One man’s vision of helping others with “radical hospitality” is spreading common goodness and love across the country
Story & Photograph by Virginia Holman
Nearly 30 years ago, when my husband and I were married, we rented an old farmhouse with some acreage near Carrboro. There were several dilapidated outbuildings on the property. One winter night, my husband came back in the house after walking our dog and said, “Someone’s in the shed.” This small ramshackle building was a mere shell with a rusted tin roof, no door, and slatted sides. A shape shifted in the shadows; when my husband approached, he smelled cigarette smoke and saw an ember dim. He returned home and called 911. As it turned out, there were two men in the shed, and they’d been removed from the Chapel Hill homeless shelter because they’d gotten into a fight. They asked the sheriff to ask us if they could stay the night. We were stunned both by the request and by the fact that the sheriff relayed it. Without the shelter’s help, where would these men stay? Neither my husband nor I felt it was safe or sensible to allow these men to remain. We stood dumbstruck for a long moment. I knew I could decline without having to say and own the word no. “It’s not our property,” I shrugged. The words snagged in my throat, yet I also had a visceral sense of relief. The men, I believed, were now someone else’s responsibility. The sheriff asked them to leave the shed and took them into his custody. What happened to them after that? It’s anybody’s guess.
For several weeks after the encounter, my husband and I grappled with our consciences. My mother was a college-educated elementary school teacher who had developed late-onset schizophrenia. This offered me a small bit of insight into the cascade of complicated circumstances that can, with alarming speed, leave nearly any person without enough food or shelter. Though I did not think it wise for me shelter these men, I was horrified by the circumstances faced by them. Regardless of the circumstances, should a fight between two impoverished people leave them without safe shelter? In this case, it did. Suddenly we understood that their plight affected us, too. The experience raised thorny ethical and moral questions for us, but it had life and death considerations for the men. After many talks, my husband and I decided that we would volunteer at the Chapel Hill homeless shelter on a regular basis. I helped in the women’s section of the shelter, which was really for women and children, and my husband helped in the men’s. This made us feel a little bit better, but the pinch we felt in our hearts lingered. Was it guilt? Love? Repulsion? Fear? Frustration? Compassion? It was hard to know what to make of the feeling. We turned those men away, but the emotions following our encounter remained, a strong reminder that the common thread of our humanity was not something easily severed.
I thought of that night after I met with Randy Evans, the founder of Walking Tall Wilmington.
Randy founded Walking Tall to serve people just like the men who huddled in our shed that night: people who find themselves in dire circumstances for any number of reasons that may or may not be within their control. Whether you have wound up living in poverty and are unsheltered (a term Randy prefers to homeless) due to circumstances in or out of your control simply doesn’t matter at Walking Tall. It doesn’t matter if you have served time in prison. Or if you suffer from addiction. Regardless of what you may or may not have done, what you may or may not do, Randy not only refuses to cut the thread that connects all people, he uses it to serve and foster community building among those who are the most at risk. Randy says that his Christian faith is important to him, but he describes Walking Tall as “more of a movement than a ministry.”
“We are open to all people, LGBTQ, DACA, Islamic community, Illegal immigrants, and so on. I believe in the common good of man.” Randy says they do not foster “transactional experiences” at Walking Tall. “If you come in hungry and haven’t eaten for three days, we aren’t going to sit you down and say you need to pray with us for 45 minutes before we feed you because we have something you want and we see an opportunity to advance our cause. We are about transformational experiences: ‘Here’s some food, here are some clothes. I love you and deeply care for you. We’d like to offer you a safe and sacred space. If you’d like to join a prayer group, we’d love to have you. But if not, that’s fine. We love you.’”
Randy emphasizes that his concept of charity is not a quid-pro-quo exchange but just an offering of love and what he calls ”radical hospitality.”
Walking Tall is still a new organization. Randy founded it last April. After a couple of years as the co-founder and director of the Hope Center in downtown Wilmington, he decided he wanted to offer more for people in poverty throughout New Hanover County. “A lot of the services are downtown,” he says, “but a lot of people live in poverty throughout the county.” So one of the first things Randy has done is set up mobile outreach.
He’s quick to say that it’s not a taxi service. Rather, mobile outreach takes services to people. The goal is that “in its perfect form, the mobile outreach will be able to serve four quadrants of New Hanover County. Ideally, on Monday, Wednesday, Friday we’d have lunches at Monkey Junction, Porter’s Neck, Greenfield Lake, Shipyard and CB Road. Then on Tuesdays and Thursdays we’d run a mobile closet.” Randy describes this as a place where people could get clothes, including underwear, bras, socks, tampons and sanitary pads, and other costly essentials. Sometimes Randy and other Walking Tall volunteers do offer transportation. He’s driven people to court, jobs, to his community meals and other places to help them “on their journeys.” They now have four vehicles, so his dream of servicing the “four quadrants of New Hanover County” is now within reach.
Randy’s long-term vision for Walking Tall also includes starting what he calls a respite, a place where unsheltered people who are released from the hospital can go to recuperate. “A lot of people are released from the hospital and then go straight back into the woods. My wife is a nurse, and she is very interested in helping people heal.” Occasionally, if Randy can’t find a place for someone to stay, he brings them into his home.
Because so many people he meets at Walking Tall want jobs and are laborers of one kind or another, Walking Tall also has plans to begin a landscaping business as a way to provide jobs for those in need.
Several times a year Walking Tall has big fundraisers. “For example, we’re doing a big barbecue at Good Hops Brewery in March,” he says. “I’ll bring in four or five bands, and we will ask for donations and raise money that way. We’ve also hosted fundraisers at Bottega and other places.”
Walking Tall Wilmington wants to “help bring light to people in need,” Randy says. “We may hold the flashlight at Walking Tall, but each person has to choose to flip the switch and participate. I know my outreach has been successful when I watch one person in poverty reaching out to help another person — to find services, food, a job. That’s what we’re about.”
If that long-ago night came again, I would not allow the men who were removed from the homeless shelter to stay in my shed; I’d try to find a better space for them. I’d be grateful to know that I could call Walking Tall and know that the men who had no option other than a rundown shed could be offered real comfort, community, and the potential for a better life.
The Walking Tall/Good Hops Spring Barbecue will be held on March 4 at 3 p.m. Walking Tall serves lunches on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11:30 a.m. at Water and Market streets at the Gazebo. For more information: walkingtallwilmington.com; (910) 240-2882.
Author Virginia Holman lives and writes in Carolina Beach.