A special lunch

This morning, my 15-year-old daughter, Helena, and I headed to Grace Episcopal Church in the neighborhood of Woodlawn to serve lunch to people from the area. Woodlawn is one of the poorer parts of Birmingham, and the majority of people who walked through the door were either homeless or living in substandard conditions. Surrounding the church are dilapidated buildings, many like the houses in Edwina’s previous neighborhood. They are the kinds of homes and abandoned buildings that likely provide a bit of shelter at the same time they threaten the lives of those dwelling within. Many are standing in mid-crumble.

My cousin Tim, who grew up just a few miles from me and also lives in Birmingham, had invited Helena and me to join him and others for cooking and serving. His church had committed to help out and he wanted to make sure there were enough hands on deck to feed the 100+ people who showed up.

While I’ve volunteered many times with people in Birmingham who are homeless, the experience was a new one for Helena. During the past several years, Helena and Celia have gotten to know Edwina and have visited Church of the Reconciler where homeless folks from across the city come to worship, get warm (or cool, during the summer months), and fill their empty stomachs. But they’ve not interacted with people in quite the way we did today–greeting people, mostly men, when they walked into the church hall; seating them at tables and serving them restaurant-style; and most importantly, engaging in conversation.

Before the doors opened, Tim reminded all of us volunteering that our job was “not to make ourselves feel good about helping out the less fortunate,” but rather to “make our guests feel welcome and cared about.”

So often, those who live on the streets are made to feel invisible. Unseen. Uncared for. Unimportant. All of the “un’s” imaginable. Today was about making people know that they do matter. They are seen.

Helena benefited from the experience and thought that some of the people she talked with enjoyed themselves. She knows they liked the food. I hope she’ll want to go back again one of these days.

One hope I have for both of my girls is that they will seek out opportunities to see all people as they deserve to be seen.





Where should we take you?

Years ago, when I started working with homeless cancer survivors in Birmingham, Rachael Martin, then-associate pastor at Church of the Reconciler, shared something with me that I’ll never forget. She said that when a homeless person needed immediate medical attention and an ambulance driver asked her where to take the individual, she always aimed high.

“They’re more likely to get better care at a place like UAB,” she told me, than at one of the less funded hospitals with fewer well-trained medical personnel on staff in the city. Rachael’s thinking was that even if a person lacking the necessary health benefits couldn’t stay at a more selective facility and had to be moved eventually, the initial triage care would be better and therefore boost the patient’s chances of getting the right diagnosis and initial care–and ultimately, of survival.

Today, a New York Times article reports on a study in PLoS that adds support to Rachael’s logic.  According to the researchers, patients at less credible institutions were “three times more likely to die” and a whopping “13 times more likely to [suffer from] medical complications” than those who were taken to the best facilities. The full article and link to the published study can be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/14/business/hospitals-death-rates-quality-vary-widely.html?emc=edit_th_20161216&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=44005038&_r=0

Maybe those in need of medical attention need to replace “Take me to the hospital” with “Take me to that hospital.” Unfortunately, for many of the least advantaged in our society, the question “Where should we take you?” is never asked.

A long walk

On Monday, I left my office and headed to my car after an exhausting rollercoaster of a day.

My brother, about whom I’ve written many times on this blog, has been a patient in a psychiatric ward for the past several weeks following an unfortunate incident in my hometown. On Monday, I learned that he was to be discharged from the ward and sent to a nursing home for care. I was stunned by the news.

Joe is 56 years old, and while he’s spent decades abusing drugs and alcohol which have taken a serious toll on his health, I never expected him to end up in a nursing home so soon. He’s been in and out of rehab centers, jails and prisons, and homeless shelters much of his life. But a nursing home is another thing altogether, a place people go towards the end of their lives when they can no longer function on their own.

Truth be told, I don’t know with certainty how incapacitated my brother is right now. I hope his stay at a nursing home is driven more by the lack of a space in another sort of facility than a testament to how desperate his situation has become. Still, I couldn’t (and still can’t) stop thinking about how my brother got to this point, about all of the years during which–bit by bit–Joe found himself less capable of pulling himself back up when he hit the pavement.

On my way to my car on Monday, I found myself standing next to a homeless man at a stoplight. He asked me how I was, and while I typically would have offered a brief response and forged on, I turned towards him and locked eyes with the man. He looked to be somewhere in his 50s, and his blonde hair had grown into a long tangle that escaped the sides of his worn baseball cap. His cheeks were red and he carried a strong scent of whiskey on his breath.

He and I walked side-by-side for a couple of blocks until I turned off to find my car. And we chatted, about the weather–“still warm in Birmingham”–the day we’d had and where we were heading to next. The man told me that he had a long walk ahead, since he was “going up to Vulcan, up on top of the mountain,” an uphill climb from where the university sits in the valley.

“Have a good one,” I told him.

“You too, Mam,” He replied.

I climbed into my car, thinking about my brother’s fate and how much the man I’d just met reminded me of a gentler Joe, still wandering to an identifiable destination.

Missing persons

My brother is missing.

