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The following reflection was written in the summer of 2014 by Katherine Ellis, Grace and Main’s then Summer Missionary and Artist in Residence. The following is a reflection from the first few weeks of her involvement with us. The piece of art near the bottom is also done by Katherine.


Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar, once said, “We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” This summer God’s people are teaching me the art of living and loving and their presence compels me to respond both in action and thoughtful retrospection.

This summer I am staying in Danville, Virginia, population 43,000. Through the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Student.GO missionary intern program I have been commissioned to live and work among the homeless and near homeless of Danville as missionary and artist in residence with Grace and Main Fellowship. It has been over two weeks since I made the long trip from Texas across the North Carolina border into Virginia and my experiences in these past several days have already been overwhelming and compelling. Grace and Main, my community for the summer, describes itself as “an intentional Christian community of hospitality and service.” Deciphering what exactly that means has taken me more than perusing their website. Each day I believe I better understand the radical work that is taking place here in Danville and daily I am humbled to be a small part of it this summer.

Grace and Main is not ushering a community through a soup kitchen line–Grace and Main is ushering a community to its dinner table. Grace and Main is not managing a shelter in town–Grace and Main is opening up its houses and offering hospitality to those without a place to sleep.

One Thursday I was joining what Grace and Main calls the Roving Feast: two or three times a week a few of Grace and Main’s leaders pack a couple dozen sack lunches and set out into the city, to meet people where they are whether that be homeless, drunk, hungry, or just in need of some company. Mark and I gathered up a couple of the brown lunch sacks and walked through someone’s yard toward a tool-shed: Steve’s home. We went inside and sat down next to a mattress on the floor and a discarded dishwasher as I shook hands with Steve who appeared to have had more than one drink that day. We talked about the Daytona 500 and Steve’s childhood and I laughed when Steve persistently apologized for accidentally cursing in front of a lady. As we were leaving, Steve took my hand and squeezed my pinkie finger with his own. He asked if I knew what that meant. I responded, confused, “Is it a promise? Like a pinkie promise?”

Steve replied, “No, that means love, don’t you ever forget that.” I squeezed his pinkie, Mark prayed, and we left. We returned to the shed a few days later. Steve was once again drunk, but glad to see us. The conversation was heavier this week as Mark and Steve danced around the topic of Steve getting help. Steve repeatedly proclaimed that he was tired of drinking–he wanted to stop. At one point I grasped his pinkie finger with my own and asked, “Remember what this means?” After some coaxing, Steve stood up and we walked out of the shed toward my car, toward the ER, toward detox, and toward the hope of freedom from the slavery of addiction. We sat in the ER with Steve for several hours waiting with him.

As the blood was drawn and the first tests were run, Steve took my hand and held it, not letting go for most of the rest of our time there. At one point that evening Steve looked up at me with his weathered skin and untamed beard and quietly noted, “You must think I’m a baby for wanting to hold your hand. It’s just comforting you know, it’s nice to have someone here with me.” Steve is a middle aged man accustomed to the streets and empty bottles, and like all of us he wants to know someone cares, that he matters, that he is loved. This summer I am learning that we all need community. Just as I hope I’m teaching Steve that he is worthy of love and comforting, Steve is teaching me about grace, redemption, and friendship. This summer is messy, Roger walked into Bible study drunk last night and looking for his wife as the 105th Psalm was being read. But also in the room sat Steve, 3 days sober and reciting the Lord’s prayer. Beauty and hope spring forth in the murk where community is riddled with pain and mistakes, but also with the transformation of hearts.

Some of us may live in large houses, drive nice cars, and be able to hide our addictions better than others. We are all slaves to our own forms of addiction whether they are alcohol, drugs, sex, or money, comfort, and success. We may not lump ourselves with those who we consider poor and needy, but not even one of us is immune to poverty of the soul. There is growth that occurs when vice meets faith, when our messy community embraces one another amidst the struggle. We are all impoverished in some manner, all addicted to something, all in need of community, and all in need of a Savior. The people that I am blessed enough to encounter this summer are, as Richard Rohr said, helping me to live myself into new ways of thinking as their stories become entangled with my own. When we come face to face with another’s struggle we are forced to look into their eyes and see our own reflection, our own pain, our own need for detox and healing. Often we all need someone to squeeze our pinkie finger and ask us, “Remember what this means?”

