Trying Again

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***

The first thing I saw as I rounded the corner was Rick’s mud boot stuck out and resting on its heel on the dry ground. He was sitting on an old cinder block by one of our community’s first gardens and smoking a cigarette with a clear lack of hurry. His sunburned shoulders and neck were on display in his undershirt, but he still wore the bucket hat that was his ever-present summer time companion. I’ve never been very sneaky, so Rick heard me coming—but that was okay since I didn’t want to surprise him anyway. He had asked me to come, because he had something he needed to tell me. I already knew what he had to say, but sometimes the telling of a thing is as important as the hearing of it. I sat on the cinder block next to him and kept my eyes turned toward the garden so that the pressure wouldn’t grow too much. It can be hard to tell the truth sometimes, even when everybody already knows it.

“I screwed up,” Rick offered unprompted, “I had a good thing going and, I guess, I screwed that up.” I nodded and searched for words as I waited to see if he’d continue on his own. “I drank,” he offered up to the shared silence.

I nodded again before offering, “I’m sorry to hear that.” At six months long, it had been his longest run of sobriety since he was a teenager. Rick’s white hair was evidence for just how long it had been.

“Don’t you think I am, too?” Rick asked me with a mixture of anger and disappointment at the edges of his voice. He was spoiling for a fight and thought I might give him one if he pushed me.

“Of course you are,” I offered as conciliation, “you most of all, I’m sure.” After a short pause I added, “you know we still love you, right?”

“No, I don’t,” Rick said a little too loudly, “I know yall say it, but I don’t feel it.” Like the cork coming out of a bottle, this seemed to have made way for Rick to tell the truth: “I can see that yall love Bruce. That’s for sure. And sometimes I think you love me, too, but I just can’t feel it. I can’t see why or how. I want to, but I can’t.”

“I hear that,” I assured Rick as we both stared straight ahead at the garden, “but I don’t know what to say to that other than to say we really do—or, at least, we’re really trying.” Turning his gaze from the garden, Rick looked where my eyes would be if I’d only turn to face him. “And we’re not going anywhere,” I added as I made eye contact for the first time that afternoon. Rick held my eye contact for a few more seconds, as if he was weighing my promise against his experience. I waited for his verdict, but he only turned his eyes back to the garden. Following his lead, I joined him in a thoughtful silence. I tried to pray silently, and I guess I did, but it was a mostly wordless and uncertain thing.

Eventually, as the sun was dipping low behind us, we silently headed back up the hill. “Hey,” I offered uncertainly from the driver’s seat of my car, “when you’re ready to try again, we’re with you.” His nod, a mixture of understanding and irritation, was as fine a cue as I was going to get that I should leave. So, I drove away with a wave.

Rick wasn’t ready for a while. There were times when we wouldn’t see him for weeks. There were times when he slept outside or crashed on somebody’s couch. There were times when we’d see him somewhere and he’d fruitlessly try to hide how intoxicated he was. There were times when we’d put him up in a hotel room for a few nights. There was even a time when he called to let us know he was ready, but hid from us when we came to pick him up because he had started drinking in the short interim.

I must say that there were certainly times when we loved Rick well, but there were also times when we loved Rick poorly. Sure, we didn’t go anywhere, but we also didn’t always seek Rick out.  But God never stopped loving Rick and never stopped seeking him out. Months later, Rick found his way to one of our hospitality houses and let us know that he was already a few weeks sober. “I’m ready to try again,” he said. “We’re ready to try again, too,” we said with our hugs, back slaps, and knee squeezes.

So, we did. We tried again to love not only in word but in action. We tried again to walk the road of recovery together. We tried again to share life in community. Trusting that trying is somehow enough, we tried again. It didn’t come easy, but it came nonetheless.

The other day, Jessica and I were giving a tour of the Urban Farm to a visitor from Richmond. Our daughter had come along for the visit and Rick also happened to be there. “Mr. Rick, Mr. Rick!” she yelled, “watch me swing!”

