The following was written by Bruce, a missionary to Northside Danville with Grace and Main Fellowship and through Third Chance Ministries. Parts of Bruce’s story been shared in this newsletter and at various speaking engagements over the last several years. When Bruce first met Grace and Main, he was sleeping under a house in one of the neighborhoods, but now Bruce is approaching five years of sobriety and is one of our key leaders, overseeing our Tool Library, coordinating with mission teams, taking a big leadership role at the Urban Farm, and helping friends in the neighborhood to find work.

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Ever get so caught up in work, trying to accomplish so much, trying to keep up with the Joneses? I recently found myself caught up in some of the excitement that came with the warm weather: new work that’s coming up for our friends around the neighborhood, lots of food growing on the Urban Farm, building our new tool library. It seems that I got so caught up with what we’re going to do that I forgot about the things that really are important: friends, community, folks that are like family. I started missing things like community dinners, worship, spending time with the folks I love and that have—over the last five years—adopted me as one of their own.

But, about six weeks ago, all of my plans changed when I got an unexpected break: my ankle.

I remember the first thought that crossed my mind was: “How am I going to get all this stuff done with a cast on my leg?” I forgot, I guess, that I live in community with wonderful people who would all pitch in and see things done. I had friends come and take me to the doctor, grocery shopping, to pay my bills, to cut my grass, whatever needed to be done.

When we build up community and friendships that have deep running roots we can rely on one another in times of need, loneliness, or just an ear to listen. We can also coach and encourage one another. Do we always agree on everything? No, but we all agree that we can work it out. That, if a situation is handled with love and thoughtfulness, there is nothing we cannot work out. If we listen to our hearts and the voice of the Spirit, we can work it out.

Get to know your neighbor, build up your community, or maybe come and visit ours. Is it easy? No. Is it worth the effort? Yes! Say hello to your neighbors, get to know them, step outside your comfort zone. The changes and blessings in my life have been both profound and plentiful because of the people God has put into my life—because of Grace and Main. God tells us to love our neighbors as he has loved us. Maybe that’s because we might find that diamond in the coal mine if we have the eyes to see.

Since, God comes knocking on our door in many forms, you might want to answer the door. We may find that love and peace we have been looking for all our lives. We might find a really good friend. There’s just no telling what we might find it we open our hearts and minds to whomever God put at our door. Sometimes, we just need to take the leap of faith—even if we have to do it on crutches.

***

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This month’s story was originally published on November 1, 2014

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***

There is no easy way to take Robbie home from our house. If you ask Google, Robbie lives 2.1 miles away and we should be able to get there in about 8 minutes if the lights cooperate and there’s no construction. If you ask our friend Roland, Robbie’s home is “not more than a couple of miles, probably make it in 45 minutes if it’s not raining.” Ask Robbie and he’ll tell you it isn’t far—sometimes he walks, but he prefers to catch a ride from one of us. But being friends with Robbie for years now means that we know that the path to our house a harrowing one for him.

Robbie is our sometimes-recovering, sometimes-using brother for whom addiction has made the neighborhoods around his home, our home, and the other homes connected to Grace and Main into a minefield of temptation. Numerous corners, streets, and porches between us stand as mute memorials to Robbie’s struggle and captivity to drugs. He may only be “not more than couple of miles” away, but his way home is a long one.

165677_792859316968_55714273_42080296_5297505_nSome Sunday evenings, Robbie joins the gathered community for prayers and singing in our home. Most weeks, he stays with us in the room we’ve made a chapel as long as he can before taking a break on the front porch. He rejoins us once his nerves are a little better under control. Robbie rarely misses any of the singing and is eager to pray and sometimes lead us in a prayer. He’s sensitive and insightful, but also anxious and wary. He loves to bake for others and makes a banana pudding like you wouldn’t believe, but sometimes speaks quickly in anger. He believes strongly in the power of prayer, but has some justified doubts about what well-meaning people say. Like all of us, he’s complicated.

Robbie has been taught by the streets between us that there’s always another shoe just about ready to fall and his best hope not to be caught unawares is to keep moving and to stay one step ahead.  What Sister Dorothy Day might have called the “filthy, rotten system” has offered Robbie no way out of the endless cycles of poverty and addiction, so he’s learned to leave before he’s asked to leave and to hurt before he is hurt.

