Two men sit at a picnic table on a sunny day. The contrast is striking. On one side sits Craig Martin a white, fifty-something producer at the helm of a TV show called The Good Road, here to document life in Alabama Village. Across from him sits a young African American man, Da’Cino Dees, describing life in the Village. He explains that in the Village, “you hear gunshots every day, all day. The only thing is… is it near or is it far away?” As if on cue gunfire erupts, five shots in rapid succession. Judging from the sound it is only a block or two away. The contrast is now ever more striking. Craig is clearly shaken by the moment, but Da’Cino doesn’t even flinch. It’s just another day in Alabama Village.
THE GOOD ROAD LEADS HOME Southern traditions are the glue that holds us together, makes life sweet, and gives it joy and meaning. The words “Southern hospitality” are widely accepted as a calling card of the region, an easily recognizable catchphrase. It conjures images of family and friends around the table, heritage recipes and celebrations of life’s milestone moments; weddings and graduations, anniversaries and birthdays, or just the good old Sunday dinner after church. Hospitality is about receiving people into your home, providing a feast for them, placing value on your relationship. In its purest form it is an expression of love.
But in some of our communities, merely waking up in the morning is cause for thanksgiving. How do we place value on the people and places we don’t see as part of our everyday life? Are we truly our brother’s keeper, and if so, who is our brother? How do we pick and choose who we call brother, and who we describe as “other?” These are the tough questions we often avoid because they demand something of us. Perhaps receiving another is more than inviting them into our home. Perhaps it is placing value on them by going to their home and experiencing the life they live. Maybe that is when hospitality gets its hands dirty and becomes more like mission work.
AROUND THE WORLD TO FIND THE BACKYARD Craig Martin and Earl Bridges have wrestled with these questions. The sons of missionaries, Craig, a Southern Baptist and Earl, with the Church of Christ, formed a friendship far from their families’ stateside homes in Virginia and South Carolina. The two met as students at the International School of Bangkok. Craig’s parents were missionaries there, and Earl’s family lived there twice, once while Earl’s father was stationed there in the Air Force, and a second time when they returned to do missions work.
For two boys with Southern roots, living abroad gave them a distinctly unique view of the world around them. Their friendship forged a bond that has lasted over the years and brought them together as business partners. In April, PBS will debut their show, The Good Road. The program is a travel show of sorts, in a style reminiscent of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, a show that highlighted Bourdain’s wanderings and immersion in other cultures. But while Bourdain used food as his point of entry, Craig and Earl went another route.
They describe themselves as philanthropologists and host a podcast called Philanthropology. They study people who do philanthropic work in dangerous places. They look for the true do-gooders who are shining light into darkness around the world, often risking their lives and those of their loved ones in the cause of serving their fellow man. In this environment, there are no “others,” only brothers.
As producers of The Good Road, Craig and Earl focus on the messy business of global philanthropy, ferreting out the truth and separating the real from the scams in charitable programs. Then they go to see the work for themselves, telling these stories through film.
The first season of the series will feature eight episodes, each set in a different location. The series takes us around the world, visiting exotic and often remote locales. Episode three drops us right in the heart of the Deep South, in a violent, poverty-stricken, drug infested war zone known as Alabama Village.
A LIFETIME OF PREPARATION The friendship between Craig and Earl grew naturally at the International School of Bangkok. They studied there at the end of the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon. Their classmates were people who went on to their own storied careers, including Timothy Geithner, Secretary of the Treasury under Obama, and Senator Tammy Duckworth, amongst others.
It was a heady experience. Craig’s mother was born in Port Barre, Louisiana and met Craig’s father at Louisiana College in Pineville. Earl’s family hails from Florida in an area south of Daytona Beach and just north of Sebastian Inlet. Craig went to Baylor, and Earl identifies as a Gamecock. It was the mix of their Southern heritage, with an international experience that prepared them for their current careers.
The two men are joined at the hip, Craig is the optimist, a guy who doesn’t know a stranger, only friends he hasn’t met yet. He approaches people and situations with an open mind and, according to Earl, at times is a bit too trusting. He can be impulsive, jumping into a situation to follow the story wherever it leads. As Earl says, “Whenever Craig says stop the van, that’s when the trouble starts.
