The Brown House is more than just a house
Alum Amy Pierce, alongside husband Adam, fosters sense of community with Christ-centric approach through Brown House Ministry in Newport, Alabama.
Andrea Zahler |
The Brown House is unremarkable. It is just a house, after all—a brown one.
“There was nothing particularly special about it,” said Amy Pierce, a former Lipscomb student who, along with her husband, Adam Pierce (’95), moved into the unremarkable brown house in the early 2000s. Before that, they had been living a few blocks away in the historic district of downtown Northport, Alabama. “We wanted to be intentional and purposeful with our lives but at that time we weren’t,” she said.
“We had no profound revelation,” added Adam. “We looked at Jesus’ life on earth and saw where he spent His time and who He spent His time with. Then we looked at our lives and saw that they were not modeled after His. We thought that maybe we should put in a little effort to our lives so they would look more like Jesus. How could we live in a community with people like He did?”
“We wanted to do community, to walk with people, and there was this community right down the street,” Amy recalled.
The community right down the street was West Circle, a government housing neighborhood with around 200 duplexes and apartments. “When a house became available in West Circle the timing just seemed right. We moved in and we’ve been here for almost 20 years now.”
Without a list of goals, a step-by-step development plan or even a vision board, the Pierces’ ministry in West Circle was able to form naturally over time through the relationships they made with their neighbors. Like many naturally-formed things, it grew in unexpected, wild and beautiful ways. Although, Amy admits, there was an adjustment period in the beginning as they tried to discern how to love their neighbors as Jesus would. “I thought I knew what they needed and what I could offer. But I didn’t know them.”
According to the “What We Do” section of The Brown House website, their ministry today includes after-school tutoring, a community library, a community garden, weekly youth group programs in the summer, seasonal events, help navigating social and emergency services, counseling and the Brayden House which offers free housing and meals for displaced parents of babies in the NICU of the local hospital.
“But,” said Adam, “what we really do is none of those things.”
Their ministry, according to Amy, is “to have a sense of awareness day-to-day. I try to be intentional in coming to know and love my neighbor. There are these boundaries that exist between us based on racial history, socio-economics and culture. I cultivate actual relationships with my neighbors across those boundaries. For example, when someone sees the clothesline in our backyard, they may ask, ‘Hey, can I hang my laundry on your line?’ and then we get to hang out in the backyard and get to know each other while their clothes dry.”
While neighbors regularly come to them with different needs, “it’s not about fixing a problem,” Adam explained. “Our sons are friends, so we get to know each other. We see each other in the garden. We sit at the table and talk about our lives. There are times when we can help, and there are other times we cannot meet their needs. But I can listen and be a friend. Sometimes other ways to help reveal themselves out of that friendship.
“There is often a lot of shame and embarrassment in having to ask for help, but there’s an ease in communicating about life with friends. So, the question for us, then, is not ‘how can I help?’ It’s ‘how can I create relationships?’ Where can we be friends? And our neighbors have helped us, too. Ministry is often one-sided. Relationships are reciprocal. You want them to be. One neighbor gave us chicken; Amy showed her how to use a Crock Pot. That’s the way community works.”
This reframing of ministry is reflected in the Pierces defining mission for The Brown House: proximity, community and opportunity.
“Maybe some people can become more Christ-like without moving. Maybe it’s a sign of our inherent weakness that we couldn’t get there where we were,” Adam pondered. But for them, physical proximity to the West Circle community was a needed step toward Jesus. Loving their neighbors did not have to be a metaphor. Why not just become neighbors?
“Once you spend time with people in the types of places Jesus stayed, how you see and interpret the world shifts. You see and understand what you didn’t before. If we think Jesus was right—that He was the best humanity can be—then the more time we spend in those places, the more Christ-like our view of the world, ourselves and our neighbors becomes.”
When worldviews shift, so do priorities. After 20 years Adam finds that he cares more about being present with people than being perfect on theological principles.
“Does it really matter what I believe about free will when our friend [who doesn’t have a home] knocks on my door?” he said. “I’m convinced that is what’s most important. Are we being Christ where Christ is needed? Are we being Christ’s presence in the world?”
