In the arms of the angel – Jesse James DeConto

Jesse James DeConto
Jesse James DeConto

The spiritual writer Margaret Applegarth told the story of a Quaker who traveled to Poland at the height of the Nazi occupation. He opened a soup kitchen for the hungry and stitched apparel for the under-clothed.

When he died suddenly, his friends begged the local priest to make space for his grave in the Catholic cemetery, but the Church forbade it.

“I think God cringed at the moment the priest uttered those words,” said Ann Hall, who recounted Applegarth’s story.

Hall was among more than a dozen members of Duke Memorial United Methodist Church to make a similar request to their congregation’s Columbarium Committee, the group that oversees the stone wall in the church’s garden, housing the urns of deceased members. In Poland, only Catholics were allowed; at Duke Memorial, only members of that particular congregation are supposed to lie there in rest.

But Duke Memorial made an exception for Julie Hernandez, who had one last seizure after a lifetime of seizures and myriad other hardships and died last month in a tent at a homeless camp not far from the church. She became the 36th person buried there. You may be aware that Duke Memorial welcomes people onto its campus along Chapel Hill Street, and the church installed a port-o-potty for when the building is locked.

“Her family – our unsheltered neighbors – would be able to visit her in the shadow of this church that they sometimes, on the most literal level, call home,” wrote Katie Byers-Dent, who works in communications at both Duke Memorial and Trinity UMC downtown.

Behind the mask

The Rev. Heather Rodrigues called Hernandez’ father in Alabama, and the man agreed his daughter should be buried in Durham. The father wasn’t healthy enough to travel to the funeral but I got a sense of what that conversation might have been like when I heard Hernandez’ friend Dawn Bland speak at the service.

Bland is a veteran staffer of the early New Durham restaurant and bar scene, places like James Joyce and The Federal, and now she works under the title madame du bureau at Center Studio Architecture because that’s the formidable person she is. Hernandez suffered from bipolar disorder and addiction, and Bland told of a moment when the two of them got real.

“’I see you behind that drug mask,’” Bland recalled saying. “‘I see your sweetness. I see that little girl that you still want to be so badly.’ At which point she totally lost it and just fell into my arms and cried. I held her next to me and squeezed her. We sat there for an hour while she cried and spoke of how badly she wanted to see her daddy again, and be drug-free again, and be healthy again, and have a home again.”

At that point in the service, Bland, who is not religious, delivered what you might call a sermon. She later told me she was nervous about giving it, afraid she might come on too strong. This is what she said:

“Julie tried several times after that to get clean, but unless you’ve ever tried to do this yourself or know someone who has, you will never understand the strength it takes to do this. … We expect one of our most vulnerable populations – the homeless – to ‘get over it,’ ‘to get better,’ ‘to try harder,’ when this is something that famous millionaires with personal chefs and private rehab centers spend fortunes on. Getting clean is difficult on the very best day after the 70th time trying.

“Drug addiction is a sickness. This is not something you would choose for yourself. And one needs to remember that this is very much happening to a person, to a wonderful sweet, loving, goofball person. Homelessness happens to a person. But you see the homelessness. You see the addiction.

You forget to really see the person. They are not invisible – defined only by what makes them different and hard for you to identify with. We all need to live life with our eyes wide open to all populations in our community, to all our neighbors. We are one Durham. Together. Julie would have been so happy to know that the community has come together to see and support Randy.”

Sacred moments

I don’t know if these words move you, but they moved me. And only because of Randy – honest-to-goodness, real name: Randy Travis – I got to witness them. What right did I really have to be there and hear told of sacred moments like that?

More than a year ago, I wrote about Randy, the man with whom Hernandez shared that tent. Already by that time, Randy had had to grieve the deaths of another partner and their son. Because I had written about Travis, who begs for money at the edge of the church property at Gregson and Chapel Hill streets, Pastor Rodrigues asked me to put on one of my other hats and play guitar for the funeral: “Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art,” and Hernandez’ favorite song, “Angel,” by Sarah McLachlan. “You’re in the arms of the angel//may you find some comfort here,” she sang. Remember that one?

To hear Applegarth finish her story, the people served by that Quaker missionary buried him as close to the edge of the Catholic graveyard as they possibly could, and late that night, the priest himself went out there and moved the fence so the new grave was inside. And somehow that day at Duke Memorial, it felt like Pastor Heather and Dawn Bland and everyone involved had moved the fence not only for Hernandez but for me and for all of us. One Durham. Moving fences. What a gorgeous, goofball dream.

Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician in Durham. You can reach him at jesse@jessejamesdeconto.com.