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HANDS THAT TELL A STORY

by Kay Etheredge

It wasn’t an ordinary Friday.  My husband had an eye appointment so I drove myself to work at BBM.  As I stepped out of the car and onto the sidewalk out front, I noticed a beautiful yellow colored finch lying dead on the sidewalk.  I bent over and looked at it and thought how sad to be greeted first thing by this pitiful sight.   I wondered what had happened to him.

Jimmy Coshatt pulled up behind me and got out of the BBM van.  I called him over to look.  I pointed out that ants were beginning to crawl on the bird and if Jim were here, I’d ask him to bury him.  Jimmy and I stood over the bird for a moment then went in two separate entrances to the mission.   I was approached inside the door by an outside guest who asked if we could give him a bottle of water on this hot day and another man who asked where he needed to go to get an ID.  I had just made it to my desk when Jimmy walked in.  He held out his hands which were obviously dirty and said, “I buried the little bird”.

Many of you may have heard Jimmy’s testimony.  When he was 8 yrs old he saw his father murder his mother.  He felt such rage and anger toward his dad and suffered from anxiety attacks for years.  He lived in fear of having one at school, but he tells about how family members would hold his little body as he shrieked in fear of what, he didn’t know.  He told me his mom wore a tank top…it was August in Alabama.  She was shot in the chest and fell over backwards and he ran to her.  Their eyes met.  And she was gone.  He said he remembers her look and knows that her last thought was of him.  No child should have to experience what he experienced.

His mother’s parents were godly people and they took him and his sister in, raising them in the church.  They gave Jimmy the choice of whether to keep his last name or change it to their own, his mother’s maiden name.  He chose to change it.  He remembers that over and over his grandparents would say, “You are going to have to forgive.  Someday, you will have to forgive your Dad”.   Jimmy says he never once heard these people who lived out their faith say a harm word about his dad.  And he did forgive his father when he died.   He talks about going to see his dad’s body and expecting to feel more hate and rage but when he saw him in the casket he didn’t feel that.  He said that day was the beginning of his own healing.

After that Friday when Jimmy buried the bird, I was awakened and felt prompted several times, “Ask Jimmy about his tattoos”.  The next Friday when I worked, he came by the office door.  I said, “Do you mind me asking what your tattoos say”?  He seemed a bit embarrassed but held up his hands, knuckles bent, so I could see.   I don’t know what I expected him to say, but what he did say was not what I expected.  The 13th letter of the alphabet is M, the first letter is A, so the numbers on his fingers spell out “Mama”.  The tattoo on that hand is a tribute to his mom.  The other hand has similar numbers which stand for “I Miss Little Man”…a tribute to a young nephew who died.  He said he did feel slightly embarrassed over the tattoos and had paid for them with coffee when he was in prison.  I said it is part of his story and God is the author of each of our stories and he should never be embarrassed.

Today I sat down with Jimmy to collect information to write this.  He told me in graphic detail about the murder of his mom.  He told me about his freedom from the anxiety attacks, and how even in his own drug and alcohol abuse and eventual prison time, God protected him and guided him to the life he now has.    As we talked our conversation turned to the kidnapping and subsequent murder of Kamille “Cupcake” McKinney, and we talked about the fact that we both fervently prayed for her safety and release.  Jimmy said he got angry at God when he found out she was dead, then apologized to God the next day.  I said I got angry too, and my faith was tested as well, as I’m sure is the case with many people across our city and state and even nation.  We all cried out to God to deliver this precious girl…to bring her home unharmed…to protect her and keep her.  And we prayed unceasingly as the days ticked by and fall finally arrived in Birmingham and we read that she was abducted wearing no shoes.

Jimmy said, “You know I went to the memorial for her over at the park”.  I had to lean in to hear because his voice had gotten softer.  He said they gave out purple ribbons because that was Cupcake’s favorite color.  He has his in his Bible he said, and he’s using it as inspiration to read through the Bible again. He will do it, he said, as a tribute to this little girl.   I said I wish I had known 8 year old Jimmy…that I could have hugged him and said to the scared little boy who watched his mother’s life taken right in front of him that he would be okay…that he would grow up to be a fine man like his grandfather.  His heart is tender and he has a kindness that proves he has not let any aspect of his story make him bitter.  He wears the word MAMA in numerical code on his hand and their last look at each other is vividly in his heart all these years later.  He can see God’s hand and how the horrible ashes are being turned into great beauty.  He carries a purple ribbon in his Bible and who knew that a little girl named Cupcake would help a heart, already scarred, to heal just a little more.

The street is busy in front of Brother Bryan Mission and the sidewalk is rarely still.  It is a concrete jungle but there are trees with dirt beneath them, and a beautiful yellow finch placed in its final resting place by a man with hands that tell a sad but beautiful story.

Fall has finally come to Birmingham and the trees give up their leaves – their true colors ablaze with glory.  And we know that even the hardest and saddest things, placed in the hands of the Master are never ruined or wasted.

THE SAME MEAL

What would happen if you were offered the same meal someone on the street would eat today?

SACRED MOMENTS

By Kay Etheredge

It is Friday, my one day to work at Brother Bryan.  I haven’t been here in two weeks due to visits from two of our children.  It was good to come back today, even though I will gladly take a day off work to spend time with our kids if given the chance.

