Tom and Carolyn Albright (Tony’s story) — United States

We have a story about a member in our church named Tony. Our church is called Ripple. It’s an inner city, urban church.

Tony was our friend and he was also the first person who came to our church from the city.

Ripple began as a missional experiment, as part of the Mennonite Church USA Franconia Conference. We had moved from the suburbs into the city, and people came with us in this church plant.

One cold, January evening we had a knock on the door of the coffee shop where we were meeting in downtown Allentown. Tony and his friend came to the door and said, “Could we come in?” And we said, “Of course you can come in! This is God’s house. You’re welcome here.”

So Tony and Stella came in, sat down and joined us in the service, got a cup of coffee and a donut.

After the service Tony came up to us and asked, “Would you do a home visit?” And Tom said, “Of course I’d do a pastoral home visit.”

“Would you visit someone under a bridge?” continued Tony.

The next day, with some fear and trembling, Tom went down under the 8th St. Bridge to meet Tony and his friends, who were living there in the winter.

After that Tony started coming to Ripple every Sunday at 4:00, and he started bringing friends.

Many of the people in the city didn’t have access to Facebook or computers, so we made business cards with information about our services. And more and more people started coming to our church. Soon we realized that Tony was handing out these cards around the city.

And we knew that Tony’s gift was as an evangelist.

We asked him, “Tony, how are you getting all these people to come to Ripple?” And he said, “I just tell them, you’ve got to come and see.”

So Ripple Church really began at that point—incarnationally–with the people who were living in the city, from Tony inviting his friends who were on the margins of society.

We named our church Ripple because of the way that Jesus teaches us that acts of love ripple out in ways that you don’t know where they’re going to reach. We say, Jesus is our center, and we need each other. We really try to do things with people, to preserve dignity and care.

The people that come to our church who are in really difficult places in a lot of areas of their lives, are leaders at Ripple.

Tony kept coming, but he would have times when he would be away for a while.

As we got to know him more, Tony shared more of his story with us. His life was not easy. He was involved with some addiction, and had spent some time in and out of prison.

In the beginning of 2015, we hadn’t seen Tony for a long while, and we mentioned it to each other. But it wasn’t necessarily unusual. Tony would disappear for a while and then come back.

Then one day in mid-March, he showed up at our door.

We said, “Tony, where have you been?” He said, “Well, I just got out of prison, but I’m turning my life around. I’m coming back to Ripple.”

And he said, “I lost your card. I lost everything.” That happens a lot when people are in prison. They may be renting a room, but when they don’t show up or pay their bill for a week or two, everything gets thrown out.

After lunch together, we gave Tony a card with Tom’s name on it and our phone. Tony said he had a place to live, that he was renting a room a few blocks down.

When Tony attended church that evening, it was like this great reunion, because people hadn’t seen Tony in a while.

Tony was really a leader of people on the margins, and a lot of people were at Ripple because of him. So it was an exciting day at church, because he gave testimony of what God was doing in his life and how he was turning his life around.

Several other people asked if he had a place to stay that night. He assured them that yes he did.

Later that week Tom got a phone call at work that was very disturbing. The hospital called to ask if Tom would come identify a body. When Tom got to the emergency room, he identified Tony’s body.

Tony had been crushed, because he had slept in a dumpster the night before. It was very cold that night. Early that morning, about 5:30, they came to empty the dumpster, located about two blocks from the church. And Tony was crushed. They heard his screams when they got to the next stop.

Tony was taken to the hospital, but he didn’t make it.

We don’t know why Tony didn’t sleep where we thought he was sleeping. He had a lot of pride and respect, and we wanted to honor that too. We realize we don’t know all of anyone’s story, just like no one knows all of our story. And so Tony that night had slept in a dumpster.

A week later we had Tony’s funeral at Ripple. And probably close to 300 people showed up, everyone from the mayor’s office to his friends on the street.

Carolyn was supposed to give the message and she ended up not being able to, because so many other people gave testimonies to Tony’s witness of Christ on the street and to his friends. Forty or 50 friends from the street stood up together and shared a song for Tony they had written; they shared a poem; and they shared a beautiful eulogy for Tony.

We feel that Tony was honored and respected and that we were able to honor him in that memorial service.

One of the things that’s happened since Tony’s funeral is that we’ve had people come up to us and say, “I realize that my life on the street may not have long. Could we tell you our requests?”

We try to do a simple memorial service at the church, and we work with the funeral home to make sure that the body is handled with respect. Ripple doesn’t have much money, but we try to always maintain a small amount for a funeral fund. Unfortunately we’ve had two drug-related deaths in our congregation since Tony was killed.

A group of us is also meeting regularly in the mayor’s office to plan for this winter, so this doesn’t happen again.

How do we connect the life and worship of the church to our actions?

Good people who go to church on Sunday, don’t realize there’s people dying in the streets on Fridays and Mondays. There’s no reason that people should be dying in dumpsters on cold nights. Tony’s death was a call for people, to realize that we need to be doing even more.

 

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