Those of us who moved downtown in the early days of Grace and Main did so not because God was calling us to a particular ministry, but because God was calling us to a people and a way of life. So, we planted ourselves in the place where God was moving and started listening for what God was calling us to do with—not for—our new neighbors. But, Robbie has taught us that there were still barriers not overcome by a change of address form and turning our homes into hospitality houses.

Trust is not built easily or quickly. Indeed, genuine and reciprocal relationships are not managed, but lived out with mistakes and missteps alongside the celebrations and conversations. We’ve scared Robbie away for a few months before when we’ve tried to find ways to help. Robbie has hurt our feelings and scared us, too. No amount of relocation or planning can break down years of carefully built distrust overnight—the way home is long.

your identity is at riskFor Robbie and for us, the quickest route is often the hardest one and it is full of temptation. For Robbie, the temptations are crack and believing the world’s lies that he’s all alone. For us, the temptation is to prize efficiency over intimacy and to think more about logistics than calling. In the end, we’re all haunted by the neighborhoods that we call home.

So, we take the long way home—a circuitous route that doesn’t take us past a certain crackhouse, or past an abandoned home that holds particular meaning for all of us. At first, we came up with excuses for why we took the long way home—“Hey Robbie, you mind if we stop by the gas station first?” “If I got you some bananas from the grocery store, would you make a banana pudding for Thursday night’s meal?” “Hey Robbie, I heard there was a house over in this neighborhood that was for sale, you want to go check it out?”

Sometimes it was Robbie who came up with the excuses—“Kyle wasn’t there tonight, can we stop by his place to make sure he’s okay?” “I need to get some milk if I’m going to make that cake for Saturday.” “I heard Mary got kicked out of her apartment and is sleeping on Jackson Ave., want to go check?” But, nowadays, we try to take the long route home without explanation. We don’t need to make excuses for the right way home and, most of the time, the long way is the right way—especially if it means going there together with the people to whom you have been called. After all, it’s the journey together to which we’ve all been called, so why shorten it?

***

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***

There is a kind of unsteady relief in the blessing of a warm, winter night. It’s a short-lived and bittersweet blessing, but it’s beautiful in its own way nonetheless. Walking the streets during an unseasonably warm couple of weeks this past December, we saw more than a handful of signs of the unexpected warmth among our brothers and sisters for whom the winter is more than an inconvenience—for whom the winter is a predator, stalking the shadows of dilapidated houses and windy alleys. The blessing of a warm, winter night is in the temporary relief it gives to those for whom safe and warm shelter is not assured.
Some of our brothers and sisters long for a warm, winter night. “I couldn’t sleep last night,” Carla insisted to me over dinner after a particularly cold night. As I began to ask her what had been troubling her, assuming that she must be suffering from insomnia, she continued, “if I lay down to sleep, I’ll die.” That’s when I realized, for the first time, that some of our sisters and brothers must walk all night long during the winter months to avoid the dangers of exposure. Some take shelter in gas stations, or other businesses open at that time of night, until they are shooed out for a variety of reasons. A warm, winter night gives the blessing of sleep and rest to Carla and others who know too intimately the experience of late night walks to nowhere in particular.

Warm, winter nights mean that we’ll see Laurence around the neighborhood doing any one of a number of small, side jobs that he does when the weather is nice enough. For Laurence, winter means most days spent indoors and only going out when absolutely necessary—it means a pile of blankets and a space heater wrestling with poorly insulated walls, and a drafty bedroom abandoned until spring. A warm, winter night gives the blessing of freedom to Laurence and others who make do with what they have and hope for spring.

The morning after a warm, winter night means that I’ll probably see David sitting in his usual spot downtown and scanning the doorways and corners for familiar faces. Maybe he’ll smile at me if it’s a good day and invite me to stop for a minute and talk. We’ll talk about whatever the news of the neighborhood is and ask after each other’s dear ones. I’ll invite him to dinner and hope that that’s a good day, too. But maybe when he sees me coming, he’ll suddenly find himself preoccupied with his shoes or the newspaper, if it’s a bad day and he doesn’t want company. Instead of talking, I’ll sit nearby and put my headphones in so he knows it’s okay not to talk if he doesn’t want to. A warm, winter night gives the blessing of knowing and being known to David and others who are supported socially by conversation and quiet presence alike.

