Sunday, June 22, 2014

“It’s A God Thing!”

    If you know Onie Johns very well or if you are around her for very long – say fifteen or twenty minutes – you will most likely hear her say, “It’s a God thing!”  Indeed, the story of the beginning of Caritas Community all the way through to Caritas Village today is the story of Onie’s sense of calling and the faith to see it through.  In the context of a deeply caring community of faithful people surrounding and supporting her call, Caritas is, in fact, “A God thing!”  There is really no other way it can be explained. 

The story begins in the early 1990s when Onie left the comfort of her Germantown surroundings to join Everett Memorial United Methodist Church on the corner of N. Merton and Oxford (the building now know as “The Commons”).  At that time, it was a small “drive in” church with mostly elderly members that no longer wanted much (if any) involvement in the neighborhood.  When Onie connected with Everett, she joined the efforts of a very active and neighborhood minded pastor.  Onie and a few others were convinced of the importance of helping the church reconnect with the neighborhood.  The children and youth were especially on Onie’s heart.  In the late 1990s, Onie participated in a ten month formation class sponsored by the Memphis School of Servant Leadership.  That class was transformative for Onie.  One of those ways began when she and another member of the class along with Everett Memorial began talking seriously about developing A House of Hospitality in the neighborhood.  The House would be a hub for a growing community called Caritas Community in which children and youth in the neighborhood would come to be tutored, learn how to use computers, play, and simply be safe in a context in which safety was not always available.  (Caritas is Latin for Love for all people.)

The two original participants settled on a house at the Northeast corner of N. Merton and Everett – directly across from what was then called the Magnolia Apartments.  The Caritas Community had found a home!  Onie had not even moved in before children and youth were already overflowing with activities in the house.  The Caritas House was not merely a haven for kids and youth, though. It also became a place for community meetings: Thursday Evening Community Meals; a place for all the agencies and groups that serve the Binghampton area to work together in developing ideas that would strengthen the community; classes for the Memphis School of Servant Leadership; and concerts on the “East Lawn” open to everyone and always drawing the neighborhood together!  Onie’s response to the involvement of so many in the Caritas Community was simple:  “It’s a God Thing!”

The two original partners knew they could not manage everything by themselves, so thy “sent out a call” for those who had similar callings and a “Mission Group” was developed of people who would give direction and discernment about the vision of the Caritas Community.  Eventually, the Mission Group discerned a calling to buy some houses in the neighborhood that could house persons with mental illness, persons who were homeless, persons who were recent immigrants to our country, and others who had temporary housing needs for medical, or other reasons. 

There was always something new bubbling to the top of the Mission Group’s agenda.  One of the things on Onie’s heart was the dream of a larger Arts and Community Center combined with a Coffee Shop for the neighborhood.  The Mission Group appreciated the idea, but on several different occasions told Onie there just wasn’t enough energy among the group to undertake such a project.  When the “For Sale” sign appeared in front of the Masonic Lodge building down the street, Onie came back to the group and insisted this was the time and place.  The Mission Group promised they would pray about it for a week and discuss it again at the next meeting.  By that time, the Group was convinced this calling was not going away, so they asked Onie to send out a call to anyone she thought would  support the vision, saying that if there was a positive response, they would take that as a sign God was calling them to move forward.  The response was tremendous!  Within a week over $38,000 and a Van had been pledged, clearly validating the idea and shocking everyone who heard the story. Onie’s simple response was:  “It’s a God Thing!”

After acquiring the building it took over two years to get a zoning waiver.  During that time the building began its transformation from the lodge to the Village, a place called to “Breaking down walls of hostility between the cultures, and building bridges of love and trust between the rich and those made poor, and providing a positive alternative to the street corners for the neighborhood children."

One of the defining moments in the shaping of the mission of Caritas Village for me happened before it opened at a small house across from the Village where a Mexican family lived. One summer evening while we were working to get the Village ready for opening, this family with their brothers and their families were having a fiesta, when two heavily armed African-American men came up to rob them.  Two of the brothers were killed and a third was in critical condition at the Trauma Center with nine gunshot wounds.  This grief was felt all over the neighborhood.  The men who attacked the family were not from this very diverse neighborhood where relationships are strong across racial and cultural lines, and people care what happens to others!  Though one might think nothing good could come out of such an awful tragedy, God moved many who lived in the neighborhood and had relationships across cultural and racial boundaries to call others to a Candlelight March for Peace and Prayer, and a service on the Village lawn.  The goal of the march and service was to make clear that in our neighborhood such an act did not have to cultivate hatred.  Rather, it gave us as a community an opportunity to speak about the way God had called us into such diversity that love for one another would reign supreme.

