Sometimes, prayers are answered in the most unexpected ways.
Just ask Troy Rogers. And Michael Mathis.
“God has a way of speeding things up,” said Rogers, describing the bond he and Mathis have built in a matter of months. “Michael is just a good guy. I knew we would connect.”
Rogers and Mathis met a year ago when both delivered a series of speeches encouraging support for United Way of Greater Chattanooga.
“I was blessed and cursed to always follow Troy’s message,” laughed Mathis, market executive for Regions Bank in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the former United Way of Greater Chattanooga campaign chair. “He’s dynamic. He brings so much energy.”
I just love serving. It’s a blessing to get to serve.
Rogers grew up in Chattanooga. Life hasn’t always been easy, with Rogers working two jobs for 20 years. But he’s always known he was blessed. His recalls his mom, a teacher, taking blankets and food to school for students who faced financial difficulties.
“‘Baby, they can’t learn hungry,’ she would tell me,” said Rogers. “She was my role model. I learned from her example.”
Today, Rogers serves as the City of Chattanooga public service coordinator – with “serves” being the key word. Talk with Rogers for any amount of time and you’re sure to hear it.
“I just love serving,” he said. “Whatever I need to do to serve. It’s a blessing to get to serve.”
Rogers and Mathis went to breakfast a couple times before the pandemic to get better acquainted. But the challenges presented by COVID-19 and racial unrest have taken their friendship to a new, deeper level.
“I received an email from Troy out of the blue in May right after George Floyd’s death,” recalls Mathis. “He wrote, ‘I’m feeding the community and wanted to know if you wanted to go with me.’”
Mathis had been looking for a sign. This was it.
“It was an answer to my prayers of what I should do,” said Mathis, wrestling with how he could make a difference.
Rogers, his wife Kimberly, and their four children aged 16 to 28 were making sack lunches for homeless camps, the elderly and homebound residents. They delivered them by the hundreds to grateful recipients.
“I had no idea what to expect, no idea where we were going,” said Mathis of the first deliveries he and Rogers made together.
Soon enough, Mathis knew exactly where they were. Just one mile from his office. But a place that looked and felt like an entire world away.
“It was just so eye-opening,” said Mathis. “I was uncertain what this was going to be like during COVID. But Troy was helping unconditionally. He was looking into people’s eyes, with a look that we’re all the same. Watching him was so inspiring. It was one of those moments that hits you deep.”
So much so, Mathis and his family began making hundreds of lunches themselves. And Regions’ Commercial Banking team in Chattanooga helped, too.
Other community members have also lent support, with the total recently surpassing 20,000 lunches. And counting.
For Rogers and Mathis, spending “windshield time” together while making those deliveries has led to some deep conversations about family. About service. About race.
“White privilege is alive and well,” Rogers lamented. “We have to push ourselves to be uncomfortable. Michael has influence in the community. I wanted him, as a person of influence, to see the hurting at a different level. When I say something, people say I’m an angry Black man. But when Michael speaks up, people say, ‘Look at that guy – he’s passionate.’”
Those candid conversations have made an impact on Mathis.
“Troy has opened my heart to more listening,” he said. “He’s opened my heart to better understanding people’s differences. I wasn’t equipped before; I didn’t have the capacity to understand.”
That realization was something Mathis also wanted his son to experience. He encouraged Rogers and 21-year-old Jackson to spend time together during deliveries.
What advice did Rogers share with Jackson?
“I encouraged him to use your platform, to be a change agent,” said Rogers. “Build a larger table and invite people who don’t look like you, don’t sound like you.”
While the deliveries have been taking place for just a few months, the lessons Rogers and Mathis have learned from them – and each other – will last far longer.
“This is the highlight of my day,” said Rogers about volunteering during his own lunch break. “I get to build relationships. They look forward to seeing us. I look forward to seeing them. We’re telling them, ‘Your life means something.’ It’s about what we do for others. We’re taking God to others.”
Rogers is already making plans for a coat, glove and blanket drive as the weather turns colder. He’s also planning to deliver holiday meals to people who may not otherwise have one.
And like the lessons, this unexpected friendship between the two men is built on a lasting foundation.
“There are positive things that have come out of this time,” said Mathis, reflecting on life since the pandemic outbreak. “This is the evolution of who I think I want to be. Of who God wants me to be. I was ready to be changed.”
“This was a good time for Michael and I to reconnect,” said Rogers. “I’m thankful, I’m grateful. I look forward to doing more things.”