Eddie Young works out of a basement, in an office not much larger than a broom closet, usually talking across his desk to one person at a time.
Sometimes the composed, athletically-built, graying 51-year-old steps out into the cinder block main room, with its weak lighting, a couple of posters dotting the walls, a pass-through window and a vintage 1950s church kitchen at one end.
It's shabby all right, and an unlikely base from which Young has become a de facto opinion leader in three years' time, the most unimposing public figure you're likely to meet. His claim to fame is a quirky mixture of projects that address Knoxville's homeless and "radically underprivileged" population in Fort Sanders, from a 5K running group that sponsors its disadvantaged members to a Food in the Fort project that helps them eat healthier, to a recent mayoral candidate debate held in the top part of the same building, and the "voice of social change" Amplifier newspaper produced mostly by the disadvantaged and some University of Tennessee students, and sold by homeless and formerly homeless vendors.
But a far more challenging notion lies beneath all of his efforts. Young is also a pastor, the executive director of Redeeming Hope Ministries, part of the Redeemer Church on the corner of Highland and 17th in the Fort—and while he won't pass up a chance to minister to those who ask him for it, the means and the ends of his projects are one and the same, and have nothing to do with salvation.
"It's a lofty goal, but it's simply to try to bring wholeness and wellness to their lives," he explains of his earthly mission. "Now, if you're asking me if these things are going to afford me a ticket to the afterlife, that's—that's not the motivation."
Sitting at the campus Panera, a half mile or so from his base of operations, Young chooses his words carefully. "If I can say it this crudely, in some sense, we're reaching beyond the veil of time and space and sort of reeling in that afterlife we call heaven to the here and now. We're really, not of our own power, or our own will, or our own design, but there are times when you can reach into the sacred, and reach beyond here, and you can bring that in, so that's what I see us doing."
Having made this pronunciation, he gets a small, wry smile on his face, and peers into the cup of some creamy coffee he's drinking, adding, "We don't typically speak in those terms, obviously."
In fact, there is little talk of what's being done at Redeeming Hope, and much more action. People who come there, many with the mental or domestic violence or addiction issues attendant to their life experience, participate in creative, strengthening activities, like essay and poetry writing, or carpooling out to Beardsley Community Farm to grow some of the vegetables and herbs given out at Food in the Fort. A week's offering might include an afternoon of art or quarterly HIV testing.
It's a surprising mix, says Redeemer Church's chief musician, Matt Grimsley, an ordained minister who has one of those closet-sized spots a door down from Young, given that the church is theologically conservative—Presbyterian, in fact. "Eddie is a pioneer and he has the drive to help us break out of the stereotype and engage with our community," says Grimsley. "The phrase is ‘ministry in word and deed' and in this area we are very familiar with the ‘word' part. We just want to tell you what to think. But Redeeming Hope, that's about the deeds, and meeting physical needs. There's that proverb, ‘A hungry man has no ears.'"
Within 45 minutes of talking to Young, you're in a serious discussion, meaning-of-life stuff, and he has a far and away head start on you. He's not sure what will come of his efforts, or if he's even any good at it, but he knows what he's going for, even though in 20-some years of ministry this is his first non-traditional church job: "They need people like ourselves, they have no access to the things that bring wholeness and wellness, so they need people to open those doors for them. Whether it's food, clothing, express themselves, or engaging meaningfully with the community, they need us. Nobody else is going to listen to them."
In another of those hard, sharp, surprising turns of conversation, he'll tell you how the man he was and will ever identify with has vested him with a sense of responsibility.
"I spent 15 years of my life deep into the drug culture," he admits succinctly, then refuses to soft-pedal. "It wasn't just recreational stuff, not just smoking pot," he says. "It was bad stuff. I did LSD, opium, cocaine—everything, all the time. That is part of the difficult thing for me to reconcile, even in my own conscious: I have to ask, ‘Why am I on this side and others are on that side?' I can remember going into prisons thinking, ‘the only difference between you and me is you got caught. That is the only difference. Why, why is that?'"
The drugs began for Young as a 16-year-old, when he says he lost his sense of any meaning of life. "I don't know, maybe I never had it. Drug use was an escape. It wasn't about having fun, it wasn't about partying, it wasn't about anything like that. I was just in a desperate state, and—so. Suicidal tendencies."
He carried the habit through two years of art school, then dropped out and became a UPS driver. "My wife came right out and said, for the life of her, she cannot picture this. Cannot see me this way. My kids, this has been an open conversation in our family for as long as I can remember, because I want them to know."
He moved up the ranks at UPS, spending his late 20s in management, fully functional by day—and hooked on drugs. He remembers the routines as if he still does them, though he's been clean more than 20 years: the top of the priority list being drugs, and how to buy them, going through even a decent salary so fast he'd be selling plasma in downtown Nashville to buy more drugs; ransacking the apartment, hoping to find something, when he ran out.