“I’m coming, sweetie,” he yelled back as he shook our visitor’s hand hastily. “Excuse me,” he added more quietly to us with an expansive smile, “I’ve got to go push a swing.” With over three years of sobriety under his belt, Rick has become one of our community’s leaders. He is quick to remind us at prayers that we need to keep loving each other and finding ways to show it. Rick is eager to tell us that he loves us and faithful in finding ways to make it felt. Sometimes that means pushing a swing.

A little while later, our daughter and Rick sat at the top of the stairs leading down into the garden and sang silly songs about monkeys and sharks. I was struck by their coincidental seating arrangement: side by side on some cinder blocks, looking down over a garden. There was no lack of eye contact this time, as our daughter giggled her way through another verse and shoulder-bumped Rick in his ribs. Over their shoulder, I saw Ryan, another friend of the community who Rick has taken into his home. Though they used to drink together on porches, Rick and Ryan now work together on the tool library and around the community. Ryan is one month clean and sober on the fourth attempt at recovery that I know of. We tell him we love him and we try to show it.
“He might not feel it yet,” Rick conceded to me one afternoon, “but he will. We’ll just keep trying.”

***
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Jeron’s Ride

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***

Hands gripping the steering wheel and eyes set firmly forward, Jeron’s mouth drew to a line as he focused on the road ahead. He’d been this way many times to come to one of our meals, but driving a car like Jeron’s takes a lot of attention. The lack of a windshield meant he had to squint if that red streak of a car ever got up to speed. The lack of a driver-side window meant Jeron’s ears were filled with road noise from the clatter of the wheels not so far below him. Looking at the car’s various dents and scratches, you might be surprised to learn that the wheels were original. Jeron’s car wasn’t as fast or as sturdy as he’d like, but it had gotten him to the meal before and it almost certainly would again. Especially since Jeron’s car is a riding toy with a long, dirty, blue handle that Mongoose and Greg were taking turns pushing as the trio made its way across the sidewalk to one of Grace and Main’s meals.

Three-year-old Jeron spends nearly every day with Mongoose or Greg, and has for most of his life, but neither man is his father. They’ve been entrusted with the care and keeping of Jeron, a task they’ve undertaken with warmth and steadfast love even if also a relative lack of resources. Mongoose and Greg take turns watching Jeron most days, depending on which of them has work. Like so many communities, they are a family united by a chosen bond instead of blood.

Look, I know the question you want to ask, but I don’t know if I can answer it. Try as I might to understand it, I don’t know why people started calling him Mongoose. There’s nothing about his features or mannerisms that suggests the nickname, but hardly anybody calls him anything else. Mongoose is cautious and doesn’t talk much, but he does what he says he’s going to do. Like Jesus said, his yes is yes and his no is no. Mongoose is older than me by a couple decades and I confess I was puzzled when he introduced himself. Nobody around me seemed to find his name strange though, so I nodded and started calling him Mongoose. After all, if people matter then so do their preferences. Plus, who doesn’t want a friend named Mongoose?

There is no mystery to where Greg got his name, though. It’s the one his mom gave him. A regular more by acclimation than attendance, Greg has participated at least once in most of what our community does and is a welcome presence on our porches and at our meals. At various times, and through various seasons of life, he has been very active in the leadership of our Urban Farm. It was Greg who originally procured the red, yellow, and blue riding toy that Jeron rides to meals and it’s Greg who brings Jeron around some afternoons to do sidewalk chalk at a hospitality house. With a quick smile and a tendency to rock back and forth a little bit when he’s joking around, Greg warms every room he enters with his presence. He needs a little help with rent every now and then when the weather gets in the way of his job, but it’s easy to help somebody like Greg who is living in part to provide for others.

So, Mongoose and Greg push Jeron’s car down the sidewalks toward one of our community meals, taking the time to catch up with each other as Jeron works his 8-inch steering wheel and watches the real cars drive by. His braids are set just right and he’s wearing the new coat he got for Christmas even as Greg wears a coat that has long since seen its better, warmer days. Jeron’s shoes light up when he walks and have Spiderman on them, even as Mongoose’s shoes are held together with duct tape in strategic locations. Jeron is neither man’s son but he is their family. Neither of the two single men expected that they’d be guardians of a child when we first met them, but they took to it with a committed nonchalance that rang with a sense of calling when Jeron was in need.

