Telling the Stories that Matter: September 27 – Vincent de Paul, Slave, Priest, Chaplain


Vincent was born into a historically unremarkable family with five other children. His peasant father and mother evidently took good care of their children and grounded them in the faith that they held so dear and so tightly held them. Vincent had the opportunity to study and receive an education by associating with various societies in more urban areas and received an education in theology while studying in Toulouse. He was ordained in the year 1600 and began a life of service and devotion to the Church and its Lord–Jesus Christ–who promised freedom to the bound.

While serving as a priest in Toulouse, he received a call to travel to Marseilles for some family business. His life had been like so many others for his first twenty-four years. His story differed very little from so many other priests while he served in the urban area of Toulouse. His life and his story was about to change, though, in a drastic and difficult way. It’s hardly the kind of thing that anyone would wish for themselves or another but it was the path that Vincent’s life took: while in Marseilles, Vincent was seized by Turkish pirates and forced into a life of servitude and suffering.

He was carried against his will to Tunis in Northern Africa. When they landed there, he must have trembled at the thought of what awaited him when he was forced to disembark. The voyage had been terrible but it had, at least, been a limited type of terror–on the ship he knew where he would be the next day and who he would be interacting with. When he was brought onto dry land again he could still smell the Mediterranean sea but it was a very different world that he found himself in. Drawing hope from the faith that held him and countless Christians before and after him, he walked to the slave market where he was purchased by a powerful man who had some interest in Vincent the priest.

As a slave, he was incredibly limited in his interactions with his owner but he began to form a relationship with the man who had bought his freedom and life for a small sum. His love and way of life drew the attention of his owner and the attention became interest. When the owner began talking with Vincent, he found a vibrant faith that led his slave to offer him forgiveness and love. This was so much unlike his other slaves who hated and despised him for commanding and controlling them. Though Vincent did not condone the servitude he was entangled in, he continued to love his owner anyway. Eventually, Vincent’s owner was converted to the faith, hope, and love that held Vincent. After this, he freed Vincent and Vincent returned to France.

When he returned to France, it must have seemed like everything had changed because so much of Vincent had changed while serving another in bondage. In many ways, life was better and more exciting because of his rediscovered freedom which he likely took for granted before his enslavement. However, something else was changed–Vincent’s outlook on life. He eventually became a chaplain to galley slaves and offered pastoral care and comfort to those who suffered under the hand of bondage and oppression. His ministry became characterized by service to the less fortunate and defeated. For the remainder of his life, he would serve under the guidance of the powerful to provide care to the weak and outcast. When confronted with the physical abuse that the slaves had received, he was also concerned with the spiritual abuse rendered unto them. He began to live a life and ministry of comfort and healing for the least of the slaves and convicts under his care. With priests who were inspired by his life and work, he founded a group of ministers committed to care for the enslaved and bound.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: September 24 – Henri Nouwen, Priest, Author, Assistant

Henri was born into a Dutch family in 1932. Recalling his childhood, he was known to say: “I grew up in a very protected and safe environment and I learned to know that I was Dutch and I was Catholic. It took me quite a long time to discover that there were people, many people, who were neither!” His upbringing was religious and he would remark that he was familiar with two voices growing up: the voice of his mother offering unconditional love and the voice of his father spurring him onward to achievement and effort. For Henri, these voices would serve as constant companions and narrators for his life’s actions. At the age of six, he says he first felt a calling to be a priest and servant of God’s people. This is a calling that he would follow through school and eventually see realized when he as ordained a priest at the age of 25.

Henri’s gifts were clearly disposed toward teaching and writing. His writing is–to this day–regarded highly among protestants, orthodox, and roman catholics. The decided difference in Henri’s approach was his incredible passion for pastoral theology. This passion led him to study the relatively novel discipline of psychology (a discipline still distrusted by much of the Church) with vigor and apply it to his already considerable theological understanding. In this, Henri began cautiously to plumb the depths of the minds of those he served. He taught psychology and pastoral theology for many years at schools such as the University of Notre Dame and Yale University Divinity School. During this period, he wrote prolifically and magnificently. But, he still felt something was missing and he was haunted by many of his own personal terrors and challenges.

In 1981, Henri moved to Peru to serve the poor and discern if God was calling him to work among the people of the developing South. He left the academic regard and salary to serve among the poor and needy of Peru but, ultimately, found that this didn’t feel like where God was calling him even if it was good work that he would continue as he served in other places. This work changed Henri for the better and further deepened his commitment to social justice and ministry to the poor but wasn’t the last stop on his journey of calling.

In 1983, he accepted a position at Harvard University Divinity School that many academics would covet–he was required to teach only one semester and was encouraged to write as much as he wanted to. His classes were popular. His influence and fame were notable. Yet, Henri was overcome by the depression that had haunted him for most of his adult life. He found this to be a place of darkness and discomfort. In his journals, he would confess to conflict over his vow of celibacy and his incredible desire for physical and emotional intimacy with another person. This was a place where Henri continued his long struggle with his own sexuality and its implications for his spiritual life. Henri felt that Harvard was a great school but lacking in any feelings of communion. The competition and ambition of its students overtook their calling to love one another and be with each other. Henri resisted this place of darkness and isolation throughout his life–as far as we know–but it was at Harvard where so much of it came to bear upon him and lead to what he alternatively referred to as “burnout” and “spiritual death.”