It's brought him an acute understanding of just who it is he's trying to befriend, make whole. "That's one of the things, when I hear out in the community, I hear people talk about, ‘The homeless are drunks, and drug addicts.' You know, I'm just a perfect example—I know there are people who are out there making five- and six- figure salaries who are on drugs. I know that, and I know that from experience. The difference is, they're able to conceal it. Even when we find out those things, all of us have an unwritten agreement that we don't call each other out on it. The difference between us and the homeless is they have no way to conceal it. It's out there in front of everybody so therefore they are characterized as that and that's just what's so irritating."
Never good with dates, years—"it's all one long day to me"—Young can only tell you that his ascent into wellness began when he was about 30, when he met his wife-to-be, Lori. She had no idea who he was, or what he was, nor did any of the mutual friends who had fixed them up. "No one had any idea what I was involved in."
Young found his drive to get drugs supplanted by a need to stay close to this woman. "I wanted to find a way to make this thing work, 'cause I liked her that much. She, being the outstanding good person that she was, assumed that I went to church, so she started thinking, ‘Let's find a church that we can go to.' I went, and that was it. That was the small community I had experienced, probably for the first time in my life, I felt a sense of peace, and love, and meaning, and that's just a big—I don't know how to say it. I know it sounds overdramatic, but I think that's just where God changed my life. That was enough."
Young didn't go to rehab, but he did resign from UPS. "You know," he says, "you go through an experience like that and you just want to walk the Earth like Kwai Chang Kaine, and share this with other people. It's not like I'm racing to save people's souls, it was nothing like that. It's just like, ‘Man, I think this thing makes sense. I think I've got this meaning here, and I think I can probably help bring this to others.'"
Eighteen or so years after this epiphany, Young and Lori and their two teens arrived in Knoxville, the parents looking for a balanced life for their kids in a diverse, urban setting that wasn't quite as large as Young's hometown of Nashville. They'd just capped Young's ministerial jobs in Scotland and Kentucky with a stint in Montana. "I think what really brought the need for a move home to me was when we found out my 12-year-old daughter was being taught at the local Christian school in rural Montana that we never landed on the moon," says Young. Putting ministerial work on hold, he spent six months at FedEx, delivering packages, and six months working at a seed warehouse, before Lori convinced him he couldn't live life like that anymore.
"I hate to be cynical, but I thought the best I could hope for is a church I'm not ashamed to say I go to—one where I can stomach what comes out of the pulpit, and my wife and my kids might be able to receive some sort of spiritual encouragement," says Young.
Enter Redeemer, which had been in the works as a downtown/campus worship center for Presbyterians literally since the mid-'90s, but only started worship services in the Candy Factory building in January 2004, and opened at the current building in Fort Sanders in 2005. Made up from "primarily younger" families and singles from all over Knoxville, Redeemer Church estimates its rolls include about 100 UT and other college students, and 5-10 percent urban poor.
They were seeking a pastor of service and director of holistics to round out their associate pastors and Young was hired. "Our first time at Redeemer, we just absolutely fell in love with it—with the culture, with their intentional posture towards the community," he says.
Not long after joining the staff, Young began Redeeming Hope Ministries, inspired by a group he describes with affection and sorrow. At that time, there was a "slum of sorts" across 17th Street, 40 or 50 guys who couldn't get an apartment anywhere else because they had records or no money, semi-homeless for any number of reasons. Rent was set to what a few of the people who had incomes could pay; the rest flopped. "It was a hard place, a crack house, with prostitutes, just a bad scene," remembers Young. He started crossing the street, seeing the despair, and engaging them. Like a friend, he says. "Then, you know, the stream kind of opened up. They would come across on a daily basis."
And here's the thing, says Young. "I'm only saying the way it was. I was just establishing intentional and genuine relationships, friendships. Nobody was the object of our ministry, nobody was our client, they were just friends. And through these relationships, we started just mentoring and escorting them into a better place. They recognized that, and it was a good thing."
It is at this point in Young's story that you start realizing the saturation of his vision, his dedication to dignity and worth for his fellows, his blinders to the traits and circumstances that separate men. Because this guy wells up when he gets to the part where, a year later, the place was condemned, the residents scattered. Young thinks most, if not all, are homeless now, and he's lost touch with others. He actually misses them, the unwashed, addictive collection of renters and squatters. "They were, they are—my friends," he says.
"We've made attempts at trying to find a champion for it, trying to find someone who would buy it and let us operate it as just sort of a holistic community, but we have not yet managed to find that person. But that group scattering, that's when I determined to raise up a non-profit, and name it Redeeming Hope Ministries."
