2nd and 14th

"When Everything Stops"

     There are those moments for me during the holidays when everything stops.  I love everything about Christmas, even the hustle and bustle.  But there are those moments when it seems everyone around you is mad and frustrated, even a deep anxiety pervades all around..  And I like many others ask, where is Jesus in all this chaos.  

      But there have been a couple of times, one a couple of years ago and one this week where I was able to see love in the middle of the mayhem.  And the impact is so great that everyone and everything seems to stop.  

      The one I remember the most happened a few years ago when I was watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade.  The broadcast networks have numerous cameras placed along the parade route and one camera was pointed at the entrance to Macy's department store.  And people were flowing in and out of the store.  And as people came out there arms were full of beautiful packages.  But suddenly a homeless man pushing a grocery cart with all his possessions walked in front of the camera.  He stopped and smiled at the camera and at that moment everything seem to stop, including the shoppers who seemed frozen in place. It was if Christmas was in front of all of us to see.

       The next time this happened was this week.  I was standing in the checkout line with only one item, and in front of me was a lady with two small children and an overflowing grocery cart. She was tired and she seemed full of anxiety. And the people in my line and the others on either side were moaning and complaining, the frustration oozing out.  But I noticed the man who was in front of the lady with the full cart stopped and waited after checking out.  And after all the items were scanned for the lady, the man walked up to her, put his arms around her, said Merry Christmas and swiped his credit card paying for all of her items and then he walked away, and everything stopped, the moaning and groaning, frowns turned to smiles and a sense of love surfaced in all of us.  We were able to experience Christmas, to see Jesus and everything stopped.  

     My prayer is that we will all have those moments this week and in the weeks ahead where we will see Jesus in a world that is full of anger, frustration and anxiety.  He is here, we just need to stop and look around us.  Merry Christmas

      

2nd and 14th

     On Wednesday of this week there was a lot of anger and frustration and a lot of celebration around the country depending on which person one voted for on Tuesday, and a lot of questions.  And this was true at the Church of the Reconciler.                                                     As I was sitting in on the Reconciler Intervention Group on Wednesday the focus was           1 Corinthians 13.  And there was a lot of discussion on how sections of this chapter are used in weddings and even anniversary celebrations and how beautifully they fit into these moments.  And as we continued to share about what love is, someone said that this also applies to our feelings about Tuesday regardless of who you wanted to win.  And after reading angry tweets and facebook comments over the last couple of days from loving Christians, including myself,  I am convinced that we all need to apply 1 Cor.13 to our responses.  These verses are used in our most beautiful moments in life, but they apply to our daily lives.  I do not have to like Donald Trump or those who support him but I can have patients, and I can use kindness in my words and thoughts.  Love does not act unbecomingly or try to provoke, love bears all things, believes, hopes and endures all things.                                                                                           We all have every right to hold those who will lead our country for the next four years accountable, but not through, hate,  arrogance or unrighteousness, but through speaking truth, to having the backs of those who are voiceless, frightened, and who are being persecuted because of the color of their skin, the country of origin or choice of partners to love.  We have to fight for what is right, to march, to speak out, but with the love of Christ because His love never fails. 

2nd and 14th

“Alice”

 

Thoreau said, “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” But the longer I live and the more I see I believe that it is women who are living these lives. And working at Church of the Reconciler, there is a feeling that it is the women and children that suffer the most.

I thought of this even more when we got the news that Alice had been attacked and there was a chance that she would not make it as she was going through surgery at UAB. She has been livng a life of desperation for a long time and the thing I regret is that until this tragedy I barely noticed Alice.

I don't know how many times that Alice passed me in different parts of the church, but this tiny, quiet lady rarely speaks and just goes about her day doing what ever it takes to get through that day. So all I could think of was missed opportunities, and for a while would I have a chance to get to know her.

