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I Have a Hidden Basement (or Why I Joined the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center)

I have a hidden basement in my 1922-built house.  The floor in my kitchen pantry is a thick board that lifts up and opens to a ladder. Below is a 12’x12’ room with a concrete floor, open rafters, and exposed wiring. The single light bulb creates a cozy interrogation ambiance. Whenever the basement happens to cross my mind I often wonder this: Would I ever hide people down there?

I blame Corrie ten Boom.  My mom gave me her own childhood copy of The Hiding Place at a very young age.  I think I read about the secret room in the watchmaker’s house and Corrie’s sister Betsie dying in a concentration camp at the ripe age of eight.  But even now at 30 I ask myself: If Memphis went back in time and became early 1940s Netherlands, would I help my Jewish neighbors escape the Nazis?

I do this with a lot of points in history. When I go to museums I can’t help but take my own lived experience with me—the color of my skin, my gender, my religion, my age.  I look in the exhibits for people like me to see what they were doing. Sometimes I think it’s an egocentric and selfish practice, because certainly I ought to put myself in the shoes of the marginalized, oppressed, the other. But truthfully I look for the woman who looks like me on paper and consider her courage. She’s practicing civil disobedience or direct rebellion, pioneering in a male-dominated discipline, treating the forgotten with dignity, sheltering widows and orphans. What would I have done?

I can muse about a role reversal with the likes of Corrie ten Boom and Joan Trumpauer Mulholland all day but it’s a complete waste of time. The real question is where am I supposed to show up courageously right now in my own life?

This is why I joined the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center.

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It was time to show up, time to do more than post thought-provoking blog posts on facebook. After Ferguson, the question I’d pondered in the middle of biographies and historical markers blazed anew and soon my wise friend Ace voiced it aloud: If you’ve ever wondered what you would have done in the Civil Rights Movement, now is the time to find out.

Thanks to Ace, I knew my first step was becoming a member of the MSPJC. I joined in 2014 by donating $5 a month. It was a small amount but I’ve learned every little bit helps.

Justice is simply the right exercise of power so my best friend Civil Rights Attorney Bryan Stevenson is correct to declare, “The opposite of poverty isn’t wealth, it’s justice.” For over 30 years, the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center has worked to see power exercised rightly in our city and around the world. I’m proud of the work they do because their mission is to organize around important issues affecting the most vulnerable among us—issues those of us with means and privilege often overlook—and let the folks most affected by these issues lead the way in seeking change.

I’ll never need to hide a refugee in my basement, although with the current cultural climate on refugees I probably shouldn’t speak so soon, but this year I’ve finally begun to see where I’m supposed to show up against injustice.

It’s at protests and boycotts for Darrius Stewart because black lives do matter.

It’s giving money to support “Know Your Rights” workshops for immigrant communities taken advantage of by “notarios” masquerading as immigration attorneys and consultants. 

It’s supporting the Memphis Bus Riders Union when they say downtown trolleys for tourists shouldn’t take priority over hard-working men and women who need a bus to get to work from their neighborhood.

It’s giving money towards theater workshops for high school students needing to understand what to do when they’re stopped by police.

It’s advocating for women not only experiencing homelessness but also sexual abuse in unsafe shelters.

It’s giving tenants exploited by a neglectful slumlord a platform to tell the truth and get help.

Even though I can’t physically show up against the injustices above as much as I wish, my dollars given to the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center continue to do the work through passionate, smart, tireless organizers and faithful volunteers. This year I’m asking everyone to join this work by becoming #MyMSPJC sustainers. You can give any amount monthly, but I’d like to suggest $25. If you were planning to give me a Christmas present, please give a one-time gift to MSPJC instead. Let #MyMSPJC become yours. Join the justice movement in Memphis.

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Jean Claude Ninganza

I originally wrote this in August 2011, right before Jean Claude started William Penn University in Oskaloosa, Iowa.  This Saturday he will graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Sociology.  Almost four years later, I didn’t know I could be any more proud of him.  But I am.

Four years ago this month, this skinny teenager entered my life. He was fifteen. And he only spoke Kirundi and French.

Even in this picture, he is noble.

I didn’t know then that he would be put in French class in 9th grade for multiple periods because the school wasn’t sure what to do with him. I didn’t know that I would be livid.

I didn’t know that I would go to his parent-teacher conferences and hear many a teacher remark on his pride and determination. That one time he would sit in on a meeting and hear an ESL teacher tell his mother that he wasn’t trying hard enough. I didn’t know that he would get up and walk out in anger.

Four years ago I had no clue that I would give countless rides to the soccer field. He would somehow catch me before I left the house and ask, “Are you going by Hollywood [Ave] on your way home?”

I would nervously leave him at the Binghampton soccer field alone before others trickled in for a pick-up game. I’d eye his cleats in hand, towel across his shoulders. No water bottle or cell phone in sight.

“Will you be okay?” I’d ask.

“Me? I’m good,” he always answered. And for some reason, I always believed him.

I didn’t know that this boy would mean a Kingsbury High School Football Schedule would be posted on my refrigerator in the Fall and a Soccer Schedule up in the Spring. That I would learn more about football and soccer simply because I wanted to understand what position he played. And that I would take a ridiculous amount of blurry photos trying to capture him on the field. I didn’t know that it would mean the world to me when he called to tell me his team won and he scored a goal.

I didn’t know he would use his summer job money to buy athletic shoes for his siblings and a used big screen TV that didn’t work. When he did get his own cell phone, I didn’t know I would save his text messages because they would be both kind and funny. When he talked about going to Brazil to play soccer, I didn’t know I would be encouraging. When he wanted to take his girlfriend to the Senior Prom, I didn’t know that I would loan him the money for the tickets.

Four years ago I didn’t know this boy would make me realize I knew absolutely nothing about teenage boys, except to take up for them when they’re misunderstood.  I didn’t know that I would be so sad when he made poor decisions and so delighted when he made good ones.

I didn’t know if he would graduate from high school, especially when he almost failed English. Four years ago I had no idea he would call and let me know he passed every Gateway graduation exam. I didn’t know that I would get to see him walk across the dias and receive his diploma—the first in his family to obtain a degree in the United States.

I didn’t know that I would be so nervous when he said he wanted to go to college and play Football. That I would be even more nervous when he said it was in Iowa. Or that I would sob when I thought he had to move there a week earlier than he really did.

Four years ago, I didn’t know that he would write my parents a thank you note and say I was like his sister. I didn’t know I would lie to him and say I did not read it before I mailed it to them.

I didn’t know that he would leave tomorrow for university. That his mother would be sad tonight and I would have to explain again that they will feed him and provide a place to wash his clothes. That she would ask if he should take rice to cook and keep saying, “This is the first time…far away…”

I didn’t know that I would tell him goodbye tonight. I didn’t know that he would walk me out to my car, like he had done every night I left his family’s home too late, and tell me:

“Pray for me every day, Meredith. I want to do good. I want to make my family proud and I want to make your family proud.”

Four years ago, I didn’t know that I would be so proud of him. I didn’t know he would be my brother.

Ninganza means “God is a Warrior” in Swahili.
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