Several years back, Lana Jacobs and I served a Thanksgiving meal together.
We were in Columbia, Missouri, volunteering at Councilwoman Almeyta Crayton’s annual community meal for people battling poverty or homelessness. “Everyone Eats,” it was called. Crayton was the first Black woman elected to the city council there. She and Jacobs, who helped run a homeless shelter, were constantly advocating for better policies to help folks who are less fortunate.
They both grew up poor in St. Louis. The three of us would meet for a beer occasionally. We shared a trouble-making gene, always challenging the powers that be. Crayton died several years ago. Jacobs died earlier this month. She was 73.
She was one of the most challenging people I’ve ever met. She challenged convention. She challenged world views. She didn’t fit into any stereotype. I think about that as the annual discussion of Thanksgiving dinners with family comes up.
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Many families have had the occasional conflict at the dinner table related to discussions of politics or religion. During the Trump presidency, there seemed to be a magnification of such conflicts, and it got worse during the pandemic, with some families I know fighting over masks and the like.
Jacobs would have been one of those folks at the Thanksgiving table who fit into everybody’s conversation because she defied labels. She grew up in public housing, in the Clinton-Peabody complex south of downtown. She was a member of the Catholic Worker movement founded by Dorothy Day. The movement believed in the dignity of every person. Jacobs and her ex-husband, Steve, didn’t just run homeless shelters. They lived there.
Jacobs was the most “pro-life” person I have known, but not in the political context that many people apply to the term. She was opposed to abortion, but she had also worked at Planned Parenthood in the early 1970s. Jacobs didn’t celebrate the overturning of Roe because she knew how it would criminalize women who live in poverty, or who have miscarriages. She valued life in the womb, and once children were born. Jacobs was opposed to the death penalty. She was opposed to assisted suicide. She dedicated her life to keeping people on the streets alive by feeding them.
In 2005, she inserted herself into a national story, when the battle over the life and death of Terri Schiavo in Florida grabbed the nation’s attention. Jacobs was outside the hospital protesting alongside disability rights advocates, and even conservatives, who wanted Schiavo to remain connected to her feeding tube. Jacobs got arrested in an act of civil disobedience trying to bring the woman a drink of water. Her daughter, Heather De Mian, an independent photojournalist in St. Louis known recently for her livestreaming of various protests, was with her. She says her mom led other detainees in the jail in prayer for Schiavo while she was behind bars.
Jacobs cared about life, not politics.
“Killing is wrong, period,” she said at the time. “I care about this because I’m a mother. If they put the feeding tube back in the morning, I’m on my way home tomorrow. I’ve got Easter dinner to prepare for homeless people.”
Jacobs and I were on opposite sides during the Schiavo case. I believed Schiavo’s husband should be allowed to follow her wishes and let her die peacefully. But when Jacobs and I disagreed, we were never disagreeable about it. There’s a lesson there that is often lost in today’s political discourse.
Jacobs left Columbia a few years after I did, after some money went missing at the shelters she helped run. She was never charged with a crime, but she became separated from the community in which she had lived and served.
I don’t know what happened — Jacobs said the money went to poor people — but I was never too concerned about it. She was human, living in a place where she served and lived with other human beings who made mistakes and faced their own struggles and demons. Jacobs found dignity in every one of those human beings. She helped teach me to try to do the same thing as a reporter, seeing people for who they are, who they can become, not for a label that is attached to their current state of affairs, such as “homeless” or “addicted.”
“I stereotype. It’s faster,” said the George Clooney character in the 2009 movie “Up in the Air,” some of which was shot in St. Louis. Indeed, so many of us do, particularly when it comes to politics and religion, tossing out labels like progressive and moderate and conservative, and offering blanket characterizations of Muslims, Jews, Catholics and evangelical Christians, because it’s easier than getting to know the depths of people who often carry more than one of those stereotypes with them. Jacobs called herself many things, including a Marxist, but not one of those things fully defined her.
“She loved to cook and sew and garden,” De Mian told me this week. “I’m grateful we were able to finally get a house last year where we could have a nice garden for her this year. We grew cucumbers that she was canning as bread and butter pickles just hours before her first cardiac arrest at the end of August.”
Jacobs broke through all the labels. This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for my time with her, and hope her memory teaches us a lesson about the dignity of human life.