Maybe we’re not so friendly afterall

By John Peters -
John Peters Editor -

There, but for the grace of God, go I.

It’s a common saying, one meant to show humility, to express an understanding that every one of us could easily fall among what many consider the lowest of our society. And hopefully, a reminder to reach out to these folks, to offer them kindness and help.

The first time I recall hearing the phrase, when it really meant something to me, was probably 30 years ago, maybe 31, standing in a newspaper office where everyone was discussing the town drunk. It was a small town, with an older man who was known to shuffle around during the day, asking for money, during a time when a quarter or a fifty-cent piece might actually buy a little something.

Our ad manager was relating a story from the previous Friday, when a couple of local buffoons had offered the man two quarters, waiting until the man had nearly taken them from their hands before flicking the coins high in the air, across the room, telling him if he wanted the money he could go get it.

Of course, according to our ad manager, the town drunk shuffled over to the coins, struggled his way down to the floor to grab the money, while guys laughed at him.

Listening to that story, we all stood, not sure how to react, until my editor uttered the phrase “There for the grace of God…” He didn’t finish the sentence, because we all knew the rest.

I have to admit, I thought his words were little more than some platitude, meant to gracefully ease out of the conversation.

Those words came back to me several years later, after I’d moved on to my first daily newspaper job, then into my first management position, when I learned the man who uttered that statement — my first editor, a man I looked up to for a long time — was that town drunk now.

Some things in his life went bad, he drank a little, then a little more, and next thing everyone knew he was missing assignments, showing up late for work, and soon was out of a job. He was a smart guy, and a well-liked man, so he easily hooked on with a cross-town competitor, only to drink his way out of the job there.

I was stunned when I learned of this, and those words, from his very mouth, came back to me. He had overcome a lot in his life, had reached a point of personal and professional success I envied. He was an intelligent, level-headed guy, and yet it had happened to him.

It really could happen to anyone.

That’s what I thought of Thursday, when I learned the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners had turned down a request to rezone a parcel of land so that the Shepherd’s House expand its homeless shelter.

The vote wasn’t really even close, at 4-1.

Commissioner Jon Cawley, who eventually cast the lone opposition against the motion to deny the rezoning, expressed concern about expanding the home because of financial reasons. Already, according to Shepherd’s House Executive Director Mary Boyles, roughly 25 percent of the folks utilizing the home come from outside Surry County.

Cawley expressed concern that a larger home would bring more needy from outside the county, putting an undue burden on local social services.

Cawley’s right, that is a legitimate concern, and it would not be fair to put the cost of non-Surry Countians on those folks who live here.

Shirley Brinkley expressed concern that rezoning would not adequately dovetail with the city’s historic district uses for the neighborhood, that it might be out of character for the neighorhood

It’s hard to argue against her point.

And Commissioner Dean Brown simply said he’d received hundreds of complaints from people who live in that area, enough to convince him it would make neighbors unhappy.

We always ask our elected officials to be more attuned to the will of their constituents, don’t we?

Yet, I keep going back to what my first editor said all those years ago. “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

It really doesn’t take much, particularly in today’s economy, to go from working middle class to homeless. Some surveys indicate as many as 3.5 million people will experience periods of homelessness in America this year. More than half a million are in a permanent state of homelessness.

The homeless have no representation, no big-dollar lobbiests fighting for their needs. They are largely forgotten, on their own, with few opportunities to better themselves.

Over the years, the Shepherd’s House has performed a marvelous, yet often ignored, public service. It’s given shelter to those with no home, it’s helped individuals and families work their way back into self-sufficiency, into becoming productive, taxpaying citizens. Often right here in Mount Airy.

And yet, when the Shepherd’s House had an opportunity to expand those services, to reach more people, to make Mount Airy a good, strong example of a small town dealing with the problem of homelessness, the city shut its doors on the effort. So-called neighbors torpedoed the plan, without even the courage to show up and speak publicly against it. The commissioners, it seemed, were looking for any reason they could find to shut it down.

Could be that their decision was really the correct one, I don’t know. But right now it seems Mount Airy might have shown itself to be just a little less neighborly than we all like to believe.

John Peters Editor Peters Editor

By John Peters