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We had a new story last month (read it here), but here’s another of our other kind of update. In this one you’ll see some data form our recent work, some pictures, a prayer for the amplification of our love, and links to a couple of stories that are on our minds recently.

We’ve been so thankful for the proliferation of folks getting vaccinated and have even seen times when those vaccines have made it possible for some of us to gather in small groups again outside and safely. We continue to make sure that folks are getting vaccinated in our neighborhoods and encourage you to get the vaccine when you’re able.

In February 2021, we provided 190 meals through grocery bags, subsidies, the Urban Farm, meal pickups and dropoffs, and a few other methods. Our total number of meals provided through the end of February was 406.

In March 2021, we provided 503 nights of shelter through our network of housing resources including hospitality spaces, rent/utility subsidies, and a few other methods. That brings our total nights of shelter provided so far in 2021 to 1,508.

In February, we provided pastoral care and spiritual direction 157 times lasting 65.4 hours. That brings our total of instances of pastoral care and spiritual direction in 2021 up to February to 353 times lasting 148.7 hours.

In February, we provided 167 rides and spent 26.83 hours personally giving rides. That brought our total for 2021 up to February to 326 rides with 53.98 hours personally giving rides. These rides include trips to the doctor, pharmacy, grocery store, and work.

A COVID-19 Vaccination Clinic some of us worked at. This picture was taken just prior to the event that vaccinated a couple thousand people.

Most of a recent donation of tools from donors and partners including a new mower, a wood chipper, a pole saw, and a tiller. We are very thankful and eager to put them all to work.

A Short Prayer for the Amplification of Our Love

O Lord of All Creation,
who knows and love all creatures great and small with an unfathomable devotion;
grow your love in us for all the myriad parts of your creation that cross our paths every day, especially for our enemies and those whom the world would teach us to hate or deride;
in order that we might grow in maturity to reflect your divine and unquenchable love for all.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Some Stories Worth Rereading

In November of 2018, I wrote a story called “Better Plans” about a Grace and Main leader who was experiencing homelessness when we first met him and who gave eight dollars to a brother because maybe he had “better plans” for it than he did.

In September of 2016, Louise wrote a story called “The Ground is Rich.” Louise spent a summer working with us and wrote a piece for a local magazine about what she had learned. We loved having her around and hope to see here again soon.

You might have already guessed it but managing the leadership team of Grace and Main’s Urban Farm has been a challenge to me at times. For the last three years, I have been working with the Urban Farm leadership team on planning and maintaining our one-and-a-half acres of gardens, trees, and bushes. Our team is primarily made up of folks who have direct experience with homelessness, addiction, and food and housing insecurity. Some of the leaders have gardening experience, like Walter who grew up helping his grandpa tend vegetables in his backyard. Others, like Joseph and Victor, are more familiar with mowing, weeding, and trimming, having grown accustomed to it working on other people’s lawns.

Together, we have been learning about permaculture, chemical-free growing, and companion planting to expand access to fresh food in a neighborhood that isn’t close to a grocery store. We have developed some routines and strategies that have worked, but we’ve also lost a lot of produce to groundhogs and other pests. Sure, we’ve grown plenty of food to share, but we have been perhaps too generous with the groundhogs.

Managing the Urban Farm is an odd fit for me. I love to garden, but, as a student, I never liked group projects. To me, it always seemed that incorporating a variety of ideas, delegating, and relying on others to complete parts of an assignment was far harder than just doing the assignment by myself. Group projects made me anxious and I worried that others would turn in work that wasn’t good enough. Obviously, giving up control was difficult for me. I was afraid to be judged by someone else’s work instead of my own.

So, it perhaps comes as no surprise that, through most of my time managing the Urban Farm, I have kept my hands “on the wheel.” I’ve directed others on how to plan and plant a bed, how to spread what kinds of compost and when, where and when to spray our fish fertilizer, how to prepare our “all-purpose spray,” and where the weed-eaters should and should not be used in the gardens. But my practiced tendency to want to control a project has come up against something more fundamental: our community’s commitment to sharing power and trusting directly affected people to do the work.

