His name is Jamie Brown. He runs the Thurgood Marshall Learning Center over in Rock Island, IL. I met Jamie at the Farmers’ Market at the Freight House a few weeks ago. In truth, the timing had to be of God, as I later reflected. As I was in the midst of getting to hear a new round of survivor stories and some police reflections regarding a federal sting against slavers around the country, Jamie boldly introduced himself. Like any vendor, he was a salesman. But he noticed my cross and asked me about it. I shared the story of how I came to possess Frank’s cross, and he certainly listened intently. When I asked why he had asked, he told me he was a Christian and likes to talk to other Christians just to remind himself that we are out there. We chuckled a bit and commiserated about the invisibility of many Christians. I told him I would love to buy a birdhouse, but I had no money for the birds. Plus, there was an appalling lack of Steeler birdhouses! But I asked him about his business. It turns out it was his ministry.
Jamie began to notice that some kids in his school were falling through the cracks. Their home lives, their lack of focus, and to a lesser degree, the attitudes of some in the administration or staffs, made it likely that certain boys would find their way into gangs or drugs or other dead ends. As a custodian, it dawned on him that he could do something small to make a difference. So, he went to his school administration and asked for permission to open the old wood shop classroom after school. Reflecting later, I assume that shop is no longer offered, as are so many home economic classes, but that the school still had the equipment. In only what could be described a God thing, the administration consented. I say it is a God thing because of all the risk they took. Problem kids and power tools, all supervised by a custodian, are not the best combination in the eyes of most school officials. But Jamie’s bosses took a chance.
Jamie began inviting some of those boys and young men whom he felt were at risk of falling through the cracks or dropping out to stay after school and learn to work with wood. Surprisingly a number of kids thought it “cool.” As word leaked out among the kids, the program grew. More and more began to stay. Jamie’s shop class became a club of sort. Mostly young men and boys would stay after school for about ninety minutes making all kinds of art with wood. The problem, of course, is that wood costs money. The more kids that joined, the more wood he needed. The more wood he needed, the more money it cost school administrators. Eventually, the wood shop got too big. It needed to end of no one could be found to provide wood. That’s when the enterprising side of Jamie came to the fore.
One of the first “big projects” that Jamie had his students work on was a bird house. It is a deceptively challenging project. A floor, four walls, and two pieces for the roof have to be fit together. The house required that wood be cut at different angles and fitted together. A hole for the birds had to be cut out for the entrance. And the whole thing needed to be sanded. It was a great project and took his new students some time. Jamie, though, wondered of they might be able to sell them. He had the idea to paint them in team colors with sports logos. Certainly, he thought, black & yellow and blue & orange would sell well.
Thus began a new business at the Farmers’ Market. You can meet Jamie there most Saturdays inside the freight house. His tables are full of birdhouses painted with all kinds of logos and in a wide array of colors. College teams, professional teams, and even local high school teams were available on the table. He makes enough off the sale of the houses to keep his youth group in wood. Be careful, though. He is a shrewd businessman. After our first discussion, I arrived the next week to find he had four Steeler birdhouses on his table. He even told me he had painted them just for me. I laughed and reminded him I was still on clergy income. He laughed and said I didn’t need to buy all, just one.
I said above that my meeting Jamie and hearing about his ministry was divinely ordered. We met at the end of a tough week for me. As the federal raid had gone down, I had heard a few too many horrible stories of enslavement. As one trusted adviser had called it, I had taken in some serious spiritual poison. Jamie’s tale was a sweet tasting antidote. I thanked Jamie for his wonderful ministry. He gave me the “aww, shucks, this isn’t a ministry” response. From his perspective, pastors do ministry as work. He enjoyed what he was doing, so he couldn’t be a pastor. Given my week, I knew what he meant. Besides, he’d always liked working with wood, and he liked passing on his knowledge about it with any kids who would listen. I reminded him that other conversations probably occur in shop class. The wood working was just the conversation starter; the real ministry was likely in those other conversations that were held once those boys figured out he really cared for them. He wasn’t sure, but I reminded him that we both knew this other Carpenter who would probably agree with my assessment. He laughed a great belly laugh and gave me a good hug.
This year, the Thursday morning Bible Study group decided to tackle Holy Men and Holy Women as a break from their routine of reading the following Sunday’s lectionary. It has been a real blessing to them as they have gotten to hear the stories of “normal men and normal women” who made a difference in lives of others through ministries of God. I can’t help but think of St. Jamie in those terms, and I am sure that there are some young adults out there who would agree with my discernment. Jamie has taken forgotten equipment, trained some boys who are at risk of falling through the cracks, and built up a small business that keeps the entire effort funded. He starts out with rough pieces of wood that end up as pretty cool pieces of art that sports fans can proudly display. Similarly, he takes some rough young men, and a few girls that are interested, and helps teach them about wood working, about life and, most importantly, about God’s incredible love for each one of them. If that is not a ministry of God in our midst, I don’t know what is. God bless all the Jamie’s in our midst and give us grace to see their work with our eyes!
If you find yourself in the Freight House in the coming weeks in Davenport, and you notice a table with a bunch of birdhouses on it, make sure to say hello to Jamie. Thank him for his work. Be careful though, you might walk away inspired, if a little weighed down by a couple new birdhouses!