Professor Jack (May-Jun 2007)

By Matt Dabbs

by Joshua J. Graves
May – June, 2007

INTO THE CLASSROOM
Cass Corridor is a notorious section of Detroit—known for rampant prostitution, drugs and violence. The people who live down here lament that, “The police have given up on this place.” The women and men who make this area “home” welcomed a few us from our church and college where I teach. They invited us into their space with love, acceptance, and genuine hospitality.

Cass Park is within a few stone’s throw of mighty Ford Field and Comerica Park, home to two professional sports teams: the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Lions . . . okay, one and a half professional sports teams. These two super-sized stadiums, and the millions of dollars they represent in profits each year, cast a long dark shadow over this area the locals call “Jurassic Park,” referring to the violence and chaos often experienced by her inhabitants.

Some of us involved in what we call a love feast, have experience working with the poor. Others were experiencing the power of “solidarity with the poor” (as Gustavo Gutierrez so aptly teaches us) for the first time.

During one of these love feasts, my wife and I arrived a bit late to Cass Park. However, the food and clothing distribution line was in full force. College students and life long disciples were working at a feverish and efficient pace. Quality dialog and community was breaking out all over this run down property that scarcely resembled any park found in suburbia. One thing was obvious: our service was not needed. My wife and I decided that rather than being in the position of power, which suburbanites often revert back to when working with the poor, we decided to seek out persons to talk with, to simply be present.

My friend Andy Turner, who has taught me a great deal about city life, was already in conversation with several men at the southern end of the park. Kara and I decided to join him. I did not realize how meaningful these conversations would prove to be. I have 84 hours of college graduate education, and 130 of undergraduate training. None of those hours contained the wisdom I was about to digest.

Andy was talking with Jack. It is more appropriate to call him Professor Jack, for he allowed the three of us into his classroom and offered us a humble but powerful class that could be titled “Life in the Margins.” Jack’s body was failing him, he struggled to walk. Imagine being homeless and physically handicapped. Jack’s mind, however, was strong as it ever was.

I don’t want to make this too Disney—Jack admitted he’d made a lot of poor decisions in his life. He’d been battling a drug addiction for some time. He’s on the streets because of it. But . . . he’s also had a good deal of decisions made for him; things that were way beyond his control. This truth struck me several times during our conversation: “Humans do not lose control,” Barbara Brown Taylor reminds me. “We lose the illusion that we were ever in control in the first place.”

NOTES FROM THE PROFESSOR
If you had the eyes to see and the ears to hear, it was quite the holy conversation. There were no pews, sacraments, or prayers—but God was so present. We subsequently took church members and college students to sit in Professor Jack’s classroom over the course of the next several weeks, but in that first session, my wife and I were taught a few things we will treasure for the rest of our lives. Here are a few of the things Professor Jack shared with his new pupils.

Professor Jack taught us about respect. I made the mistake of saying “that’s no big deal” after some folks had complained about the food. “No, that’s not OK. We’re human beings just like you. Don’t say ‘that’s OK’—expect something from us just like you would any other human.” My definition of dignity was shallow in comparison with Jack’s. One of the college students present in the park was smoking a cigarette, to which Jack replied, “I’m just glad there are still Christians who smoke.” This line has become famous among those of us who welcomed Jack into our lives.

Professor Jack taught us about human dignity. When I asked him what people could do for the poor and homeless, he replied, “Make us feel real. We want to feel like we are real people. You’ve done that today. See us. Talk to us. Be with us. Help us feel. It isn’t just about feeding us or giving us clothes, it’s about seeing us.” I have often prayed this simple prayer since sitting at Jack’s feet:

God teach me how to see the divine image in every person I encounter. Let there be no invisible people in my life.

Professor Jack taught us about politics. “You think the city or any other government cares about the poor? You’re crazy. The only thing holding things together for the homeless are the churches” (NOTE: Jack was referring the many Catholic churches in Detroit who’ve resisted white flight). “If it wasn’t for the churches, things would be unmentionable. I can’t even imagine what would happen if the churches weren’t so invested in the city.” And in discussing the ambivalent attitudes of government toward the poor he noted, “They (the local government) don’t even have places for the poor to use the bathroom. We have to do the most self-degrading things just to use the bathrooms . . . makes us feel like animals. Know what I’m saying?” I wish I could’ve replied, “Yeah, Jack, I feel your pain.” But if I did, I’d be lying. I did not know the pain pent up inside of Jack.

Professor Jack taught us about Christian community. After I left this first meeting, Andy and Jack continued to talk about life, pain, and meaning. At one point, Jack pulled out a candy bar and offered it to Andy. “I couldn’t,” Andy reacted. “Why not? C’mon, they won’t let me take it back into the shelter. Have this with me. Share this with me.” Hearing Andy describe this moment, that place where heaven and earth kiss, I thought, this is one of the best communion stories I’ve heard in a long time.” There was no bread or wine present, but the holy solidarity embodied by Christ was dripping from each passing second. It is difficult for persons who are used to being in the role of giver (even in the most subtle of ways like working in a soup kitchen, or stitching up a patient in the ER) to being in the position of receiving. Until we follow this aspect of Jesus’ life, going from host to hosted, we will miss out on the true power of God’s way in our lives.

Before I left the park this serene autumn day in Detroit, I asked Professor Jack if there was anything, and I meant anything, that Kara and I could do for him. I looked him dead in the eye, making myself vulnerable to any request he might throw out there, “Tell me what you need Jack.” He replied quickly and humbly, “I’m fine, really. I’m good. What you’ve done today, keep doing this.”

