Telling the Stories that Matter: October 10 – John Woolman, Quaker, Abolitionist, Lover of Life

“I bet I can hit it from here” said John Woolman to his friend.

“No, you can’t,” retorted his friend snidely “it’s too far away for you.” John picked up a small stone and took aim at the robin on a limb of the nearby tree. It was hopping among the branches and keeping guard over its nest. The quiet peeping of the baby birds was inaudible at this distance but John knew that they were nearby. He hadn’t expected his friend to challenge him to do it. But, he had and now John stood with a stone in his hand and a burden on his conscience.

“I’ll hit the branch underneath it and scare it” he thought to himself. He reasoned “If I do that, then it will be good enough and maybe my friend will think I succeeded.” He hefted the stone and threw it. It missed wide of the bird. He selected another stone and felt the tension rise a little as his friend watched intently. He took a little more time before throwing a second time. This time it missed to the other side but was getting closer. “Almost there” he said to his expectant friend. He selected another stone and concentrated on hitting the branch that the robin rested upon. He threw the stone and his heart sank as it hit the robin squarely and caused it to fall from the branch.Anxious to see it fly away, John ran to see if the bird was okay and found it dead on the ground–killed by the errant stone. He was awestruck and so he failed to notice his friend running away for fear of getting in trouble. He was frightened by the death of the bird and repeated to himself that he hadn’t meant to do it. But, he couldn’t escape the memory of deciding to gamble with the life of the robin. He had decided to risk the robin’s life (and the lives of its hatchlings) on a silly wager and game–it had cost him nothing but the robin everything. He collected the baby birds from the nest and fretted over what to do. They would die slowly without their mother and John could not care for them himself. His willful stone had condemned these baby birds to a slow death. He killed them, as he recalled in his journal, out of a desire to offer merciful and quick death to the victims of his lack of consideration. John was changed by this event and began to realize how this scenario played out time and time again in the world that he would grow into.
John was a clerk and a tailor by trade and did what he could to make enough money to live on in the North American colonies. In the colony of New Jersey, he was a reasonably successful tradesman. As a clerk, however, he had one particular challenge. Having learned an incredible respect for life, he could not reconcile it with the colonial attitude toward slavery. When asked to write a “bill of sale” for a slave, he bucked initially before being forced into it. He salved his mind by rationalizing that it was a sale of a slave to a woman who would treat the slave kindly but his conscience continued to sear him inwardly and he regretted the sale bitterly.He feared that his lack of consideration had cost another human more of their life and he resolved not to support slavery in any way from then onward. He was called to the home of a friend to write their will. He wrote out the will but left out the portions concerning who would gain possession of the man’s slave when he died. He recorded in his journal, “I could not write any instruments by which my fellow creatures were made slaves without bringing trouble on my own mind. I let him know I charged nothing for what I had done, and desired to be excused from doing the other part in the way he had proposed. We then had a serious conference on the subject; he, at length, agreeing to set her free, I finished the will.”

John had effected redemption in one through relationship and love. Having thus started, John would go on to change many people’s opinions on bondage and slavery. He did not seek to confront or create conflict–John wasn’t interested in arguing with people about freeing slaves so much as he was interested in redeeming the slaveholder and letting that redemption take its own path in freeing slaves. Later he would begin to resist the tides leading to the French and Indian war. His commitment to life continued to push him further as he endeavored not to make the same life-stealing mistakes that he had made in his past.

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Bruce Was Ready

The following is written about our brother, Bruce, who passed on September 8, 2017. We’ve written about Bruce before: hereherehere, and here. He has also written for our newsletter twice: here and here. We’ve already had a service to celebrate Bruce and offer some meager resolution to our community, but the following story is another frustratingly inadequate memorial to our brother, whom we miss dearly. 

