This past summer, on our senior high Justice Journey, we encountered a homeless man named Chaffin Miller. When we arrived at First Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL and settled into upstairs classrooms to sleep for the night, Chaffin was setting up his belongings to sleep just off the sidewalk right below one of our rooms. As a member of the church, he welcomed the boys that were sleeping in the room above him and offered to help if they had any questions.
I was awakened in the middle of the night by the sounds of Chaffin yelling up at our boys. At first, I thought he was just a crazy homeless person. But then it dawned on me that what he was yelling about was true. Some of our boys had dumped some paint from their window and it landed all over his belongings. He was justifiably mad. Chaffin relocated down the street for the rest of the night, while the trip leaders and I stayed up discussing how we would handle this situation. (A day later we ended up sending three boys home to Chicago from Montgomery.)
In the morning, after a long night of talking with our leaders and youth, I called the church’s pastor, Shannon Webster, to let him know what had happened. It turns out that Chaffin had a long history with this congregation, and especially with Shannon, who had been working hard to help Chaffin get his life back on track.
As our host, Shannon was mercifully gracious to us. He is experienced enough to know that stupid things happen on youth ministry trips. He was also wise enough to see that this might actually turn out to be a blessing for us and for Chaffin. He was right.
We asked Chaffin to sit with our group to explain his story and hear our apologies. He told us about a difficult and hard life. He spoke passionately about his faith in God and his gratitude for the help he was receiving from Shannon and the church in Birmingham. When the boy most responsible for the paint apologized, Chaffin bolted out of his seat, walked across the room, and gave that young man a hug as he offered his forgiveness. He explained his actions as a response to his faith in God and his desire to follow in the ways of Jesus. One of our goals for this trip was to learn about reconciliation—-there was no greater lesson than this one that unfolded before our eyes. We were all moved by his expression of Christ-like love and grace. Those of us on that trip will never forget his powerful witness to the transforming power of God’s love.
We collected some money and extra items to replace Chaffin’s damaged belongings. When I returned to Chicago I received a message from him saying that he used some of that money to get an identification card that would allow him to finally get a job. Chaffin felt that our difficult encounter in Birmingham ended up being a blessing.
On Monday, as my family drove through Birmingham en route to Florida, I thought of Chaffin and wondered how he was doing. Today I received an email from Shannon informing me that Chaffin died that very day. It seems that things had been going well for him. With the money he was making from his job doing leaf removal with waste management services, he had saved up to make a deposit on a small apartment. Shannon and someone else from the church were moving him in this week. He was making progress on cleaning up minor charges from his criminal record. Then on Monday he was killed in an accident at work. All of this progress was cut tragically short.
Yesterday I wrote about the lack of control we have in our lives. As we consider the sovereignty and providence of God, this absence of control must be the fact with which we begin our consideration. I do believe that we have free will, that God has given us the ability to make choices and live with the consequences. But there is much that is beyond our control. There are things that happen regardless of our choices and intentions. Those things are a mystery to me.
By his own admission, Chaffin made a lot of bad choices in his life. Those choices, along with some things that probably were beyond his control, landed him in a difficult situation. But with the help of others like Shannon, he started making good choices and got his life turned around and headed in the right direction. He was doing all he could do to redeem his life. And then a senseless accident ended it all so abruptly.
The pastor in me is grateful for the experience we had with Chaffin and the way he was able to teach us more about Jesus and his way of reconciliation than I will ever be able to do in my teaching and preaching. The preacher in me wants to find a silver lining to this tragedy and offer hope to all those who are mourning Chaffin’s death.
But the honest theologian in me—-probably the most human part of me—–wonders where God is in the midst of this. My usual answer—-that God is to be found in the love we share with each other as we mourn and move on—–doesn’t seem very convincing or comforting to me right now.
As I mused on these things yesterday, I had no idea I would confront this stark reality today. God help us all as we confront such tragedies, which happen every day.
Thank you, God, for Chaffin Miller. He was a true follower of Christ. He demonstrated your love in powerful ways that I will never forget.