The Story of Daniel Brown

 

Daniel didn’t have a phone number, but he at least wanted to exchange contact information, so he gave me this slip of paper with his name.

As we turned east down the access road a fresh spring breeze rushed through our partially rolled-down windows and the morning sun radiated warmly through the windshield. In the passenger seat, Daniel Brown thumped a cigarette and reached down into his cloth backpack for an already opened silver aluminium can of Always Save citrus drink. He turned it up for a long, satisfying swallow.

“Pretty good deal for thirty-seven cents,” he looked at me with a smile. “Found forty cents on the sidewalk back at the grocery store and thought I’d treat myself to drink. Sure is good.”

The twenty minutes we spent together seemed oddly ordained. Sometimes we believe we’re doing someone a favor. Then the blessing gets pointed at you.

***

Earlier that morning and as part of the daily routine I’d scratched out a rough to-do list. But today’s list focused on chores that would take advantage of the welcome sunshine and hope for the end of a winter season that seemed it might never end. There were garden seed to buy, a bit of hardware for hammock hanging, and just a day earlier I’d seen mini-palm trees on sale at Harp’s Grocery Store for $9.99. The palm tree sale happens every year and is a heck of a deal. They are always a centerpiece for summer landscaping around our backyard pool.

Loading the trees into the back of my old El Camino a man came up from behind with a question.

“Sir, you’re not by chance headed over toward the Social Security Office are you?” he asked. 

“No, actually I’m headed directly in the opposite direction. I’m sorry,” I replied, thankful for a quick excuse. 

“That’s okay. Have a nice day, sir.”

Reaching for another palm from the shipping pallet, I watched as the man walked back toward the store, sat on a bench, and put a backpack in his lap. He seemed perfectly at peace.

Then as if on cue, a vivid picture of guilty contrasts raced through my mind.

Here’s a man on a bike, obviously in need. He can’t have much money, and he needs a hand. It’s perilous riding a bike in this town, and the Social Security Office is a good five miles away.

I’m buying palm trees to landscape a luxury swimming pool, driving one of three cars I own and bought at auction two months ago because I thought it would be cool having a car named El Camino, and I have all the time in the world.

I looked toward him again and saw the same manner in his eyes. Peace.

About that time, that voice you sometimes hear telling you exactly what you should do rather than what you’re about to do made itself perfectly clear. I growled under my breath a second, and surrendered. 

“Mr., if you don’t mind going in the other direction while I drop these at my house, I can run an errand toward the Social Security Office and we can get you there,” I said.

“I sure appreciate that. Can I put my bike in the back of your car there?”

“Sure.”

The next ten minutes transcended every expectation offering up another test so clear it’s embarrassing acknowledging it was a choice.

***

As we drove toward home Daniel Brown strapped on his seat belt and introduced himself with a hand shake. They were hands from many years of manual labor.

“This is mighty nice of you, mister. I rode here from Paragould and am having a time getting my disability payments started. The people in this town aren’t too friendly toward bikers.”

Daniel complimented my old car and asked a few questions about my occupation and plans for the day. For small talk, Daniel made it all sound down right genuine. He saw a copy of my book, Pilgrim Strong, in the seat, flipped through it a moment and asked what it meant to be on pilgrimage, and I gave him the elevator pitch just about any author gives when someone asks about their book. Briefly, I told him about experiencing depression and some things I do to fight that tendency. Shifting the topic I asked Daniel what kind of disability brought on his hardship.

“They’re mostly mental issues,” he said. “I have a lot of anxiety and can’t make decisions very well, spent some time in prison and it’s hard getting a second chance in the world after something like that. Had ADD as a kid, but back then nobody knew anything about that and all daddy knew to do was whip my ass. It really wasn’t his fault, you know.” 

Daniel said he lived at the Salvation Army and didn’t have a lot of connection to the outside world. “They’re pretty nice to us down there, though.”

Where do I take this from here, and what do I do now? The voice returned.

