Sunday, June 03, 2007

Loretta Goes to Church

And if more people who claimed to be Christian's acted more like the folks at Church of the Reconciler on 1st Ave. N. and 14th Street in downtown Birmingham, then you just might find me on the front bench every Sunday morning. Not because I believe in invisible gods and devils or after-life or any of the other weird death-cult, anti-human stuff that most Christian's I know espouse....but because what goes on at Church of the Reconciler is EXACTLY what Jesus Christ taught and, while I am a devout Atheist I am also a fan of the teachings of the man called Jesus. A weird conflict I know...but hey, I am a weird gal....what can I say?

I know most of you have never been to Church of the Reconciler and I am honored to be the one who gets to paint the picture of what I consider truly a 'Holy Place' for you.

In the heart of what is one of the scariest and most dangerous parts of downtown Birmingham, AL stands an old warehouse that has been converted into a church. This church is called 'Church of the Reconciler' and caters to homeless people, gay people, lesbian people, transvestite/transgendered people, prostitutes, people addicted to hard drugs and alcohol and anyone and everyone else that most 'Christian's' I know condemned to the firey pit long, long, ago.

It is run by what must be a 'Saint'-ly gentleman named Reverend Lawton Higgs under a principal that he calls 'Radical Hospitality'. And it is indeed RADICAL, since they invited Senator Jeff Sessions into their sanctified place. I will freely admit that I would not be able to extend such an invitation to Sen. Sessions myself. I am simply not that good of a person. I might invite him to the dunking tank at a Halloween Carnival or something equivalent, but not a holy place. In fact, when it was rumored that Sessions was going to be at the meeting I tried to persuade my good friend Ralph Hendrix to walk behind Sessions, wet his thumb and bird finger really good and 'THWACK' Sessions on one of his 'Dumbo' ears. I mean really ring his fucking bell. Make it go '''''GOOOOOOOOOOONG'''''' and stay red for the entire five hours of this event. I bet Sessions was tortured with such things in school as a child. You can't have ears like that and have people not fuck with you. It just isn't possible. I think Ralph might have even considered it....but Sessions couldn't be bothered to show up and speak with us peasants....so he never got the chance. What a damn shame!

I had invited all of the people I know and my friend Dawn was the only one able to attend with me. She and I met in my hotel room prior to the event. My coffee pot was not working (it was horrendous to wake up with no coffee...Zzzzzz...huh?) so Dawn and I went down to the coffee shop located in the Atrium of the Sheraton to gas up. How many of my readers find it hard to function without coffee? I really find it difficult to function without it. Talk about drugs.....

We arrived at the Church of the Reconciler around 9 a.m. As we were exiting the car and preparing to walk around the corner to enter the church a mentally unstable homeless man walked by hollering some crazy stuff. We sat in the car for a few more minutes until I felt it was safe to get out and travel the 30 or so feet to the front door of the church. As soon as we exited the safety of the car the homeless man could be heard nearby threatening to kick ass and kill people. We walked faster.

Once inside we felt safe. There was food and beverage to be had in fellowship hall of the church and all kinds of interesting folks around to talk to and look at. This place was voyer heaven. I can almost guarantee that if any of the regulars showed up at an uptown church on any given Sunday the police would be called. What a shame.

As I sat talking to Dawn and waiting for the festivities to begin my phone rang. It was my husband calling. "Hey hon...did I leave my beer in the backseat of the car?" I found that question to be absolutely hilarious, because I was in church, and I cracked up. Dawn looked at me and I told her what my husband had asked me. I then told my husband that I didn't think he had left his beer in the backseat but, that if he had, it would likely not be there when I got back. Dawn added that I'd also likely "be short a winder too." That made me laugh harder. However, our predictions as to the fate of my husbands beer turned out to be entirely wrong. It was in the back floorboard and no one tried to steal it. I wish now that I had sat it on the street for the locals. I am sure they could have used one or two.

Pretty soon the activities for the day began. Barry Hargrove, Field Organizer for the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, and also a Baptist preacher, began with a short summary of what trying to get the 100:1 sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine is all about. Then Deborah Vagins, Policy Council for Civil Rights, ACLU Washington Legislative Office gave a PowerPoint presentation. Representative Joseph Mitchell from Mobile spoke for a few minutes.


Next up was Reverend Kenny Glasgow, a very close friend of mine who heads up an organinzation called T.O.P.S. which stands for The Ordinary People Society.

Kenny runs a ministry in Dothan that caters to homeless people and helps former inmates transition back into society when released. Kenny is a victim of this country's crack cocaine laws. He served 10 years of a life sentence for crack cocaine and now works on drug policy and prison reform issues in Alabama. He has a big hand in all of the new sentencing guidelines that were passed last year as well as a ton of legislation addressing probation and parole. Kenny is one hell of a preacher too, and I always feel moved and motivated after a sermon from Brother Glasgow.

