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Life advice from Harlem’s homeless. Joe Holland’s new book

An unlikely, but successful collaboration of street smarts and Ivy League education

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Joe Holland in front of "Jesus Saves" by Domimic McGill

Joe Holland in front of "Jesus Saves" by Domimic McGill

As you avoided a sour metallic smell lying on the sidewalk in the city on a warm May day last week, you may have noticed a half-empty black garbage bag containing all the worldly possessions of the prone figure on the hot concrete. The skin had a baked brown look while the feet were ringed with a coal black dust above leathery soles. The furthest thing from your mind was the thought that the sprawled out man could instruct you in lessons of a successful life. That was what Joe Holland thought too when he started teaching the homeless men at Harkhomes in Harlem.

He was wrong; you might be too.

Holland started to glimpse this possibility every morning when he gathered the men from Harkhomes homeless shelter at 119th Street in Harlem for a Bible study before breakfast. Holland carried himself with confidence. He was the cream of the Ivy League – a star running back at Cornell and Harvard Law graduate. Of course, he thought that he would impress the men with his smarts. Still, he assiduously prepared his lessons. Holland was going to be an outstanding coach with a carefully drawn up game plan for his bedraggled team.

Perhaps, he cautioned himself that he shouldn’t fool himself with high expectations. But he surely hoped that the men could not help but pick up a pointer of two from Holland’s polished sermon.

However, the men had a different approach to learning the Bible. They brought a hard-headed practical approach from the streets. The touchstone was their own experience. Holland was surprised that the homeless could put together the Biblical stories and their experiences and come up with strikingly good tips for living a better life. And with a little help the tips were turning into tools for getting their life together. It was an unlikely, but successful collaboration of street smarts and Ivy League education. Both parties got changed.

Holland documents this process in The Touchstone Tools: Building your way to an inspired life. Readers from all walks of life can follow the thinking process of each man and find how he developed a tool that is actually pretty good for anyone’s life.

Holland will be holding a reception (6 pm) and panel discussion (6:30 – 7:30 pm) on Monday, May 16, at the Cornell Club, 6 E 44th Street in Manhattan about Touchstone Tool’s life-changing principles. Touchstone Tools is available on Or join Holland on Monday to pick up the book and for a Q & A about how you can apply the lessons of the homeless to your life. (Please RSVP using the form at the end of the article. Thanks!)

In the chapter  “Planning—The Pencil: Building Priorities,” Holland recounts how he began teaching the men about Jesus’ parable of the virgins waiting for the bridegroom. This sounds like a pretty esoteric passage for homeless men, doesn’t it? But one man, Lincoln, shrewdly grasped the nub of the problem: waiting.

He told Holland about being on a bus ride that had to take long detours around an accident and for a stop for a medical emergency. So, Lincoln was just sitting and waiting, and he started thinking. It came to him that the roadblocks of life can be overcome just like the bus was doing: by getting back onto the right route, the original plan of action.

As Lincoln explained, his problem in life tended to be reacting to problems without foreseeing what would happen. He hadn’t waited to plan out his action.

Then, he observed to Holland that the pencil was his crucial tool for getting his life together. At first, Holland didn’t quite get the idea. Holland says that he tried to piece together the drift of Lincoln’s comments.

“Why’d you come back here?” I asked him, hoping he was finally ready to take his head out of the sand.

“It was a long bus ride north,” he admitted.

“What did you do?”

“Ripped up my suicide note.”

“That’s a start,” I offered.

At this point, Holland must have thought that the pencil was just something for a homeless man to kill time by planning to kill himself. Holland asked,

“Any other decisions?”

Lincoln went right back to the parable in which Jesus said that the waiting virgins needed enough oil in their lamps to be ready for the arrival of the groom for the wedding banquet (figuratively, ready for Jesus and his banquet in heaven). Lincoln said,

“I need some oil in my lamp.”

His evocation of Jesus’s parable stunned me. It got better.

“I tried to sleep during the ride but couldn’t,” he reflected. “I believed I was leaving my ghosts behind but knew that wasn’t enough. Then the bus stopped, dropped off passengers, picked some up.” He paused, as if still in the moment.

“Then the bus started up again, ’til the next stop. The driver had a plan. He stuck to the plan. There was an accident—road closed. Driver made a detour but then got back on route, sticking to his plan.

“A passenger got sick. We made an emergency stop. Ambulance came. Driver got right back on the road. He stuck to the plan, whatever came up, all the way to Port Authority.”