On the afternoon we marched, the mother of the slain men and most of her family were with us.  The wife of the man still in critical condition at the Med helped plan it.  We began at the parking lot of Everett Memorial Church.  Everyone had a lit candle as we silently walked up the street to the spot where the shootings occurred.  At that point, prayers were spoken and tears flowed from most eyes.  Following the prayers, we all went to the yard of the Village across the street where the meaning of “Caritas” was already apparent.  There was a spontaneous worship service with over a hundred neighbors including African, Latino, Vietnamese, African-American, Caucasian, and Afghanis, some rich, some poor, all equal.  Everyone came together to say that we do not want divides and violence in our community; instead we want our neighborhood to be a diverse community gathered in love and support of one another! (Caritas!)  Following the service, we had an incredible Pot-luck dinner inside the building that brought us all together at the tables, talking and enjoying each other’s company while bridging any differences that might have remained between us.  When it was over, with a huge smile on her face, Onie’s simple response was, “It’s a God thing.”  

It was a few more months before the Caritas Village officially opened, though I felt it really opened that night with an overwhelmingly powerful preview of what Caritas Village would become. As Onie said then, “It’s a God thing.”  And since then, in an amazing and unbelievable way, one ministry, collaboration or experience of grace after another, The Village has become the incredible community place of love and hope that it is today.  Each time something new, incredible, or amazing happens, so many others have picked up Onie’s refrain:  It’s a God thing!’

                                                                                                 J. Jeffrey Irwin, Former Pastor
Everett Memorial Methodist Church
Member of the original Mission Group

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Caritas is Thankful, Too!

       Only two weeks out from Thanksgiving, you are more and more likely to hear about what everyone is thankful for in their lives. Family, friends, perhaps a meal to enjoy, or a jacket to keep warm in-- and of course, we are all thankful for Caritas. Not only is it a restaurant for some and a kitchen for others, but it can also be a home away from home. Caritas provides warmth as it continues to get cold outside, and is a place where one will always be welcomed. But, as much as people cherish Caritas and the surrounding community, it is easy to overlook just how much thanks Caritas has, too. 

        Caritas Village has a lot to be thankful for-- volunteers, whether it be college students or retired military; donations of fresh garden produce; workers who cook, clean, and set up everything day to day. However, one of the most prominent aspects always seems to be the happiness and love every individual walks into Caritas with. All of these contributions, whether tangible or not, allow Caritas to continue to progress and help everyone. The relationship between Caritas and the family that congregates here is cyclical-- everyone does their best to give back to Caritas for what it has given to them.  

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Best Job in Memphis

       Although my time working at Caritas Village has been relatively short thus far, it has been nothing but a learning experience. To give a little bit of a back story, I am a freshman at Rhodes College working as a community service work study student, which is how I found out about Caritas. Prior to coming here, however, I had a position in the library to check out and shelve books. Around the middle of August, a very close friend of mine passed away, and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with. He was, without a doubt, the most genuinely kind person to anyone.  Not a few weeks after his passing I heard about Caritas, and that I could still do work study off campus for them-- it was perfect. As stated on the ‘about’ page of the website, the term “Caritas” is translated from Latin and defined to mean “love for all people”. I felt as if it was something God, as well as my friend Hollis, were leading me to do. Caritas is a place where love is open for everyone without prejudice-- the type of love Hollis exhibited, and the type of love I’m learning day by day to demonstrate myself. I feel that working here is a way that I can honor him and further myself to be a person as outstanding as he was.
Needless to say I love working here. After my first time returning, regulars began to remember my name already and show a genuine interest in who I am, where I am from, and how I enjoy life in general. Everyone here works so hard at what they do, and it is so inspiring to push myself more in work as well as at school because of their determination. It is a community where everyone wants to truly help each other regardless of circumstance, and I am so happy to have become a part of it. Not only do I truly enjoy deciphering Onie’s calendar to make sure all events are announced for everyone, but the homemade soups and quesadillas are always a plus. 
I hope to be here three years down the line when I am a senior, and I hope by then not only has everyone here made an impact on me, but that I can make an impact as well. 

