Brother Bryan board member Sandi Gornati introduced several years ago the idea of instituting a Junior Board. Sandi had served on the board of another non-profit that had a Junior Board and felt like it would be a good fit for Brother Bryan Mission.
During the past two years Sandi has worked tirelessly, along with the BBM board committee, to see this come to fruition. We are pleased to introduce the inaugural Junior Board of Brother Bryan Mission.
Catherine Colville is the great-great granddaughter of Brother Bryan. She is excited to be on the Junior Board to support and promote the mission which continues his legacy of ministering to the economically, spiritually and emotionally impoverished men of Birmingham. She is a Financial Analyst in Budgeting and Reporting at Southern Company and attends Dawson Memorial Baptist Church. She is wife to Robert Colville and mother to Charlotte Grace (3) and Maggie (1).
William Snell recently graduated from Auburn University and was looking for ways he could positively impact Birmingham. He feels the Brother Bryan Junior Board is a wonderful way to advance God’s kingdom and serve a great need in the community. He is a Healthcare Credit Analyst at Regions Bank and attends Redeemer Community Church.
DeAngelo Goulsby, Jr., joined the Brother Bryan Mission Junior Board to assist men in the rebuilding of their lives through godly counsel and a fresh walk with Christ. DeAngelo works at SGI Logistics and attends Highpoint Church.
Lydia Kirkland is an Administrative Coordinator on the Marketing team at Encompass Health. She has been friends with Catherine Colville since high school and was introduced to BBM by her. She is excited to serve Birmingham by contributing to the Junior Board. She and her husband Ryan most recently were members of Raleigh Avenue Baptist Church and are currently looking for a new church home.
Stephen Thomas completed the New Life Program at Brother Bryan Mission after being in addiction for twenty-one years. He heard the gospel and Jesus changed his life. He wants to be able to support an organization that is leading men into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ and providing them with necessities they need to be productive members of society. Stephen is the new Director of Adult Education at BBM. He and his wife Stephanie attend Double Oak Community Church.
John Fitzgerald works as a Data Analyst at Surgical Care Affiliates in Birmingham. He grew up in a Christian home, always knowing who God and Jesus were, but it wasn’t until he was in college at Birmingham-Southern where he planned to walk-on to the soccer team, that he came to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. He had two non-surgical knee procedures that eliminated his opportunities to play soccer and asked God to save him from his brokenness.. John says he believes the calling on his life is to bear witness to the truth and glorify the name of the Lord. He has been attending Redeemer Community Church since college and has been a member there since 2019.
If you are interested, or know someone who may be interested, in serving on BBM’s Junior Board contact the mission.
I answered the phone on my once a week desk several weeks ago. Mike, calling from the front desk, said he was sending a lady and her son down to this building because her son needed to use the restroom. I got up, opened the door, and met her on the sidewalk. Her little boy was blonde and small, and when I asked he proudly told me he was four.
I introduced myself and showed them the restroom. When they came out, she said her husband was filling out an application for the program at Brother Bryan, and wondered how long it might take for him to speak with someone. I told her I honestly had no idea, and she explained that they had driven from a neighboring state and hadn’t eaten all day. She was concerned for her little boy, who she said had had only a bag of potato chips from a gas station as they drove over.
I told her to follow me. We walked next door to the dining hall and she waited there while I walked back into the kitchen. Michael, one of the kitchen crew, was busily preparing spaghetti for the men’s supper. It smelled wonderful and Christian music played in the background. I told him the young lady’s story and immediately I saw his face soften.
He came around the corner and handed the mom a plate with a sandwich and some chips on it. He spoke, eye level, to the little boy and said, “Would you like me to heat you up a piece of pizza?”
“Yes”! He said.
Moments later Michael came back around the corner with a large piece of pizza and two cups of cold lemonade. The little boy was barefooted and wanted his mom to carry him. I told her since nobody was in the dining hall they were welcome to sit at one of the tables and eat. She was hesitant and said they had come from a “Mayberry” type town and she would feel safer to eat in the car. I offered to carry the food to her car for her so she could carry her son.
As I picked up the plates of food and she picked him up, he turned to me and said words that pierced my heart.
“My Daddy is sick”.
I had to swallow a couple of times before I could say anything, but I managed to say, “This is a good place. It is a place where Daddies can go to get better”.
When we got to the car her husband was in the back seat filling out his application. I learned later that he was actively high and they had left to make the drive back home and were choosing to go to a different program on Monday. I don’t know that we will ever know any more about their story.
I have thought many times about the little blonde boy, so close to the age of two of my grandchildren. I know that the first question one of my grandchildren asked when she is invited to go on a car ride is, “Is it far?” She doesn’t like long car rides. I thought about a mom, dressed in pajama pants who’d apparently left in a hurry to go on a trip that would seem “far” to this sweet boy, and I wondered what had precipitated the decision to travel to Birmingham for help. He had a Daddy who was “sick” in the car and was given potato chips for the ride over. A kind man gave him pizza and lemonade, then there was another “far” ride home, his Daddy still “sick”, and I know that sometimes sick daddies can be less than patient and kind even to those they love the most. How I pray that they found help and hope and healing. I hope that even now he is learning the beauty of being sober and well. I hope this precious blonde boy gets a healthy Daddy back soon. I hope his Daddy was brave enough to take the first step.