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***
Roland, a man who sometimes looks as if a strong gust of wind might topple him, once promised us, “If I meet Jesus downtown, I’ll make sure to hang onto him long enough to come find you so you can see him too.” Of course, if anybody is going to find Jesus downtown, it’s probably Roland. Not because he’s so particularly observant, though he can be. Rather, it’s because if something happens downtown in our city, Roland knows about it. Nearly every day he’s able, Roland walks our streets with prayer on his lips and the Kingdom on his mind. If somebody’s going to stumble across Jesus, my bet is on Roland.

If you’ve read or heard many of our stories, you probably already know a little bit about Roland. Roland was one of our first new leaders when our community was still very young. Roland was the one who reminded us that “folks need a place to stay” after providing shelter to another on his first night of having shelter of his own. In doing so, he walked with us into a time of prayer and discernment over our community’s calling to hospitality. Roland ran one of our community’s first hospitality houses. Roland stayed with some of us when he was recovering from heart surgery a few winters back and was emphatic that we maintain his home as a place of sanctuary and respite for others while he was recovering. If you’ve visited us, you may have even felt his hand on your head or shoulder when he has offered a thankful prayer and a travel blessing for visiting groups at the end of their stay.

The particularly mindful and attentive of you may also remember that it was in the early days of Grace and Main that we commissioned Roland as our “Minister of Prayer” in a service of commissioning and blessing. But, very often, people are perplexed by the title and wonder what that means in practice. We remind folks of the journal where we collect prayers and praises and of Roland’s faithfulness to pray for the things mentioned therein, but we also have the privilege of witnessing how Roland lives out his calling every day in ways that others don’t. It is our privilege not to give him the work to do as our Minister of Prayer, but to recognize the work God has given him to do and to name it as our shared work and life.

Most days, you can find Roland walking the streets of one of our neighborhoods. If it’s Sunday morning, you can count on him to stop by one of the other Grace and Main houses for a cup of coffee before beginning his walk to church. He begins the walk with every intention to walk all the way (~13 miles one way) if necessary, but is picked up along the way by somebody who will join him at worship. During the week, he offers his prayers in a wide variety of places. On one street, he stops on the sidewalk to pray over a house and its residents whom he knows and occasionally joins for a meal or glass of water. He prays for their health and the success of their children at school. On another corner, he stops to pray at a house where friends once lived and offers thanks for the blessing they were (and are) to us. At a small, local convenience store, Roland offers prayers for the neighborhood even as he listens to talk of those who run the rumor mill at its tables and benches. At a local auto shop, he stops to say hi and to remind one of the men there that he’s praying for him. At a local law office, he collects prayer requests like offerings and faithfully carries them to us and others, so that we might join him in the steady work of prayer.

Like a butterfly drawn to zinnia and lantana, Roland visits place after place and person after person, gathering the nectar of their prayers and leaving behind the unexpected grace of Jesus when he departs.

As we learn from Roland how to be people of unceasing prayer, we’ve learned a few things. Roland is pretty sure that unceasing prayer requires moving feet. He can pray sitting still, he assures us, but there is something to the rhythm of his steps that is nevertheless important. As he gives his life and time to the prayers of others and the contemplation of God, his every footfall becomes a curious prayer in and of itself. By taking up the mantle of a Minister of Prayer, Roland takes up a vocation that fills even a long walk with purpose.

When we’ve asked him why he walks so much and why he is so given to prayer, he tells us stories about wounds he has received over the years and about his own failures. “I’ve been hurt so much,” he confessed to us, “that I had to turn my life over to Jesus.” We’ve grown accustomed to hearing stories of sisters and brothers who’ve turned their lives over to Jesus because of their sin or struggle, but this tiny confession reminded us of two things: (1) sometimes people give themselves to Jesus because they’ve been broken by the world, and (2) there’s just not that much difference in the experience between being broken by the world and breaking yourself across the world.