As terrible as the last few weeks have been, because of the quick reaction by the community that we serve, the local police and the gifted surgeons and and medical personnel at UAB, Alice is not only alive, but is now in a secure place where she is healing and getting better every day. And I have had a wonderful opportunity to talk to Alice and not only notice her, but also honor her presence in my life.

As I think of our community that I am grateful to be a part of each day, I must see those that are not the loudest or most animated, but who come each day just trying to make it through another day. We all need to stop and see those whether it is in the Church of the Reconciler or just walking the sidewalks of the city or even driving by those places where our community lives and exist.

We must not wait for the next tragedy or horror story to make us stop and see those around us. There are many Alice's that pass by us each day, let's honor them and receive the blessings that come with having them pass into our lives. We need to help both the men and women that we serve live lives of love and grace, not desperation.

2nd and 14th

“Hammer”

 

With a nickname like “Hammer” I was wondering what kind of man I was about to meet as I entered the 7th floor room at UAB. Though I had never met Hammer, I had heard some things about him from the staff and community at Church of the Reconciler.

And there are those first impressions, those first moments as you meet someone for the first time, and when I walked into the hospital room I saw a big smile and gentle spirit. And it was exactly the person that others told me I would meet.

I have been in several hospital rooms over the years where the patient was terminally ill and in most cases the mood is the same. The patient is calm and almost content. The patient is the one that calms the visitor or family member, a special courage that seems to surface when someone is near death.

And Hammer was dying of cancer, he knew it and his family knew it. And just as I had experienced before he greeted me as if he was having the best day of his life. He was not interested in talking about himself or his illness, he wanted to know how the people at COR were doing. And he semi-lectured me in a very loving way to the fact that I was blessed to be at COR and that it was the most special of places. And as I have experienced in the past when I left the room I felt better than when I went in.

I was only in the room for about 30 minutes and it was the last time I would see Hammer. Within the week he would be in hospice care and shortly after he had died. But that 30 minutes told me who Hammer was as a person, man, husband, father and grandfather. He was an obedient servant with a faithful heart.

The Church of the Reconciler had a special Memorial Service in honor of Hammer, and I had the blessing of meeting his family and hearing testimonials from family and friends. And the words chosen were, loving, kind, friend, hard working, fun and always faithful. As Matt said during the service, “ He was one of the kindest people I have ever met.”

I am so grateful that I got to meet Hammer, even for just 30 minutes. And I am thankful to God for letting me sit beside this man and pray with him, knowing that Hammer heard the amazing words as he entered eternity, “Well done good and faithful servant!”

2nd and 14th

“Jim”

 

 

Roadie, restauranteur, musician, singer and movie theater manager were paths that do not define Jim, but allowed him to combine the skills of discipline, service and creativity. He loves to talk about being a Roadie and the bands that came through Ohio whom he was able to work. And his love for cooking led him into the restaurant business a career which would last 20 years and which Jim is first to state is a very stressful occupation. From there he moved into working as a movie theater manager moving up through the ranks in Ohio. Those promotions would bring forth a job transfer that would lead him to Birmingham as the manager of the Dollar Movie Theater in Hoover.

But the pressures of a new beginning and a new location and the loss of a new job would weigh heavily on him and suddenly Jim found himself homeless. Life was suddenly turned upside down and there did not seem to be a new path that Jim could take. And then he heard about the Church of the Reconciler. Jim says, “ They welcomed me with open arms, they helped me get a place to live and they gave me food to eat. Suddenly there was hope and a new family to be a part of in his life.

 

He is a man of quiet steadfastness. His soft voice and desire to listen attracts others to his office where there is an island of solitude in a very hectic ocean of humanity that is the Church of the Reconciler. Rarely will you see him alone in his office, there is usually someone there during the day. And his years of experience at the church makes him a significant part of the Church of the Reconciler.

 

Jim was born in 1955 in Galion, Ohio. He will quickly tell you that Galion is the place where the great cranes that built America come from, and that they were instrumental in being a key part of the war effort in WWII. And that even today you will find these great machines all over the world. He graduated from Galion High School, where he was part of the school choir and the drama club.