***

Taking someone by the hand, looking them in the eye, and asking if I might pray for them right then and there in a public place has never been my go-to approach for helping people. I admire those who do it, and see it as a real gift. Maybe it’s a modest Methodist raising, shyness, or the fear that comes with spiritual rejection, but it’s always been easier fixing these moments giving money, sharing some food, or just taking someone somewhere as I was now doing with Daniel. But for the next several minutes and with our destination approaching fast the voice was clear.

You need to pray for this man.

As we reached the Social Security Office I told Daniel about a program called Celebrate Recovery. Our church operates a strong chapter for people who have experienced all kinds of peaks and valleys in life, and I told him I’d take him there soon. He enthusiastically agreed and we exchanged contacts.

Through the window Daniel reached for a final handshake and I asked him if we might pray a moment. 

“You would do that for me?” he asked.

“Yes, sir.”

We held hands and I thanked God for the way He brings people together. I thanked Him for the knowledge that what he sees most is our hearts, not our good intentions, our hang-ups, not even our failures or the times when we know what’s right, but do what’s wrong, anyway. And together we thanked him that even through Daniel’s time in the wilderness, God is making a path for him and that He’s about to do a new thing in Daniel’s life. He is making a way.

Daniel wiped a tear and said, “I sure am glad we met. I’m going to have a good day now and feel so much better already. Let’s go to that Celebrate Recovery.”

And that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

I thought I was helping Daniel. Turns out he poured grace and blessing on me.

Yo so el camino, y la verdad, y la vida. – Jesus

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Hamtramck, Michigan – This is America.

Gracious hosts on holiday are allowing me the warm convenience of their home in Hamtramck, Michigan for our Detroit swing of the Pilgrim Strong book tour. This community is lovely, fascinating, and, in so many ways, shows our country at its best. A few quick facts from Wikipedia, and some photos from a morning walk:

  • Known in the 20th century as a vibrant center of Polish American life and culture, Hamtramck has continued to attract immigrants, especially Bangladeshis. In 2015 its city council became the first majority Muslim city council in the U.S.

Typical frontage on main street.

  • Hamtramck is named for the French-Canadian soldier Jean François Hamtramck who was the first American commander of Fort Shelby, the fortification at Detroit. It was originally known as Hamtramck Township.
  • Hamtramck was originally settled by German farmers, but Polish immigrants flooded into the area when the Dodge Brothersplant opened in 1914. Poles used to make up a large proportion of the population. It is sometimes confused with Poletown, a traditional Polish neighborhood, which used to lie mostly in the city of Detroit and includes a small part of Hamtramck. As of the 2010 American Community Survey, 14.5% of Hamtramck’s population is of Polish origin; in 1970, it was 90% Polish. Over the past thirty years, a large number of immigrants from the Middle East (especially Yemen), South Asia (especially Bangladesh), and Southeastern Europe (especially Bosnia and Herzegovina) have moved to the city. As of the 2010 American Community Survey, the city’s foreign born population stood at 41.1%, making it Michigan’s most internationally diverse city.

Typical Hamtramck neighborhood. Seems peaceful with lots of co-existence.

  • A recent survey found 26 native languages spoken by Hamtramck schoolchildren.
  • In 1997, the Utne Reader named Hamtramck one of “the 15 hippest neighborhoods in the U.S. and Canada” in part for its punk and alternative music scene, its Buddhist temple, its cultural diversity, and its laid back blue-collar neighborhoods.

Yard sign indicative of this community’s spirit. May I say, “Amen?”

Beef Gallaba from a Yemeni restaurant. Oh, so good.

After lunch, the kitchen chef brought me a cup of tea. I don’t know what’s in this stuff, but it’s easily the most fantastic cup of tea I’ve ever enjoyed. Nothing close.

Burek. Bought this for supper tonight. Basically a meat pie that originates somewhere along the Balkan peninsula. This one is stuffed with meat and cheese. How can you go wrong?

Finally, I noticed this on my host’s bookshelf and thought I should take a photo. Likely to never see my name next to HDT again. HAHA!

