Key Victories from 2016

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This month, we’re not sharing a new story from our work, but are instead sharing a report on some of Grace and Main’s and Third Chance Ministries’ most important victories from the year 2016. In a way, these short descriptions of success tell a story of their own and we’d love to hear what story you think they tell about the work to which we’re committed and which your donations make possible. Thanks.

3,550+ Nights of Shelter
In 2016, Grace and Main Fellowship and Third Chance Ministries provided a little over 3,550 nights of shelter through our network of hospitality houses, assisting with rent and utilities, and supporting hotel stays in several emergency situations. Primarily, this shelter was provided to people struggling with “chronic homelessness” and housing insecurity and with whom we have relationships and share meals and life with regularly.

68 Meals
Grace and Main Fellowship hosted 68 different meals at various locations in 2016, including our homes, church fellowship halls, in the courtyard of apartment buildings, on a farm, in several different parks, and occasionally on a porch in one of our neighborhoods. Some of these meals were large feasts, like our Thanksgiving meal at Ascension Lutheran or our Christmas dinner at First Baptist Church. Others were smaller meals in our homes, at the Urban Farm, and even in the homes of people who once struggled against homelessness themselves. These 68 different meals don’t include the dozens of one-on-one meals and roving feasts throughout our neighborhoods.

Celebrating Sobriety
This year, we celebrated Bruce’s five-year anniversary, “Carl’s” two-year anniversary, and “Victor’s” one-year anniversary of getting clean and sober.

Confronting Homelessness and Housing Insecurity
This year, we saw more than 20 of our brothers and sisters escape, or at least make substantial progress toward escaping, homelessness and housing insecurity. Some have shelter for the first time in a long time, others have moved from a hospitality room to stable, safe, and consistent shelter, while others have drastically improved the quality of their housing.

The Urban Farm
After last year’s successes in preparing the property at the end of Moffett St for planting and in getting the municipal code changed to allow for urban agriculture, we had a great first year of planting and production. We received, and made use of, a grant of $17,000+ from the Danville Regional Foundation to support the development and growth of our Urban Farm with new fencing, new garden beds, a host of new tools, an irrigation system, rainwater collection and storage systems, bee hives, pawpaw trees, elderberry and blackberry bushes, and various other improvements. Roughly half of the property was used to grow food for our meals and to give away to those in need of healthy, supplemental food. The other part of the property was tended by folks connected to our work who wanted to grow their own food in a shared space with shared resources. We grew a wide variety of plants at the Urban Farm this year—some of those plants include: tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, shitake mushrooms, squash, watermelon, corn, October beans, purple hull peas, turnips, beets, carrots, asparagus, collard greens, kale, hot peppers, and onions.

Tool Library
We installed the third (and first permanent) version of our Tool Library in the backyard of the home Grace and Main owns on Moffett St (next to the Urban Farm). It’s 336 square feet of storage space, workbenches, and shelving with south facing windows and an additional 192 square feet of lofted storage space. Much of this new building was funded by part of the grant we received from the Danville Regional Foundation to support the development and growth of our Urban Farm. We also expanded the work accomplished through the Tool Library. Now, we not only lend tools to those in need of them enabling many hundreds of hours of productive work, but we also have started directly connecting community members and friends of the community with hundreds of hours of work at homes, gardens, businesses, and organizations throughout Danville and Pittsylvania county.

Volunteers and Partners
We hosted over 3,200 hours of volunteer service at the Urban Farm, community meals, and hospitality houses. Volunteers come from organizations such as Passport Youth Camp, Averett’s Center for Community Engagement and Career Competitiveness, local congregations, civic groups, and from among our regulars.

House of Hope Lunches
As part of our ongoing commitment to our local homeless shelter, the House of Hope, we once again packed a lunch for every resident of the shelter every day of the year. This year that means we packed and delivered a little over 3,000 lunches through a combination of partners, mission groups, and personal work. This brings our total to over 24,000 lunches packed since the beginning of Grace and Main.

BGAV Hunger Grants
We applied for, received, and spent $4,000 in grant funding from the Baptist General Association of Virginia to support our work of providing food, opportunities, and other resources to people experiencing hunger and food insecurity. While some of these funds were spent on increasing the capacity of our Urban Farm, most were spent providing groceries and supplementing food security in food deserts in Danville. This is part of an ongoing effort by the BGAV to model intentional, diverse, and grassroots models of confronting hunger and food insecurity.