Virginia Ariail
Rhodes College 
Class of 2017

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Somew(HERE) South of Sam Cooper

“My role in society, or any artist’s or poet’s role, is to try and express what we all feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all.”

-John Lennon

        This summer the Caritas Village has its very first Student Artist-In-Residence, Michael Joiner. Michael is a native Memphian, pursuing his B.F.A. in Theatre at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. While many collegestudents may jump at the chance to spend a summer on the beach or to just take a break from life’s everyday chaos, Michael is determined to spend every moment with purpose. He has returned to the city he calls home, moved to Binghampton, and has set out to create a documentary that tells the stories of the neighborhood and its people.
I have only known Michael for a little over a year, but am blessed to call him an artistic collaborator and a friend. I know this to be true – he has an abounding love for yesterday and an even greater passion for tomorrow. When I first met Michael I noticed the faded bumper sticker on the back of his Jeep announcing, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” I quickly discovered that I had met a fellow artist, listener, true Memphian, and dreamer. He is the product of family, Beatles’ records, beat poetry, handwritten letters, classic novels, independent films, and the soul that only comes from Memphis.Right now, he is becoming a product of Binghampton. He is gathering the stories of the people that live and work within the walls of this neighborhood. Michael aims to tell their stories well – with truth and clarity and love. He would probably tell you that he aims to stay out of the way (as good storytellers do) and let the stories speak for themselves. He would also say that this project is not about his perspective. However, I would like to spend a few moments sharing his very inspiring perspective. Currently, his days are spent interviewing others and asking them the questions that open up real dialogue. I am going to attempt to follow his lead and step out of the way, so that his voice can be heard clearly. I urge you to stop for a moment, maybe grab a glass of tea, put a record on, and look through his lens.

Describe the project that you will be working on as the Caritas Village Artist-In-Residence.
I’m shooting a documentary called Somew(HERE) South of Sam Cooper. It’s a film about stories, about life as the people inBinghampton know it…how they see the world and how they see themselves and the importance of all the very intricate dynamics of their community that most people don’t realize is there. It’s a film that is meant to personalize statistics and news reports and negative connotations and stereotypes.
Hopefully, when it’s done, the people of Binghampton will say, “Yeah – I made that.”
Hopefully, something beautiful will come from it.

You are in the middle of gathering the stories of others. Could you share some of your thoughts on story?
Good writers are very, very good at writing without any knowledge that their words are even there…at capturing what it is that they are talking about. The words never get in the way.

Could you describe yourself as an artist?
As an artist I consider myself to be a kid in a creative candy store. I’m interested, intrigued, and fascinated by everything and only get disappointed when it’s time for me to go.

What are some of the questions that you ask during interviews?
The questions are basic, super simple. Questions like:
What does Binghampton mean to you?
What are your hopes for the people that live here?
Where do you see the neighborhood ten years from now?
How does art influence the neighborhood? How can it?
What do the words service, love, and community mean to you?
What is your favorite word?
It’s not about what I think the neighborhood is. I just want to give people the opportunity and the platform to say exactly how they see it in their own words. If you get all of those perspectives and they are varied enough, you’ll probably find some commonality between all of the people that live there. It’s my theory that those similarities will be very shocking.

What is your favorite word?
Revelry – To me “revelry”means that you find personalized pleasure in something that is otherwise seemingly mundane…something that could be universally great or universally ugly, but you still find something about it that is absolutely captivating or worthwhile.

How has growing up in Memphis influenced you?
I could talk about that for hours…Something that Memphis has,that is so influential in the medium of art, is soul. It’s that quality that everyone possesses here. It’s sort of gritty, rough-edged, tough, no-nonsense – It’s just a Memphis thing. You can’t really quantify it. I think that a city that is steeped in so much history – the Civil Rights Movement, the birth place of rock and roll, all the artists the artists that have come through. Elvis, the trolley line, the Peabody, high rise buildings– everything in this city has influenced me, from the smallest, seemingly insignificant detail to the Memphis bridge or the pyramid or something iconic. It’s all important and it’s something that I take pride in.
I said when I graduated high school and moved off to Nashville, when I was much younger and more foolish, that I would never come back to Memphis. I didn’t want to. I had bad memories from growing up. But I tell you, after I said that I was never coming back, the first time that I saw the city again, it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

What do you find most exciting about this documentary?
The most exciting thing is that it is not about me or any one individual. It’s about everybody. Everyone is on an equal playing field.
In short, we want this film to be a conversation starter. There’s this feeling that I’ve got something big to say. These people have something big to say and together, as a group, we have something really, really big to say, but no one has heard us say it yet. The anticipation of the response is the biggest inspiration – Are people going to get angry about it? Are they going to love it? Are they going to do something because of it?

