Remembering Tall Tony

Tony, our neighbor, died a few weeks ago.  A longtime resident, he was known to many in our city of Beverly, Massachusetts.  He was a tall, good-looking guy with an easy laugh.  He had the gift for storytelling and telling a joke.  He loved to see people laugh.  Friends called him ‘Tall Tony’.

Tony also struggled.  His alcoholism, led to a life of living on the streets.  His disease took a toll and contributed to his death at age 59.

Unfortunately Tony’s struggle is all to familiar.  Many of us have family or friends who wrestle with an addiction… loved ones who seek escape from  underlying pain,  with drugs or drink.  Such stories are all to common

What is uncommon, is how the city I live in, responded to Tony’s life and death.  In  many cities  we walk past those who live on the streets.  They are seemingly invisible.

But not here.

In Beverly, you’ll find the ‘White Whale’, a little house that provides daily meeting space for AA and NA groups.  To honor Tony, they created a Facebook page to honor and mourn his death.  ‘Friends of Ellis Square’, a collection of neighbors who provide weekly meals and friendship to neighbors in need, organized to provide a respectful send off for their friend.

Local churches of various faiths,  provided  food, meeting space and finances to help cover the cost of the funeral.  Campbell’s a local funeral home donated their space and staff.

Pastor Valerie offers words of blessing at Tony’s committal service.

My contribution was to drive Tony’s friends in our church van to the funeral.  Following the eulogy, prayers and singing at the Funeral Home, our van took its place in a procession to the cemetery.

As we drove Billy commented: “Tony would have loved this attention. He’s getting his own parade.”  Sue remarked: “It’s nice to see Tony treated with respect.”

A homeless man dying in America is sadly an all to familiar story.  What is remarkable, is how our community offered a different response.  Tony was remembered, even honored in death, because he was known and valued in life.

I think that’s the key to our well-being as a community.  We see each other.  We know each others name.  It is hard to be indifferent or unkind as we get to know each other.  When we allow ourselves to become friends.

Nobel Peace laureate, Desmond Tutu said: ‘The moral health of a community is measured in direct proportion, to the compassion we show towards those among us who are most vulnerable.”  By such a measure, our town is making progress.

Thanks Tony, for refusing to hide in the shadows. Thanks to the neighbors, recovery community, churches who got to know Tony by name and honored him in his passing.

Rest in peace Tony.   You are missed.



Getting Ready for the Big Storm

People are fascinated by talk of a BIG STORM. The weather professionals heighten our anticipation giving us a step by step breakdown of the storms impending arrival. We rush to the store for milk, bread and batteries.

Those of us with miles on our odometer hearken back to the ‘Great New England Blizzard of 1978’.   The ‘Blizzards of 2015’ which dumped nine feet of snow on our coastal town remain a vivid memory.

Blizzard of 1978

Storms have a way of bringing people together. In many ways it brings out the best in us. We check in on our neighbors, help out strangers.

Storms also highlight the precariousness of neighbors living on the streets.  I’ve been thinking about two friends in particular, Earl and Lyle (not their real names).  Earl is an alcoholic active in his addiction.  Lyle wrestles with mental illness and  self medicates with alcohol and drugs.

Earl and Lyle come to the church I serve for a hot meal, use the rest room or warm up in the hallway.  We’ve gotten to know one another.  I’ve learned about their past, their struggles, their hopes for the future.  I’ve come to see them as brothers, each of us doing our best to get by.

Tonight as I often do, I worry for their safety.  We have a limited emergency shelter system here on the North Shore.   Most shelters are ‘dry’, which means they won’t accept a person like Earl or Lyle if drunk or high.  The one ‘wet’ shelter for the most fragile of the fragile is full.

On this eve of the storm I’ll offer a prayer for my homeless sisters and brothers.  I’ll offer a prayer for city workers who plow our streets and first responders who do their best to keep us safe.  A prayer too for those who staff our shelters.

Tonight weather experts tell us the BIG STORM will come.  In the days following the temperature is forecast to plummet down to the single digits.

My hope is that we will take good care of each other.   My hope too is that we will recommit ourselves to strengthening our fragile social service safety net.  It will require an ongoing commitment and collaboration of faith communities, non-profits and government.

This storm will pass.  The need to take care of each other continues.

Foolish Wisdom

I serve a church in the downtown section of a small city.  City leaders are working hard to spiff up the downtown.  A retro theater from the 1930’s has been refurbished, restaurants are opening and artists are moving in.

In short the community is being rediscovered as a place to live and relax.  Just a few blocks from the ocean we are attractive to tourists.  We are fostering community development that is sustainable, that attracts a critical mass of people who will spend money.

In the midst of this carefully crafted image is a neighbor I’ll call Bryce.   He’s a character that defies expectations.  Bryce is a street person who lives in alleys, in the woods and occasionally on a friends couch.  His belongings are kept in a shopping cart.  This in itself isn’t unusual.  Cities large and small have neighbors who struggle due to economics or mental health issues or addiction or a combination.  Such neighbors are familiar.  Easy to look and walk past.

Homeless neighbor

But Bryce is different. He refuses to blend into the background.  Bryce wrestles with a variety of mental health issues.  On occasion his behavior is belligerent.  But those times are the exception.

What makes Bryce stand out is his love of beauty. With an inability to differentiate boundaries he is apt to commandeer a flat of flowers and plant them  in front of the Fire Station.

It’s not uncommon to see mini parks emerge at traffic roundabouts  festooned with American flags, trinkets, tinsel and flowers.   All Bryce’s work.

Where he gets his treasurers is anyone’s guess.  A police officer with a smile told me of Bryce walking into the station with freshly baked cookies.  He offered the cookies with words of thanks to the officers for treating him with such kindness.  Later it was discovered that the cookies had been taken from a local bakery when a worker had turned his back.

This is Bryce.  A neighbor who functions on a different frequency. A neighbor who often amuses and confounds those he crosses paths with.  It’s hard to be too angry with such a person.  But not impossible.  One lady I met was furious at the mess he made by throwing bread to the birds in the local park.

Some consider Bryce to be a fool.  People avoid him or make fun of him.  Yet fools have a purpose. The fool serves as a mirror to our own character, the person we strive to be.

Jesus often took on the role of the fool, the poor, oppressed, unlovely, unlovable.  He said: ‘Whoever shows compassion and kindness to one such as these, shows kindness to  me.  For these fools, these broken ones, these deemed untouchable…these are my family.’ (paraphrase of Matthew 25: 31-46).

Bryce is a gift.  A frustrating gift on occasion but a gift nonetheless. He invites us to bring beauty into places we wouldn’t think of.  He invites us to question our own carefully constructed boundaries.  He offers us the choice to include or exclude.

Bryce in his irrepressible way says: ‘I belong.  I too have a place in this community’.

Bryce knows my name.  He always greets me with a smile.  And sometimes with a warm cookie or fresh flowers…which have come from God knows where.