Al Astle is in his nineties now, but in his day he was a terrific percussionist, and even now he can produce rhythms and sounds from a vibraphone that will astound a sophisticated audience.
He is a member of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, and recently volunteered to help out in our Community Missions program. When I go down there on Wednesday mornings I ususally find him sitting behind a table with Ralph Anderson, checking and storing the belongings of our homeless neighbors while they get showers.
Al pulled me aside after dinner on Wednesday night and even before he spoke I could tell he was troubled. He asked me if I had seen the expectant mother at Community Missions, the young woman who looks to be about halfway through her pregnancy, and who sits there with the rest of the homeless waiting her turn in the showers. I said I had. Al wondered if she were receiving adequate prenatal care and I said that I didn’t know but we could ask. I assured him that medical services are available to people like this woman; it would only be a matter of making sure that she gets them. And then he asked me if I had seen that young woman who comes in with her five-year-old daughter. I told him I had. He shook his head and swallowed hard. A master of expressing his deepest emotions without saying a word, his face told me everything: his heart was breaking for these young women, and for their children.
I don’t know if Al has always felt for the homeless in this way, but that’s what can happen when you take a heart that has been touched by the love of God and put it in the presence of human suffering: it breaks. And if it’s a heart that has truly been touched by the love of God it does more than that: it acts.
I was impressed when Al Astle volunteered for Community Missions in his nineties, a time when he might have said, “Let the young people do it.” I was even more impressed on Wednesday night, when I saw that he is letting his heart be broken by the needs of the world, and for some of the people Jesus loves most, the ones he called “the least of these, my brothers and sisters” (Matt. 25:40).
You go, Al. I’m proud to be your pastor.