***

_MG_3193.JPGIt was my distinct privilege to walk alongside Bruce for about six of his sixty-one years. He reminded me upon occasion that his years in community were his favorite years, even if some of our habits irritated him. Bruce was a punctual person deep down and it took him a long time to grow accustomed to our way of saying “we’ll get started at 6ish” or “let’s wait a few more minutes to see if Deborah shows up for prayers.” He coined a term for our way of approximate time and hospitable delays: “Grace and Main time.” But even if it had been a while since you told him you were coming, Bruce still had a smile for you when you pulled up to his place. He might be aggravated—community doesn’t mean never being frustrated with the people you love—but the bonds of love are so much stronger than momentary irritations. And Bruce had a heart full of love, hard won through sixty-one years of struggle mixed with celebration that all too often seemed mixed too strongly toward struggle.  Regardless of when you pulled up and whether you were operating by the clock or on “Grace and Main time,” Bruce was ready.

Bruce came to dinner the first time because we pestered him until he showed up. His friend, Robert, helped us out with the pestering until Bruce eventually told him, “If you’ll shut up about it, I’ll go once.” Of course, Bruce ended up going much more than once. A few months after he shared that first meal with us, Bruce told me: “that first time I came, I didn’t believe that yall loved me; but I could tell that you loved each other and it was nice to be near that.” Bruce had burned every bridge he’d ever had and the match he used to set the fire was alcohol. It was a fateful meal with a four-year-old (that we’ve written about before) that provided the impetus for Bruce to dare to hope that our love could include him. With grilled chicken on his fork and with gentle trust in the heart of his four-year-old friend, something changed for Bruce. He called the next day and said he wanted to get clean. We promised that we’d make sure he had food to eat, a place to stay, and work to do when he got out of rehab. He’d end up keeping that promise for good. He was a little scared, in the moment, but Bruce was ready.

Though he was trained as a carpenter and evidence to his skill abounds around our community, Bruce had an innate gift for hospitality and welcome. Third Chance Ministries hired him as our Associate Missionary to the Northside because of his deft combination of practiced skill and natural gift. Bruce worked alongside LindaJoann, and Robert in a little house on North Main Street for quite some time. They started a breakfast together that eventually welcomed 80+ people to share a meal on the porch, grass, and curb of that house. Bruce rebuilt a rotted-out tool shed, that once served as temporary shelter for him, into our first tool library. Bruce planted some of our first gardens that became the impetus for our Urban Farm. Dozens of people got clean and sober, citing Bruce’s influence and loving support. Bruce made countless urns of coffee and coolers of lemonade to share with anybody who might want it. When he moved into his own home, he stocked his candy bowl not with peppermints or butterscotch, but with candy bars, packs of gum, whole rolls of lifesavers, and whatever else struck his fancy on his most recent shopping trip. When somebody needed a place to talk, eat, or rest, Bruce provided it. When it came to hospitality, Bruce was ready.

Bruce was integral to our establishment of the Urban Farm and he was the founding leader behind our community’s Tool Library. Bruce was one of four people in our city who received a certificate in permaculture design and sustainable gardening practices. Because of Bruce, dozens of people got thousands of hours of work through the tool library and through the connections that Bruce forged working around town. There were some things that Bruce loved to do: working at the farm, repairing tools, building things with his hands, cooking breakfast, and going out for ice cream. There were other things that Bruce didn’t love doing, but did because he loved us: paperwork and reports, long meetings, Mexican food, and talking about money. For so much of our shared work, both loved and unloved, Bruce was ready.

Once Bruce got clean and committed himself to the life and work of our community, his life was marked by prayer in a special way. Wherever Bruce landed, whether it was the house on North Main, an apartment nearby, or his eventual home on Moffett St next to the Urban Farm, Bruce soon carved out a special place for a Bible, a prayer book, a pair of reading glasses, and a chair. Bruce was quiet, but steady in his prayers for each of us and so many of you. To ask Bruce to pray for somebody or something was to know that it would be remembered and thoughtfully considered, even if only rarely mentioned. He gave himself to wrestling with scripture and the teachings of Jesus. He lived them out in front of our eyes, often drawing us deeper into the path of mercy or grace. On one occasion, Bruce reminded us of the wisdom and cost of love in practice, when a man attacked him with a baseball bat. With tears in his eyes for having punched the man in self-defense, Bruce offered forgiveness and love to his enemy in a way that left me awed. Bruce chose the path of love and his attacker joined him there, choosing to get clean shortly thereafter and take up the work of ministry in our neighborhoods. By the prayers of his heart, his mouth, and his actions, Bruce was ready.

