We were on pins and needles all the time. We were constantly looking over our shoulders…
When Chris joined a local church in the Tuscaloosa area a few years ago, everything was as one might expect. He attended regularly, sang in the choir, and was motivated in a life of what he thought was Christian service. Two years later, however, he began experiencing increased hostility from prominent individuals in the congregation, was often singled out during services, and even received threatening text messages and phone calls.
Though the exact reason for the aggression still isn’t fully understood, Chris noticed the shift when he started gaining notoriety for his artistic talents in some of the more affluent circles of the community. The abuse continued to escalate over the course of several weeks and Chris soon realized that the seriousness of the problem had reached a critical level.
“I was informed [by a reliable source] that there was a plan to kill me,” he said. “It was frightening, but also heartbreaking because you think you can trust people at church. I ended up having to escape for my life.”
Chris, and a woman he described as his “spiritual mother,” ended up fleeing what they believe was a religious cult. The two abruptly abandoned their lives, homes, and jobs and tried everything possible to disappear.
“I didn’t tell anyone where I was going, not even my family,” he said. “We were on pins and needles all the time. We were constantly looking over our shoulders to see if we were being setup in any type of way. It caused a lot of paranoia.”
The terrified travelers sought temporary asylum in various hotels while trying to formulate at long-term plan, but the expense soon emptied their bank accounts and ultimately left them living in a car.
Desperate for a more stable solution, Chris eventually reached out to a fire station in Brookwood where he thought they could find food and shelter. It was a firefighter that told them about the Jimmie Hale Mission.
“I called over here and they said to come in,” he recalled. “I got in the program at [the Sheprua Men’s Center] and my spiritual mother went to Jessie’s Place. She stayed there for about six months before getting her own place and I’ve been here ever since.”
Chris completed the first two phases of the program over nine months and was later hired at the Bargain Center warehouse.
For months, he wouldn’t let anyone know he was an artist, but all of that changed one afternoon when he mentioned his passion for drawing to a supervisor whose wife was into the arts. After bringing in some portfolio samples upon request, it quickly became known among the staff at the Mission that Chris was indeed an exceptional talent.
“They showed some of my work to Sharon in human resources and she reached out to me,” he said. “She commented on me potentially doing some work for the [Men’s] Center and Jessie’s Place and now that’s becoming a reality.
Chris confided that though the Mission has become his home, the transition from refugee to stability wasn’t an easy one.
“This place has provided a healing experience for me on the spiritual side,” Chris said. “When I first got here I was very timid; very shaky. I was constantly worried about them finding me. At first I didn’t trust going back to church. I didn’t trust leadership. I didn’t know if I could really trust again. It took a lot for me to rebuild trust, but over time I did and could even share my experience. I’ve come a long way over these last two years.”
In addition to providing several original pieces for the Mission’s Christmas campaign, Chris is also collaborating with program director LaTonya Melton on a mural for Jessie’s Place.
This door was open when others weren’t open to me.
“These projects are a way for me to give back,” he said. “This door was open when others weren’t open to me. This is a way I can give back using the gifts that I have.”
Other examples of Chris’ artwork may soon be on display at the Birmingham Museum of Art. He is also an accomplished jazz and gospel singer and frequents establishments throughout the city showcasing the vocal side of his talent range.
His goal is to eventually open his own art business and help others hone their craft. “I’d like to teach art,” Chris said. “That’s my passion and something I’d love to do.”