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November 22, 2017

Sergeant Black and a Trumpeter I Once Knew


The things we hold on to, the issues we bicker about, are all inconsequential in the bigger scope of life. Too often, it takes tribulation to give us perspective and confer upon us the wisdom to understand life outside of our narrow self-interests. What we take for granted can all the sudden vanish into the night and be replaced by loneliness and dejection. Before these moments of ennui arrive, we are busy being directed by the abundance of life’s distractions to realize how precious each moment is.

I write this in light of the articles I have been writing the past couple of days. Politics, as always, is the rage in almost every facet of our lives. As much as I disavow the partisan games and try to distance myself from politics in general, I am no different that the rest, I find myself drawn to the very trivialities I tell others to walk away from. In all honesty, I would rather write about the things that make us human. I find purpose in touching readers’ hearts recounting the joys of finding renewal and the sorrow of losing love. I prefer putting my pen to use writing of spontaneous moments that bring smiles to our spirits and the remembrances of past years that cajole tears from our eyes.

Yet, I feel convicted do my part and speak against the ways we are being splintered as a people and made to fight each other. So I do both; I write of the very things we all have in common—the melodies of life all of us share irrespective of our differences—and concurrently use the little voice I have to spread a message of unity and togetherness. I believe in my heart that the vast majority of us yearn for the same things. We all strive to provide for ourselves and our loved ones, attain a better future and have the freedom to pursue our God given gifts. We are all interconnected; the struggles one feels is shared by billions. Pain is a universal language that every human, from prince to pauper, is fluent in. We only gain more strife by diminishing the hardships others face—our wounds mend when we share our struggles with others who hurt like us.

I hold back tears writing this because what inspired this article was a remembrance of the adversities I witnessed others go through in the past. For a while, I thought it a curse that people always felt comfortable enough with me to share their deepest sorrows. In hindsight, I realize it was a blessing all along. Better to be burdened with empathy than be free through indifference. I say this in light of two homeless people I met when I was living a life of upper middle class privilege. Little did I know that one day I would face the very misfortunes that crumpled the lives of these two people that I met seven years ago.The encounter took place during the apex of my “community organizer” days. Even though I was making a pretty penny working as a defense consultant, I never found satisfaction in corporate offices and leading business optimization initiatives. My joy was found in helping people; so after working the nine to five grind, I would spend my weekends organizing one community event or another and trying to make a difference. It was during this time that I had the honor of meeting a Vietnam war veteran and a virtuoso trumpeter who both called the pavements of 9th Street DC their homes. A once warrior and a renowned jazz artist went from noted to invisible in a fell swoop not too long ago—life can be cruel and stigmas are always brutal.

It is the stigma of being judged homeless, abnormal or a failure that becomes anvils around the necks of those who fall into the abyss of indigence. When normal breaks, our lives get turned upside down and strife becomes the new normal. Take this axiom and multiply it by a factor of one hundred when people are swallowed by destitution—few are around to walk in the footsteps of those who wear lesser shoes and have calloused soles. We don’t have to flip through the bible to find leper colonies; poverty is the lesion that bleeds humanity. Homelessness is a plague that is avoided like Ebola by all except for those who don’t have the privilege to ignore their autobiography. This is why we pay so much attention to politics and get wrapped up in the affairs of the rich and famous; it is easier to look up in admiration than it is to look down and find misery. Our planet’s woes are too copious so we find it more expedient to be distracted by the frivolous. I’m not judging; I too prefer to look away than witness brokenness and feel helpless.

But a kinship formed serendipitously; a hello induced a conversation that turned my indifference into care. The endless time I invested marketing events on 9th Street, DC led me to form a bond with Sergeant Black and the trumpeter who’s name I never got. I grew closest to Sergeant Black and would make it part of my routine to find him and spent a few moments with this former soldier who was still battling to live 9,000 miles away from Saigon and 40 years after the last bullets were fired in Vietnam. Yet, even as he was bracketed by privation, Sergeant Black always kept his dignity. Circumstances reduced him to a beggar but in his eyes I saw the distinction and pride he still held in his heart. Life dealt him a bad hand and he had no choice but to play what he was given, but he kept intact his pride and work ethic. He refused donations; each time I gave him money, he either washed my car or insisted on completing a task in order to earn his keep.