Children are usually very honest by nature. This little boy assessed the situation and felt a sense of safety in confiding to complete strangers what was weighing heavily on his little heart.
“My Daddy is sick”.
There are many daddies and granddaddies and sons at Brother Bryan who need healing. Every man here has someone hoping and praying for his sobriety. Someone is waiting for every person. Donations of complete strangers help to bear the burden of food, shelter, clothing and staff. Brother Bryan Mission is a beautiful place where hard work happens inside its doors.
My mother died on April 1. It seems crazy to die on April Fools’ Day. I used to be a big prankster on that day but I can honestly say I haven’t done a prank on that day since 2008. The day she died was an absolutely gorgeous spring day. My brother was in a fast food drive thru when I called him. I wish I hadn’t told him that way but he says there was nothing I could have done to make it any easier.
My husband was working at another rescue mission and I called him after I got the news. The phone rang maybe fifty times and he actually answered, which almost never happened. I sobbed into the phone, “My mother is dead!” He said, “I’ll be right there”. And he was.
We drove on I59 to her house. My sister in law passed us on the interstate and even called to see where we were going. It sounded like someone else’s voice telling her about my mom.
We pulled into my mom’s driveway and a sheriff’s car blocked our way. Because she had died at home and the paramedics had actually broken into her house and found her, the sheriff was there. Even though she died from natural causes, it felt like a crime scene. Nobody ever came in the front door at our house. The back door was our standard entrance and exit, but on this day because of the sheriff’s car, we went in the front door. That in itself seemed surreal. She had died in the shower, and my youngest brother met us in the entrance hall and said “Do not go in the bathroom”. I think my thought at the time was that I would march in and tell her to get up. One of my biggest regrets is not going in with her body while we waited.
It’s funny the things I remember. My mother had said to me at some point that she hated something over her face. When the funeral home arrived they asked if I wanted her face covered. I didn’t even have to think…uncovered, I said. Phone calls were made. Relatives came. We went through the motions like robots. We tried to piece together what her morning had been like. Two of my brothers who hadn’t spoken in years hugged in her living room. I thought about how happy she would be to see that. The clover was tall and her yard, always immaculate, needed mowing. Her azaleas were in full bloom.
We all went to supper that night at a local restaurant. I ordered what I always got and I ate it, but there was a huge lump in my throat that made it not want to go down. I felt panic rising in my chest. One thought throbbed over and over inside me. My mother is dead.
My mom had a thing about her purse, although she always called it her “pocketbook”. When she had a heart procedure at the hospital she said repeatedly, “Kay, don’t lose my pocketbook”. I stressed to her that it was safe with me but we both knew that was debatable. Nonetheless I clutched it responsibly, and took her watch and other personal items when they came to get her. My aunt and I went to the hospital cafeteria to eat while we waited. We finished our meal, headed back up in the elevator, and my aunt said, “Do you have your mom’s purse?” I looked, in panic, and realized I had left it in the cafeteria. “Come on”! we both said as we raced back to the elevator. We reached our table and there was the purse exactly where I had left it. Only then did we dissolve in giggles and both said, “If she knew this she would kill us!” She never knew.
The day after her death we were going to the funeral home. I had chosen the clothing to bury her in, and the kind lady at the funeral home had said “If you want to put some earrings or a necklace on her we can”. I had chosen a small pair of gold hoop earrings that she wore frequently. I had them in my hand as I went out the back door of her house, balancing the clothing on hangers and my own purse. As I locked the door, I lost my grip on one of the earrings and it fell down into a huge azalea bush beside her back porch. I dug through the azalea and looked in its branches and blooms and on the ground underneath. After much searching, I saw the gold earring shining, and again I thought, “She would kill me.”
As I write this, Mother’s Day is just around the corner. I had a tradition in the years after my mom died of driving early to her empty house, before church, taking off my shoes, and walking in her yard in my bare feet. I then would cut some of her azaleas and take them to the cemetery to my parents’ grave. Since we sold her house my tradition obviously ended. I miss her so much that it is palpable.
At the time of her death, she had a sibling that wasn’t speaking to her. It was a silly perceived slight and like most of us, there was the thought that we have much time to reconcile. I saw him beside her casket, broken, sobbing and patting her lifeless body, saying, “I love you. I’m sorry”. I hugged him and said “She is with Jesus and you and she are now fine”.
I know people who haven’t spoken to children, grandchildren, siblings, for years. Moms who don’t speak to their children and children who don’t speak to their parents…when you are in ministry you hear it all. I’m sure all who are reading this know someone who is estranged.
