As I was writing a summary of Our Southern Souls in 2019, news of a gun shots at Bel Air Mall quickly spread through Facebook along with fear, anger, and criticism. One comment read, “Mobile has turned ghetto. All the decent people are moving away and turning it over to the thugs. No way I would live there. It’s a dumpster fire.”
Each crime and shooting points to bigger problems that need addressing in Mobile. But if the news is the only way you experience Mobile, you are missing it. Mobile has to be seen face to face and story to story with the people who are the soul of the city. The ones who stay. The ones who come back.
Decent people. Mobile is full of them.
Some leave Mobile for a better life but are called back to care for family members. Returning to a hometown providing better opportunities, they stay and open businesses, restaurants, food trucks (Smac Walker), bars (two for Chris Schwall), and a bakery.
John Edward McGee and Demetrius James grew up in Mobile and dreamed of opening a bakery in 1993 when they first met, but it wasn’t the right time. They moved to San Francisco in 2001 and sold real estate but lived part time in both cities when John’s father started having strokes and heart attacks.
“We knew when it was time to move to Mobile to be with our families,” John said on the opening day of Guncles Gluten Free bakery on August 1. “The city has changed so much and come so far in the 18 years that we have been away. We now have everything we love in our bakery in Mobile. There is so much more we want to give back to our hometown.”
Bill Appling used the buildings he inherited from his father to help bring downtown back to life and opened Truman’s Diner this year. “I have to keep giving back to the city that gave so much to me,” he said.
It is visitors finding healing and encouragement because they were treated kindly in Mobile. It is Rick Hirsch returning home from Los Angeles and mentoring the next generations of music makers.
It is a mother who drove her kids from Nebraska to Mobile for Mardi Gras to show them her hometown and the parades she loved. Unable to afford a motel room, they camped in the rain at Meaher State Park, excited to take stories, beads and traditions back to Nebraska.
It is Elizabeth Chiepalich and her army of compassionate helpers from the Facebook group Homeless in Mobile providing food, clothing, shelter, and assistance to the homeless who are ignored and pushed aside in Mobile. Elizabeth is a social justice advocate because of her own difficult life and knows each person deserves a second chance.
“You can’t call yourself a Christian following Jesus and condemn or ignore the people at the bottom,” she said. “Hard times can happen to any of us. We need our community to help.”
It is Cecilia Goff who started feeding the homeless at her church three years ago when she was nine years old. It is babies like Robert Scott with rare diseases fighting for their lives in Women’s and Children’s Hospital, inspiring the parents, doctors, and nurses who make miracles happen. It is cancer patients battling the unwanted invader day after day.
“I moved to Mobile two years ago and bought my first home in February,” said Jennifer Culicchia who was diagnosed with stage one triple-negative breast cancer in September, less than two months before her 40th birthday. “2019 has been a rough year and cancer gets more real every day, but I have learned I am much stronger than I thought I was. Let’s get this over with and I will have a happy cry when I cross the finish line and get my life back.”
It is the people you meet on benches in Cathedral Square. The homeless men who share donated Subway sandwiches. Those starting over with a new job and a new life or going through a divorce and praying for peace. It is granddaughters celebrating the 76th birthday of the grandmother who taught them to be Godly women. Or Ms. Ruby who will turn 79 in January and volunteers for organizations across Mobile.
It is Lois and Virginia who ride through Cathedral Square in their motorized wheelchairs. Lois lost her hand in a house fire but still cleaned houses and raised her children. Virginia was six years old when she was hit by a car. Doctors said she would never go to school, have children, or walk again, but she beat all of the predictions.
Sometimes Nikki holds a whiteboard in the corner of the square with written messages such as “Stick with love rather than hate” and “What are you grateful for?”
It is Vietnam veterans who still have nightmares 50 years later.
It is Shirley Harris, an accountant and bookkeeper all of her life, who discovered her artistic side in an art class at the Connie Hudson Senior Center. She describes standing in the Mobile Arts Council gallery beside her painting of a sailboat gliding into the sunset as a major event in her life. A cancer survivor, painting focuses her mind on the creative, easing the pain of many surgeries.
It is Vivian Washington Bassa and her children growing Wonderfully Made Gourmet Organic Treats from a homeschool project three years ago into a business that donates cakes and cupcakes to the food pantry at Central Presbyterian Mobile. Vivian said, “The more our business grows, the more we can give.”
It is those who find ways to speak out and give back. Nick Cobb did 30 good deeds for his 30th birthday and found the healing power of helping others. Tamara cuts hair for free at senior citizen centers because she can’t care for her parents who live too far away.
The Great American Free Lunch truck, sponsored by FIVE Mobile and Chuck’s Fish Mobile restaurants, is run by Five’s kitchen manager Bathon and gives away free lunches on Thursdays at Cathedral Square. Bathon’s daughter, Camille, passed away from cancer when she was four yours old but lives on through the good work of her family.
Mike Miller, a former drug dealer, found his second chance working for Publix. He has worked there for 11 years and tells customers “Let it do what it going to do because it ain’t nothing but a blessing.”
It is also a 58-year-old woman living on the streets with a back that goes out. She knows that rape is real and there is always a catch when a man offers help. “I am still here, so I guess God still has a plan for me, I just don’t know what that is. I wish he would bring me home.”
It is the stories behind shootings. Single mothers working two or three jobs to support their children but lose sons at both ends of the gun.
Donna is 48 and just finished her high school diploma with a 4.0 and is starting her own cleaning business. She blames herself that her son is in prison for murder. She worked three jobs when her children were young and says that is when her son got out of hand.
Mildred’s son was shot and killed in front of her house a year ago. She heard every shot fired into his body. “I worked my ass off so we wouldn’t be on welfare,” Mildred said. “I took it for granted that this wouldn’t happen. I figured my kids would live longer than me and talk about how crazy their mother was. Everything in my life has changed.”
It is Coach Mike Gottfried who moved to Mobile in 1990 after he was fired from the head coaching job at the University of Pittsburgh. Mike and his wife Mickey started Team Focus almost 20 years ago and have helped the development of 5,000 fatherless boys in five cities, including Mobile.
It is high school students who created the service group Disrup Shun to give back to Prichard and Mobile while giving teenagers a fair chance. Or James Richardson, a math teacher who retired after 40 years in the classroom but tutors math every afternoon at Lyons Park for free.
“I hear adults and the news say our kids are so terrible,” James said. “You should get to know the kids I work with. Every one of them deserves a chance.”
Mobile is a city of second chances. Dumpster fires make the news, but the decent people of Mobile light the fires of progress and inspiration.
These are the fires we need lighting the way into the new decade.
Merry Christmas Mobile.