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As I thread the needle of the building’s overhang in our borrowed fifteen-turned-twelve passenger van for the third time that evening, I listen attentively to a few trusted voices in the back reporting on the location of the overhang and the tree branches. In every vanload of people I bring to the meal, there are always a few who want to help navigate this part and usually one or two who provide genuine assistance and not just a confident “you’re good.”

“Thanks, yall,” I call back as I bring the van to a stop in front of the double doors that lead to the fellowship hall of Ascension Lutheran Church. “I’ll go park and be in in just a minute.” As folks climb out of the van, the first couple people turn back and hold out a hand for some of our less steady sisters and brothers. One person hurries around to help Ms. Dorothea out of the front seat where those who have the most mobility challenges usually sit since it’s easier to get in and out there. Everybody will make it to the meal on time tonight with the help of each other.

Moments later, I’m parked and locking up. Tracing my hand along the blue, vinyl lettering on the side of the van that reads “First Baptist Church,” I give thanks that they’ll let us borrow their big van for the meals. I’ve tried to do our dozens of rides with minivans and cars before, but it’s quite the task. When I get to the church building, I go through the back door directly into the kitchen. Kenneth is busy carving pork loin with his electric knife and Kush is checking on the mashed potatoes we named after her when she taught us the recipe. “Oh man, Saint Barbara’s mashed potatoes!” I call out almost reflexively, “I’m looking forward to what I’m smelling.”

I’m at the “big meal” that our community, Grace and Main Fellowship, helps to make happen every fourth Thursday of the month. Uninterested in inaccurate labels like “feeding program” or “free meal,” I tell people that we’re a family meal with people you might not yet know are your family. At this shared meal, everybody will serve themselves from a common table and everybody learns to share life by passing the salt and pitching in to clean up spills. We don’t eat what’s quick or easy, but what’s delicious and lovingly prepared. Some show up to the meal because it’s the end of the month and money is tight, but most come to share the space and be with their friends and family. At the very start of the meal, we offer communion because we believe that this meal is ultimately Jesus’ meal and these tables are, for a night at the very least, Jesus’ tables. We stress that nobody has to participate, of course, but that everyone is welcome to do so.

As I follow my nose through the kitchen, York is checking the bread we’ll use for communion and pointing out to someone nearby that it was young Madison who cut a Roman cross into it instead of the usual Greek cross that York uses. “She’s our youngest helper,” York explains, “and she’s Roman Catholic so we want her to know she’s included even if she can’t stay for the meal tonight.”

“Five minutes,” Kenneth calls out to me as I head into the fellowship hall to check in with folks. Luke is already at the table with the ice and a big, orange drink cooler. Nobody is totally sure when Luke took up the drink table as his fourth-Thursday-vocation but he’s done it faithfully for years and we miss him when he’s not there. Even though Luke rides on the first van trip to get to the meal, this is just as much as his meal as it is mine or Kenneth’s. Offering a quick fist bump to Luke, I make eye contact with Cynthia across the hall who nods at me as if she knows that I’m checking through a mental checklist that reads “is Cynthia here?” She is—check. Cynthia will get a ride home with me and will bring multiple leftover trays to share with her neighbors who don’t yet have the courage to show up to the meal but who will certainly appreciate the food.

The big salad at the end of one table and the full bowls of fruit testify that members of West Main Baptist are already here. A quick scan of the room confirms the bananas’ story when I see some of the West Main folks checking in on people they’ve met before while making new friends of others. After showing up regularly for a couple years, they’re starting to fit in well at the tables even if they might not always believe me when I say it. At one table, someone is checking in with Edward whose leg has been hurting him. When Edward catches my eye, I know that he’ll find me later to make sure I’m up to date on prayer requests. Through the week, Edward catches up around the neighborhood and gathers prayer requests like a squirrel gathers acorns. Nearby, Carla sits quietly but I know that all week she’s been reminding her neighbors and anyone who will listen that the meal is on Thursday night – I know this because most of them showed up.

As kids play a game that amounts mostly to chasing each other, I start to formulate what I’ll say in just a couple minutes when I have the chance to welcome everyone to this meal that is already theirs. The many people gathered don’t need me to tell them that this place and these people are theirs, because the regulars already know it. But there are probably some here for whom this is a first or second visit and who don’t yet know that it’s all theirs—so I’ll do it anyway. I’ll say this is their place until they begin to believe it.