Having given up a claim to be his own man for his own purposes, Roland has become a man of prayer. In the quiet place made holy by his own sacrifices, Roland’s wounds and brokenness become prayers of their own: “not my will, but yours be done,” they seem to whisper just below hearing. “Jesus’ pockets are deep,” they insist in times of apparent scarcity and need. “Silence, silence in the name of the Lord Jesus,” they reiterate to the anxious soul. The world has been rough on Roland and has taken much from him over the years and he isn’t a perfect person—he wouldn’t want me to portray him that way or let you think for a moment that he is—but the Spirit has sculpted something beautiful out of some of the worst the world has to offer. Every time we lift the stole up upon Roland’s shoulders and ask him to pray with us and for us, we give thanks for what God has made out of Roland: a Minister of Prayer and a brother.

***
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This story was written by Jessica Hearne, a Grace and Main leader and CBF Field Personnel.
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For so many of our friends, there’s incredible risk—and astonishing stress—in moving. But the risk can be a quiet one for those of us without the eyes to see. It can be hard to say if the new place is going to be any better than the place they’re leaving. Is the plumbing reliable? How high are the utility bills in the winter? What are the neighbors like? What about the new landlord? You may not particularly like the one you have now, but at least you have an idea of how reliable they are, and trusting the new one is its own kind of risk. For our friends who have experienced homelessness, their first move after reacquiring shelter is especially risky and stressful. A move and all its many quiet risks is all too often the cause of a return to homelessness.

It’s a dreadful feeling when one of the things you need most is also one of the greatest risks to your safety and stability.

When we met Lisa, she was living in an apartment building downtown. The apartment she lived in was small, barely big enough for her and her beloved dog. It didn’t have a working stove, so she was forced to do all of her cooking in a microwave, which was also unreliable. We celebrated with her when she was able to find a one-bedroom house nearby with affordable rent and enough space for her pets. We helped her get a working stove and refrigerator, and rejoiced that she seemed to have taken a big step up in her living conditions. We still couldn’t see all of the quiet risks inherent in this change, but Lisa trusted us and we gave thanks, even in our ignorance.

Sometime in the first year, the roof in Lisa’s kitchen started to leak. At first it wasn’t too bad; there was some dripping down the walls, and the landlady was quick to send her handyman to come and fix the leak. Lisa was pleased that the response was so quick, and she was happy to have a landlady who seemed to care about her tenants. However, over the course of the next few years, it became evident that the handyman was not able to fix the leak properly. Lisa would have to unplug her stove and move it away from the wall every time it rained, leaving her with only sandwiches to eat until the rain stopped and the leak dried up again. She was back to cooking in the microwave, until the dripping became gushing, and then even that was off the table.

For a few years, every time it rained, I would hear from Lisa about how she just needed to move to a better place. She would start calling around to different apartment complexes and property managers, trying to find a place that was within her budget and that would allow her to keep her pets. Occasionally she would find a place and start to get excited about moving, but then the anxiety about moving would overtake her—the dread from all those quiet risks welling up in her rain wet home—and she would find a reason to stay where she was. One time it was because she wasn’t sure about the neighborhood. In another instance it was the fear of being too far from the bus line or the hospital if the weather was bad. Once we even sent in a deposit for a new place, but then there was a mistake in the lease which said she couldn‘t have her pets. Even though the property manager offered to fix it and send a new lease, the fear was overwhelming and the deposit had to be returned. “Ms. Suzie is sending Tommy over to fix the leak,” she’d say. “I’ll be fine staying here once they fix it,” she’d try to convince herself.

It’s a dreadful feeling when the bad you have seems better than the quiet risk of looming change.

I’m not really sure what was different this last time. Maybe it was the death of her beloved dog, whose absence, though tragic, made it easier to find a new place. Maybe the roof had leaked one too many times. I’d like to think that it was having people around her to love her and encourage her and assure her over and over that we wouldn’t let her be on the street—that we had been listening to her lessons and could shoulder the risk with her. Whatever it was, this past December Lisa finally found the courage to take the risk and try moving to a new place.

I was hesitant to celebrate right away, because of the many times before that I’d been joyful about a new place and then heartbroken about a changed mind. I went with her to the office to look at the apartment, to ask about the deposit, and to make sure that Lisa could keep her bird. Then I went with her again and we scoured the leasing paperwork together to make sure we hadn’t missed anything. Then I brainstormed with Lisa and another Grace and Main leader over the phone from Kentucky about how to get her an ID card so she could transfer her utilities. All of these things could have been quiet but insurmountable barriers to Lisa before, but we were able to work together to overcome them. Lisa taught us to see a little more and we learned to share risk with a little more patience.

