Rebuilding the inner-city for Jesus

Once upon a time, Ted Olsen at Christianity Today gave me the GetReligion treatment. Fortunately for me, the story that caught Ted's web-crawling eyes was one of the finest from my days as a cub reporter at The Sun in San Bernardino. The story focused on Bruce Nelson and the struggles of faith that followed his being crippled while serving on a mission in India. I'm not entirely sure why I mentioned that, but Bruce's test of faith was the first thing that came to mind when I saw this beautiful obituary from The New York Times Magazine.

One of 22 included in the magazine's "The Lives They Lived" year-end feature, chronicles the life, and passing, of Allan Tibbels, who had broken his neck as a young man, "but never doubted that Jesus loved him" and that his paralysis was part of God's plan. Tibbels put his body where his heart was by insisting to his wife Susan that the family move to one of Baltimore's ghettos:

Along with his friend Mark Gornik, he had been reading John M. Perkins, an evangelist and civil rights worker in Mississippi who urged the privileged to live with the poor. Christ came down from heaven; Jesus was no commuter! Susan was once the Ivory soap girl of the Christian youth set, destined for suburban contentment. She understood the theory -- God dwells among the poor -- but she had two young daughters, a disabled husband and a terror of rats. She followed under howling protest, to a neighborhood called Sandtown. Baltimore's crack-addled streets in the mid-1980s were as mean as any, and there was hardly another white person for miles. Those who did not assume Tibbels was a cop thought he was buying drugs. When a robber held a knife to his throat, he invited him to church.

"Love thy neighbor," the Bible says, in what may be its toughest command. Other than trying to obey, Tibbels arrived with no plans. Gornik, a young pastor, moved nearby. They volunteered at a recreation center and organized a living-room prayer group. Two neighborhood boys soon moved in with the Tibbelses -- Sandtown fathers were rare -- and the family drew confused looks for decades when introducing two blue-eyed daughters and two dark-skinned "sons."

This is one of those stories that I am more than eager to share with GetReligion readers. Maybe my law-school-semester's-end sabbaticals make me soft. Maybe it's the yin of not reading the Los Angeles Times' yang. (That is a misapplication of Taoist philosophy, yet you get my point.) But when I read a story like this it reminds me of two things: why I became a religion reporter and what great religion reporting can do and be.

This obituary of Tibbels, who died in June and was a bit of a Baltimore and Habitat for Humanity legend, is one that sensitively and precisely conveys the how one man's religious beliefs permeated his life. It does not trivialize these convictions, nor mock the decisions they influenced. Instead, it does what any good reporter does: it aims to paint a picture of its subject that would be recognizable to the subject.

And in the process it shows how the remarkable strength of a crippled man could remake an inner-city neighborhood.

Granted, there is very little theology in this obituary. Not even an explanation of what kind of Christian Tibbels was. (Aside from one that followed Christ, I'd guess evangelical based on the name of the church he co-founded.) But obit writer Jason DeParle sprinkles just the right religion references to keep Tibbels' remembrance grounded on God.

Someone once described Tibbels as "saving Sandtown," which made him wince. God saves; neighbors share. A condolence letter that Susan prizes came from the 8-year-old girl next door. "We're a family," she wrote. "We're like stars all connected in a special way."


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