a story by Jake Warren //
A few years ago, on a warm Saturday afternoon, we did an open mic at church. The crowd was predictably sparse, but a few folks made the afternoon memorable. Ian North and Josh Feit played guitars and a couple of people sang and did other performances. Britt was one of them, and he rocked karaoke to Michael Jackson’s “We Are the World.” He did well, and I think he enjoyed the experience because he’s been angling to sing at church and church-related activities ever since.
Everyone went up and did one performance. Not Britt. After he finished his song, he rolled up in his wheelchair to the front of the aisle again a few minutes later and did some standup. A few minutes later he went up again. We had to gently take away the mic.
His standup was mostly impressions. One was Bill Clinton. He raised the mic to his lips, said, “Hi, I’m Bill Clinton” and made a sound like an old whoopee cushion. We all laughed.
Britt makes a lot of those kinds of silly jokes, and he will often chuckle afterwards, “Sorry. I guess I’m kinda funny like that.” If you get silly like a kid, Britt’s humor can get pretty funny. In fact, hanging with Britt can be lots of fun, if you’re ready to laugh.
I haven’t always been ready to laugh. Since I moved to Atlanta it’s been four years of crazy ups and downs. Britt’s been there for every own of them, every Sunday when I pick him up and give him a ride to and from church (and a lot of times in between). He’s been a constant companion, and I’ve spent more time with him than any other friend.
The poor guy has suffered the fate of being there during many of my meltdowns. Just a few weeks ago, I snapped. It was a crazy busy holiday week and I hadn’t even picked out a card for my mom’s birthday party that was just a few hours away. I was overwhelmed and angry, and I didn’t want to go to church, but it was the last time I was going to give Britt a ride before taking an indefinite break. I wanted to end my tenure as Britt’s chauffeur well. I just wanted to end well.
I picked him up, not really looking at him, and on the way, he asked me for a favor. That was it. I told him, no, I didn’t have time to do him a favor, and I didn’t really want to, either. I asked him if he was familiar with the phrase “What have I done for you lately?” I dropped him off and left, hating myself. There have been many moments like that throughout our friendship.
That’s the tough things about relationships. I’ve got a carefully crafted image as a nice guy, but in real relationships that image is shown to be flimsy. If you know someone long enough, eventually you’ll hurt them. You can’t filter indefinitely. And it’s not like you can ever erase the painful words; they always hang in memory. Maybe that’s one of the reasons we often don’t like the people we love. In relationships, people see us as we really are, and we can’t hide.
I think another frustrating thing about relationships is how typically little or how slowly a relationship changes someone for the better. Apart from learning invaluable lessons about setting boundaries and saying “no,” I’m still the same guy I was when I first met Britt, and Britt, in a lot of ways, is still the same. All of the counseling and prayers have barely changed him or me. Maybe relationships are just about being there, together, regardless of whether we see “progress” in the other person. “A brother is born for adversity” as the Proverb says.
After my latest blow-up at Britt, I picked him up a few hours later from church. My anger had subsided and all that was left were the pieces to put back together. I drove him home, apologizing all the way. When I got to his house, for some reason I said, “It’s OK.” as if I had the right to say whether or not my blowup was justified. He said, “OK, man,” and stuck out his hand to shake it goodbye.
“It’s not okay,” I said, giving him a hug. “I’m sorry.”
On a lighter note, I had a dream once where I got angry with Britt, said “Enough is enough!”, and started grappling with him. Our hands were on each other’s shoulders as I tried to take him down. It was like an old professional wrestling move, “The Test of Strength.” I wish I could say it was it was as epic as the Royal Rumble. It wasn’t. He dropped me like an old soda can.
It was Britt’s big arms that did in my dream self: those arms are the product of an active lifestyle and a hilly city. Britt goes everywhere around Atlanta, and nothing slows him down. One time he rolled up to Open Table from his house, nearly two and a half miles over hilly Chamblee sidewalks. I can’t imagine walking that distance to get to church, let alone pushing myself in a wheelchair.