When Bruce was admitted to the hospital this past August, I dreaded to find out what was wrong. So many concerning symptoms were wrapped up with my dear friend’s life that I feared our shared story would soon have a tragic turn. On August 14, 2017, shortly after I left his hospital room to pick up my daughter from school, Bruce had a stroke. It took him a long time to come off of the ventilator in the ICU and a little longer to come back to himself. We found out that, in addition to his stroke, he had cancer and it had spread. He was scared and we were heartbroken. He decided to fight and for several days he got stronger, even getting up and walking a little bit for a few days in a row. But, the cancer he had was relentless and he soon weakened and knew that he was facing death. In those weeks, the community gathered round him and prayed earnestly with him. The medical staff was astonished at how deep was the love for Bruce. They googled him, the said, because surely he must be a special man to have so many who love him so much. When he was given the option, Bruce insisted that he wanted to go home for the last few steps of the journey. He wanted to die in his home, and Bruce was ready.

So, they carried him to his home next to the Urban Farm and the Tool Library. They laid our dear brother in a borrowed, hospital bed in the living room of the house he had made a home. He looked out over the garden and the tool library. He scratched his cat, Booboo, behind the ears. He talked on the phone with friends who could not make it into town quickly enough. He consoled us in our grief and loved us through our tears. We did what he asked us to do: we waited nearby, we sang songs, we played cards, and we told jokes. Nearly two dozen of us took time to make that living room a holy place full of the things and people that Bruce loved so dearly. Then, late on Friday, September 8, 2017, Bruce slipped away into glory.

Bruce was ready. We weren’t. But we’re accustomed to Bruce teaching us how to do things.

Telling the Stories that Matter: October 1 – Therese de Lisieux, Nun, Doctor of the Church, Little Flower of Jesus


Therese was the youngest child of nine children born in Alencon, France. Louis, her father, was a man of vibrant and life-changing faith who had applied to be a monk in his younger days. Though his passion and earnestness was not questioned, he did not know (and didn’t have much prospect of learning) Latin. Consequently, he was rejected from the monastic life. Azélie-Marie Guérin, Louis’ wife and Therese’s mother, shared the same eager and deep faith that her husband professed and proclaimed. She had considered becoming a nun but had been rejected as unfit for the convent on lack of skills. Though Therese’s parents were rejected from the cloistered life, they were gladly and lavishly accepted into Christ’s Kingdom and guided their children toward this same goal. Therese’s mother died when Therese was only four years old and this caused Louis to move the family to Lisieux to be closer to family in this time of crisis.


Therese had a passion within her that seemed unnatural for a child of nine but when her older sister became a Carmelite nun Therese wanted to, as well. She appealed to the abbess but was rejected because she was only nine years old. Five years later, another one of her sisters became a Carmelite nun in the same convent as their older sister. At the age of fourteen, Therese felt that she was finally prepared to take her vows as a devoted minister of the Christian faith. She was, again, rejected because of her age. She must have felt some of the same pain her mother and father had felt before her. But, she was grounded in the reality of the faith they had passed on to her and continued to persevere in her desire. When her father took her to Rome, she had an opportunity to speak with the Pope for only an instant. In this moment, she asked if he would make it possible for her to take the vows that stood for the devotion she already possessed. Her greatest desire was to formalize what already was within her. He advised her to trust the movement and decision of the ministers in charge.


At the age of fifteen, the bishop allowed her to enter the convent and she did so gladly. Her life and her writings were characterized by a certain way of looking at life. Her repeated rejection–and her family’s heritage of rejection from service–had formed an attitude and approach in her that prepared her to do great things by doing little things. Therese’s life was characterized by small actions that she ascribed great importance to. She wrote, “I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifice to all ecstasies. To pick up a pin for love can convert a soul.” It is in this thought, saved for all generations of Christians to remind themselves, that we see the beauty of the story of Therese de Lisieux. She knew that love could change the world if people would practice it. She saw the redeeming and saving power of love and held onto it fiercely. She would advise all who asked not to endeavor to do great things because works and feats were of no consequence for the salvation of the world–rather, they should endeavor to be loving in the small and insignificant moments of the day. By loving more greatly, she reasoned, the person was being saved and sharing redemption with those along her way. Though her mother and father has been rejected for not being fit for service, Therese found true service to be an act of daily redemption and love and not works or gifts.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: September 28 – Cosmas and Damian, Martyrs, Healers, Silverless