In our work over the last decade, I have seen the effect of giving power into the hands of people who are most directly affected by a problem. When Bruce, recently sober and in stable shelter for the first time in a while, wanted to help provide his neighbors with tools to support themselves, Grace and Main gave him the resources to start a Tool Library and eventually grew it into an entirely new building. When residents in the North Main Street neighborhood decided to provide their neighbors with breakfast and fellowship on the lawn one day a week, Grace and Main bought eggs and coffee, dropped off pallets of bread, and showed up to help cook. When neighbors wanted to grow produce in their yards, Grace and Main secured a grant to build garden beds. In all of these situations, Grace and Main found a way to pitch in while still leaving the power to make decisions and plans in the hands of local people who knew intimately and personally what it was that their community really needed. I have seen it work, but still it has been difficult for me to trust others and give them the power to make more decisions at the Urban Farm, but that’s been changing. I was still afraid to be judged by someone else’s work instead of my own. I still am.

Our garden leadership team has fluctuated over the years, mostly for good reasons like new jobs and leaders having new opportunities, but occasionally because of a death or other loss. Then, of course, COVID-19 caused us to have to rethink everything about how we work. We had to cancel the first 2 months of our season during the statewide stay-at-home period. Then when we did finally start our weekly workdays in June, I could only take half of the team at a time to ensure that we were safely socially distanced in the community van. About half of the garden was left to rest because we didn’t have enough time between us to maintain it all. Every new challenge left me feeling more and more like the garden wouldn’t be able to run without my direct leadership at every step.

Every winter, we gather to plan the year’s work and start preparing the beds for the spring. This winter has been no exception as we’ve learned how to run our gardens during the middle of a pandemic. At one of those recent workdays, Draymond took a step back from a garden bed that had been particularly plagued by groundhogs last year and said, “I wonder if building raised beds would help keep the groundhogs from eating everything.” Somehow in all our years of doing this, I had never thought about building raised beds on top of our terraced beds to help protect from pests. Draymond did though.

As we worked together to plan how to place the beds and how to cover them with chicken wire to slow down the groundhogs, I was reminded about the real power that comes from sharing our power. Draymond helped situate the raised beds and figure out spacing, while Joseph started to describe a way to assemble the lumber that would keep the weather-treated corner posts on the outside away from the soil. Walter interjected with an idea about how to use rebar and PVC to create a structure to support the fencing. Ideas and innovation were flowing unsolicited; it was a welcomed relief! After holding so tightly to the garden for so long, sharing that power felt like taking a breath after being under water for too long. It felt good to rely on someone else’s work; it would be good to be judged by the work of others, because when we share our power we make room for the right leadership.

My goal since I took over the management of the Urban Farm three years ago has been to work myself out of a job. I know that, as has been the case so many times before, the Urban Farm will be even better when it is not only led but managed by people who are most directly affected by food insecurity in the neighborhood. This year, I am finally allowing myself to feel that this is true and to imagine what it will be like to give even more power away. On the day that I am joyfully demoted from manager to volunteer, I will be thankful to be judged by someone else’s work. I have hope that that day will be coming soon and that it will involve far fewer groundhogs.

We’re still trying something new with our monthly newsletter. We’ve got an exciting announcement, some data form our recent work, some pictures, a prayer for peace in our hearts and neighborhoods, and links to a couple of stories that are on our minds recently. Please let us know what you think; we’re still trying to make sure these updates give a fuller picture of our work and lives.

Our big announcement: Grace and Main Fellowship (including Third Chance Ministries) was awarded the B.R. Ashby, M.D. Award for Outstanding Community Service! We are honored to receive the award from the Danville Regional Foundation. Clark Casteel, President and CEO of DRF, remarked, “[Grace and Main’s] commitment to practicing hospitality, building community and walking alongside those struggling with homelessness, poverty, addiction and hunger every day is changing lives right where they live and work.” We’re excited to use the grant associated with the award to expand our impact in housing stability and among people experiencing housing instability. Thank you to everyone who made it possible: the kind people who nominated us, everybody who has supported our work all these years, the individuals and families who have funded the work that received the award, the many leaders who make up Grace and Main’s extended family, the partners who’ve been integral to our work, and the Danville Regional Foundation and the Ashby committee for selecting us for this honor. Thank you to everyone!

Check out the video presentation that DRF released on January 28. I love seeing all the faces of the people that make up Grace and Main, especially those who’ve passed on to what awaits us.

In December 2020, we provided 218 meals through grocery bags, subsidies, the Urban Farm, meal pickups and dropoffs, and a few other methods. In the year 2020, we provided 2,858 meals in total!

In January 2021, we provided 527 nights of shelter through our network of housing resources including hospitality spaces, rent/utility subsidies, and a few other methods. This also included the emergency housing discretionary fund recently created to address the COVID-related rise in evictions and housing instability.

In December, we provided pastoral care and spiritual direction 198 times lasting 75 hours. That brings our 2020 total of instances of pastoral care and spiritual direction to 1,666 times lasting 646.3 hours.

