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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***
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This month’s story was written by Rev. Meredith Williams, the pastor of one of our partner congregations (Ascension Lutheran Church). 

***
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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***

“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.

2015-08-27 17.55.50

“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.

2015-08-02 20.21.51One 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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***

It was one of those winter nights that will never grace the front of a postcard. Dirty piles of half-melted and refrozen snow lined the curbs and every awning threatened to drop ice cold water down the back of your jacket or onto any brazenly uncovered heads. You had to watch your step because the wet sidewalks and streets might have a patch or two of ice hidden somewhere. It was the kind of winter night that makes you think that even the winter has grown tired of itself, and is now sloughing off what moisture it had stored up for snow in a dismal drizzle. Looking forward to spring for many reasons, our little group of leaders gathered around coffee and cocoa in one of our house’s living rooms.

We were having our monthly meeting to plan and coordinate our work and talk about how we were spending the money in our common fund to meet needs around our neighborhoods and city. We’ve had a common fund in our community since even before we’ve called ourselves Grace and Main. The common fund is part of the commitment we’ve made to each other and to the Kingdom of God: we pool and share resources to meet needs inside and outside of our community. The way we’ve done it, and to what extent we’ve done it, has changed over the years by baby steps, but we remain committed to living simply and sharing because we believe that these are commitments to which God has called us.

But every winter, our common fund is stretched very thin as we struggle alongside sisters and brothers within the frigid grasp of homelessness and housing insecurity. We have a homeless shelter in our city and it is a blessing for most of those who stay there, but it is also a short-term shelter, so it cannot provide shelter to anybody throughout the whole span of the winter. Even if it could, its sixteen beds would be quickly overwhelmed. So every winter, we talk a lot about how to keep as many people as possible in shelter somewhere. This means filling as many hospitality rooms as possible, helping with more utility bills, and paying for hotel rooms for those with no other options. By the end of January and beginning of February, this means that dozens of people are sheltered, but our common fund is usually fairly close to depleted.

Sometimes, those monthly meetings become strategy sessions to figure out how we can keep people sheltered when money is tight and hospitality rooms are full. Sometimes, long winters try to convince us that there isn’t enough to go around and that homelessness is just a sad, but unavoidable, reality of our world. Sometimes, we are tempted to believe the winter’s story about scarcity. But, Lisa reminds us that the winter is a liar.

As we talked about how we were going to find several hundred more dollars to cover hotel costs for a half dozen brothers with nowhere to go, we became increasingly frustrated. As far as we could tell, there just wasn’t anywhere left to tap to cover the cost. As we sat in frustrated silence, lamenting the lack of funds, Lisa spoke up. “I’m not sure I always follow all of the talk about money,” she began sheepishly, “but are we saying that we don’t have enough money to keep people off the streets?”

“That’s what we’re afraid of,” I admitted, inwardly fearing that the lie of scarcity that sounds so convincing in the winter might be true, after all.

“Well, I don’t know if it will help,” Lisa said, “but if somebody can give me a ride, I’ll get my ring. We can probably sell that for $100.” As the room turned in shock to Lisa, she continued, “That should cover a person for a week at the hotel, right?”

We all knew which ring she was talking about. It was her wedding ring, and there were a whole host of good and bad memories wrapped up together in that thin circle of metal. Many tears had been shed together over all that ring had meant and failed to mean. It was a treasured possession, even if all of the memories it occasioned were not themselves treasured. That ring had graced her finger when she was homeless. That ring was on the hand that gripped mine when she told us, “If you guys ever stop doing this, I just don’t know what I’ll do.” That ring was with her when she moved out to a place of her own, safe and secure in its own way. That ring was a silent witness to her commitment to the community when she became one of our leaders. We all knew which ring she was talking about.

In our shock, we couldn’t find the words to say, so Lisa reiterated herself and added, “unless y’all think that isn’t enough.” But, the truth was that it felt like all too much—it felt like more than any of us could, or would, ask of her. Moments before, we had been tempted to believe the lie that there isn’t enough to go around, but our sister Lisa exposed the lie. She offered up something she called valuable to provide shelter to someone God called valuable. In that moment, she reminded us of Laurence, who held out his arms before a demanding Roman prefect declaring of the impoverished folks around him, “This is what the Church calls valuable.”

We thanked Lisa not only for her scandalously generous offer, but also for speaking aloud for the Spirit in that moment. Then, we prayed. By the following evening—before Lisa could sell her ring and before our brothers’ rent could run out—our common fund had been restored enough to cover the upcoming expenses. It turns out that Lisa was absolutely right: the winter is a liar.

