Older readers might recall Jervis Pennington as one of the four clean-cut young men who made up ‘The Soft Shoes’ in the early 1980s. A near-fatal accident led on to 15 years of hard core drug addiction which saw him end up on the streets and then live for eight years in homeless shelters in Cape Town. Jervis did not give up. And, thanks to faith-based organisations who reached out to him in Cape Town, he slowly found reasons to hope.
Jervis Pennington is teaching hope to others. His life story has been turned into a one-man theatre piece which he is presenting this weekend at the Hilton Arts Festival. While in KZN, he has spent time at the Denis Hurley Centre engaging with members of the city’s homeless community – sharing a meal and singing songs.
Jervis Pennington’s show ‘An Extraordinarily Ordinary Life’ is being presented at 20.30 on Sat 14 and 12.30 on Sun 15 September this weekend at the Hilton Arts Festival. For more information see: https://www.hiltonfestival.co.za/
In South Africa at the moment it feels that we are facing wave after wave of misery. If it isn’t the economy and the Rand, or corruption and state capture, it’s gender-based violence and xenophobia. What have religions to offer in the face of all this? They can sometimes offer diagnosis, or challenges, or ideas towards solutions; though, at times, they can also fail at all of these. But what they can persistently offer is hope. In many ways hope is the currency of religion, the fuel that keeps their followers going believing that, in the face of all the odds, a better outcome is possible. The fact that the central figures in many religions – Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha – themselves faced and overcame huge challenges and rejection reinforces the centrality of hope.
I think that is why people of faith are often disproportionately involved in working in situations which appear to be hopeless. It might be helping street people and refugees as we do at the Denis Hurley Centre, or assisting in hospices for the dying, or accompanying people with profound disabilities or addictions, or doing beach clean-ups, or intervening after a natural disaster. Often where people are in danger of giving up hope it is the people of faith (of all faiths) who are there bringing sparks of hope.
I was reminded of the importance of hope this week not by a pastor or a mullah or a rabbi but by a former pop star. Older readers might recall Jervis Pennington as one of the four clean-cut young men who made up ‘The Soft Shoes’ in the early 1980s. They were the shiny heart throbs over whom teeny-boppers swooned while their mothers clucked approvingly.
But Jervis’s story did not end there. A near-fatal accident led on to 15 years of hard core drug addiction which saw him end up on the streets and then live for eight years in homeless shelters in Cape Town. From singing songs everyone wanted to hear he was now the del the person no one wanted to listen to; from pop idol to the person written off as idle vagrant.
His story of decline stands out because it is so dramatic. But many of the homeless people in Durban whom I know have similar stories of their lives spiralling out of control. After all, very few people start their lives as homeless. A series of mis-steps or bad decisions and they become people unrecognisable to their families and even unrecognisable to themselves. But this is not who they imagined they would become and it is not who they want to be.
Jervis did not give up. And, thanks to faith-based organisations who reached out to him in Cape Town, he slowly found reasons to hope. His descent to the streets had been slow and painful and so also his process of rebuilding his life did not happen overnight. Nevertheless, he managed to do so and now wants to remind us all of the mantra: ‘this too shall pass’ – no suffering continues without end.
Jervis Pennington is using the tools of his trade to teach hope to others. His life story has been turned into a one-man theatre piece which he is presenting this weekend at the Hilton Arts Festival. The reviews of the show commend it as ‘poignant, inspiring, uplifting, harrowing yet ultimately beautiful’. On his way to the Midlands, he passed through Durban and came to meet some of the homeless men and women at the Denis Hurley Centre. He chatted, he shared stories and he took out his guitar and sang a song. The ten songs that feature in the show are all, he explains, written from a place of hope. He contrasts this with the frothy pop songs which made him famous which had no meaning or depth: “I don’t really know where they came from.”
Looking back on who he was as a pop star, Jervis realises that at that time he had not empathy for people in distress. “When you are not in need you can’t empathise with those who are. But when you are at rock bottom and you only have two cigarettes, you share one with the guy beside you.”
The suffering he endured he says gave him a softer heart and taught him how to have empathy for others. Once again empathy and hope go side by side.
“I was once very ambitious,” he confesses, “but now my only ambition is to achieve peace of mind. I spent years looking after my image but now I realise that I have to look after my soul. I ask myself with each step I take: is it a loving decision that will nurture my soul?”
Having met this extraordinary man, and seen him interact with the extraordinary ordinary men and women who survive on the streets of Durban, I found myself gaining hope. Jervis had to go on a long journey – from famous to homeless to fearless – to achieve the acceptance that he now enjoys. But this theatre piece – as is so often the impact of the arts – can help us to learn and to reflect on where each of us in turn can find hope. The last words of his play are a beacon to us all in South Africa. They are the words of a man of faith and a challenge to all who call themselves people of faith: “In the most mysterious of all mysteries, only the face of suffering can soften a person’s heart.”
Hilton Arts Festival runs this weekend Friday to Sunday. Jervis Pennington’s show ‘An Extraordinarily Ordinary Life’ is being presented at 20.30 on Sat 14 and 12.30 on Sun 15 September. For more information see: https://www.hiltonfestival.co.za/