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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.

***

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.
***

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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***

The most common question I’ve received since suspending my sabbatical in response to the spread of COVID-19 has been: how is everybody at Grace and Main doing? Part of the reason I keep getting this question is because of how kind and thoughtful our supporters are. It is a privilege not only to receive your prayerful and loving support but also to receive your care and compassion. The other big reason I keep getting this question is because many people sense that our deeply relationship-driven life and work is substantially harder and more complicated than before. So, what follows is the truth about what life together is like in our neck of the woods during COVID-19.

It’s hard to sing as a group on Zoom. There’s a delay in the audio that isn’t immediately obvious when you’re just chatting. But, when you’re trying to do something in unison like singing or praying the Lord’s Prayer, the delay presents a challenge. Our little community gathered to pray a couple times each week before things changed with COVID-19 and that commitment continues now, though we’re still figuring out how best to do that. So, it’s harder to pray together now than it was before but we’re still doing it – we’re still being formed and molded by the commitments we’ve made.

It’s hard to make sure people have enough of what they need when social distancing precautions make sharing space and objects tricky. Most of the community is sheltering in place and self-isolating, but need for things like food, medicine, and urgent transportation sometimes brings us out of isolation briefly and carefully. Regardless of what is happening in the world, people are still hungry and still in need of shelter. So, it’s harder to share our possessions, time, and resources with our neighbors than it was before but we’re still doing it – we’re still being formed and molded by the commitments we’ve made.

It’s hard to find and provide medical equipment like masks and gloves or cleaning supplies like soap, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer to folks in our community when the pressure from COVID-19 leads some to buy far too much either out of panic or greed or some other motivation. So, we’ve been sewing masks and engaging volunteers (like some folks at West Main Baptist Church) to do the same. We’ve even worked with a local professional with a 3D printer to print face shields. Most of what we sew and print has gone to our local hospital and EMT crews, but we share the rest of the masks and shields with our neighbors. Thanks to the generosity of the folks at Ascension Lutheran, we even got some toilet paper to share when it’s needed. So, it’s harder to share necessary things with our neighbors than it was before but we’re still doing it – we’re still being formed and molded by the commitments we’ve made.

It’s hard to make sure people are staying in good shelter when looking in houses and meeting with landlords is a risky, if not impossible, prospect. Our community has recently received the resources from the CBF of Virginia to buy a house to add to our network of spaces but we can’t tour houses in the middle of this “grand pause” in which we all wait. We keep providing hundreds of nights of shelter every month through hospitality spaces and subsidized rent and emergency hotel stays. We can’t really move forward but we’re not falling back because it’s still true that “folks need a place to stay.” So, it’s harder to provide shelter than it was before but we’re still doing it – we’re still being formed and molded by the commitments we’ve made.

It’s hard to handle the kinds of isolation that are being asked of us. Some of our people are much higher risk than the average person and we don’t want to do anything that will endanger them further. Some of our people work in healthcare and give much of their time to holy service alongside the sick and the frightened. Others are desperate for social contact or a feeling of something like normalcy. In the face of separation, we meet online and find ways to play games together. We text more often and we talk through the storm door. Some of the extra time generated by the isolation we give to prayer and silence. So, it’s harder to be community than it was before but we’re still doing it – we’re still being formed and molded by the commitments we’ve made.

None of us would choose for things to be the way they are, but we’re trying – just like you – to figure out how to keep the promises we’ve made. It is the keeping of promises and the consequent building of trust that molds people together into community. Over our more-than-ten years of life together, we’ve learned from our neighbors what life together actually means and we’ve found time and time again that God is at work in a thousand places in our neighborhoods, homes, and lives. We still get to be a part of that good and holy work even if it feels different and looks different in light of the way the world tilts and wobbles day to day. So, we’re still doing it because it’s more important than ever to find, be, and offer community.

***
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This month’s newsletter was originally published on November 1, 2015. It was written by Rev. Meredith Williams, who was then the pastor of Ascension Lutheran Church (one of our partner congregations) and is now the pastor of Grace and Glory Lutheran Church in Palmyra, Virginia.

***

 

There was a war going on. The sounds of battle intruded over the usual soundtrack of our monthly meal. We had gathered on the fourth Thursday of the month to have dinner together and celebrate one more month together. The usual soundtrack of the meal begins with anxious quiet conversation that fades to the sound of eating, before building to a crescendo of louder conversation over seconds and coffee. Each month, we’re treated to the beautiful sound of laughter and chit-chat rising and falling like music.

 

 

But this month, there were more people than usual, and that time after dinner where we savor conversation and sweets was interrupted by the sound of conflict. You see, the dozen or more children that ate with us that night were getting bored and wiggly. They couldn’t take anymore sitting quietly while adults talked, and they were doing nearly anything to encourage their parents either to go home or to let them loose to play. Finally, the parents gave in and the kids were sent upstairs to play in the “Youth Loft”. Now the music of our night changed again with the addition of the percussion of muffled footsteps above our heads. Though, frankly, it sounded like a heard of elephants.
 
So, as the pastor, I was asked to go upstairs to “deal with the children,” in the appropriate manner. I found the children running around and throwing things at one another. I put my hands on my hips and in my best authoritative Mom/Pastor voice yelled, “Hey, no throwing!” They stopped, turning to me as their faces fell. These kids who get told “no” so often gave each other that look that says, “another adult here to ruin the fun.” I raised one eyebrow authoritatively, pulled a cushion off of the nearest couch, and gently thumped the nearest 11year old. “We’ll have a pillow fight instead,” I intoned seriously. In the blink of an eye, the children caught on and all the pillows and couch cushions were used as soft armor, thumping and swatting, blocking and bracing. A dozen or so children and one adult were squealing and giggling, rolling on the floor and shrieking with laughter. Our play turned to a sweet kind of music to add to the ongoing concert of our meal—the beautiful and graceful sound of unfettered fun for the sake of fun.

 

 

Sometimes love means creating a little chaos and mischief, so grace can sneak in the back door while nobody is looking. Sometimes love means saying “yes” to the wild exuberance of children for no reason other than the chance to say “yes.” Sometimes, love means getting whomped by a nine-year-old with a decorative throw pillow, because you’re too busy trying to figure out how to use your own couch cushion to swat a twelve-year-old. Love is complicated, sometimes.
 
It was beautiful music, but apparently it was loud, too. Another adult was sent to investigate, “deal with the children,” and presumably to locate the missing pastor. He came around the corner to see our fantastic fracas and stopped in his tracks. We all stopped, innately knowing our space had been invaded. He slowly turned on his heel and walked away. The kids and I looked back at one another, the distinctive music of love and play resuming from its momentary rest with a perfectly aimed couch cushion to my back. The soft thump of cushion sounded very much like, “The Lord be with you.” I grinned and swung my pillow at her retreating back. “And also with you,” the sound of giggles and pillow replied.

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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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