The trio arrived to the meal with a few minutes to spare before we broke the bread and passed the cup. Jeron had driven them there successfully, even if it was Mongoose and Greg’s legs that did the work. After shucking their coats and hats, Greg made a plate for Jeron as Mongoose went to get drinks and dessert for all of them. My hand on Jeron’s braids, I offered a quick, quiet blessing. I prayed that he would be well even as Greg and Mongoose made sure he would be. As Mongoose and Greg got plates of their own, I prayed that Jeron would always feel welcome in our little community. I prayed that God might keep knitting together families in unexpected places from unexpecting people. “It’s good to see you, little brother,” I said to Jeron, before adding with a nudge, “go eat.”

***
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Better Plans

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***

“Wait, guys, I’m coming down,” Ed shouted from his second-floor apartment door. He patted his pocket to check for his keys before pulling the door shut and walking quickly to the stairwell at the end of the motel turned apartment complex. This wasn’t the particular apartment we’d helped him move into a few years previous, but it was in the same building. He had moved out of the building we sometimes called “Little Calcutta” in one of our neighborhoods after taking part, and leading, in the justice that God grew there. Ed’s new building wasn’t the nicest in town, but it was leagues ahead of his previous place. More importantly, it was better than nearly all of his accessible and affordable alternatives. Ed insisted he was blessed because he could pay his bills and drink his coffee, even if it was out of a cup he borrowed from a hospitality house.

“Sorry, guys,” Ed said before adding a slight shake of his head and a pursing of his lips to his meaningful pause that told us what was next before he continued, “I can’t make it tonight…you know why.” Of course, we did. Like so many of our brothers and sisters around Grace and Main, Ed’s circumstances mean that he is perpetually at the mercy of other people’s schedules and calendars. If he needs something from the more traditional organizations that help him and offer some form of needed and appreciated support, then Ed often has little control over when they come. So, on many Sundays when we go to pick him up for prayers, Ed cannot come because his help hasn’t come yet. On those Sundays, we remind Ed that he is loved, promise to pray for his mother as he always asks, and insist that we will pray for him, as well.

But this Sunday, our visit didn’t follow its semi-typical script. Ed waved as I put the van into gear and said not too loudly but still insistently, “Hey, wait!” With my foot on the brake, I waited for Ed to continue. “Once they come, I would love to get some dinner at the KFC across the road,” he said as quickly as he could get the words out, “I mean, I don’t need it but I sure would like it.”

I knew I didn’t have any cash in my wallet, but I still patted my pocket before saying, “Sorry, brother, I don’t have any cash on me.” Ed nodded with understanding. But Robert, who was riding in the passenger seat of the van having just been picked up five minutes previous, was already fishing his wallet out of his pocket and flipping it open.

“I’ve got it,” Robert said with a quiet nonchalance while pulling out the last few bills out of his wallet and handing them over to Ed.

“That’s real kind of you,” I said while Ed offered his own more profuse gratitude to Robert. “Seeya next week?” I asked Ed as I prepared to continue our drive.

“Oh yeah,” Ed intoned with a smile that told me he was already thinking about chicken livers as soon as his time was his own again.

Later that evening during a period of extended silence in our prayers, I was reminded of Robert’s generosity so I turned it over in wordless contemplation. I knew that Robert and Ed receive the same kind of monthly check and that money can be equally tight for the both of them. This was certainly not a case of minimal sacrifice; eight dollars was a lot for either man. I wasn’t feeling guilty either because I hadn’t lied to Ed; I gave up lying or deflecting about the contents of my wallet several years into my life with Grace and Main. But, still I was struck by Robert’s generosity—I felt like I had missed an opportunity to do what Robert had done. That is, to be generous not because of a deeply felt need but because of the innate joy of giving for both recipient and giver.

