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This month’s newsletter was originally published on May 1, 2016. We hope you’re still enjoying Christmas and now the new calendar year. Grace and peace to you in this beautiful new year.

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There is a kind of unsteady relief in the blessing of a warm, winter night. It’s a short-lived and bittersweet blessing, but it’s beautiful in its own way nonetheless. Walking the streets during an unseasonably warm couple of weeks this past December, we saw more than a handful of signs of the unexpected warmth among our brothers and sisters for whom the winter is more than an inconvenience—for whom the winter is a predator, stalking the shadows of dilapidated houses and windy alleys. The blessing of a warm, winter night is in the temporary relief it gives to those for whom safe and warm shelter is not assured.

Some of our brothers and sisters long for a warm, winter night. “I couldn’t sleep last night,” Carla insisted to me over dinner after a particularly cold night. As I began to ask her what had been troubling her, assuming that she must be suffering from insomnia, she continued, “if I lay down to sleep, I’ll die.” That’s when I realized, for the first time, that some of our sisters and brothers must walk all night long during the winter months to avoid the dangers of exposure. Some take shelter in gas stations, or other businesses open at that time of night, until they are shooed away for a variety of reasons. A warm, winter night gives the blessing of sleep and rest to Carla and others who know too intimately the experience of late night walks to nowhere in particular.

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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This story was written by Jessica Hearne, a Grace and Main leader and founding member as well as Field Personnel with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***
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***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***
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This month’s newsletter story was written by this summer’s seminary resident, Bekah Rhea, in her first week of work with us. We’re thankful for the time she gave to our community and look forward to seeing her graduate in May 2020!

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My freshman year of high school, I started a blog. Its purposes and platforms transformed over the years into what you’re reading now. But one of the first posts I remember writing was especially concerned with the word extraordinary.

In my theological and creative infancy, this word perplexed me. Extraordinary was meant to indicate anything exceeding the ordinary, yet if you separated it at the prefix, it would indicate something especially ordinary. 14-year-old Bekah dissected this single word with the understanding that Christianity calls people to go beyond the ordinary, that living the Gospel meant anything but ordinary. In a not-so-surprising turn of events, I find that 14-year-old Bekah was, in many ways, incredibly mistaken.

One of my dear friends and former writing coaches once told me to “always make the most extraordinary choice that you can in the moment.” I held on to that advice, and did my best to follow it. Extraordinary choices helped me get to where I am today, literally and figuratively.

Today, and for most of this month, I am in Danville, VA. I have a residency here with a ministry called Grace & Main, an intentional and ecumenical Christian community that focuses on sustainable and sincere ministry through practice of radical hospitality & community.

Essentially, they have a network of hospitality houses throughout the downtown area that serve as home bases for the work that they do in the community. It is relationship-based ministry in which they partner with those experiencing homelessness and poverty, working together to sustain, encourage, and empower one another.

The interdependence that this kind of ministry encourages–sharing resources, leveraging various privileges, and rejecting materialism–are certainly out-of-the ordinary when it comes to the capitalist, individualist culture in which we live. But in most cases, ministry here lies in the especially ordinary.

Mother Teresa, while waiting for the permission to begin the order that would later define her ministry, was described as “struggling to restrain her fervor,” as she “had to follow the regular practices of convent life and find other avenues of expressing her ardent love.” While this hospitality house is certainly not a convent, it is true that in community life, fervor looks a lot like regular practices. It’s not glamorous, not even in the “mission trip” kind of way. It’s just living. It’s pulling weeds, sharing meals, even taking regular time to rest and pray. If you’re looking for a grandiose way to express your religiosity, you won’t find it here.

It is, in fact, extra-ordinary. And there is extraordinary power in these ordinary things. Thomas Merton once wrote: “Eternity is in the present. Eternity is in the palm of the hand. Eternity is a seed of fire, whose sudden roots break barriers that keep my heart from being an abyss…”

Eternity is in the present. Eternity is at the dinner table. Eternity is in shared cups of coffee. Eternity is sitting in the backseat of a van, the corner of a library, the bench of a bus stop. Eternity is peering out at us among the radish beds between the weeds, perhaps giving us a glimpse of Divine Mystery.