Nurturing Communities Project
Grace and Main was one of a handful of intentional, Christian communities from around the continent invited to send a representative to participate in the Nurturing Communities Project, a networking initiative initially brought about my Reba Place Fellowship and the work of David Janzen. This year, they met about an hour north of Chicago to pray, eat, and celebrate together, while also considering how better to network communities like ours together in prayer and labor.

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This has been one of our more popular stories over the last few years. It was originally published on March 6, 2014. It was republished by Red Letter Christians on September 29, 2014.

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One Sunday night, Emily approached me as people were making their way out of our home. We’d gathered to worship and share cake with a sister in celebration of one month of sobriety. As people trickled out to their cars with hugs and a few more jokes, Emily hung back with a look of frustration on her face. As I placed our community’s Christ candle back on its shelf, I noticed that Emily was waiting for me.

“Hey Em,” I said, “it’s been nice having you to eat and pray with us these last couple of weeks.” She had only been showing up for a couple of weeks, but she seemed interested in what we were doing. I continued, “What’s on your mind? Something you wanna talk about?”

I figured it had something to do with Alan, with whom she had connected at one of her first meals with us. After a great conversation with Emily, Alan approached us about being ready to seek treatment and find better shelter. But Alan had relapsed after about 9 days clean. We were all disappointed, but this was the first time Emily had dealt with something like this.

Abruptly, as if she had stored the question away for a few days before letting it pop out in our living-room-turned-chapel, she asked, “It’s not as easy as I thought it was, is it?”

I won’t dare say that I knew what she was feeling in that moment, but my memory turned to the first time our work among the addicted broke my heart. With a slow shake of my head, I sighed and answered her, “No. It hardly ever is.”

I worry that too many of us who proclaim the Way of Jesus in the face of the powers are over-confident about our ability to change things. We’ve learned from a combination of articles, books, pundits, sermons, Facebook posts, television shows, parents, and teachers (both formal and informal) that poverty, homelessness, addiction, and hunger are simple problems with simple solutions. We come with confidence and good intentions, believing we have something to offer brothers and sisters in desperate situations who are somehow different from us.

But each of us inevitably comes to the same place where Emily was, her hands on the other end of our altar cloth as we folded it together in my living room.

“It’s different—” Emily began before cutting off in a thoughtful pause. “It’s different when you know somebody—when it’s not just something to talk about.” With frustration showing at the edges of her eyes, she added, “I wish it was easier. I wish I knew exactly what to do and say and when to do it to really help.”

Every time I get to have this important conversation with someone, I find this to be the hardest moment. In so many ways, it’s the second heartbreak. Having been disappointed by someone else’s bondage, a wounded soul asks me to replace her busted confidence with a promise that it gets easier. I know she wants me to say something like, “Well, the secret to working among the marginalized is…” or “When you’ve prayed for somebody to get clean, all you have to do to make it happen is…”

But, all I could say in that moment when Emily wished it was easier was, “We all do, sister. We all do.”

In Emily’s case, we got to talk about just how complicated it is. We talked about how homelessness and poverty are not so much problems of material resources as they are relationship problems. We talked about why we say that relationships and consistent presence are foundational in what we do. We talked about the blistering chains of addiction and brothers and sisters still in bondage even after many attempts at liberation.

I made Emily a promise that I try to make to anyone who comes to the hard moment where their confidence lies bleeding on the altar of God’s work:

I promise you that if you keep serving alongside us, your heart is going to be broken time and again because a relationship isn’t real until you hurt when they hurt and celebrate when they celebrate.

But, I also promise you that in each of those moments of frustration and heartbreak, we’ll stand next to you and hold you up—because our relationship with you isn’t real until we hurt when you hurt and celebrate when you celebrate.

And Jesus promises that he will stand next to you as well, saying like he did with the cross that a relationship isn’t real until you hurt when others hurt and celebrate when they celebrate.

It seems that nearly all of us come to this work with false confidence—knowing exactly how to fix poverty, homelessness, addiction, hunger, and other injustices and evils. But we find that we have to lay our confidence at the foot of the cross and commit ourselves to loving first and understanding later.

Answers don’t come easy, but our calling is simple: to love our neighbor and to love God. The beautiful thing is that when God sends us back to our community, God sends us with something to replace our shattered confidence. Jesus offers us a hope nourished and sustained by other heartbroken sisters and brothers who are learning to trust a God who calls first and explains later.