Britt sees a lot of Atlanta and knows many of its people. Sometimes his handicap gives him the chance to see the best in humanity. It seems like at least once a month a kindly stranger will see him making his way up Peachtree Industrial and give him a ride home. People often buy him meals, and Britt will always accept a free meal (much to the dismay of his friends).
One of the more interesting types of person Britt meets while he’s out and about is the faith healers. A few times a year, when he’s alone in a public place like Walmart, someone will come up to him and offer to heal him through the power of prayer. As believers, we have seen miracles where God has healed the sick, but we also know that He often doesn’t, so the idea of faith healing is a little uncomfortable. Britt always allows the faith healer to pray over him. Afterwards, the faith healer will say “God bless you,” straighten up, and walk away.
Britt’s strength and his attitude of full commitment have caused some funny moments. A few weeks ago, a few folks were watching a movie at my house and playing a game where, among other things, you tossed plastic spoons at the TV during certain parts of the film. Britt chucked the spoons at the expensive HD TV with such force that the screen rippled. When we suggested that everyone toss the spoons to each other rather than the TV, he pegged the only girl in the room right in the face.
I’m not making fun of Britt. There are a lot of things about him I admire. I can’t imagine being nagged and told what to do all of the time by my friends and family. Not that the advice he gets is bad, it’s good. He just gets it all the time. I remember when my sister called me out once on how lazy I was when I looking for a job and I had to calm down. Imagine hearing that kind of rebuke every day and staying cheerful.
I also really admire his persistent pursuit of happiness; if I had some of his experiences and faced his struggles, I probably would have given up trying to be happy a long time ago. But he doesn’t. He keeps at it. I often wish he was more persistent in some areas of his life (like the job hunt), but he really does do what he wants to do no matter what. We’re all missing out when we don’t persist in doing the things we love.
Hanging out with Britt is like hanging out with humanity. The laughter, hopes, dreams, insecurities, the desperate need for love, the desire to change and the frustration when change doesn’t come, are clear in Britt’s eyes. He can’t hide it like we can. But I see a lot of myself in his struggles, and I wish I could help him realize that he’s not alone.
But, most of the time, he is alone. Alone at his house, watching TV, and waiting. Waiting for his heart to be transformed by God. Waiting for someone to offer him a job. Just waiting for a phone call.
Many people at Open Table have carved time out of busy schedules to take him out to meals, drive him around, and visit with him, and I’m really thankful to the church for that. But whenever he doesn’t get invited to a social gathering, a birthday party, or a wedding, something in me boils. After all these years, I don’t know if the anger I feel is righteous or self-righteous, from God or from somewhere else. Since the source is undecided, my prayer is this:
Lord, Britt’s social inclusion at church is in your hands, not mine. And because of that, please stop me from hitting “Send” on that well-intentioned and condemning Christian email.
Okay. One more story. Some years ago, a few Open Table folks carpooled to a special service at a Nepali church somewhere in downtown Atlanta. I wanted to go and space was limited, so I told Britt to find another ride home and drove down with the others. On the way to the Nepali church, our group must have gotten lost three times trying to follow the GPS towards the non-descript building. It was very difficult to find, hidden in the city.
There were two sections of chairs in the sanctuary separated by an aisle leading up to the front, and when we got inside we sat in the right section. A charismatic service got under way, led by a Southern evangelist named Frank McCoy with a booming baritone voice. He was giving a powerful sermon, and a crowd of people were throwing up their hands and getting healed right in front of us. The Open Table people muttered soft “Amens” and looked at each other uncomfortably.
As people were getting faith-healed up front, we noticed someone making their way up the aisle. It was Britt, appearing out of nowhere. We found out later he got a ride with another Open Table family, but at the time, we were shocked and surprised to see him. He wheeled determinedly forward and joined the crowd.
That’s the thing about Britt. He can be ignored. Left behind. Left out. Left. But not forever.
About Jake Warren: Jake lives in Chamblee and works as a Communications Specialist at She Is Safe. When he’s not specializing in communications, he enjoys good movies, good books, and musicals.