It was spring time, 1986, in Marbury, Alabama. I was not yet 20 years old and was living at a Girl’s Home designed to help young women who had lost their way, to find God and a new life. I arrived there after a period of time spent in a psychiatric unit, followed by addiction treatment and secondary treatment in Birmingham, AL. I had known that I would likely return to active addiction if I remained in the city and so had made the decision to come to this home, which was a Christian program that in many ways taught more through hands on experiences than word filled lessons. One of those experiences came through a man known only to me as “Brother James”. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself, so let me back up a bit.
Most of the girls, (there were 8 of us in all), were below the age of 17 and had not yet reached the seemingly hopeless state that I had arrived in. The program was originally designed to help predominately young women turn around “before” they got into a lot of trouble. I was among the first that came having already achieved that plateau. It was a rather strict program, which consisted of: No boys, No sugar, No caffeine, No white flour, No TV and No radio. We grew much of our own food, which was a job that kept us quite busy most days. There were several Bible studies daily, as well as free time that allowed for reading, talking and playing games. About once a week, (during the warm weather), we would get to pick out a watermelon in the field and go to the small spring fed pond where the water was so cold it would steal your breath away. We would place the melons in the water to cool while we splashed and got some sun. Once good and cold, we would retrieve them and ride to the local corner store, (literally one small store at the only intersection with a light)), to get a diet coke and return once again to the house and enjoy!
Life there initially seemed very strange, because many of the things that would normally be a part of a teenage girl’s life were absent: Things such as TV, movies, pizza, boys, cars and dates. Yet in a rather short period of time, I found myself not only intrigued with my surroundings, but strangely comforted by them as well. Much of our day to day life served as a means of experiential learning. One example of this learning was gained through the process of growing our own food. We first would go out with hoes to pull up the weeds and their roots, tilling the earth in order to prepare it for planting seeds that would produce a future harvest. We would make holes in the ground, often by using our fingers, gently placing in the seeds and covering them with fresh soil.
With each passing day I observed how life was rising from what was once just dry
dusty ground. When the harvest was ready we would return to the field and begin gathering the fresh produce, taking it to the house where we would then clean and prepare it to be both cooked and stored for future use. I had never before eaten a fresh pea until then, and was amazed at how sweet it was. I can recall during this process, having moments of clarity and realization that I was like the dry and dusty ground, and that God was going in and pulling out my weeds, preparing my heart and mind for the new seeds of truth that He would place there. Finding myself filled with hope, I knew that just like the harvest coming out of the earth, so too would good things one day come from me.
Now we not only arrive at one of the single most profound moments of my year at this home, but also of my entire life…and it came in the form of a man named Brother James. He was an elderly black man who came to our small church where, (counting us girls, the pastor’s family, house parents and congregation), there were only about 23 members total. I’m not sure how old James was; he looked to be in his mid to late seventies, (if not older). He was a quiet man with very dark skin, contrasted by white hair. He was tall with hands that were very large and calloused with fingers crooked from arthritis, and although one eye was bad, (with a milky blue/white color), they always seemed to be filled with such tenderness. I noticed that James would always remain somewhat distanced from us girls. When we had an outdoor dinner, I would watch as he took his plate and sat apart from us. It bothered me, but when I would ask him to join us, he would simply smile, wave his hand “no” and return to eating. I was, (upon inquiry), only told that Brother James had lived through a lot and had his own way of doing things. In my heart I suspected that this was likely, (in part perhaps), referencing what he had lived through as a black man in south Alabama, but I never questioned it any further.
One Sunday, arriving to the church we found that there was going to be a “foot washing” and that everyone would be participating. You would think that the hardest part or the least desirable part of the foot washing would be having the job of the actual foot washer, but I would learn otherwise. Everyone was placed in groups of 3 – one person to wash the feet, one to dry and one to have their feet washed. I was in a grouping with my roommate and Brother James. He was seated by our pastor into a chair, as he was to be the recipient of the foot washing. His discomfort was not only visible to the eye, but was so intense I could literally feel it. I watched as Brother James made eye contact with our pastor, (as if trying to communicate his feelings), who simply placed his hand on James’ shoulder and said, “I love you brother” and with that we began.
James lifted his right foot up as I removed his shoe and then his sock. Looking up, (and still feeling his discomfort), I saw James with his face down and his eyes closed, as if he were praying. Holding his foot in my hand, calloused and rough from a lifelong journey that my young mind could not begin to comprehend, I proceeded. As I dipped the cloth into the water and started to wash his foot, my heart inexplicably began to race, as I sensed that something of great significance was happening. I gently washed his foot and upon completion my roommate began to dry it. As I took his other foot into my hand it was then that I heard him – looking up I saw that Brother James was crying. At that moment I was consumed with an awareness that the greatest honor I would likely ever experience was happening right then and right there, as this man with a lifetime of experiences unknown to me, allowed me to wash his feet. Slowly I washed his foot, my body and hands trembling as an uncontrollable stream of tears flowed. My heart was filled with an immense overwhelming humility and gratitude that I was being allowed this experience.
Twenty Eight years have come and gone since that warm spring day and Brother James has since gone to be with the God he loved so much. The indelible impression that experience made has never left me and the lessons and insights from it continue still. You see, the “spiritual connection” my very being had yearned so deeply for, I found could not and would not ever be attained by my intellect or actions, but rather by my willingness to simply be where God wanted me to be and taking advantage of every moment and every experience He allowed me the opportunity to have.
Coming out of years of addiction, self-absorption and detachment, I found myself filled that day, with the purest love I had ever known, one in which I would be left forever changed. Although I never saw him again after graduation, Brother James would forever be a part of me and one day I know that I will see him again ~ what a wonderful day that will be!
© 2013-2014 Rebecca Balko