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Closer to heaven, workers repair steeples and lives

August 23, 2010

HUNTSVILLE, Ala.

When William Thornton goes to work in the morning, all he can see is a cross lifted against the sky as he swings around the steeple of First Methodist Church 100 feet above the petty concerns of the city.

His work reminds him of the balancing act of his own life.

“The spiritual aspect keeps me straight,” Thornton said. “It helps me. It surely helps me.”

Thornton might be a recovering drug addict or an ex-convict. He may be just a skilled construction worker. Or a seminary student working a summer job. Tony Stratton has all of those kinds of people working for him, but the past doesn’t matter.

“The Christian life is not about being labeled, identified, restricted,” said Stratton, a third-generation steeplejack and a fourth-generation preacher who runs Inspired Heights, a steeple reconstruction company in Rockford, Ill.

“It’s about living today to serve God. It’s about hanging on to your lifeline.”

Life — either on the ground or suspended mid-air, is about keeping your lines straight and your ropes anchored, says Stratton, a lay jail chaplain. It’s about depending on something real and solid. About looking up and having a back-up system, a partner.

“It’s all about mentoring,” said Stratton, who is training his son, seminary student A.J., 20, in the skills of his trade. “It’s about accountability. It’s about strengthening one another. We are mutually accountable and mutually supportive.”

Every safety system is doubled for the eight-man crew that is spending two months riveting copper into place on First Methodist’s 1874 steeple. The crew uses rappelling techniques developed on sailing ships — a system that’s actually safer than constructing a web of scaffolding around the steeple, Stratton says.

Stratton runs his crews like a monastery for construction workers.

“While we’re on the job, we live together, we eat together, we study together, we work together,” Stratton said.

The crew is up at dawn and on the road at 6:15 a.m. Once on site, they meet for Bible study at 7:15 and are on the job by 8:30 a.m. or so for 10 hours, with a half-hour break at lunch.

“Or an hour, if we really complain about the heat,” says A.J., grinning as his father ambles over to put a playful headlock on his son.

The workday ends with breakdown and an hour of Bible study. The crew eats dinner on the way back to the hotel, where they shower and sleep. It's all repeated six days a week, unless there is a Saturday wedding at the church.

And the seventh day? They rest, of course.

Most Sundays, they’ll attend the church they are repairing. `We don’t want to be the typical contractor that comes in just for the paycheck,” Stratton said. “We’re here as part of the Body of Christ to serve the church. We want to come and worship with them.”

In everything, Stratton says, a Christian seeks to glorify God, and it’s no different with the work of repairing the buildings erected for the glory of God.

“A church steeple is designed to lift one’s head upward, to remind you that there’s just one way,” Stratton said. “Back in the day, the steeple would have been the highest point in town. It’s a testimony to the people of the town that God is still in control, and even if you’ve strayed away from church, when they get ready, he’ll be there.”

The idea of combining his inherited trade with ministry was a calling that came with the territory, Stratton said. As his work expanded into jobs that required travel, he realized he didn’t have to stop ministry to go on the road.  He could take the ministry with him.

“The first steeplejacks were sailors,” Stratton said. “They would come into port and work the steeples while they waited for their next ship. Frankly, it’s hard to find people to work roofs and construction that are not like the old sailors.”

Stratton says he can identify with the hard-luck tales of his crew. He’s had his own struggles, but it’s not something there’s any reason to talk about now.

“In Christ, the old is gone. He’s dead,” Stratton said. “The past is not as relevant as: What do I do with my life today?”

The work undergirds the Bible lessons that Stratton leads at the beginning and end of each day: a change of focus, looking up, renewing the old and repairing the broken, digging out the rot and replacing it with strong new parts.

At the end of the day, after they’ve broken down the 60-foot, 200-pound extension ladder, the crew moves inside to a Sunday School room where they’ve set up a circle of chairs.

William Thornton writes a note to his fiancee. Stratton boots up his computer to scroll to the day’s lesson. Mike Miller makes jokes about how he thinks he’s getting to be afraid of heights. Melvin Kennedy walks a little unsteadily, slowed by pain medication for an unfortunate run-in between his index finger and flecks of steel from a drill bit.

Andy Guthrie and A.J. share a notebook. Orlando Bea, the youngest member of the crew, tips his chair back onto its hind legs and chats with Torue Solomon beside him, a strong ex-con and recovering addict who’s become one of the regular and returning mentors on Stratton’s team.

Then Stratton leads the group in prayer.

“This is not just something being restored on the outside,” Stratton says afterwards. “This is God restoring lives.”

Kay Campbell writes for The Huntsville Times in Huntsville, Ala.

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