It 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 Linda, Joann, 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.