Last weekend I had the opportunity to go hang out at the Austin Children’s Shelter along with 15 other Austin musicians and artists as a part of Music for the City’s “Art of Giving” Program.
The Art of Giving is a mentoring and art education program that is spearheaded by my brother in law, Lamar Stockton. Lamar is an Austin musician and community leader; he works for Music for the City, gigs with numerous Austin bands, is a member of our Veritas Artist Collective and leads music on Sundays at Austin New Church, on top of being a husband and father of two beautiful kids.
In the same week we worked with kids at the shelter, Lamar lived on the street amongst Austin’s homeless community for three days, and a few days after this he led music for Austin New Churches Easter service. This wasn’t your traditional American Church service where the whole family gets dressed up in “Easter” garb, piles in the mini-van or SUV to sit through an hour sermon where everyone worries about where to eat and how long the wait will be.
This service was set up in downtown Austin in a parking lot, in front of one of Austin’s largest homeless shelters where they grilled out 1,000 hamburgers, served food and spent the afternoon with the Austin Homeless Community. (Probably the way Jesus would have celebrated) This wasn’t your typical seven-day workweek and is definitely fitting to make a great interview. So like Charlie Kaufman took us into the mind of John Malkovich, I am going to attempt to take you into the mind of Lamar Stockton!
So besides being a husband and a father what are the other things that occupy your time?
Well, being a husband and a father occupies a lot of my time, but I love it. In my “spare time” I’m a musician, a pastor, a social activist, a booking agent, a teacher, a Frisbee thrower, and a coffee drinker.
How long have you been playing music and when did you realize your musical gifting could be used to impact community?
I’ve been playing music since I was six years old, so I guess that would be 26 years! Music has always been a big part of who I am. When I was about 18, I began to see my musical abilities as a gift from God. As such, I’ve always tried to use that gift responsibly—to honor God—but I never really made the connection between art and community until I moved to Austin, TX just over 4 years ago. I began to notice that music had a unique ability to bring people together…to unite them for a cause. It’s no accident that Austin is both the live music capital of the world and has the most non-profits per capita of any US city. Three years ago I started a songwriter collective called nakedFOLK. A great community of artists developed in no time. The natural next step was to empower the Austin arts community to impact the community at large.
Where did the “Art of Giving” idea come from?
The Art of Giving is an expression of an organization I work for called Music For The City—a community of artists and Austinites investing their time and talent to be a positive, caring and renewing influence in our city. MFTC began with the idea to put out yearly albums, compiled of Austin artists, to benefit Austin charities. As we developed this idea, it seemed to fall short. We didn’t want to simply raise money for local charities; we wanted to serve them as well. We wanted to see what it would look like for artists to give their time and talent to make their city a better place. So far, it looks pretty good.
How has it been received by the Arts community that you are involved with?
The reception has been great. It’s pretty amazing how many artists are willing to give up a Saturday morning or a Tuesday evening to serve some underprivileged kids or bring a little joy to the homeless community. Generally speaking, artists don’t have much money; but they have a generous supply of talent and concern for others. When you give them an opportunity to use their gifts to help someone else, they usually jump at the chance. And the greatest part is that it not only impacts the community…it impacts the artists, which impacts their art, which impacts the community all over again!
You recently had an insane 7-day run. You lived on the streets with the homeless community for 3 days (72 hours), pulled together 15 Artists and Musicians to educate and teach at the Austin Children’s Shelter and led music for your Church’s Easter service that wasn’t a typical Easter gathering. How did this impact you as a person, a musician and a father?
Wow, I guess I didn’t even realize all of that happened in just 7 days! That is insane! I think the impact is still sinking in. What was I thinking? It was truly a staggering and transformational week. The Easter grill out downtown with my church was definitely enhanced by the fact that I had spent half the week living among the people we were serving. So I was playing music for my friends rather than a group of strangers. It was cool to see the surprise on some of their faces when I stepped up onto the trailer (our make-shift stage) with a guitar. And I always enjoy the time we get with the teens at the Children’s Shelter.