I write some of the details of my mom’s death because she died very, very suddenly. My dad lingered and suffered with cancer and we all had a chance to mentally brace…with my mom there was no preparation. If you are estranged from anyone please don’t assume there is time to get things right, to talk things over. Please go. A dear friend is estranged from her grandson who recently had his own baby. I said to her, “Call him. Pick up the phone and call”. Her response was, “There is too much water under the bridge”. There is never too much water. A song called The Basin and the Towel by Michael Card says all it takes is “one who bends, one who yields.” Mother’s Day is nearing. Will you bend or will you yield? Don’t wait. We will all be in a casket one day. At that point it is too late. Pick up the phone. Write a letter. Drive to see someone.
The front door entrance of a back door house may be here before we imagine.
There are daisies in a vintage blue Mason jar on my counter. They are just beginning to wilt even though I got them over two weeks ago. We attended the memorial service for Max Adams, a dear friend of Brother Bryan Mission, who passed away just before Christmas from Covid. In the 37 years that my husband and I have been involved in ministry together, we have seen much loss. Too much. Each loss hurt deeply; some more visceral than others. Max was one of the deep hurts. My husband had sent me a text telling me Max was in the hospital. I began immediately to pray, stopping several times throughout the day to lift him up to our Father. I found myself as the day wore on praying simply, “Please God, not Max. Please don’t take Max”.
Later there was a text from Jim that was short but heartbreaking.
“Max passed away”.
That night my husband said quietly, “When I heard, I had to get out of the mission for a bit. I just had to get away”.
Today or tomorrow I will throw out the daisies, given as a gift at the memorial because when asked how he was, Max often replied, “I’m fresh as a daisy”. Max left a deep footprint on this world. My Dad, a welder, always said you can tell the character of a man by how he treats the common person. Max treated executives and janitors the same. He always had a twinkle in his eye and he always listened. He always stopped and chatted with anyone who crossed his path. He gave, and what he gave was himself.
Today begins the month of February. In my conversations with others, I am beginning to hear that hope is fading. Maybe there was too much hype placed on the beginning of 2021. Headlines screamed that we are leaving behind 2020. We are starting anew. We did, and very little changed. People are still getting sick and many are dying.
A friend at church yesterday said, “I always thought I would die in a car crash. I never thought I would die from a virus”. He is generally in good health and does not have Covid.
My husband and I pray before he leaves for work each morning. This morning his words were different. “Thank You, Lord, for another day together”.
If there is any good, maybe it is in the learning to take each day as a gift, and to hold everything with an open hand.
A week ago, Bobby Montgomery came into my Friday only office at Brother Bryan Mission and stuck out his cell phone. He was almost breathless with excitement. Bobby is the kitchen manager, and they operate largely on donations. They are graciously donated chicken from a local chain restaurant and pizza from another, and Bobby and the other cooks are very creative in their use of this food. Everything they prepare is delicious, and the men are definitely grateful, but as Bobby put it, “some of them are beginning to cluck like chickens”.
David Carrier, the kitchen director, had asked Bobby if they could maybe serve some beef. Bobby checked the freezer and said they had an abundance of chicken, a few hams, and some turkeys. They began to put together an order for the Food Bank, and as they tallied up the order, they saw that the prices had gone way up. Bobby came to Jim, the Executive Director and my husband, to ask if it was okay to order some hamburger meat.
Jim recommended prayer.
“Let’s pray about it for a few days”.
So Bobby and David prayed that God would send them some hamburger meat.
The first response after praying was from St. Andrews who asked if the mission could use some 10 lb logs of hamburger meat. The next response was from Firehouse Shelter asking, “Hey, can you use some hamburger meat”? They sent 18 cases of 12 x 2 trays. And finally there was an email from a kind lady who helps run the food bank at a local church. She was offering 6-7 (10 lb) logs of…ground beef.
The calendar flipped to a new month today. A blank slate. Even though it is 37 degrees outside, the jonquils have bravely emerged from their underground winter home and now stand, in some places, 6 inches tall. Soon they will bloom. Today I read a quote by Mark Vroegop that said, “Lament is the historic biblical prayer language of Christians in pain. It’s the voice of God’s people while living in a broken world. Laments acknowledge the reality of pain while trusting in God’s promises”. Our hearts break over losing people we love. The very act of prayer means that we bend and bow and hold our hands open. Sometimes we rise from that bowed position in grief, but we still ask. We pray because God tells us to.
I’m sure the men at Brother Bryan are eating some kind of beef today, and I know it is delicious. Two recovered drug addicts whose lives were transformed by the Father are marveling and rejoicing at His goodness. And I feel certain that Max Adams, eyes twinkling, is rejoicing in His goodness as well, and would revel in hearing the story of the ground beef prayers.
But then, I am also fairly certain that a newly healed Max who truly IS now fresh as a daisy, already knows.