Robert is one of a few Grace and Main regulars who makes sure that my daughter rarely has to go without a Reese’s cup for more than a week or two. In exchange for his gifts, my daughter is keen to remember him in her prayers and often quite eager to greet him. Robert once brought a harmonica to Little Calcutta when he knew that he’d be staying a while after the roving feast to play some music. He passed it to one of the residents who always listened but never had an instrument to join in the impromptu jam session. The new performer didn’t necessarily make pretty music, but it was made beautiful by joy and generosity. One Christmas, Robert bought a pair of boxing gloves for a friend of the community. He had heard the man had been a boxer in years past but had lost nearly all of his possessions in some personal and anonymous disaster. Those gifted gloves weren’t much use for boxing, but they were excellent for the memory of a more hopeful time.

Of course, Robert also gave Grace and Main a number of gifts over the years. His prayers have been constant. He recently finished three years of sobriety. He was also the one who pestered Bruce to come to one of our meals all those years ago. So, in his own way, he gave the community the gift of our dear brother.
I dropped Robert off last that night after prayers so that I’d have a few minutes to ask him about his generosity and why he was so keen to give gifts. Robert acknowledged that he wasn’t sure his gifts would actually change much and conceded easily that they didn’t always address needs so much as wants. “But you like giving, don’t you?” I asked him.

“Yeah, I do,” Robert began, “I like to give because I’ve not always been able to. Now that I can, I really enjoy it.” Rounding the corner toward his home, I hesitated to say anything for fear that I would disrupt his word for me. My silence was paid off when this kind, introverted man continued, “You know, the truth is that sometimes they’ll enjoy what I’ve got more than I will. Just because I’ve got it doesn’t mean I’ll spend it better than they will.” As we pulled up to his door and I thanked him for his time and requested his prayers for something like the thousandth time, he gathered his hat and bag. Robert turned and offered a final word from the gravel path leading to his door, “Sometimes they’ve got better plans for my money than I do—so why not let what I have be theirs?”

***
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Marlon Always Calls Me

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***

Marlon always calls me when I’m out of town. Over the last year or so, I’ve accumulated a collection of different phone numbers that Marlon has called me from and have saved each one into my phone’s contacts under the name “Probably Marlon.” But, without fail, Marlon calls me when I’m traveling. When his name flashes across the screen of my phone, I can’t help but think of Marlon’s broad smile and throaty, understated laugh. Marlon is a big man with a shaved head, a cheerful presence, and ears eager to hear how others are struggling. He’s just as comfortable sitting on the porch and talking as he is moving furniture and loading or unloading a borrowed pickup truck.

The first couple times Marlon called when I was traveling, I figured he must need something but was deferring his ask when he found out that I wasn’t in town. After all, the summer brings a number of things with predictable regularity in our work, but perhaps none so regularly as increased need in our neighborhood. It wouldn’t be surprising if new needs were creeping into Marlon’s life and he was turning to the community of which he has steadily become a part. We wouldn’t dread the ask—we’d celebrate the trust it showed.

But, Marlon still called me even when I know he knew that I’d be out of town. Talking while we both helped to prepare a community meal, Marlon said to me, “I hear you’re headed to Atlanta. What for?”

“Oh, school,” I responded, “I’ve got class and need to get a ton of writing done.”

Nodding with what might have just been polite interest, Marlon continued: “Oh, well, are you driving or flying?”

“Flying this time,” I admitted, “because the timing is too tight to drive.”

“Oh, I’d go to Atlanta,” Marlon insisted, “but I’m not flying—that’s too dangerous.” With these words, our conversation sprawled into a neighboring duo of Grace and Main leaders, who were checking the contents of the ovens. Over the next fifteen minutes, we had a harmless and shifting conversation about the relative safety or danger of air travel. Like so many of the conversations we share in community, this one was marked by joking and playfulness.

Eventually, Marlon conceded, saying with a wink, “Well, I guess it’s safe for you, but it’s not safe for me.” As we left the meal that night, Marlon grabbed my elbow and wanted to know the precise time of my flight. He assured me, with a smile that called back to the kitchen, that he’d be praying for me. I thanked him and promised that I’d see him in a week or so at evening prayers. Of course, Marlon called me from one of the “Probably Marlon” numbers while I was in Atlanta. After all, Marlon always calls me when I’m out of town. He didn’t need anything, but he wanted to make sure I didn’t either. He wanted to make sure I was okay.