Pilgrim Strong Book Party in Nashville

Thanks to pilgrim friends Hal Humphreys and Kim Green for all the gracious hospitality at their home last weekend as we kicked off the Pilgrim Strong Book Tour. Thanks also to REI CO-OP for hosting our Getting Pilgrim Strong on the Camino de Santiago class. We’ll end our book tour right back where we started in Nashville this November. Until then, onward!

A few photos from Hal and Kim’s.

 

With Hal. True pilgrim. Fantastic chef!

Spanish cuisine so authentic we thought were in Navarra!

On the ride from Jonesboro to Nashville. Of course she takes a great photo of her. Meanwhile, I chew on jerky with a large, blurred head.

I love this photo. Just makes me feel good.

I get so much credit, but no will will ever know how much a part of this Dana has been. This is a “we” project, as is pretty much everything we do.

Ten Things I Think I Was Wrong About

  • Time alone  – Up to around age 40 I never wished to be alone. Always needed people around. I think it was part of the only-child upbringing. But since then, not only have I grown comfortable with alone time, there are seasons when it’s completely necessary. Time alone makes us better for all those around us and it reacquaints us with who we are and what we’re here for.

 

  • George W. Bush – He came during  a time when I viewed things from an Us vs. Them perspective. It’s a part of actually growing up, I think. We must always have a battle. Bush wasn’t the most intellectual president by a long stretch, but after the fact, he strikes me a decent man, flawed, imperfect, yet with a good heart. He made mistakes, but Bush had core beliefs. I think we long for leadership with core beliefs today.

 

  • Christianity – When a radio personality asked author Donald Miller to defend Christianity, he simply said no. “Stop ten people on the street and ask them what they think of when they hear the word Christianity, and they will give you ten different answers. How can I defend a term that means ten different things to ten different people?  Some of these ten will have had terrible experiences with Christianity. They may have been yelled at by a teacher in a Christian school, abused by a minister, or browbeaten by a Christian parent. To them, Christianity means something that I will not defend.” For the most part, Christianity is a contrived, evolving label. Some friends will call me a heretic at the very thought. But it’s true. I’m learning that I need not be the defender of Christianity. Jesus didn’t found Christianity. He founded the gospel because he IS the gospel and he IS the truth. The Christian label’s subversion is a big part of a modern-day problem. I’m no longer sure I need to be a Christian. I’d rather follow Jesus.

 

  • Rev. Billy Graham – It wasn’t uncommon for ABC to air Billy Graham’s massive revival events on prime time television during my youth.  My, how times have changed for ABC. Memory recalls they were generally aired live Tuesday nights at 7 p.m. and would interrupt Happy Days or Laverne & Shirley. I was just a kid. I never liked that Billy Graham took my TV time, plus his language sounded so harsh to a kid raised in a small-town Methodist Church. I grew to love Billy Graham over the years. What an extraordinary man and a life well lived.

 

  • Coffee — didn’t drink it for some forty-seven years. Now part of my daily routine.

 

  • Depression – I once believed it was a made-up excuse for the weak. People who’ve never had depression can’t understand it. Following my own experience, sharing it, and hearing from others who have also been there, I’d rank it as one of our top ten national epidemics. If you’re sitting in a room with a hundred people, 20-25 have experienced, or will experience, depression.

 

  • Being part of the least – As a kid I dreamed of becoming successful in business, owning a jet, and flying here and there to business meetings. I wanted to be somebody. Over time, as I’ve come to a greater understanding of the gospel, and honestly what fulfills me most, it is serving others. Maybe it’s cooking a big meal or helping people in time of need, or just making someone more comfortable. The great paradox of the gospel message is that the least become the opposite of how they are perceived. Greg Murtha’s Out of the Blue is a great read on this topic.

 

  • “Bird watchers” always seemed so uncool. So of course, over the years, I’ve now become an amateur birder. Birding is actually pretty cool and I’m hopeful that one year before I’m gone I can dedicate 365 days to a Big Year.

 

  • That when it comes to doors, you should always pray God will open them – This may sound weird, but over time, I’ve prayed much more frequently that God would close doors. I’m fond of the Jabez prayer that says “expand my territory,” but I also believe in prayers for closed doors.