Cosmas and Damian had attracted very much attention. It wasn’t because they were hungry for renown and consideration. They were influential but they did not seek the power of influence. They were powerful but they did not seek to manipulate or dominate others. This had attracted the attention–negative attention, for sure–of Diocletian. Consequently, they were arrested as enemies of the Empire within the Roman province of Syria. Though there were many of the outcast and needy that would have jumped to their defense, they agreed to be seized by the hand of the Empire. They turned their bodies over to the Empire that outlawed their faith.

What had gathered the attention of the Empire had been the work that Cosmas and Damian became so famous for: healing. It must have started small–like all of God’s great works–with kind words, prayers, and needy individuals. However, their ministry spread like wildfire as they provided life and healing to people desperate for something different than the sanitized Imperial security that provided no life. Being a follower of Jesus–the one who has the words of life–they offered what no other could: life more abundant. Soon, many others were coming to them for healing and hope. They provided both in abundance without asking for any compensation. For some, this was prohibitive–how could they not give something for the grace and mercy they were being offered? For some, this is still prohibitive–what do you mean I can’t do anything to save myself? Cosmas and Damian became known as “silverless” or “unmercenary” because they offered the love and healing they received out of the love born in their hearts through their ongoing conversion. For this work, they were arrested. The World will not stand by and simply watch people offer life and healing when all it can offer is control and something that looks like life. So, it handles the “problem” however it needs to.


Cosmas and Damian were given ample opportunities to deny their faith and affirm the Empire. Having tasted of the waters of salvation and conversion, though, they were unable ever to return to a life of security and control. Instead, they continued to proclaim the Gospel that had gripped and transformed them regardless of what they wanted. They were tortured slowly so as to allow for a change of heart but the Empire failed to realize that their hearts had already begun to be changed by something greater than anything they could promise or threaten. They were hung on crosses to cast fear and humiliation into their hearts but they only found themselves reminded of the love of their Savior who had died for them while they were yet sinners. Stones were cast at them to cause such pain as to make them hate and seek vengeance but they only found themselves reminded of the conversion of Saul who stoned Christians before being converted. Arrows were shot into their bodies to punish them for their faith but they remained steadfast in the face of pain because of a life more vibrant and real within them. Finally, they were beheaded because the Empire could no longer stand to look upon the products of conversion and know it could not produce the same with power, control, domination, and hatred.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: September 19 – Rich Mullins, Singer, Songwriter, Kid Brother of Francis

Rich Mullins, the son of a mid-western farmer and his Quaker wife, was born in Indiana but traveled much throughout the course of his life. He attended Quaker services with regularity but his own spiritual pedigree is muddy at best–just how Rich would like it. He had connections to Quakers, Methodists, Baptists, and Roman Catholics among yet even more congregations. On more than one occasion, Rich advocated a certain kind of spiritual authenticity that seemed to make denominational divides and distinctions that once seemed so important and daunting to fade away into a kind of inconsequential haziness. Rich wanted to follow Jesus and didn’t really care what that meant he was called or how others might identify him. At a very young age, his great-grandmother gave him a gift that he would spend the rest of his life giving to the world–she taught him to play piano and started his musical development. He took to it with a prodigious amount of natural talent and was an accompanist for a local, touring congregational choir. Rich attended several different schools while he studied music as a young adult but didn’t stay in any one school for very long. It was always clear that his first passion was the Lord Jesus who loved him. It is his second passion for which he is best known: honest and soul-searching music that glorifies God.