If Craig is the big teddy bear, Earl is the more cautious, prickly, not-quite-cynic, who worries about what could go wrong. While Craig is taking a camera out into a crowd, Earl is watching the backdoor, looking for escape routes. His expression is a combination of gallows humor and gentle self-effacing sarcasm. If Craig were Superman, Earl would be the Dark Knight. Which is not to say they are at odds with one another, rather, those differences in personality serve them and their work very well, as they jump into risky adventures in unpredictable settings.
THE BIRTH OF THE GOOD ROAD After college Craig and Earl launched themselves into their separate careers, but kept an eye on each other from a distance on Facebook. Earl started Good Done Great, with a business partner. It was his venture into the world of global philanthropy. He wanted to use his degree in International Business coupled with his experiences on the mission field. He wanted to meet needs, and was interested in how he could use technology to meet those needs. Along the way he found stories about do-gooders that he wanted to tell. And as he thought about those stories, an idea was born.
Craig went to work for the same employer his parents had labored for. During his twenty-five year tenure Craig rose to become the Managing Director of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, headquartered in Richmond, Virginia. He led a team of thirty people, designers, photographers, video producers, writers and editors, and traveled the world, often landing in the middle of war zones and disaster areas. It was familiar territory for him. In his twenties, Craig had been a cameraman on the site of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Little did he know, but fate, or divine providence, was about to bring Craig and Earl back together.
“To be fair, it was a smart move. In order to balance the books…because we were bleeding cash…the Board laid me off along with my entire team. ” Craig says. “For the first time in my life I was without a job. Literally the day I was let go, I put a message out on Facebook, and Earl, whom I had not heard from since high school, got in touch.”
GETTING THE BAND BACK TOGETHER What Craig didn’t know was that Earl was scheduled to head out on a trip to document some of the charitable works his company had been supporting. “I feel like God reached out to me in that moment and Earl came back into my life.” Earl brought Craig along on the trip, which involved several flights and a lot of travel time. And a lot of time to talk. “Earl starts telling to me about an idea he has for a TV show, sort of Anthony Bourdain style. I am thinking, ‘yeah, everybody has an idea for a TV show.’ I thought I was kind of a big deal.” As Earl described the show, Craig realized that this was what he wanted to spend the rest of his life doing. “I had learned that the most important part of every story is the personal side of your direct relationship with it.”
They made a sizzle reel and ran it by some contacts in Hollywood and got great response. It was enough to motivate them to sink their own money into the project and get started. The first season of The Good Road features stories from all over the world, including the story of Alabama Village, located outside Mobile in the town of Prichard. For season two the pair plan to include more domestic shows, including stories based in Charleston and Richmond.
ON A MISSION FROM GOD The Light of the Village is a front-line Christian ministry serving the poorest of the poor. The ministry is anchored in Alabama Village. Over 50% of the residents of Prichard live below the poverty line, and the area is among the most violent in the state. Alabama Village was originally built in the early days of World War II. The community was created to provide housing for the shipyard workers building vessels for the war. “It was initially called the War Housing Project. Over time it got caught up in white flight. The properties were then leased out to the government who rented them out as Section 8, and crime started going up, poverty going up,” John says.
John and Dolores Eads could be described as the light of The Light of the Village. John, a former US Army officer, and Dolores, with a background in special education made a decision to become missionaries to the people that most of us would write off. They spend their days in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in America. It isn’t a career move, it is a passion for them. They do not take a salary from Light of the Village. The Eads, who are white, are beloved by the residents of Alabama Village, especially Dolores, whom the kids have nicknamed D-Lo. “These kids don’t care what color you are. If you are sincere, if you are along for the ride…”
As John says, “If you aren’t called to this I don’t want you here, because it is dangerous. We have had 133 people shot and killed within 300 yards of our building since 2003. It’s not a joke, man.
The Light of the Village offers Bible study, church services, and after school programs that include mentoring, tutoring, and a teen leaders program. They have a candle-making business that the children get involved in that brings in money for the ministry. The Light of the Village also accepts donations, and is stewarded well, the ministry has no debt. As recipients of the love and work that the Eads put in, the children decided they wanted to give back to others. To that end the youth of Light of the Village go on an annual mission trip to Juarez, Mexico, where they helped build a playground. They currently are helping to build a gymnasium and enjoy the opportunity to give back to others.
