Hello! I’m starting a new series in my column. I call it Hyperlocal Introductions. The aim, pretty simply, is to introduce Chattanoogans to each other. I’ll be interviewing people around town, as they let me, people I see frequently when I’m out and about and about whom I’ve always wondered, "Now, what’s that person’s story?" The interviews will be brief and nonintrusive. I’m not trying to lay bare anybody’s deepest, darkest secrets. Think of it this way: If we were all at a party, I’d be the one saying, "Hey, have you met ...?" Thanks, as always, for reading!
My evening commute, like many Chattanoogans’ evening commutes, takes me southeast through the Missionary Ridge Tunnel. Traffic typically moves at a mosey pace. Somewhere between a creep and a trudge. I scootch along in the car line inside the tunnel and notice the usual sights: upside down V’s of gunk oozing from the drainage pipes. The guy in the F-150 picking his nose. The woman in the gold Lexus talking out loud to nobody. She’s probably using her phone’s hands-free device, but still. It’s kind of fun to pretend she’s crazy. And there at the end of the tunnel, behind the railing that keeps tunnel pedestrians from tumbling into tunnel traffic, is the man I’d hoped to see. The man with the black ball cap and the sign that reads "#JesusIsLord."
The first time I ever saw him, my reaction was one of appreciation—appreciation in that it takes a certain amount of guts to stand with a sign that firmly espouses anything at all. You have to be motivated by one of two things: one, you really, really believe in what your sign says, so that the discomfort of the elements and the occasional, anonymous taunts from jerk-wad motorists don’t dissuade you; or two, you’re being hazed.
I pull off Brainerd and park and wonder what the hell I’m going to say to the man. I should have written down a list of questions. (Dammit, Paul! That’s Journalism 101!) How to explain what I’m doing? "Hello. Can I talk to you? And put it on the internet?" But answers to the question "How will this work?" typically appear only after I take a wild leap in a direction I think is right. So I get out of the car.
When I come in range of human contact, the man offers his hand to me to shake before I can do the same. He says his name is Kendall before I can say, "I’m Paul" and launch into my, "I write a column; can I interview you?" spiel. I’m self-conscious, I realize, above and beyond the normal self-consciousness that comes from talking to a complete stranger. I’ve barged into his territory. This is Kendall’s spot, where he does his thing. I’m a presumptuous, trespassing twerp.
Kendall’s easygoing, even welcoming demeanor puts those feelings off right away. I take up a position next to him and lean on the railing. My first question: "Why do you do this?"
"For the glory of God," Kendall said. An immediate answer. No hesitation. And he means it. Ernest Hemingway advises writers to "develop a built-in bull s&$@ detector," and I think mine is pretty finely tuned. It’s not pinging in Kendall’s presence. I wonder if he suspected the instant he saw me that I was going to ask, "Why?" He understands, I’m sure, that what he does is unconventional in the eyes of most, but I’m not sure Kendall cares, though not in a flippant way. The flippant sign-holder types (think Westboro Baptist) are primarily picking fights and looking for fame. Spreading the Gospel is way down the list. But Kendall, I quickly gathered, is there day in and day out because he cares about whether you or me or anybody else in Chattanooga winds up in hell.
He spends a lot of time at the Missionary Ridge Tunnel. One to two hours a day, winter and summer, usually around evening rush hour. He’s been doing it for seven years. I ask him what I’d find if I went on Twitter and put in "#JesusIsLord." But the hashtag, it turns out, is an attention grabber.
"My cousin told me the hashtag means whatever comes after it is important," Kendall said.
A simple, savvy way to emphasize the point. A tongue-in-cheek nod to the fact that conveying an ancient message can still be done in the 21st century.
As we stood there, cars flooding out of the tunnel before us, a few drivers honked and waved and Kendall waved back. Still, holding a sign by the side of the road strikes me as a pretty lonely business. But Kendall has had visitors (aside from dopey columnists).
Once, a doctor came up to him. The doctor had just lost his practice. Obviously, one doesn’t get a medical practice from a Cracker Jack box, and once you have a medical practice, you don’t lose it the way you lose a button. Sounds like a long, heartbreaking slide to me. Anyway, the doctor told Kendall he didn’t know what to do or where else to go. So he found Kendall and asked Kendall to pray for him.
I wish I could have spent more time with Kendall, and maybe I’ll impose again some day. I certainly feel now like I’d have a place at the railing with him. It was my pleasure to meet the #JesusIsLord guy. I’m grateful he took time to talk to me, to answer my questions and let me spend some time with him.
More in the Hyperlocal Introductions series to come.
Paul Luikart is a writer whose work has appeared in a number of places over the years. His most recent book, "Animal Heart," is available now from Hyperborea Publishing. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.