If you are interested in supporting this project or sharing your story with Michael, you can find him every afternoon at the Caritas Village. Please join us in August for the screening of the documentary. We look forward to sharing 
stories with you.

By Leslie Barker

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Conversations with Chere Labbe Doiron

“Well I never have wandered down to New Orleans
Never have drifted down a bayou stream
But I heard that music on the radio
And I swore some day I was gonna go…”

-       Mary Chapin Carpenter

Chere Labbe Doiron’s collection, Tatted Earth and Dreams, currently on display at the Caritas Village, certainly made me want to hop in the car and head south to Louisiana.  When speaking about the collection, Chere explains, “All of the work is rooted in Louisiana. That just seems to be where my heart lies and where my aesthetic passion emanates from...These places are very dear to me, so I approach it from a spiritual standpoint, not just a sheer visual standpoint.” As pure and honest as a folk song, and as rich and layered as the bayou, the pieces in this exhibit pay homage to Chere’s artistic influences and the beloved Louisiana land that she calls home. They also speak the story of her life through texture, found objects, and exuberant color.
            The art pulled me into its strikingly beautiful world from across the large room at the Village. In fact, it stopped me in my tracks on a very busy day. I am very lucky that Chere herself happened to be sitting near me at the very moment this happened. Before I knew it, we had lunch plans and an interview scheduled to further discuss her work. I can honestly say, that my conversation with Chere turned out to be one of the most inspiring lunch hours that I have experienced in quite sometime.
            She speaks of her art with an ease and modesty, but also with great reverence and great conviction. When describing her process, she makes it clear that she creates with urgency and out of utter necessity. After a thirty-year hiatus from painting, she returned to her craft three years ago with the fear of a child, but also with fierce determination. When speaking of her artistic journey, she uses the words “intensity” and “risk.” She says, “I’m painting with a lot of physical and spiritual intensity. These are aggressive paintings and I like that.” The intensity comes from “the urgency to get it out – the fear of doing it and the fear of not doing it.” Chere is now embracing the journey, the struggle, and the uncertainty that I think almost all artists can relate to. She recognizes this need to create as a gift and is putting her creations out into the world with open eyes and a heart that constantly desires growth.
            The pieces in the exhibit range from canvases that depict the marsh in Louisiana with layers and layers of color, to weathered wood with multiple moons, to three-dimensional upholstery for an armchair. One of my personal favorites, Tattered Dreams, is a mixed media piece portraying a bride that has been “left out in the rain.” Inspired by a collage artist form Chere’s hometown, she is made of wood, paint, beautiful lace, and found pieces of metal. The bride has been sold and I asked Chere, if it would be hard to let her go. She quickly said “no.” She is happy to let the work go when she knows that it is going to a good home. “The bride is going to hang in a women’s shelter - transitional housing for woman who are leaving prison with their children and assimilating back into the world…That my work can be used at that level is overwhelming to me.” Chere is planning to create a hopeful companion piece for Tattered Dreams that explores dreams fulfilled.
            Chere believes that “The best part about the pieces is being able to share what they are about on a deeper level and then have people who are interested in that and to be able to have conversations about it – to me that is the ultimate, best thing ever. The connection with people through the art I do just blows me away.”
You have one more week to see this extraordinary exhibit. It will be at the Caritas Village through March 31. If you are as lucky as I was, you will get to speak with Chere about her work. I assure you, you will leave inspired.

by Leslie Barker

Monday, February 25, 2013

Volunteer of The Month

Jenny Miller has been a Caritas volunteer for two years.  Jenny has always been a helper, Caritas is not her first venture in volunteering, but it definitely plays a big part in her life today.  She was originally inspired to invest her time at Caritas after hearing a sermon on service at St. John's.  The minister, Johnnie Jeffries, mentioned a handful of volunteer opportunities and Caritas was among them.  Miller has filled a variety of roles at Caritas, originally working with The Peacemakers program.  The Peacemakers program is directed towards youth in the Memphis area.  It encourages creative methods in growing a peaceful attitude among all Memphis citizens.  Since working with The Peacemakers, Jenny has offered her time and talents throughout various facets of the Village.  As of late, she's been spending her Mondays serving the lunch crowd.