Months ago my husband and I were driving in a rural area outside Birmingham after a funeral. As we drove in a fairly unfamiliar part of Alabama we passed a huge field of yellow wildflowers. They were stunning, and there appeared to be acres of them. Everywhere we could see the yellow flowers waved in the breeze.
“Look!” I said to my husband. “Who planted all these flowers?”
As we rounded the next curve, my husband said, “Nobody planted them. Look.”
He pointed out a large sign that said, “LANDFILL.”
The flowers had grown up out of garbage. Stinky, smelly, rotting garbage…acres of garbage. And out of the midst of the nastiest place, beauty emerged. Breathtaking beauty.
This morning there was much talk about yesterday’s day of prayer. A group of men from the BBM program and also staff members did a prayer walk. They prayed at City Hall for our mayor and city councilmen and other city leaders. They went to Linn Park and asked people in the park if they could pray with them for specific needs. Daniel Roberson saw a bench in the park where he used to sit when he was homeless. He left the group to go and sit on the bench again and reflect and pray. Daniel is now a staff member at BBM. Another man was beaten badly before coming to BBM. At a nearby park 4 men beat him badly enough for him to be hospitalized. It was in the hospital that some other serious health problems were discovered…health issues that, left untreated, could have killed him. He ended up at Brother Bryan Mission where God has changed his heart and life. He went back to the park with the prayer group and saw the same 4 men who beat him, and he walked boldly to them. He said he wanted them to know that what they did really hurt him, but because of that beating some very good things happened. He told them he forgave them. In doing so, he set himself free. He also told his attackers that he would recommend Brother Bryan to them as well. Like Joseph in the Bible said to his brothers after they sold him into slavery, “You meant it for evil but God meant it for good.”
Rob, a program man from Corinth, MS, said they were on their way back to the mission when they saw a homeless man sitting inside a doorway. Rob said, “Let’s pray for him.” He and another man knelt beside him and asked if they could pray. In this day of Covid and masking and fear of touching or getting too close to others, Rob said he reached out and took the man by the arm. When they asked how they could pray the man said, “I’m hungry. I need food.” They prayed, and as soon as they said “Amen”, a woman drove up, put down the window, and asked, “Hey, can y’all use some food?” She distributed food to the man and others and a “random” homeless man in a doorway, who moments before had felt hopeless, saw God answer prayer on his behalf and provide the food he so desperately needed.
When Rob told me the story of the man in the doorway, his face clouded over and the tears came. He was a little embarrassed and apologized, but there is great beauty in the tender, merciful ways that God deals with a human soul. It is obvious that he has a heart that has been changed and his scars and hurts have been redeemed. I believe God will use Rob in mighty ways.
Two different times I have been working on a Friday here when two different people, outside guests, got angry and literally pulled our door off its hinges. The first time it happened was alarming; the second time was unbelievable. Another day I was coming back from the bank and post office and I heard horrible, foul language being shrieked from the street outside. Jim and I stood at the door and watched as an irate man fought with his mother. One of the people in their group said over and over, “This is your mother!” I could imagine the hurt this woman was feeling. These are the bad stories… the landfill moments. Downtown and especially near a rescue mission there can be a lot of garbage being dumped. But it is also a place that God moves and works amazingly on an almost daily basis.
In the book Hind’s Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard, there is a part early in the book where Much-Afraid walks with the Shepherd through the desert. She sees wildflowers blooming in a desolate place and she tells the Shepherd she doesn’t think it fair that such beauty grows in a place where no one can see. The Shepherd tells her that nothing that He and God make is ever wasted, and the flowers give themselves willingly and with great love even if nobody ever sees them but God. He tells her that in all the glories of this world, the greatest work ever done in man is work that is done in secret by the Father.
There is much work being done in hearts and lives here at BBM. Most of it is the secret, inner workings of the Spirit. But often there is so much joy and love that it begins to spill outward and overflow and there are tattooed men, hardened by rejection and abandonment themselves, who can’t help but kneel, reach out, touch and pray. And how sweetly the Father hears and answers!
These are the wildflower moments…the tender and golden blooms that sway in the breeze and their fragrance spreads like an offering down the sidewalks and into the parks and streets and doorways to others who need Him. And the beauty that grows out of landfill moments is a beauty that reaches out and up after hope, producing flowers that give themselves willingly even if nobody else sees.
I love to read. A friend loaned me a novel several months ago and said, “This is a really weird book that you might enjoy”. My reading is either feast or famine. I either have a queue of books waiting to be read or I have nothing. She happened to give me the novel at a time when there were a few books ahead of hers, so I started it weeks after she loaned it to me. It was definitely weird. I read half of the six hundred plus pages, thinking each time I sat down with the book, “I can’t finish this”. Jim heard me sigh at bedtime each night as I picked up the book and said, “I cannot wait to finish this stupid book”. I said I had read half of it so I had to finish it to see what happened. I took the book to the beach with us thinking it would be easier to finish it down there. It ended up that I was so tired each night that I read even less, falling asleep just a few pages in. On Monday of this week I was 30 pages from the end and I became more annoyed because it seemed to me that the author used every foul word he knew in the last pages of the book, seemingly to simply fill space. I became even more agitated. I keep a list of books I read (because I have reached the age that I can’t remember) and I imagined with great satisfaction writing the name of the novel on my list and writing out beside it, A total waste of my time”.
