An article in an earlier edition of the Spirit of Jefferson shared some details about the life of Justice Taylor, a young man who recently died behind the Community Ministries building. Those details may well have been unsettling to many readers and I understand that. This was a difficult interview to have for both Jan Jordan and me; it was difficult to read, but it was also difficult to watch. I can’t even imagine how difficult it was for Justice to live those details.
We try to shed as much light as we can on issues of homelessness in our community, and the article did some of that. More importantly, however, is the pervasive issue of labeling.
The article began with a label--“the young homeless guy in the wheelchair.” Left alone, this label might have generated both compassion and curiosity. Without any more information, most of us, I suspect, would just move on to another article or the crossword puzzle without much more thought for, “the young homeless guy in the wheelchair.”
Some readers of that article had the privilege of knowing Justice before he acquired that label and they know that he was so much more than this label can possibly convey. That article attempted to look beneath the label and show Justice as a human being. He was a member of our community and deserves to be known and remembered for his wonderful complexity, and not by that label.
We, at Community Ministries, have known Justice for some years and are, along with many others, grieving his death. We are also wondering, along with many, what more we could have done for him. This article, rather than seeking to judge or disrespect his memory, sought to celebrate his humanity.
Our relationship with Justice spanned a number of years of his visits for services, and for someplace to be. Sometimes that relationship was warm and cooperative and at other times, not so much. But it was always, at a deeper level, mutually accepting; he kept coming back and we kept opening the door. We grieve the loss of that relationship.
My hope was that the information shared in that article would help us celebrate Justice as a complete human being, with strengths and limits, gifts and challenges, just like all the rest of us. And, in celebrating Justice, we might also become increasingly aware that what was true for him is also true for each of those coming to us seeking shelter, hopefully permanent, but failing that, for as long as possible, just like all the rest of us.
The people we serve don’t want to be homeless, but they are for a wide array of reasons and barriers that they have faced for more than just a few years. The only way we, as an agency and a community, can help individuals and families begin confronting those barriers is to know them at a deeper level than any label will allow. We must know them for their humanity and we must patiently wait for them to learn, or relearn, that they are accepted and acceptable.
My plea is that we, as individuals and a community, who knew Justice, grieve his loss, that we grieve for his loving family who have lost more than we can imagine and that we grieve the loss of human connections with so many others who we have separated from us by some label.
As we, as a community, embark on a journey of discovery led by Charles Town Mayor Bob Trainor, we will see the humanity of many of our neighbors, now labeled as drunks, junkies, crazies and, indeed most anything that we don’t understand. I believe that we won’t be able to find solutions to housing and homelessness until we find solutions to labeling. I further believe that Charles Town has the capacity to do just that, to look deeper than the many labels, and work with and accept those who have names and histories, gifts and burdens.
Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who has worked with gangs in Los Angeles for many years and has created Homeboy Industries, a program of employment and support says that rather than judge people for the burdens they carry, we should stand in awe that they have carried those burdens for so many years. It seemed to work for Boyle, I pray it will also work for us.
— Robert Shefner is the executive director of Jefferson County Community Ministries