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Some Updates from Grace and Main

Sometimes, it feels like things are starting to open up a little more, like when we’re able to eat together in a small group of vaccinated folks or when I have a conversation with someone on the porch and don’t worry about the lack of masks. Other times, it feels like there’s still a long way to go, like when we’re registering people to get a vaccine or having yet another Zoom meeting. Regardless, God is still faithful and our work continues even if sometimes looks different. Blessedly, it doesn’t always look different. We’re still providing of nights of shelter and meals, rides and listening ears. Sure, maybe we have to be a little more creative, but there is still good work worth doing.

As always, I welcome your questions and thoughts. Please feel free to reach out and, if you find yourself encouraged by what we’re working on and want to see if continue and grow, consider becoming a supporter.

Grace and Peace,
Joshua

In May 2021, we provided 402 meals through grocery bags, subsidies, the Urban Farm, meal pickups and dropoffs, and a few other methods. This brings our yearly total up to the end of May to 1,490 meals.

In June 2021, we provided 390 nights of shelter through our network of housing resources including hospitality spaces, rent/utility subsidies, and a few other methods. That brings our year-to-date total to 2,668 nights of shelter.

In May 2021, we provided pastoral care and spiritual direction 216 times lasting 92.5 hours. This brings our yearly total up to the end of May to 1,106 sessions lasting 446.9 hours.

In May 2021, we provided 219 rides and spent 37 hours personally giving rides.  These rides include trips to the doctor, pharmacy, grocery store, and work. This brings out yearly total up to the end of May to 930 rides with 151.3 hours personally giving rides.

A Short Prayer for Summer

O God of lightning bugs, oceans, breezes, and cicadas,
who filled the world with seasons and weather that punctuate the million moments that make up our lives;
move in our lives and days and remind us in the summer to give thanks of the cycle of our lives and even its ever-imminent changes;
in order that we might find our rest in you and be secure in your love regardless of the season.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Some Stories Worth Rereading

In December of 2016, I wrote a story called “Father’s Love” about what it’s like to be a father of a well-loved daughter in community.

In January of 2016, I wrote a story called “Chef Alex’s Table” about a lovingly prepared meal by a member of the community with a chef’s training and a neighbor’s love.

The first four things I ever learned about Daniel were apparent within just moments of meeting him on a porch on North Main St. He was friends with Bruce, he played the guitar with passing ease, he had a not-inconsiderable drinking problem, and he could tell a story as easy as breathing. A natural introvert with the gift of gab and for pulling faces, Daniel was often both the life of a party and the first person ready to go home.

One evening years ago I gave him an unanticipated, early ride home from a party Grace and Main threw to celebrate somebody’s first month of sobriety. At that party, Daniel had sneaked away to go get a beer in the restaurant’s bar. As I drove him back to his place on North Main, I was a little irritated to be missing the last of the party, but Daniel was even more so. Maybe it was embarrassment or maybe it was indignation, but he was ready to pick a fight.

“I wish you all loved me like you love Bruce,” he said, half grumbling but meaning for me to hear it. Bruce had been clean and sober for over a year at that point and Daniel had both celebrated and lamented the sobriety of his dear friend and once-drinking-companion.

“We love you just as much, Daniel,” I had insisted, perhaps with more force than I might otherwise have if I hadn’t already been aggravated.

“Well,” he said with a thoughtful pause that became a familiar pattern, “I don’t feel it.” It wasn’t the first time he’d said it and it wouldn’t be the last time. He’d say it again to me as we overlooked the garden months later when he relapsed for the first time. But this time I didn’t respond for a minute or two. I believed what I was saying, but I was aggravated and I had no clear idea how to make somebody feel something.

“Well, we do,” I finally offered to the growing silence before trying to bring the lightest shade of levity to our heavy conversation by continuing, “whether you like it or not.” I’d meant it to be a way of saying that our love for him was unconditional and not built on his own achievements or any kind of merit. Even more, I wanted Daniel to know that while our love might be weak, God’s love was undeniable, inescapable, and perfect. It was a lot to ask one half-joking statement to accomplish, but there was truth to it nonetheless.

I had the privilege of baptizing Daniel not too many weeks after that awkward ride home. Over the years, we’ve learned that recovery is a lot like the vows we make at baptism. Each day, we have a chance to recommit ourselves to our promises and sometimes we simply fail to keep them. Relapse means a chance to try again—something we learned how to do from Daniel. Whenever Daniel relapsed, he did so with a flair for the dramatic. But when he finally entered recovery for the final time, he did it with equal passion and flash. “I asked Jesus to take it away from me, and He did,” Daniel liked to explain when asked how he finally got clean, “I never thought I could be this content without drinking, but I don’t even want to [drink] anymore.” The eagerness with which he had once drank was turned toward prayer and the earnest pursuit of the Kingdom of God. Rarely did I visit Daniel that he didn’t want to talk at length about what God might be calling him to do in the neighborhood. As one of the creators and organizers of the Morning Breakfasts we once did on North Main, Daniel knew that doing good was easier than it seemed and no less possible for him than anyone else.