On Tuesday of this week I finished the book. The last two paragraphs were some of the most beautiful writing I have ever read. I read and re-read those two paragraphs. I text my friend and told her I finished and how tragically beautiful the ending was. I text her again yesterday and mentioned another realization I had about the book. I said, “This book is like radiation. You think it is all gone but it stays with you, even when you don’t know it. I can’t get this book out of my mind”. She text back, “Start another book. You’ll forget about it”. (Thank goodness for friends who speak truth when I’m being way too dramatic!) I need to return the book to her but I just keep reading the last two paragraphs over and over again. I may or may not have openly cried.
Today as I worked at Brother Bryan Mission and drove downtown, I saw a man who looked familiar on the sidewalk. It was raining and he was stooped, holding an umbrella. It was a man who comes by Brother Bryan from time to time. He asks for mints and money and we give him those and hugs and ask about his health and we like to believe that in many ways, we are almost family to him. I’ve been warned that he can sometimes be very angry, and even though it is hard for me to picture it still kept me from putting the window down today and asking if he needed a ride. It wasn’t a moment I am proud of. Two weeks ago we were at the beach where the sea gulls fascinate me. One day as the sun lowered on the beach and the sky filled with pinks and salmon and blues, I noticed the gulls flying toward the sun. I sat and wondered where they go at night. I couldn’t help but think the same thing when I saw our stooped friend under the umbrella. Where does he go? Where does he sleep? What time of day does a life on the streets stop?
And there is a distinction between the men who live within the walls of Brother Bryan Mission and the people who are frequent guests here who don’t. And even the men who live here are considered suspect by some. We have had hurtful comments made to us about working in this ministry. In this time of pandemic we have been asked if “those mission men” will be at our church. It is easy to write a check but harder to hold out a hand, to touch an arm, to offer a hug, to listen and look into eyes. To keep a ministry going when all the world is going into panic mode. To take the time to look at a life with at least as much interest as one would give a novel.
Jesus was asked, in response to telling his disciples that the greatest commandment was to love our neighbor as ourselves, “Who is my neighbor?” Our Lord’s response was to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan, a story that as an unchurched little girl I heard the first time at the Methodist church in my tiny community. It was another radiating story…one that I couldn’t erase from my mind after hearing.
Orson Wells once said, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” I almost missed a beautiful ending of a weird novel because I was put off by the ramblings before I got there. The story of the Good Samaritan might have looked different if it had stopped right after the man was beaten and thrown in a ditch, or right after the good rabbi crossed to the other side of the road to keep from helping. The men here at Brother Bryan may seem to some as weird, messed up people. It depends on where their story is stopped. I don’t know how many will get a happy ending, but I know some will. I know many have. I know they have to be given a chance. And they, perhaps more than anyone, need a touch, a hug, a prayer, a friend, a church. A pandemic doesn’t stop the need for hope. And I preach to myself as I type this Friday afternoon…I who feared putting down the car window for my stooped over neighbor as he fought the rain on an August afternoon.
Teach us, Lord. Teach us to show Your tender mercies to those You place around us. Keep us from labeling anyone that You create…from writing with eagerness across a life that it was a waste of our time. Teach us to keep reading, to not put the book down until it is finished, to see the beauty that hangs with possibility over each word. And to remember that only You, Lord, get to write the final paragraph.
Martavial “Tae” Stevenson was asked what Brother Bryan Mission has meant to him. With joy in his eyes and without hesitation he said, “I can dream again.” This is the rest of his story.
Tae has never known his Dad. His mother was out of the house more often than not, so that he was raised by his grandparents in the Center Point area of Birmingham. He began smoking marijuana and taking mind altering pills at the age of 15. At the age of 22 he was introduced to crystal meth which “took away his dreams.”
His job at a local restaurant led to his meeting Tiffany, who he soon fell in love with. When Tae and Tiffany discovered she was pregnant Tae knew they needed to make a change. “I didn’t want my son to grow up like I had grown up,” said Stevenson. It was Tiffany’s parents who told Tae about Brother Bryan Mission.
As Martavial entered the doors of BBM his mindset was, “I thought everyone was going to jump me.” What he soon learned was that Brother Bryan Mission was a safe place where he could learn and listen for what God wanted him to hear. “I came to know Christ in my first counseling session with Chaplain Troy Walker” Stevenson communicated. Continuing he said, “I immediately felt a weight was lifted and I began to really read the Bible and enjoy my classes.”
