Mark R. Gornik: Jeremiah is for the 'Birds' -- Remembering a friendship and ministry

Framed photos on a table

Photos courtesy of Mark Gornik, iStock and Bigstock.

Friendship lies at the heart of who we are created to be, writes the theologian and seminary leader in this remembrance of his friend and co-worker in ministry, the late Allan Tibbels.

Deep into the major league baseball season, I find myself thinking a lot about Allan -- even more than I usually do. Allan Tibbels was my friend and co-worker in ministry for some three decades. Over that time, he and I had one area of great disagreement: baseball.

When I moved from Baltimore to New York in 1998, I became a Yankees fan. My sons became Yankees fans, too. For Allan, who remained in Baltimore, just leaving the Baltimore Orioles behind was a matter for head shaking.

But embracing the Yankees? Unspeakable.

In the mysterious pattern of our lives, my friendship with Allan began when I was 16 or so, at a Sunday night youth group meeting in Baltimore in the mid-1970s. Then in their early 20s, Allan and his wife, Susan, had just begun attending the church, and the pastor -- seeing their obvious gifts -- recruited them to be the new youth leaders. My parents thought it would be a good idea for me to attend, even if I wasn’t so sure.

I don’t remember what we talked about or did at that first meeting, but I have never forgotten that afterward, Allan invited me to the local video arcade. No agenda, no follow-up questions, just playing pinball and shooting a game of pool. I liked that he took the time to do this, and over the months, Allan made it a point to connect again.

Not long after they arrived, Allan and Susan moved elsewhere in Baltimore County to begin a business, and eventually left that to work full time for Youth for Christ, a high school ministry focused on reaching a new generation for Christ. Our friendship deepened as I went to college (Allan wrote one of my recommendation letters) and began my own path to ministry.

One summer morning in 1981, while I was away at college, Allan was playing basketball in a church gym in Baltimore. Driving hard to the basket, he lost his footing and flew headfirst into the wall behind the backboard. On impact, Allan felt his body disappear. He had broken his neck and become a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down. Allan was not to walk again in this life.

Even so, Allan’s ministry never flagged. He was always searching and listening for new ways to be of service to the kingdom. In the 1980s, America was in the midst of an era of great urban abandonment and division, but Christ was calling Allan, Susan and me, shaping our imaginations, to see the world in a different way. As I finished college and then attended seminary, Allan and I regularly reflected together on our commitment to join in God’s work in Baltimore, to live our lives on behalf of a “beloved community” in and for our home city.

In 1986, called to live in the community and start a church, Allan, Susan, their daughters, Jennifer and Jessica, and I moved to Sandtown, a neighborhood in West Baltimore. After a few years, we joined with others to start New Song Community Church, which in turn launched a series of community-based institutions that over the course of nearly 30 years has made a very real impact on the social and economic life of the neighborhood.

Across the decades, the friendship Allan and I shared was a gift of hope and sustaining joy for the practice of ministry. Nearly every day, we spoke in person or by phone, even after I moved to New York to start a sister church in Harlem. We talked about everything from sports to politics, from music and our families to our day-to-day work in the communities and institutions we served. But at their heart, our conversations were always about supporting one another, encouraging each other to keep reaching for the calling to which we had been called, whatever the vulnerabilities, obstacles and shortcomings we faced.

In 2010, seven years after launching City Seminary of New York, I and others were working to establish a new campus for the school. Allan had strongly encouraged the expansion, and without my asking, he arranged for the deposit money that we needed and didn’t have. As I was leaving the signing of the initial agreement, Allan called to check in. I shared my gratitude, and in our way of speaking shorthand, we talked about the new campus as one more way that we had been privileged to work together in friendship and ministry. A few months later, on June 3, 2010, Allan died.

Friendship lies at the heart of who we are created to be. From Allan I learned about friendship: how to be present, to listen, to laugh, to enjoy a good meal together, to risk, to forgive, to give without counting the cost and to see ahead for one another. I learned about ministry.

The prophet Jeremiah tells us to be committed to the city to which God has carried us -- to seek its peace, its shalom, in all spheres of life. This was our founding charism, and it carried us through all the church and community development work we did over the years. But on a simpler level, caring for a city can also include cheering for its sports teams. Yes, such loyalties can be misdirected, but at their best, they express a city’s hopes and dreams.

Invariably, whenever I watch the Yankees play or follow the standings in the American League East or tell my sons about the 1970 Baltimore Orioles that I cheered in my youth -- the team of Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson -- I talk about Allan, his love for Baltimore and his life given for the peace of Sandtown.

Now that Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter have retired from the Yankees, it occurs to me that this year, perhaps the way of Jeremiah is to be for the “Birds” -- the Baltimore Orioles, that is. Maybe this is their year.

I hope so, for Allan and for Baltimore. But just for this season.