A Grace-filled Man
by Linda Hargrove
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Alan Reberg had a growing sense that somebody should do something. People were falling through the cracks - their lives an endless cycle of exploitation and deprivation. The systems, constructed to help people in need, were stealing their lives and ignoring their voices. Could he help by adding his hands, his voice to the cry for justice? He hoped so.
"It must have been the spirit," says Al, flashing an affable smile, "that possessed me to go into the ministry." A former university hospital administrator, Al felt called in 1998 to walk alongside the economically poor in Raleigh, North Carolina as an advocate, an educator, and a friend. Al operates with the guidance of a six-person board from his church Raleigh Mennonite (RMC). Long-time board member Dave Cooper describes Al's leadership style as 'quiet yet persistent.'
RMC played an integral role in helping Al decide to make the switch from a 20-year old career path in the stable field of administration. RMC continues to affirm Al's gifts in community development in very tangible ways. They're support has been fueled by the success of Al's style, one which values everyone's input and takes the time to bring everybody along with a ministry idea. In fact, Al's ministry approach has differed significantly from other area groups that offered programs for the poor.
The RMC Economic Community Development Ministry is more than a program. To Al, an urban development ministry has to have two prongs - one targeted towards the individual and the other directed at the systems that overshadow their lives. In meeting the first goal ECDM seeks to offer education and mutual support for those of lesser means in three areas: home ownership, a credit union, and business incubation. The second goal is met by speaking out against predatory lending practices and payday lending schemes. The two prongs work together to be good news to the poor.
An overarching theme in Al's efforts as a 'good news' man is redistribution. For this principle Al credits Dr. John Perkins, a civil rights activist turned national urban ministry leader and founder of the Christian Community Development Association. The power of redistribution lies not only in reallocating wealth from the dominant white culture to the communities of people of color but it also lies in encouraging those people of color with knowledge and confidence. To be a successful agent of redistribution, Al strives to enter into the experience of the blacks he works with.
From the outside, a white American man entering into the experience of another race, particular a minority race, would be seen as presumptuous or paternalistic. Without a doubt such a departure from the norm would take a sensitivity, an interdependence, a grace that is not uncommon to those seeking the will of God. In 1967 Al's search for God's will in his life led him to take his new wife Ruth to join the work of Dr. Herman Gray among the Tiv church of Nigeria. An ethnic group concentrated in northern Nigeria, the Tiv (pronounced 'teev') make up 2.5 percent of the population of a country still torn by wars.
In 1967, barely out of the hands of British control, Nigeria raged with the Biafran Civil War. The young Rebergs, equipped with no more than 6 months of language training, helped in a clinic near Mbaakon, Nigeria. Later, as the war intensified, they helped with relief work. Al recalls the sounds of bombs and social upheaval more incredible than that of the Berkeley free speech riots he'd experienced in 1964.
Despite the upheaval, the work continued for the 23 year old biology major. Babies were still being born, people still needed to farm and fish. Al could not help but mature - his surroundings demanded it. His thinking changed, his heart grew through the great and the small: holding a flashlight while Dr. Gray performed a caesarean with local anesthesia; meeting the much-feared Black Scorpion, General Benjamin Adekunle; providing refugees with fishhooks and hoes. He began to examine the mechanics of the systems that moved around him. What was the truth? What were the dynamics? What would be a just solution? These and more questions he asked.
Al continued to ask similar questions when he returned to the States in 1973. He first took his new skills and insights into the field of hospital administration. Al sought to be involved intimately in the healing process. He was not satisfied with just moving the machine efficiently. Many times he could be found visiting bedsides, holding hands. For Al 'being involved in the healing was the rewarding thing.' His time with the hurting brought richness to his work with numbers and programs. The need had a face and a name.
One of Al's greatest frustrations in ministry today is with the system that preys on the most needy. With open anger, he describes services offered to black borrowers -- high lending and credit card rates and repeated refinancing without consent. To him, the practices prove that racism still exists in America. He's deeply troubled, at times discouraged, by the system that gives him privileges because he's white.
"It's a long walk," Al concedes, speaking of the journey with his black brothers and sisters. It is for this reason that he chooses to celebrate the little victories. He encourages those in his Home Buyers Club to form a trusting community, helping and being helped, growing together. "We have to celebrate little victories as well as big ones," he explains, "If somebody learns one or two things about how to stay out of financial trouble or how to do something better in their life, hallelujah they've one." Al beams. "They've won!"
Al and Ruth Reberg have made some calculated choices in their lives to be intentional about crossing racial lines in their Christian journey. "[The conscious crossing of these lines] is another part of our redemption," Al states. Al and Ruth attend monthly dinners that foster strong relationships across racial lines as part of the racial reconciliation program offered by another urban ministry in the Raleigh area. It is in such relationships that stereotypes are dismantled and the Gospel is made real to the world outside the church.
"I resist institutionalized relationships," explains Al, stressing his credo on people. Al spends much of his time face to face with the people he serves, offering confidential financial counsel and motivation. At times his clients are forced to pull back for a time. Al finds this only slightly disappointing. "Nothing is wasted in anything we do," he stresses, "I've got a new friend, regardless of how far we get [in the process]."
Al's Nigerian yokefellow, Kofi Atta Ben Bani testifies to Al's heart for the community and commitment to friendships. 'He's always willing to learn new things,' says Atta. "His greatest concerns are to bring people together and see Jesus manifested to them through deeds and not so much in words." On many occasions Al and Atta, also a minister and community development specialist in Raleigh, join forces to reach common goals. They have separate ministries but a similar philosophy - Jesus is best made known through community development with the dignity of the individual in mind. This hands and hearts approach across racial lines adds strength to their work and their friendship. They meet weekly with a mutual friend over breakfast, to pray and take stock.
Knowing how to evaluate progress in ministry is still a challenge to Al. The former administrator is constantly listening to his friend-clients, so as not to miss a blessing. He's constantly reminding himself to 'distrust' the images and presumptions that flash through his mind about the people he serves. He admits to struggling against the 'selfish me' in order to listen for the 'self that God wants.' To do this, Al reminds himself, he's got to let those he serves make the best choice for their life. "People aren't projects," he says. He teaches the skill, be it buying a home or borrowing money, and out of respect and love, he steps away.
Al's able to step away with a good conscience because of grace. It is God's grace, unearned and priceless, that's been given to him countless times. This precious commodity runs through the experiences of Al Reberg's life like rails through fence posts. Grace has helped him make sense of the civil strife he witnessed in Nigeria, the systemic racial injustice he sees in his own country, and the blind trust given to him by a child he's just met. Al concludes, "In the giving and receiving, that is where all the grace is."
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