Before we entered the building a gentleman asked Jim about a change of clothing, so I came in alone.  The lights in the back hallway hadn’t been turned on yet and I went to put my Greek yogurt in the refrigerator.  As I turned to start back down the hallway, I noticed a large shaft of light coming in the front window onto the carpeted floor.   I have always loved light and shadows and the contrasts they bring, so I stood for just a few seconds enjoying the beauty.  Then I saw the camera on my husband’s desk and ran to grab it to try and take a picture.  It was maybe a span of 8-10 seconds.  I took off the lens cap and turned and the light was gone.  I tried standing at several different angles, even walking back down the hall to try and recreate it.  In that very short amount of time the sun had moved just enough to keep the light from entering the window and the beautiful light beam on the floor was just a memory.

A little over a week ago I topped “hospital hill”, a hill in our neighborhood that is on the top of the street that the old Trinity Hospital is on.  I was turning right to go down the hill when a very large tree to my left lit up before me like someone had flipped a switch.  There are dozens and dozens of trees in that area, but this particular tree with the sun directly behind it, was the only one that was affected.  The leaves became a grey, almost turquoise color and they literally appeared to be dancing.  It took my breath away, and I slammed on the brakes so I could stare.  I’m grateful nobody was behind me.  It was the same situation as this morning.  I stared, afraid to move,  and then, in just seconds, the sun shifted and the tree blended in with every other tree around it…non-descript green leaves parched from our hot summer and lack of rain.  I made a mental note to look up the Bible verse that says something about trees dancing and clapping as I verbalized my gratefulness to Creator God for allowing me to see just a small glimpse of this sacred moment.  I suspect that God Himself never wearies of the beauty of His very own creation, and longs for us to delight in it with Him…to notice it…to show Him gratitude.

After this morning’s grace of light I sat down at my desk to begin work.  Only moments after, I received a phone call telling me that a dear lady in our church, someone I love, lost her daughter-in-law yesterday.  Sudden and unexpected, she had died in her sleep.  My friend had been on a trip with her son and daughter-in-law and was in the same hotel when it happened.  Devastated, she sobbed into the phone.  I could feel her brokenness and bewilderment.   There is little comfort outside of the One who gives us Hope, and all I could do was ask if I could pray with her.  All day she has weighed heavy on my heart.

As I work today I reflect on the testimonies the men gave at last night’s graduation hosted by Christ Fellowship Church.  The men told stories of addiction and broken relationships.  They told of becoming clean and sober and reaching out for forgiveness to those their actions had hurt.  Some received forgiveness immediately…for others it will be a process, but through the ministry here at BBM, the process has begun.

I think about how the Christian walk is about light and shadows…about contrasts.  How each of us, every day, stand in grace and are surrounded by grace and we get the chance to extend grace to those who, just like us, are undeserving.  Each of us may stand in awe of God’s goodness one moment and then be knocked to our knees by grief the next.  There are moments we want to drink in and stay and there are moments that we wish we would never have to experience.  And the tragedies that life brings are graces as well because they are the moments when He draws us closer and holds us more tightly.   The shafts of light and sacred moments are prevalent in this world but we have to be aware of them…to be looking up toward the One who is our Hope.  The One to whom all creation sings.

And that verse?  The one I made a mental note to look up?  This is what it says:

“For you will go out with joy,

And be led forth with peace;

The mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you,

And all the trees of the field will clap their hands”.  (emphasis mine)

Isaiah 55:12

It is 4:30 and almost time to go home and even though it is Friday, there are those who hurt deeply and need our prayers, so there is no “weekend release”.    There are graces in this world and they happen in the form of great, great beauty as well as indescribable grief.  It is a world that is not void of One who is greater.  One who is Creator.  One who stoops and bends and comforts.  One who calls Himself Light.

The afternoon sun is sinking lower and lower.  Right now the hallway is a shadow, but it isn’t ominous.  Because somewhere, very close, a shaft of Light breaks through in splendor that takes away the breath.  He places it there and asks us to simply see, admire, and call it grace because in a moment, it will be gone.

SACRED BEAUTY

By Kay Etheredge

This is really not my story, although I feel like I’m a part of it.  I graduated in 1975, a year after my older brother, but going through school with an older brother who was in the grade above me means we shared a lot of common friends.   And sometimes the stories that others tell us are the most moving.

Every school has the people who are “in”…these generally are the football players, cheerleaders, and homecoming queens.  And sadly, every school, especially middle schools and high schools, also have the people who are “out”.  I was in the band, and I spent a lot of time simply trying to steer in my own lane.  I wouldn’t have even understood at the time what I was doing, but I tried to steer in the lane that was sub consciously called “status quo”.  Don’t do anything to look different, be different, sound different…just stare straight ahead and keep moving. 

My brother recently had his 45th high school reunion.  I saw photos on social media and wondered who all these old people were.  It was startling to realize as I stared intently at the group photo, trying to find one face that I recognized, that old age has definitely arrived.  My brother called and relayed different people who had asked about me or said to say hello.  We talked about who was there and who wasn’t.  And then he mentioned her name.

