Seven years ago former combat arms officer Phillip Fletcher moved with his wife and three children to Conway, Ark., to be closer to in-laws. He had worked with chaplains while stationed in Iraq and street-preached in Conway. He was finishing through distance learning a master’s in theology and apologetics from Liberty University.
Fletcher ran across a 200-unit trailer park known for poverty, prostitution, drug activity, alcoholism, and domestic disputes. He’s African-American and most of the residents were white, but he loaded his wife and three young children, folding chairs, sound system, and Bible into their minivan. They drove into the park and unloaded their gear onto a grassy lot, and Fletcher preached.
For three months of Sundays no one participated. “Occasionally, someone would peek outside or walk onto their front stoop and give me a ‘What is that guy doing!’ look,” he says, “but no other interest.” So Fletcher bought a sleeping bag and a tent and camped out one weekend in the park, alone. A drunkard cussed at him and a prostitute high on crack accosted him, but during the day he went door to door with a bucket of cleaning products, offering to help clean or repair mobile homes.
That Sunday Fletcher preached and one person listened. But Sunday by Sunday more residents came to the vacant lot—some in shorts, some without a shirt or shoes, some intoxicated or high. Seven years later his Sunday attendance is up to 12 percent of the trailer park’s residents. They attend regardless of weather conditions. Sometimes they stand around a fire pit. Sometimes they huddle under the metal roof of an abandoned trailer.
Fletcher now continues to preach on Sunday but also runs City of Hope Outreach (CoHO) out of a renovated building at the entrance to the trailer park. He offers a washer and dryer, counseling, tutoring, computers, a Bible study, and a monthly community lunch. Residents can reserve the building for showers, receptions, and other special events, and a donated trailer serves as an emergency homeless shelter. When residents even came up with ideas for a playground and community garden, Fletcher assisted with resources but let them do the work and take ownership of the projects.
The playground now displays a sign that reads, “An idea by parents for kids.” Domestic abuse and crime rates in the park are now lower: Calls for service dropped from 722 in 2010 to 635 in 2011. Fletcher says, “I could come in here and give them a Scripture when they are angry or hurting, but they need to know someone cares and isn’t going to take something from them. ... You can’t just ‘parachute in,’ take a bad area, and make it a utopia. People, no matter how poor they are, can see right through that.”
Fletcher has now organized a similar effort at another Conway mobile home park where the resident majority is Hispanic. The alcoholic who cussed at Fletcher the weekend he camped out is now one of his best friends. The man still struggles with alcohol addiction, but Fletcher says “he breaks my heart because he has a brilliant mind and I know I have to be patient and allow the grace of God to work in him.”
Movie theaters before the advent of television showed newsreels along with cartoons and feature presentations. Major newsreel producer British Pathé has uploaded its 85,000-film archive to YouTube (youtube.com/user/britishpathe). The collection is searchable (look for the little magnifying glass at the top) and includes videos of famous people and events, cultural oddities, and disasters, including the explosion of the hydrogen-filled German dirigible Hindenburg over New Jersey in 1937. —Susan Olasky
Bobby Siears was a professional cabinetmaker for 25 years until, he says, God called him early one Sunday morning last year to help grieving families. Since then he has made more than 65 child-sized, cypress caskets—or coffins—in his Sorrento, La., wood shop, and donated them to families from South Carolina to Oklahoma.
“People ask me, ‘How do you deal with so much death?’ I see it as hope for the family that’s left behind,” Siears, 42, said in a quiet voice as he carefully worked on two caskets at the same time. One, for a premature baby, was the size of a man’s shoe box. The other, slightly larger, was for a toddler.
Siears built caskets for his best friend four years ago and for his father two years ago, but when a local special needs boy wandered away from home and drowned in a ditch, something inside him changed: “We went to bed Saturday night and Sunday morning, 4:30 or 5, I got up and built a little casket.”
Siears called that casket-making “listening to God.” He shelved his business and now makes the caskets that make a difference for grieving parents like Katie and Matthew Alombro, who wrote, “It was the most beautiful casket we had ever seen and it meant so much to us that people like you were so helpful in our time of need.” Another mom, Jessica Martin, wrote about her stillborn daughter: “We didn’t know how we would be able to afford anything to bury her and in one day Mr. Bobby built my precious angel a casket!”
The caskets would cost thousands of dollars if purchased. They come in seven sizes, and there are no requirements regarding income, race, or religion. Siears’ goal is 200 caskets a year. —Mark H. Hunter