Getting to the Port Authority was like taking the straight path in life to Heaven. Holland was learning how the Bible can be turned into a street smart textbook on how to deal with upheavals of life-plans.

His recollection is that Lincoln’s lesson was something that Holland could use to figure out his own life. The son of an American ambassador, Holland was destined by his parents expectations to high positions in the establishment. Because his father had made it over the barriers put in front of the African Americans of his generation, he expected that Holland would cling tightly to a plan to move up further. Indeed, Holland duly attended the Ivy League gateways into the elite establishment. But along the way his conscience was pricked by Jesus and plans got changed.

One summer, Holland was taking the Metro-North train with his father from the Bronxville in Westchester to a Wall Street internship. Noting that the train was breezing by Harlem as though the neighborhood didn’t even exist, Holland asked his father, “Why doesn’t the train ever stop at Harlem?”

His father dismissively replied, “You need fertile soil for crops to grow.”

In Holland’s mind, however, he thought that someone needed to go help prepare the soil. At Harvard, Holland made a pact with his Christian friends that he would go help the poor in Harlem.

So, here he was learning from Lincoln, a man at the bottom of society’s totem pole – no, not even on the pole.

He pulled out a crumpled sheet of paper with lots of scratched-out scribbles. “I wrote some stuff down. I need to ride like that driver. Keep it real all the way. I need a plan for today . . . for tomorrow . . . for every day.”

He showed me his notes, which were hard to understand with all the crossed-out words and between-the-line insertions. I suggested that he rewrite them and handed him paper and pen. He refused them.

“I need a pencil.”

“Why a pencil?” I queried, searching the desk in vain for one.

“Look at this mess.” He held up his old notes. “With a pencil I can keep working with the plan, changing it, adding, erasing, shaping it, until I get it right.”

The young lawyer recalled how he also meticulously planned his attack on the ills of Harlem. His research detailed the transition of Harlem from a haven for black residents and artists in the 20s to a site contention. The uptown Manhattan neighborhood was once the Fertile Crescent of African American culture. Now, Holland saw that it had become an epicenter of African American poverty and powerlessness.

He had come with a vision of establishing a law firm to fight on behalf of the poor residents. But he couldn’t find any allies among the lawyers of Harlem. His own family were not enthusiastic. What he had was the small Christian fellowship that he and his roommate hosted in their Covenant Avenue apartment. Holland grandly named the fellowship Harlem’s Ark of Freedom, or HARK.

He started serving Harlem in the most elemental way by volunteering at feeding programs. He also gave free legal advice to organizations that were agitating for the New York City Housing Authority to do timely repairs.

However, the young lawyer had seen that the feeding programs and a few coats of paint were just scratching the surface. The physical needs lay on top of a deep rocky soil of emotional woes, spiritual disconnectness, and mental confusion.

He recalled his father’s metaphor of fertile soil. In a garden, the gardener can water the soil so that the top layer is damp.  That’s a start. But pouring out short-term solutions was like squirting only a little water so that the roots stay close to the surface.

If a gardener stays longer and pours water onto the soil until it is saturated all the way down, the roots of the plants will also stretch deeper. He had been searching for tools that Harlemites could use to create deep change. And now, he had Lincoln who was leading the way in discovery.

One of those tools, Lincoln declared was a pencil. Holland went along with Lincoln to see what would happen.

Since he was insistent about the pencil, we asked around Harkhomes until a stub with a well-worn eraser was produced. He used a kitchen knife to whittle at the edge until the dull point became fine.

“You can make a pencil your own thing, just as you like it,” he marveled, admiring his handiwork.

He began to rewrite his plan of action, erasing as much as marking, writing then stopping, then starting again. He was no longer mired in his past but was riding on the ground like the bus driver, plotting purposefully toward his destination. When he ran out of paper, I quickly went to get him some more.

Afterwards, Holland started handing out pencils to the rest of the men. It accelerated a mental retooling. Holland gives the hat tip to Lincoln:

I kept one of Lincoln’s pencils for myself. The next morning I sharpened it. I’ve been using a pencil—with a fine point—to plan ever since.

More of the discovery process is documented in Touchstone Tools. In his stories, there are lessons that readers from all walks of life can use.


Also, check out Holland's autobiography From Harlem with Love: An Ivy Leaguer's Inner City Odyssey.


Holland will be holding a reception (6 pm) and panel discussion (6:30 – 7:30 pm) on Monday, May 16, at the Cornell Club, 6 E 44th Street in Manhattan about Touchstone Tools life-changing principles. RSVP using the form bellow or text to:

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