Milwaukee Paradise

Several months ago I reentered Milwaukee a year removed from the most life-changing summer of my life. Midway through the summer I blogged about that heavy drive into the city; here now is the continuation of that tale, recounting my 24 hours back in sweet Milwaukee.

After parking on all too familiar Logan Street I stumbled from my car and walked around the Lutheran church that served as my team’s housing site last summer. Perhaps the most eerie stroll I’ve ever taken. Our old conference room had been converted into a soup kitchen storage room. Our staff lounge had new furniture. Our chalkboard messages for next year’s Milwaukee staffers were still clearly visible 9 months later, ready for their innocent eyes that very weekend.

Soul-jarring. All of it.

The next morning I journaled on the shores of Lake Michigan for the first time in far too long. Cried throughout and afterward. Had to consciously assert this hardened reality. Was I really sitting on this log – my log – with Milwaukee’s distinct skyline nestled atop the pristine waters of this Great Lake?

I was back?

Milwaukee: A Year Later

When I left Milwaukee last August, I often felt like a sloppy bearded Jack Shepherd, inwardly screaming how I needed to go “baaaaaack.” And now I was.

I was back.

And yet it was different. My incredible YouthWorks team was not there alongside me. This felt wholly wrong, for they largely represent what made my YouthWorks summer so life-altering. I missed them deeply. Missed the specialness of being one of four young adults from across America thrown into a completely foreign city. To so intimately minister to said city.

Connecting with familiar faces in Milwaukee helped alleviate the weighty loneliness of my return. I re-walked the vibrant streets of Gingerbread Land and locked eyes with Miss T, a jolly black woman with a pension for smiling on her front porch.

“Hey, I know that face!” she chimed as I emerged from my car and paced down the brightly painted sidewalk. Words can’t translate the deepness of the smile that formed upon my own face.

Miss T and I talked for 20 minutes. She caught me up on the uncertainty facing Gingerbread as I shared the uncertain anxieties of where I’d soon be going. She told me not to worry; Jesus was in the boat with me.

“Why were the disciples going crazy when He was in their boat?” she said. “All He had to do was say peace, and everything was okay.”

And I learned sometimes you need more than simple silent reading of Scripture for your day-to-day growth and well-being. Sometimes you need someone to audibly speak words of truth for your ears, your mind, your soul to digest in new life-giving ways.

I surely experienced that sensation with Miss T this day. She told me I have a gift for interaction. A face that connects with people. Especially young ones. That’s good, considering my upcoming camp counselor position this summer. Miss T even went so far to say I could start my own ministry someday.

I couldn’t begin to tell her how so very wrong she was about all of that, about me. How I’m not at all capable of such aims. And yet I graciously accepted her unnerving compliment/prophecy, knowing I give myself enough grief regarding my introversion on a daily basis.

Miss T is perhaps one of the fullest manifestations of Christian I’ve ever crossed paths with. She told me about guys who’d stumbled onto Gingerbread Land’s mystical street, bringing swearing, drinking, and fighting along with them, and how she’d bluntly tell them none of that stuff belonged there. Not in Gingerbread Land — only love exists there.

So, they left.

Milwaukee: Gingerbread Land

Miss T said I always had a place to stay in Milwaukee. She gave me her number and said if I’m ever in town at 3am to call her because she’d be awake like a vampire, and she’d cook some breakfast for me.

Good ole Miss T. Miss T is love. I see Jesus in Miss T.

Do people see Jesus in me?

Milwaukee Sign

I ate lunch with the pastor of that Lutheran church, catching him up on how I’ve started finding community and belonging in California, and he told me of the advances in his own church. I greatly admire this man and the countless ways his congregation reaches out to a needy Milwaukee community.

That night I attended this church’s weekly soup kitchen – a fantastic outreach for the homeless and yet another meal on this winding road trip that I didn’t have to worry about covering with my non-existent finances. I reconnected with church and community members at this meal whom I hadn’t seen in nearly a year. Was delighted that they actually recognized, remembered me.

I love this city. Milwaukee has a gripping hold on me unlike any geographic coordinate on this planet – and I’ve seen my share of coordinates.

Milwaukee changed my life in ways this mere blog cannot translate into words. Any feeble mention of “tears” and “agony” and “dread” throughout these two posts do nothing to explain Milwaukee’s impact on my life. The place it forever holds in my soul.

I reentered Paradise today. And now I must prepare to leave her enticing gates once more. But I’m learning bits and pieces of Paradise lay scattered around this globe. I’m slowly grasping how I’ll never fully piece together that elusive puzzle of Paradise until I pass from this planet.

I’m sad to leave Milwaukee, but I’m grateful. So incredibly blessed by the chance to return when I once wondered if I ever would. For the chance to even come here the first time. That God would choose to use such a beautiful city for changing lives. Changing mine.

A place to release the lie that the hope of community, purpose, and belonging was beyond me. A place to embrace the beautiful agonizing dreadful indescribable truth that I am, indeed, worth something, put on this earth for the purpose of not simply receiving love, but distributing it as well. Giving it freely and amply.

Because Milwaukee’s not just about me. It never was, and it never will be. And yet my life is inexplicably changed regardless, wandering onward from this special piece of Paradise.

Sweet Milwaukee and I

  • Elena

    Beautiful post, Tom. Brought tears to my eyes. I love, love Miss T. And as to your ministry? Perhaps a ministry of words. Finally, I’ve had this experience of returning to a place that held great meaning in my life but it just wasn’t the same. Why? As the great AH once said: It’s not always about the location but the people we connect with in that place … that’s what gives it meaning.

  • MLYaksh

    One of the greatest encouragements I can receive is to see someone I haven’t talked to or anything in about a year and to hear what they have to say. About a year ago, I saw a friend I hadn’t talked with in about 3 years- she said a phrase to me that almost brought me to tears. I pray I never forget it- cause it had nothing to do with me.

    It’s amazing how that one idea seems to thread its way through every lesson we all learn. More and more, I realize how little of part I play in the grand plan of the Master. And yet that doesn’t make me feel less purposeful- it makes me humbled. But it makes feel valued- a new concept to me. But a concept that is true for all of us.

    And careful what you say about not going into ministry. While you may not start a church, you never know what God might have you do with your gifts!

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