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This month’s story was written by Jessica Hearne, CBF Field Personnel in Danville,VA.

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Marcus could garden with the best of them. He didn’t have a Master Gardener’s certificate, or a yard of his own to cultivate, but his okra plants at the Grace and Main Urban Farm that first year were taller than me. Marcus was one of the first folks from our neighborhood to join the garden team, claiming one of the individual beds in the garden and cultivating beans, squash, okra, and greens. His okra was particularly stunning, with plants growing as tall as I am, or maybe taller, and so dense that I was certain the plants would choke each other and die. Somehow, though, Marcus kept it growing. He did much of the work in that first growing year from a folding chair or sitting on the ground as he continued to recover from the ankle injury that prevented him from going to work and left him temporarily without shelter.   He would eat some of this produce, some he would sell to make a little extra money, and some he would give away to folks in his neighborhood who needed it.

In our second year, Marcus claimed his section again. He was in and out of town some that season, but he let us know that if anything needed to be picked from his garden while he was away, we should go ahead and pick it for someone who needed it. I gave away many pounds of green beans that summer from Marcus’ garden. I also planted some more okra for him while he was gone for a particularly long stretch to visit a friend, but it didn’t grow as well without him there to take care of it. I guess when it comes to okra, I just don’t have the same talent as Marcus.

Marcus was diagnosed with cancer last year. He had to have a tracheotomy, making speech and eating difficult, and was prescribed a liquid diet. But even in the midst of palliative chemotherapy, he was in garden with us. He didn’t claim his old spot, but instead pulled up a chair just as he had that first year and helped us pick cucumbers and pull weeds from our community beds and individual spaces. His usual garden bed lay mostly fallow last year, resting from the good labor that it had done with Marcus for two summers. He loved the garden, and I think he felt better when he was working, even if he could no longer enjoy the greens and okra he was helping to produce.

In spite of his love for us and the garden, however, we were seeing him less and less as the summer turned to fall. We closed the garden for the season on the last Thursday of October, and barely a month later Marcus passed away. His family, many of whom have been involved in Grace and Main for many years, asked that we place some of his ashes near the garden that he loved so much and was so much a part of him in his last few years. We are happy to oblige.

This spring, I planted strawberries in Marcus’ garden. Strawberries are something that our garden team has been interested in for a while, and this spot, at the top of the hill where the sun shines the brightest, seemed like a good place. Strawberries are perennial, so now every year they will grow and spread across that garden bed that once was home to the world’s tallest okra. The strawberries also seem like a fitting tribute to Marcus, whose labor on our Urban Farm will continue to have an impact on his neighborhood for many years to come. Marcus was an integral part of our garden team, and was a generous and caring man, and we will miss his presence at the Urban Farm.

***
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***

 

The first thing I saw as I rounded the corner was Rick’s mud boot stuck out and resting on its heel on the dry ground. He was sitting on an old cinder block by one of our community’s first gardens and smoking a cigarette with a clear lack of hurry. His sunburned shoulders and neck were on display in his undershirt, but he still wore the bucket hat that was his ever-present summer time companion. I’ve never been very sneaky, so Rick heard me coming—but that was okay since I didn’t want to surprise him anyway. He had asked me to come, because he had something he needed to tell me. I already knew what he had to say, but sometimes the telling of a thing is as important as the hearing of it. I sat on the cinder block next to him and kept my eyes turned toward the garden so that the pressure wouldn’t grow too much. It can be hard to tell the truth sometimes, even when everybody already knows it.

 

“I screwed up,” Rick offered unprompted, “I had a good thing going and, I guess, I screwed that up.” I nodded and searched for words as I waited to see if he’d continue on his own. “I drank,” he offered up to the shared silence.

 

 

I nodded again before offering, “I’m sorry to hear that.” At six months long, it had been his longest run of sobriety since he was a teenager. Rick’s white hair was evidence for just how long it had been.

 

“Don’t you think I am, too?” Rick asked me with a mixture of anger and disappointment at the edges of his voice. He was spoiling for a fight and thought I might give him one if he pushed me.

 

“Of course you are,” I offered as conciliation, “you most of all, I’m sure.” After a short pause I added, “you know we still love you, right?”