I won’t put it in print because it is a name that anyone who went to our high school within a 3 year span would know.  And it had the misfortune to be a name that could easily be mispronounced as profanity, or rhymed with another word that was also profane.  And this girl was definitely not “in”, except that she was the favorite for people, male and female, to taunt, ridicule, and bully.  She was a bit slow mentally and she dressed in high school in the seventies just like my grandmother.  Long skirts when mini- skirts were the norm.  Cats eye glasses when wire granny glasses were the style.  She had permed hair when almost every other girl (myself included) wore waist length hair, parted in the middle, and we either ironed or rolled on giant rollers to insure that not one single wave would survive.  It was the era of Woodstock and hippies and apparently no self-respecting hippie tolerated curls.  She talked with a deeper voice than most and she plodded when she walked.  And, as the other girls assured me in gym class, she believed, really believed, that she had boyfriends who were movie stars.  This was almost always punctuated with a “watch this”, from someone, who would then turn to her from our hard metal bench seats, call out her name loudly, and ask who she had a date with that weekend.  I can still see her eyes flutter open and shut behind the dated cat’s eye glasses, and she would then call out some pop star singer’s name or movie star’s name that she claimed to have a date with.  And triumphantly, the girl who asked would turn and say, “See”!   And the rest of us, myself included, would laugh.

I don’t think I ever actually asked her myself.  I don’t remember ever even talking to her.  But I saw her being the target of football players who, maybe even on a dare, would either openly make fun of her or pretend to be interested in her.  And she would smile and her eyes would flutter open and shut and she would plod away into another school day and we all just presumed this to be what was normal.

And somehow, we blinked and raised kids and became grandparents and most of us learned about the brevity of life and the speed with which it torpedoes past, and it has been 45 years since high school graduation.  And my brother and sister- in- law went and this time, unlike any other reunion, she was there.  As I scanned the group photo for the familiar cat’s eye glasses I didn’t see them.  I searched each row of attendees and zoomed in on my computer.  And I saw her name written on a stick- on nametag and I zoomed in more and she was smiling…a brave but genuine smile.  Like most of the rest of us, her hair is colored and now it is straight.   She wore makeup, and as I told my brother, she looked as good as any other woman there and even better than some.

My brother told me that two football players went and apologized to her for their actions in high school.  Both of these men danced with her at the reunion.  Another man who is now a pastor, asked forgiveness for anything he may have said in high school to offend anyone.  And this woman probably had one of the most special nights of her life.   Maybe it is simply that after 45 years have passed most of us know what is really important and that there might not be another chance to seek forgiveness.  My brother mentioned that the class of ’74 has lost 63 people since graduation.

If I had been there I think I would love to have asked her what her memories are of high school.  As we all self-consciously got dressed each morning and looked repeatedly in our mirrors and tried to wear just the right shoes and jeans, what was she thinking?  Did she wake up each morning with a sense of dread at another day of being ridiculed?  In my memories, she smiled a lot.  I have no memory of her ever lashing out as she was teased.

It is raining today as I work at Brother Bryan Mission.  There are men here who struggle with the day to day rubbing of shoulders and close quarter living and just daily life interactions.  There are men who will leave this weekend, and there are men praying that Monday they will have a bed and get a chance to start over.  The mail comes and there are kind people who generously give, and there are others who superfluously mail business reply envelopes to try and irritate.  And I begin to fine-tune my thoughts about redemption.  Maybe the people with funny sounding names and dated glasses who are bullied in high school and return morning after morning wearing a smile are the ones who will lead in the kingdom to come.  Maybe the people who were homecoming queens and quarterbacks have already experienced the glory that this crumbling world offers, and they will be the servants of all.  And how much courage would it have taken for me to simply say, “Don’t keep asking her that”?  Or to simply go and sit beside her at lunch.

Playing fields have a way of being leveled.  Class reunion photos after 45 years are proof.  Men have lost their hair and women their figures, and everyone feels the hot breath of old age on our necks. It is the equalizer, and the men who come through these doors at BBM are all holding out open palms, bowed over with the weight of ridicule that drugs and alcohol and severed relationships can bring.

There is a sacred beauty in sitting beside someone, looking into their eyes, and saying, “I was wrong to mistreat you”.  To own the pain we caused others, whether explicit or complicit.   It is what redemption is all about.

Sometimes we need to bravely change lanes and be amazed when the view changes to beauty that was there all along.

HOUSE FINCHES – haemaorhous mexicanus

By Kay Etheredge

Every year we hang two ferns on our front porch.   Every year the ferns serve as a place for a family of house finches to build their nest.  I say family because generations of these same birds have nested on our porch.  Our children were all still at home when we first noticed the tiny birds inspecting the ferns.  They flitted to and fro and then decided that the ferns were perfect for them.  We delighted in watching the male and female birds hard at work, building straw by straw their nest, and we delighted even more at the chirping of baby birds on our porch.  Each time we walked out our front door the mother flew away, and we felt a degree of pride and sadness as the birds learned to fly and left their cozy home.

The next year the birds were back…we assumed they were the babies, now grown, returning to build their own nests in our ferns.  Year after year we notice them outside our living room window darting in and out of the ferns and we announce to anyone who happens to be nearby that the finches are back.

Meanwhile, two of our own children have married and left our nest and have had children themselves, carrying on the process of expanding our family and building new generations.  They still enjoy the progress of the finches and it has been a thrill to show our older grandchildren the baby birds.  We lift them up and oh so carefully pull back the fern fronds, revealing tiny beaks opening and closing as they await their next meal.