He left Bethesda Mission in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania four weeks ago with a wad of cash (courtesy of Social Security) and an intent to head to Illinois to pay my parents a visit. He never made it there and hasn’t been seen since.

I started getting phone calls a couple of weeks ago, first from a health care representative who wanted to know if I’d heard from Joe. It seems that he is required to check in with the facility since he’s been treated there, and he has done so consistently, until recently.

The last place Joe was seen, Bethesda Mission, had to send back one of his checks from Social Security since he hasn’t checked in to leave a forwarding address or to retrieve it. I’ve known my brother for 52 years, and there’s no way he wouldn’t seek out money intended for him.

Joe could be anywhere: beat up in an alley, lying dead from an overdose in a hotel room, partying with new friends, plotting to hurt family members who have turned on him for “no reason.” I want, need closure, so I’ve put in a phone call to the police department in Harrisburg, PA to file a missing persons report and am waiting for a return call. The officer on duty grilled me about Joe’s residence.

“What’s his address?” he asked me.

“He was at Bethesda Mission, but he’s basically homeless.” I told him.

His response? That it will be hard to track down a homeless person.

No kidding.

An incident at Church of the Reconciler

On Friday morning, Reverend Matt Lacey at Church of the Reconciler, where I first met Edwina and others in the homeless community living with cancer, sent out an email to all volunteers:

About yesterday…
You have probably heard the news about a violent incident at Reconciler yesterday morning.

So far, here is what we know (we think): two men were eating breakfast, got into an argument, went outside the 2nd Ave door and shots were fired. One of the men was taken to the hospital and released several hours later. At least one shot hit the door of the 2nd Ave entrance. Between our security cameras and some observers with cell phones, we know who the people involved were.

Some folks may not feel comfortable coming and serving now. We always want our supporters and volunteers to feel safe and comfortable, so if any group doesn’t feel comfortable serving breakfast, just let us know ahead of time, drop off the food at COR, and our crew can serve it.

I’m tempted to issue some vague statement about COR being a safe place and issue a call to move on from this, but I can’t do that.

I’m angry. Really, really damn angry that one or two people can, with their actions,  jeopardize the thousands of plates you–our supporters–bring every week, cast doubt on a whole community of people who are already in need of help, and make folks question if it’s safe to come to our church.

I’m not going to go on about “this is something that could happen anywhere” because though that might be true, the violence we saw yesterday happens far too often in the lives of the folks we try and help. The folks who come to Reconciler live with this reality everyday.

When they hear gunshots in the homeless camps, Smithfield, West End–wherever they are–they have to ask themselves, “Which person that I know was that bullet intended for?”

We will look at what we do and see if we could have done something better, or see if there is something we can do to make people feel more safe.

Reconciler is a church–a sanctuary away from violence, drugs, and many other things that plague the population we serve. It is tempting to start treating our church like a fortress, in the hopes that we would more safe. But I really don’t think that’s what Jesus is calling us to do.

I’m not going to make you feel guilty about hesitating to come to COR. I get it, I understand.

What I hope is that you will continue to serve, whether that be with one of the other agencies downtown, or elsewhere, and never give up on Jesus’ command to love and serve all God’s people.


Joshua 24:15b

Rev. Matt Lacey
Senior Pastor, Church of the Reconciler


I feel for Matt. Everything he says is absolutely true. As frightened as volunteers might be, violence and unpredictability are an everyday occurrence for those who live on the streets. For many of them, it’s all they have ever known.

Another mission, another chance

We’ve been receiving a number of phone calls from Bethesda Mission in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The caller holds on until the time period for leaving a message ends before hanging up. None of us pick up, since we figure it’s likely my brother, Joe, who should be nearing the end of his time in another facility in the state that treats people with mental illness who are also struggling with addiction.

I so often feel like a hypocrite. My friendship with Edwina has shown me that people with the odds stacked against them deserve a second chance. Once diagnosed with breast cancer, Edwina left crack behind. She’s certainly not kicked all of her bad habits, but neither have I or anyone else I know. Edwina messes up, and I forgive her. I mess up, and she does the same. It’s a friendship like any other.

Maybe it’s because my history with Edwina is shorter that I feel differently about her intentions when she calls. After all, I never knew Edwina when she was on crack, so I haven’t experienced that side of my friend. And while Edwina sometimes lies to me to get what she wants–and isn’t much better at hiding the truth than Joe–she seems sincerely sorry.

I count on those who love me to forgive me when I screw up–which happens more than I care to admit–but I also work hard not to repeat my mistakes. I don’t want my friends and family to regret giving me a second chance. Joe, though, seems to apologize only when there’s something in it for him: money to buy more drugs or another opportunity to move in and destroy trust.

I have to assume that Joe will end up back on the street, surviving on handouts and the occasional night’s sleep in a men’s shelter. It makes me sadder than I can say, but it’s a sadness that I’ve gotten used to.

Homelessness meets heroism

My friend and editor from Cancer Today sent me a link to a story that appeared in the Philly news:


It’s refreshing to see a story that celebrates the good that individuals do–wherever they happen to live. On the other hand, the fact that a person living on the street (in this case, in the station) who’s doing good is news suggests that homelessness means “doing bad” in many people’s eyes.