For a while, I wondered why Marlon seemed so worried about my safety when I was away. I wondered if perhaps he had lost somebody in an accident in the years before we knew him. I wondered if his own limited travel experience made it seem more daunting to him than to me. I wondered if it might be a family tradition he was carrying into life in community, as if his family gave special attention to traveling members while they were separated. I wondered if this might be an extension of the way he prayed with us—thoughtfully reflecting on the needs in the room, eyes scanning, before producing a short litany of requests like ticker tape while staring at the rug. I didn’t know why he called but I knew that he did, even if he had to remember again my memorized phone number and borrow somebody else’s phone to do it.

I came close to asking Marlon about it once. As we sat on the front porch one night after prayers and told and listened to stories shared with whoever was around for the telling, I told Marlon how much I appreciated his calls when I was traveling. But, before I could segue into asking him why he called, he smiled and said, “Oh, well, you know I’ve gotta check in on you,” before continuing with a softer, less-joking smile, “because you belong here with us.” I assured him that I knew that and thanked him again for his prayers and thoughts. Usually, I’d respond to words like those by assuring him that he belonged here with us, too. It’s a practiced move that is equal parts hospitality and deflection. But, in the moment, I said nothing and just patted Marlon’s knee.

Whenever I travel now, I look forward to a call from “Probably Marlon” and everything that it means. Maybe we’ll catch up about his family, maybe we’ll talk about the Urban Farm and what he’s growing there, and maybe we’ll just go over the upcoming schedule again. But, one thing I know for certain: Marlon always calls me when I’m out of town. Now I know why.

***
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Neither Do I

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***

I was just getting ready to start Sunday evening prayers at one of our community’s hospitality houses when an unfamiliar brown sedan pulled to a hesitant stop in front of the house. I didn’t recognize the woman who got out of the back but I recognized the driver from a local congregation. The driver didn’t make eye contact with me as I walked off the porch toward the street. I imagined that perhaps the driver and his unknown companion would be joining us for prayers, so I was eager to greet them. But, as the anonymous woman closed the car door and I recognized the tears in her eyes for what they were, the driver departed without a word. With a familiar, sorrowful look, the woman sat down on the curb.

With a quick glance around the porch, I hoped to find somebody whose expression would show that they knew the woman or perhaps had some idea what had just happened. What I found in the faces of those who make up our little community was surprise and a creeping realization that this woman had been abandoned here by somebody who didn’t know what to do with her. For all of us, this was a tragedy; but for some of us, this was a familiar experience.

Sitting on the curb next to her, I coaxed her name—Kathleen—from her between sobs and looked back over my shoulder to see if anybody had figured out what to do yet. Kathleen and I were joined on the curb by Brandon. With his intimate experience of what it’s like to be “somebody else’s problem,” Brandon took the lead as I fumbled for words and understanding and Kathleen tried to catch her breath.

Like Job’s friends before they messed it up with their words and false confidence, Brandon kept silence and helped me to do the same. Brandon didn’t know what to do, he later admitted, but he knew how to be a witness to suffering so that one of God’s children doesn’t have to suffer alone. When Kathleen fumbled in her pockets only to find an empty pack of cigarettes, Brandon offered her one of his in a gesture that our shared life in community has taught me to call generous and merciful. With a shaking hand, Kathleen smoked her borrowed cigarette and began haltingly to tell a piece of her story to two silent strangers whom chance and a fast-moving sedan had compelled her to trust.

As Kathleen explained that she wasn’t from Danville and was, in fact, from High Point, North Carolina, I could hear quiet footsteps approaching. Another one of our community’s leaders brought Kathleen a glass of ice water and whispered to me that prayers would wait. While Kathleen began to explain that she had ended up in Danville in order to escape an abuser in North Carolina, yet another one of our leaders started up a conversation on the porch thirty feet away. There wasn’t anything special about the conversation, but so many of our folks know well from past experience what kind of story Kathleen was likely to tell. They also know how hard it is to tell when you’re worried that you might have an audience.