This year the finches were back and I enjoyed seeing them carefully building their nest in one of our ferns.  I was preparing to travel to Wisconsin to help our youngest daughter pack her things to move back to Alabama.  She will be married in August so even though I was excited about her being here for the summer, it was tinged with sadness at the thought that she would be here only for a minute and then she would not be back to live in our home again.  Each time I opened the front door I would see Mama Finch fly away, and I sneaked a few peeks at the baby birds in the fern.  I could hear their chirping each day and feared that I would miss their learning to fly while I was in Wisconsin.

I flew to Wisconsin and spent the next week packing and working to get our daughter’s things ready.  One day my husband called and his voice was somber as he said, “Something got the baby birds last night”.  I was horrified and so was he.  He said how he had gone out to water and the fern was pressed apart, then he saw the nest itself was in the flower box below and feathers were strewn everywhere. We began to wonder if the entire family had been killed or just the babies.  It was too sad to allow ourselves to think that their family lineage had been interrupted by some intruder.  I told my husband to look back on the security camera to see if he could see what happened.   He said he didn’t know if he could stand to watch it. 

Several weeks later we did look at the security camera for other reasons and we discovered that the intruder was a large black cat.  We don’t own a cat and don’t know where the cat came from, but in the middle of the night he half jumped, half climbed into the fern and ate the beautiful finches.  I told my husband I felt almost responsible…like somehow we had let them down.  My husband told me days after that he saw the finch parents eating from our bird feeder.  We rejoiced together that the mama and daddy finch had survived.  I wondered if birds grieve the loss of their babies.  I wondered if their hearts can break.

Last week our daughter and I sat at the dining room table working on wedding invitations and I saw movement outside the window.  As I looked, I saw the finch parents back at work, building a new nest.  This time they put it in the fern next to the fern where their babies were killed.  Yesterday when I walked outside I saw the mother fly out of the fern and I heard loud chirping from down inside the fern.

Here at Brother Bryan Mission we have seen some of the same men cycle in and out of the program.  Some we have known through ministry at another mission, some we have known because they have been here before.   It is hard to see the same men succeed, fail, and come back through the doors to try again.   But some do come back and it can maybe be seen as an encouragement to see that they believe in the process and they remember the help and progress they experienced here.  They know the love that staff members extend and they want to try again.  I remember as a teenager when my parents would leave the porch light on when one of us was still out at night.  I think at Brother Bryan the porch light is on and there are men who return to that light when they have failed and life for them has become dark.  There are loving staff members here who lead them gently back into the Light that illumines even the hardest and steepest path.

God is faithful.  He is faithful in the lives of tiny house finches and He is faithful in the lives of men who reach out to Him from places of desperation.

Little tiny finches are learning to fly in Crestwood.  Two birds, brave in the face of adversity, decided to try again.  They returned to the same porch where year after year there are two ferns…something that is familiar and comfortable…almost like a porch light…waiting on them to come home.

 

CONE OF SHAME

by Kay Etheredge

Our sixteen year old dog, Caesar, is three feet long.  Yes, we have measured so we know this to be fact.  He also stands about six inches off the ground.  Because of his unusual build, when he was only four years old, he had to have back surgery.  Now, in his advanced age and as a result of arthritis, he has neuropathy in one of his back paws.  Because of the neuropathy, he began to view this numb paw as an entity separate from himself, and he began to chew the paw. The paw became infected and our wise vet put him in the proverbial cone of shame, which Caesar wore for over three weeks until the paw healed.

Before we left our vet’s clinic she laughed at the sight of our beloved Caesar in the cone.

“They always look so funny on short dogs”, she said.

Caesar was not amused.

Because he is built so low to the ground and the cone was very large, it seemed to function as a large scoop.  He would scoop up leaves and pine straw with the cone.  He couldn’t see where he was going so we had to physically lift him on and off of our front porch when he went outside, and off of the curb when we took him for longer walks.  He developed a bit of a gait as he wore the cone, rocking his head from side to side as he walked.  As much as we hated for him to have to wear it, it was a comical look.  He could drink water from our pet watering bowl but he was unable to eat from his food bowl, so we held his bowl of food inside the cone, just under his snout, so that he could eat.  We had to make adjustments to his bed as well because the cone impeded him from stepping over the edge of it to lie down.  He learned to sleep with his head resting in the large plastic cone.

Once our vet determined that his paw was healed she had the idea to put a little doggie paw protector on his foot.  Dogs up north wear these to protect their paws from the extreme cold and snow as well as the salt solutions put on the roads to melt the snow.  So Caesar traded his huge plastic cone for a doggie shoe.

The interesting thing is that when the cone was removed, Caesar still acted like he was wearing it.  For a day or two he still swung his head from side to side and hesitated as he reached the edge of our front porch, waiting for us to lift him off the porch.  He hesitated at the edge of his bed, fearing he couldn’t step up over the edge to lie down.  After being in the cone for three long weeks, he simply couldn’t remember how he had maneuvered his small world without it.

The men at Brother Bryan Mission come here, generally speaking, in the throes of addiction.  They have learned a certain way of life…how to walk, talk, sleep, eat, etc. while living in the limitations that their addictions impose. Many of them bear physical scars from the wrong choices they’ve made.  Drugs can eat away at their teeth like rejection eats away at their souls.    Many of them have learned the art of schmoozing.  Some have learned to withdraw from others, maybe due to a lack of trust or having been hurt repeatedly.  As I’ve heard over and over from BBM staff members, addiction is rarely the problem.  It is more often than not a surface symptom of something much, much deeper.

