The Phone of the Spirit

A beacon of hope and healing in the community garden of St. John's United Methodist Church at 1206 Peabody Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee.

My ex-boyfriend was only 26 years old when he passed away. We had spoken every day since we first met, yet I was completely unaware of his heroin addiction. Like many who have lost someone dear, I’ve thought over and over about what it would mean to hear his voice again. I don’t have any voice mails, only one silly Facebook video that I have watched too many times to count, just to hear his voice again.

Back in December, I listened to the story of The Phone of the Wind on This American Life radio show on NPR (Episode #597: One Last Thing Before I Go). The radio show tells the story of a man in Japan who set up a phone booth in his garden in order to “speak” to his lost cousin. A few months later, a tsunami devastated a town a few miles away and killed over 3,000 residents. Word spread of The Phone of the Wind and over 10,000 people visited the booth over the next 3 years, seeking comfort, solace, and closure in their grieving through conversations with their lost loved ones.

After hearing this story, I immediately felt called to set a similar booth in Memphis to help myself heal, and to help heal my friends, families, and neighbors who also had to say goodbye to their loved ones too soon. After a quick search, I portentously found a phone booth for sale on Craig’s List only 20 minutes outside of town, and the phone is the perfect shade of pink. I knew it was my booth.

I lost my ex-boyfriend to a heroin overdose in May of 2015. Our city saw 27 deaths from heroin overdose that year. One year later, that number jumped a heartbreaking 450 percent to 122 deaths. Narcan, the drug treatment for overdose, was administered by the Memphis Fire Department nearly 1,700 times in 2016.

The creator of the Phone of the Wind in Japan rooted the magic of his phone booth in the spiritual principles of reincarnation and ancestor worship. In the buckle of the Bible Belt, most Memphians consider themselves Christian, and therefore do not believe that they can speak to their lost loved ones after death.

But perhaps they can feel connected to them through the Holy Spirit.

Rather than the wind carrying our messages to loved ones as the creator described it in Japan, this phone booth will be powered by prayer to lift our messages to the dearly departed. I pitched my idea to my Church Council at St. John’s United Methodist Church in downtown Memphis and they enthusiastically agreed to give my booth a home in the community garden. In a few weeks we will host a dedication ceremony and open the phone booth for public use—a sanctuary for grieving, prayer, and quiet communication.

I’m sharing my story to raise awareness about the heroin epidemic not only in my town but across our country. I hope my story – and our collective stories as Memphians – can help other people who are grieving the loss of loved ones from accidental overdose, just like the words of the Japanese mothers, brothers, friends, daughters, and sons to their loved ones helped me.

Memphis has a large number of community groups that provide resources and do extraordinary work in addiction, recovery, and grief. We may not stop the disease, but we can spread awareness and hang onto the hope of recovery. And, when things get hard and we want to connect with a loved one once more, the people of Memphis will now have a quiet space to dial in a prayer and send it to the sky.

The Phone of the Spirit was dedicated at St. John's United Methodist Church on April 22, 2017. The community can visit the phone booth any time to say things left unsaid to lost loved ones. 

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As it is with any type of loss we sustain, and especially a sudden one prompted by violence or substance abuse, those of us left behind struggle to make meaning of it all even as we attempt to cope with our own grief. Often we look to tangible things through which we channel our pain, our anger, our loss and our hope...The Phone of the Spirit stands as an unmistakable beacon to our community that we must come together to be healed of the ravages of this epidemic upon all our families.
— Reverend Johnny Jeffords, Lead Pastor of St. John's United Methodist Church