It can be hard to gauge the lasting impact that a week like this might have on the community at large, but the impact it had on me was remarkable. This week gave me a deeper appreciation for what and whom I have in my life, and a healthy dose of conviction for my excess. Weeks like this make me work to be a better father, a better husband and a better person. I’ve also been inspired to make a little more space in my life so I can actually enjoy important things like my family, and so I can be present in the moment instead of always rushing to whatever is next.
What are some of the things you were taught by the homeless community while on the street?
I learned so much in my short stint on the street. I learned that those who have the least are often times the most generous and hospitable. I felt welcome, accepted and safe the entire time I was out there. I learned that everyone has a story, and it’s just as healing for me to hear it as it is for them to tell it. I learned that people…ALL people…have the same needs; we desire the same things. We need to love and be loved. We need community. We need to be known—to really be known and accepted by someone. Everything else that we cram into our lives is distraction. I learned that the human race is endlessly creative and resourceful. I learned that a little hope goes a long way, and that things don’t have to be the way they are. I am, and always have been, ridiculously blessed. I understand now more than ever that blessing comes with responsibility. I don’t know what that means for me yet, but I’m no longer ok with turning a blind eye to poverty.
What I did not learn is what it’s like to be homeless. I don’t want to pretend that 72 hours on the street gave me a taste of homelessness. That’s not possible because I knew the whole time that Wednesday night I could go home, kiss my wife and kids, take a hot shower, grab some food out of the fridge, adjust my thermostat and crawl into a comfortable bed. I didn’t experience the internal hopelessness or heaviness of poverty. I did, however, make a few friends and I truly hope I can help them.
What are some of the things that the kids at the shelter have taught you?
The kids at the shelter have taught me that creativity often lies in seemingly unlikely places, and art can heal. Stability and security are foreign concepts for these kids. We work with the teenagers, so most of them have been in and out of shelters and foster homes for years. I lived in the same house for my entire childhood. I had a loving family. For me, music was a fun hobby that I ended up being good at, so I pursued it—for these kids music and art can save their lives. It can bring hope, and like I said earlier, a little hope goes a long way. The kids are full of art and creativity—whether it’s with an instrument, a camera, a paintbrush, or a basketball—we just have to give them a safe environment and permission to let it out.
I met several homeless men and women on the street who grew up in the foster care system. When they aged out, they had nowhere to go and no sense of worth or purpose, and they landed on the streets. This could be the future of the kids at the shelter unless they find community, worth, purpose, hope…Our hope at Music For The City is that the arts and mentorship can play a positive and healing role in their future.
Where or how can we in Austin get involved with supporting the homeless community or how should we be involved?
Honestly, the best way to get involved is to allow yourself to come face to face with the problem. Our homeless brothers and sisters need community (not among themselves, but from the outside) more than anything else. A lack of healthy community is what landed them on the streets in the first place. Community doesn’t happen when you give your spare change or volunteer at a soup kitchen (not that either of those are bad, do it!); rather, it’s the result of relationship—of knowing someone. How can we expect a group of people who we won’t even look in the eye to summon up the dignity and relentless hope required to pull themselves out of a hopeless cycle of poverty.
Hang out with a homeless person. Get to know him. Spend time with her. Be a friend. And then figure it out from there. I guarantee this will be messy and confusing and amazing. There’s no formula to helping…it’s a ministry of presence.
If you’re in Austin, look into Mobile Loaves & Fishes. In my opinion, they are doing the most effective, holistic work to end homelessness in Austin. MLF founder, Alan Graham, is an amazing dude. Go on a street retreat…that will definitely give you some perspective.
There were some extremely talented kids at the shelter last weekend that I had the opportunity to create with, observe and talk to. How do you take it a step further, I know you and I talked about it at length, but how can we get the Artists and Musicians to invest deeper in the lives of these kids?
