What kind of persons do you work with? What are their basic needs?
Brother Bryan Mission serves the economically, emotionally and spiritually impoverished men of the Birmingham area. Men come to us from all walks of life and professional backgrounds. The presenting problem that brings many to our doorstep are the ravages of addictive behavior. However, addiction is not a prerequisite and others come looking for hope while dealing with legal problems, mental health issues or a lifestyle that has been destructive in nature. We provide long-term Christian discipleship and drug and alcohol recovery programs to address the root causes of homelessness. As such, the programs target educational deficiencies, physical needs, referrals for psychological care, spiritual counsel and formation, and vocational readiness.
In what ways have your assumptions about the plight of humanity and what it means to be human been challenged through this work?
One of my assumptions before beginning this work was that those who were homeless and/or addicted were lazy and unwilling to change. I have come to understand that there is an incredibly high instance of co-occurring disorders of those who are mired in addiction, chronic homelessness and mental illness. In addition, we have done in-house surveys and find that the overwhelming majority of our men have suffered emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse. Considering all of the challenges that plague many in our community, it is no surprise that some have turned to unhealthy methods to medicate their pain. Serving here has provided a battering ram to many of the areas of my personal pride. It has given me a much deeper compassion for those who suffer and think differently than I do. It has also awakened me to the reality of Christ’s heart for the poor and the outcast.
In what way has your work informed your thinking about what it means to respect another person’s humanity?
Loving others is considerably more difficult than I would have anticipated. I once heard a minister at a rescue mission say, “If you don’t like the smell of sheep, you should have never aspired to be a shepherd.” The words had a particular bite to them because I was struggling with how difficult it was to act in ways that were compassionate day after day with characters who could be challenging. What I found is that my vision for love and service did not match up with reality. It was Dostoevsky that noted in Brothers Karamazov, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” The love in dream form that I would have carried into ministry would not have included cleaning human waste from bathroom stall floors. Love in dreams certainly did not include drug screens, resuscitation efforts from overdose, more tears from disappointments than could be numbered or countless other “surprises” that the Lord would unpack. Love in action means that we don’t reserve the right to put parameters around what love should look like. We have the opportunity to learn the humility of our Savior and serve even those who will act out in ways that may make life difficult for us.
Are there broader applications that go beyond the demographic or the group, the kind of person you work with that help you think more generally about being human in our day and age?
Our executive director, Jim Etheredge, once stated “men don’t become homeless because they run out of money, men become homeless because they run out of relationships.” There certainly is a dearth of healthy relationships in the lives of the broken men we serve. Yet these men are not alone in their struggle to find intimacy and acceptance. I find it ironic that in our current context in which humanity has never been so connected through the medium of social media and yet many have never felt so isolated from their respective communities. There is a dissonance of our online avatars and personas from the person underneath the plastic images. This isolation can lead many who have crossed the threshold of Brother Bryan Mission to act out in substance use and criminality. Yet, isolation is a bane on the soul that can lead us all to make different, albeit, destructive decisions.
The Scriptures teach us that we were created to be rightly related to God and rightly related to one another. This universal human need of the soul transcends those who find themselves homeless and/or addicted and touches us all. Serving at Brother Bryan provides a unique setting for ministry and yet the needs of our men are not fundamentally different from everyone else. The ways in which we cope with these needs may vary, and yet the remedy for each method is constant. It is into that context of the darkness of isolation that we have the privilege of pointing people to the Light of the world.