Jerry, from Youngstown, Tenn., hesitated to be interviewed by Chris Arnade. Jerry said, “I don’t know my ABCs, so I can’t really talk right. When you are told all your life you’re dumb and unworthy, you start believing it. God changed that for me.”
Jerry told Arnade, “I got nothing of worth to say, not anything anybody would want to read about.” Arnade convinced Jerry to talk by suggesting his views might be of worth to others.
Arnade wanted Jerry’s words for the new book, “Dignity: Seeing Respect in Back Row America.”
Jerry was raised “dirt poor” in a military family, “the son of parents who married and divorced three times. His father was abusive and didn’t provide.” He tells Arnade that one month all the family ate was cake mix because those were the leftovers his father managed to bring home.
“I was always called dumb by everyone, my teachers, other students. Pretty soon I dropped out of school ... I made it the only way I knew how, with my body. But you know what they say: the harder you work, the less you make.”
Arnade writes of Jerry: “He lives on a small plot in a valley far from most things, in a home held together by attachments and additions he built himself. His wife is confined to a bed off the living room, disabled from years of illness. He spends much of his time caring for her or driving her from appointments ....” Arnade describes Jerry as “a big man” who “moves slowly, hobbled from injuries and pain from a lifetime of manual labor. The worst pain is from a broken neck when he fell from a ladder. He was prescribed pain pills “and then, when doctors cut his prescription, buying heroin.”
Jerry is grateful for his faith. “I got saved at 50,” he tells Arnade. “I had never felt worthy before of being saved. I was too dumb. Now I understand I am worthy of the Lord.”
Arnade is a former Wall Street trader who started walking in a part of the Bronx he had been warned against. He eventually would get in his car and travel to similar places around the country. One of the things he found there was a sustaining faith.
“My biases, my years steeped in rationality and privilege, (were) limiting a deeper understanding.” Perhaps, he writes, “religion was right, or at least as right as anything could be.” But, he admits, “Getting there requires a level of intellectual humility that I am not sure I have.”
As opposed to his life of insulated privilege, Arnade found a starker reality in the communities he writes about. “It is far easier to see religion not just as useful but as true.”
There’s something Arnade encountered on the streets that captures our shared humanity. At a time of wall-building, Arnade scales some barriers and finds hope in the midst of tremendous pain. He finds people trying their best, in some of the harshest circumstances. All proceeds from “Dignity” are going to groups helping people with addiction and homelessness. The world is better today because of Chris Arnade’s work, and you can improve your world by reading it.