Guery "Chattanooga" Stanton knows just when he met his friend Eddie Young, and he's happy to talk about it on a slow afternoon at the ministry's basement, where he's brought himself and a beat-up fuchsia backpack to refresh his stack of Amplifiers. It was August 2010, and the two men met at the mission where Stanton was staying and selling cross necklaces he weaves from acrylics. Chattanooga wanted to sell him two for $5, Young bought five for $5 each. "We've been friends ever since," says the 6-foot 3-inch man with the amused outlook and soft, Southern drawl, and this afternoon's conversation with Young about an altercation he's witnessed with another vendor reinforces it. They stand side by side, much like two concerned middle managers who paused to chat in a corporate hall, speaking calmly, asking for and receiving each other's opinion. Then Young returns to his office, where the perpetrator is idling, and comes back to his conversation with Stanton, smiling: "He says you can come kick his ass, and then I'm gonna be the one to preach your funeral." Both men chuckle softly; all is well.
Stanton is Young's same age—51—and when he met the pastor he was not on the lam exactly, but he hadn't showed for a court date in Chattanooga. In the past year, he says, Redeeming Hope has helped him clear that up, and Eddie got him a bus ticket so he could go bury his brother in Chattanooga. Stanton moved into an apartment Dec. 15, and credits Young with helping him find every stick of furniture inside, including an air mattress. "I didn't know, so silly me I put it on a metal frame," he says, "Gosh, I poked a big hole in there, and I don't know if that patch stuff is going to work on a hole that big. But I bet we can get that figured out here—Eddie will probably have some ideas."
Some things about this work deliver a swift kick to Young's gut. Like the voter registration drive the group has begun. "I'm out there talking, ‘Man, you really need to get out and vote,' and this guy is like, ‘Buddy, they don't let me vote! I'm a convicted felon!'"
Young's anguish is palpable; it doesn't seem fair to him that someone who's paid their debt to society still loses all say in how that society is run. Even those who can vote but are drastically socially disadvantaged can't always benefit from the election process, notes Young. "All this talk about developing jobs, well, no one's going to let these folks get one of those jobs," he rails. "It's really hard to motivate anyone to vote, even when they'll clearly benefit—and motivating these voters to get involved is even harder."
Still, Redeeming Hope has registered more than 100 homeless and impoverished voters. They might be a little closer to their goal of 300 if some other faith-based non-profits realized that encouraging the vote does not threaten their nonprofit tax status whatsoever—a couple of times, Redeeming Hope has lost a chance to sign up voters because someone in authority confused asking people to vote with telling people how to vote, which is strictly forbidden by the IRS.
The importance of the right to vote is not Young's only heartfelt opinion. He has others, chief among them, "Who will deny that money is at the root of most of our evils?" Other views of his are more pointed, like the one he encapsulated in an Amplifier editorial: "In regards to addressing and resolving the issue of homelessness in Knoxville, this year's election is a pivotal one—either we can resume with proven best practices, now with the consensus support of the community, or we can take significant steps backwards."
The Amplifier is committed to Housing First principles for the homeless, and Young himself feels that all humans ought to be able to access, outside another man's permission, "a home, our daily bread, and to love and be loved."
Of course, the day's grind tends to intrude on these ideals, and Redeeming Hope's finances sometimes fall short in the pursuit of them. "The things we do take a lot of money," notes Young. The Amplifier's printing cost of $500 per month seems modest, for example, but a month out from its one-year anniversary in November, they have yet to break even with sales, and the shortfall comes out of the RHM budget. Same with Food in the Fort—so far it's still costing the ministry about $1,000 a month.
But weighing much more heavily on Young's mind are the underlying social conditions for his radically impoverished friends.
"At some point," he says, "churches have to stop just feeding and clothing, and start saying we need systemic changes."
Not everyone is fond of Young, he is the first to admit. Two men have put out death threats, probably more, he imagines—the ones he knows of were domestic abusers. But here's the kind of thing that happens with that, when you're Eddie Young—part serendipity, part awareness, part ridiculous optimism.
Young saw one of those men again—as they were both helping claim the contents of a thrift store that was going out of business. And as he listened to the guy beside him talk, he realized who he was, and soon the guy started figuring out who Young was, but instead of a melee, the guy started telling the pastor his story.
Somehow, the two men got from that second encounter to a day when the fellow had a bus ticket in hand supplied by Young, and then to him getting work in the place he traveled to. And then to texting, the man who once made death threats texting Young every now and then. "Here's one—'Thanks for all your help, brother. Gotta clock in, that time'," says Young, holding out his cell phone—he's saved this. His gaze has softened, his voice has crept into an emotional register. "He's always making sure I'm doing okay, asking about my family, encouraging me. He's really, well, he's a good friend."