’s a phrase I instinctually chafe against. The paternalistic ring of it summons the darkest aspect of the Anglican tradition’s historical role as an agent of British colonialism. I prefer to focus on the revolutionary example of Jesus breaking down class divisions and offering hope to the poor.

That first day, I overhear a slender, clean-shaven man wearing a crumpled cap comment about how surprised he generally finds himself that he knows so few people at these events. How true, I think to myself.

It turns out that there are too many of us, and the Habitat staff asks for volunteers to go over to the Glenwood neighborhood to grade inside a cinder-block foundation. I find myself carpooling with the man with the crumpled cap. His name is Bob Edmunds and he’s a state Supreme Court judge. I slide into the backseat of his white Cadillac and take note of a well-perused stack of Rhinoceros Times newspapers beside me. The judge has never heard of YES! Weekly, but he promises to go look for a copy.

“Are you married with children, Jordan?” the judge asks me. “Greensboro’s a great place to raise a family, but there’s not much here for a single person.”

“Actually, I am single,” I reply. The question startles me, but I’m sure it’s meant as a friendly overture. I’ve sometimes found my adopted city to be less than dynamic as an urban center, but I’m generally grateful for the living it provides me and the privilege of observing close-up its various joys and pains.

Wielding pick-axes, rakes and shovels we advance like an infantry, tossing dirt downhill until all the irregular humps are ground down.

“If not a six-pack of beer I could do with a pitcher of gin and tonics,” the judge says before noon rolls around.

We head back to Shirley Lane for lunch. The judge remarks to me and another passenger, a lawyer doing 16 hours of community service for a speeding ticket, that this is a part of the city with which he’s not overly familiar. “Oh well,” he says. “If we get lost, we’re all in it together.”

There doesn’t seem much chance that we’ll lose our way.

The LCD screen at the center of the dashboard displays an interactive map showing the vehicle inexorably moving over well-marked city streets towards our destination. My bicycle has sped along these streets on more than one occasion; traveling to a gathering in the park and monitoring a potential conflict between public housing residents and the police are two experiences that come to mind. I’ve heard stories about rape and heard gunshots in these streets. I’ve known formerly homeless men who came to share a house in this neighborhood thanks to the assistance of a group of evangelical Christians.

On the second Saturday, I get in on the roofing at Shirley Lane. It’s hot, heavy and awkward work. After sleeping five and a half hours, it’s just the thing to let me work my body into satisfied exhaustion.

Most of the other volunteers are white men much older than me, many of them retired or at the end of their careers, and many of them sending kids off to college or exulting in the wonder of their grandchildren. They’re systems analysts and engineers. They work cooperatively and smartly. Over the span of the day we cover the roof in shingles with efficiency and minimal hassle. They’re good guys with normal, seemingly unremarkable lives. I wonder, Will I turn out like them? Or is it some kind of weird fluke that has led me to work beside them?

The day soon ends. Every muscle aches, and my pants and shirt are soaked in sweat. In the car on the way home I blast a National Public Radio segment on Roky Erickson, a tribute to this brilliant Texas psychedelic rock pioneer and his chemically-induced, joyous and disturbed art. It’s been a long time since I felt this good.

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