Our confidence may wither and break, but, as Scripture promises, “hope does not disappoint us.

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It takes a surprising amount of forethought to carry a Reese’s peanut butter cup safely through a full day. Not only must you protect it from being crushed or getting dirty while you work and walk, but also you need to find a way to keep it from getting too warm and melting.  I’ve learned from Philip, a particular expert in this rare skill, that there are some tricks to making sure that the precious piece of candy makes it all the way to its intended recipient. First, you need to wrap it in a little tissue or paper towel to keep it from warming up too much in your pocket. Second, you need to put the tissue wrapped candy into a plastic bag and tape the bag shut. Painter’s tape from a side job is best, but most tape will do. Finally, when you find work, you should set the wrapped candy down on the porch or sidewalk underneath your pack of cigarettes—folks in the neighborhood might take your meticulously wrapped candy, but cigarettes are sacrosanct and require their own kind of invitation.

Of course, according to Philip, the most important piece of the whole process is what motivates the care and forethought: a laughing smile from a little girl at a big meal and maybe—just maybe—a hug around the neck.

Philip isn’t the only person we know in our neighborhoods that practices such loving care for our daughter, but he’s the one who best understands what kind of candy she prefers. Others have found their own particular ways to show their love for our daughter—Lisa made a gift of coins inscribed with the year of our daughter’s birth because Lisa’s father used to do the same for new babies in their family. Other community members insist regularly that surely it’s their turn to watch over her one night soon, or who put her to bed when we go late and both Jessica and I need to stay in the room. Of course, there are also Christmas and birthday presents from folks with little room in their budgets but much tenderness in their hearts. Certainly, our daughter will rarely refuse the opportunity to share a piece of cake with one of any number of regulars at our meals—she keeps careful track of who is most generous in their sharing, too.

Our daughter was born into, and has never known life outside of, intentional community and its peculiarities. She isn’t surprised when she is warmly welcomed by dozens of people at a big meal in a borrowed space. For her, this is simply the way life is. She may well walk up to the first friendly face she sees and offer them a sticker or leave a baby doll in their watchful care as she tries to find out where the other children are playing noisily. She walks with a three-year-old’s confidence through a crowd of folks who are glad to see her, even if they are actively struggling with injustices like homelessness, housing insecurity, hunger, poverty, and addiction. These folks—part of her extended and extending family—love her well and love me and her mother by doing so.

In the more-than-seven-years we’ve given to the work of Grace and Main, I’ve become convinced that other people know a lot more about what I believe than I do, because they can only see what my beliefs actually motivate me to do with my actions. It turns out that we live out what we really believe—we can talk a dozen different lives, but live only one. So, I’m really not sure what I’d do without all of these beloved people to teach my daughter what we really believe.

At the heart of it, my daughter and my neighbors are slowly teaching me how to follow Jesus in his greatest commandment: to love God with all that I am, and to love my neighbor as myself. What I’ve learned from my daughter and the way my community loves her is how these seemingly two commandments really are one, beautiful commandment. When we love others, we love their father. Every peanut butter cup that Philip protects all day not only makes my daughter laugh, but loves me well by loving her well. If I can feel this way, sinner that I am, then how much more must our heavenly Father know this beautiful, vicarious love

I give thanks for those who are teaching me to love a little better and who are teaching me to see my own meager offerings as a lovingly protected piece of candy. Maybe what I have to offer most days isn’t grand or profound, but is instead meant only to bring a quick smile to the one whom God loves and names as my brother or sister. Maybe that’s enough some days. Maybe I’m learning to trust that small things with great love really are the heart of our work. If I am learning that, it’s because I have the best teachers—the kinds that know how to protect a piece of candy all day and how to rewrite their own budget to make room for something beautiful, but not particularly grand.

God’s children fill our world and every day we have the unique opportunity to love them not because of what they have done or may do, but because they are God’s children. We have a thousand chances every day to love our neighbor and God in some small, almost unnoticeable way—and that ends up being more than enough.

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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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When we helped Bruce move into his new home near the Urban Farm, he had more things to move than the first time we helped him. After all, the first time we helped him move it was from a tool shed with a rotting floor into a bedroom on the Northside. He wasn’t yet clean and sober, but he was on his way and was beginning to believe that he was loved in the same way he saw that we loved others. As Bruce began joining us for meals, prayers, and our shared life as a community, he also began to collect other things he needed first to survive, and then to flourish.