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Josh’s father was hospitalized near the end of June and Josh was back in Kentucky with his family around the time that he’d be finishing the newsletter. So, we’re republishing a popular story from April of 2016 this month. We appreciate your prayers for Josh’s family.

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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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This month’s story was originally published on November 1, 2016.

***

Todd has the big, even-knuckled hands of a boxer and they rest heavy on your shoulder when he prays for you. Years spent developing self-control and seeking peace have sharpened his prayers to the point of forthrightness and familiarity. When Todd prays for you, you feel the weight of not only his hand but also of his sincerity. The years have been occasionally interrupted by the flash of fists and broken relationships, but among the members of our little community Todd has been a man of peace and prayer in hard places.

We first met Todd years ago, when one of us was wandering the neighborhood with a backpack full of lunches on what we called the “roving feast.” Todd invited us onto the stoop in front of his apartment to share lunch. He was a resident of the complex we took to calling “Little Calcutta” and we became regular guests on Todd’s stoop and in his apartment where we shared lunch—where Todd’s hands broke the bread and opened new doors in the neighborhood. As he began to join us at some of our community meals and tell us more and more of his story, we learned what else Todd’s hands could do.

Little Calcutta was a place that needed a lot of love. Sewage backed up into bathtubs in the apartments, the water would be off for days at a time, holes in the roof would go unpatched for weeks, and cockroaches and vermin were everywhere. Through a variety of circumstances, most of the residents of Little Calcutta couldn’t leave and when we’d help one find a new place to live, their empty spot would be replaced by someone else with painfully limited options. Todd’s housing options may have been limited, but he was willing to put his hands to work.

Turning his hands to the work of justice and peacemaking, Todd joined with most of the other residents of Little Calcutta in a long process of meetings, conversations, letters, phone calls, and nonviolent action that led to the inspection and condemnation of the building in which they lived. When the work of Todd’s hands brought retaliation, Grace and Main was proud to stand by him and make sure his needs were met. After all, the steady work of Todd’s hands was cultivating the Kingdom of God in Little Calcutta. We helped Todd and the residents to find other places to live and to get settled in their new homes when the building was shut down.

But, Todd’s hands do so much more than this, when the Spirit moves through them.

A few months back, we celebrated Todd’s birthday. We weren’t surprised when Todd chose Kentucky Fried Chicken for the menu. We also weren’t surprised when he named Grace and Main leaders and the leaders from Little Calcutta as his guests. Once everybody showed up that Tuesday night, we took in the menu: Kentucky Fried Chicken, vegan beans, corn on the cob, gluten-free cornbread, ice cream, and cake.

We spent the first few minutes of the night celebrating our brother Todd. I patted him on the back gingerly even as he shook my other hand with characteristic vigor. I told him “happy birthday” and even joked a little about his age: “twenty-nine again, Todd?” Finally, right before we offered communion and blessed the food, one of us said, “Todd, everybody here can say that you being a part of our lives has made us better off.” The crowd of Todd’s friends nodded vigorously, chorused “amen,” and pounded the dinner table. We broke bread and passed the cup, we blessed the food with our words and our gratitude, and we insisted that Todd go first.

After Todd finished eating, he began to open some gifts. Wrapped in brown paper bags sealed with scotch tape and plastic grocery bags tied shut with yarn or a shoelace, Todd mostly found gifts of his two favorite things: coffee and cigarettes. Both were promptly shared, one in the kitchen and the other on the front porch. One particularly large bag from Lisa contained both Kool-Aid packets and sugar—a common gift that Lisa had shared with Todd on the days worthy of a little celebration at Little Calcutta. When folks were surprised to see Kool-Aid and sugar in the bag, Lisa winked at one of us and said, “He knows what it means, and I know what it means to him.”

Todd got seconds at his birthday meal, but only after checking with everybody—his big hand resting on each shoulder in turn—to see if they had already gotten some and if they wanted seconds, too. He was anxious not to take more than his share, even as we insisted that he should. But Todd, the man of peace with a boxer’s hands, has learned something over the years that he continues to teach us as we share life, work, and prayers with him: the work of our hands in community isn’t just about giving. Todd’s hands are teaching us how to receive, as well.