 

“No, I don’t,” Rick said a little too loudly, “I know yall say it, but I don’t feel it.” Like the cork coming out of a bottle, this seemed to have made way for Rick to tell the truth: “I can see that yall love Bruce. That’s for sure. And sometimes I think you love me, too, but I just can’t feel it. I can’t see why or how. I want to, but I can’t.”

 

“I hear that,” I assured Rick as we both stared straight ahead at the garden, “but I don’t know what to say to that other than to say we really do—or, at least, we’re really trying.” Turning his gaze from the garden, Rick looked where my eyes would be if I’d only turn to face him. “And we’re not going anywhere,” I added as I made eye contact for the first time that afternoon. Rick held my eye contact for a few more seconds, as if he was weighing my promise against his experience. I waited for his verdict, but he only turned his eyes back to the garden. Following his lead, I joined him in a thoughtful silence. I tried to pray silently, and I guess I did, but it was a mostly wordless and uncertain thing.

 

 

Eventually, as the sun was dipping low behind us, we silently headed back up the hill. “Hey,” I offered uncertainly from the driver’s seat of my car, “when you’re ready to try again, we’re with you.” His nod, a mixture of understanding and irritation, was as fine a cue as I was going to get that I should leave. So, I drove away with a wave.

 

Rick wasn’t ready for a while. There were times when we wouldn’t see him for weeks. There were times when he slept outside or crashed on somebody’s couch. There were times when we’d see him somewhere and he’d fruitlessly try to hide how intoxicated he was. There were times when we’d put him up in a hotel room for a few nights. There was even a time when he called to let us know he was ready, but hid from us when we came to pick him up because he had started drinking in the short interim.

 

I must say that there were certainly times when we loved Rick well, but there were also times when we loved Rick poorly. Sure, we didn’t go anywhere, but we also didn’t always seek Rick out.  But God never stopped loving Rick and never stopped seeking him out. Months later, Rick found his way to one of our hospitality houses and let us know that he was already a few weeks sober. “I’m ready to try again,” he said. “We’re ready to try again, too,” we said with our hugs, back slaps, and knee squeezes.

 

So, we did. We tried again to love not only in word but in action. We tried again to walk the road of recovery together. We tried again to share life in community. Trusting that trying is somehow enough, we tried again. It didn’t come easy, but it came nonetheless.

 

 

The other day, Jessica and I were giving a tour of the Urban Farm to a visitor from Richmond. Our daughter had come along for the visit and Rick also happened to be there. “Mr. Rick, Mr. Rick!” she yelled, “watch me swing!”

 

“I’m coming, sweetie,” he yelled back as he shook our visitor’s hand hastily. “Excuse me,” he added more quietly to us with an expansive smile, “I’ve got to go push a swing.” With over three years of sobriety under his belt, Rick has become one of our community’s leaders. He is quick to remind us at prayers that we need to keep loving each other and finding ways to show it. Rick is eager to tell us that he loves us and faithful in finding ways to make it felt. Sometimes that means pushing a swing.

 

A little while later, our daughter and Rick sat at the top of the stairs leading down into the garden and sang silly songs about monkeys and sharks. I was struck by their coincidental seating arrangement: side by side on some cinder blocks, looking down over a garden. There was no lack of eye contact this time, as our daughter giggled her way through another verse and shoulder-bumped Rick in his ribs. Over their shoulder, I saw Ryan, another friend of the community who Rick has taken into his home. Though they used to drink together on porches, Rick and Ryan now work together on the tool library and around the community. Ryan is one month clean and sober on the fourth attempt at recovery that I know of. We tell him we love him and we try to show it.
“He might not feel it yet,” Rick conceded to me one afternoon, “but he will. We’ll just keep trying.”
***
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***

Each January, as we get ready to send out letters to our donors, we put together a list of some of our “key victories” from the year that has just passed that we can share with donors, supporters, and others who might be interested. Of course, we can’t share everything we did because some of it is confidential or sensitive, but this list gives people an idea of what we do day after day in our shared life and work. Not everybody who reads our stories has seen this list, though, so we thought we’d share it with you this month. Though it’s not our typical story-based newsletter, we like to think these numbers and facts tell a story of their own — a story about God’s work in our midst and the power of love and community to transform lives.