 

  • That journalism was something I did as a fall back because writing was the only gift I had. I now realize that writing was always my calling and that the privilege of putting words before people’s eyes is a responsibility not to be taken lightly.

-30-

 

 

Highbanks Road – The Introduction

“I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have. I must stand with anybody who stands right, and stand with him while he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong.” ~Abraham Lincoln

 

We called him the most trusted man in America. It seems so very long ago.

But each evening for two decades an expectant public kept a collective appointment with Walter Cronkite as he delivered the nightly news to a nation desperately searching its own identity in an era that shaped us, arguably as no other.
The experts said Cronkite’s stellar reputation evolved from a strong work ethic, impeccable timing, and unique brand of heartland cadence. Beyond tone and timing he also wisely knew when the moment called for silence. His wife once told Parade magazine she thought he simply came across like the family dentist.

Shortly after the new year in 1962 Cronkite gave a legendary account as astronaut John Glenn made three orbits around earth pioneering a decade of space exploration. A year later he struggled holding back tears delivering the news of President John Kennedy’s assassination. On April 4, 1968, you could sense the broadcast veteran’s suppressed anxiety reporting Martin Luther King’s murder in Memphis. He would wring his hands and rejoice as Neil Armstrong made his way slowly down the lunar module ladder planting man’s first footsteps on the moon. His words: “By golly, I’m speechless.”

After thousands of young lives were lost for an unknown cause Cronkite told us the Vietnam War would not be won. He reported that our president betrayed the sacred oath of office.

Even today a quick search for “most trusted man” will produce Walter Cronkite’s photo at the top of the list.

Fast forward almost fifty years. The polar realities are staggering.

Public officials elected to the government’s highest levels use strategies once unimagined to drive conflict, division, and misunderstanding. Incredulous conspiracy theories now originate at the top. We speak of alternative facts, the non-existence of facts, and are told we’re not seeing what our eyes just witnessed, or perceiving what our ears just heard. It didn’t happen. It was fake, phony, and a fraud. And by the way, your microwave may be watching you.

There’s a harsh reality about fake news that we don’t much discuss. Falsity is not promoted and cannot be widely disbursed in a vacuum. The high-octane fuel for today’s fake news is a population willing to accept any and all information supporting its current viewpoint regardless of the narrow a source from which that viewpoint developed. Fake news originators just light the match. It’s the virtually brainwashed cheerleaders who breathe contagious life into the fire.

In the present day we so vehemently wish for truth in certain circumstances that we instinctively ignore the contrary facts and declare them true. This is especially true with our labeled identities that for some reason have become all important. In the process we’ve lost touch with the fundamental reality that such hope doesn’t make something true. We’re unwilling to consider as the faintest possibility that our opinion may be wrong.

Stable institutions, long a part of the nation’s history, are now weaponized against us in a manner that divides families, friends, and once like-minded groups with common purpose. It wounds relationships as a jagged knife, creating toxic animosity, and destroying community.

As we find ourselves in a national environment where there is no longer a fundamental factual baseline for truth on which we agree, many are soulfully searching their relationships once sustained by love where it now seems there may never have any shared common values to start. And so we mourn the unforeseen loss of friends with grievous pain and wonder how it happened so fast. The wounds from our blindside are often the most difficult we bear.

All is lost in the former world of compromise, common good, diplomacy, and respect. Our mouths are fouler, our minds and spirits more self-centered, and it’s a new era when so many now believe that by shutting the other side down or shutting them up, we’ve somehow revealed the truth. Social media’s passive nature is helping civility all but vanish and we are downright hateful toward anyone expressing a contrary opinion. The cost of our self-righteousness is coming at an irredeemable price.

This calculated manipulation to divide community is compounded by modern realities and a proven history showing that all good things eventually get hijacked and used for the self-serving alternative purposes of those in power. Trust and unity simply aren’t good for the new world economy.

It’s caused a painful anxiety for me because it’s especially true in the two areas most representing the core of my own identity—mass media and Christianity.

