It was a war zone with walk-up or drive up illicit drug markets. The drug boys were packing and proud of it. The police were scared to drive through. One parishioner was a victim of a purse snatching and called the police, who told her often the purse snatchers stole the money and tossed the purses in dumpsters. So they took her to the dumpsters in the near vicinity. But as she got out of the car the police, who looked uncomfortable in the interior of the housing project, locked the door behind her. But it was also home to families trying to survive. We lived in a church building across the street from the government homes. We were idealists with Jesus on our side.
So we tried to lessen the pounding poverty that stood as Damocles’ sword over their heads. One of our more successful programs was the youth program, which, if you knew Rob Toney, would surprise you quite a bit. White, pale blonde, tobacco-chewing good ole boy from Tennessee. But he had the soul of a poet and a unique, laid back way that appealed to some of the kids in the government housing across the street. He also had fibromyalgia that sometimes left him with severe pain. He was also quite capable of exaggerating his truth. He struggled a lot but somehow created a safe place for the young men who would come to his drop-in center. He visited in their homes and talked to their mothers (fathers were not usually in the picture). The mothers liked his boyish ways, his idealistic youthful way of viewing the world, and saw that he cared about their children.
He was evangelical, but not in the typical sense. He would preach about Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X. The conversations were almost humorous as he, of a southern accent, spouted black power philosophy, spitting tobacco into his plastic cup, wearing his baseball cap; and the young men began to form a bond that would help them cope with lives that were unnecessarily hard and disadvantaged. He soon became somewhat of a legend in the neighborhood. There were attempted muggings until he let the muggers know he knew their mothers and was pretty sure they would not appreciate this new hobby they had picked up. But it was not always that easy; he would be mugged once by those whose mothers he did not know.
The rest of the staff were envious of the connection he was making with these young men. There was a magic or some might say grace that connected him to these men. But he and the staff always grieved at the hard circumstances that were blocking their way from fulfilling their potential. The neighborhood claimed many a youth before their time and even when they survived, it left a deep scar. Many lives of ‘the what may have been’ if the world was a fair place were lived. We prayed and raised angry hands to God, demanding fairness.
One night one of our younger homeless residents with whom we had been working, fell off the wagon. He was angry and walking through the government housing drunk and ranting and raving. The problem was he was using racial epithets that are very unwise to use in black communities. A crowd of black men had gathered around him to settle a racial score. Some of Rob’s youth knew he was one of our errant residents and ran to tell Rob of the danger he was in. Rob always had liked Dan, a homeless good ole boy ever since he had moved in with us. So Rob rushed to help him. The situation was out of control; punches were being thrown and Dan laid on the ground cussing and sharing his racial epithets with even more vigor. Rob rushed in between the men and told them to stop but it had no effect and now he was receiving pushes and punches. As far as they were concerned he was white and tonight it was not a good night to be in the hood for white boys.
It was then an act of courage and a “we shall rise occurred” moment occurred. Six to eight of his youth stepped in between the crowd and circled the two white men. This was an act that put them in danger; these were men with who, they had to live. Some were known gang members. They were just between the ages of thirteen and seventeen. Yet they, with fear and trembling, slowly marched the two white men out of the hood and across the street to the safety of our church.
This spontaneous action by these young men made me realize they would survive and if life gave them half a chance they would thrive. These many years later some have graduated from college, one is a police officer, and others are married and have left behind a life and a place to a more fair reality. Rob, for his part, lists as his profession poet and artist. No surprise there; he always had a lot of soul.
It is known as the never-ending trip. I am famous for the vacation Bataan death marches. These are marches that start at the crack of dawn and you do not stop having fun (?) until your head hits the pillow around 9pm that night. At 9pm if you are not asleep because you are not exhausted I feel as though I have failed and will double down on the next day. But this trip was different.
Every year the day after Christmas we head for a state park of the birthday girl’s choice hereafter to be referred to as Maya. This year she had chosen as part of her celebration FDR State Park next to Callaway Gardens and Warm Springs Georgia the home of FDR’s little White House. I have long been a fan of FDR. His story of overcoming polio to become one of our greatest presidents has inspired me for a long time.
We were on the road toward the park. Everything on the surface appeared to be perfect. We were half way there when problems surfaced. Maya, the birthday child, exploded into a scene straight from the Exorcist. It turns out she was not feeling well she said, as I cleaned the vomit from the back of the car. We had pulled over to a country church parking lot not looking for salvation but a place to save Maya and the car. After one more episode outside the car she revealed again she was not feeling good. I concurred as I cleaned the back of the car with some paper towels we had not brought along for an occasion such as this. I asked her if she wanted to go back home she said no and I being the eternal optimist with a vacation Bataan Death March plan sided with her that the march forward must continue. After all everyone in our family had unusually strong immune systems and seldom got sick and when we did it was mild and quick.