So, here’s a sample of some of the things we were able to do last year with your help:

4,640+ Nights of Shelter
In 2018, Grace and Main Fellowship and Third Chance Ministries provided a little over 4,640 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. That means that, in the past three years, we’ve provided over 12,000 nights of shelter with your help.

Urban Farm
We had a successful third growing year at our Urban Farm this year as we welcomed new leaders and volunteers into the work with us. We had a regular team of 12 leaders working weekly on the farm through the summer. Several of these leaders cultivated their own garden beds on the farm, choosing to give away a substantial piece of their own produce. Additionally, farm leaders helped cultivate community beds, where 100% of the produce was either given away or used in community meals. Some of the things we grew this year include dandelion greens, radishes, asparagus, turnips, peas, potatoes, squash, zucchini, cucumbers, elderberries, tomatoes, greens, beans, salad, shitake mushrooms, a variety of herbs, many flowers, and a few wild edibles.

Health Collaborative’s THRIVE! Changemaker Award
This year, Jessica Hearne and her team of garden leaders were awarded the Health Collaborative’s THRIVE! Changemaker Award in recognition of their hard work, commitments, leadership, and how they’ve expanded local, urban agriculture for various communities, organizations, and neighborhoods.

Housing Stability
We intervened to stabilize the housing situations of three families with children with a number of short-term, impactful interventions such as predatory debt relief, providing beds and other furniture, assisting with utility bills, paying moving expenses, investigating potentially better places to live, and paying for exterminators, among other things.

Celebrating Sobriety
This year, we celebrated “Carl’s” four-year anniversary, and “Victor’s” three-year anniversary of getting clean and sober. We also celebrated the continued efforts of many to get clean and sober with several accumulating a number of months of sobriety before the end of the year.

Youth Agriculture Entrepreneurship Program (YAEP)
Grace and Main hosted the Youth Agriculture Entrepreneurship Program (45-55 local youth with adult leaders) at the Urban Farm for a day of education, hands-on experience at gardening, a breakout panel, and a discussion of our particular methodologies around the Urban Farm and the Tool Library.

Lake Day
We participated in our Fourth Annual Lake Day with Clarksville Baptist Church in Clarksville, VA. We took 38 people (with cars and vans borrowed from FBC Danville and Chatham Baptist) from our neighborhoods to Buggs Island Lake, had a fantastic cookout cooked by the CBC folks, rode boats around the lake, and some of us even went swimming before being scared away by a thunderstorm. It was an absolutely fantastic and joyful day!

Bats, Birds, and Bugs
We built 35+ bat, bug, and bird houses for use around the Urban Farm and other Grace and Main properties to cultivate local biodiversity and to control harmful insects (especially mosquitoes!) naturally for the benefit of our gardens and neighborhoods. Bug houses provide a space for local pollinators who are also a benefit to our gardens and neighborhoods. Also, two of our leaders completed a Beginning Beekeeping course through the Caswell County Beekeepers Association

Volunteers and Partners
We hosted over 2,100 hours of volunteer service at the Urban Farm, community meals, and hospitality houses. Volunteers come from organizations such as Passport Youth Camp, local congregations, civic groups, and from among our regulars.

Staying Warm
We collected and gave away 60+ coats to folks in our neighborhoods who needed a new coat (or a heavier coat) as the weather turned cold. We also gave away 45+ blankets, several space heaters, and countless warm hats and gloves.

Tool Library Upgrades
With the help of a generous grant from Blessed Trinity Catholic Church in Frankenmuth, Michigan, we upgraded the tool library with additional outdoor tool storage. This clears additional indoor storage and allows us to gather and share more lawnmowers and big pieces of equipment.

Thanksgiving
We had two great Grace and Main Thanksgiving Meals during the week of Thanksgiving: 1) a feast to which anybody and everybody was invited with partners, Ascension Lutheran and West Main Baptist, doing the cooking and hosting with our highest turnout of the year for a meal (85+); and 2) a small meal on Thanksgiving day for leaders, developing leaders, and residents of hospitality houses.

Christmas
We helped to provide Christmas gifts for seven children (in four families) by working with the families to buy both needed and wanted things to be given by “Santa” and the families themselves.