Finally, the week after Christmas, we loaded up our trucks, trailers, and minivans with all of her belongings and she spent her first night in years under a roof that wouldn’t leak. Needless to say, Lisa is very happy in her new home. She met some new friends within a week of arriving. She made brownies in the oven, which would never have to be unplugged because of the weather, and invited my daughter Lucy and I over to share them with her. She showed off her full refrigerator and freezer—yet another hedge against the dread of quiet risks. Her rent and utilities are significantly less in the new place, leaving her more money each month to go out to lunch with her new friends.

We celebrated once she had moved, because it’s a wonderful feeling when the quiet risks taken become the trust that binds us together.

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I’m always amazed at what donuts can accomplish. There’s always a little anxious energy in the hour before one of the occasional events that we host. That energy is amplified when we’re having an open “work day” at our Urban Farm. It’s always hard to say what the weather is going to be like and we’re rarely certain just how many people will show up. Our February work day with CBFVA congregations and personnel was no exception. As the members of Grace and Main gathered early to go over the plans one more time before everybody got there, there was still a faint, anxious buzz. So, we did what we’re good at.

We put out cider donuts made hot and fresh that morning. We put out the big coffee pot and some creamers, including some cashew milk shared with us from the neighborhood when they heard we were going to have a work day. We laid out extra gloves and stacked some tools against a nearby tree. We checked to make sure we had remembered to bring prayer books for our guests to use before lunch. We kept an eye on the hill that we knew the vans would soon come down and made sure bottles of water were cold and there was sunscreen set out for those who forgot theirs. In short, we practiced hospitality and let the donuts and coffee get ready to do their part of the work.

Our little, intentional community has committed itself to the practice of hospitality, (among other things). But hospitality is not only opening our homes to provide space for others to rest, eat, and share life. It is also about opening our lives and making room for the other—whether they be people experiencing homelessness, people in need of a listening ear or a cup of coffee, or vanloads of volunteers who are coming to work in our gardens. Hospitality isn’t only something we provide, but is something we receive as well. We receive hospitality when we find a seat on somebody’s porch and catch up over tea, or when we are welcomed into a neighborhood by people whose family has lived there for generations, or when loving hands plant seeds though they may not see the produce when it is harvested.

When the first vans came down the hill, I said a quick, silent prayer of thanks and hope. As they unloaded, found the bathrooms, marveled at how incredible the donuts were, and refilled their coffee cups, the buzz of anxiety faded—the donuts had once again accomplished something amazing. Friends from Roanoke, Oak Level, Richmond, Halifax, and Danville began good work planting hundreds of seed starts in our greenhouse. Many of the seeds they started will end up in gardens all around the city, not just the gardens at the Urban Farm. We cleared brush and prepared the part of the property that will soon become a neighborhood “commons.” A few lovely people helped us to put gutters on the new tool library and get our rain water catchment system installed to make sure that our gardens have plenty of water. A host of fasting teenagers—nearing the end of their “Thirty Hour Famine”—built a stone and dirt swale to redirect water toward our new retaining pond. These good people collected stones from ditches, steadily removed trash from a hillside, and helped us to participate further in what God is doing in our midst.

We stopped for midday prayer before lunch and gave thanks for all that had gone well that day and all that was still yet to happen.  We joked and laughed and daydreamed about other things that we could do on the land. We talked about how the mushroom logs produce mushrooms, about the process to change our city’s zoning codes to allow for our work (and now the work of several other gardens), about how many years it takes the asparagus to come in, about beneficial weeds and insects, about the praying mantis egg sacs we found and carefully transplanted to the garden, and about favorite and least favorite vegetables (mine are asparagus and cauliflower, respectively, if you’re interested).

At the end of the day, we waved goodbye to these people who gave a Saturday to good work. With bent backs and dirty hands, they had given thanks for food to eat and people to share it with, even if their hands might not touch the harvest. As the vans ascended the hill away from us, I marveled at how much work they had accomplished in a part of one day and about the careful balance between the slow and steady work to which we’ve committed ourselves and the sudden, short presence of friends from all around. As it turns out, hospitality isn’t just donuts and coffee; it’s also sometimes about welcoming people to participate in community even for just several hours and giving thanks for that offering. We gave thanks for the generosity of congregations and partners around the state who have supported our work with their time, prayers, encouragement, and financial support. There weren’t any donuts left in the box, but they had done such amazing work.