At last night’s graduation at a local church, I found myself moved to the point of tears by comments that some of the men made about themselves.

“This is the longest I’ve been sober since I was six years old”.

“When I came to BBM, my family wanted nothing to do with me.  After I was here for a few months, my parents wanted to wish me a Merry Christmas”.

“I never went to church in my home state because people looked down on me because I have tattoos”.

One man talked about riding to Birmingham from another state with a “friend”.  They stopped in Irondale and he went to use the restroom.  When he came out, the “friend” had driven away and left him.

I hurt inwardly at the thought of what that level of abandonment would feel like, and how terrifying it would be to be all alone in a strange place with no one or no place to go.  Thankfully he found his way to BBM.

As I heard the men speak of how Christ has changed them into new creations, my mind went to Caesar and his cone.  These men take tentative first steps out of addiction.  They are learning to navigate without huge burdens called addiction, rejection, abandonment, etc… They learn a new way to walk…with heads held high as they learn there is One who says they are enough—they are beloved.  They get help from the staff as they learn basic steps of a new life.

Caesar has adjusted to his “shoe”.  I sometimes think he actually likes not having the torment of a paw that he can’t feel.  He adjusted to life within his cone of shame and then had to take a couple of days to adjust to life without it.

Please pray for the men here at BBM who are learning how to live a new life.  They are learning that words that may have been spoken to them for years are simply not true.  They are learning that with or without tattoos, they are God’s delight.  They are learning to allow God to change them from the inside out, and they have found a place where they are accepted, understood, and loved.

Our Caesar came to us as a six week old puppy; he had to sleep on a rug that smelled like his doggie mama and littermates but still howled at night because he missed them.  Over time, we got rid of the rug because he learned that he could trust us and inside our home he was loved.  At sixteen we are all he knows.

After a few days or weeks here at BBM, men who come in battered and bruised by the world learn to trust the One who made them.  Over time they learn that through Him and with Him, the “cone” has come off.  Many, for the first time since childhood, are truly free.

 

SAILING WITHOUT BUDDY

by Kay Etheredge

Everyone called him Buddy but I’m not sure that was his real name.  I’m not sure I ever knew his real name, even though we had attended the same school for years.  There was a little something wrong with Buddy but I never heard anyone say what it was.  Sadly, I never took the time to find out.  He had a brother who was my older brother’s age and his parents were always at the same functions as mine.  Buddy was just Buddy.  He was what some people would call “special needs”, or so we thought,  and I never once took the time to look him in the eye.

When I was in college I went on a mission trip with my church, which was also Buddy’s church.  And Buddy went on the same trip.  It was on that trip that I got to know him.  He was funny, nice, and humble.  He had a fairly serious physical health issue, but Buddy was mentally fine.  He was a team player.  We did mission work until lunchtime and then we had a break before repeating the same work at night.  The trip was to the outskirts of a small coastal town and many afternoons our group traveled the short distance to the beach.  We then returned to do our nighttime duties and afterwards we played endless rounds of UNO.

On one of the trips in to the beach, we all decided to rent a sailboat.  As we began to figure out how many would fit we discovered that everyone could go on one ride and one person would have to wait.  The rides were paid for according to time and the plan was for our group to go out for the first half of the time, return, and someone would swap out with the remaining person for the rest of the trip.  Buddy immediately volunteered to stay behind.  Several in our group said they would wait but he insisted.  He would enjoy watching us, he said, and he would be glad to wait.  As we sailed farther and farther out it became obvious that either the wind had shifted greatly or our sailboat driver was less experienced than we had imagined.  Perhaps it was both, but as he fought the sail and the wind, we saw Buddy get smaller and smaller on the shore.  We were too young to be afraid and we all laughed about how we might get stranded together on a desert island.  As we sailed farther out, the clock ticked our time away, and by the time we finally returned, there was no time for another trip out.  Buddy waited joyfully on the beach alone.  There was no time for his turn.

We all began to coax the sailboat driver into going back out again.   We had almost convinced him when our pastor arrived, announcing it was time for us to head back for our nightly assignment.

We were all horrified that Buddy missed his turn, but he was unfazed.  He assured us that he was okay, he wasn’t upset, and he had enjoyed seeing all of us have fun.

I had forgotten the story of Buddy and our wild sailboat ride until recently and as I remembered the events of that day I realized that had it been me,  I’m not sure I would have been so mature.  I probably would have said it was fine, but inside I know I’d have been hurt.  I’m not even sure I would have so graciously volunteered to wait on the beach alone while my friends enjoyed themselves.

The men here at Brother Bryan Mission have been viewed by society as “special”, not in the same sense as Buddy, but because of their addictions they have been told they are “less than”.  Many have been told this repeatedly, often by their own families.  They walk through the doors scarred by the words and actions of others, and more often than not, they are their own worst critics.  They know better than anyone how low their addictions have driven them and they often cannot forgive themselves for the hurt they have caused others.  Figuratively speaking, they are sitting alone on the periphery of life …so close that they can taste normalcy, while the actual living is done by others.  It is at Brother Bryan that God meets each man.  He meets them through the arms of the loving staff members who faithfully teach them the Word of God.  Through the Word they are taught their worth in Christ.  They are taught that life can be lived.  When a man hears God’s voice then hope ignites and the fire of a changed life begins.