Of course, our little community will also give thanks for warm, winter nights because it will mean relief in the middle of the marathon that is winter at Grace and Main. As temperatures dip in Southside Virginia every fall, Grace and Main turns its focus to providing shelter by any means possible. We continue with our meals, prayers, and other commitments, but our hearts gradually make a turn toward those who might have found the summer and fall bearable but now face the frighteningly real possibility of freezing to death. Along with our hearts, our common fund and shared resources turn toward the work of providing even more shelter—not just in our homes, but in hotel rooms and apartments throughout the city. For us, a warm, winter night gives the blessing of a tiny bit more confidence that the winter will run out before our resources do.

But a warm, winter night seems such a meager blessing when held up against the seeming enormity of the winter. The warmth will not last. The cold will creep its way back in. But, during last December’s warm stretch, I was reminded by Diane at one of our meals that a bittersweet blessing is still a blessing. As the book of James puts it, “Every good and perfect gift is from above…” As Diane puts it, “we’ve got to give thanks for everything, even the crumbs.”

She’s right, we’ve got to learn to give thanks even for the crumbs—a few nights of sleep and rest; a couple of days of work; a conversation or comfortable silence; and a little more confidence that God is working all things together for good. But that doesn’t mean that we take our eyes off of the daily bread for which we earnestly pray and work—safe and secure shelter regardless of the season; stable jobs with living wages; genuine, loving community that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable; and the blossoming of the Kingdom of God in every nook and cranny of our neighborhoods.

There is a kind of unsteady relief in the blessing of a warm, winter night. It’s a short-lived and bittersweet blessing, but it’s beautiful in its own way nonetheless, and we give thanks for it.

***

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***

“Hey brother, I saw you yesterday near the hospital,” I said, patting Tyler on the back and taking a seat next to him at a long table with my plate. “I waved and honked, but I don’t think you saw me,” I continued, as I unfolded my napkin, knowing well that not only had Tyler not seen me, but he hadn’t even looked up.

“Oh yeah,” Tyler offered, “I was coming back from the pharmacy.” Making a mental note to find a way to ask him later if the unexpected medicine expense was going to keep him from eating later that week, I almost missed his next comment. “I guess I didn’t hear you. I don’t pay too much attention,” Tyler added with a soft chuckle and something like a smile. But, I knew that wasn’t true. After all, Tyler is one of the people who remembers every detail of our calendar without the help of anything written. He notices when folks get haircuts or a new pair of shoes. He knows the names and faces, not to mention the stories, of many of the folks who gather for our meals. Tyler does pay attention and he doesn’t have a problem with his hearing.

That one missed interaction was a little thing, really, that caught my interest as it floated by in the sometimes rushing river that is the life and work of our community. It was certainly more important in the moment to make sure Tyler had food to eat in the weeks to come, than it was to wonder after one small, curious moment. So, I forgot about it for a while.
That is, I forgot about it until it happened again with Redd, Iris, and Hasan to name just a few. I started noticing that if I was in my car and saw one of our friends, I rarely succeeded in getting their attention by honking or waiting for them to look my way. I had to pull over, roll down my window, and say or shout something so they’d recognize my voice. The truth was, nobody was looking—at least, they weren’t until they heard a voice they recognized.

It was all so perplexing to me, because when I went for a walk to the store or one of our community’s houses, there was a good chance I’d see somebody I knew drive by. If I heard a honk, I looked around, assuming that somebody might be trying to get my attention to say hello. This exchange of greetings through tempered glass was one of the most charming things I had discovered upon moving to the south, and I had really grown to enjoy this tiny sign of welcome. But, for some reason, many of the folks among whom we had made our home weren’t looking.

Finally, I decided just to ask Tyler to see if I was misunderstanding something. Still thinking it was probably just some curious coincidence, but worried that it might be something deeper, I figured Tyler could be my teacher. He shrugged, before saying something that would change the way I think about ministry forever: “I don’t know. I don’t look, ‘cause I know no one’s looking for me.” Inwardly, I crumpled at the realization—it was all about dignity, after all. If people studiously avoid eye contact or even looking at you, if they cross to the other side of the street after glancing your way, and start saying “no” before you’ve finished asking them even a benign question, you learn that nobody is looking for you. When you stop being seen, you stop looking.

