Broken Tiles

June 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

“…there is something beautiful and concrete and well-proportioned about tending that size of a garden.David Brooks, The Small, Happy Life

Yesterday a mural mosaic was dedicated in a barely-conspicuous outdoor neighborhood service. The mural is visible to all who walk by the New Song Academy. It was constructed by the children of the Academy, under the guidance of a group called, Art with a Heart, a group that works in the City of Baltimore and teaches vulnerable children and adults through creativity. What makes the mosaic special is that the Academy resides in Sandtown, the neighborhood that was the flashpoint for the Baltimore riots in April. I have written about it here.

In a NYT OP-ED piece, David Brooks reported surprise at how many people responded to a survey, with the desire for what he termed, ‘the small, happy life,’ as opposed to what might seem to be more ambitious pursuits.

When I was in sixth grade, our teacher, Mrs. Hill, became weary with a group of us troublemakers. We happened to live in an area that was booming in development, and so she decided to take us around the community collecting tile for the purpose of making a mosaic for our elementary school, which we did. Over a period of months we stayed after school as she brilliantly channeled our energy into creativity. Eventually the completed project was erected at Coral Reef Elementary, like the one at New Song Academy.

One day, in response to His disciples’ request to increase their faith (because they were thinking big!), Jesus replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you” (Luke 17:6). Contrary to the claims of train wreck preachers who promise the moon and deliver disappointment, Jesus was simply saying, ‘Start small, because that is where we are.’ Put another way, ‘Start where you are, and offer what you have rather than what you don’t have.’

A cursory study of history will bear this out, whether with those who harbored Jews during the Holocaust, or others who have accomplished amazing feats of bravery, rescue, influence and impact. And there is always that ‘small step’ and ‘giant leap’ for mankind. Never do you hear braggadocio. Time and again we are introduced to humble people who merely did what they could in the moment. In the moment, the small was enormous.

Way back in 1960-something I learned that a mosaic is nothing more than a well-orchestrated outlay of broken tiles. It doesn’t take much for those seemingly worthless, jagged and often-dirty shards to become something wildly beautiful – like a scene from the coral reef, or a vision of a healed city. Every piece matters, and no tile is too damaged, in the same way that one simple mosaic on one part of one wall on one building in one neighborhood in a broken community can be that tiny piece that offers hope for something lovelier.

And it is for this reason that in Jesus God became small. Because we are small. Yet because we are adored by the Father, we are not insignificant.

What good news…


The Thing About Heroes…

June 16, 2010 § 5 Comments

A hero died in Baltimore last week. His name is Allan Tibbels – He wasn’t the stereotypical hero. He didn’t land a jetliner into the Hudson River and he didn’t catch a Super Bowl game-winning pass. No, Allan was a Christ-follower who, along with his wife Susan and children, quietly moved into one of the poorest communities in the nation – Sandtown in Baltimore, Maryland.

Years ago, in Miami, I performed the wedding ceremony of a young man who grew up in Sandtown, and had left the community to play professional basketball in Europe. He was determined to never return to Sandtown, claiming that he was among few friends that had emerged from the neighborhood alive. So he moved out.

But Allan and Susan moved in.

Allan was born and grew up in Greater Baltimore. The City was in his blood. He met Jesus in Baltimore. He led youth and college ministries in Baltimore. He believed that God loved Baltimore and that He wanted Allan to love Baltimore.

Moved and shaped by the experiences and teachings of John Perkins, Founder of Voice of Calvary Ministries out of Mississippi, and his vision for Holistic Community Development, the Tibbels’ set out on a journey of healing and renewal – a lily-white couple in an almost-entirely African-American, impoverished and often overlooked and neglected community.

No one really knew. A lifelong friend, Mark Gornik, joined the Tibbels, and together they launched a revolutionary vision of seeing Sandtown be restored, not through political activism, but through the simple message of the Gospel – that God loves broken people and that He loves broken neighborhoods.

They formed the Newsong Community Church. They started the Newsong Community School. They founded the Newsong Center of Performing Arts. They opened a Newsong home for women who were transitioning out of prison. They founded and championed the Sandtown Habitat for Humanity, one of the only Habitat communities devoted solely to one neighborhood. Allan oversaw Sandtown Habitat. They brought leaders together. They empowered residents. They created and facilitated jobs.

And in a space of 25 years, a forgotten neighborhood was, and continues to be transformed. Instead of earning dollars that flow into other areas of the world, Sandtown is thriving. Nearly 300 homes have been restored, with nearly 200 more slated to be. The City of Baltimore has come to the Newsong folks to gain wisdom and guidance on repairing its own broken school system. A second Newsong church was started in Harlem, NY, along with similar accompanying organizations and activities that accommodate such renewal.

This is the short list.

Two evenings ago roughly a thousand people came to say farewell – people from the City Allan loved – people whose lives had been quietly put back together – people that once had been discarded, but who, through Newsong, had become the somebodies that God created them to be in the first place – important people that knew their reputations were puny compared to this mammoth, humble, hardly-known quadriplegic that had poured out his entire life as an offering to God on behalf of one neighborhood that God loved through him – black and white people – old and young people.

For Allan, all this was founded and grounded in a simple commitment he made over 30 years ago: “My life is yours. I want to forsake all for you. I don’t know all that this means, but I make this a sincere promise. Take all I have to offer – it is yours.” (June 22, 1978)

Here is the thing about heroes – They are as ordinary, simple, human and flawed as the next person – but they have discovered that this is exactly the kind of person God uses to do the big stuff.

Allan Tibbels – March 18, 1955 – June 3, 2010


The Sandtown Habitat Staff raise their hammers as a banner of love over Allan’s casket and family as they leave the sanctuary.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Newsong Community Church – Baltimore category at unfinished1.