Preaching drawn from memory of homelessness Pastor found salvation through kindness of strangers

December 28, 1997|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Brian W. Jackson still winces at the memory of homelessness. But, the kindness of strangers stands out more vividly than brutal weather or constant deprivation.

Now a Methodist minister, Jackson says he was born to preach. He is returning kindnesses extended years ago to a homeless stranger by retelling his story to anyone willing to hear it.

"I have such great gratitude to people who didn't know me and took care of me," he said. "They gave me clothing, food and understanding."

His pastoral duties at two rural congregations in Carroll and Howard counties allow him time to return to Baltimore. He preaches at the missions that once sheltered him and on the same city streets that he once called home.

"I love to read the word of God, visit the sick and raise food for the hungry," said Jackson. "I want to support the ministries that helped me. Every time I return, I think there but for the grace of God go I."

The 42-year-old pastor long ago overcame the addictions that impoverished and nearly destroyed him. He hopes sharing his experiences can help others.

'I give people hope'

"I share my background," he said. "Just by showing up, I give people hope."

That background makes for fiery sermons and heartfelt preaching, said Edna Johnson, a lay leader and longtime member at St. Luke United Methodist Church.

"We all know about his past, and it makes him a better preacher," she said. "He admits what happened to him and emphasizes how God is using him to help others."

She sees her pastor as the embodiment of corporal works of mercy and she hopes other churches will join his efforts to help the downtrodden, she said.

"He has been sent here to do different things and be a wonderful example to us," she said.

Jackson said he is not alone in his ministry. "I am blessed to walk with these folks in the ministry," he said.

The preacher has been outspoken in his support for City of Hope, a private, nonprofit homeless shelter and training center proposed for the former state hospital at Henryton. Neighbors of the Marriottsville property have mounted a strenuous opposition to the programs they say are not needed in Carroll County.

Support

"Without programs like City of Hope, I would not be here today," he said. "I would have died on the streets. Many who did not sink as far down as I did never made it back."

Ordained in 1994 and working now on his doctorate in ministry, Jackson said years of battling his own addiction have given him "an intimacy with major social problems" unknown to all but a few of his calling.

Changing an addict's environment and offering job training are vital to the recovery process and a major gap in many existing rehabilitative programs, Jackson said.

"I could have written the City of Hope proposal myself," Jackson said. "We have to give people time to figure out what to do and how to do it."

His own example helps to prove his theory, he said. In his sermons, he replays his experiences as an inner-city teen-ager, a boy who graduated from Walbrook High and served in the Army, all the while abusing alcohol and drugs.

"I really didn't know what an alcoholic was," he said. "I thought everybody drank."

By the time he was 25, he was an unemployed vagrant, crawling into boarded-up houses at night, too drunk to notice the rats and debris until he awoke the next day.

"In the daylight, I would wonder how I had not been hurt," he said. "I couldn't panhandle, but I quickly learned the network of soup kitchens and shelters."

Back from the brink

At the Helping Up Mission 17 years ago, a preacher encouraged him to participate in a detox program. Jackson has not had a drink since. After the program, he lived in a halfway house, where he underwent group counseling and read the Bible from cover to cover, searching for answers in Scripture. He prayed, fasted and decided on the ministry.

"I placed that which God created back into God's hands, trusting God to re-create me," he said.

"Delivered of his demons," he enrolled at Coppin State College, earning a bachelor's degree in psychology. He prepared for the ministry at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington where he was awarded a master's degree in divinity three years ago.

In 1995 he came to a dual pastorship at St. Luke United Methodist in Sykesville and Mount Gregory in Cooksville. He has found his first assignment more urban than most residents would expect.

No escaping

"The city is coming out here rapidly," he said. "We have problems here that are just like everywhere else. There is no escaping the cult of addiction in this society."

He never lets up in the battle and considers his own recovery a miracle, one that he would like to share with others.

Pub Date: 12/28/97

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