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Allan Tibbels, Rest in Peace: For You Showed Us What Peace Looks Like

June 9, 2010

Last Thursday during the Duke Summer Institute, I received word that my friend Allan Tibbels had died suddenly in Baltimore at age 55 of multiple organ failure.  In 1986, with their friend Mark Gornik, Allan and his wife Susan relocated from privilege into abandoned row houses in Baltimore’s Sandtown neighborhood.  1,000 abandoned properties dotted the 15 blocks.   An added challenge:  Allan was a recent quadriplegic, from a basketball accident that bound him to a wheelchair.  Over 24 years in Sandtown, Allan and others founded New Song Church and Urban Ministries, one of the leading signs of hope in Christian community development (including an astounding 250 Habitat homes for new homeowners).  Allan hated it when the media called him a hero.  He didn’t understand himself apart from neighborhood “remainers” who could have moved but faithfully stayed in Sandtown even during the crack epidemic of the 1980’s—people like Elder and Amelia Harris and LaVerne Stokes.  I wrote the following for Allan’s memorial book.

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7)

Paul expresses here the profound mystery of God’s ministry of reconciliation:  God puts good news for a broken world not with the qualified, the competent, and the strong but in “earthen vessels,” “jars of clay.”  In unlikely, faithful vessels of fragility and weakness God puts the good news and inserts power to show that “the way things are is not the way things have to be.”

What power God revealed to so many through Allan in his fragility, his faithfulness, his wounds, his transparency, his wheelchair which moved as “a long obedience in the same direction” on the streets of Sandtown.  The message of reconciliation is not fundamentally given to be proclaimed or believed, but to be embodied in our flesh.  This is what God gave us in Allan Tibbels.  He revealed to us through Allan’s very body and journey and story what reconciliation not only looks like but is, breaking in as good news in real places like Sandtown.

Yet Allan’s body and journey makes no sense apart from the bodies to which his body became entwined in intimacy and friendship, sharing blood, sweat, and tears—with Susan’s body, with Mark’s body, with Laverne’s body, with Elder Harris and Amelia’s bodies, with the bodies of so many others in the zip code of Sandtown.  Allan was continually surprised at all that happened in ministry in Sandtown.  As well as Allan knew and experienced the story over so many years with New Song, he always seemed genuinely surprised by it all.  Of not being wowed by “what we achieved.”

Why?  Because he was constantly aware of his limits and cracks and he knew, he knew, the mystery and the story: “the all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” Yes there was blood, sweat, and tears and they all matter.  But in the end, it was all miracle.  Allan’s body and long journey in Sandtown reveal a wondrous thing:  how God takes our shared life and fragility across divides – the mixing of our blood, sweat, and tears – and transforms it into miracles.  Because the “Word became flesh,” God makes it possible for our flesh to reveal the Word.  Allan’s life reveals the Word to us, showing us what love looks like, a taste of an immense love beyond what we ask for or imagine or deserve.

God, thank you for the wonder and miracle of this earthen vessel named Allan Tibbels and for the wonders you revealed through him to us.  May our flesh be shaped by his flesh.


About the Author: Chris Rice is co-director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School.  He is author of Reconciling All Things, Grace Matters, and More Than Equals. He writes regularly at the blog Reconcilers.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Scott Truex permalink
    June 14, 2010 7:21 am

    Great tribute to Allan Tibbels. I consider Sandtown “holy ground” because the presence of God’s love is so strong. Hard to find a better example of Christian community development being lived out than this Westside Baltimore community!

    Thanks for telling the story so well.

  2. July 8, 2010 9:52 am

    Chris, thanks for your beautiful words. It was especially wonderful to read it now, as we’ve recently finished with our annual Summer Building Week. How strange and sad to look over and not see his wheelchair there beside the tents. But how marvelous to still feel his presence and to know he’s out of that chair now!

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