In December, we provided 166 rides lasting 29.1 hours. That brought our 2020 total to 1,463 rides lasting 372.7 hours. These rides include things like trips to the doctor, pharmacy, grocery store, and work. Of course, since March 2020, these rides have been masked and involved temperature checks and extra safety precautions.

Interviewing an Urban Farm leader for the Ashby Award Announcement Video

The Union Street Dam on the Dan River near sunset

A Short Prayer for the Cultivation of Peace

O Lamb of God,
who is the prince and author of peace in our world so intoxicated with the promises of power;
weed the gardens of our hearts and minds and prune from us all hatred, violence, discrimination, and the desire to dominate,
in order that our lives might be good soil in which the roots of your love might take purchase and produce good and abundant fruit.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Some Stories Worth Rereading

In December of 2019, Jessica wrote a story called “Jacob’s Wandering Heart” about the many roads one of our Grace and Main leaders has walked over the years and how all those roads brought him into our little community. “Jacob” celebrated five years of sobriety in the fall and we’re still so thankful that he walked those roads to find us.

In February of 2019, I wrote a story called Jeron’s Ride. It’s all about “a family united by a chosen bond instead of blood” and how the neighborhood cares for Jeron. In a time that has been tumultuous and when our minds have often turned to the effects of it all on kids, remembering this story brings me a measure of comfort.

When Mark called, I was stopped in my car at the small riverside park I like to call Goosetown, because of its popularity among geese. As my unfocused gaze skipped across the muddy Dan river, Mark told me all about how his world was falling apart. The doctor said he was getting worse. The prognosis wasn’t good. “I’m gonna keep fighting,” Mark said with fatigue gripping the edges of this obligatory defiance, “but you know how it is.”

“Yeah man,” I offered back weakly, still uncertain how to support him without being near to him. I’ve still not quite gotten the hang of community in an era of physical distancing when so many of our folks have limited time on the phone even more limited access to the internet. I’ve done pastoral care through a rolled-up car window—something I never imagined just a year ago—but it’s not the same.

Mark and I talked for a while. We didn’t solve anything and the specter of his prognosis still haunted our conversation. But we paid respect to the enormity of Mark’s revelation with some small talk and a lot of blanket reassurances – of love, of support, of prayers. Though perhaps easily given, those reassurances were no less true for their seeming commonness. The years of history between us gave strength to those promises.

After we hung up, I noted the two voicemails left while I had listened to Mark. One was a mother who was being evicted with her three kids from a tiny apartment across town. She’d gotten my phone number from a congregation that had said they didn’t have money to help. It sounded like her world was falling apart around her, too. The other voicemail was from a clergy friend who had been struggling with the weight of ministry during COVID and felt like maybe he couldn’t do it anymore. He felt so terribly guilty for even considering quitting his pastor job, but the idea of continuing seemed unimaginably daunting. Caught between opposing forces in his life and in his congregation, it felt like the world was falling apart around him, too.

The accumulated voicemails would have to wait though. I needed to get across town to Grace and Main’s Urban Farm. One of our longtime friends and community leaders was having a celebration and I was eager to join. Mind you, it was only a small group and it was outside and physically distanced. We took the temperatures of all the guests and everyone wore a mask, too. But Robert was celebrating the fifth anniversary of his sobriety and that’s worth celebrating even if it’s done awkwardly. We brought our own dinners in a fleet of reusable plastic boxes and bags and we sat on the grass and on benches and in bag chairs plucked from their place in utility closets. We shared a grocery store sheet cake that proclaimed in blue icing the blessed reason for our unorthodox gathering.

Such a celebration might have seemed pale in comparison to meals we’ve shared and parties we’ve thrown over the last eleven years. We’ve certainly had more boisterous and jubilant celebrations of sobriety than this one. The scant few gathered and the assembly of sweaty masks could be read as a sad line in another story about the world falling apart. It was definitely not the celebration we would have chosen a year before that when we celebrated four years and looked toward five in hopeful anticipation.

In the story of creation recorded in the first chapter of Genesis, God hovers over the chaotic void prior to the moment of creation. The story goes that God carves out a tiny bastion of order amid all that swirling chaos. In that little soap bubble world, God places not only stars and oceans, but also grasshoppers and daisies. Surrounded by cosmic chaos, the God of all creation takes time to plant a garden and create a vast menagerie of animals. In response to the tendency of all things to dissolve and fall apart, God then scoops up a handful of mud and breathes life into it to make humans like you and me.