Next up was Ralph Hendrix.

Ralph is one of the big dogs at TASC in Birmingham and works hard on drug policy and prison reform with me and with many other groups across Alabama. If there is anyone on this earth that is more like Jesus in their actions I have yet to meet them. I'll tell you a story about Ralph a little further along in this post and you'll see what I am talking about.

Congressman Artur Davis did make it to the event around noon.

And I hate to be a negative ninny, but I was way less than impressed with what he had to say....which wasn't much. He talked about his days as a federal prosecutor, his participation in raids on people's homes and his belief that prosecution of even the smallest user is necessary because drugs destroy families and he wants to keep families together...blah...blah....blah. I think he may have forgotten where he was.

After he was done there was a Q&A and I was the first one with my hand in the air. I stated my name and asked him why he supported the continuation of the drug war which has failed and how ripping parents away from children and caging them in government cages promotes keeping families together? I also asked whether he thought the issue of drug use and addiction would be better handled as a health and social issue?

He got on his bicycle and rode it round and round the room for a few minutes, stated he knew where I was coming from and that what we really need is to determine why people use drugs in the first place. While I agree with that statement it wasn't an answer to my question and, if I had been given the opportunity, I would have pointed out that kids whose mom's and dad's are in prison for drugs are much more likely to become inmates later on in life for the same things. In essence the government is creating future drug addicts and inmates when they rip apart a family over a little personal drug use.

The next person who asked a question was a man named Mr. Smith. Mr. Smith had obviously had a very hard life and a recent problem with the police. He didn't have his teeth in and it was slightly hard to understand him...but I was able to make it out. He said something along the lines of he was arrested for refusing to sell ten feet of his land to the city for $250 and he asked Congressman Davis if he thought that was an injustice. Davis danced. Mr. Smith asked again if he thought it was an injustice and Congressman Davis became short with him. It was very disrespectful. Seemed like Congressman Davis was annoyed that such a poor person in his district had the audacity to ask him a question. I thought it was a great thing to see Mr. Smith, the lowest among us on the totem pole, be able to address his Congressman. I know he felt empowered by it and I was very proud of him for trying to force Congressman Davis to answer his question.

The meeting wound down after this point and we all began to disperse. My friend and boss Gabriel from DPA went outside to his car and Mr. Smith, who was very indignant about the way he had been treated (and rightfully so) stopped Gabriel in the street and tried to tell him his story. He thought Gabriel was a lawyer with the ACLU and he really wanted someone who could help him to listen to him. That was all he wanted. Gabriel, being part of the days activities, tried to explain that he was not an attorney and that he was in a rush and Mr. Smith got more agitated. Then, Ralph Hendrix walks up on the scene and begins talking to Mr. Smith in a very calm way, listening to his story like another human being who cared and had compassion for his fellow man. Mr. Smith immediately calmed down. Ralph pulled out a business card and wrote his cell phone number on it and told Mr. Smith to call him...and he meant really call him and he would see what he could do to help. That was all it took and I can't help but wonder if this wasn't maybe the very first time in Mr. Smith's life that someone had shown him some concern, compassion and brotherly love.

That is what I meant when I said Ralph is like Jesus. Congressman Davis couldn't be bothered to hear this poor man out, Gabriel, being from New York and not really having any legal knowledge of property rights in Alabama, couldn't help him and this guy must have felt like no single person on earth cared about him and his problem. Then along comes Ralph, who has the most calming demeanor about him and it is contagious, listens to the guy when he really didn't have time either, gives him his personal cell number and tells him to please call. It was a beautiful thing. Ralph has worked with Church of the Reconciler and Rev. Higgs for some years now and has a lot of experience with homeless people and people who have serious mental illness along with people addicted to hard drugs. He is one hell of a guy and I consider myself very lucky to know him and have him in my life and my work. I want to follow in his footsteps with my career...and his shoes will be huge ones to fill.

In closing I'd have to say that I really didn't hear anything from the one person with some power in the room that led me to believe anything will change soon with the sentencing disparities, but, I was very humbled by being in Church of the Reconciler and seeing people who call themselves Christian's actually act like Christian's. That is a rare occurance indeed. I'd like to recommend to all of my Alabama readers that if you are ever in Birmingham on a Sunday and feel like some church then head down to the Church of the Reconciler to see love for your fellow human being in action. You can wear whatever you want...no dresses or suits required, you can see people struggling to make change in their lives and those who are decent enough to help them regardless of their past or present circumstances and causes thereof, you can feel goodness, peace and grace all around you...and most importantly....they converted those horrible church benches made for pennence into benches with theatre style seating. You should leave a nice tithe in the plate for that alone.

2 comments:

Tom K said...

Loretta,

Another great post. Ralph sounds like a true inspiration. Keep up the good work.

Tom from Mobile

Christie said...

You couldn't be more correct about Ralph...especially after New Orleans. I get a sense of magic when he is present. He is superb in my book.