As Kenneth quickly scans the table full of food to make sure it’s all there, I check in with him to make sure nothing has changed in the plan. “Same as usual?” I ask as Cynthia steps up and takes her spot next to us. In a few moments, she’ll direct the traffic as people come to fill their plates. Everyone will listen to her, not because she has some particular power or authority but because the bonds of community are strong.

Nodding, Kenneth replies, “whenever you’re ready.” Pausing for a moment longer, I reflect that what I’d like to say in my loudest voice is that this meal is a phenomenon that only seems simple because nobody scrutinizes it for too long. People show up, and help others to show up, largely because this meal is unlike any other. This meal happens because of all the different individuals giving generously of their time and attention. It’s not an act of charity, but it is certainly an act of love – mutual and reciprocal love. There’s no power to be had in a meal like this and all that will be left as evidence of it in two hours are leftovers in a few dozen refrigerators and maybe a couple of shirts with ranch dressing stains. After all these years, we don’t even have to tell anyone that there will be plenty and not to take too much. You can’t take too much of what is already yours and this meal—this wild assortment of beautiful people—is everybody’s.

Of course, if I tried to say all that, people would nod along but they’d wonder if the meat was getting cold. So, instead, I wander into the middle of the crowd to start my introduction and say in my loudest voice, “Hey everybody! I’m so glad you’re here.” And I am, because they are.

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This month’s newsletter consists of selections from our Annual Report for 2019. We usually share a story with you from our work in this newsletter, but we want to make sure all of our supporters can see this report if they would like to.

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It is my pleasure to offer this report to you on the work of Grace and Main Fellowship and Third Chance Ministries in the calendar year 2019. In addition to being the year that we celebrated our tenth anniversary as a community, 2019 was also one of our best years overall. We provided the most nights of shelter in one year that we’ve ever done, we raised more money to support our work than in any previous year, we found new ways to provide transportation to those in need, we published the second edition of our prayer book, and we developed new metrics to study our collective impact in all this and more. Oh, I also finished my doctoral studies this year!
 
But, at its heart, 2019 was a year of rededicating ourselves to a few core pieces of our shared work and to each other. As we continue in the eleventh year of our lives and work together, our minds have inevitably turned to what the years ahead may look like. As always, there are ideas bubbling through the community and you may learn of some of them in the coming weeks, months, and years, but there is also a great desire to deepen our own intentionality. That is to say, to continue to rededicate ourselves to life and work together with people experiencing things like homelessness, housing instability, poverty, addiction, hunger, and discrimination. This likely means continuing to do the things that we do best and to continue to focus on depth and impact over breadth and visibility.
 
I am proud of the good, hard work we’ve done this year. I certainly hope you are, as well. We’ve been through quite a bit to get to this good place and I’m excited to see where God is leading in the months and years to come. I know that one place God is leading me is into sabbatical. After ten years of work, I have a short sabbatical that begins on February 14 and will give me time and space to rest, read, reflect, and write (among a few other things). I appreciate your prayers, encouragement, and consistent support as I take this time. As I’m sure you can imagine, I’m looking forward to it.
 
Again, thank you so much for your ongoing support of our work. Our lives are fuller for your involvement in them.

You can see the full report here.

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This month’s newsletter was originally published on May 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.

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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 away 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 competing with poorly insulated walls. Winter means a drafty bedroom abandoned until spring in favor of a slightly warmer kitchen floor. 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 it will be a bad day and he’ll suddenly find himself preoccupied with his shoes or the newspaper, not wanting company but not wanting to say that either. 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 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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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.

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“‘Here, on September 27, 1903, occurred the railroad wreck that inspired the popular ballad, ‘The Wreck of the Old 97.’” Jacob recited the text of the sign quickly and with pride as we drove past it on Riverside Drive. “’The southbound mail express train on the southern railroad left the tracks on a trestle and plunged into the ravine below. Nine persons were killed and seven injured, one of the worst train wrecks in Virginia history.’” Jacob memorized the sign nearly six decades ago, when he used to walk past it every day on his way to school. “How much do you think a sign like that is worth? You know, we kids used to say we were going to steal it and sell it for a million dollars. I’m sure it ain’t worth that!”