My college mission trip happened over 40 years ago and some aspects of the trip are fuzzy in my memory.  One thing I clearly remember is the blessing of getting to know Buddy, and his sweet example that taught me about selflessness and humility.  He worked very hard on the trip as we all did, and he simply chose not to be offended by something that was out of anyone’s control.  I also remember that I didn’t want to go on the trip, and vacillated about it until the deadline.  I think now with the benefit of maturity that there were many reasons God wanted me on this trip, but the seeing into Buddy’s heart and realizing there was nothing mentally wrong with him was one of those moments.

I asked someone recently if they knew whatever happened to Buddy.  He got married, they said, and moved down near the coast.  This person made a derisive comment about his mental acuity.  I smiled at all these things because I know without a doubt that whomever Buddy married got a great man, even if it took me far too long to notice.  As I wrote this my husband typed in Buddy’s name on Facebook and up came his picture.  He was smiling, his hair windblown;  he stood at the edge of the ocean, tanned and happy looking.  It was just what I needed to see.

He is happy and normal and looks much younger than his years.  It could be the sea air but I tend to believe it is how he has chosen to live his life.  He stood strong against the ignorance of others and with a servant’s heart he prevailed.  He showed that our physical appearance doesn’t belie what is in our spirit.  And he taught a sailboat full of college students that he could rejoice in the fun they were having, even if he didn’t get to participate.

I love the photo of a smiling, windblown Buddy.  I just hope that every now and again, on a beautiful Alabama day, he gets to go sailing.

THE LAUNDRY

by Kay Etheredge

My mom was serious about laundry.  In the myriads of memories I have of my mom, she was almost always in the kitchen, at the sewing machine, or doing laundry.  What that meant for our family of 6 was that she washed everything in our washing machine but we had no dryer, so the clothes were taken from the washer to our clothesline in our back yard and hung out to dry.  This hanging in the sunshine and flapping to and fro in whatever wind might be blowing produced a smell that no laundry product on the market can replicate.  When the clothes were brought inside the whole house took on that smell.  My mom liked to gather the clothes that needed ironing while they were still partially damp.  She would go right to the ironing board with those, and the ones she couldn’t get to right away were placed in a large, plastic zippered bag and put in the refrigerator to keep them damp.  If the clothes had already dried, she had a used, quart-sized Clorox bottle that she had poked holes into the top of and she sprinkled that water over the clothes to re-dampen them.  I can still hear the hissing and spitting and belching of the steam iron as it touched those damp clothes.  The rising steam produced a smell of its own as it mingled with the fresh outdoorsy smell of the clothes.

I would sit at the kitchen table and watch my mom iron, and every so often I would ask if I could iron something myself.  She always told me I was too small and would burn myself, but one day she said she would show me how to iron my dad’s handkerchiefs.  She showed me how to take the large squares of fabric, some with colored bands of brown and blue around the edges, and fold them.  They were folded first into a large rectangle, then pressed and creased.  Next another square.  Press and Crease.  The final product was a small creased square that would fit neatly and without bulk in my dad’s back pocket.

Recently I was folding laundry and came across several of my husband’s handkerchiefs.  It was the folding of those that caused me to revisit the memories of my first ironing, which then sent me deep into thought about my mother’s gracious and diligent doing and re-doing of laundry…she seemed to be passionate about something that is such a chore, and she was good at it.  And as I thought about it I was hit with the realization that my dad rarely, if ever, dressed up.  Our family didn’t attend church, even though I regularly attended Sunday school at a small church in our community.  My dad was a welder in the Steel Shop at Alabama Power Company.  He wore khaki colored uniforms to work…matching shirts and pants.  Even those were pristine when he left each morning, his white tee-shirt showing at the neck of his shirt, but when he came home in the afternoons it was a different story.

He stepped out of the car in the driveway he wore the grease, grime and sweat that only working with and around steel can produce.  When I ran to hug him each day he smelled like a cross between the Viceroy cigarettes he smoked, the steel residue that clung to his work boots and uniform, and the Juicy Fruit chewing gum he always carried in his front shirt pocket.  And I realize now that as dirty and hot and grimy as his job was, he always carried a neatly pressed handkerchief in his pocket.

Why did my mom take the time to do that?  Why did it really matter if the handkerchiefs were ironed or not?  I realize now that it was just one of the ways that my mom, a pretty undemonstrative person, showed her love.  The meticulous way that she did the laundry was more than a chore for her.  She did it well.  She took pride in the knowing how and the caring and toting load after load to the clothesline and the bringing load after load inside to iron and hang in one of only 4 small closets in our home.  There was no stain that was insurmountable, no tear that was too daunting to mend.  My three brothers wore blue jeans that were patched and re-patched and when the knees were too frayed to patch again they were cut off into shorts for the summer.  My dad, a stick welder whose salary was just barely enough to feed the 6 of us, wore uniforms that were as clean and pressed as if he were a corporate mogul.