***
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Jeron’s Ride

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***

Hands gripping the steering wheel and eyes set firmly forward, Jeron’s mouth drew to a line as he focused on the road ahead. He’d been this way many times to come to one of our meals, but driving a car like Jeron’s takes a lot of attention. The lack of a windshield meant he had to squint if that red streak of a car ever got up to speed. The lack of a driver-side window meant Jeron’s ears were filled with road noise from the clatter of the wheels not so far below him. Looking at the car’s various dents and scratches, you might be surprised to learn that the wheels were original. Jeron’s car wasn’t as fast or as sturdy as he’d like, but it had gotten him to the meal before and it almost certainly would again. Especially since Jeron’s car is a riding toy with a long, dirty, blue handle that Mongoose and Greg were taking turns pushing as the trio made its way across the sidewalk to one of Grace and Main’s meals.

Three-year-old Jeron spends nearly every day with Mongoose or Greg, and has for most of his life, but neither man is his father. They’ve been entrusted with the care and keeping of Jeron, a task they’ve undertaken with warmth and steadfast love even if also a relative lack of resources. Mongoose and Greg take turns watching Jeron most days, depending on which of them has work. Like so many communities, they are a family united by a chosen bond instead of blood.

Look, I know the question you want to ask, but I don’t know if I can answer it. Try as I might to understand it, I don’t know why people started calling him Mongoose. There’s nothing about his features or mannerisms that suggests the nickname, but hardly anybody calls him anything else. Mongoose is cautious and doesn’t talk much, but he does what he says he’s going to do. Like Jesus said, his yes is yes and his no is no. Mongoose is older than me by a couple decades and I confess I was puzzled when he introduced himself. Nobody around me seemed to find his name strange though, so I nodded and started calling him Mongoose. After all, if people matter then so do their preferences. Plus, who doesn’t want a friend named Mongoose?

There is no mystery to where Greg got his name, though. It’s the one his mom gave him. A regular more by acclimation than attendance, Greg has participated at least once in most of what our community does and is a welcome presence on our porches and at our meals. At various times, and through various seasons of life, he has been very active in the leadership of our Urban Farm. It was Greg who originally procured the red, yellow, and blue riding toy that Jeron rides to meals and it’s Greg who brings Jeron around some afternoons to do sidewalk chalk at a hospitality house. With a quick smile and a tendency to rock back and forth a little bit when he’s joking around, Greg warms every room he enters with his presence. He needs a little help with rent every now and then when the weather gets in the way of his job, but it’s easy to help somebody like Greg who is living in part to provide for others.

So, Mongoose and Greg push Jeron’s car down the sidewalks toward one of our community meals, taking the time to catch up with each other as Jeron works his 8-inch steering wheel and watches the real cars drive by. His braids are set just right and he’s wearing the new coat he got for Christmas even as Greg wears a coat that has long since seen its better, warmer days. Jeron’s shoes light up when he walks and have Spiderman on them, even as Mongoose’s shoes are held together with duct tape in strategic locations. Jeron is neither man’s son but he is their family. Neither of the two single men expected that they’d be guardians of a child when we first met them, but they took to it with a committed nonchalance that rang with a sense of calling when Jeron was in need.

The trio arrived to the meal with a few minutes to spare before we broke the bread and passed the cup. Jeron had driven them there successfully, even if it was Mongoose and Greg’s legs that did the work. After shucking their coats and hats, Greg made a plate for Jeron as Mongoose went to get drinks and dessert for all of them. My hand on Jeron’s braids, I offered a quick, quiet blessing. I prayed that he would be well even as Greg and Mongoose made sure he would be. As Mongoose and Greg got plates of their own, I prayed that Jeron would always feel welcome in our little community. I prayed that God might keep knitting together families in unexpected places from unexpecting people. “It’s good to see you, little brother,” I said to Jeron, before adding with a nudge, “go eat.”

***
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This month’s newsletter was originally published on August 1, 2016. We hope you’re still enjoying Christmas and now the new calendar year. Grace and peace to you in this beautiful new year.

***

The van was filled to capacity as we waited at the stoplight on the intersection of South Ridge St and Patton St. It’s a long light before you can turn left down Patton to make the trek up North Main hill, so I had a little bit of time to find a good station on the van’s radio. Each month, we borrow the van from one of our partner congregations to give rides to and from the big meal we host with another partner congregation. While people are often subdued and quietly thankful on their way to the meal, they are more likely to sing and joke on their way home—they are also more likely to want to have the radio turned on. While before the meal the van is a borrowed vehicle, after the meal it has often transformed into a rolling extension of the meal and God’s jubilee. Those who needed the sustenance of the meal join with those who needed the fellowship of the meal until it’s hard to tell the difference between them. Of course, there never was really a difference: they’re both hungry.