So, in the place of prayers, our little community talked about nothing much in particular and offered a grace that sounds like a low, inconsequential murmur. What our people knew—what they had learned from their own similar, hard experiences—was that you didn’t need to know exactly what to do in order to do something good. Sometimes we all are tempted to strive for acts of great, heroic love and not be satisfied with little acts of love. In pursuit of big solutions, we risk seeing people as problems.

Kathleen continued her story but interrupted every other sentence with an apology for being drunk. Kathleen seemed to hope that her many apologies would pry mercy from our unwilling hands. Brandon spoke for us both when he quietly reassured Kathleen that she was welcome, even if unexpected, and that we weren’t interested in judging her. With that tiny shred of confidence in our hospitality, Kathleen opened up and expressed her fear and anger to us. She was angry at her abuser. She was afraid to go back to High Point. She was angry at feeling abandoned. She was afraid because she didn’t know her way around Danville and didn’t have a place to stay or food to eat. She was angry at herself for leaving her ID in High Point, but she had done so because of the fear that had gripped her heart in her escape.

Then came the question I knew was coming, as Kathleen made eye contact with me for the first time and asked, “So, what can I do?” I had been dreading this imminent question because, like the driver of the brown sedan, I didn’t know what to do. Kathleen wanted to go back to High Point but was also afraid to go back. She wanted to stay in Danville but had no material or social resources here. She wanted to be sober but didn’t feel like she could be yet.

I excused myself for a moment to make a few phone calls and see what our options were for making a place for Kathleen. After about fifteen minutes of phone calls, I still had very few options because there are very few places that pick up the phone on a Sunday evening. Discussing those few options with a handful of our community’s leaders led us to doing something we’d done before but which I still find relatively uncomfortable: making a promise and then counting on God to keep it. We didn’t know what to do, but we trusted that God did and then went about our business of little acts of love.

We convinced Kathleen to join us for an impromptu meal in the kitchen of the hospitality house. We hadn’t been planning on eating, but we didn’t want her to have to eat alone. Sunday Evening Prayer became sandwiches and a tray of finger foods that week. While most of us shared lemonade and tea, one of us made a reservation at a local hotel for a few nights. Between bites of egg custard left over from a meal earlier that week, we promised Kathleen quietly that we could do more nights of shelter if it took longer to find a solution and we scheduled a time the next day for us to sit down and figure out her options.

While taking Kathleen to her hotel room, I repeated to her out loud what the sandwiches and egg custard had said more subtly: “you’re not alone and you’re not a problem.” As I drove back from the hotel room, I had a short voicemail on my phone with an awkward apology from the driver of the brown sedan.

“I just didn’t know what else to do,” he told my voicemail with an apology tinging the corners of his voice.

“Neither do I,” I confessed to God, myself, and no one else in particular, “but I’m not sure that always matters.”

***
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Telling the Stories that Matter: April 27 – Toyohiko Kagawa, Poet, Pacifist, Friend of the Poor

When Toyohiko Kagawa was asked to come and speak to the seminarians at Princeton–one of his alma maters–he went willingly and eagerly. Toyohiko had been displeased with much of his own seminary experience because he found that the students there were far more interested in arguments, rhetoric, persuasion, and the fine points of doctrine and textual study. He repeatedly begged them simply to live out what Jesus had taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan. He knew he was asking for much of the seminarians but he hoped that they would–as far as people go–be the most likely to answer a call to genuinely and sincerely practiced allegiance to Jesus as Lord and Savior. When he finished speaking to the assembled Princetonians he accepted some questions and then dismissed them quietly and gathered his things from the podium. As he was doing so, two of the seminarians turned to each other in their seats and discussed his lecture.