Our awkward, little party might not have been what we had imagined but it was somehow good and beautiful nonetheless. It was a modest and careful occasion that nursed a hope that the God of all creation might build a little order in our own personal chaos – that the God who built the world might rebuild all the parts that were seemingly falling apart. It was a quiet testimony to the belief that falling apart isn’t the end and that God may well be even more present in the broken places – in the rubble of what we knew as good – than we ever might have imagined in the first place.

I left the party with voicemails still unanswered and a couple new ones to which I would need to attend. I knew we’d be able to help some of the people who were waiting to hear back from me but I knew there were others we couldn’t help. That is, in the days to come we’d figure out where it was that we could join God in the work of rebuilding. Then, as we’d done so many time before, we’d pitch in. It wouldn’t feel like enough – the world would still be falling apart in places – but it would be good and beautiful and awkward and modest. It would be enough and the falling part wouldn’t be the end.

***
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Because Josh is very busy running a community engagement phase of new officer training for the Danville Police Department, we’re re-running one of our favorite stories from a previous newsletter. We hope to have a new story next month.

This story was originally published on August 1, 2017.

***

One evening earlier this year, I was giving a half dozen folks a ride home after a particularly fine meal at one of the Grace and Main hospitality houses. We had had one of our perennial favorite meals: chili with baked potatoes, tortilla chips, plenty of shredded cheese, and more black coffee than you’d likely think reasonable. The potatoes had seemed to bake all day and the chili really had been in the crockpot since about 7 that morning. The coffee was extra strong, just like our folks tend to like it – especially Todd, who counts strong, black coffee as one of a very few things he cannot live without. As I snaked through the neighborhood in the golden minivan we call “Lee,” dropping friends off at their homes or a nearby store if they wanted to get some shopping done before going home, I turned the radio on and began to lapse into a silent reconsideration of the night’s activity interrupted intermittently by contented conversation and warm “seeya laters” as we dropped off each friend.

For whatever reason, I just couldn’t get past the noise and activity of the night’s meal. I had heard so many words, both joyful and despairing, and I couldn’t really find a way to make sense of them all. I look forward to our shared meals, but I often find that I come away with a heart full of other’s worries and fears to mix with my own. I love our community and what we get to do and participate in, but it often brings me into communion with heartbreak that I simply can’t explain away.

I recalled a pair of conversations about shelter: one friend who had new, stable shelter for the first time in a long while; the other friend who had unexpectedly lost their shelter because of a crooked deal with a predatory landlord. Another one of our regulars had had to remind me about how he needed some clothes and I had promised to find some for him with a local partner. “I forgot,” I confessed, “but I can do that tomorrow if you like.” I made a note on my phone, but I continued to turn it over in my mind.

A new guest at our meals, who had only been eating and praying with us for a little over a month, had been especially boisterous at the meal and seemed eager to prove himself to the gathered crowd. With a pat on the shoulder, one of our longtime regulars had quieted his nerves and invited him to share a cigarette on the porch. A few of our developing leaders had let me in on some of the neighborhood news that hadn’t yet reached my ears and alternately gave me a laugh and caused some mild concern for a neighbor who might be sick.

All of this was undergirded by the constant chorus of my dear daughter doing animal noises on request, with special attention given to lion and dinosaur roars. The noise of the meal and the many conversations followed me into the van that night. I decided to drop Todd off last, because we don’t always take the most direct route and because he enjoys the quiet. “Maybe in that companionable silence,” I thought, “I might find some meaning in all of the noise.”

So, we rode along with the radio on and paying little attention to whatever forgettable song was playing. As we rounded a familiar corner on the way to Todd’s apartment—the apartment we had helped him move into after we helped him and other leaders get their slum apartment complex shut down—Todd clapped me on the shoulder with a big grin and said, “The Spirit just came over me, Josh.” Just a few seconds later, with the hint of laughter at the foundation of his deep, bass voice, he added, “You know how that happens sometimes?”

Shocked out of my hurried recounting of the night’s activity, I worried that I had missed something in my inward reflection. Anxious that I might have missed some holy moment and eager to catch up, I stalled with the first question that popped to mind: “Just now?”

“Yeah,” Todd responded, with a quiet, common place confidence. “Yeah, just now,” he repeated through a satisfied smile.

“What did the Spirit say, Todd?” I asked, eager to keep Todd talking and hoping that maybe Todd had the words to make all of the disparate parts of our night stick together.

“Nothing much,” Todd admitted, nearly laughing, and added, “just a feeling that it’s all okay, you know?”

