The Glass Jar City

In the summer of 2014, I graduated Fairfield University’s MFA Program.  I remember getting home from the final residency and thinking about the future.  I had a thesis novel in hand and stood at a crossroads.

What if I could tell a story that made a difference?

The question kept me up at night. One day the second part of the equation fell into place.

In 2011, the city of Reading, Pennsylvania was named the poorest in the United States.  This city was five minutes down the road.  What if I could tell the story, conduct some interviews, and find the pulse of the place fighting to find new life?

The journey started at Hope Rescue Mission on a hot August morning. Executive director Robert Turchi and Assistant Director Frank Grill opened the doors and provided the first glimpse of what it meant to be homeless. Their connections served as a guide to future emails and contacts.

Now, almost two years later, The Glass Jar City is a week away from arrival.

Matthew Shaner

The title came from a conversation with CEO Peter Barbey.  Barbey currently runs The Reading Eagle media organization.  His investment company recently purchased The Village Voice out of New York City. We were in his office, rain pounding against the windows, talking about the current state of the city. He said:

“It is like Reading turned a glass jar over on itself, on all the problems and issues, and said ‘okay now deal with it’.”

The story is one of inspiration, of heroes on the front lines and businessmen moving on higher levels. It is a conflict of personal interest and economic stability, the hands of history reaching deep into the present and those struggling hard to move into a new future.

I spoke with Vaughn Spencer, the mayor of the city at the time, and the lead Berks County Commissioner in Christian Leinbach. I met with Sheriff Eric Weaknecht and Deputy Warden of Treatment Stephanie Smith at Berks County Prison.

I was inspired by Craig Poole (manager of the DoubleTree hotel on Penn Street) and Dan Clouser (founder of the BIG Vision Foundation), two men leading their perspective businesses with an eye towards changing lives and making a positive future.

My interview with Sherry Camelleri, guiding Mercy Community Crisis Pregnancy Center from its office on 5th Street, helped to deepen my faith and show that the smallest acts and donations can make a difference.

Stay tuned this week as I’ll post more important updates and get ready to join me on this journey through what it means to hit the bottom, shatter expectations, and find your way back to life.


New Publication

words can change the world

We write for two reasons.

1-To Be Heard

2-To Change Things

I started P356 with this goal in mind, that the words would make a difference.  Today marks the publication of my next e-book, Lazarus Art: Calling Christian Writing Back From the Dead.

“For too long the world of Christian writing has found itself in the margins. It is time to reach for a higher standard of creation. Using the Biblical story of Lazarus for inspiration, this book examines three critical areas for improvement and challenges writers of all levels to push themselves deeper into their work. Christian writing can change with some valuable first steps and find itself with new and greater audiences. The time to change is now.”

Lazarus Art

You can download the book here.

A portion of any proceeds will go to support Hope Rescue Mission, the next official Community Partner for P356.  The men at Hope are changing lives in this city on a daily basis and I am honored that they allowed me to visit and include their efforts in the current project. You can find more information about their work on the Community Partners page.

As we enter Easter Week, let us not forget the meaning beyond the candy and egg hunts.  We are called to follow, to celebrate the one who lived change on a daily basis to the point where death was no longer the final answer.

Never forget there is hope, light in the darkness, and freedom for those who search.

Sunday’s coming.


Feel Good Friday 9-5-14

On Fridays, in this new blog feature,  I will highlight a positive news story, article, or post. I’ll also highlight a local charity that will be part of Overcome when it is published.

The NFL isn’t always known for life-affirming actions.  Players struggle with the law. They can suffer serious injuries.  They make more in a season than most people do in a lifetime while playing a schoolyard game. This week, the Cincinnati Bengals cut and resigned defensive tackle Devon Still to their practice squad.

This happens all the time in the league, but Still’s story has a twist. His daughter, four-year-old Leah was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in June.  The team signed him to help pay for the girl’s medical treatment.  You can see an article and video piece from Good Morning America here.


Hope Rescue Mission

645 North Sixth Street • Reading, PA 19601
Phone (610) 375-4224 • E-Mail


Hope was the first organization to reply to my request for a tour and interview.  The building, a former corporate property for the Reading Railroad, houses almost seventy beds spread over a dorm space and transitional housing. They have a library, chapel, cafeteria, and computer lab. They offer training in discipleship and job skills. I met with Robert Turchi, the director, and Frank Grill, the associate director. Grill took me on a tour of the buildings and his passion for the men they house was evident from the start of our conversation.

