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We first met Todd years ago, when one of us was wandering the neighborhood with a backpack full of lunches on what we called the “roving feast.” Todd invited us onto the stoop in front of his apartment to share lunch. He was a resident of the complex we took to calling “Little Calcutta” and we became regular guests on Todd’s stoop and in his apartment where we shared lunch—where Todd’s hands broke the bread and opened new doors in the neighborhood. As he began to join us at some of our community meals and tell us more and more of his story, we learned what else Todd’s hands could do.
Little Calcutta was a place that needed a lot of love. Sewage backed up into bathtubs in the apartments, the water would be off for days at a time, holes in the roof would go unpatched for weeks, and cockroaches and vermin were everywhere. Through a variety of circumstances, most of the residents of Little Calcutta couldn’t leave and when we’d help one find a new place to live, their empty spot would be replaced by someone else with painfully limited options. Todd’s housing options may have been limited, but he was willing to put his hands to work.
Turning his hands to the work of justice and peacemaking, Todd joined with most of the other residents of Little Calcutta in a long process of meetings, conversations, letters, phone calls, and nonviolent action that led to the inspection and condemnation of the building in which they lived. When the work of Todd’s hands brought retaliation, Grace and Main was proud to stand by him and make sure his needs were met. After all, the steady work of Todd’s hands was cultivating the Kingdom of God in Little Calcutta. We helped Todd and the residents to find other places to live and to get settled in their new homes when the building was shut down.
But, Todd’s hands do so much more than this, when the Spirit moves through them.
A few months back, we celebrated Todd’s birthday. We weren’t surprised when Todd chose Kentucky Fried Chicken for the menu. We also weren’t surprised when he named Grace and Main leaders and the leaders from Little Calcutta as his guests. Once everybody showed up that Tuesday night, we took in the menu: Kentucky Fried Chicken, vegan beans, corn on the cob, gluten-free cornbread, ice cream, and cake.
We spent the first few minutes of the night celebrating our brother Todd. I patted him on the back gingerly even as he shook my other hand with characteristic vigor. I told him “happy birthday” and even joked a little about his age: “twenty-nine again, Todd?” Finally, right before we offered communion and blessed the food, one of us said, “Todd, everybody here can say that you being a part of our lives has made us better off.” The crowd of Todd’s friends nodded vigorously, chorused “amen,” and pounded the dinner table. We broke bread and passed the cup, we blessed the food with our words and our gratitude, and we insisted that Todd go first.
After Todd finished eating, he began to open some gifts. Wrapped in brown paper bags sealed with scotch tape and plastic grocery bags tied shut with yarn or a shoelace, Todd mostly found gifts of his two favorite things: coffee and cigarettes. Both were promptly shared, one in the kitchen and the other on the front porch. One particularly large bag from Lisa contained both Kool-Aid packets and sugar—a common gift that Lisa had shared with Todd on the days worthy of a little celebration at Little Calcutta. When folks were surprised to see Kool-Aid and sugar in the bag, Lisa winked at one of us and said, “He knows what it means, and I know what it means to him.”
Todd got seconds at his birthday meal, but only after checking with everybody—his big hand resting on each shoulder in turn—to see if they had already gotten some and if they wanted seconds, too. He was anxious not to take more than his share, even as we insisted that he should. But Todd, the man of peace with a boxer’s hands, has learned something over the years that he continues to teach us as we share life, work, and prayers with him: the work of our hands in community isn’t just about giving. Todd’s hands are teaching us how to receive, as well.
A few nights after his birthday, the community once again gathered to pray. The weeks had been hard, because my father had been back and forth between home and the hospital. I asked the community please to pray for my father, and struggled to find the words that made it clear what I needed and what I feared. Todd rested his heavy hand on my shoulder—the same hand that had just, minutes ago, carried my daughter back to me after she stumbled in the yard—and he whispered, “It’s ok, man.” In that moment, I knew what he meant, and he knew what it meant to me.
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Here are five of Grace and Main’s favorite photos from the past month (or so) for folks who might be interested in getting a glimpse of community life and our shared life and work.