“Yeah,” I responded, thoughtfully, and not sure I really did get it. At least not in the same way that Todd did. In the midst of all of the noise of the night, Todd hadn’t found the Spirit like a golden thread running through a dozen conversations. He hadn’t found the Spirit in the holy intersection of God’s lavish providence and the world’s inexhaustible need. He hadn’t found the Spirit in the voice of a friend or a stranger, waiting for him there with a truth of which he needed to be reminded. No, the Spirit “just came over” Todd.

Todd didn’t find the Spirit, the Spirit found him. And when it found him, it didn’t draw meaning out of the noise – not this time – but left him with a wordless confidence in the goodness of all that had come before and all that was coming. In my search for a word or words to ponder in my heart and make sense of our work, I missed the wordless Spirit that came over Todd. But to my great benefit, Todd was paying attention and willing to break silence to share something holy. Todd is teaching us to listen to the hum of a dozen conversations and a noisy, shared meal and know that the Spirit is saying everything will be okay, even if we can’t find the words — especially when we can’t find the words.

***
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This story was originally published on November 1, 2015.

***

“I could probably quit, too, if I really wanted to do it,” Carl told me over one of our many meals together. As a dozen small conversations floated around us, this particular conversation suddenly felt especially important. We were celebrating Bruce’s first full year of sobriety and giving thanks for the good works God had done in our midst, so it seemed likely that maybe Bruce’s landmark was making Carl think about his own addictions. We’d been eating with Carl in our homes and hanging out with him in the neighborhood for many months. We had prayed with and for him many times, praying not only for his health and safety, but also for his freedom from the substances that made him a slave.

“Yes, you could,” Carl’s wife Tasha interjected. Tasha had addictions and challenges of her own, but she and Carl had stuck by each other through so many of them. As an interracial couple, Carl and Tasha had faced even more challenges than other couples struggling with addiction. “Let’s do it together,” Tasha insisted, “I know if we tried together, we could do it.” Placing her hand on Carl’s arm, Tasha pleaded with her eyes for a little courage and hope from her husband. It looked like the beginning of a beautiful work of God’s liberating love in our midst even as we celebrated a different one. Nodding along with Tasha, I waited quietly for Carl’s reaction.

“But I don’t want to quit,” Carl insisted to my and Tasha’s disappointment. Turning to Tasha, he continued, “You don’t want to quit either.” Suffice to say, that’s not how I thought things would go.

For another couple of years, we would pray and hang out with Carl and Tasha through good times and bad. When Tasha was clean for several days at a time, we’d celebrate because all freedom—no matter how long or short its tenure—is a good thing. We helped Carl find some work to do here and there when he could manage it. Both times they decided to move, we helped them take their things to the new place and listened to Tasha talk about how this place would be different. When Tasha was released from the hospital, it was one of our hospitality house doors where Carl and Tasha came to ask for a ride home. We ate with them, we laughed with them, and we cried with them. Carl may not have wanted to quit—may not then have been able to cultivate the hope that he could be free—but he wanted family and we were glad to call him ours, as he was glad to call us his.

For years, we tried everything we could think of to help Carl take those first steps toward freedom. We tried every key we knew to unlock the chains of addiction in our brother’s life. Countless prayers, long conversations, offers of help and support, frustrated and blunt honesty, and a host of other approaches—even Tasha’s earnest efforts—seemed unsuccessful in loving Carl into recovery. We kept praying, but I didn’t have much hope that the story would change.

Sometimes—not often but always surprisingly—people don’t break their chains, but just slip out of them when nobody is looking.

One day while we walked the neighborhood and checked in on a handful of folks, Carl nonchalantly announced to one of us that he had quit using about a week ago. We were so far away from hoping for what he was confessing that we didn’t quite understand what he meant at first. We asked him to repeat himself and he confirmed that he had quit a week previous and added, “I was just done. I didn’t want to anymore.” After years of obedience to the idol of addiction, Carl just walked away, quietly going through withdrawals with Tasha. We celebrated with him and asked him, incredulously, what had made the difference—what made him want to change. He shrugged and said, “I was just ready to be done and ready to feel better.”

We didn’t convince Carl to quit, but the chains fell off anyway. We loved him as best we could and tried to find ways to make room for him and Tasha in our little community. Sometimes, God doesn’t call us to unlock the locks and tear the chains off God’s beloved. Sometimes, God calls us just to love them where they are and wait for the chains to rust away from exposure to God’s furious and pervasive love. Last week, Carl completed his first full year of sobriety. He has a couple of jobs, a bicycle, a fairly secure place to live, and is active in our community in a few different ways. With his jobs and his lack of addiction, he has money to buy bus fare for him and Tasha to go different places in the city and have their own dates and adventures. It turns out that you can go a lot farther after the chains fall off, even if you still have to carry somebody.