Shortly after earning his B.A. in Music Education from Friends University in Wichita, Kansas, he moved to Tse Bonito, New Mexico, with his dear friend Mitch McVicker. He already had a remarkably successful career as both a singer and a songwriter. He had two hit songs that were fast becoming popular praise choruses and had released a few albums to much critical acclaim. After reading Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel, Rich was so touched by the text that he named his new band “The Ragamuffin Band.” They were in high demand in Christian music circles and it seemed that his career was set to “take off” even further. If this were the story of most men, then we’d expect to hear more of awards and material gains but Rich had moved to Tse Bonito to live on a Navajo reservation and teach music to the children that he met there. Though his performances were regularly sold out, Rich never accepted more than $24,000 a year as a salary. Instead, he gave over every check he received to his accountant. Rich’s accountant paid Rich the salary of the average “working person” in the United States and gave the rest away as per Rich’s instructions. Rich turned down the world’s brand of success to follow after his Lord Jesus like his hero Francis of Assisi had done. Rich cast aside the world’s gains because he recognized them for what they were: weights around his neck as he tried to ascend into God’s presence.

Rich and Mitch McVicker were headed north on I-39 from Bloomington, Illinois, on September 19th in the year 1997. They were headed to a benefit concert in Wichita, Kansas. The jeep flipped for some uncertain reason and the two men were thrown from the vehicle as a tractor-trailer truck bore down upon their wrecked jeep. Both were badly injured from their wreck but Rich would be killed when the truck veered to one side to avoid the wrecked jeep and killed Rich instantly. Mitch was seriously injured but he survived the wreck. Rich died only days after having recorded an album on micro-cassette in an abandoned church. The Ragamuffin Band had been there and Rich had recorded it so that they could hear the ten songs that Rich wanted to include on the next album (entitled “The Jesus Record”). This final recording had none of the professional editing so common in music but still communicated the authenticity and passion that Rich had for God and for his music. Even though Rich died, the band went on to record “The Jesus Record” and release it not only with a copy of Rich’s final recording but, also, with a tribute album where Rich’s part was played by Christian musicians who had been friends and admirers of Rich. In the end, you can’t help but wonder if Rich might not have preferred it that way–God getting the glory, his friends serving God, and Rich being allowed to hang on for the ride.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: September 15 – Martyrs of Birmingham

It was just barely past 10:20 a.m. on Sunday morning when the children made their way downstairs. They had just finished listening to the pastor’s sermon: “The Love That Forgives.” Perhaps their minds dwelt on the incredible calling that the pastor’s sermon placed on the lives of those who followed after Jesus–love your enemies so much that you can’t help but forgive them? Sure, maybe that stuff worked for Jesus but it would be so hard for a black person in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. This was the city where dogs and hoses had been turned on peaceful demonstrators. This was the city often described as the “most segregated” city in all of the nation. This was the city of “Bull” Connor who, in response to Brown v. Board of Education had said, “You’re going to have bloodshed, and it’s on them [the Supreme Court], not us.” They were supposed to learn to love and forgive these people?

As they gathered in the basement of 16th Street Baptist Church their minds might have only been concerned with what fun the teacher might have in mind for them. Perhaps they were focused on what everybody else was wearing and doing. We know that one little girl had asked another older girl to help tie her belt–it must have been coming undone. In this sanctuary–this haven from the hate and destruction of the world–where they tried to worship and follow after a crucified and abuse Lord, they were not as scared as they were used to being. For a brief moment, perhaps, they felt some respite and comfort in the basement of this place. Then it happened.

A bomb–nineteen sticks of dynamite–went off.

The cement and glass of the basement wall became a horrible mess of shrapnel and death. One poor girl was so thoroughly mutilated by the blast that she was unrecognizable to all but her father who knew her by the ring she wore. One child’s eyes were lacerated and filled with glass. How does one adequately describe a singular blast of indiscriminate hatred that murders children in a church basement in cold blood? Regardless, it is a powerful testament of the conversion of the bombers to the wide way that leads unto destruction.

As people flocked to the site of the bombing, they soon found out that four children had been killed and over twenty other people had been injured physically. The amount of emotional, mental, and spiritual wounds on that day cannot–and perhaps should not–be quantified. That was a day when hatred and darkness struck out and caused inestimable damage. As the gathering crowd looked up, only one stained glass window had not been blown out in the blast: an image of Jesus gathering the little children unto himself. The face and head of Jesus had been blown off by the blast but the remainder of the image stood as an eerie statement about where Jesus was in the blast–about who else the bombers were bombing.