But his love of music comes from a home that was filled with music. His parents were amateur folk singers traveling around Galion and surrounding areas performing their music. Jim stated, “I was raised with music and my parents would always sing at home. And the whole family sang together which was great fun and training for me.”

 

And it is the music that does define who Jim is in his life. He loves music and music has been the center of his life. One can see his passion for music as he leads worship at the Church of the Reconciler. For Jim it is his desire to sing in honor and praise to the Lord and through that to make worship even more joyful. It is the one place where he feels most at home. And it is the place where he believes he was called to be.   

 

 

2nd and 14th

“The Color of My Skin”

 

The humanity seems eternal from sun-up till the moon glows

Humanity we should but do not want to see

Their freedom sewn shut, crushed not free.

 

Mother's sons standing in the shadows

Hoping for life, but feeling dead, ready to die

Wondering what this day will bring, as mothers sigh

 

Humanity with a gun in one hand a badge in another

An eternal truth, good guys turning their backs

Only saving their savagery

 

She looks at them with fear and love

I should forgive them, their hate moves them

But they do not answer or ask, who are you? Or see

 

Refusing to talk or listen, ignorance takes over

She becomes that image, another black woman with child

They are a threat, something will happen, something vile

 

The guilt is around our necks, in our worship

We have the power of dead wood

Like corpses in a tomb of stone and dirt

 

Eternities beat in our hearts save all

Except those that frighten and inconvenience us

And yet the breathe of God fills the universe

It is not the beginning, it is the end!

 

J. Stephens

2016

 

 

 

 

2nd and 14th

"Frozen in Time"

 

Humanity in a frozen corner

wrapped in newspaper, street goosedown

aching feet in slip on rags

the cold burns into a slow sleepyness

muscles jerk and kick as cramps coil tight

humanity lying under neon messages

we're open

hands and feet cracked and bleeding

bones reeking on cold empty concret

Humanity in a frozen corner

yesterdays trash

ready to be picked up.

J. Stephens

2016

2nd and 14th

“Us”

 

north, south, east, west

state by state

city by city

neighborhood by neighborhood

street by street

house by house

red by blue

ignorance versus truth

death versus life

hate versus love

rich versus poor

a wedge so deep

a crevice so wide

self destruction that knows no bounds

selfishness that grows word for word and climbs the heights

America oh America your fabric is ripping and has become frayed

we have seen the enemy and it is us.

J. Stephens

2016

2nd and 14th

“Laughing Through the Pain”

 

It is not very hard to recognize William, the white hair and white goatee that gives him an air of a great blues singer. He loves to laugh and sing, especially “Amazing Grace” which is his favorite hymn. But up close you see the deep lines in his face and dark eyes that seem to tell the story that has come from being dragged through life.

He was born on April 21, 1944 in Calera, Alabama, the baby of eight children. His family was one of many tenant farmers on the red clay roads of Chilton and Shelby counties. Each family enduring the long hours and bleeding hands that came with picking cotton for the white farmers. He and his siblings were able to go to school but school became secondary, there were too many mouths to feed and not enough money. One of William's earliest memories was watching his older siblings who by the time they reached their late teens blew out of Calera never looking back. And the one goal that young William had was to flee Calera and never pick cotton again.

His chance finally came when he was sixteen, when a friend of the family said his car was packed and he was headed to New York. It was William's ticket out, no more picking cotton, no more blistering days bent over or bleeding hands doing the work of the white families in his community. The idea of going to New York was like a dream. But New York would turn out to be a nightmare and begin years of pain and struggling that would change William's life forever.

Arriving in New York William had the good fortune to have an older sister and brother, both whom lived in the Bronx. His sister would take him in and William hit the streets looking for work. And New York in the 1960's was an amazing place to be. It was he said, “music on every corner, people from every part of the world and the smell of the food that each culture brought was like heaven.” But it was the music that excited him the most, he would say, “ it was as if the music came out of the sidewalks and walls of the neighborhood, it was everywhere.”