One insisted that it had not been quite what they had expected from a man who was so well respected around the seminary. Turning to his friend, he quipped, “He didn’t have much to say, did he?”They shared their own little laugh knowing that they were better educated than Toyohiko but not knowing that they were still fools. Both of them had heard of his background and how he had been the illegitimate child of a powerful Japanese man and a geisha. He was hated by his mother and liked by his father but soon both his mother and father had died and he was orphaned. He was given over as the ward of the widowed wife of his father. She and her mother struggled not to resent little Toyohiko because it had not been his decision to be a child of infidelity but they failed in their struggle and Toyohiko knew he was hated by them. They sent him away to a boarding school. He began attending a bible study given by a Christian minister so that he could learn and practice his English. Yet while he was learning the language, he was hearing and considering the truths and teachings of the Faith of the minister. When he was a teenager, he converted to the Christian Faith that had gripped him by the heart over a long time of reflection and meditation. Soon after this conversion he knew clearly that he would be a minister of the Gospel that had spoken to him when he had walked in darkness, desperation, and death.

Though they didn’t seem to prize it, those two young seminarians knew that after receiving more education in preparation for the calling he was already living into, Toyohiko had stepped out in faith and moved into the Shinkawa district of Kobe. These slums were some of the worst–if not the absolute worst–in all of Japan. He lived in a three-walled dwelling so filthy and small (only six feet wide by six feet long) that it would be an overstatement to call it a shack. For nearly fifteen years he tended to the sick, suffering, hungry, poor, and dying in Shinkawa. Toyohiko was able to make a little money (not nearly as much as he would have been able to if he had moved out of Shinkawa, though) but he spent it all on medicine, food, and clothing for those who came to him asking for it. He was regularly abused and beaten for his love and compassion. At one point, a band of thugs accosted him knowing him as an “easy mark” who would give over anything to them not out of fear but out of love. They demanded his clothing and mentioned that they knew he was a Christian. He took off his clothing and handed it over to the criminals and they walked away with filthy rags and an increasing awareness of the goodness of Toyohiko’s God and their own inherent sinfulness shown by their willingness to beat and strip a poor and loving man in the slums.


Those two young seminarians probably had no idea that Toyohiko had spent nearly every night for nearly fifteen years tending for the sick and homeless in his own meager dwelling. He gave over his bed to the sick and filthy people he loved and slept in the cold with little to protect himself from the elements. He gave over his food and drink with such regularity that he was regularly ill from hunger. He did not have intense theological debates but he regularly lived out the teachings of Jesus in a way that granted him an inherent understanding of the Gospel that Jesus brought into this world. Every night for four years he held the hand of a murderer as that murderer drifted off into a fitful sleep in Toyohiko’s own bed. The murderer could not bear what he had done any longer but Toyohiko still spoke of forgiveness to and refused to abandon the poor man who feared isolation and judgment. He organized workers in the slums and shipyards all while fighting for increased voting rights in Japan. Eventually, he was arrested and held in prison for two particular crimes: 1) he organized the voiceless so that they might speak in unison to those with power and be heard, and 2) he apologized to the Chinese for the Japanese occupation of portions of China. Toyohiko’s commitment to peace–one he felt compulsory for all who hoped to follow Jesus even if it cost them their lives–made him a dangerous criminal in the eyes of Japan.

Perhaps the two young seminarians knew that a terrible earthquake hit Tokyo and Yokohama in 1923. The ruins of those cities were flooded with the sick, suffering, hungry, poor, and dying. The government was overwhelmed by the need and was uninitiated into taking care of its citizens since it had been so long practicing power and control and forsaking compassion and mercy. So they came to Toyohiko in prison and released him. They knew he had made a difference in the lives of those needing help and they also knew that it was Toyohiko who would be able to do it again. They made him Chief of Social Welfare and offered him a home and a sizable salary. He rejected them and insisted that he could neither help the poor from a position of comfort nor allow his Christian duty to be purchased. He slowly helped rebuild cities devastated by earthquake, neglect, and need. For this he was lauded and honored even as he insisted that he was only doing the bare minimum of what God had called him to do.