A few nights after his birthday, the community once again gathered to pray. The weeks had been hard, because my father had been back and forth between home and the hospital. I asked the community please to pray for my father, and struggled to find the words that made it clear what I needed and what I feared. Todd rested his heavy hand on my shoulder—the same hand that had just, minutes ago, carried my daughter back to me after she stumbled in the yard—and he whispered, “It’s ok, man.” In that moment, I knew what he meant, and he knew what it meant to me.

***
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This month’s story was written by Jessica Hearne, CBF Field Personnel in Danville,VA.

***

Marcus could garden with the best of them. He didn’t have a Master Gardener’s certificate, or a yard of his own to cultivate, but his okra plants at the Grace and Main Urban Farm that first year were taller than me. Marcus was one of the first folks from our neighborhood to join the garden team, claiming one of the individual beds in the garden and cultivating beans, squash, okra, and greens. His okra was particularly stunning, with plants growing as tall as I am, or maybe taller, and so dense that I was certain the plants would choke each other and die. Somehow, though, Marcus kept it growing. He did much of the work in that first growing year from a folding chair or sitting on the ground as he continued to recover from the ankle injury that prevented him from going to work and left him temporarily without shelter.   He would eat some of this produce, some he would sell to make a little extra money, and some he would give away to folks in his neighborhood who needed it.

In our second year, Marcus claimed his section again. He was in and out of town some that season, but he let us know that if anything needed to be picked from his garden while he was away, we should go ahead and pick it for someone who needed it. I gave away many pounds of green beans that summer from Marcus’ garden. I also planted some more okra for him while he was gone for a particularly long stretch to visit a friend, but it didn’t grow as well without him there to take care of it. I guess when it comes to okra, I just don’t have the same talent as Marcus.

Marcus was diagnosed with cancer last year. He had to have a tracheotomy, making speech and eating difficult, and was prescribed a liquid diet. But even in the midst of palliative chemotherapy, he was in garden with us. He didn’t claim his old spot, but instead pulled up a chair just as he had that first year and helped us pick cucumbers and pull weeds from our community beds and individual spaces. His usual garden bed lay mostly fallow last year, resting from the good labor that it had done with Marcus for two summers. He loved the garden, and I think he felt better when he was working, even if he could no longer enjoy the greens and okra he was helping to produce.

In spite of his love for us and the garden, however, we were seeing him less and less as the summer turned to fall. We closed the garden for the season on the last Thursday of October, and barely a month later Marcus passed away. His family, many of whom have been involved in Grace and Main for many years, asked that we place some of his ashes near the garden that he loved so much and was so much a part of him in his last few years. We are happy to oblige.

This spring, I planted strawberries in Marcus’ garden. Strawberries are something that our garden team has been interested in for a while, and this spot, at the top of the hill where the sun shines the brightest, seemed like a good place. Strawberries are perennial, so now every year they will grow and spread across that garden bed that once was home to the world’s tallest okra. The strawberries also seem like a fitting tribute to Marcus, whose labor on our Urban Farm will continue to have an impact on his neighborhood for many years to come. Marcus was an integral part of our garden team, and was a generous and caring man, and we will miss his presence at the Urban Farm.

***
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***

 

The first thing I saw as I rounded the corner was Rick’s mud boot stuck out and resting on its heel on the dry ground. He was sitting on an old cinder block by one of our community’s first gardens and smoking a cigarette with a clear lack of hurry. His sunburned shoulders and neck were on display in his undershirt, but he still wore the bucket hat that was his ever-present summer time companion. I’ve never been very sneaky, so Rick heard me coming—but that was okay since I didn’t want to surprise him anyway. He had asked me to come, because he had something he needed to tell me. I already knew what he had to say, but sometimes the telling of a thing is as important as the hearing of it. I sat on the cinder block next to him and kept my eyes turned toward the garden so that the pressure wouldn’t grow too much. It can be hard to tell the truth sometimes, even when everybody already knows it.

 

“I screwed up,” Rick offered unprompted, “I had a good thing going and, I guess, I screwed that up.” I nodded and searched for words as I waited to see if he’d continue on his own. “I drank,” he offered up to the shared silence.