When Carl arrives on Sunday night to pray and sing, he is eager to talk about what’s going on in the city and at Grace and Main. Of course, he also wants to know the score of the Cowboys game if it hasn’t finished yet. He’s proud to be free, he’s proud to have a big family, and he’s proud to be a part of our work at the Urban Farm and around the neighborhood. But, he’s most eager and proud to tell us about how Tasha is doing. Sometimes, he brags on how many days it’s been since she’s used, while others it’s bragging about how next time is going to be the time. “I know she can do it,” he insists, “I know we can do it together.”

***
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***

“Well I guess you’re a good son,” the lady on the phone says casually. I can hear her typing as she offers the pleasantry and I don’t bother to correct her. She’s probably got a hundred more phone calls to field that afternoon and she’s more likely looking for a way to fill the silence than making an honest assessment of me. Max and I are waiting in the parking garage out in front of the hospital because that’s the newest check-in protocol for his appointment. We must have followed four different protocols since January, but we’ll do what they ask so Max can get his biopsy. We’ve already made the 135-mile drive for the appointment, Max dozing in the backseat with both of us wearing masks the whole way. So, one phone call is hardly an inconvenience.

“Alright,” the lady says, bringing my attention back to the phone, “you can bring your father around to the front entrance and we’ll take it from there.” I thank her and put the car in drive. I won’t be able to go into the hospital with Max – another good protocol – so after I drop him off with a prayer, I’ll drive down the road a ways and park in a grocery store parking lot to wait. I’ve got a thermos of coffee, some emails to respond to, and an overflowing list of podcasts to listen to while I wait for Max to be done. I’ll pray too; I’ll pray that it’s just inflammation and not a return of Max’s cancer.

Max isn’t my dad, though he is the right age for it. He’s funny and introverted. He often prays that God will show him what God wants him to do, because Max nurses the thought that God has more for him to do in the world and he’s attentive for any sign of what that might be. His funniest stories are about his various stints in jail. But his most inspiring stories are about how God has moved since he got clean roughly five years ago. Max doesn’t drive, though sometimes he threatens to get his driver’s license again, but he doesn’t have much of a need for it since we’ll give him a ride where needs to go and he’s a bit of a homebody anyway. He offers hospitality in his home now that he’s sober and stable. Max, who once questioned if anyone could love him, is now a spiritual leader in our community and one of the quickest to remind people of his love for them. Max is so many things, but he isn’t my dad.

Because of our work and because of the community of which I am a part, people often mistake me for blood family of those with whom we share our lives. I’ve been called “son,” “brother,” and “husband” of lots of our folks both in person and on the phone. Most of the time I don’t correct people because it’s easier to keep the conversation moving than to clarify a point that doesn’t matter much. Whenever I’ve needed to clarify the point – say, at a hospital when one of our folks is very sick and doctors and nurses are looking for family – it has been a strange hiccup of a conversation as professionals try to figure out how to think of me and my relationship with my fellow community member. Often, folks like Max have offered some explanation that smooths past the confusion: “he’s my family, but not my blood.” There’s more than a little truth in those words.

My own father passed in August of 2019 and it is still hard when people mistakenly call me “son.” There’s a grieving part of me that wants to correct people, as if my dad’s memory is somehow lessened by the polite assumption of anonymous professionals. Of course, it isn’t, but part of me still flinches at the jarring thought. In those moments, I’m comforted by two thoughts. First, my father was proud of me – and, I believe, is still proud – and encouraged me to continue in this work, even once noting that we had quite the extended family in Danville. Second, in the days after my dad’s death, Max was praying for me and was eager to tell me he loved me. He and my father had met only occasionally, but Max found a way to distill a few good memories of my dad to share with me over the phone as I struggled to find words for my father’s funeral. It meant more than I can say.

On the 135-mile ride home, Max and I took turns telling stories and reminiscing. Storytelling like that is about as close as I ever get to feeling like I’m home again. “You remember when,” we each began what must have been a dozen times. We shored each other up with all the nostalgia we could muster. Like family, we swapped stories that we both already knew but still enjoyed hearing. We spoke of loved ones gone too soon from the world and all their quirks and blessings. We reassured each other that all the things we’d learned from those now past were still just as true nowadays. We did our best impressions of voices too silent in these last few years. We even took a turn or two each at telling a story about ourselves that would be embarrassing in any context other than family.