***
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***

It’s already about twelve minutes after the time we’re supposed to get started when I step out onto the porch. “Five minutes and we’re going to get started, yall,” I say, knowing full well that I probably mean more like eight or nine minutes. There are cigarettes and cups of coffee to finish and at least one more conversation waiting for most of us. Answered by a chorus of nods and waves, I head back inside to pick up the remnants of a conversation with a sister who’s still learning who we are and why she’s a blessing by her presence.

Once again, we will not start our community prayers on time, but it’s hard to be on time when you’re trying to learn to pray without ceasing. Some of us gather on the porch, while others wander the garden, inspecting the tomatoes and eggplants in particular. Some of us have already found a seat in one of the house’s living rooms turned community prayer spaces. Depending on where we’re sitting or standing, we might be having a boisterous conversation or keeping silence and searching for the whisper of the Holy Spirit. We’re learning to see the unceasing praying in those moments when we’ve already started our prayers, even though we’ve not passed anything out and the only songs we’ve been singing are badly belted top forty hits or classic rock bass lines.

When the last car packed full of brothers and sisters from another neighborhood pulls around the corner, the folks on the porch and in the garden start making their way to our makeshift chapel. What makes it a chapel and not a high-ceilinged living room is the countless prayers it has heard and our agreement one with another that this is a place we all go to meet God. As we gather, each of us finds a seat or a spot on the floor around a beat up black coffee table. With everyone gathered, the children help to cover our altar with an old green curtain spotted with candle wax, but no less sacred for the mess. We place the steadily shrinking, white, pillar candle we use for our Christ candle in the middle of our table-turned-altar. Then we add our prayer book, a Bible, and maybe our plate and cup before our youngest brothers and sisters find a lap to sit on somewhere in the room. We light the candle and take a moment or two of silence, or as close as we can get to silence, to calm our minds and welcome Jesus into our makeshift place of prayer. Of course, he’s been there since long before the click of a stick lighter.

So, we sing and we pray. We gather up the prayers of the people packed into that room where the fan has to stay on. Some of our prayers are for loved ones, while others are for us. Many of the prayers will be for sisters and brothers struggling with homelessness, hunger, addiction, and deprivation. We lift up a brother, whose days remaining in jail will be counted and recounted like prayer beads each time we gather together. We clap, hoot, and holler for a sister who announces, with praise to God, that she’s been clean for eight days and this time she intends to stick with it. Some of the loudest “amens” come from our leaders who are also recovering, but the loudest comes from her husband who has been bragging about her for at least six of those eight days, and is quietly celebrating nearly nine months of his own recovery. We pray for people who have recently started sleeping on the streets, some of them in the room with us, while also praying for the brothers and sisters sleeping in our hospitality rooms. We pray for peace with our enemies and for peace with those who might name us as enemies. We pray for justice and mercy to be so wrapped up with each other in our world that we can’t tell which is which.

We pray for God to turn our every breath and action into a prayer, proclaiming God’s greatness and worthiness. We want to pray unceasingly and we no other way to do it than to turn the living of our lives into a prayer.

Praying together has taught us to slow down to make room for people to offer worship to God even in ways in which they are not strong by the world’s standards. Sometimes, we’ve learned that prayer sounds like a brother reading scripture haltingly but lovingly. After we read the scripture together, we interpret it and often find that the Spirit’s voice waits for us in unexpected places. We have to slow down, so we can listen carefully for God who may choose to speak to us in the happy tears of a brother no longer homeless or in the hard won experience of a sister with an empty refrigerator. God doesn’t always show up in the same place, but God does always show up.

Sometimes, we pass the plate and cup to remind each other that all of us are welcome at God’s table and God has died for all of us, regardless of what the world says about our deficits and gifts. Sometimes, we dip our fingers in water to remember the vows we made to follow Jesus when we were baptized into his death. Sometimes, we pray over each other with oil on our fingers and foreheads, asking God for healing of so many different kinds: physical health, recovery from addiction, mental health, spiritual peace, and as many other types of healing as there are ways of being broken.

We close with a blessing designed for all of us to pronounce. With hands joined and looking from face to face, we pronounce a blessing over those God has put in our lives to teach us to pray and follow. But, it will be another thirty or forty minutes most weeks before everybody has finally made their way home by foot, bicycle, or packed into a shared car. Our prayer continues in a dozen tiny ways: making a pot of coffee, picking up cooling conversations where we left them, catching a few more minutes of daylight on our skin while talking about bad days and hard weeks, drawing on the front wall with sidewalk chalk, talking a little more about what that scripture might have meant, and cutting cake to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, or days, weeks, months, or years of recovery. We may not bow our heads and we may not fold our hands, but all these little things are just as much our prayers to our loving, gracious, and hospitable God who knows you can’t be late to prayer if you’re learning to pray with your life.