When I think of my mom and our family’s laundry I think that maybe God takes that kind of joy and pride in His own.  His love and mercies erase the stains of our sin.  He patiently mends what we destroy.  He creases and folds and there is great order in how and why He does what He does, even though many times we deem His acts random or unkind.  He is constantly refining us and He does it with great precision.  He knows what He is about.  It is a joy to see Him working in the lives of the men here at Brother Bryan Mission.  Some know Him deeply and intimately; some are still figuring it out.  The staff here works long hours for small pay and they do it because it is a calling and when one enters these doors it is a mission field.  Men’s lives hang in the balance.  Like laundry, they have the opportunity to leave with a fresh, clean scent…a scent that can be an invitation in each man’s sphere of influence.

My daddy was good at what he did.  He worked hard, long days.  The clothesline posts in our back yard were made by him from steel, welded and mounted and strung with clothesline for a mom who was content to stay home with little ones, stand at the stove, and wash and hang out clothes.  The smell of laundry filled our home like a promise.  And my daddy welded, day after day, and the sparks would burn holes in his uniforms that he knew could and would be mended.  And when he stopped to wipe sweat from a face soiled with steel grime, he did it with a starched and crisply pressed handkerchief.

ACROSS THE STREET

By Kay Etheredge

They lived right across the street from a small town Baptist church.  The church is picturesque; very typical for the South… white with a steeple and stained glass windows.  On a recent Sunday night I watched the people as they filed in.  Some were dressed in sport coats and khakis and one man with a nice face wore bib overalls.  I’ve always liked a man in overalls because my grandfather wore them.  I associate them with kindness and hard work.

We sat across the street from the church in a home that our friends rented.  It was close to Christmas and our friends, a married couple, are hurting.  He is dying.  He was told just that week that he had two weeks left.  We had driven two hours to visit, and he had requested that my pastor husband bring communion.  So as the people of this charming southern town filed into the church across the street for a Sunday night service, we watched from the living room.  The room was dimly lit; across the room a large shelf held a collection of ceramic Christmas villages, each one illumined with tiny bulbs inside. A beautiful handmade quilt covered the sofa where I sat.  The room held warmth, love, and sadness.

And even though I studied each face that walked into the church a rock’s throw away, not one person glanced in our direction. Not even one.  I found myself lost in thought.  Could it be the mattress and washing machine that lie discarded beside the road?  I watch through the windows, willing someone, anyone to look our way.  No one does.

My husband pulled out his Bible and read as the four of us took communion.  He asked our friend if he would like to pray and he said “yes”.  His prayer, the prayer of a dying man, was simple and sweet.  He prayed like someone unaccustomed to praying aloud.  Sometimes those prayers are the least rehearsed and most genuine.    In fact I told my husband as we drove home that night that in our almost 35 years in ministry, that night was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever experienced, and he agreed.

Two days later, in the morning, a text message told us he was gone.  We were stunned.  He had died in his sleep.

I struggled with anger toward the people in the church.  They knew he was dying.  Why didn’t they simply walk across the street, pray, offer an outstretched hand or just sit for a while?

Our friend’s wife told us a story about the large nativity in front of the church.  She had noticed one day that there was no star.  She had a star that she had bought the year before in an after Christmas sale.  She walked over one day and simply laid the star inside the nativity.  Later, she noticed someone from the church had hung it up.  And that story, that beautiful story, stuck with me.  How the people deemed “less than” in a small southern town can offer up something beautiful when their own lives were shattered.  And aren’t we all shattered in some way?  Even the people filing faithfully into this beautiful little church every Sunday carry their hurts with them…up those steps and into those pews and aren’t the pews filled with the most broken of all?  How is it that we can so carefully and intricately hide those hurts…tucked away in pockets and behind doors and we can become hardened and calloused to people who don’t fit a particular mold…who leave broken appliances by the road and can we look over a broken appliance if we know there is a death pall over a rental home and this is the last Christmas for one of the people inside?  We all live under the sentence of death unless we know the One who took the penalty for our sin.

Almost every church has someone on the other side of the street or someone next door or someone within a rock’s throw distance that is hurting.    Someone with tiny lit up Christmas houses that glow with holiday warmth is broken because of something.  The words to a Christmas carol tell us “far as the curse is found” and that means that in tiny picturesque towns as well as big cities, we are all carrying some burden.    Mattresses wear out, people get addicted to alcohol and drugs and we get diagnoses that say we have days left on this earth. Appliances break, hearts break, and people die right before Christmas. The sin curse of this world doesn’t stop because of the sparkle and goodwill of the holidays.

On a Tuesday morning in December our friend went Home.  He spent his first Christmas in heaven.  He told us two days earlier he looked forward to seeing his mom, dad, and siblings.  And that very same afternoon a brave person from the church across the street walked over…past the mattress and worn out washing machine and gave some money to a numbed and grieving widow.

And this past Christmas season a marked-down star was added to a lovely nativity in the church yard of a tiny town in Alabama.  A star not unlike the star over Bethlehem years ago…a star that shone the brightest of bright because someone chose to love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

GRANDMOTHERS AND GINKGO LEAVES

by Kay Etheredge

He said his grandmother writes him letters, long letters.  He described her precise cursive handwriting and how it leaned in one direction.

“It’s beautiful”, he said. “But sometimes it’s hard for me to read”.

He then described how she included in her letters “random facts” about people and places he doesn’t know.

He is young, in his twenties, and his heart is kind so none of his words were meant as criticism.  I rode in the backseat as he drove, and it was two days after Thanksgiving which he had spent with our family because his was too far away.  And when he mentions his grandmother his whole face lights up and I have never met her but I wish she could see this.