Hope also runs a thrift store and wood shop. They refurbish furniture, sell and recycle wood pallets, and operate gardens to supply vegetables in the summer. Every item is donated, from the stock of the thrift store to the food in the cafeteria. The men are trained and given jobs to offset the cost of their housing.  The average water bill for a winter season is around $18,000 dollars.

They receive no government or city support.

As I walked through, I spoke to the men and listened to their stories.  There are amazing accounts of losing everything and redefining their identities. Some of the guys were at the top of their fields and, through addictions or other factors, ended up in jail or on the streets.  Hope is making a difference in the lives of the men it houses and the city it serves. Please consider making a difference and helping them out.

You can find their website here with photos, media, staff biographies, needs, and ways to give.

If you like this post, please share with your friends and family!


Raising Hope

Yesterday I had the honor of spending two hours at the Hope Rescue Mission in the city of Reading.  Hope was the first organization to respond to my emails about interviews for Overcome. I drove through the city running a few minutes behind schedule, my mind scattered from the jumble of things we were attempting to do to get reorganized after returning from vacation. It was a beautiful afternoon. Val was at home with the kids and I was a mix of excitement and nerves. I had a pad and pen next to me and the intent to just go in and ask questions as they came.  Planning, as you can tell, is not my strong suit.

There are moments in life where we feel disconnected.  It doesn’t take much for the impulse to kick in. It can arrive in the voice of shame and doubt, internally or externally from friends or family members.  It can be a whisper or scream. It will tell you everything you need to hear to distract you from your goal. There are ways to silence this impulse and they are valuable to remember.


I entered the Mission, a large building over a century old, and met with the director and associate director.  Frank Grill, the associate director, took me on a tour of the place.  Frank is a worship leader, man of God, and runs weekly discipleship classes for the men who live there. He is quick to smile and I can hear a taste of his Philadelphia roots as we speak.

He tells me story after story of community organizations who answered God’s calling to donate needed items.  They receive food daily from area restaurants. A local McDonald’s donated enough tiles to redo the kitchen.  Frank managed the expansion of the housing unit and was puzzled as to where they would get the furniture.  He told me that a manager from the Comfort Inn called and asked him if they could use any furniture as the Inn was refurnishing all of their rooms.  He sent over the donation trucks and they were able to outfit thirty rooms, all for free.

“We figure that God will provide what we need when we are meant to have it,” he said.  I met men from all walks of live who had fallen on hard times. They were learning valuable skills and ways to get on their feet.  A key focus of the Mission is a hand UP not a hand OUT. Frank told me that they are guided through prayer and the Holy Spirit. As the tour finished I could feel God in the building.  The work they do is sacred and powerful and I am so blessed that they will be a part of the book.

When you are feeling disconnected, remember three things we can learn from Frank and the Hope Rescue Mission:

1/Meet with God Daily: The men are mentored by pastors and community volunteers. They are focused on prayer, chapel services, and the Bible. One man in the kitchen told Frank that his mother called him yesterday for the first time in four years.  His voice shook with emotion. “See what prayer can do?” Frank said.

2/Know that God will Provide: The Mission houses more than sixty men. It provides a gym, computer lab, library, and career training services.  All of these resources are possible through donations. God will provide in time. If he can furnish thirty rooms at a Mission for free, imagine what he can do with your daily needs.

3/Use the Past as Fuel: The Mission was once a corporate building for the Reading Railroad. The CEO held offices in the room behind the chapel. They had elaborate parties and social events.  The lower floor was a bowling alley. The railroad eventually ended. The money flowed out of the city. Now new social events are happening. Men are finding God on a daily basis. They are gaining new purpose in life, overcoming addiction, and climbing their way towards stability. What would the railroad CEO say if he saw the building today?  God can use the past, all of your ups and downs, to do something great in the present and the future.

I left the Mission inspired and refreshed.  These stories are dying to be told. There is light in the darkness. These are the front lines of the battle against poverty and my goal is to capture as much as possible and put it in print.  This journey is only beginning. Overcome is happening and I can’t wait to see how far it reaches and how many people are inspired.

Have a blessed night,