Denying the parasitical relationship between egocentric public servants and the broadcast news networks is a fool’s game. We’ve all watched it develop at an especially alarming rate during the last two years. The broadcast media’s former sense of responsibility has evolved to an anything-goes reporting style and a complete willingness, even an eagerness, permitting the manipulation of their resources at a moment’s notice. The self promotion of both parties, public servant, and media, is disguised as breaking news. There is no drama that is too much drama. Across the spectrum of time an irresponsible viewership becomes desensitized, sees it all as the new norm, and accepts, even models, the new and crazed behavior that both the media and the leadership promote to keep a sheeplike public off balance. We’ve completely taken the bait.

The Christian label is a word I no longer know how to use, because I honestly no longer know what it means. Everything I see, read, or hear indicates something different. I do know, however, what my friends in the non-Christian community tell me they see.


They see wealthy mega-churches locking their doors in towns where people just down the street have no food, water, or shelter in the wake of devastating floods. They see charismatic, bible-toting men of God recounting their divine revelations about the need for jet planes. They see prominent evangelical leaders cozying up to publicly endorse political candidates and posing for photos as those photos also capture the candidate’s image on a framed copy of Playboy magazine in the background. Non-believers see the evangelical community embrace public figures who mock the disabled, strategically and methodically steal from the poor and pay them off for pennies on the dollar, and who use the foulest language in the book referencing the homelands of the most brokenhearted people groups. You’ll find the gospel proclaimers espousing so many of these ideas along the shelves of your local bookstore in the sections labeled “Christian Living.”

These things are difficult to reconcile and any Christian who scoffs at the notions should try having the conversation with an atheist or agnostic. If we can’t have these conversations it’s time for some serious self-examination of the heart.

But this book isn’t about politics or the media. It’s not even really about religion. In a new era apparently forever absent public figures like Walter Cronkite, it’s about the ongoing quest pursuing answers to the most important question I’ve ever asked myself, and I believe the most important question of our time.

“Whom shall we trust?”

In 2010 I began a slow, on-again, off-again recovery from the deepest and most agonizing of my bouts with depression. When the fog from that episode eventually cleared nothing else came close to the new thing that became most important. I wanted to know what I believed and why. And this meant trusting someone or some thing—completely.

I’ve pursued the answer to this question ever since, and never looked back.

I was already a Christian, but a black and white Christian who now believed there was so much more to see. I was hungry for the color of it all.

In his book, Falling Upward, Father Richard Rohr says, “There is a God-size hole in all of us, waiting to be filled. God creates the very dissatisfaction that only grace and finally divine love can satisfy.”

As writers, we’re told to avoid clichés like the plague. In all the metaphors and all the parables, you’ll never hear me talk about going on a journey. I’m so sick of journeys. Everyone and their brother is on one these days. Talk to people about your journey and they’ll probably yawn.

But talk to them about your quest and everything suddenly changes.

My quest for the truth began thirty-four years ago on a dead-end country thoroughfare in the middle of nowhere.

The quest I’m still on today began on Highbanks Road.

Highbanks Road: Where All Things Are Possible

A photo I took a few years back where Highbanks Road dead ends into the St. Francis River.

I’ve thought a lot about roads lately–especially the ones that seemingly end in the middle of nowhere. We call them dead ends.

One day, thirty-two years ago, I had a revelation on an old dead-end road. It was a moment that still guides me.

Everyone back home knows it as Highbanks Road. There are no directional signs that point you there. None that identify it by name for that matter. But it’s a two-mile east-to-west passage “out in the country” as we say, between Arkansas Highway 139 and the St. Francis River dead ending into the muddy waters flowing along the western edge of the heart of the old Macey Community. It’s unremarkable and undistinguished, a few homesteads along the way, most dotting the corners of 40-acre cotton fields, and each with a signature name like Tiny’s Forty, Turkey Run, or Bobby Joe’s down on the corner. When two vehicles meet on Highbanks Road the drivers wave to one another. It’s the code of the community.

It’s also the road where I grew up my first twenty years, and it taught me a lot about life.

