God welcomed a hero two weeks ago: 55-year-old Allan Tibbels died of multiple organ failure.
I learned of Allan’s death through an email from a California reader, Peyton Bray, who wrote, “I thought you might want to know (Allan) passed away today. It is a sad day in Sandtown and in the world.” Indeed.
Sandtown was Allan’s little piece of heaven. In 1987, Allan, his wife, and their young daughters moved from a 13-acre suburban Baltimore spread to Sandtown, which was arguably the most crime- and drug-infested neighborhood in Baltimore, one of America’s most crime- and drug-infested cities. He, his family, and a friend became the only white people among more than 10,000 African Americans.
Why? In 2003, when I interviewed him for this column, he said, “I believe Christians should live their lives on behalf of their neighbors, which means they should be in the most ‘hurting’ of places.”
Oh, I forgot to mention: Allan was a wheelchair-using quadriplegic paralyzed from a 1981 basketball injury. He lived in an accessible Sandtown row home. I knew him only because he had been an elder in a Baltimore church I joined. We had common friends.
In 2001, U.S. News and World Report honored Allan Tibbels as one of 20 American “heroes” in part for establishing in Sandtown the New Song Community Church, 100-student New Song Academy, Sandtown Habitat for Humanity, and job and health centers. Almost 300 Sandtown families now own homes due to Allan’s leadership.
These accomplishments aside, on a deeper, more human level, Allan loved every single Sandtown resident and they could sense that love.
One story I heard almost 18 years ago: Allan had just moved to Sandtown when two men broke into his home and one held a knife to his throat demanding money. Allan’s predictable response: “Why are you doing this to me? I love you guys.”
Allan no doubt got those words from his favorite book, the Bible, which notes in John 15:13: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (New International Version).
He went on to survive that close call. Now he has reached a final calling. For that 2003 interview and column, he said, “[As for me] I’d rather be in a wheelchair glorifying God than on my feet and not. I’m very accepting of my disability.”