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Deep down, I’m a worrier. I’m really good at it. I know scripture tells us not to be anxious and Jesus even directs our thoughts to the “lilies of the field” in the Sermon on the Mount, but I need help to get to that kind of trust most days. Even though I’m surrounded by a community of people who have pledged to share resources and needs and actively share their lives with me, I still worry. Even though our work has consistently been supported by donors like you, every January and February is an anxious time as I worry that this year will be different; that this year will be the year that it doesn’t happen. If I’m honest, I sometimes worry that I’m only as valuable or lovable as I am useful. I seem to have so many needs and even more fear of them not being met, even as I live in the midst of God’s blessing and miraculous provision. I seem to have everything I need, so why don’t I feel like it some days?

Perhaps, my struggle with worry is part of the reason I thought I misheard Marcus in the van. He is, after all, a fast talker and sometimes shifts the topic of conversation abruptly if he’s excited. This night, he was excited about some good work he had been doing in the neighborhood and was riding along in the van to drop people off after our big meal. As he told me about meals shared and the ways in which he loved his neighbors, he said something that I didn’t expect: “You know, I don’t need anything. I’ve got everything I need.”

I confess that my first thought was a judgmental one: “how can that possibly be true?” When we first met Marcus, he walked with a substantial limp because of a very significant injury to his ankle. He did as best as he could with it, but the injury meant that he couldn’t get the work to which he was accustomed and by which he had been supporting himself for years. Without a job and reliable transportation, it became very, very hard for him to make it to the doctor on his own. Because of his injury, his shoes didn’t fit and wore out even more rapidly. Before I knew Marcus by his name, I knew him by his walk and the plastic bag he wore over his steadily deteriorating shoe. How could this man not need anything?

As we began to share life with Marcus and help him to get to the doctor, he quickly became a regular at our meals. We first welcomed him into a hospitality room, but eventually helped him to move into an apartment of his own when his income became steadier and his ankle began to heal. The day after moving into his new home, he began offering hospitality of his own—welcoming folks to find shelter in his relatively meager accommodations. In response to God’s blessing, Marcus responded with grace and mercy. Marcus understands intuitively that loving God and loving your neighbor are intertwined. His ankle was still injured and he wasn’t yet well or stable, but he couldn’t wait any longer to be doing our Father’s business. Watching as he once again repaired his shoe with duct tape, I couldn’t imagine how this man “had everything.”

But perhaps the problem isn’t that Marcus was wrong, but rather that my imagination is too small sometimes to see God’s goodness in hard places. Even with busted shoes, Marcus was concerned that there were people we knew who didn’t have shoes. He wasn’t content to wait to help until everything in his life was stable. He didn’t need good shoes before he cared about his neighbor’s shoeless feet. He didn’t need a perfect home before he could open it to others. He didn’t need to be wealthy to be generous. He didn’t need to be full before pouring himself out for others. But, perhaps most importantly, Marcus trusted God and the community to which God had brought him to love and support him.

Marcus has everything he needs in part because he has learned to need less, but mostly because he has learned to trust more.

Nowadays, you’ll likely find Marcus at one of our meals or, even more likely, in one of the gardens at the Urban Farm (he’s a phenomenal gardener!). His ankle is much better now after consistently getting to his appointments and getting the medicines he needed to prevent infections. His shoes fit a lot better now and are in much better condition. He’s always eager to pitch in if there’s work that needs to be done and he’ll still talk your ear off. But, he hasn’t stopped giving or trusting; and, thank God, he hasn’t stopped teaching me the futility of worry and the pride inherent in believing that I’m only as valuable or lovable as I am useful. I’m learning that Marcus is right—he has everything he needs and so do I. Some days, I even believe it.

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Key Victories from 2016

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This month, we’re not sharing a new story from our work, but are instead sharing a report on some of Grace and Main’s and Third Chance Ministries’ most important victories from the year 2016. In a way, these short descriptions of success tell a story of their own and we’d love to hear what story you think they tell about the work to which we’re committed and which your donations make possible. Thanks.