As we settled on a popular radio station, we were just in time for a song that is guaranteed to get stuck in your head for hours (if not days!) at a time. “My blood runs cold. My memory has just been sold…” the radio proclaimed as I turned down Patton St toward the river. Before I could reach up to change the radio station or turn the radio off—even road noise would be preferable to J. Geils Band—I noticed that there were several other songs already being sung in the van. In hope that they might have something better to sing, I listened.

As we passed over the bridge under which one of the riders of the bus—one of our brothers and friends—had once taken shelter, I could hear him softly repeating the refrain of a favorite song: “In the name of the Lord,” he sang as he passed over the place where he had once found meager shelter. He had been living there when we first met him and he first started eating with us. Eventually, he moved up to the Northside to a place of his own choosing, where he provided a measure of hospitality to those in direr need—he didn’t have much, but what he had, he shared. Still thankful for how God was moving in his life, his quiet, repeated chorus sounded to me like one of fledgling hope finding root in community.

Passing the elementary school on North Main St where so many of our younger brothers and sisters had once attended, I noticed the crowd of children singing, “The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round…” Their school had been shut down when the city made budget cuts and many of them were now bussed to a different city school. Though their little school had once had a greater than 93% free and reduced lunch rate, it had been one of the highest performing schools in the city. Its students, in the middle of one of the largest food deserts in the city, had outperformed the meager expectations of those who didn’t know their powerful potential with the help and guidance of loving teachers and administrators. But, their school was older and smaller in a city with fewer and fewer students, so it was closed. As several of the parents joined their song, I thought about how some of them were still succeeding, but others were falling behind. I wondered if they sang that song when they didn’t have to ride the bus to get to school; I wondered if there were any better solutions. Yet, in that moment, their song sounded defiantly joyful.

As we drew closer to our stop on North Main, we passed a side street where a number of our dearest friends have struggled with their own sobriety. A particular house on that street was a perpetual source of slavery for our friends who struggled against addictions. It was near that street that I heard Evan singing, “Shut the door, keep out the devil, shut the door, keep the devil in the night” with a voice so insistent that I nearly reached for the door handle. Evan had baked and brought two pies that night: a lemon meringue pie that everyone raves over and a chocolate pie that is his personal favorite. He was very pleased to carry back empty pie tins to his tiny home where he keeps meticulous watch over a little, but constantly expanding, garden. That night, in addition to his very popular pies, he had also brought with him a 1-month-keychain from Narcotics Anonymous for which he was equally proud. His catchy chorus was joined by another sister who shared his struggles, but who had recently relapsed. In her mouth, the song sounded less insistent and more pleading.

As the last chords of “Centerfold” faded from the radio, I gave thanks for the other songs being offered in the van and the voices that lifted them up quietly or boisterously. A part of our commitment to living life in community and to the practices of hospitality, simplicity, prayer, and relationship has meant learning new songs and how to sing them—not just the songs we sing at prayer and on porches, but also the songs that the neighborhood sings in its heart; the stories it tells to those who will pay attention. If we cultivate the ears to hear, and the eyes to see, we find that the siren song of our world and its temptations ends up sounding like a forgettable, synthesizer heavy, 80s new wave hit. That is to say, cheap and inauthentic when compared to the vibrant songs we learn to sing of God’s goodness from those who’ve experienced it profoundly. We’ve got to sing better songs, and if we don’t know any, then let’s borrow a song from somebody who does. In hopes that they might have a better song to sing, let’s listen.

***
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This month’s newsletter is written by Jessica Hearne, a Grace and Main leader and founding member, Jessica is supported in her work in our community by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, where she is “Field Personnel.” You can read more about her work and find ways to support her directly here.

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“How do you do this with children?” When people start to learn about our work and way of life, this question is often at the front of their minds and soon upon their lips as well. Like most families, children in our community are very important to us, and we would give practically anything to give them a leg up, open all of the doors, and give them their best possible chance in life. But when people hear that we are inviting people into our home – people who have personal experience with poverty, addiction, homelessness, and hunger – their minds run to how Josh and I and our community can protect Lucy, our 5-year-old daughter, from the unknown and unknowable dangers that they suppose people in these circumstances might bring with them. My mind runs there too, sometimes, but more often it runs to Darius.