BBM’s New Life Fellowship Program is a nine-month Christian recovery and discipleship program in which a client is not able to work in the first six months. During this time Tae has been progressing through the tests necessary to obtain his G.E.D. He only has the Math component remaining and expects to complete that soon.
Tae and Tiffany are making plans to be married but the birth of their little boy wouldn’t wait. Earlier this month Jeremiah Wayne Stevenson was born to excited parents and families who are helping with Jeremiah until Tae and Tiffany can get established.
Tae has a job waiting at the Mercedes plant in Vance. He and another recent graduate of the NLF Program applied at the same time and both were given jobs that will start at the beginning of September. He believes God has opened this door for him to be able “to give my son what I never had.”
Stevenson sees the value of completing the program since over 80% of BBM’s New Life Fellowship Program graduates are living free of addiction and have stable housing and employment while maintaining healthy relationships with God and others. It is what he wants for himself and his family.
So when asked what Brother Bryan Mission has meant to Martavial “Tae” Stevenson, he said, “the world stole my dreams, but God, through the ministry of Brother Bryan Mission, has given me hope for a better life … I can dream again.”
It was early February and there was no mention, at least in Alabama, of a pandemic. What freedom we enjoyed and took for granted! I had driven to Georgia to stay a couple of days with our daughter, Jane. Her new husband was going on a retreat so we thought it would be fun to spend some time together. As soon as I arrived she started telling me things she had planned. We shopped, discovered a Mexican restaurant where we shared fajitas, and decided to see the movie Little Women that night. Jane had seen the movie twice but I hadn’t seen it at all, so she said she would gladly sit through it a third time so that I could see it. We ran by the grocery store to pick up a few things and then to their apartment to put them away.
As we left for the movie, we made our way up the stairs, Jane ahead of me. It was very, very cold. Jane made it to the top step and I saw her hesitate. She looked at something, then turned and ran back down the stairs. I could tell she was terrified. I asked what she had seen. On the top step, she said, was a frog. It was sitting there, she said, with its “beady eyes” looking right at her. She begged me to go look. Jane and I had some negative experiences in Cuba with frogs. The frogs in Cuba were very aggressive. After our missions trip to Cuba, we both give frogs a very wide berth.
“I’m not going to look at it”, I told her.
“Mom, you have to”, she said. “Go look at it”.
I tip toed up the concrete stairs and in the very corner was a frog. I did confirm that his eyes were open but he seemed to take no notice of me whatsoever. I stomped. He didn’t move. His eyes blinked but other than that there was no acknowledgement on his part that he was even aware of us. The clock was ticking for us to make it to the movie on time.
“Is there another way to get to the parking lot?” I asked her.
“Nope”, she answered. Up the stairs is the only way.
Their apartment is on the bottom and all the way around back of their complex and right behind it is a large wooded area. They have seen deer and foxes since they have lived there.
I reasoned that there had to be another way. She said the only way was to walk all around the perimeter of the apartment building, and, she added, there was a huge hill that there was no way we could climb.
“Come on”, I said.
It was pitch dark and we clung to each other as we made our way along the edge of the woods. I stepped in something slick that I presumed to be mud. There was really no way to know. We walked and walked and then began to go uphill. Jane was behind me and began to say repeatedly, “We can’t go up this hill”. I reached the top before she finished her last sentence. Later, as she relayed this story to Tyler she said, “Mom, in her heels, scaled that hill like a mountain climber”. It was more to do with adrenalin than athleticism, for sure.
We made it on time to the movie and we giggled all the way about the frog. We never considered that he might still be there when we got home, but as we approached the top of the stairs we cautiously peered over and it appeared that the frog hadn’t moved. He sat facing the corner of the step but I could see his eyes blinking. Jane went first this time and almost flew down the stairs. I followed immediately behind her.
I googled frogs and found that in really cold weather they do something called burrowing. It made me sad to think that this frog had gotten out of the woods and onto the step and then maybe couldn’t figure out what to do. I suggested that we get a large stick and poke the frog and see if we could guide him to the woods. Jane said if the frog jumped anywhere near us we would both have heart attacks. The stick was a bad idea. All I knew to do for sure was pray, so pray we did. We asked God to move the frog Himself to a safer, warmer area. Somewhere FAR, far away.
The next morning we had scheduled Mother/daughter manicures. As we left the apartment, we cautiously approached the top step. The frog was gone! We began to question if some predator got him, if someone in another apartment had stepped on him, moved him, etc…We then said we chose to believe that God moved this pitiful freezing frog just like we had asked Him. How easy it is to reason away answers to prayer.
As I drove back to Birmingham later that night I thought of how silly we had behaved. We went in pitch darkness in woods where we couldn’t see a thing. We stepped in and over heaven only knows what as we felt slickness under our feet. We ran straight up a hill where anything could have been…all to avoid a tiny creature that was harmless.