Mentorship is the key. Showing up as a large group once a month probably won’t change the trajectory of these kids’ lives, but mentorship will. We hope that our consistent monthly workshops will inspire and encourage artists in our community to become more deeply involved in the life of one teenager. I am who I am largely because someone believed in me. Someone saw things in me that I couldn’t see…maybe, that weren’t even there yet. A big part of the process of “making something of ourselves” is having people around us who believe in us—who tell us we can when we feel like we can’t. We want our artists to be that voice for these kids. That doesn’t mean we’re trying to raise up and train a bunch of artists and musicians; rather, we want to connect caring people with some incredible kids. You can’t force it; it’s something that has to develop naturally. We’re only 3 months in right now and I can’t wait to see what’s on the horizon.
I know you and Jill (Lamar’s wife) have been having some deep discussions lately on investing your life as a family further into communities in need and really taking a step further as activists. What do weeks like the one you just had do in your heart and mind?
The more you come face to face with the bare bones of life, the more you realize that you don’t really need as much as you think you need. You’re right, Jill and I are trying to figure out our family’s role in engaging communities in need, and one thing I’m beginning to realize is that all communities are in need. Having stuff doesn’t really fix anything. Like I said earlier, all people, the rich and the poor and everyone in between, need love, community and the dignity of being known. These needs aren’t met with stuff.
Jill and I are trying hard to shed the baggage of the American dream, but it’s hard. Financial security and individualism are things we were taught to value and pursue.
I think one of the best things all of us can do is build strong families. Across the board, every homeless person I met on the streets landed there because of a breakdown in the family. The kids at the Children’s Shelter are there because of a breakdown in the family. Strong, loving families build strong, loving communities. And strong communities save people from the mess of life. I don’t know what’s next for my family and me. I don’t know how to fix the problems of the world, but I’m going to work hard to figure out my role—and I’m not going to be afraid to look poverty and despair in the face. In the meantime, I’m going to love my wife and my kids relentlessly.
If you could share 2 notable moments from this last week of yours what would they be?
The first would be a conversation I had with Alan Graham toward the beginning of our time on the street. He told me to think about the amount of love, support and encouragement that I have been surrounded by my entire life—and that currently surrounds me still. And even in the midst of all of that love, life is still pretty damn hard. Now, he said, take all of that love, support and encouragement away and try to live your life…see where you end up. That had an immediate impact on the way I look at the homeless community.
The second notable moment took place in the modest little library at the Austin Children’s Shelter. Violinist Brian Batch, cellist Aaron Cauble, and myself (upright bass in hand) were supposed to be leading a workshop on orchestral instruments and harmony, but we were all alone in the library. None of the kids seemed to be interested in our nerdy talent. It was like high school all over again. We decided to just start playing…at least we could enjoy each other. I rosined my bow and laid down a simple little bass line, and then Aaron and Brian made something beautiful on top. It was one of those moments in music when the collective sound is greater than the sum of its parts. After a few minutes, the room began to fill up. Not just with kids from the shelter, but some of the other artists and volunteers as well. Music speaks a higher language and it brings people together. I can’t really explain it, but it was a beautiful moment.
How can people get connected to you if they are interested in being a part of the “Art of Giving” program? Or if they just want to discuss ways that they can invest in their own communities where there are needs?
Well, I guess the hippest way to connect right now is Twitter. I’m out there, @lamarstockton. Hit me up. And if you’re in the ATX, I’d love to take you to my favorite coffee spot and change the world.
Coming soon to Engaging Culture: An interview with photographer/story teller Esther Havens who has worked for for Charity Water, TOMS Shoes, and numerous other campaigns as well as an interview with Austin musician David Ramirez who just starred in the Indie film “Between the Notes.”
Ty Clark is the CEO of Veritas Fashion. He likes to think that he is an Artist, Fashion Designer, Writer, Social Entrepreneur, Activist, non-media mogul and vagabond traveler.