We’ve known Darius since before he was born, not quite four years ago. Grace and Main has provided some help and stability to his parents through the years as they prepared for his birth and learned to be a family after his arrival. We know Darius’s extended family members, who all share the responsibility of raising him, making sure he has food to eat, a place to stay, and people around who love him. Darius is pretty quiet and a little bit shy when he comes around us, and I can’t blame him. We’re different: we look different, we live in a different kind of house, and we speak differently (my northern accent still stands out even after more than a decade of tempering in Virginia and North Carolina).

But do you know who doesn’t notice the differences? Our bombastic daughter, Lucy. She saw Darius at a big Grace and Main dinner this summer and immediately decided that he was going to play with her, whether he knew it or not. Lucy ran up to Darius and said, “Let’s play!” then took off to run a lap around the room. To the surprise of everyone who knew him, especially his cousin Sal who had brought him to dinner that night, Darius followed! They played chase around the room for a while, then created an obstacle course using the bottom 3 steps of the loft staircase and some pews that line the walls of the fellowship hall. Then they had a dance party around one of the columns in the middle of the room. When it was time to leave, Darius asked to ride with Lucy. We took him to our house, and they played in the hammock and the sandbox while we waited for Sal to walk over and pick him up.

Even better, it wasn’t a fluke! The next month, at the same regular meal, they did the exact same thing: chase, obstacle course, and dance party. Darius sat next to Lucy and me to eat, and then they were off again. We took him back to our house, and they played outside until Sal picked him up on the way home from dinner. I was glad to give Lucy and Darius a chance to play together, and even happier to offer Sal a few minutes of quiet at the end of a long day. Darius didn’t make it to our most recent big dinner, but Lucy’s obvious disappointment worked on Sal so that he promised that he would make sure Darius is there next month. Lucy and Darius claimed each other and we all just followed right along.

So how do we live this way with children? The best answer we’ve found is that we have to figure it out as we go along. We make friends, invite people in, serve dinner, and pray, and we do it with Lucy – and any other children – present and welcome. Perhaps a better question to ask is, “Why do you do this with children?” Making friends with people who live at the margins, who have personal experience with hunger, addiction, and poverty, teaches and changes us, and it is teaching and changing our daughter. Jesus said that anyone who wants to enter the Kingdom of God has to receive it like a child. Lucy and Darius, by choosing to be friends in spite of the differences that might try to separate them, have a piece of the Gospel that we struggle to find on our own. Sometimes, it seems, the Gospel involves impromptu obstacle courses and dance parties.

We invited Darius to come to Lucy’s birthday party in September. We rented a bounce house, and had pizza and cake with a handful of Lucy’s friends. When Sal dropped Darius off in our back yard, I could tell that he was nervous about the other kids running around. He and Lucy are fast friends, of course, but he’s still learning to play with bigger kids. However, it only took a minute for Lucy to see Darius and pull him into the bounce house with her. The kids bounced and played together for nearly 2 hours, stopping long enough for quick lemonade breaks before running back to bounce. We do community with children because anything we could build without them wouldn’t tell the whole story of God’s love. At five years old, Lucy is not yet able to explain our way of life and community to others, but her jubilant expressions of hospitality tell me that she knows all about it already because she’s been learning it alongside us.

***
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***

“Wait, guys, I’m coming down,” Ed shouted from his second-floor apartment door. He patted his pocket to check for his keys before pulling the door shut and walking quickly to the stairwell at the end of the motel turned apartment complex. This wasn’t the particular apartment we’d helped him move into a few years previous, but it was in the same building. He had moved out of the building we sometimes called “Little Calcutta” in one of our neighborhoods after taking part, and leading, in the justice that God grew there. Ed’s new building wasn’t the nicest in town, but it was leagues ahead of his previous place. More importantly, it was better than nearly all of his accessible and affordable alternatives. Ed insisted he was blessed because he could pay his bills and drink his coffee, even if it was out of a cup he borrowed from a hospitality house.