***
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***

Derek is hard to describe, but I’ll try. The first time I met him, he wanted to know if I could “lay down a beat” for him to freestyle over. He had had an idea for a new rap while walking to the meal in our home and was ready to try it out. Derek has a way of entering a new and unfamiliar place with confidence, his eyes darting to the left and right to take in his environment as quickly as possible. He is an astounding judge of character most times, but is also eager to assume the best of people even when his instincts suggest differently. Derek walks with an understated strut that we’ve learned to recognize from a block away, knowing him by his walk before we can hear him yelling our names. Derek has a sense of style that defies imitation, shifting subtly from day to day with his newest clothing creations—composed of other people’s castoffs and often given away shortly after their debut—but remaining consistent to a few themes, such as his penchant for handmade necklaces and redesigned skullcaps. Regardless of what’s going on in Derek’s life on any given day, he always asks me how my daughter is in the first minute or two of any of our conversations. He’s eager for us to know he loves us and tells us regularly.

Derek was one of the thirteen people who used to live at the apartment building that we called “Little Calcutta” and wrote about here previously. After four years of sharing countless meals together, planting flowers in the courtyard, taking turns playing the guitar on the porches of roach infested apartments that often lacked running water, and talking very seriously about what the tenants deserved, the tenants were ready to ask for better. Derek was one of the key leaders who helped cultivate justice in that neglected place and he did it with all of his characteristic soft-hearted swagger and persistent hopefulness. When the building was condemned, Derek celebrated alongside everybody and debuted new art and new fashion.

But, the condemnation of the building meant that once again Derek was facing the possibility of homelessness. For years, Derek had drifted between homelessness and near-homelessness, between lack of security and the hope of security. Though there are a particular set of material, social, and health challenges that vex Derek, it’s far too simple to say that those challenges are why Derek has struggled with homelessness. The reality is that Derek’s struggle with homelessness says just as much—if not more—about our society as it does about Derek.

We’ve been taught to expect people like Derek to act desperate and servile. We’ve learned to trade support and assistance, from positions of power and control, for dignity and flattering gratitude. Too often, we ask the Dereks to be somebody else, because we don’t know what to do with who they are. Sadly, when they don’t, can’t, or won’t fit themselves into a broken set of expectations for those in need, we write them off as ungrateful or undeserving. This certainly isn’t justice, and it’s hard even to call it charity. Rather, it’s something of a transaction where we trade some of our surplus resources for good feelings, and the Dereks of the world trade dignity and agency for whatever we’ve chosen to give. Frankly, it’s a bad trade for everybody involved, but it seems to be one we’re all accustomed to making.

So, we did what we’ve done dozens of times before and started going with Derek to make applications at better apartment buildings and to put together the documents and paperwork that he’d need to find a place to lay his head in relative security. The former tenants of Little Calcutta had ten days to find somewhere to go and we were able to relocate most within a week, but Derek kept being turned down for a variety of reasons. Finally, with only a few days left until the building was finally boarded up—a victory worth celebrating in its own right—one of our leaders, Ed, sat in yet another waiting room with Derek as his application was scrutinized in private. As Derek paced the room, Ed noticed that Derek’s shoelaces were tied together, forcing him to shuffle his feet to avoid tripping. Thinking this was a fashion choice, Ed asked Derek, “What’s up with your shoelaces? They make you walk like you’re shackled.”

Derek, normally cheerful and playful, turned his downcast eyes to Ed and responded, “That’s how I feel, that’s how I should be walking.”

So, what do you do when your brother makes that kind of confession to you? You wish it wasn’t true, but then you cry because, for the moment, it is. Then you tie your own shoelaces together, because it’s not just the Dereks of the world that are shackled by our broken way of looking at poverty, homelessness, justice, and charity. You tie your shoelaces together and shuffle through the next few days alongside the brother or sister that God gave you, because when that’s how you feel, that’s how you should be walking.

Together, we got there and Derek found a place to take shelter with less than 24 hours to spare. He untied his laces, he joined us at yet another meal and for prayers, and we all gave thanks that for a little while, everything was alright. That night, as we dropped him off, he walked back to his new home with victory on his shoulders, the love of his community around him, and with that familiar strut which fits him so well. After all, if that’s how you feel, that’s how you should be walking.

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