He had only been in New York for about six weeks when in one night everything would change. He had eaten a good meal, but apparently the meat part of the meal was bad and William began to get sicker and sicker as the night went on. The illness became so bad that his sister would call their brother asking him to take William to the hospital. Strangely William was not driven to the nearest hospital, but to Bellevue, which is a hospital for individuals who are mentally ill. Even to this day William doesn't understand why his brother took him to Bellevue and why they were willing to keep him for several weeks.

Once released from the hospital he decided to return to Alabama and traveled by bus arriving in Montgomery. He stated, “I found a job in Montgomery, but I constantly felt exhausted and weak, so I finally decided to go home to live with my mom.” But the exhaustion continued and he felt tired each day and it was finally decided that William needed a time of rest in a rest home. But instead of being sent to a place of rest, he was sent to Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa, a place his mother came to understand was the place he needed to be. For the next six months suffered under continual electric shock therapy and today he feels that his difficulty in remembering and his tendency to slur his words are the result of this treatment.

The last fifty years has flown by and for William there has been struggles. There has been years on the streets of Birmingham and struggles with with issues around his head and scalp and physical challenges, including deafness. And you will see the memory lapse as he reaches into the air with his right hand as if he is trying to grasp the answer and then the words come and are full of life. All part of being dragged through life and sadly he has had little support from family or a system that sees the homeless as a nuisance and inconvenience. But he has been clean for decades. He presently has a roof over his head. But most importantly he loves God and loves to sing to the Lord and he has that infectious laugh that says lets live life to the fullest. And for us at the Church of the Reconciler we are treated to this gentle giant and we are blessed.

 

 

 

2nd and 14th

“In the Blink of an Eye”

 

When I look at the community at the Church of the Reconciler I often see men and women caught between two worlds. They are living in a world of chaos and one where their need for order keeps them alive. You can see it in the bags they pack or the grocery carts they push. Each of their days has a purpose and each day is filled with constant flux, no wonder they have a need for everything that is in the bag or cart.

But more important to me is the question, how did they get here? Yes there are addictions, but what pushed them into that abyss? Was it environment, or neighborhood, heredity or something else? What crosses are they really bearing that keep them in this community?

When I first met Robert those were the questions I wanted to ask. But he is a quiet and very private man. A man that one can tell has a kind heart, and that his heart has been broken. When you talk to him you have to lean in to really hear his soft voice. And he struggles with memory, whether caused by his addiction to alcohol, or because of another medical condition, he has to think for several minutes to answer some questions. And he has been carrying heavy cross.

Robert was born in October 1946 in North Birmingham, but his family soon moved to Morris where he grew up. He attended school there, where he graduated from Mortimer Jordan high school. He joined the Navy after graduation where he spent four years in the service. Upon discharge he went back to Morris where for the next 30 years he work at a motorcycle shop. Along the way he married June and they had a son Patrick. Life was good for a time. But life was about to change for Robert and June.

It all began with the sudden death of their son Patrick, and within the next year the death of June with cancer. Robert said that the the death of Patrick so devastated June that she didn't seem to have a desire to live, so she didn't seem to fight very hard to beat the cancer.

In the blink of an eye Robert's life began to spiral out of control and he would be pushed into the abyss of alcohol that would cost him his job, the lost of his home and the beginning of life on the streets.

And it was the Church of the Reconciler that would become the place where he would find hope and a second chance. Though his trips to the church were for the daily food, he would also find people that helped him find the resources he needed. The AA meetings and shelter care that would help him find a place to live. And his eyes were opened to the fact that he needed God.

When you come to the Church of the Reconciler you will find Robert sitting in the same chair he sits in each day outside the Shelter Care Plus office. He is there like clockwork, ready to help in any way he can with the needs of the Shelter Care Plus staff and anyone else who is in need of help. When ask why he volunteers at the church each week he will tell you that this is where God wants him to be. This is where I belong.