County Road 514 as it became known in the progressive 90s was a simple gravel thoroughfare maintained by the county road department. What that really meant was a monthly pass with a road grader, and you were sure-as-the-world bound to get a nail in your tire next trip to town, so you cussed every time the grader appeared knowing you’d have to spend money at Dean’s Tire Store. The grader driver had a big mustache and kept a big coffee Thermos in the cab. I remember that. He looked so comfortable in the air-conditioned cab on those oppressive July days when I chopped cotton on our home place and he’d creep by with the cringing noise of blade against rock. But he always waved. So I waved, too, but couldn’t stop thinking about how hot I was and how cool he must feel. Youth on the farm was so unfair.

Each winter season for two months sportsmen from across the countryside pulled camouflaged boats and motors with pickup trucks to Highbanks Landing lickety-split before sunup every morning. They were in search of mallard ducks from the surprisingly cozy confines of their heated duck blinds. Some loved the hunting, others were just along for the fellowship and tall tales. A few sought undeserved respite from their wives who wished their husbands would do more productive things than hunt ducks, drink beer, and fall asleep on the couch.

The town drunk, Oscar Wiles frequented Highbanks Road in an old brown Ford Maverick. Old Oscar got drunk three times a week on whatever he could find and you’d often find him passed out in a ditch snoring, tobacco juice running down his chin and onto his shirt. Depending on the angle Oscar hit the ditch at least one of the Maverick’s wheels revealing balding tires was always suspended mid-air. People said Oscar never broke a bone because the booze loosened him up so much.

“Having trouble?” my dad would ask as we pulled up on the scene. Oscar growled unintelligibly. “I’ll be fine. Go on,” he’d eventually say.

We pulled him out from road ditches a hundred times if one. Oscar eventually died in one of those accidents when he crashed into a ditch and the car went ablaze. People secretly swore a local troublemaker killed Oscar for sport. He was surely mean enough the story was credible.

Someone gave me a pair of roller skates for Christmas the year I was eight and I wondered how in the heck they expected me to learn skating on a gravel road. Might have been the most disappointing gift I ever got. Funny thing is, I actually tried. You got really bored sometimes on Highbanks Road.

A few years later, daddy thrilled me when he bought an old rusty go-cart frame and a brand new four horsepower motor to drive it. I recall it as the most adventurous summer of my life loading up bait and fishing pole each afternoon heading to the ditches toward the river and pulling in endless stringers of bream, goggle-eye and perch. Going fishing alone on that old rickety four-wheeled-bucket-of-bolts contraption made me feel like the king of the world, the captain of my soul. Remembering it makes me so happy for how that young boy felt. It was pure liberation.

The summer of my eighteenth year is a time I still recall as critical in shaping a personal life view. It seemed abrupt that summer season that I had no girlfriends to date, no buddies with whom I could spend time, and it was the first time I remember feeling truly lonely. It may have been my first introduction to depression. But it was a time of extended contemplation for a young man beginning to think about things in a deeper way.

I spent a lot of time reading the bible that summer and also fighting the anxiety that comes with a personality always looking for the next thing. Waiting has always been so hard. I also spent considerable time each evening around sunset riding a bike or just walking along Highbanks Road. As the sun would slip past the treeline marking the river and setting the sky ablaze as red fire, I’d wonder about the other side of the world where the sun now rose. People of different skin color, languages, customs, things I’d only read about in the leather-bound Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedias. Big dreams of faraway places were born on Highbanks Road that summer.

One especially tranquil sunset that summer brought the most peaceful hope when it made me think about the rural, isolated dead-end road, and how it lead out on its other end to Highway 139. From there, it lead everywhere. You could go north to St. Louis or south to Memphis and from there, well, nothing stopped you from there.

In that moment, everything changed. The epiphany was almost spiritual.

Highbanks Road wasn’t a dead-end at all. It was just a starting point to all other destinations. It would take you every other place in the world if you’d let it.

But getting those places was my responsibility. No one else would take me there.

From a dead end, all you have to do is turn around and go the other way. And from Highbanks Road, all things were possible.