“Sorry, guys,” Ed said before adding a slight shake of his head and a pursing of his lips to his meaningful pause that told us what was next before he continued, “I can’t make it tonight…you know why.” Of course, we did. Like so many of our brothers and sisters around Grace and Main, Ed’s circumstances mean that he is perpetually at the mercy of other people’s schedules and calendars. If he needs something from the more traditional organizations that help him and offer some form of needed and appreciated support, then Ed often has little control over when they come. So, on many Sundays when we go to pick him up for prayers, Ed cannot come because his help hasn’t come yet. On those Sundays, we remind Ed that he is loved, promise to pray for his mother as he always asks, and insist that we will pray for him, as well.

But this Sunday, our visit didn’t follow its semi-typical script. Ed waved as I put the van into gear and said not too loudly but still insistently, “Hey, wait!” With my foot on the brake, I waited for Ed to continue. “Once they come, I would love to get some dinner at the KFC across the road,” he said as quickly as he could get the words out, “I mean, I don’t need it but I sure would like it.”

I knew I didn’t have any cash in my wallet, but I still patted my pocket before saying, “Sorry, brother, I don’t have any cash on me.” Ed nodded with understanding. But Robert, who was riding in the passenger seat of the van having just been picked up five minutes previous, was already fishing his wallet out of his pocket and flipping it open.

“I’ve got it,” Robert said with a quiet nonchalance while pulling out the last few bills out of his wallet and handing them over to Ed.

“That’s real kind of you,” I said while Ed offered his own more profuse gratitude to Robert. “Seeya next week?” I asked Ed as I prepared to continue our drive.

“Oh yeah,” Ed intoned with a smile that told me he was already thinking about chicken livers as soon as his time was his own again.

Later that evening during a period of extended silence in our prayers, I was reminded of Robert’s generosity so I turned it over in wordless contemplation. I knew that Robert and Ed receive the same kind of monthly check and that money can be equally tight for the both of them. This was certainly not a case of minimal sacrifice; eight dollars was a lot for either man. I wasn’t feeling guilty either because I hadn’t lied to Ed; I gave up lying or deflecting about the contents of my wallet several years into my life with Grace and Main. But, still I was struck by Robert’s generosity—I felt like I had missed an opportunity to do what Robert had done. That is, to be generous not because of a deeply felt need but because of the innate joy of giving for both recipient and giver.

Robert is one of a few Grace and Main regulars who makes sure that my daughter rarely has to go without a Reese’s cup for more than a week or two. In exchange for his gifts, my daughter is keen to remember him in her prayers and often quite eager to greet him. Robert once brought a harmonica to Little Calcutta when he knew that he’d be staying a while after the roving feast to play some music. He passed it to one of the residents who always listened but never had an instrument to join in the impromptu jam session. The new performer didn’t necessarily make pretty music, but it was made beautiful by joy and generosity. One Christmas, Robert bought a pair of boxing gloves for a friend of the community. He had heard the man had been a boxer in years past but had lost nearly all of his possessions in some personal and anonymous disaster. Those gifted gloves weren’t much use for boxing, but they were excellent for the memory of a more hopeful time.

Of course, Robert also gave Grace and Main a number of gifts over the years. His prayers have been constant. He recently finished three years of sobriety. He was also the one who pestered Bruce to come to one of our meals all those years ago. So, in his own way, he gave the community the gift of our dear brother.
I dropped Robert off last that night after prayers so that I’d have a few minutes to ask him about his generosity and why he was so keen to give gifts. Robert acknowledged that he wasn’t sure his gifts would actually change much and conceded easily that they didn’t always address needs so much as wants. “But you like giving, don’t you?” I asked him.

“Yeah, I do,” Robert began, “I like to give because I’ve not always been able to. Now that I can, I really enjoy it.” Rounding the corner toward his home, I hesitated to say anything for fear that I would disrupt his word for me. My silence was paid off when this kind, introverted man continued, “You know, the truth is that sometimes they’ll enjoy what I’ve got more than I will. Just because I’ve got it doesn’t mean I’ll spend it better than they will.” As we pulled up to his door and I thanked him for his time and requested his prayers for something like the thousandth time, he gathered his hat and bag. Robert turned and offered a final word from the gravel path leading to his door, “Sometimes they’ve got better plans for my money than I do—so why not let what I have be theirs?”

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