 

 

I nodded again before offering, “I’m sorry to hear that.” At six months long, it had been his longest run of sobriety since he was a teenager. Rick’s white hair was evidence for just how long it had been.

 

“Don’t you think I am, too?” Rick asked me with a mixture of anger and disappointment at the edges of his voice. He was spoiling for a fight and thought I might give him one if he pushed me.

 

“Of course you are,” I offered as conciliation, “you most of all, I’m sure.” After a short pause I added, “you know we still love you, right?”

 

“No, I don’t,” Rick said a little too loudly, “I know yall say it, but I don’t feel it.” Like the cork coming out of a bottle, this seemed to have made way for Rick to tell the truth: “I can see that yall love Bruce. That’s for sure. And sometimes I think you love me, too, but I just can’t feel it. I can’t see why or how. I want to, but I can’t.”

 

“I hear that,” I assured Rick as we both stared straight ahead at the garden, “but I don’t know what to say to that other than to say we really do—or, at least, we’re really trying.” Turning his gaze from the garden, Rick looked where my eyes would be if I’d only turn to face him. “And we’re not going anywhere,” I added as I made eye contact for the first time that afternoon. Rick held my eye contact for a few more seconds, as if he was weighing my promise against his experience. I waited for his verdict, but he only turned his eyes back to the garden. Following his lead, I joined him in a thoughtful silence. I tried to pray silently, and I guess I did, but it was a mostly wordless and uncertain thing.

 

 

Eventually, as the sun was dipping low behind us, we silently headed back up the hill. “Hey,” I offered uncertainly from the driver’s seat of my car, “when you’re ready to try again, we’re with you.” His nod, a mixture of understanding and irritation, was as fine a cue as I was going to get that I should leave. So, I drove away with a wave.

 

Rick wasn’t ready for a while. There were times when we wouldn’t see him for weeks. There were times when he slept outside or crashed on somebody’s couch. There were times when we’d see him somewhere and he’d fruitlessly try to hide how intoxicated he was. There were times when we’d put him up in a hotel room for a few nights. There was even a time when he called to let us know he was ready, but hid from us when we came to pick him up because he had started drinking in the short interim.

 

I must say that there were certainly times when we loved Rick well, but there were also times when we loved Rick poorly. Sure, we didn’t go anywhere, but we also didn’t always seek Rick out.  But God never stopped loving Rick and never stopped seeking him out. Months later, Rick found his way to one of our hospitality houses and let us know that he was already a few weeks sober. “I’m ready to try again,” he said. “We’re ready to try again, too,” we said with our hugs, back slaps, and knee squeezes.

 

So, we did. We tried again to love not only in word but in action. We tried again to walk the road of recovery together. We tried again to share life in community. Trusting that trying is somehow enough, we tried again. It didn’t come easy, but it came nonetheless.

 

 

The other day, Jessica and I were giving a tour of the Urban Farm to a visitor from Richmond. Our daughter had come along for the visit and Rick also happened to be there. “Mr. Rick, Mr. Rick!” she yelled, “watch me swing!”

 

“I’m coming, sweetie,” he yelled back as he shook our visitor’s hand hastily. “Excuse me,” he added more quietly to us with an expansive smile, “I’ve got to go push a swing.” With over three years of sobriety under his belt, Rick has become one of our community’s leaders. He is quick to remind us at prayers that we need to keep loving each other and finding ways to show it. Rick is eager to tell us that he loves us and faithful in finding ways to make it felt. Sometimes that means pushing a swing.

 

A little while later, our daughter and Rick sat at the top of the stairs leading down into the garden and sang silly songs about monkeys and sharks. I was struck by their coincidental seating arrangement: side by side on some cinder blocks, looking down over a garden. There was no lack of eye contact this time, as our daughter giggled her way through another verse and shoulder-bumped Rick in his ribs. Over their shoulder, I saw Ryan, another friend of the community who Rick has taken into his home. Though they used to drink together on porches, Rick and Ryan now work together on the tool library and around the community. Ryan is one month clean and sober on the fourth attempt at recovery that I know of. We tell him we love him and we try to show it.
“He might not feel it yet,” Rick conceded to me one afternoon, “but he will. We’ll just keep trying.”
***
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