REMEMBERING JACK
Professor JackAs I mentioned, this story is not written by Disney: there’s no happy ending waiting for you at the end of this reflection. If that’s what you were looking for, you may as well give up reading while you’re still ahead.

After several visits to Cass Park, phone conversations, and moments spent in prayers for deliverance, things turned south in a hurry.
I got a call ten days after Thanksgiving from Francis, one of Jack’s friends in the shelter.

“Josh,” Francis said, “it’s not good.”

“What’s not good?”

“You’ve not heard? It’s Jack, man. He’s dead. They rushed him out of here to Detroit Receiving. I know you were working with him, I know you were close. I just thought I’d call to tell you. Jack often talked about ‘the priest’, that’s you—I thought the right thing to do would be to call you.”

“What do you mean he died? He just left me a message. We’re supposed to have dinner soon?”

“They suspect he overdosed, I’m not sure.”

“Maybe he’s still in the hospital? Francis, maybe he—”

“Josh, I’m telling you man, this man is dead.” I knew Francis was telling me the honest truth; I simply could not receive it. I had too many plans for Jack. Death did not fit any of those plans.

“Francis, you have no idea how much this phone call means to me . . . ”

Here’s the death notice posted by the Detroit News:

IANNUCCI JOHN B

December 05, 2006: “JACK” Age 50, December 1, 2006. Loving father of Melissa Iannucci (Rich Thompson), Jacqueline, Lia, and Ezra. Cherished grandfather of Devin, Sydney, and Zoe. Dearest son of John (Yolanda) and the late Barbara. Brother of Patricia (Jon) Iannucci-Waller, Lea, Dino, Nancy (David) Welke and the late Frank. Uncle of Dylan, Alex, and Isabella. Former husband of Patty. Liz, mother of Jack’s son Ezra. Funeral Wednesday Noon at the A.H. Peters Funeral Home, 20705 Mack Ave. at Vernier Rd., Grosse Pointe Woods. Visitation Tuesday 2-9 p.m. with a Rosary at 7 p.m. Memorials may be made to the Salvation Army, 16130 Northland Drive, Southfield, MI 48075.

Jack was not merely a “junkie” or a “bum”—he was a man with an amazing story. He played in a band, wrote poetry, owned a restaurant, loved his daughters, and dabbled in academics at the local university.

I had the honor of attending the viewing and funeral for John “Jack” Iannuchi (pronounced EYE-A-KNEW-CHEE).

Jack’s sisters, daughters, and friends (whom I was meeting for the first time) huddled around my phone to listen to his voice. I had saved a voicemail he left me the week prior to his death, wishing me a belated Happy Thanksgiving. “I’m really sorry I can’t make it,” (we were supposed to have dinner together) “I’ve just been feeling awful lately,” rang Jack’s now-savored message. His sisters and daughters had not heard his voice in quite some time due to the intervention process that requires tough love.

Christianity becomes something all together different when men like Jack start leaving voicemail’s on your phone.

Jack’s family, to my complete surprise, asked me to have a part in the funeral because Jack told them about the “priest he’d been working with.” Never had I been so proud to be called “priest.” Actually what I was thinking, “Did you clear this with the real priest?”

I could barely find the words during the funeral. I told his family that “Jack had a mind of great intellect. My undergraduate and graduate education in college was no match for his wisdom. More than a great mind, Jack had a huge heart. Very few people possess great knowledge and great love. Jack—your father, brother, husband, and grandfather—was such a person.”

Jack in the parkHere’s a photo a college student took that first Sunday afternoon we spent in Cass Park. Jack is on the park bench in the middle.

As I drive around Detroit and her suburbs, I often think about Jack and the rest of the homeless community in inner city Detroit: the truly marginalized and invisible people of our world.

I’m a better follower of Jesus for knowing Jack. Even more important, I’m a better human being.

I’m not sure why I am so passionate about writing and speaking about Jack. I suppose it is therapeutic and healing on the one hand. Recently over lunch, Francis (Jack’s friend in the shelter who first called me) and I shared more stories about Jack. Telling the stories of those who’ve gone before us is soothing for the soul.

I suppose I also write about Jack because I want suburbanites, regardless of religious orientation, to rethink the stereotypes that drive so much of our politics, and childish attitudes.

The main reason I write about Jack, though, might surprise you. Because of Jack, this homeless addict, this friend of mine—I am just beginning to understand who Jesus really was when he walked among us: jobless, homeless, penniless, rumored to be the illegitimate son of an illegitimate mother.

Shane Claiborne says the real tragedy is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor—but that rich Christians “do not know the poor.” Jack teaches me that the poor want to be known; they have faces, names, histories and stories. They have everything to do with the in-breaking of God’s kingdom among us.

Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he said he could be found among the poor.New Wineskins

Joshua J. GravesJoshua Graves is a minister serving the Rochester Church of Christ in Rochester Hills, MI and adjunct professor of religion for Rochester College. Josh did graduate studies at Abilene Christian University and Lipscomb University (M.Div.) Josh has written two other pieces for New Wineskins (“A Prophetic People” and “Wrestling with Jesus”). He’s also co-written the Study Guide for Mere Discipleship (Brazos Press) with noted author Lee Camp (forthcoming). He is married to Kara, the real theologian in the family. You can reach him at jgraves@rochestercoc.org or visit his online journal at [www.joshgraves.blogspot.com].

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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