There are many beautiful things about Caritas but perhaps the most beautiful thing is the people that fill the building.  Something magical happens when one steps forth to offer their time at Caritas; whatever gift one has, however big or small, Onie can find a place for it.  She has an inherent gift for seeing the inherent gifts of others.  "This [Caritas] is a cross-section of all types of people and it focuses on the preciousness of all people" says Jenny Miller.  When asked about her long time dedication to the village, Jenny said "I don't want this place to go away and it takes a lot of people to help."

If you have hesitation about getting involved at Caritas, Jenny reminds us to ask "What can I do? Rather than "What can't I do?"  In helping others, we help ourselves, we find what Jenny calls "purpose and place."

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A bit about Frank D. Robinson, Caritas' Artist in Residence

Caritas, translated from Latin, means “love for all people.”  And that’s what Caritas is largely about; people… bringing them together, welcoming their story, and loving them because of it.  On any given day inside this old brick building off of Harvard Ave, you will witness the stories being told.  They’re being told at tables spread throughout the big room.  Sometimes it’s very quiet, there are quiet murmurs between people.  On other days, it’s loud and stories roar from table to table.  Even when this place is empty, there are stories captured in works of art and they’re covering the walls.  

Frank D. Robinson is Caritas’ artist in residence.  He grew up in Whitehaven and attended The School of The Art Institute of Chicago.  Frank is a storyteller of an unconventional variety.  Using debris found in every day life, things that most people overlook, Frank creates chaotically controlled portraits.  Looking at the portraits, it’s hard not to come up with some sort of narrative about the subjects.  They are covered in discarded labels, hair combs, bottle caps.  According to, the average American throws away 4.5 lbs of trash a day… Frank first fell into using these unwanted items while living in Washington, DC.  “I wasn’t thinking about recycling… I just didn’t have any money.”  Frank’s approach was perhaps initially out of convenience but the pieces, filled with labels and items that our consumerist society is overridden with, carried a message that was impossible not to read and so, he ran with it.

“At first, the work was kind of clumsy but it still came out calculated and revealed my message.”  And the pieces are in fact kind of chaotic, typically filled with a single figure surrounded by bright colors, words and thoughts penned by Frank himself and labels that we see in every day life. 

“You know, if you throw away something, you might see me pick it up or me and you might be walking down the street and then you’ll find yourself picking up stuff for me… me and you might be sitting down at Caritas and you might tell me a story about your grandpa and I’ll hold that story in my mind so I’ll take that story and put it in a piece and when you see it, you’ll be like “yeah, I get it.”  And it will mean something to you… but it might not mean something to other viewers until I tell them the story… You know how your grandmother has this dresser or this drawer that you cant touch?  And you don’t know what to do with all of that stuff?  I take the stuff in the dresser and it goes into the work and it becomes her story manifested in a piece.”  

The connectedness of every human story, the small and quiet similarities in all of us are what many search for, we need to feel that we are not so alone and our story is shared.  Frank’s goal is to carry the story and cause the viewer to relate.  “I want to make you feel something; if it’s sad, I’m doing my job… all stories aren’t happy ever after.  They always tell the story of the couple, ending happy, walking hand in hand into the sunset but they never tell what happens after… it’s messy."

The work of Frank D. Robinson can be seen all over Memphis but it’s born out of the heart of Binghampton, just across the street from Caritas.   Nearly every day, Frank’s funky VW can be seen parked in front of the studio across the street or he might be hanging out in a booth at Caritas, sketching and collecting stories from the many different people that visit every day.  He is a carrier of hope, he is a carrier of strength, and his voice, embodied through painting, speaks the stories of all that he meets.  It truly is an honor to have such a powerful presence with us at Caritas... and we are so grateful for the stories shared.

In addition to Frank’s studio, Caritas offers studios for rent in the green house directly across the street.  The two studios range from $200.00 - $250.00 a month.  Contact us at for more info!!!!