“I’m looking for you, Tyler,” I offered, with a forced cheerfulness, afraid to think about the times I hadn’t been.

“Alright,” Tyler said, “I’ll look for you too,” ending again with a soft chuckle and something like a smile.

Since then, I’ve learned to pay attention to who’s looking and who’s not. In those smiles of recognition, timid waves, or boisterous woops from a corner, I’m learning to see the power of community in a new way. Not only is there a power in seeing and being seen, but there’s also encouragement in this quickest of greetings. What we’ve discovered as we continue to do our meals in their not-so-efficient, but intimate way, and as we continue to invite people to share our homes, sit on our porches, and talk about all the things that really matter (and many that don’t matter in the slightest), is this: once people know that somebody out there cares about them—that somebody might be looking for them and glad to see them—they start looking. “I see you,” my car’s horn seems to call out for those with the ears to hear. “I’m looking,” their nod and wave seems to answer for those with the eyes to see.

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***

“Uh, I have something I need to tell you guys,” Russell said quietly while standing near the back door of our home. Russell had been staying with us for a few months at that point and things were going pretty well. He was sober and he had accomplished his initial goals from when he moved in with us, like getting well and stable. He had even made some progress on several of his bigger goals, like getting all of his identity documentation together and finding better ways to participate in the life of our community. But in that hesitating moment, he stood timidly at the back door in a way that we’ve learned to hate seeing. Something unexpected had happened and now Russell didn’t know if he was still welcome with us.

He must have practiced his speech a dozen times after being discharged from the emergency room. As we quietly contemplated what had been broken between us, Russell explained that the “people at the hospital” had told him he had head lice. Russell explained that his head had really started to itch a few days previous and he had finally gone to the emergency room because he didn’t know where else to go. He apologized to us, fearing that we now had a head lice problem in the house we shared, and volunteered to move out that night. We said “no,” both to his offer and his anxious fear, not just because it was January and dreadfully cold, but also because Russell was a part of our household and was welcome, even if lice wasn’t.

So, we did what you do when somebody you love comes home with head lice. The whole household—Russell and both families—began to clean furiously while one of us went to the pharmacy to find some specific cleaning products. “I’m sorry for all this,” Russell repeated like a prayer, still only half believing that he could be welcome with us, still finding it frighteningly easy to believe that “somebody like him” wasn’t worth it.

We reconvened around a large pile of bedding, towels, clothing, and a favorite hat, to figure out what to do next and decided to start with first treating Russell’s scalp, hair, and beard with one of the shampoos and the fine-toothed comb. But here’s the strange thing about Russell’s head lice: they weren’t there. Russell had a very bad case of dandruff and needed a good deep clean with a dandruff shampoo, but there wasn’t a single nit or louse anywhere in Russell’s hair or beard. There wasn’t a single nit or louse anywhere in the house, in fact.

Bewildered, we asked Russell why the folks in the emergency room had told him he had head lice, even as we checked again. It seems that when Russell arrived in the emergency room, complaining of itching scalp, they recognized him. They didn’t know his name, but they were already confident of what his problem was. They didn’t know he was no longer without shelter and things were slowly starting to break in his favor, but they were certain about what was “wrong” with him. They assuredly knew that, as the Center for Disease Control puts it, “getting head lice is not related to cleanliness of the person or his or her environment,” but they were also convinced that Russell was untouchable. So, somebody gave a quick glance to Russell’s scalp without ever laying a hand on him, wrote him a prescription, and told him to hurry to the pharmacy before it closed for the night.

It’s a story that all of our brothers and sisters experiencing homelessness know too well. Everybody knows your problem and hardly anybody knows your name. It’s the kind of thing that makes you stand timidly at a back door, rehearsing a speech and wondering if you’re still welcome. It’s the kind of thing that starts to make you feel like less of a person and more of a problem. It’s the kind of thing that teaches you to apologize when bad things happen to you.

