I am in Charlotte, again. I go inside Rite-Aid and buy another Mead, flip-top notebook exactly like the one I bought last time I was here. The same homeless man is sitting outside the store begging for “a cool drink, please,” so I buy him a bottle of water hoping I too can live in Abraham’s bosom. When I hand him the bottle of water he looks at me with unabashed gratitude. I walk across the street to the same table I sat at the last time I thought it would be a good idea to journal about Charlotte. That was August 4, 2015. My first sentence in that journal was “I’m sitting in an artificial shadow beside an artificial pond with artificial people in downtown Charlotte.” The artificial shadow was cast by enormously tall buildings. The pond was really a fountain, and the people were statues. Today it is the same shadow, pond, and people but today, maybe today, I’m not as cynical. It is all beauty and art, humanity’s effort to express meaning, to say something about what it means to be human. And when I am writing this down, at the very same table I sat at last time, the table rocks and distorts my already bad handwriting. And then I remember I had to push the table down with my right forearm for a stable writing platform. I could get up and go to the table just twenty feet away, but I like the fact that it’s all the same.
This is what I saw walking around Charlotte:
There’s a homeless man who walks up and down Tyron Street and finally sits on a wall where his feet just dangle above the ground.
He’s considerate to the men but never addresses the women. “Excuse me, sir,” he says again and again with a hoarse Indian accent. He’s attentive. The young men with sharp haircuts, chest-flattering button-up dress shirts, ear buds and a cup of coffee in their hand greet him with a salute or twitch of the fingers – a crumb of acknowledgement. Other men give a more robust gesture and may even say, “Next time.” No one gives him anything except pleasant shrugs. And maybe this rudimentary acknowledgment is all he really needs at the moment.
It was at least all that the Russian man needed. He sees me walking by with my camera and says, “You wanna take a picture of me.” He is sitting with his friend who does not want to be photographed and looks a little annoyed by his companion. To prove he is from Russia he rattles off some Russian to prove it. It sounded like Russian anyway. I right away want to ask him if he knows Donald Trump, but I think better of it. The other man is from West Virginia. I want to ask them so many questions: How did you get here? What’s it like being homeless? Do you look after each other? But the Russian is ready to have his picture taken and starts posing. I’m glad he does because whatever I was going to ask them would have been stupid. The albums of street photograph are filled with pictures of the homeless, so much so that it is a clichéd photograph, as shopworn as an orange sunrise over the ocean. But if it is a hackneyed photograph it only so because we see in the homeless something remarkably gritty and hard living. We intuitively know that it is more authentic than the blue-pinstriped suit who walks in the building across the street.
There are many large churches nearby with fine sanctuaries, tall steeples, and opulent gardens. But it is the street preacher riding his bicycle through the city center hollering out, “Jesus saves. Jesus saves. Jesus loves you.” I want to be like him. To have convictions so deep and absolute that I could ride through town and have my voice boom off the sides of skyscrapers. “Read your Bible. It doesn’t actually say what you think it says,” is what I would yell. The street preacher and the homeless man wave to each other and call each other by name. I want to get a picture of the street preacher but his evangelism runs him up and down the streets too fast. There are souls to save. So instead I settle on a candid photo of a guy who just busted on his skateboard. I can’t tell if he is annoyed or embarrassed or mad that I took his picture.
In all these respects, I suppose, Charlotte is like most any other large city. Sure, every city is going to be marked with distinction: particular culture and ambiance, different landmarks and professional sporting teams. And the people of New York are individually, at least, distinct from say the people of Chicago or L.A., but, by and large, people are people. We are all more fundamentally the same than we are different. If we are to be one with Christ, we must, of course, also be one with each other.
The tall buildings then catch my eye as the thing out of place. They rise up from the ground like gods, reflecting the sky and clouds. It is hard to think of them as being the construction work of ordinary people. The buildings’ sharp-edged corners cut the sky, and create the perfect forms from Plato’s realm. The trees dwarfed below are surely bewildered by their shadows. They are gods. The sky gods, the sun gods, the gods that rise above low-lying clouds, and breach the demarcation between what is heavenly and terrestrial. And at their base is some sort of symbol: a sculpture or statue, a metaphor attempting to name the god behind it.
I think of all the great tourist places around the world. Stonehenge, Copan, The Great Pyramids of Giza, The Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu, the Roman Coliseum – the list could go on but the list revolves around the gods of long ago. We, of course, visit other places, and maybe we visit these other places more often – the beach, or the mountains – but we don’t visit these places with the same intention. At the beach or in the mountains we go to unwind and relax and to get a sunburn. These other places though, these world famous touristy places, center around ancient human achievement. We go there to experience awe.
We can feel connected to our human nature at these locations. It is the archeology of the human soul. The people who built the Great Wall of China and the Mesa Verde dwellings are the same people who built the skyscrapers of Charlotte. These unblemished faces, busy with crunching numbers, creating revenue. The construction woman wearing a hard hat and red reflective taped pants. The homeless man and the street preacher. The skateboarder. The buildings didn’t grow out of the ground; they were built out of collective human soul, the gods of Charlotte, who one day will welcome tourist from all over the world. And these future tourists will stand in awe and connection with us because we built the gods.
And I realize now that the awe I’ve seen and the awe that will be seen is the awesome question: What does it mean to be human? To be human means to live among the gods. And by that I mean that we are gods ourselves. That is what it means to be human. “You are gods,” the Psalmist proclaims, “children of the Most High, all of you.”