I don’t need Max to be my dad – I had one of the best already and continue to benefit from his legacy and memory. Max doesn’t need me to be his son – he has found a home and family where God has planted him.  But, somehow, Max and I still need each other. Perhaps we are brothers, united not by blood but by a curious mixture of fidelity and memory. It’s hard to say and I can’t imagine the specifics matter in the end, but I’ve learned my only answer from Max and all my other extended family: “he’s not my blood, but he’s my family.” It’s as good an answer as any other I can find.

***
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This story was written by Jessica Hearne, a Grace and Main leader and founding member as well as Field Personnel with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. You can support her work either by donating to Grace and Main or directly to her support fund.

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On Thursday, March 12, the Grace and Main Urban Farm Leadership team met for one final off-season planning meeting. Nearly every Thursday morning in January and February, the team met to discuss methods for companion planting, pest control, pruning, and groundhog management. Every week over breakfast – sometimes biscuits from Biscuitville and sometimes a casserole or frittata made by a team member – we made lists of crops to plant, routines to implement, and skills to learn. This last meeting in March was warm, so we walked through the property together, observing the signs of spring, and making a list of tasks that would need to be completed in order to prepare the land for the coming growing season. The plan was to begin working the following Thursday, pulling back the protective covers and planting our spring greens and peas. The Urban Farm is a community project, but it is the particular garden leaders that make it work.

Of course, you know what the next days brought with them. In fact, you probably already know that that plan changed the next day, Friday the 13th, when the governor announced that schools would be closing for two weeks due to the threat of COVID-19. Before the two weeks were up schools were closed for the remainder of the year and a stay-at-home order was put in place to keep people safe and try to limit the spread. We had to cancel our group farm workdays, first for the month of March, then for April and May as well, in order to protect those members of our team who have underlying health conditions and who are at higher risk for the more severe effects of the disease. With new and changing limitations on where we could go and who we could safely be with, it wasn’t clear what would happen to our gardens. Likewise, it wasn’t clear how our leaders would be able to respond in the face of not only COVID-19 but also job losses.

But a global pandemic and a quarantine haven’t stopped Johnny. Johnny was one of the first neighborhood leaders at the Urban Farm. Over the last four years, he has maintained an individual garden bed as well as helping to plan and take care of several of our community beds. He has grown tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, okra, potatoes, and turnip greens, using what he remembers from helping with his granddad’s garden decades ago as well as information from YouTube videos and library books. He has spent countless hours studying squash bugs, groundhogs, and how to grow bigger potatoes. If a pandemic won’t keep Johnny out of the garden, then we don’t think anything will.

Knowing that we were going to have to cancel group work days for a while, Johnny volunteered to go up and cut the grass every so often to make sure it didn’t get out of control. He cleaned up his garden bed, as well as a couple of community beds, and has planted potatoes, cucumbers, squash, and tomatoes. He even ventured out to the hardware store to pick up string and two-cycle oil for the weed eaters at our tool library so that he could use them to clean up the edges. He doesn’t have a car, so he has both relied on friends for rides and made the trip on foot when necessary. As I have been trying to juggle the new challenges of Kindergarten homeschooling while helping deliver meals, groceries, and toilet paper to friends who were running low, it was a relief to know that the Urban farm was being maintained.

We’ve restarted our work days as we’ve all learned how to adapt to life alongside COVID-19 – we’ve double the number of days that someone is working in the gardens, but halved the number of people that are there at any one time. When we were finally able to start our regular workdays again we were able to harvest squash and turnip greens on the very first day, thanks to Johnny and other leaders who went out on their own and continued the work. We’ve literally eaten and shared the fruits of Johnny’s work, passion, and commitment. The four years of working, learning, and training together has given Johnny and other leaders confidence and skill to do the work without direct supervision or oversight. Personal experiences with hunger and poverty may be what brought our leaders together, but after four years working alongside each other, it is the chance to be a part of something good and beautiful that keeps them showing up and growing food and new gardens for our neighbors and our city. When the world changed with COVID-19 there may have been some question about what would change with it, but the commitment of Johnny and other leaders is unshaken. If a pandemic won’t keep us apart, then what could?

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This story was written by Jessica Hearne, a Grace and Main leader and CBF Field Personnel, and published originally on May 1, 2017.
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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 hadn’t seen him coming as I perched on the unfinished wood table outside of the shelter and waited for my friend Cam to show up. Cam is usually late to meet me for things, but never egregiously so and I had emails to catch up with on my phone anyway. I had forgotten about the little cut-through on the side of the building and now I could hear footsteps approaching and then stopping as if the person was also surprised at my presence. Looking up, I noticed it wasn’t Cam but instead someone I didn’t recognize.