A seeming coincidence brought Henri together with Jean Vanier who told Henri about the communities that he was starting called L’Arche. These communities were meant to be places of intentional communion for people of all varieties. They were noted for taking in many people with intellectual disabilities. In 1986, Henri became the pastor of one of the L’Arche communities–called “Daybreak”–outside of Toronto, Canada. Still deep within his own depression and darkness, this was a challenging time that he relates in his book Adam, God’s Beloved. Henri–the famous and influential author, priest, and activist–was asked to take care of a man named Adam who had a severe intellectual disability. Henri felt unappreciated and belittled at first. After all, surely he could be more useful in some other capacity. Yet, Adam became the key to Henri’s release from his own darkness. Taking care of Adam–waking him, dressing him, helping him bathe–reminded Henri of the power of love to redeem even the darkest pits. As Henri loved Adam and Adam loved Henri, they were both further converted to life. It was at Daybreak that Henri finally found community and happiness. It was in the simple act of offering unconditional love that Henri found rest and comfort to his soul. Henri died from a heart attack in 1996. He was buried near Daybreak.

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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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Late to Prayer

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It’s already about twelve minutes after the time we’re supposed to get started when I step out onto the porch. “Five minutes and we’re going to get started, yall,” I say, knowing full well that I probably mean more like eight or nine minutes. There are cigarettes and cups of coffee to finish and at least one more conversation waiting for most of us. Answered by a chorus of nods and waves, I head back inside to pick up the remnants of a conversation with a sister who’s still learning who we are and why she’s a blessing by her presence.

Once again, we will not start our community prayers on time, but it’s hard to be on time when you’re trying to learn to pray without ceasing. Some of us gather on the porch, while others wander the garden, inspecting the tomatoes and eggplants in particular. Some of us have already found a seat in one of the house’s living rooms turned community prayer spaces. Depending on where we’re sitting or standing, we might be having a boisterous conversation or keeping silence and searching for the whisper of the Holy Spirit. We’re learning to see the unceasing praying in those moments when we’ve already started our prayers, even though we’ve not passed anything out and the only songs we’ve been singing are badly belted top forty hits or classic rock bass lines.

When the last car packed full of brothers and sisters from another neighborhood pulls around the corner, the folks on the porch and in the garden start making their way to our makeshift chapel. What makes it a chapel and not a high-ceilinged living room is the countless prayers it has heard and our agreement one with another that this is a place we all go to meet God. As we gather, each of us finds a seat or a spot on the floor around a beat up black coffee table. With everyone gathered, the children help to cover our altar with an old green curtain spotted with candle wax, but no less sacred for the mess. We place the steadily shrinking, white, pillar candle we use for our Christ candle in the middle of our table-turned-altar. Then we add our prayer book, a Bible, and maybe our plate and cup before our youngest brothers and sisters find a lap to sit on somewhere in the room. We light the candle and take a moment or two of silence, or as close as we can get to silence, to calm our minds and welcome Jesus into our makeshift place of prayer. Of course, he’s been there since long before the click of a stick lighter.

So, we sing and we pray. We gather up the prayers of the people packed into that room where the fan has to stay on. Some of our prayers are for loved ones, while others are for us. Many of the prayers will be for sisters and brothers struggling with homelessness, hunger, addiction, and deprivation. We lift up a brother, whose days remaining in jail will be counted and recounted like prayer beads each time we gather together. We clap, hoot, and holler for a sister who announces, with praise to God, that she’s been clean for eight days and this time she intends to stick with it. Some of the loudest “amens” come from our leaders who are also recovering, but the loudest comes from her husband who has been bragging about her for at least six of those eight days, and is quietly celebrating nearly nine months of his own recovery. We pray for people who have recently started sleeping on the streets, some of them in the room with us, while also praying for the brothers and sisters sleeping in our hospitality rooms. We pray for peace with our enemies and for peace with those who might name us as enemies. We pray for justice and mercy to be so wrapped up with each other in our world that we can’t tell which is which.

We pray for God to turn our every breath and action into a prayer, proclaiming God’s greatness and worthiness. We want to pray unceasingly and we no other way to do it than to turn the living of our lives into a prayer.

Praying together has taught us to slow down to make room for people to offer worship to God even in ways in which they are not strong by the world’s standards. Sometimes, we’ve learned that prayer sounds like a brother reading scripture haltingly but lovingly. After we read the scripture together, we interpret it and often find that the Spirit’s voice waits for us in unexpected places. We have to slow down, so we can listen carefully for God who may choose to speak to us in the happy tears of a brother no longer homeless or in the hard won experience of a sister with an empty refrigerator. God doesn’t always show up in the same place, but God does always show up.

Sometimes, we pass the plate and cup to remind each other that all of us are welcome at God’s table and God has died for all of us, regardless of what the world says about our deficits and gifts. Sometimes, we dip our fingers in water to remember the vows we made to follow Jesus when we were baptized into his death. Sometimes, we pray over each other with oil on our fingers and foreheads, asking God for healing of so many different kinds: physical health, recovery from addiction, mental health, spiritual peace, and as many other types of healing as there are ways of being broken.

We close with a blessing designed for all of us to pronounce. With hands joined and looking from face to face, we pronounce a blessing over those God has put in our lives to teach us to pray and follow. But, it will be another thirty or forty minutes most weeks before everybody has finally made their way home by foot, bicycle, or packed into a shared car. Our prayer continues in a dozen tiny ways: making a pot of coffee, picking up cooling conversations where we left them, catching a few more minutes of daylight on our skin while talking about bad days and hard weeks, drawing on the front wall with sidewalk chalk, talking a little more about what that scripture might have meant, and cutting cake to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, or days, weeks, months, or years of recovery. We may not bow our heads and we may not fold our hands, but all these little things are just as much our prayers to our loving, gracious, and hospitable God who knows you can’t be late to prayer if you’re learning to pray with your life.

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