Jacob was born and raised in Danville, right in the neighborhood where we do a lot of our work with Grace and Main. I have had the joy of getting to spend a lot of time with him lately, as he rides with me to get farm supplies or to the grocery store and nearly everywhere we go Jacob has a story about where we are. Jacob was born here but he was born with a wandering heart, never feeling that he was really in the right place. Crossing the railroad tracks near his house one day, he told me about his first attempt to “ride the rails” and leave Danville as a kid. “My buddy and I hopped on a train right near here to see where we could go. It felt like we were in that car for hours, and we got kind of scared,” Jacob admitted. “When the train stopped, we jumped out and tried to find a pay phone, thinking we must be all the way to Georgia. Turns out,” Jacob continued already starting to laugh, “we were in Greensboro, North Carolina!” This, of course, was about 45 minutes from Danville. Jacob’s first adventure ended quickly, but it wouldn’t be the last time he set out in search of a place to belong.

Jacob’s wandering heart led him to many places over the years, many of them creating material for his stories but none of them ever really becoming a home. Many years ago, when the wanderlust had hit again, Jacob was out on the highway hitchhiking. An idea struck him, and he decided to go to Charleston, South Carolina. “I’d never been there,” he said, “and it seemed like it’d be a neat place to visit.”  When a truck picked him up and asked where he was going, he said “I’m headed to Charleston,” and was pleasantly surprised to hear that the driver was going there, too. After several hours of sharing stories and enjoying each other’s company, Jacob was sobering up and realized that they were driving through the mountains. He asked the driver again where he was going, and the driver said “We’re going to Charleston, West Virginia!” Jacob ended up staying with the driver at his house in Charleston for several months. But then he “messed up again,” as he puts it, and once again Jacob found himself without a place to call home.

Most of Jacob’s adventures were fueled by his addiction—an addiction that had left him either locked up or living on the street many times in his life.  One day he was riding with me up to the city compost, and he told me this story. “Years ago, my sister brought her son up to see me at the city farm.” “City farm” is the informal name for the Adult Detention Center in the city. “After she brought him up there, every time they drove past out here, he would tell her, ‘There’s Jacob’s house!’” On another occasion I told him about a weekend trip that I was taking to Staunton, Virginia, to see a play. He said, “You know, I used to live in Staunton. I don’t know where that theater is, though.” The twinkle in his eye and his sheepish grin gave him away pretty quickly and he admitted that his residence in Staunton had been a cell in the federal prison once located there. There have been many points in Jacob’s life when incarceration provided stability, but it has never been home.

In between hitch-hiking, riding the rails, and serving time, he spent many nights sleeping outside. “Steven and I used to stay over there,” he told me once, pointing at an overpass near a creek. They would find firewood on the edge of the creek or sometimes at a local convenience store to stay warm during the cold nights. He always tells these stories with a laugh, but there’s no nostalgia in them—no fondness to his reminiscence. That life was hard on Jacob, and living it did not make him happy. “I just didn’t know any better. I never thought I could be happy.” He never thought he was meant for a real home.

Jacob has been involved in Grace and Main for many years, almost since the beginning. A little over three years ago, he moved in as a guest in one of our 6 hospitality houses. These days, he operates a hospitality house of his own. His friend Steven, who he used to stay with under the bridge, is his hospitality guest.  Jacob has been sober for 4 years this fall, and he is patiently trying to help Steven find the same freedom. “I asked Jesus to take it away from me, and He did. I never thought I could be this content without drinking, but I don’t even want to [drink] anymore. And if he will ask, I know Jesus can take it from Steven, too.” After a lifetime of searching, Jacob’s house is now in the same neighborhood he knew as a child. His wandering heart has arrived safely at home.

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This month, Grace and Main celebrates its tenth anniversary and there must be at least a hundred different ways to tell the story of the last ten years. Every month for nearly eight of those ten years, we’ve brought you a story from our life and work so that you can participate in your own way in our shared life and work. Each of those stories is a piece of a quilt that makes up our experience as an intentional, Christian community devoted to hospitality, prayer, and grassroots, asset-based community development in Danville, Virginia. Some of the stories have been celebrations, some have been sad, but all of them have been honest attempts to articulate this beautiful, good life which we name as a vocation and privilege.

 

 

 

 

Over the course of ten years, we’ve told lots of stories about addiction because of its prevalence in our city, neighborhoods, and companions. We’ve learned that addiction is an idol that extracts the life from people and places. We’ve learned that relapse is more common than recovery, but that recovery is a beautiful possibility sustained by a hope far greater than our confidence. We’ve learned to see the Kingdom of God in a pile of broken glass and we’ve celebrated so many brothers and sisters who’ve finally gotten clean after months and years of trying. We’ve grappled with our own, sometimes-more-subtle addictions and the things that we too often prefer over God. We’ve found home and community among both the addicted and recovering whom God loves.