The trip to FDR State Park was, to begin with, a visit to the Little White House. It was here I learned how FDR wanted a place where he could work on his healing. At first he was looking for a cure for polio but even beyond that the Little White House was a place where as much as a President can, he sought peace and renewal from the rigors of the presidency. The museum was great and we all enjoyed it so much. My wife, Chris, stated as we left, she did not feel well. I jokingly told her there was no escape from tomorrow’s march.
The park was beautiful and the cabin we stayed in was built by the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC). I unloaded the car; Maya strangely went straight to bed. At the crack of dawn the next day I awoke everyone. Chris was not feeling any better; Maya was at least moving. I told them since they were not feeling well we would not do the longer hike today but the shorter hike. Chris smiled thankfully at my sensitivity.
The hike was not long but we all moved at a snail’s pace. I was disappointed but I realized that we would not be able to go to FDR’s favorite picnic spot that was at the park and over looked the valley. He would spend many a slow day looking at the scenery, enjoying the picnic, talking with his friends, and just being at the location. I would have to cram it in tomorrow’s activities. Back at the cabin Maya was beat but was a hair better, Chris collapsed and I knew I would be in charge of the evening meal. Knowing Maya was asleep and could barely move as was the case with her mother I turned to our youngest daughter, Dorothy, for help. She complained of being tired but mustered up the strength to help. I prepared supper as terrifying noises came from the bathroom. Supper was only me and Dorothy; the others visited the table but did not eat much. After supper Dorothy went straight to bed. I guess no one will be able to play the game I brought.
That night a curse visited Dorothy. Maya and Chris were down so it was left to me to nurse her. She was a small girl and I could not figure out how much liquid could come out of both her ends. Tomorrow was another day; I guess I would have to modify my plans to fit the abilities of the rest of the family.
No one came to breakfast but Maya. She was still not a hundred percent but at least seemed to be moving in the right direction. On today’s master plan was a visit to museums in the town of Columbus, thirty miles away. I suggested to Chris she could buck up and we could go. She gave me the “you are one stupid man look.” Dorothy was down for the day and she made it clear if I did not let her rest our marriage would have a sudden end with my death as the cause.
I looked at old faithful adventure girl Maya, and said we would only go to one museum and after all I needed to stop at a grocery store for more medications and other things. She reluctantly agreed. It was about half way through the exhibits that I acknowledged its presence. Or maybe you could say it reached up and slapped me in the face or more precisely punched me in the stomach as I ran for the bathroom.
When I returned I looked Maya in the eyes and said I was sick and we needed to return. I was near comatose state but she gave me the look of a woman of many years shaking her head at my folly. We trudged to the car. I realized that I was not sure if I could drive back to the cabin and Maya was not driving yet. I planned in my head go to the store, get the medication, take some of the medications, buy oranges and flood my body with vitamin C and meds. I might make it. I was so tired I could not even read a map. Maya would have to be my guide.
The only problem was the map was dated and Maya, God bless her soul, was not the ideal map-reader she has become today. Pinching myself, lowering the windows, Maya nudging me when she felt I might fall asleep began. Orange after orange was consumed as the coolness of the juices of the oranges helped momentarily relieve the high temperatures my body was feeling. Oh by the way did I say Maya was reading an outdated map and was not yet great giving instructions and reading a map. Reversal of courses and wrong roads were the schedule for the day. I learned something that day: I am a better parent when I have a fever, can barely talk or move. Not once did I explode at yet another diversion. The trip took an hour longer on the way back.
Once at the cabin I crawled to it and went straight to bed. There was no supper for me that night. The next day was when I scheduled the long hike. At eleven no one had moved from their beds. I was glued to mine. I think they ate lunch. I remember ever so slightly looking up at the ceiling and thinking what a beautiful cabin and I also remember the sunlight hitting my face and thinking what a beautiful day it must be.
The next morning we were scheduled to leave. I could not get out of bed. They trudged around and ate breakfast. Chris asked me if I wanted to eat and said I needed to get up and we needed to load the car for the trip home. I said maybe we could stay an extra day; I was not sure I could walk to the car. In what was an hour later I was still in bed. They all gathered around me and said the car was loaded, all I had to do was make it to the car and sit in it. I sincerely doubted I could make it. Somehow on my fourth attempt to rise up I did.
The long trip home began. I suggested we drive halfway because I did not know if I could sit in the car any longer. They insisted marching forward to our destination. There was a sickness in the air. Suddenly, a realization flooded my body: this was their sweet revenge for all of my vacation Bataan Death marches I had taken them on.