SWEET HOME ALABAMA The Eads and The Light of the Village fit the type of outreach that The Good Road wants to profile. “We are approached constantly by people who have seen the trailer and want to be featured. What we look at is how long they have been there. What’s the commitment? In the case of The Light of the Village they have been there 17…18 years now,” Earl says.
Craig, Earl, and John are riding through the Village in a van. The scene is hard to believe. Part Haiti, part Germany after the Second World War, the landscape is awash in debris and decay. Mounds of trash are everywhere. Abandoned buildings are reclaimed by the environment, strangled by overgrowth and rot, home to snakes and wood rats. Down what used to be a dirt driveway sits an old home site. All that remains is the brick chimney. The landscape would be perfect for a Walking Dead set, or the backdrop to a horror film, a lurid torture flick. There is nothing here that says home, comfort, or family. All that seems to emanate from these ruins is pain and hopelessness.
A different, almost mundane sort of terror awaits around the bend. Weathered and battered homes that would, in any other town, be condemned, are occupied by the residents of Alabama Village. On some of the shacks there are simple wooden crosses each marking the death of a loved one. One front porch is decorated with three crosses, a testament to the precarious nature of life in the Village. Houses and cars display the evidence of struggle; bullet holes are the one common architectural ornament throughout the neighborhood.
To deal with the changes taking place in Alabama Village, the rising crime and poverty, the neighboring town of Chickasaw decided to take action. “They took a three-pronged approach,” John says on The Good Road. “First, they broke away from the school system. They started their own school system. Number two, they started really aggressive policing. When you come into Chickasaw the cops don’t play. And it’s white and black police officers. It’s not like it’s a racial thing. The third thing they did is right in front of us.” John is referring to a barricade. “This is an illegal barricade according to Prichard authorities.”
The Jersey wall barricade was designed as a deterrent to drug trafficking, but it has, in effect, resulted in closing off the community. Going into the Village is like entering another world. A world where at any moment it can turn ugly.
Things work differently here. In Los Angeles or New York, rival gangs stake out their turf, their boundaries defined by streets they rule. They represent tiny fiefdoms, centers of power. But in the Village everyone is cooped up in the same community. It is a tinder box, one that can burst into flame in mere seconds. John says the one group you never hear from is the victims. He calls it “casket clarity.” “The left, the right, the blue, the red, they try to speak for them… they’re wrong.” John believes that if the Village isn’t properly understood and diagnosed, they won’t be able to fix the situation.
A LIGHT AND A HOPE The Good Road episode on Alabama Village features John and D-Lo, Da’Cino Dees, and a young man named Jesse Darrington. Dees has made it out of the Village successfully, but returns for church and to mentor younger children. He prays for Jesse to be able to transition out of the Village. Jesse is nearing graduation from high school and has been accepted by a college. But just as he is nearing those pivotal moments, he is forced to face the greatest heartbreak of his life.
On a Friday night, while Jesse and his two brothers were sleeping, their mother, Cindy, was shot dead by her boyfriend. Violence is such a part of Alabama Village that his younger siblings slept through the event. In an instant the life Jesse has known changes.
In his most difficult moments Jesse has leaned into his relationship with John. “He taught me most everything I know… he’s my mentor, he’s my pastor. He’s all that, he’s everything. I ain’t ever had no father figure, so Mr. John…”
The work of Light of the Village continues. Jesse is now in college and hopes to become a civil engineer, inspired by his experiences on the building project in Mexico. His brothers live with their grandmother now.
The hope is that something as simple as a TV show can focus a spotlight on the good work they are doing, perhaps increase support for that work, and encourage others to get involved. And perhaps, it can also sensitize us to the needs of those around us, to teach us to look at our brothers in the human family without judgement, because there are very few of us who would want to walk a mile in their shoes, especially if that mile wound its way through Alabama Village.
Written by Joseph McSpadden / Photography courtesy of Andy Duensing and The Good Road