So, we did what you do when somebody you love comes home with dandruff diagnosed as invisible head lice. We gave thanks to God. We lamented a world that develops solutions for people, as if they were problems, and hearts that know how to “fix somebody” without ever really meeting them. We poked a little fun at each other for our frantic cleaning, to salve over the hurt we felt for believing the lie for a little while, for not first checking Russell’s scalp for ourselves. We all shared a late dinner amidst our couch cushions drying from their unnecessary chemical treatment. We told some stories, made some jokes, and built up the relationship imperiled by a hasty misdiagnosis. We said, “one day we’ll laugh about this.” We do, you know, but also we grieve what almost was and still too often is.

***
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***

When we gather as a community to pray together, we really gather to do a lot of things. We sing and keep silence. We give thanks for the day fast passing into night, even as we also confess when we have taken it all for granted and when we have sinned. We listen as contemplatively as we can manage as one of us reads scripture. We listen for the Spirit hidden in the nooks and crannies of the words of our sister and brother. We talk about nothing as a way of talking about everything. But, we also come to a time to name some of the particular things for which we are praying.

Over the years, this time of naming particular prayer requests has developed its own unspoken and natural form. First, we hear the most pressing requests on people’s hearts—those requests that will not sit still for another second and leap from the mouths of dear friends as soon as they can. Second, we usually have a chorus of updates on sick family members, friends in recovery or trying to escape addiction, loved ones making big transitions, and people we know (or don’t know) who are either newly homeless or dangerously close to it. Third, we hear the regular requests that are ticked off like prayer beads every week, once again reminding us of our commitment not only to pray for others, but to carry each other in our prayers and thoughts.

Finally, we wait quietly for a few remaining prayers to be offered up hesitantly and with uncertain conviction. These last requests are the raw ones, the ones that don’t come easily or quickly, and can be hard to talk about. Offering these last prayers up to the room is a step in faith, trusting that those gathered will take up our messy, half-articulated worries and hurts with tender hands. This last kind of prayer request was what Fletcher offered one night.

Fletcher had lost a lot of hours at his job and now found it difficult to make ends meet. He was trying to get back on his feet, but was struggling—that’s one of the reasons he was staying in one of our hospitality rooms. So, as our prayers rounded out to silence, Fletcher first asked for us to pray for people who were having trouble in their jobs. Instead of asking us to pray for him, he asked for prayer for people who matched a description that was conspicuously like him. He had the voice to ask for prayer, just not for himself yet. We nodded our willingness to do so—this is, in fact, one of our regular prayers.  After all, so many of the people who call our community home know this struggle intimately.

But, then Fletcher named another person around the circle, Ed, and asked us to pray specifically that Ed might get the hours he needed at his job. He had the voice to name a person, just not himself yet. We nodded our willingness to do so, and Fletcher looked Ed in the eye and asked, “Because it’s hard, isn’t it?”

“Can I do something right now?” asked Gage, our brother who had recently been released from jail and reunited with his fiancé. Gage hadn’t been with us too long, but was eager to leave his past behind and be a part of something like our little community. Helpful to a fault, but occasionally reserved in groups, his request was something of a surprise as I was distracted, trying to figure out how to let Fletcher know we’d be praying for his job situation even if he couldn’t ask for himself, yet.

By the time I had begun to nod to Gage, he had already bowed his head and began praying spontaneously for Fletcher. “Lord God, we know you care about Fletcher, Ed, and everybody, so we want to care, too. Help Fletcher get the hours he needs and to know that you love him and we do, too. Amen.” It wasn’t a fancy prayer, but it communicated something vitally important: we knew, we cared, and we were listening—even if he couldn’t ask for himself, yet.

“Thanks,” Fletcher whispered. Gage nodded silently and looked away, ready for the attention to shift somewhere else in the circle.

“Let’s not forget to pray for Gage, too,” I added, “he’s still looking for a job, right?”

We prayed for Gage, Ed, and Fletcher, and we prayed for the 45% of homeless people in our country who have a job, but can’t get enough hours to make ends meet. We prayed for the words to say when we gathered together, but also to know when silence is the best prayer we can offer. We prayed for sisters and brothers who find it hard to pray for themselves, but easy to pray for others. We did all this, because we want to be people who gather up prayers and honor them all with tender hands. Wrapped in the prayers of the community, we’re all learning how to pray for ourselves by praying for each other.

