Stories to Tell – First Months at Embrace (Part I)
It is difficult to know which stories I ought to share here. Though it has only been a couple months since I started at Embrace Church, and my work has largely been behind the scenes, there are many stories to tell. I would like to briefly (someone once told me brevity is a virtue, though I am not sure I agree) recount three encounters that are still weighing on my mind and shaping who I am.
1) Josh, the pastor in charge of The Gathering service was taking a much-needed vacation, so I was responsible for preparing and leading the service. Along with the worship service we offer a free meal to hungry folks in the community and pass out bags of non-perishable food (and occasionally fresh veggies when they are available), so I spent the day leading a small group of volunteers and interns packing the food bags, stocking the food pantry shelves, and buying the food for the kitchen staff (also a group of volunteers) so they could prepare dinner. By the time service started I was exhausted, but I had a priceless moment with a lady that energized my spirit.
Ms. “D” came up during our prayer time at the end of the service to ask me to pray for some family matters. I held her hand and put my other hand on her shoulder as we prayed. When I looked up after the prayer I noticed she was tearing up a bit. She said, “You see how you were touching me? No white man would ever do that. White people are usually afraid of me.” See, back in 1991 Ms. “D’s” face was burned with acid when she was attacked in what seems to have been (at least partially) a racially motivated attack. Since then she has had a number of surgeries and her face is permanently disfigured. I stood there sort of stunned not knowing what to say. I just continued to hold her hand and look her in the eye in hopes that my gaze would reassure her that I was not only not afraid, but I was honored that she would share that moment with me.
2) One of the prayer leaders at Embrace is brother Lawrence. Lawrence recently had a stroke so one of the other pastors, LeTicia, and I went to pick him up to take him to the hospital. We helped him out to the car and drove him to the emergency room then waited with him until he began to get treatment, in part because he has no insurance and the hospital had already discharged him twice in the previous few days, so we wanted to make sure he was actually cared for this time. Lawrence was transferred to a rehab hospital within a couple days. While at the rehab hospital a number of people from Embrace visited him, and other guests began asking why he had so many visitors. Lawrence told them that all these visitors were his family members.
This witness began to spread through the rehab facility. One day while Josh and I were visiting Lawrence around dinner time we sat with him in the cafeteria to chat for a bit. Soon the conversation turned towards prayer. We prayed for Lawrence, then he asked that we pray for everyone else in the place. The thing is, with Lawrence he didn’t mean sort of generically pray for folks, he meant he wanted us to go to every table and ask people if we could pray with them. How could Josh and I say no to this man who was recovering from a stroke? So, Lawrence began telling everyone we were his pastors while we began to ask folks if they wanted prayer. By the time we were ready to leave we had prayed individually with every person eating in the dining room that evening, including a lady who was about to be released the next day. This lady was scared because going home meant not having round the clock care. As we prayed with her her eyes welled up with tears and she seemed filled with a renewed strength and the courage to return to her home. I am thankful for a brother who has the audacity to push me into situations like that because it proved to be one of the most blessed experiences I have had in recent memory.
3) Not all of the stories I have to share are uplifting. Many of them are downright tragic. I often find myself heartbroken and feeling hopeless as I learn to trust in the God who brings life out of death. One of these stories that is fresh on my mind is about failure, my failure and the failures of our society. One morning at our Downtown worship gathering a man showed up who was released from prison just that morning. Mr. “C” had back and leg problems so he literally hobbled in to the Kentucky Theater to join us in worship and to seek help. I prayed with him then he asked if we could possibly get a cane for him since he was having trouble walking. I took Mr. “C” to a drugstore where he picked out a suitable cane. Then we began talking about where I would take him next. Mr.”C” was in prison because of an altercation he had with his roommate, so once he was released he had no place to go. He told me that he had a bad experience at one of the homeless shelters so he didn’t want to go there.
I have learned about many of the resources available to homeless people in Lexington, but I am still trying to figure out the idiosyncrasies of each agency, church and organization. They often have odd hours, particular eligibility requirements, and limited space. I took Mr. “C” to another one of the shelters only to find out that they did not allow people on the premises until later in the evening. We left there to go to the new day center in hopes that it would be a safe place for him to spend a few hours before the shelter opened. Unfortunately the center is closed on Sundays. Now here is the part where my excuses start. I lived in a different town and I had other things to attend to that afternoon, so after an hour trying to find Mr. “C” a place to stay I was ready to drop him off somewhere and move on to my other responsibilities. I still regret my attitude and decision. I ended up leaving Mr.”C” at the day center property. He said he would stay there until the shelter opened.
I saw Mr.”C” again a few weeks later and his face was covered in bruises. I asked what happened and he told me that soon after I dropped him off he was attacked by a group of guys for his pain medication. They beat the mess out of him. He spent several days in the hospital recovering before he ended up at the very shelter where he did not want to go in the first place. Mr.”C” doesn’t blame me, but I can’t help but know that I could have done more. I also can’t help but think about the ways in which our society, including the church, has failed. When people think it is ok to attack a handicapped man to steal his medication we really need to revisit some things. When there is no decent place for someone to go after they have served their time in prison we really need to revisit some things. When the church community is so scattered that we have no network to help the most vulnerable and marginalized people we really need to revisit some things.
I imagine that some readers may be wondering why I would end this post with a negative story. The reality is that though we have seen numerous people profess faith in Christ, be freed from addiction, and have their lives transformed there are far more cases when it doesn’t turn out the way we had hoped. For every story of triumph there seems to be a dozen stories of tragedy. That is the nature of ministry, especially the ministry in which I have found myself. If I only told the miracle stories or the stories that made folks feel all good inside, that would be dishonest. It is my job to plant and water. I trust that God will bring growth. Some hearts will be receptive to God’s work in their lives, others will not, but I will continue to be faithful to the calling I have received. Come Lord Jesus!
If you feel so compelled, please support my ministry as I continue to try to be faithful in this ministry to the marginalized people of Lexington. Thank you!