 

 

 

 

We couldn’t tell the story of Grace and Main over ten years without telling the story of Bruce, who first showed up to one of our meals because we pestered him, but who eventually became one of our community’s strongest and most devoted leaders. When he passed in September 2017, he had been clean for two weeks shy of six years. The fruit of Bruce’s labors are everywhere around Grace and Main from the Urban Farm (which he was instrumental in getting started) to the Tool Library (which was his idea) and the dozens of relationships sustained by his kindness, faithfulness, and generosity. Dozens of people were influenced to pursue recovery because of Bruce’s love and inspiration and many cite him as a reason they remain clean even today. Bruce even contributed a couple of stories to this newsletter (here and here). Bruce’s story is wrapped up in ours and we still give thanks with fond remembrances of his time alongside us.

 

Inspired in large part by Roland, a Grace and Main leader from very near the beginning of our shared life, we’ve been a community that practices radical hospitality in evolving ways. The night after getting his first, stable shelter in years, Roland opened his home to another who had nowhere safe to sleep and, in doing so, also challenged us to take up hospitality with the phrase: “folks need a place to stay.” Following Roland’s lead (and the lead of Joann), we’ve opened our homes to others and found that a shared life is a more beautiful life on the balance. Since 2015, we’ve provided over 20,000 nights of shelter through a variety of methods. We’ve been joined in this work by dozens of friends and partners, including Ascension Lutheran Church who bought and donated a house to our ongoing work. Ten years has meant seeking fluency in the “language of knocks” and trying to learn to greet unexpected guests with grace, mercy, and attention that is all too uncommon.

 

 

 

 

Any telling of the story of the last ten years of Grace and Main must also devote some time to meals shared together in a wide variety of places like church fellowship halls, apartment complex courtyards, parks, and homes among others. Our practice is to break bread and pass the cup at our meals so that we remember that our tables are meant to be the Lord’s tables and that any and all are welcome to share a meal with Jesus. In ten years, we’ve both hosted meals and accepted the invitations of others to share a meal – part of hospitality is learning how to be a good guest, after all. We’ve wandered neighborhoods with a “roving feast” to share Jesus’ meal wherever we might find someone. We’ve shared extravagant and lavish meals together where we’ve given thanks for God’s providence and the generosity of others, but we’ve also given thanks for the more meager and simple meals we’ve shared. Over ten years, we’ve been bound together by our tables and in the sharing of food.

 

 

 

 

For about half of our community’s life, we’ve run an Urban Farm on in North Danville, where half of the growing space is dedicated to growing food to share with any who has need or want of it. The other half of the space is plotted out for folks to grow what they want to grow and do what they want to do with what they grow. The substantial majority of the Urban Farm’s leaders are people with direct or previous experience with hunger and/or poverty. There is power in this piece of donated land that was once used as an illegal construction company dump site. Together, we not only grow food to share but also new gardeners, new leaders, and hope. We give thanks for these every bit as much as we give thanks for tomatoes, asparagus, elderberries, and mushrooms.

 

 

 

 

Ultimately, the story of ten years is best told by the many people who make up our shared life with Grace and Main. Our quilt is made up of people like Alex the Chef, who once prepared a meal unlike any other; Carl, who didn’t have much to give but insisted on giving anyway; Katherine, who made an important pinkie promise; Tyler, who’s looking for us now; Lisa, who doesn’t have to worry what she’d do without us; Jeron, Mongoose, and Greg, who have their own way of making it to our meals; Marcus, who has everything including busted shoes; Marlon, who always remembers to give me a call; Mason, who we know loves us even if he can’t stay with us; Ben, who sometimes preaches with milkshakes, and Meredith, who sometimes preaches with a pillow fight; Derek, who keeps teaching us how to walk; Todd, who’s learning to put his hands to other uses; Tasha, who doesn’t struggle to breath anymore; Kenneth, who reminds us at meals that “God was praised and people were fed” and that there’s not much of a distinction between the two; Ms. Parsons and Ralph, who trust us with precious things; Mike, who sometimes shows up with a truck full of bread or gets caught sleeping on the floor; and Linda, whose garden we’re still tending.

 

Ten years later, here we are. Life has changed for so many of us. We’ve celebrated new homes, recovery from addiction, confessions of faith, lives well lived, births, birthdays, anniversaries, and God’s grace. We’ve mourned and grieved together over the passing of some of our beloved sisters and brothers. We’ve built new things and revived old things. We’ve commiserated on porches and around campfires, occasionally indulging in a conversation we sometimes call “Grief and Main.” We’ve spent many hours talking about things that matter and many, many more talking about things that don’t matter with people who always matter. We’ve shared life and it has been good.

