A pogostick might not seem like a tool of social revolution. No one’s more surprised about it than Christopher.
In 2005, when he was in his mid–60s, the photographer/author began a project to document homelessness in America. When a friend suggested that he take his pogostick with him as he crisscrossed the country, he balked.
“I thought it was the dumbest idea I’d ever heard,” he exclaims. “But then I couldn’t dismiss it from my mind.”
So Christopher spent the summers of 2005–2007 pogo–ing around all 50 states, talking with homeless people and taking their pictures.
“It was easier to get access to homeless communities because they saw this silly guy bouncing around,” says Christopher, who is happy to brandish his Social Security card as proof of his singular name. “If I had been wearing a suit and carrying a clipboard, no one would have talked to me.”
Inspired by the humbling grace of the collected stories and portraits, the septuagenarian recently bound them into a book, Silent Voice: Light from the Shadows. Selected photographs will hang at the Sentient Bean through the month , and Christopher will sign books at the exhibit’s opening reception this Thursday, Oct. 4.
An elegantly–bound homage to the beauty within every human, Silent Voice profiles its subjects—of all ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds—simply and with dignity. Each person is profiled in the context of three paragraphs: What it was like, what happened and what it’s like now. The stories reveal instances of bad luck and generational poverty as well as great integrity and courage, interpreted through Christopher’s compassionate lens.
“Although knowing why a person became homeless is relevant, it is our attitude, yours and mine, toward these fellow human beings that is really important,” he writes.
Though the societal reasons for homelessness are complex, Christopher distills the problem down to one word: Apathy.
“We’ll always have the poor with us, but we can be helpful,” he says.
While the image persists of homeless people as criminally and mentally unstable or just lazy, the statistics show a different side: 33 percent of homeless are veterans. 40 percent are families with children. 17 percent have full or part–time jobs. Many land in jail as a result of having nowhere to go, and Christopher points out that “it costs twice as much to keep someone in prison as it does to house a homeless person.”
The book offers up a proposed solution to homelessness, a collective effort by the government, business sectors and charities to repurpose empty public buildings as shelters. Christopher gives an example of a converted warehouse in Santa Fe, NM that was renovated into 120 individually-keyed, 8’x8’ rooms “so every homeless person could have a safe place to call their own.”
Dressed in faded denim duds and sporting a wizardly white beard down to his chest, Christopher gives off the gentle vibe of a thin hippie Santa Claus. It’s a stretch to imagine this sparkle–eyed gent wearing a suit, but he swears it was once the case. He describes how as a young man he worked as a department store buyer, wearing a tie every day and striving for a bigger paycheck until he had a spiritual awakening in 1975. He has been a vegetarian and devout meditator ever since.
“I didn’t really believe in God back then, so I just surrendered to the ceiling,” he smiles. “I just became me. Finally.”
From there, life took a less material, more spiritual turn. Christopher owned and ran Vision Farms Retreat Center in Gainesville, Fla. for many years and moved to Savannah five years ago with his wife, Arlene Meyer, who took the helm as the senior minister at Unity of Savannah. In the third week of a one–month silent retreat in the forests of Massachusetts sometime in 2004, Christopher says that a “quiet but firm” voice told him to write a book about homelessness.
“It took nine years, but now it’s done.”
Christopher gave away his pogo stick to his younger brother as a 65th birthday present, but he can sometimes be seen riding his bicycle through downtown Savannah, gracefully swooping his arms to the rhythms of Beethoven. He and his wife continue to serve the homeless as the Little Red Wagon Courier Service, providing socks, razors, soap and other necessities every Saturday morning in Forsyth Park.
In spite of his work with the homeless, Christopher eschews the title of “activist.”
“I try to stay away from that word,” he grins. “That’s not my calling. I prefer to be behind the scenes.”
He is similarly shy about having his picture taken, which explains his headless publicity pogo shot.
“There’s only once place for me to be with a camera and that’s behind it.”
Silent Voice Opening Reception and Book Signing
When: Thursday, Oct. 4, 6–8 p.m.
Where: The Sentient Bean, 13 E. Park Ave.