As the two seminarians continued to share their own criticism of Toyohiko they ignored that Toyohiko was struggling to see the steps he was trying to descend. He had acquired a serious eye disease because of his practices of offering hospitality even in the slums. Those he lived with were sick and soon so was Toyohiko. As the two men missed the point of all they had heard and continued to pass the drug of intelligent pride back and forth an elderly lady overheard them and interrupted them. She leaned forward to interject one simple sentence into their conversation while pointing at Toyohiko as he carefully descended the stairs: “You don’t need to say much when you’re hanging on a cross.”

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Telling the Stories that Matter: April 23 – George of Nicomedia, Martyr, Beloved of Diocletian, Hero


Geronzio had been a servant of Diocletian before Diocletian had risen to the status and rank of emperor in Rome. He had served Diocletian loyally and had gained his respect and admiration. He was, however, a Christian and though Diocletian knew this he did not expect Geronzio to change his allegiance as long as Geronzio did not openly betray him. Geronzio was also married to a woman named Policronia. The two of them had used their connections and influence to elevate themselves to a noble status and to shore up possessions and wealth. They used this wealth and status to provide comfort and aid to their brothers and sisters in the Faith and to prepare their newborn son–whom they named George, meaning “worker of the land”–for his life and whatever it might hold. As George grew in age and education he also grew into the faith of his parents and his many new brothers and sisters that came to his family’s home for services of worship and communion.Tragically, Geronzio died when George was fourteen and within three years Policronia had taken that fateful step beyond mortality and into life more ideal and true. George was among many who were like family to him and he was the inheritor of his family’s considerable wealth but he was without direction and no longer had his father as his mentor. So, George went to the man who had so loved and favored his father: Diocletian.

George became a soldier under Dicoletian’s watchful care and guidance. Diocletian was heartbroken when he heard of Geronzio’s death but was overjoyed at the prospect of guiding George’s career and continued service to Rome. He was aware that George was a Christian but underestimated George’s allegiance to his faith. Eventually, George was promoted to the rank of Tribunus and set upon a career that would likely end up with him in a powerful political position within the Roman empire. Further, he served as one of the Emperor’s personal guards and soldiers–living into Geronzio’s favor with Diocletian. While in this position he had many opportunities to use his wealth and influence to better the lives of those with whom he came into contact. At one point he arrived in a village of non-Christians who had taken to a bloodthirsty ritual of human sacrifice. They would cast lots and the young woman who was indicated by the lots would be sacrificed to appease the dark god they feared. When George arrived he was stricken at the ruthlessness of such a ritual and stopped them in the midst of their ceremony of slaughter. He spoke at length with not only the leaders but the assembled crowds and told a story of a God who did not demand blood and death but had, instead, given blood and died so that we might be forgiven. At his words, their hearts turned and they abandoned their ways of death and many came within the fold of the Christian faith. They gave over their allegiance to a slaughtered and risen Lord and gave up faith and hope in slaughter and domination. For this he was labeled a hero because he had slain the dark beast that dwelt within them and brought them into the way of life more abundant and free.

Tragically for both George and Diocletian, Diocletian began to be swayed by Galerius and his own fear of a loss in power. Having heard so many lies about the Christians, Diocletian issued a command throughout the army. All soldiers were to give a sacrifice to the roman gods and values to demonstrate their allegiance and deny any faith in the Christian God. Those who refused were to be executed as Christians and traitors to the Roman army. Diocletian was stuck deciding between his beloved friend George whom he knew as a Christian and the power he hoped to consolidate with this bloody edict. He begged George to renounce his faith and offered him great gifts of land, money, and slaves if he would give his greatest allegiance to Diocletian and Rome. George refused and still Diocletian begged. Diocletian still offered him his most persuasive gifts but George did the incredible by giving away all that he already owned to the poor and to the Church that he had served so eagerly and willingly. He was tortured and finally he was beheaded so that Rome might make a statement about power. Eventually, George was turned over to the executioners with many other Christians for torture and death.However, Rome and Diocletian also made an unintentional statement about the faith of the Christians of whom they made martyrs. George died in good company and died so that others might know there was more to death than a grave and more to life than comfort.

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