The trumpeter was in the same boat as Sergeant Black even though his ordeal was different. The war that he went through was not one of hot landing zones and scouting expedition through rice fields. This man, whose name I can’t remember for the life of me, was once a famous musician in DC from the stories that were conveyed to me. His gift on the trumpet was well known; during the 1970’s, he was a highly regarded jazz player. All the sudden, fate intervened. He went on a trip overseas; when he came back, he was never the same. A tailspin led to the streets and the streets led to a lifetime of impoverishment. Jazz scenes no more; a famous trumpeter found homelessness to be his clarion call, sidewalks his new stage and street lamps his klieg lights.

Sergeant Black and the trumpeter are not outliers. They are humans who got hammered by hardship and then got a follow up wallop by the judgement of society. There are many challenges that come with rising out of homelessness but the biggest of them is the blaring stigma that comes with being marginalized. We give endless second chances to politicians, coaches and the famous; they get fifty five bites of the apple and are given fifty five more. But when the failure is poverty and homelessness, it’s a one strike and you are out proposition. Yet these people we ignore are people just like us; we too are but one paycheck away from being neighbors with the sidewalk citizens society ignores.

This is an issue I care deeply about because I too, not too long ago, fell from privilege to a sidewalk citizen. It is by the grace of God and because of the lessons my departed father drilled in my head when I was a child that I did not become permanently mauled by homelessness. What used to be theory and what I once turned away from became my reality. From a luxury condo in Fall Church, Virginia to missions and shelters; I learned on a first person basis how thin the line is between comfort and torment. Where I was blessed to escape the clutches of insolvency, there are tens of thousands who are condemned to a life of pervasive tribulation. Perhaps the poor will always be with us; maybe I’m being too naive to think we can live in a world where earth’s abundances are shared by many instead of hoarded by a few. It is this seemingly impossible dream of fairness and inclusive justice that motivates me and pushes me forward. I know there are others who think like me; maybe if a critical mass of people decide to do more to help our communities instead of bickering over politics, we can one day get the change we all have been waiting for. Until that day arrives, I ask each of you to impart just a small act of kindness to someone who suffers and treat broken souls on the sidewalk as your fellow neighbors. That man was once me; that woman can be any one of us. #StopStigmatizing 

“Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” ~ Psalms 30:5

This interview I conducted with Lt. Colonel Rick Belt, a Vietnam War veteran, is one that I cherish. Please listen to Rick tell his story and hear the stories of others who have witnessed the hell that is war so that we can have a shot of one day ending them.

This Ghion Cast was recorded while I was still at a mission in Wellington Colorado called Harvest Farm. From nothingness to purpose, I count all hardships as blessings.

This is a poem I wrote a few months before my life cracked into the abyss. We can write our misfortunes into existence, but we can also be blessed through hardships. 

Teodrose Fikre
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Teodrose Fikre

Founder at Ghion Journal
Teodrose Fikre is the editor and founder of the Ghion Journal. A published author and prolific writer, a once defense consultant was profoundly changed by a two year journey of hardship and struggle. Going from a life of of upper-middle class privilege to a time spent with the huddled masses taught Teodrose a valuable lesson in the essence of togetherness and the need to speak against injustice.

Originally from Ethiopia with roots to Atse Tewodros II, Teodrose is a former community organizer whose writing was incorporated into Barack Obama's South Carolina primary victory speech in 2008. He pivoted away from politics and decided to stand for collective justice after experiencing the reality of the forgotten masses. His writing defies conventional wisdom and challenges readers to look outside the constraints of labels and ideologies that serve to splinter the people. Teodrose uses his pen to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak truth to power.
Teodrose Fikre
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