KOH2RVA: Day 283

Al AstleAl Astle will be 97 on August 30, but he’s still so cool that when he walks past you can feel a breeze. I’ve heard him play the vibraphone. Think Lionel Hampton or some of the other jazz legends of his era. The man can groove.

At least, the man could groove.

I’m not sure Al plays the vibraphone anymore, but this much he does: Sunday after Sunday, when he is able, he sits on a stool in the East Balcony and welcomes the people who come to church. His son, Chris, often sends me updates on his dad, and he sent this picture in an email titled “Father’s Day, Part I.” Chris says, “Here is Papa Al as he passes out the bulletins before the service at First Baptist Richmond.” I don’t know about you, but if I were coming to church on a Sunday morning, tired and a little bit grumpy, the sight of Al sitting on his stool would cheer me up. It might even bring heaven a little closer to earth.

If that’s all Al did it would be enough, but if tradition holds I will also see Al at Community Missions this morning, sitting in a chair behind a table helping our homeless neighbors check their bags so they can take showers and receive other services. I filled in for Al one Wednesday recently when he was in the hospital and gained even more respect for who he is and what he does.

There must be a thousand ways to bring heaven to earth. Al Astle, at age 96, is practicing at least two of them, and maybe more.

If I close my eyes I can almost hear his vibraphone.

Guest Blogger: Richie Hilbert

Here’s a story submitted by Richie Hilbert, a member of Richmond’s First Baptist Church and one of the most reliable sources of cheerful spiritual energy on the planet.  When she told me about something that had happened in our homeless ministry a few days ago I said, “I love it.  I want you to write it up.  You can be my guest blogger.”  And so she did.  And so she is…


By all appearances it was to be a normal Monday morning at Community Missions, First Baptist Church.  Joy, fellowship, and service always define the interaction between guests, staff, and volunteers; January 4, however, we had an encounter with One who is always in attendance, but especially evident on this day – the Holy Spirit. 

It began with what I will call an experiment. Monday morning Community Missions has traditionally started with a short devotional by Phyllis McIntyre, followed by a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in unison.  This morning we asked if one of our guests would like to offer the closing prayer.  There were 3 who volunteered; one approached the front of the room.  As he began praying I could feel the emotions welling up inside of me, and I wasn’t alone. This was a homeless man praying on a 25 degree morning. He lifted us all up with thanks to God for the many blessings granted us and for walking side by side with us every minute of every day.  He prayed with gratitude that the Lord loves us that much. 

It was glorious.

There was more in store for us!  As it happened, this was also the first day Susan Stratton joined Community Missions to pray individually with any guest who desired such a personal experience.  Two men did.  As her prayer with the first drew to a close, Susan thought, “This precious soul might be interested to learn that my life is not perfect, that in fact I have cancer and am in a battle of my own.”  She inquired whether he would pray for her, and was subsequently prayed over in such a meaningful way that she was moved to tears.  How perceptive of Susan to ask; how beautiful of our guest to pray. 

A little while later, the second guest came to Susan for prayer support.  She offered up his petitions, following which he asked, touched by her words, “Do you see the gleam in my eye now?”  This guest received his clothes, food, etc., but before leaving the building found Susan again.  I looked over my shoulder to see this tall, portly man enveloping Susan’s petite little frame in an immense bear hug, uttering with a big smile on his face, “Thank you so much.”  

The Holy Spirit was hovering that morning, and it was a blessing to be a witness to it.  Heaven came to earth on January 4th, 2010, and earth was the better for it.

—Richie Hilbert

The Rhythm of The Heart

vibraphoneAl 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.

Coffee with Cathy

I don’t even know her last name.  I only know that when I sat down at a table in Community Missions on Wednesday morning she was there, stirring sugar into a styrofoam cup full of creamy coffee.  I watched her take the first sip and saw her face relax into a smile.

“That’s good, isn’t it?” I said.  “I love that first sip of coffee.”

“Oh, yes,” she said.  “It warms me all the way down.”  There was a moment’s pause while she took another sip and then she said, “Except my feet.”

“Your feet?” I asked.

“I can’t feel my feet,” she said.

My thermometer read 24 degrees when I got up on Wednesday morning.  It had warmed up a little since then, but not much, and Cathy (bless her heart) had been standing outside with the others, waiting till we opened our doors, till she could come in and get a cup of hot coffee and a pastry. 

Oh, and one other thing: a shower.

“My feet will be all right when that warm water hits them,” she said, “but right now I can’t feel them.  It was cold last night.”  And then she took another sip of her coffee and left me to wonder: When was the last time I had stood outside in the cold till my feet went numb, and when had I ever been as grateful for a cup of coffee, or a hot shower?

I don’t want to take those things for granted as I approach Thanksgiving this year, and this year, especially, I want to be thankful for a church that provides hot showers for the homeless.

I know Cathy is.