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3,550+ Nights of Shelter
In 2016, Grace and Main Fellowship and Third Chance Ministries provided a little over 3,550 nights of shelter through our network of hospitality houses, assisting with rent and utilities, and supporting hotel stays in several emergency situations. Primarily, this shelter was provided to people struggling with “chronic homelessness” and housing insecurity and with whom we have relationships and share meals and life with regularly.

68 Meals
Grace and Main Fellowship hosted 68 different meals at various locations in 2016, including our homes, church fellowship halls, in the courtyard of apartment buildings, on a farm, in several different parks, and occasionally on a porch in one of our neighborhoods. Some of these meals were large feasts, like our Thanksgiving meal at Ascension Lutheran or our Christmas dinner at First Baptist Church. Others were smaller meals in our homes, at the Urban Farm, and even in the homes of people who once struggled against homelessness themselves. These 68 different meals don’t include the dozens of one-on-one meals and roving feasts throughout our neighborhoods.

Celebrating Sobriety
This year, we celebrated Bruce’s five-year anniversary, “Carl’s” two-year anniversary, and “Victor’s” one-year anniversary of getting clean and sober.

Confronting Homelessness and Housing Insecurity
This year, we saw more than 20 of our brothers and sisters escape, or at least make substantial progress toward escaping, homelessness and housing insecurity. Some have shelter for the first time in a long time, others have moved from a hospitality room to stable, safe, and consistent shelter, while others have drastically improved the quality of their housing.

The Urban Farm
After last year’s successes in preparing the property at the end of Moffett St for planting and in getting the municipal code changed to allow for urban agriculture, we had a great first year of planting and production. We received, and made use of, a grant of $17,000+ from the Danville Regional Foundation to support the development and growth of our Urban Farm with new fencing, new garden beds, a host of new tools, an irrigation system, rainwater collection and storage systems, bee hives, pawpaw trees, elderberry and blackberry bushes, and various other improvements. Roughly half of the property was used to grow food for our meals and to give away to those in need of healthy, supplemental food. The other part of the property was tended by folks connected to our work who wanted to grow their own food in a shared space with shared resources. We grew a wide variety of plants at the Urban Farm this year—some of those plants include: tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, shitake mushrooms, squash, watermelon, corn, October beans, purple hull peas, turnips, beets, carrots, asparagus, collard greens, kale, hot peppers, and onions.

Tool Library
We installed the third (and first permanent) version of our Tool Library in the backyard of the home Grace and Main owns on Moffett St (next to the Urban Farm). It’s 336 square feet of storage space, workbenches, and shelving with south facing windows and an additional 192 square feet of lofted storage space. Much of this new building was funded by part of the grant we received from the Danville Regional Foundation to support the development and growth of our Urban Farm. We also expanded the work accomplished through the Tool Library. Now, we not only lend tools to those in need of them enabling many hundreds of hours of productive work, but we also have started directly connecting community members and friends of the community with hundreds of hours of work at homes, gardens, businesses, and organizations throughout Danville and Pittsylvania county.

Volunteers and Partners
We hosted over 3,200 hours of volunteer service at the Urban Farm, community meals, and hospitality houses. Volunteers come from organizations such as Passport Youth Camp, Averett’s Center for Community Engagement and Career Competitiveness, local congregations, civic groups, and from among our regulars.

House of Hope Lunches
As part of our ongoing commitment to our local homeless shelter, the House of Hope, we once again packed a lunch for every resident of the shelter every day of the year. This year that means we packed and delivered a little over 3,000 lunches through a combination of partners, mission groups, and personal work. This brings our total to over 24,000 lunches packed since the beginning of Grace and Main.

BGAV Hunger Grants
We applied for, received, and spent $4,000 in grant funding from the Baptist General Association of Virginia to support our work of providing food, opportunities, and other resources to people experiencing hunger and food insecurity. While some of these funds were spent on increasing the capacity of our Urban Farm, most were spent providing groceries and supplementing food security in food deserts in Danville. This is part of an ongoing effort by the BGAV to model intentional, diverse, and grassroots models of confronting hunger and food insecurity.

Nurturing Communities Project
Grace and Main was one of a handful of intentional, Christian communities from around the continent invited to send a representative to participate in the Nurturing Communities Project, a networking initiative initially brought about my Reba Place Fellowship and the work of David Janzen. This year, they met about an hour north of Chicago to pray, eat, and celebrate together, while also considering how better to network communities like ours together in prayer and labor.

