There’s a guy named Randy Travis asking for spare change at the corner of Gregson and Chapel Hill streets. He’s not a country singer, but his life could be a country song, and that’s no joke.
Telling me his story at a picnic table in front of Duke Memorial United Methodist Church, Travis wears a ballcap that says, “Hunters Score Points.” And it was a gun that got him here, panhandling for his livelihood, living in a tent across town.
He didn’t shoot anybody, at least not so far as I can tell. No, he served five years, three months and three weeks in a Virginia prison after he broke into the home of a guy he knew and stole a cache of guns, including a valuable antique. Randy’s dad had just died.
“I was so upset, I wasn’t even thinking right,” he says.
Randy moved to Durham in 2010. Since then, he’s met a woman, had a son, lost the son to a tragic accident, lost the boy’s mother to a heart attack, and struggled to find a job.
“Most of your businesses say, ‘Oh, he’s got a record? We don’t want him,’” Randy says. “I’m actually a country boy. I’m a farmer, but buses don’t go out there. I’ve got to find some kind of work in town.”
What Randy has found at the edge of the churchyard is a lot of kindness. Employees from the Durham Police Department or businesses in the Brightleaf District will regularly give him alms. Sometimes it’s a $20 bill, sometimes breakfast, sometimes shoes and a winter coat.
He says he can collect more than $80 in a day because he simply tells the truth, doesn’t try to manipulate anyone.
“I’ve had people give me $30 or $40, and they say, ‘I’m sorry, it’s all I’ve got,” he says. “My sign does not lie,” he says. EVERYBODY NEEDS A HAND SOMETIMES.
Randy points out that the benches we’re sitting on weren’t even here a year ago. Duke Memorial has tried to make its grounds hospitable to almost 20 homeless people who sleep on the sprawling property.
“They get up early in the morning and leave, and they don’t come back here till dark,” Randy says.
As part of the local Interfaith Hospitality Network, DMUMC houses the homeless inside the building four weeks a year, in rotation with other local congregations.
Last fall, the church installed a port-o-potty outside after a youth-group mission trip to Asheville, where the kids met a lot of people living on the streets and realized how hard it can be to find a bathroom.
On this day, as on many days, Randy had used a restroom inside the church. Whenever staff is on site, they can let people in, but not at night. Once, someone relieved himself on the front steps.
“When it was closed, you’d have to go down to the bus station,” Randy says.
Cullen McKenney, DMUMC’s minister of discipleship and witness, is a Ph.D. candidate in medieval theology at Durham University, the one in England. Cullen stays busy interacting with people in need on the church’s campus, and he has thought deeply about how real estate itself can go beyond utilitarian value to serve greater goods, whether tangible or intangible.
There is no reason in the world that there should be a rose garden on the front lawn of Duke Memorial.
Cullen McKenney, minister
McKenney said good economic sense might spur his church to move to the suburbs and sell its valuable property on Chapel Hill Street, just across from the $46-million “605” apartment complex.
“By staying, Duke Memorial has an opportunity to participate in a different economy,” he says. “There is no reason in the world that there should be a rose garden on the front lawn of Duke Memorial. On a piece of dirt worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, this church grows flowers. That’s silly. But isn’t that an interesting interruption to the development of Durham? It matters that there is a sanctuary of grace.”
The congregation also offers affordable or free space to nonprofits like Church World Service, 12-step recovery groups, Durham Congregations in Action, the African diasporic music school BUMP: The Triangle, the anti-hunger agency Society of St. Andrew’s, the Anatoth Community CSA drop-off, and the Interfaith Food Shuttle’s West End Mobile Market.
“Most churches, they’re trying to get people in the church,” Randy says. “Here, they don’t try. They’re here to help if you want it.”
One more thing: Randy Travis wants you to know that Randy Travis is his real name. That other guy was born Randy Traywick.
Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician in Durham. Contact him via www.jessejamesdeconto.com.