So many times the men at BBM behave the same way. Rather than stick to the program laid out before them, they try to think of all manner of options. They put together different scenarios where they can be in control themselves and still achieve the desired results. Someone tells them to say this, to do this, to avoid doing the program. Many have no problem at all asking that an exception be made for them…just for them…because they believe their way is better. We really are all like that in the right circumstances. We try to reason with God and suggest to the Creator of All that we, in fact, know better.
The frog has resurfaced at Jane and Tyler’s apartment…at least we presume him to be the same. She sent me a photo about a month ago of a frog sitting in a tiny hole in the siding. I drove back over this past week and someone had thrown a piece of chewed up gum beside his tiny home. I grabbed a stick and swept the gum away. I told Jane it was disrespectful to mar up his little home with blue gum. We still don’t like frogs but we are trying to garner a small amount of respect as he tries to make himself at home.
Today I am working at BBM. A young man came in and said he is leaving. The anxiety was getting to him. He might go into a different program somewhere else. He is young and wearing a green shirt, and could be my son or yours. I look into his eyes and see fear. I pray that God protects him and gets him where He wants him to be, and I can’t help but let my mind take me back to early February, before the pandemic, when our biggest fear was a tiny, freezing frog on the step.
Psalm 64:1 says “preserve my life from the dread of the enemy”. Sometimes the smallest dread can send us running recklessly in the absolute wrong direction, because the well lit path shows all too clearly where we have the least amount of faith.
Mother’s Day, 2020, came with a new narrative called Covid. Our oldest daughter, Emily, sometimes bears the challenge of planning and ideas because she is the only child now who lives nearby. I told her early on that she should plan something for her and her family and Jim and I were fine to be alone. She kept saying she wanted to do something together, outside, and different. We mulled this over for several days. A couple days before Mother’s Day she sent me a text that said, “You know what I would love to do? Go see the Cahaba Lilies”. My response was “Let’s go”.
Her husband Martin prepared lunch at their house and then we all set off to the Cahaba River. None of us knew what to expect since none of us had ever seen the Cahaba lilies, but the day was beautiful and we looked forward to spending time outside. When we arrived at the river, traffic was congested. It seemed that everyone had the same idea. We squeezed into a parking place off the gravel road and set out on foot. We were surprised to see that the lilies were only growing in the middle of the river. We could see them from a distance and they were glorious, but the only way to see them up close was by kayak, canoe, or wading. Emily and I left the children with Jim and Martin and walked maybe a mile down the gravel road. As we encountered different people, we asked if there was access farther down the road that was closer to the lilies. A young couple told us they were in the middle of the river and they had tried to wade but the rocks were just too slippery.
We all began to walk in the other direction and we saw people wading out into the river. Some had large sticks for balance, some held onto each other, but all were moving very slowly and carefully. We sat on the bank and watched as each small group reached the lilies. They took photos, and smelled and touched the lilies before starting the slippery trek back. None of us had worn swimsuits or shoes that we could wear in the water. We were truly Cahaba lily newbies. Emily really wanted to get closer so Jim said, “Come on”. They removed their shoes, rolled up their pants, and headed out. Jim turned to me and I said “No thanks”. I said I didn’t want to risk falling, breaking a bone, and having to go to a Covid laced emergency room. Martin and the kids and I sat on the bank and watched as they slid and slipped and grasped their way out. As we watched, I realized that what I really was saying was that I wasn’t willing to risk.
Soon two young women walked up with their mom. She was red-headed like me and had a brace on her knee. I overheard her say to her daughters, “I’ll sit here. You two go”. One of the daughters said, “Mom, don’t be ridiculous. It’ll be fun”. And I watched as they set off, arm in arm, not too far behind Emily and Jim. They slipped and slid and laughed and squealed and I was so enthralled with how much fun they were having. They were making a delightful Mother’s day memory, and I was sitting on the bank. As Jim and Emily took photos, sniffed and touched the lilies, I began to unlace my shoes and roll up my pants. A lady who had reached the bank threw her huge stick over to the side of me as they left. I got her stick, called out to Jim, “I want to go out”. I held his hand and he directed me where to put my feet and where the rocks were really slick. In those places he grasped my arm more tightly and I leaned into him and clutched my gifted stick. And we slipped and slid and laughed and we made it out to the lilies. We sniffed and touched and Emily took our picture from the bank. The red-headed lady with the brace on her knee passed me and we smiled at each other and I said I wasn’t going to go until I saw her and how much fun she was having with her daughters.
Fear can keep us paralyzed. The Covid-19 pandemic has many people living in fear. It is a scary thing. It has affected people we all know and love. It has affected Brother Bryan Mission. Everyone has to choose how to deal with it. Some people we know have barely left home since March. Others have jobs that are essential and have no choice. Our choice as a family has been to obey the authorities over us by wearing masks and sanitizing and being as wise and careful as we can be. But we have also chosen to see our immediate family and sit around the table and spend holidays together and see Cahaba lilies on Mother’s day. Our daughter talked about their first time back at church and how the pastor said, “look around you. Some people are wearing masks, and some are not. The ones with masks are not more spiritual than the ones without and vice versa. We are extending grace to others who don’t believe the same”. In Birmingham (and more recently, Jefferson Country) we are required to wear masks and we do. We carry hand sanitizer with us everywhere we go. We shop for groceries but make a list and try to get in and out of the store as quickly as possible. We have chosen to live wisely but not in fear. Shelley Giglio said, “Before the truth can set you free you need to recognize which lie is holding you hostage.” For me, on Mother’s day, it was fear.