***
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***
Alex had to come down to the lobby to let us into his building, but we were glad to wait. As we all rode the slightly-too-small elevator up to the fourth floor, I couldn’t help but compare his current building with the building where he lived when we met him. Alex was a resident of the building we took to calling “Little Calcutta” because of its utterly dilapidated condition and unjust administration. Alex was one of the leaders who lived there and helped his brothers and sisters to stay strong when the owners first refused and eventually retaliated to the requests of the tenants. One of the gifts God gave Alex that he used to support his brothers and sisters is the same one that brought us to his new place months later: a spectacular gift for cooking.

With the soft ding of the elevator, our attention turned to the meal that awaited us all in Alex’s new home. A first born son of Puerto Rican heritage, raised in East Harlem, Alex started learning to cook as a child. Describing himself as a “latchkey kid,” he once told me that when he was a child, he learned: “If I didn’t cook, I wouldn’t eat.” Though it wasn’t a straight path Alex took to get there, he eventually ended up in culinary school in New York City, learning even more not only about cooking high quality food, but also about the power of a meal to create and sustain community. Both in East Harlem and in culinary school, he was learning the practice of hospitality by so many other names. As we walked down the hall to his corner apartment—only a few blocks away from Little Calcutta physically, but miles away spiritually—we gave thanks for his hospitality a little more with every step toward the fragrant banquet awaiting us.

Some people might say that Alex ended up in Danville by accident, but we know the truth. God brought Alex to Danville by way of a winding path through addiction, recovery, loss, and at the encouragement of his children. In our experience, God loves the winding path and God loves making a way through the wilderness. As we all listened happily to the menu for that night’s meal, I couldn’t help but recall that it was food that first introduced us to Alex, when we ended up bringing lunch by Little Calcutta. He joined us for that lunch and many others, before eventually telling us why he kept showing up: “I saw you guys coming to eat, and I just liked the fact that you guys weren’t just helping but also just being there. I needed someone to talk to. I needed it more than a plate of food. I liked the fact that it was more about relationships than food.” That’s saying something for somebody who loves good food like Chef Alex.

We’ve hosted hundreds upon hundreds of meals since the leaders of Grace and Main first made our commitment to a life of hospitality, prayer, simplicity, and community building. But, as we broke bread, passed the cup, and bowed our heads to give thanks for the meal, we did so with special gratitude for the unexpected grace of this particular meal. We’ve hosted many meals and seen lives slowly changed over spoons clinking softly in bowls, but we’ve learned that being committed to hospitality is about more than hosting meals. As we try to give our lives over to welcome and building family on the margins, we’ve learned something:  our commitment to hospitality doesn’t make us hosts, it makes us witnesses.

What Alex reminded us with broiled fish and a delicately seasoned butternut squash soup was that all good gifts come from God above. God isn’t anxiously waiting on any of us in order to do something, but is in fact inviting us to see what God is already doing with seemingly misplaced chefs and carpenters, teachers and preachers, doctors and the sick. God’s call upon our lives is not some desperate hope that somebody might do what the Kingdom needs, but is an invitation to a better and more blessed way of life. God is the host and we are the guests and witnesses of God’s goodness, whether it’s in “our” homes, in the homes of formerly homeless brothers and sisters, or on a street corner or porch.

The meal that night was quiet for a while, except for the babbling of my only-recently-started-crawling daughter, but only because the meal was one of the best we’ve ever had. A few more than a dozen people gathered around a couple of tables marveled at what Alex did with relatively meager, but fresh, ingredients. Most of those gathered had lived in Little Calcutta and were nearly anonymous victors over the injustice there. They had eaten at Chef Alex’s table many times when food was tight and money was tighter. But this night, there was only celebration. Brothers and sisters, who once had nowhere to lay their head, ate a meal together and told stories about Little Calcutta—a place no one wanted to return to, but where the Spirit had moved anyway.

As the meal dissipated, we carried our laughter and joy back down the hall to the elevator and to our cars. Having been guests at Chef Alex’s table, we were pleased to find that once again we had been witnesses to God’s goodness. That night, we gave thanks not only for good food, but also for each other and all the winding paths that God used to bring us all together in the home of a formerly homeless man with a penchant for holy mischief. It might not have been the fanciest meal in the city that night, but I’m pretty sure it was the best one.

***
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