On the day he moved in, he received some of the obvious resources a person who has recently experienced homelessness might need: clothes, a few different kinds of blankets, a couple of pairs of good shoes, a dozen pairs of new socks, a mug and some basic toiletries. But, as time went on and he began to be freed from the bonds of addiction, Bruce also began to collect some personal, hand-made items, too: a piece of art (hasty, loving, crayon scribbles on construction paper) from a family that welcomed him into their lives and at their table; a white, beaded Chrismon to hang on a tiny, green tree near Christmas; a hand-knotted prayer rope for the days when temptation was almost too much; a notebook to collect the prayers that rested heavy on his heart.

As Bruce went from being someone who ate with us to being a regular, and finally became an integral part of our leadership, he collected the kinds of things he needed to live out his calling. One of the first gifts like this that he received was two bags of tools to put to use with his substantial carpentry talent. In his little room, he stored the community’s largest water jugs—the ones that provided cold water, lemonade, and sweet tea to the neighborhood from on top of an old end-table set up near the street. His book shelves began to fill with Bibles and other books to read, discuss, and share with whoever was interested. In a mostly clean manila folder, he kept his signed copy of the covenant we make with each other when we take up Grace and Main’s work as a calling. Outside, in the repaired tool shed that became out first tool library, he kept old lawnmowers, trimmers, and other big tools that had been donated, repaired, cleaned up, and made available to the neighborhoods where we’ve found our home. He also began stockpiling an odd assortment of specific pieces of cookware for him and a team of developing leaders to make breakfast for dozens of people every week.

But, when we helped Bruce move this most recent time—the third (and hopefully final) time—into a house of his own, he had everything he needed except for one item: a coffee maker.

So, of course, we looked around and found a coffee maker for his new home and he was glad to receive it. It wasn’t a fancy model, but it would certainly make fine coffee. Combined with a set of heavy, ceramic mugs and a nice sugar bowl, the coffee maker made a silent promise that this home would be a place of hospitality—especially since Bruce doesn’t drink coffee.

He wanted the coffee maker because he knows that our little community has a particular affection for coffee and he wanted to continue to find ways to show his love in tangible ways. Coffee is a common gift shared between friends at the birthday parties we host for neighbors and friends of the community. Bags of coffee were occasionally donated by neighbors during our impromptu, Northside breakfasts, often with the hopeful comment: “I want to help with these breakfasts, if you think you can use this.” Hardly a set of prayers is prayed that doesn’t have the scent of coffee wafting into the room from somewhere nearby. Evenings passed in conversation on a porch with too-rapidly-cooling cups of coffee became a pastime for we who had committed ourselves to each other.

Bruce had learned time and again that in our work, the aroma of Christ—that scent that tell us Jesus is near—smells a lot like brewing coffee.

In addition to the resources and tools that Bruce has been collecting, he’s also been collecting days—days clean from addiction. Just this past month, we celebrated Bruce’s five-year anniversary (1,827 days!) of getting clean and beginning the lifelong process of recovery from addiction. Nowadays, Bruce lives in (and runs) a hospitality house of his own next to Grace and Main’s Urban Farm. We’re busy building our third tool library in his back yard and continuing to grow food right next door. Bruce is a staff missionary with Third Chance Ministries and one of Grace and Main’s covenanted leaders—having taken up our way of life and ministry as his vocation.

Yet, all of the resources and accomplishments he has accumulated over the years pale in comparison to his greatest collection: lives changed by the Spirit through his and our shared work. The wide-ranging impact that can be seen throughout the neighborhood where Bruce once lived underneath a house and we first invited him to join us for a meal—no strings attached. There are more than half a dozen people who are now in the process of recovering from addiction and are at least one year clean and sober because of the Holy Spirit’s work, Bruce’s and the community’s witness, a patchwork of prayers, and generous support.  Even more have begun the process that we pray will one day culminate in freedom from addiction—they’re not there yet, but they’re on the way and they’re starting to believe. Over the years, Bruce’s leadership has meant the community acting with more hope and faith to stand and live alongside folks struggling with homelessness, hunger, poverty, and addiction. Dozens of people have meaningful work to do, a place to stay, and thanks to give to God because of the work that Bruce and others are doing.

Our little community is better for Bruce’s presence, and so is the world. Thanks be to God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That gardening is good for the soul.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That the ground is rich.  And interdependence is good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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