Daniel moved into Bruce’s hospitality room a little over a year before Bruce would show signs of cancer and then pass quickly. His first day of sobriety was October 22, 2015, a date we celebrated every year following. In the last days of Bruce’s life, Daniel was in the hospital every day to help share in caring for our beloved brother. Where once he had tried to break Bruce’s knees with a baseball bat out of a mix of drunkenness and jealousy, Daniel lifted a spoon to Bruce’s lips in those final days and gathered pictures and cards to hold close enough for Bruce to see. In the months that followed, Daniel took up the mantle of Bruce as caretaker of the house, the Tool Library, and the Urban Farm property not to mention Booboo the cat, whom we may or may not have sneaked into the hospital in those strange days of September 2017.

After a life lived hard and often fast, Daniel started getting sick a little while back. Liver cancer and some other complications meant numerous drives to Charlottesville early in the morning and the occasional hotel stay. Some of these trips were made during COVID-19 lockdowns, making them even more eerie than they might have been otherwise. With remarkably few exceptions, Daniel fell asleep in the car before we could even make it to Blairs. He was always more talkative for the return trip. We’d talk about what he was reading in the Bible or about what we thought heaven was like. We took turns telling stories ranging from reminiscence to the inventive and likely-only-somewhat-true. My favorite stories were his many wild adventures over the years like the time he accidentally hitchhiked to Charleston, West Virginia, when he had meant to go to Charleston, South Carolina; true to form, instead of finding a way home, Daniel just lived in Charleston for a year making him the only person I’ve ever met who accidentally transplanted himself to West Virginia. Inevitably we’d stop somewhere on the way back so he could get a milkshake and our conversation would turn like a homing pigeon toward Bruce for a bit; ice cream still made us both think about Bruce.

When the end of Daniel’s path was approaching, we talked often, and at length, about how he wanted to die at home and how he was ready. His vibrant, genuine faith buoyed him through suffering and struggle while turning his attention to loving others even in those last, most difficult days.

“You know we love you, right?” I asked him one of the last times I saw him. I knew the answer and I didn’t need to confirm it after all these years, but sometimes a question mark does what a period can’t.

“Yes,” Daniel said with that characteristic pause, “I certainly do.” He reached his hand down from his chair and scratched Booboo behind the ears. “I love yall too.” At the end of the path, he felt our love and abided in God’s love. With confidence in the resurrection, with faith in the God who loved him before he was born, and with over five years of sobriety and many more of service to the Kingdom, Daniel passed from this life to the next part of the story on Friday, May 7, 2021. We give thanks for his life and that now he rests from his labors and knows how deeply he is loved in a way that is far beyond words – whether he likes it or not.

***
Please consider making a donation to support our continued work at: bit.ly/3CMdonate.

Some Updates from Grace and Main

The steady proliferation of folks getting vaccinated around our community has continued and, for this, we give thanks. Slowly, cautiously we’re finding ways to see each other and take joy in each other’s presence. The warmer weather makes it much easier, of course, but so does the inkling of hope around the edges of all these vaccines that things seem to be getting better than they have been in the last year or so.

This update includes our “quarterly numbers.” That is, we’ve got a bunch of numbers about the first three months of 2021 as we’ve continued our work in our neighborhoods in our own unique ways. You’ll find them below, but suffice it to say: the last year has been hard, but God has been faithful.

As always, I welcome your questions and thoughts. Please feel free to reach out and, if you find yourself encouraged by what we’re working on and want to see if continue and grow, consider becoming a supporter.

Grace and Peace,
Joshua

In the first three months of 2021, we provided 707 meals through grocery bags, subsidies, the Urban Farm, meal pickups and dropoffs, and a few other methods.

In the first three months of 2021, we provided 1,508 nights of shelter through our network of housing resources including hospitality spaces, rent/utility subsidies, and a few other methods.

In the first three months of 2021, we provided pastoral care and spiritual direction 601 times lasting 253.9 hours. 

In the first three months of 2021, we provided 517 rides and spent 88 hours personally giving rides.  These rides include trips to the doctor, pharmacy, grocery store, and work.

It’s a beautiful time of year in our neighborhoods.

Things are picking back up around our Urban Farm after a nice winter’s rest.

A Short Prayer for Persistence During Times of Fatigue

O God of Both the Seen and the Unseen,
whose love is unending, unrelenting, and lavish;
abide in us and help us to rest as you showed us, but also give us strength when we must persist in the face of challenge, adversity, and struggle;
in order that we might know and model comfort in your loving presence whether we rest or work.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Some Stories Worth Rereading

In October of 2015, I wrote a story called “The Winter’s Lie and Lisa’s Ring” about the generous, loving willingness of one of our folks to sacrifice for someone else and how it showed all the stories about there not being enough to go around to be lies.

In May of 2018, I wrote a story called “Marcus Has Everything” about a friend who had shoes held together by plastic, grocery bags but who somehow also “had everything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Prayer for the Amplification of Our Love

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

Some Stories Worth Rereading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interviewing an Urban Farm leader for the Ashby Award Announcement Video

The Union Street Dam on the Dan River near sunset

A Short Prayer for the Cultivation of Peace

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

Some Stories Worth Rereading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This story was originally published on August 1, 2017.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***
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***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***
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