“Hey,” I offered over my shoulder in a weak attempt to break the tension of startling each other.

“Hey,” he answered sheepishly before continuing, “are you the director of the shelter?”

“Oh, no,” I responded with a chuckle at the likelihood that our conversation was back on more familiar footing and I had confidence that I then knew what was going on. This gentleman was looking for the director of the House of Hope but didn’t know him, he carried a too new duffel bag in his off hand, and there was no car in sight. I assumed he must be wondering about finding a place to stay. Turning my head but not my body to speak to the man, I said, “I’m just here to meet a friend,” by way of explanation before continuing, “I think the director is out on some business.”

“Looking for a friend?” he queried with something like laughter at the edges of his voice, “I can be your friend.”

It was an odd thing to say, though perhaps just innocuous and extroverted, so I turned my body and more of my attention to him. I wasn’t worried, but ten years of our life and work has taught me to pay attention to odd phrases and curious sentiments. While getting a good look at the man, I introduced myself and gestured toward a large cross he wore on a piece of twine hung around his neck and said, “I like your cross.” Honestly, it was mostly small talk to give me time to get a good look at him and change the trajectory of our conversation. It was a little larger than the size of a playing card and it appeared to be metallic. I don’t usually wear a cross, but this one wouldn’t be my style even if I did—it was ornate in its filigree and it looked heavy by the way the twine pressed into the sides of the man’s neck.

“Oh, this?” the man questioned as if he was somehow unaware of its obvious presence, “It’s actually a reliquary. It has a piece of the true cross inside of it.”

I smiled politely and responded, “Oh yeah?” but I won’t say I came even remotely close to believing him. “Pieces of the true cross” have a fascinating history within the Church going all the way back to Constantine in the early 4th century at the least. But, as others have remarked over the years, there are certainly enough pieces distributed through the world to make for many, many crosses and Jesus only ever carried one.

Standing directly in front of me and holding out his metal cross, he continued, “Oh, yeah, when they gave it to me I made a promise that I’d offer a blessing to anyone who commented on it.” I knew what was coming but hurried in my thoughts to imagine what I might say to this man who I had just met and whose name I still didn’t know. “So, do you want a blessing?” he asked with a strange waggling of his eyebrows.

Uncertain of what to say, I looked to see if maybe Cam was walking up but he wasn’t. “What’s your name?” I asked.

“Michael,” he said, “like the angel but not really.”

“Alright,” I began before I really knew what I was getting ready to say, “yes, Michael, you can bless me.”

So much joy bloomed in his smile in that moment that my uncertainty nearly withered away. I got the impression that not a lot of folks took Michael up on his offer and that he was pleased to be able to do it. He was pleased to be able to live into this calling. It’s very likely that he could sense my uncertainty and mixed feelings, but he didn’t let on in the slightest as he opened the pectoral cross to show me the tiny fragment of wood resting therein. Placing his hand on my shoulder, he smiled and called out in a loud voice, “Father, bless this man,” before sliding his hand from my shoulder to the top of my head with his growing confidence. His blessing continued in what felt like an extemporaneous way before ending abruptly with a loud “amen.”

With a deep and contented sigh, Michael sat down on the bench and leaned back, saying, “I think I’ll wait here a bit and see if the director shows up.”

“Cool,” I replied to replace my stunned silence. I didn’t think it was a piece of a true cross or anything like it inside of that cross, but there was still something holy about it. His blessing would never be recorded in a prayer book for others to offer or emulate, but there was still something holy about it. He was just a near-stranger with a duffel bag who stumbled across me when he wasn’t expecting to, but there was still something holy about him. While the wood resting inside of Michael’s cross was likely just some speck of gnarled wood, the image that rested inside of Michael himself was that of the God whose breath held together the dust of both me and Michael.

I could see Cam coming up the street, so I patted Michael on the shoulder and thanked him for his time. “Go with God,” he said as he realized I was headed out to meet my friend.

“I appreciate the blessing,” I said with a sincerity that surprised me a little. I’m not sure what exactly happened in the parking lot of the shelter beneath the building’s overhang but I know it was a good thing. I’ve not seen him since, but Michael blessed me with what was almost certainly just an innocuous splinter of wood. He hasn’t seen me since, but I blessed Michael by believing him for a bit and giving him room to live into a calling that may well have been self-selected. God blessed us both by intruding into the ordinary of our day and meeting us in each other.

 

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