In the basement of St. John Episcopal Church in Boston, there’s a brightly lit studio with white walls and wooden panel floors, filled with six tables of dynamic characters. In each person’s hand is a writing utensil and before them a pad to write on. After one hour, they pass the pads in, creating new material for The Pilgrim.
The Pilgrim is a literary magazine published 10 times a year by the homeless community of downtown Boston, organized under St John’s. Founder and editor James Parker started the magazine in 2011, and today it boasts nearly 300 subscriptions across the country.
The magazine’s namesake is Parker’s own 60 mile pilgrimage from St. John with the reverend of the church and 10 to 12 members of the homeless community to the retreat center Emory House in West Newbury. Parker was “in this quite odd, quite beautiful state of sort of psychic telepathic unity… in a very different place.” Spurred by this experience and a belief in expression, he began the Black Seed Writers Group (BSWG), a weekly gathering of writers who sit down and write for an hour. The material written during this time is then collected and published in The Pilgrim.
The Pilgrim has grown from just four pages in its first issue to featuring 40 to 45 writers per issue just five years later.
Parker says of BSWG, “One of the things that you find, I mean there are writers who come in because of literally who they are or because of what they’ve been through they have no other option but to write. There’s no other thing that they can do. And that will always be astonishing—the truth on the page is always astonishing. That’s kind of what we’re about. And I keep on saying it, that’s not me—that’s the space and the things that come through the space. The people that come through the space.”
During each meeting, writers get a sheet with suggested topics or they brainstorm ideas—this week’s were “Being accused, Good Cop Bad Cop, The Angels Around Me, When I Need to Take Deep Breaths, or… whatever you feel like writing about.” Topics from earlier issues include faith, depression, living on the street and reflections on current events. For example, there was a piece on George Zimmerman’s recent decision to sell the gun that killed Trayvon Martin.
“Whatever is uppermost or most urgent in the writer, that which needs most urgently to be expressed or wrangled with or exposed to the air and to the atmosphere of the other writers, that is the thing that I would like writers to write about. That is not always what they will write, but my goal is to get to people to really to say something,” said Parker.
Light chatter accompanied a soundtrack of acoustic, gospel and classical music. There are concentrated faces, eyebrows furrowed in tension and others with calm expressions. A few overseers checked progress as pages flow from the pent-up energy in the writers’ minds. Discussion subsided and the focus was palpable.
The brainstorming sheet was also a source of support. Mantras such as “strong words, five senses, details, memories,” “writers support each other” and “keep the hand moving” encouraged the writers to feel comfortable in a “physically and psychologically safe environment,” said Parker.
BSWG’s members are a vibrant group with distinct backgrounds.
There’s Charles Foreigner, the pen name of a mexican immigrant. While he isn’t homeless, he joined the group to improve his English. “I can read and I can write, but to speak… is difficult. Languages are… different from place to place. I would learn how to speak in one place and then move and there there they would speak differently. So now I speak as a mix of all these accents and English becomes even more hard.”
Another writer, Thomas Leery, joined the conversation: “Yo estudie español antes de cuarenta años por dos años [I studied Spanish forty years ago for two years].”
Leery followed up with: “Did I say that right?” He did. A self-described drifter since 2011, Leery came to Boston by accident when he was trying to get to NYC from Jacksonville, Fla., and his truckdriver left him in Hyannis. Appreciating Massachusetts for its resources, he has stayed in Boston ever since. His gaunt face is framed by a white beard and alert eyes. Regarding the topic of “Good Cop, Bad Cop,” he spoke of his experience in his hometown St. Louis where he was once stopped eight times in one week by university campus police.
Other people included a man in cargo pants who walked around with a discipline that was distinctly that of an army man, another man who had written on the front of his shirt, inside a heart, “UR perfect,” and a female reverend.
When asked about the reach and effects of the magazine, Parker first emphasized that writing is not always therapeutic, “but I think it is incredibly valuable for people to have a place to express themselves and in some cases that can be a part of the broader process of people getting themselves back together.”
He also addressed the feedback he’s received for the magazine: “There is a woman in Michigan who writes to us and says she gives it to a relative of hers that’s in prison, and he passes it around the prison. It makes me very happy to think of The Pilgrim going to places like that. Prisons, and hospitals and waiting rooms where people are in difficulty. That’s the writers speaking to other people in difficulty and helping them just by expressing a sort of commonality.”
As for the future, Parker hopes to “see survival for The Pilgrim in the future. It is not something we hope to expand in any sort of dramatic way, because that is not the point. The point is for it to serve—it’s community—and to express the feelings of its writers; to educate the readership as to what is going on in the heads of the homeless people of Boston; to connect the readers with other writers and readers from the community; and to just keep going.”