I could choose to sit on the bank and watch from a distance, letting fear win. Instead I chose to trust my heavenly Father, and to believe that He, who created the lilies to begin with, wanted me to enjoy them. Together, my husband and I stooped and smelled them and cupped them in our hands and marveled at their beauty. We stepped on mossy rocks and we shrieked like children when we slipped and we laughed and made a memory. And I firmly believe that the God who knew about Covid-19 before the foundation of the earth and who imagined and created the Cahaba lilies, delighted in our delight and laughed the loudest of all.
Our granddaughter, Charlotte, came two weeks early as a global pandemic raged. Our son, Grant, called us just after supper on Thursday night, March 20. We threw our things in suitcases, made a quick call to our pet sitter and left for Jackson, MS. We made it around 1 am, just a short time before Charlotte made her entrance into this turbulent world.
Grant face-timed my phone since he was the only one allowed at the hospital with Chelsea. Grant’s voice was weary but proud as he said, “Let me introduce you to Charlotte Mercy Etheredge”. Chelsea, looking wonderful, held our newest granddaughter in her arms. It was a beautiful, but surreal, moment.
Jim was able to stay until Monday morning but had to head back to Birmingham. I stayed to help with the other children, aged 4 and 17 months. Because of illness, Chelsea’s parents weren’t able to be there and even though I know she needed and wanted her own mom, I was thrilled to be able to help. Grant designated himself as the runner. Anytime we needed groceries or anything else, he was the one who went out. We prayed for protection from covid-19 for us all.
One day, Grant made a quick run to the store and while there bought some Legos that he could build with the older kids, and he bought a puzzle. He said it was the last puzzle on the shelf, and he didn’t realize until he got home that it was much too hard for the children. He spread out the pieces on the table and we began to assemble the border. Grant, an engineer and methodical in his thinking, began to separate the pieces into piles…darker green here, lighter green here, white for the waterfall over here. With a new baby in the house and 2 toddlers there wasn’t a lot of time but we did the puzzle in increments. Five minutes here, 30 minutes there, a few minutes before bed…sometimes we worked independently and sometimes we sat down together and fit in the pieces.
Grant became philosophical at one of our puzzle table gatherings. “I thought Henry was a baby until we brought Charlotte home. He now looks huge and it’s scary how fast that happened”. I said, “Grant, I thought you were a baby too, and then I blinked and you now have three children of your own”. Normally he would roll his eyes at Mom’s sentimentality but I think as we both held our puzzle pieces in mid-air, he got it.
Jim was coming on Thursday to take me back to Birmingham. Wednesday night as we all went to bed, there were still big gaps in the puzzle. I felt determination mixed with a bit of desperation, that I wouldn’t get to see the puzzle completed. It saddened me, and I began to make comparisons to parenting. I was grateful to be a part of Grant’s family…to see my son who was the kindest little boy, grow into a man, a husband, a Daddy. To see him wrestle with his kids on the floor and growl and make them giggle and to see his patience as they clung to his neck and climbed all over him. His thoughtfulness as he bought a puzzle to try and make the long days of social distancing more bearable. To know that in spite of our mistakes in parenting, he will be fine.
I awoke Thursday morning and Grant was at the table. I joined him. We filled in gaps. Grant patiently found pieces that fit and called Caroline, the oldest, over to place them…to make her feel like she was part of the process of accomplishment. And then, the last piece went in. I took a picture as Caroline posed proudly beside it, wearing her princess nightgown and trying to figure out in a 4 year-old way how the change in family dynamics will affect her.
Jim came and we couldn’t wait to show him the completed puzzle. I’m sure it has long been boxed up by now, but when I think of the pandemic and the late night drive to Mississippi, the arrival of Charlotte, and a million other things that transpired during those short days that I was there, the puzzle is a big part. We worked together. We laughed. We probably annoyed each other some. We marveled at the miracle of new life. And we pieced 300 puzzle pieces together and came out with a beautiful scene that had highs and lows and sunshine and shadows.
Outside a pandemic raged, but inside there was family. A new baby. Warmth and love. We drove away with them all standing in the yard and waving. The sun shone and just for a moment it was easy to put our anxieties about covid-19 aside. It seemed so normal. Our daughter-in-law, Chelsea, holding the baby. Henry and Caroline waving and pretending to run behind us. And beside them all, our little boy who suddenly is a grown man with a family of his own. I am proud to call him son, and they will be, with