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The following was written by Louise, who spent the summer working in Danville, and was able to hang around Grace and Main for a little while. Some important things to know about her, according to her: she loves being outside, she drinks coffee at all hours, and this summer was pretty formative. The piece below is something she wrote for Showcase magazine, but here’s an extended version sharing a few of the many things she learned this summer. 

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“A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.”
-Wendell Berry from “The Loss of the Future” in The Long-Legged House (1969)

Wendell Berry writes wonderfully compelling pieces about community – about the joy of shared places, the mysticism of truly knowing another, the necessity of life together. But very few times have I encountered an embodiment of this kind of community. A community that is more than an emotion or a buzzword, but community as a verb, a lifestyle. Grace and Main Fellowship embodies this kind of community.

Grace and Main began as a group of friends meeting to share food, thought, and one another. This community has grown into a ministry that invites all who are willing to come. Grace and Main does not have a building; their spaces are the areas they occupy – their urban farm, the six hospitality houses around the city, the porches they sit on for coffee in the mornings, and the homes they meet at on Sunday evenings for prayer and fellowship. Grace and Main is committed to hospitality, peace, the teachings of Jesus, imitation of the early Church, and living simply. They have taught me much this summer, some of which I’d like to share here.

I’ve learned that there are different types of poverty – poverty is not always one of material resources. There is emotional and spiritual poverty, there is poverty of agency. In seeking to alleviate one, we must not impose another.

That things must start by relation. It is in relationships with people that we grow, that we make places better, that we learn how to make things better.

That knowing your neighbor is the best security system one could have.

That a solution borne out of dominance, without asking those whom it affects, is in and of itself, violent.

That gardening is good for the soul.

That this ministry is made up of people experiencing homelessness and hunger, of people not experiencing homelessness, and of others who have experienced both. All of these people need one another. All of them are required for this community to flourish.

That groundhogs don’t like tomatoes, but they will eat one bite out of each one, just to make sure they don’t actually like them.

That it’s good to know only a first name. I spent much of my summer at the urban farm, enjoying the company and conversation that always accompanied work. On one occasion, Bruce mentioned that knowing someone is about knowing them where they are now; last names, accolades, titles – none of those things are needed to really and truly know someone. But I so often find myself desiring those pieces of information within seconds of encountering a new face; where did he go to school, how many degrees does she hold, where have they lived. Bruce’s mention of the beauty of only knowing a first name caused me to pause. I think my desire to know someone’s last name, their jobs, and their titles reveals a warped understanding of human worth; in desiring those pieces of information, I’m deeming worth as something made by humans, instead of given by a Creator. Grace and Main has shown me the beauty of enjoying a person for who they are in that very moment – for that, all you need is one name.

That it’s always a good idea to potluck, and that eating good food is important.

That hospitality is both a mindset and an action; it’s hospitable to serve people with your home, your time, and your attention.

That it’s important to let children be children – even if that means mess sometimes.

That voices singing together are the only musical talent you need; or rather, it’s all the Spirit needs to move those in the presence of those voices.

That the ground is rich.  And interdependence is good.

There are other things I know I’ll want to tell people back home about this community – the things they do on a weekly basis, the places they serve, and so on – but that I’ll leave to searching the website; it does a far superior job of explaining those things than I would ever do. Here though, I hope I’ve communicated gratitude for the people who have unknowingly been my teachers this summer. That here I’ve encouraged you to seek out real community, along with the very real joy that comes from truly knowing, and needing, other people. Grace and Main, you as a collective unit poured into me so faithfully this summer. Thank you for living the way you do, for loving this world so well, and for pointing me toward Jesus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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