 

There’s simply no good way to tell the story of ten years other than saying that it’s a story of a crowd of people—prodigal sons and daughters, all of us—returning home only to find a celebration and a family that is so much more than we ever imagined. 

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Our sister, “Tasha,” passed peacefully in her sleep last week at our local hospital. The following is a story originally published on January 1, 2018. Please keep her husband, “Carl,” and all of us at Grace and Main in your prayers as we mourn our loss and give thanks for God’s gift of Tasha to the community.
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Tasha has been sick off and on for quite some time. Many days, Tasha can be found on her front porch carefully considering the distinction between having trouble breathing and urgently struggling to breathe. Even with oxygen tanks, some days are too difficult and she ends up going to the emergency room if she can get a ride, or calling an ambulance if she can’t. Some nights, Tasha wakes up gasping for air, no longer wondering if it’s “bad enough” to go the hospital yet and simply rushing there by any means necessary. It’s so hard to think about long term solutions, when it feels like you can’t breathe.

After prayers one Sunday, a group of us went to visit Tasha in the hospital. It had been a hard weekend for her, but Tasha’s first words when we showed up were surprisingly apologetic: “I’m so sorry I couldn’t come tonight,” she said, “I really wanted to be there.” We assured her that it was no problem and that we completely understood, even as we took her hands in ours. Tasha’s husband, Carl, admitted sheepishly that he had slept through the service after a couple of long days and nights in the hospital. We patted him on the back and told him he had nothing to worry about. After all, this was the man who once walked over 140 miles one week to be with his sick wife when he couldn’t find a ride the hospital she was in. It’s so hard to make it to prayers, when it feels like you can’t breathe.

As a group, we settled into what we do best: talking, mostly about little things but occasionally about big things too. We talked about the hospital food until Tasha felt like talking about her health or something else that was more pressing, but slower to spring from her lips. It’s strange how an aimless conversation about the relative qualities of cornbread can prime the ears for listening and the mouth for talking about seemingly relentless illness. Tasha offered the dessert from her dinner tray, a single piece of white-frosted, red velvet cake, to Roland, our community’s “Minister of Prayer.” Roland had insisted on coming to the hospital, even though last time we went there it had been to visit him when he was recovering from a surgical procedure. As Roland ate the cake with companionable gratitude, Tasha waded into her own fears about the future. It’s so hard to start talking about things that really matter, when it feels like you can’t breathe.

She promised, again, that she was going to quit smoking. She acknowledged freely that years of cigarettes were likely a part of her failing health, even as she admitted that she had tried before and failed to quit. “But we can do it this time,” Carl insisted. Carl, who is no stranger to the bonds of addiction and the freedom of recovery, offered a renewed hope that some might call naïve, but we’ve learned to call loving. It’s so hard to think about recovery, when it feels like you can’t breathe.

“Yes,” Tasha offered with a touch of resignation at the edges of her voice, “we can.” She continued, “I really want to, but it’s so hard!” We nodded our agreement and held space with Tasha so that she knew she could continue to talk and we’d continue to listen. Over the years, we’ve learned that so much of life in community—a life that is truly shared—is about patient silence as those to whom we’ve pledged our lives and time find the words to wrap around something larger than all of us, but not more powerful than the love of God in us. “This time I’ll do it,” Tasha promised us. We’ve found that community thrives in the fertile soil of trusted promises and generous forgiveness. But, it’s hard to make and keep promises, when it feels like you can’t breathe.

Tasha was tired, but she wanted us to pray with her before we left. Before Roland could begin his prayer though, Tasha wanted to go through her own prayer list and all those who rested heavy on her heart and mind. She wanted to pray for Todd, and Todd’s mother, of course. She wanted to pray for her cousin, who had just lost a daughter. She wanted to pray for the church she attended some Sunday mornings as they searched for a pastor. She wanted to pray for a friend on the street who had struggled with addiction and mental illness and was said to be sleeping outside again. She wanted to pray for a young family that had moved into the neighborhood a couple blocks north of her and especially for their daughter, who rumor said was very smart and a good student. She wanted to pray for my daughter, too. She wanted to pray and give thanks for her marriage and for Carl’s love for her. Finally, she wanted to pray for the strength to quit smoking.

With her community around her, Tasha found that she could still pray, even when it’s hard to breathe.