I leaned forward from the backseat and said, “Why don’t you write her a long letter and include random facts about your life?”  I told him it would be such a treasure that it would have to be pried from her cold dead hands when she dies.

He doesn’t see any urgency to do that because he is young, and he says he doesn’t know many random facts anyway, and my mind begins to wander to letters I’ve received and to my own grandparents, all who have been gone for years.

Handwritten letters are becoming a thing of the past.  A social media driven generation puts everything online and emojis tell our moods and spell check gives instant indication if a word is misspelled and I remember fondly and with a measure of guilt the handwritten letters that my grandmother wrote me all my life.  In my own youth I was unwise enough to throw almost all of them away.  Today, they would be a treasure.

She lived in Tennessee and I lived in Alabama and I adored her even though I don’t believe I ever told her that. When we visited her and my grandfather in their tiny town named Liberty, one of the greatest delights was to walk to the post office with her.  She would turn the combination on Box 57 and there were newspapers and letters and magazines.  One of those magazines was McCall’s, and in that magazine were paper doll cut outs…Betsy McCall…her clothing and friends and even pets.  My grandmother would let me cut out the paper dolls from the magazines that had come since my last visit.  After our visit she would write me newsy letters and always include the Betsy McCall paper dolls that had recently come.

This was a habit she continued until I was way too old to play with paper dolls.  She enclosed them in her letters until I was in high school.  It was embarrassing to me, a teenager, to get those paper dolls.  I would scan her letters and stuff them in my nightstand drawer until the drawer became full and I would throw them all away.  I realize now that she was trying to maintain a connection with her only granddaughter who she saw was growing up so very fast and she grasped at something she thought would bring her joy.  I would give anything now to have even one of those letters, and years ago I bought some uncut Betsy McCall paper dolls off ebay, framed them, and hung them in my sewing room.  I smile when I see them and think of my grandmother, who died in our home when I was a senior in high school.

So if I could write her a letter now I would definitely mention the Betsy McCall paper dolls, but probably foremost I would mention how very much I miss her and how I adored her so much that it hurt.  I would tell her the trips to the post office are a highlight in my mind, as well as trips a little farther down the street to her small town store.  I can still hear the wooden boards creak under our feet as we walked inside this small general store illuminated primarily by the sun beaming into the large front windows.

I would tell her random facts as well, about my husband and children she never met and how at 61 I’m a grandmother and I can only pray I can do half the job she did.  I would tell her about the ginkgo leaves on the tree in our yard and how all the fan shaped leaves fall in one day…how they leave a golden carpet on our yard that takes my breath away.  I would say that yesterday I took Tobias, my two year old grandson,  outside to play in the golden leaves and how he belly laughed and we threw leaves up in the air and let them rain down on our heads.  About how he wanted to take one home with him and my heart swelled when I saw him march up to his mom, our oldest daughter, and hand her that one leaf…his golden treasure.   And how on a small table in my living room that actually used to be her table in her living room, two of those leaves lie right now, a sweet reminder of a memory I made with Tobias.

My other grandmother had only a sixth grade education and there was a time I would have been embarrassed to put that in print.  This same grandmother taught me about cooking and sewing and she sewed professionally even if there were many words she couldn’t spell.  She made wedding dresses for others and soft nightgowns for me and only after her death did I learn about a woman who was a client who wore a size 22 but bought size 18 patterns and my grandmother with her sixth grade education altered those patterns to fit and never said a word about the too small patterns.  Even with bad spelling I would love to get a letter from her and be able to write one as well.  I would surely mention the aluminum Christmas tree she used to have in her living room and I would say I sew but even with more education I don’t have her talent for it, but last year I made Raggedy Ann dolls for my grandchildren and I like to think she watched over me as I sewed these gifts of love with red yarn hair.

One of my tasks at Brother Bryan Mission is to go to the post office downtown.  It is one of my favorite jobs.  I love the activity at the post office and the long rows of boxes and maybe there is a part of me that remembers those walks with my grandmother to the post office in Liberty that would be a fraction of the size of the Birmingham one.  And for the past several months there has been mail for one of the guys in the program here from his mom, who seems to regularly send letters and packages.  As I balance the unwieldy packages I can’t wait to get back to BBM and deliver his mail.  And I hope his mom includes random facts and he replies with random facts of his own, and every line of any letter is an actual gift.

There are also gifts to BBM from supporters…monetary gifts and notes of encouragement and blessings from people we may never actually meet who spill over generosity and prayers and they clump together in that post office box with the brass front and it is always expectancy to pull out those letters.

I hope our young friend has already written to his grandmother and included random facts he thinks he doesn’t really know.  I’ve never met her, but I would love to tell her how he has a certain laugh that he uses only when he talks about her, and how her sweet potato casserole is legendary in his memory.

The holidays are upon us and what a perfect time to put our screens down, take a break from social media, and pick up a pen.  Write someone a letter, short or long, and tell them they have blessed you and why.  Tell them random facts if you know any, and tell them something about them that makes you smile and why.    Put a stamp on it and place it in a post office somewhere and know that you have mailed a precious gift to someone who will more than likely consider it a treasure.

The most priceless treasures sometimes come in the form of letters or golden ginkgo leaves that fall all in one day and make a golden carpet and make a two year old and his grandmother throw them in the air and belly laugh.

 

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