Somehow I survived. The trip in one way was successful. I learned from FDR that retreats are for healing the soul, not notching mileage on your walking stick. Time away was for just being, not scoring yet one more museum in your intellectual scorecard. There have not been anymore vacation Bataan Death Marches since that trip. Why I even let them sleep to 8:30 the last vacation.
The Church began in pain. It was a product of a broken home. The children had already left home but were left with the scars of the family it had left behind. Unitarian Universalists are for the most part a motley crew and this new church was a motley crew of the motley crew. It was thought they could never make it. The cast of characters was the accordion player, the conspiracy theorists, the advocate who was unhappily blind, the ex-government lawyer, the wayward Catholic, the radical black sistah, the gay engineer, the angry atheist, and I think you get the picture.
Several of them had come to me asking if I could help start something new. I was not sure if it could be done and did not know if I had the time and energy to give to a new something (as we described it at the time). Time passed and they continued to ask and I finally relented and said let’s see what might could happen.
I knew the first thing was we had to address the pain and seek to see what it was we wanted to become. I asked a friend who was a counselor and had a Clinical Pastoral Education degree and was a good soul to assist as we went forward. We chose a book to work from and to create discussion.
There was over twenty people at the first meeting. Some were curious and others were spying and there were some who wanted something. Many wanted to attack the old family to expose their hypocrisy and to recruit members from the other church. To put it short they wanted war. After heated discussions it was decided we needed to work on becoming who we were. We were not going to recruit from the other church although this might hurt our numbers and ability to do some things, focusing on them was not the way through our pain and the new something we wanted to do. Some left, others hung around.
We began to coalesce while the other church started rumors about us and me. They had not yet decided to move on. But we, slowly from the fog of the pain, realized we wanted to be. Hope moved a little closer to us. We talked of creating covenants endlessly. Some were afraid of covenants. Others thought it important. Our first discussion was taking place over a covenant and it was causing fear, anger, and confusion. We had miraculously survived up unto this point but now all the issues were coming forth. The issues stemmed from personal concerns, past experience with the other church, and general resistance to any new we might become. I was sure this was the end. I personally was not willing to fight through on issue after issue in a way that caused so much discord. Mica, the pastoral counselor, and I discussed how we could end in some healing way if that became necessary.
In what I thought might be our last meeting we began to discuss our issues. Then suddenly out of nowhere the person who had, with his antics at the other church, caused so much dissension, said what was bothering him. “I do not trust you Mike, you are one of them. You were on the Board when they voted me out of the Church and now you want us to create a ‘covenant’ which I think could be used to do the same thing again to me or someone else.” And there it was: none of us trusted each other or our ability to rise above our differences. He had every reason not to trust. A church he had been in for over thirty years, a church of which his wife was a founding member, a church he had given his inheritance to and which they had in turn used to build up their reputation in the community, had turned him out in a very perfunctory way. Needless to say his trust was not high especially of me who had indeed voted with the Board on most motions. His antics were not the way I thought he should confront them. They were in fact in my opinion while right on the position wrong in the method of protest. But as I continued I opposed the Board approaching him without love and without following process. They fell into an unloving and manipulative way of being that did not follow process. I smiled at him and said you all accuse me of loving process too much so you know I will do that and I will be as loving as I am able during the process. And you know if you look around you will find people who will keep us all in line if we veer too far from fairness and kindness. He looked at me and those gathering around us and I could tell he was evaluating me and the group. In fact everyone looked around, as if evaluating each other
Finally, he agreed to move forward because he believed in the process if it was led not by individuals but by the group. It was at that moment the air changed in the room and we knew, I think, as a group for the first time we would become something. He never liked me much and we were thorns in each others’ sides but we learned to live together and that was what counted.
It was a long time ago from what seems a different life. But once I worked for the Southern Baptist Convention. I had grown up Baptist and knew no other way to be. I felt the ‘call’ and had gone to seminary. I was theirs forever if they wanted me. But the idealism of youth and the politics of the moral majority taking hold of a faith that had nurtured me was to leave me out in the cold.
I was working as the Minister to the Homeless for a Baptist Center and as an Associate Pastor at the church in the center in Louisville, Kentucky. I lived with my wife and son in two old Sunday School rooms with a narrow hall connecting the rooms that had a stove and refrigerator that served as our kitchen. In the building with us were homeless men, seminary students, and a door that connected to a women minister and her husband’s apartment. We lived on the third floor and everyday I could hear the homeless who were waiting for the door to open so they could take showers, look through the clothes closet, escape the weather, and have coffee and donuts. On cold days they would bang on the metal door and complain about me sleeping in my warm room and not opening the door even when it was thirty minutes before the set time. I was living the dream of a young minister trying to be more like Jesus.
