None Without Faith (or a Strong Belief in the Reality of Evil)

The following comes from Chris Arnade’s book of photography “Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row […]

David Zahl / 6.19.19

The following comes from Chris Arnade’s book of photography “Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America,” pages 110-111, chapter 3: God Filled My Emptiness.

© Chris Arnade, “Dignity,” 2019.

Everyone I met [in the South Bronx] who was living homeless or battling an addiction held a deep faith. Street walking is stunningly dangerous work, and everyone has stories of being cut, attacked, and threatened, or stories of others who were killed. Everyone has to deal with the danger. Few work without a mix of heroin, Xanax, or crack. None without faith. “You know what kept me through all that? God. Whenever I got into the car, God got into the car with me.”

There are dirty Bibles in crack houses, Korans in abandoned buildings. There is a picture of the Last Supper that moves with a couple living on the streets. It is the only real possession they own, beyond the Bible. It has hung in an abandoned building held in place by a syringe stuck in the wall. It has hung in a sewage-filled basement, and it has leaned against a pole under an expressway.

Rosaries, crucifixes, and religious icons are worn for protection and good luck. Pages of the Bible are torn out, folded up, and kept in pockets, to be pulled out and fingered nervously, or read over in times of stress, or held during prayers.

When someone goes missing and rumors fill the void, ad hoc ceremonies are held. Small shrines are made from votive candles lifted from the dollar store and old needles, with water from a leaking hydrant sprinkled around. The person almost always comes back, either from jail, rehab, or hiding away because of a disagreement, their death just a rumor.

Mixed with faith in God is a strong belief in the reality of evil. Crossing the bridge into Hunts Point, ­Takeesha looks out the window of my van. “This place is so bad and evil. It’s, like, so simple to walk across the bridge, but it’s like you can’t go across, you understand? This place is evil. It’s possessed. It’s evil. I been here a long time. There are bad spirits here. I have seen good people, I have seen people that have family, jobs, and they come here and they get dug in, and two weeks later they living in a cardboard box.”

Steve listens and agrees, saying, “This place is haunted. It pulls you in and chews you up. I was, like, five years in jail, and when I was released, I came back here, and the first day I was doing crack. One day back. Crack. It’s a f*cked-up place. Keep coming back to it. Hunts Point is for devils.”

When you’re up against evil, whether the mys­terious efforts of demons or the all-too-explainable effects of drugs, the front row’s world of science, education, and smart arguments doesn’t do much for you.