So, we prayed. Roland lifted all of Tasha’s requests and more in his prayer as we anointed our sister with oil blessed at prayer that afternoon. We marked Tasha’s forehead with the sign of a cross and the prayers of those who loved and missed her. With a few parting jokes, we left so that she and Carl could get some rest. “I didn’t miss prayer after all,” she called to us over the quiet hiss of the oxygen, “you just had to bring it to me.”

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***

I hadn’t known Andrew long when I saw him walking down the sidewalk, but I could tell by his gait that he was coming to see me. Eyes searching every house number on our end of the street, it was apparent that Andrew had only been by the house a few times; he didn’t yet know to look for the garden surrounding our steps and walkway or any of its other distinguishing features. The night of the week and the Styrofoam container in his hands told me he was coming from a particular free meal about a mile away. I didn’t know precisely where Andrew stayed yet—we hadn’t known each other long enough to make that question a comfortable one—but I knew which neighborhood and that we were out of his way. The bounce in his step suggested he was in a good mood and was probably looking to talk for a bit. If it was like the last time, he mostly needed to be heard but might do some listening too.

I waited near the door for a minute while he made his way up the sidewalk and our stairs. When he knocked—two short, hurried taps on the window pane beside the door—I made my way to greet him, but took my time. I didn’t want him to think I’d been waiting for him, after all—that can be its own kind of unhelpful pressure. We sat on the porch and chatted amiably for a bit. We didn’t talk about anything of much importance but instead talked about the weather, the meal he had just had, and some of Grace and Main’s upcoming schedule. Little conversations like this are so much more a part of our lives and work than nearly anyone suspects. These little, seemingly inconsequential conversations are a pillar of our work and shared life. Conversations like that start to make people feel welcome while also providing time and space for people to organize their thoughts. For all of us, whether we’re aware of it or not, part of feeling like we’re loved and trustworthy is being able to have conversations that don’t matter without any pressure to make them productive or purposeful.

So, we talked about nothing and I absently watched the sun start to set over the houses across the street. I knew there was something more coming in the conversation—likely some kind of request—but time has taught us that it will come when it comes and there’s not much we can do to hurry that moment along. Instead, we can try to make our friend feel comfortable in the asking. If Andrew was going to give me the gift of his trust, I could certainly afford to give him the gift of my patience.

“I’ve got something to ask you,” Andrew began after we found a natural end to one of our conversations. To the answer of my nod and smile, he continued, “Can I pray for you?” I won’t try to say that this is what I expected. I knew he didn’t have much money and that the place he was staying was his only through of charity and lack of wider attention. I knew that he needed help finding food to eat some days and that he had nowhere to do his laundry that he could afford. I knew a lot about Andrew’s needs, but I hadn’t considered that he might need to pray for me.

“Sure,” I answered with what must have sounded like confusion to Andrew, because he hesitated. You see, I’m much more accustomed to being asked to pray for people than I am to people asking if they can pray for me.

“I just heard you were sick is all,” Andrew explained. It seems he had seen my name on somebody’s prayer list, had heard that a few people in our little community were sick, and had seen me coming and going from the hospital a few times in the previous week. I wasn’t sick, mind you, and had only been visiting some sick friends, but I could certainly see how he came to that conclusion. I didn’t correct him; I certainly wasn’t going to turn down the prayers he wanted to offer.

As Andrew laid his left hand on the nape of my neck, he began to pray in his breathless style. I could feel the sweat on his hand built up from carrying his to-go meal out of his way to come pray for me. It was a long prayer that covered a wide variety of both prayer requests and passages of scripture. I didn’t always agree with how he seemed to be interpreting certain texts or the exact requests he felt moved to mention aloud on my front porch, but there was a weight to his praying hands that I’ve only rarely felt. I still don’t know what to make of that feeling, but I know somehow that it’s important.

After he prayed, I offered a short prayer of my own that even in the middle of it felt perfunctory. I hesitated to pass my handkerchief over the back of my neck when Andrew was done praying in part because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings and in part because it was a visceral anointing not of oil but of effort. With mutual promises to continue praying for each other, we parted. “I really appreciate it, Andrew,” I called after him as he descended through the garden with his leftovers in hand.

“My pleasure,” Andrew called back, “I saw your name and I wanted to pray.” As I gathered the water glasses from beside our chairs, I briefly watched Andrew walk up the street with the setting sun behind him lengthening his shadow. I didn’t feel all that different than I had thirty minutes before, but then it wasn’t really about me. Andrew needed to pray.

***
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