To some in the Baptist Church we at the center/church were saints to others; we were a nuisance. We were pious and radical and living what we were preaching. This drove some Baptist nuts. And then we did the unforgivable the church in the center: called a woman minister. Since the local association of Baptists owned the building and paid some of the salaries they wanted the church to rethink what they did. The church rethought it and liked what they did. And this began the war.
Depending on which church the monthly associational meeting was held we would be voted out of the building or receive a vote of confidence to stay in the building. The center/church that had been the darling of the convention had suddenly became the battleground for the Baptists. She was called a she-devil; I was called mentally “retarded” at the associational meetings which we by the rules of the game were not allowed to respond unless we were called on by a minister of another church. Since I was not called on to dispute the accusation that I was mentally retarded I can only imagine that in the minutes of the Association I have forever been labeled “retarded” and she likewise is probably recorded as a devil. Ever since I have sympathized with labels of our mentally challenged friends.
This war went on for around three years before they felt their big break had come. Our woman minister was taking a leave of absence for two and a half months for a once in lifetime trip to various places in Asia. The Association thought this would be a chance to put in a ‘temporary’ replacement of their choice. In the ensuing brouhaha we convinced them the current staff could handle the work in her absence without an outsider. This led to them to try another tactic: to make me the Acting Pastor and Director. We objected but they insisted it was only fair to me and was the bargaining chip to keep an outsider out of the building. As I remember it I received no temporary salary increase for this fancy title. But I knew this was not a solution that was going to work in my favor. Although it was to be my first job acting.
Her plane had not even taken off when I received a call not to be confused with my previously mentioned call to the ministry]. It was from the Director of the Association my and her boss who was also the name caller. He wanted to meet with me to talk about my Acting. My soul felt a cold chill come over it. I was to meet him at the associational headquarters. When I got there I was ushered into the plush meeting room I had never been asked to meet in before. This was not a good omen. A few minutes later the Association Director and two other men walked in. One was from the state convention and the other was from the national convention. It was a meeting of two biggies, one wannabe biggie, and little ole me.
They said that this was a brainstorming session about my future and not to be discussed outside of this room. I thought and this is the first day. They told me I was a very capable young minister whose career was in front of me and the possibilities were limitless. And here I thought I was retarded. I knew this was my wilderness temptation and I had not spent forty days praying and fasting; I was doomed. They concluded all of the praise and concern about the chapel\center and the terrible conflict a woman minster was causing this great association with the offer. Or was it an offer after all it was a brainstorming session and the way they offered it was not quite an offer. A young man like you could go places in the Convention if they found me amenable to helping them through these trying times. Why, you could find yourself in a large church and director of the Kentucky Baptist Church if I was willing to help them in this one small matter. Now I did not know these things were for sale. But I laughed inside; God in Her infinite wisdom had graced me with an offer I did not want. Head of the Kentucky Baptist Convention; were they kidding me? They had not done their homework; why if they had asked Satan he could have easily told them I could care less about that job. They had missed their target and I had kept my soul. They told me to take a few days to think these things over.
Two days later I was required to attend an associational meeting. At the meeting the Director, my boss, informed all of us gathered there that they would take a vote to oust my woman boss from her job and I would fill her place ‘temporarily’. He had been aligning enough churches to do this deed and had arranged the meeting at a church far from our supporting churches therefore we would catch them unawares. Now he had insisted I be at this meeting for no particular reason. I raised my hand and asked him why he would have this discussion in front of me (proving how “retarded” I was) because I would have to contact the churches I worked with about this vote. I could tell he was furious so I let it go at that.
After the meeting he asked to talk to me in private. He said it would be good for my future (wink, wink) to let this pass but if he heard that this private meeting had been discussed with anyone outside of those on staff, he would fire me. Great I thought; I guess I am back to retarded. I promised I would only talk to other Associational staff about this. But he had not considered that one of the Association’s staff was also a member of the chapel. She was not expected to attend this meeting and thus was not there and since it was my first meeting I was not aware of who was to be there or not. So I debriefed her about everything that happened at the meeting. I told her I regretted that there was nothing I could do about it since he had told me to keep my mouth shut or be fired. Then I said if I was going to take action which I was not, I would contact these two ministers whose numbers were…
His ambush was countered by the chapel’s ambush and they were stalemated once again. He was angry but he knew I had not talked to any of the ministers, therefore I was innocent although he smelled a rat. Of course as you may know I never pastored a large church and never became Head of the Kentucky Baptist Church. I left and lived in a commune for a year and a half. Good thing the two biggies and the wannabe biggie never offered me my own commune or I might have sold my soul that day so long ago.