While Adam, a business owner with a Lipscomb physics degree, has seen his life with God and neighbors become more in line with Jesus since moving to West Circle, he says the groundwork for that life was laid years before while he was a student at Lipscomb in the “crowded Bible classes of [then-Bible faculty] Randy Harris.”
Some 15 years after graduating from Lipscomb, Adam heard Harris speak again at a college event and realized just how transforming those classes had been. “His way of acknowledging the mystery and vastness of God coupled with an ethical and moral approach to neighbors was hugely impactful on my life. In many ways what he taught in his classes have become deeply held beliefs of my own.”
When Amy thinks about Lipscomb, she chooses to imagine its future possibilities instead of reminiscing about the past. She sees the faces of specific children who have grown up alongside The Brown House. “Maybe there are opportunities at Lipscomb for them. I know Christian institutions want to make an impact and this would be a way to do that. We can be purposeful and intentional about giving opportunities to students from communities like West Circle.”
Amy is adept at imagining possibilities. Being purposeful and intentional about opportunities for their neighborhood continues to be at the heart of The Brown House even during the pandemic. At the same time COVID-19 restrictions placed limits on proximity, they inspired creative responses to the needs of the community.
“Our after-school tutoring ended abruptly when schools closed. It was so sudden that there were no goodbyes, no hugs. Our tutors became pen pals. We started seeing people around the neighborhood less because they were staying home. I didn’t see some neighbors for weeks,” said Amy. “The neighbors I did see I would talk to standing back in the doorway.”
When the pandemic continued into the summer and fall, other Brown House activities had to be canceled or changed, too, like the weekly Thursday night events and the yearly talent show. “We did have a socially distanced cookout, which was our neighbor’s suggestion,” said Amy. In lieu of hosting the 10th annual Halloween party, the Pierces created an online fundraiser to raise $10,000 to “celebrate 10 years of community Halloween fun.”
“Our community garden involvement is the best it’s been this fall. White, Black and Latino all gardening together. It’s a good outdoor activity and stress reliever, I think,” she said. “There is a local church that has partnered with us to build extra seating on our back porch and build picnic tables for more outdoor seating.”
When the fall semester began, Amy started to work at the local elementary school in the mornings to help fill in any gaps teachers may be experiencing with behavior and academics.
“We went back and forth about whether to start our after-school tutoring again. We don’t want to risk anyone’s health and at the same time we don’t want our kids to fall behind. We want them to have some sense of normalcy. So our decision was ‘let’s try it and modify as we go,’” she said.
Instead of 20-25 kids meeting around kitchen tables and huddled together on the floor, tutoring now takes place outside with 10-15 kids, each one sitting inside a hula hoop. Instead of saying hello with a hug, they greet each other by touching toes. Instead of sharing school supplies, each student has their own binder, paper, markers, glue and sanitizer that stays with Amy when they leave. All snacks are now individually packaged, all water is bottled and all faces are masked.
“We don’t do this alone,” said Amy. “We have an army of people who enable us to do this. We are not lacking in volunteers, and I’m extremely grateful for that.”
A nursing club at the University of Alabama bought all of the binders and school supplies. Two donors gifted them with wagons when Amy mentioned on social media that she needed a way to haul all of the school supplies back and forth from her house to the outdoor tutoring site.
“People are reaching out to us saying, ‘I don’t know what to do. How can I serve?’ So, it’s not ideal, but we’re doing what we can. And it seems to be worth doing anyway.”
In West Circle, Adam and Amy Pierce have discovered a way of life worth doing. “For me,” said Adam, following Jesus “had to be an immersive experience to be impactful. So that’s what I tell others. Commit. Commit to an act of service with those Jesus spent his time with. Volunteer as a chaplain, visit prisoners, become a foster parent. And don’t just do it for a couple of months. Make a 10-year commitment to spend time with the marginalized and see what happens.”
You can see what’s happening with The Brown House and discover ways to get involved at brownhousecommunity.org and by following them on Facebook and Instagram.