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This has been one of our more popular stories over the last few years. It was originally published on March 6, 2014. It was republished by Red Letter Christians on September 29, 2014.

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One Sunday night, Emily approached me as people were making their way out of our home. We’d gathered to worship and share cake with a sister in celebration of one month of sobriety. As people trickled out to their cars with hugs and a few more jokes, Emily hung back with a look of frustration on her face. As I placed our community’s Christ candle back on its shelf, I noticed that Emily was waiting for me.

“Hey Em,” I said, “it’s been nice having you to eat and pray with us these last couple of weeks.” She had only been showing up for a couple of weeks, but she seemed interested in what we were doing. I continued, “What’s on your mind? Something you wanna talk about?”

I figured it had something to do with Alan, with whom she had connected at one of her first meals with us. After a great conversation with Emily, Alan approached us about being ready to seek treatment and find better shelter. But Alan had relapsed after about 9 days clean. We were all disappointed, but this was the first time Emily had dealt with something like this.

Abruptly, as if she had stored the question away for a few days before letting it pop out in our living-room-turned-chapel, she asked, “It’s not as easy as I thought it was, is it?”

I won’t dare say that I knew what she was feeling in that moment, but my memory turned to the first time our work among the addicted broke my heart. With a slow shake of my head, I sighed and answered her, “No. It hardly ever is.”

I worry that too many of us who proclaim the Way of Jesus in the face of the powers are over-confident about our ability to change things. We’ve learned from a combination of articles, books, pundits, sermons, Facebook posts, television shows, parents, and teachers (both formal and informal) that poverty, homelessness, addiction, and hunger are simple problems with simple solutions. We come with confidence and good intentions, believing we have something to offer brothers and sisters in desperate situations who are somehow different from us.

But each of us inevitably comes to the same place where Emily was, her hands on the other end of our altar cloth as we folded it together in my living room.

“It’s different—” Emily began before cutting off in a thoughtful pause. “It’s different when you know somebody—when it’s not just something to talk about.” With frustration showing at the edges of her eyes, she added, “I wish it was easier. I wish I knew exactly what to do and say and when to do it to really help.”

Every time I get to have this important conversation with someone, I find this to be the hardest moment. In so many ways, it’s the second heartbreak. Having been disappointed by someone else’s bondage, a wounded soul asks me to replace her busted confidence with a promise that it gets easier. I know she wants me to say something like, “Well, the secret to working among the marginalized is…” or “When you’ve prayed for somebody to get clean, all you have to do to make it happen is…”

But, all I could say in that moment when Emily wished it was easier was, “We all do, sister. We all do.”

In Emily’s case, we got to talk about just how complicated it is. We talked about how homelessness and poverty are not so much problems of material resources as they are relationship problems. We talked about why we say that relationships and consistent presence are foundational in what we do. We talked about the blistering chains of addiction and brothers and sisters still in bondage even after many attempts at liberation.

I made Emily a promise that I try to make to anyone who comes to the hard moment where their confidence lies bleeding on the altar of God’s work:

I promise you that if you keep serving alongside us, your heart is going to be broken time and again because a relationship isn’t real until you hurt when they hurt and celebrate when they celebrate.

But, I also promise you that in each of those moments of frustration and heartbreak, we’ll stand next to you and hold you up—because our relationship with you isn’t real until we hurt when you hurt and celebrate when you celebrate.

And Jesus promises that he will stand next to you as well, saying like he did with the cross that a relationship isn’t real until you hurt when others hurt and celebrate when they celebrate.

It seems that nearly all of us come to this work with false confidence—knowing exactly how to fix poverty, homelessness, addiction, hunger, and other injustices and evils. But we find that we have to lay our confidence at the foot of the cross and commit ourselves to loving first and understanding later.

Answers don’t come easy, but our calling is simple: to love our neighbor and to love God. The beautiful thing is that when God sends us back to our community, God sends us with something to replace our shattered confidence. Jesus offers us a hope nourished and sustained by other heartbroken sisters and brothers who are learning to trust a God who calls first and explains later.

Our confidence may wither and break, but, as Scripture promises, “hope does not disappoint us.

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