This event–the martyrdom of four little girls (Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins)–would demonstrate the brutality and evil of the kind of people who would be willing to bomb a church and children because of their own fear and ignorance. The four men who were eventually implicated in the plot (three of whom were found guilty, one died before being charged) remain nameless here because it is best that the world forget their stories entirely. They thought they were doing it to protect themselves and their families from integration of black citizens with white citizens. All they did was further show the world what it was that they truly believed in: a supposed gospel of peace and happiness through domination, destruction, and willful power.

As one of the men was led away after being found guilty, he was asked if he had anything to say. He retorted: “I guess the good Lord will settle it on judgment day.” Of this, I have no doubt but, perhaps it is most fitting to remember the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in response to this atrocity:

And so my friends, they did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city….And so I stand here to say this afternoon to all assembled here, that in spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. We must not become bitter, nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. No, we must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality.

This was the “Love that Forgives.” This was, truly, the seed of redemption that brought about integration and healing. This was the spirit of conversion that leads unto God.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: September 8 – Peter Claver, Servant of Slaves, Jesuit, Priest


Peter could hear the call of the sailors at the docks. He knew what their calls and the sudden bustle of business men moving toward the harbor meant: yet another slave ship was arriving in Cartagena. He quickly gathered up his bundle of food and drink and wrapped it in the blankets he had ready. He put these things in his cart and joined the hustling masses as they made their way to the harbor to process the slaves who had just now arrived in Cartagena having descended into agony months prior. Slavers brought in approximately 1000 slaves a month to Cartagena in order to keep up with demand. Because of the high interest, this was a very profitable route. However, because of the casualty rate on their ships (due to malnutrition, hygiene, and general abuse), they packed more and more men and women onto their ships to “cover their losses.” The African men and women had become a commodity that was poorly treated but highly demanded.

Peter approached the captain before any slaves could be brought into the marketplace and used his status as a priest to persuade him to let him come aboard. The captain knew this priest well and had no affection for him–Peter was well known as a “slave sympathizer”–but he could not openly refuse a priest’s acts of compassion and mercy in front of such a crowd. Peter climbed aboard the ship and descended to the cargo hold. There, he was the first white face that many of these slaves would look upon since leaving Africa. He quickly worked to demonstrate his love to them. He helped removed the bodies of the deceased. He learned and call them by their names. He brought food and drink that he gave them freely and gladly. He bandaged their wounded and cared for their sick. With the help of interpreters and friends, he made known to them that they were people worth knowing and loving and not things. In the bowels of the slave trade, Peter subverted the hold of the slavers upon the minds of these abused men and women. He told them of a different kind of Christianity that was about setting free the captive and providing forgiveness and love without charge or coercion. Peter was at an incredible disadvantage: he was trying to make up for the evils of his brothers and sisters in the minds of these slaves but he was willing to try.

Peter became known as the “slave to the slaves.” He taught them about a loving and liberating Lord who led a Church that welcomed them as equal parts of one Body. Constantly, Peter was pushing a boulder up a hill as he fought to love those that his neighbors abused, broke, and dehumanized. He broke bread and shared in communion with the slaves. He followed them to the plantations where they would be held. He met with them and worshiped with them. He poured out his life for those whom others labeled as worth nothing more than what their short lives could produce. Though it meant that Peter was abused and mistreated (and would die alone), he still offered a radical and beautiful love to the people whom he met on every ship that came into the harbor. Over thirty-three years of this ministry–amidst cruel opponents and overwhelming odds–Peter denied what he could have had if he would have minded his own business and, instead, minded the well-being of his brothers and sisters who he met for the first time in the cargo holds of slave ships. In those thirty-three years over 300,000 slaves would find the loving Lord that Peter Claver followed. He may have been pushing a boulder up a hill and fighting against impossible odds but, yet, Peter was doing the work of the Kingdom the entire time. Peter was following his Lord into the clutches of a broken and evil world so that some might be saved and changed. He descended repeatedly into the hell of the slave trade only to bring some out and go back, again, when the next ship arrived.

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