He still carries that cross and the grief of missing Patrick and June, and each evening he walks around north Birmingham talking to Jesus and remembering his wife and son. But he will tell you that each day is a gift and with Jesus you can climb out of the abyss and get a second chance.

Robert is a reminder that the reasons for a person being homeless don't just start with the addiction, but with something deeper. And that we all need to listen to the stories of our community at the Church of the Reconciler and on the streets of Birmingham to find what is the cross that each person is carrying. And share with them the cross that we are also carrying.

2nd and 14th

“Ms. Mary”

 

There are those people who seem to be in perpetual motion. No matter how fast you move or how involved they move past you and are in the middle of the mix. If you happen to be at the Church of the Reconciler on Sunday you will see such a person, Mary Jones.

And don't let her size fool you, she will force herself through those much bigger and much stronger, but who don't have the intestinal fortitude or passion to hold her back from her desired destination. And as she passes through you she will grab you by the arm or sleeve and say let's go there is work to do! But her relentlessness flows from her because of her belief that as a Christian witness she is responsible for being a formidable advocate for the downtrodden. And she is willing to speak out and take on the powers to be, challenging and pushing them until they hear the truth of the phrase 'justice for the people'.

Mary Jones was born in Sweetwater, Alabama in 1936. And she is quick to tell you that there was nothing sweet about Sweetwater. Though racism was rampant in all parts of Alabama, for Mary it seemed that the evil in Sweetwater was greater than any other place.

She will tell you that she was a difficult student, often getting into skirmishes, but she was at the top of her class academically. Fed up with Sweetwater she moved to Birmingham in 1954 hoping she could have a new start. While in Birmingham she would marry and have two children Terry and Zana, but two events would convince her to get out of the south. She went through a divorce, but the tipping point was when walking in Birmingham a white man walked up to her and spit into her face. She says “at that point I knew I had to get out and I especially did not want my children to grow up in the south..” So in 1957 she headed to Chicago, a single mother with two children, but with a determination that was and is her trademark, to do what ever it takes to reach ones goals.

Chicago was the door that opened real opportunity for Mary and in addition to raising her children whe enrolled at Roosevelt University where she would major in social work. While in school she stated that the one class that helped her the most was Speed Reading, she said, “speeding reading taught me patience which was something I did not have but needed the most.” Chicago was a place that allowed her and her children to experience life in a cosmopolitan city, with people from all over the world and wonderful things to see and feel. For her it was the arts especially the music that brought her great joy.

Over the years there were trips back to Birmingham to visit family. Mary stated “as my children came to Birmingham off and on through the years they desired more and more to move back permanently. So in 1976 she moved with her family to Birmingham.

Upon arriving in Birmingham she found a new career working at the UAB School of Nursing where she was able to council nursing students. She said, “the students would just gravitate to me, wanting school advice, but also life advice.” Over the years there have been hundreds of students that have sought Mary's advice as they move from school into the next phase of their lives.

But advocacy was always the focus and passion of her life and as she worked and raised her family in Birmingham she immediately got involved in various organizations that were helping the least of these. And for Mary the very special group was women. Because of her passion she was chosen to head up a group called, 'Child Support Enforcement Committee'. With the groups mantra being 'every man that can be found must pay child support!' She would challenge he legal system and political system to move the agenda forward speaking out for women throughout the community.

Over the years she would go to different churches throughout Birmingham, but none of them seem to be home to her. But then she met Lawton and Kevin Higgs who had started a church in their home and their she found her church. She said, “ They were talking about the things I believed in, including social gospel, and there were people from all walks of life that were attending the church. And from this house church the Higgs would move into a building near to what is now the Church of the Reconciler, eventually moving into the present church building on 2nd and 14th. And Mary has been a faithful member ever since. But it is not just the Reconciler that receives the blessings and energy that Mary brings, she is involved in many agencies and other shelters, such as the Fire House giving her voice to the wrongs that are happening in the Birmingham community. She continues to be a voice for the voiceless. For her it will always be “Justice for the People”.