An Invitation to the Room

The very first Homeless Person’s Memorial Day in Fredericksburg piggybacked on the death of a legendary member of the street community who passed away just a few days before Christmas in 2008.

He was a Vietnam veteran who spent more than 20 years bouncing between a tent, a jail cell and a hospital room. But to the homeless community, he was a grandfatherly figure and caretaker on whom many of those living outdoors depended.

Lonnie Coe was his name, and he was easily the first person you wanted to meet if you found yourself without a home and needing a place to set up your tent. He would teach you how to sell your food stamps for cash and fly a sign without getting a ticket from the police. You’d never go hungry when Lonnie was around. And on a cold, soggy night, he would round up the crew and put the day’s change together so that literally everyone could pile into a run-down hotel room

People felt safe, loved and cared for in Lonnie’s presence, long before the downtown churches even decided to work together to care for street neighbors in a more coordinated way.

But as much as the street community loved Lonnie Coe, their resources to alleviate his suffering when his body began to fail were limited. For a while, they pushed him around town in a wheelchair. They fetched meals when he could only crawl out of the woods. Then, he had a stroke and ended up on life support for three months because there wasn’t a next of kin to make the decision or even claim his body for burial.

A funeral was the least we could do.

On a cold December 21, which is a nationally recognized day of remembrance for those who have died while homeless, our church and street communities gathered to remember Lonnie and five others who had died that year without a home, memorial and questionably a final resting place.

Lonnie’s notoriety earned him a story in the paper, which encouraged the public to join. And unbeknownst to us, a uniformed detail from a local veteran’s corps read the story, and showed up to play “Taps” in Lonnie’s honor.

We left that night feeling so invigorated by the holy moment established on behalf of our friends. So much so, that we have returned year after year on that same longest, coldest night to remember other unhoused neighbors who have passed away.

The service has grown bigger and more elaborate. A few years ago, we began setting up a tent in each neighbor’s honor and turning on a light inside to symbolize their lasting memory.  We’ve moved locations in order to handle the growing crowd; and we’ve kept better track of the names and pictures of those who have been lost during the year.

On December 21, 2021, we set up 31 tents in Hurkamp Park and hosted more than 150 people who came to remember our current and formerly unhoused neighbors.

Admittedly, I have felt a certain nostalgia over the years in the community’s willingness to show up on behalf of our neighbors, to know their names, hear their stories, and remember their lives. It is as important to me as attendees would be at a funeral on behalf of my own family members.

In recent years, however, I have left the event with a growing emptiness—a wandering and wondering question of how these gatherings might be compelling us to write a different end to the story.

It was questions much like this that originally compelled our downtown Fredericksburg churches to enter relationship with our homeless community in 2005. In seventeen years, these questions have moved us from being a basic needs organization that helps people survive on the street to a beloved community of holistic love and support.

And yet, our question remains: Are God’s people going to settle for the work of walking unhoused neighbors to the grave? Is life only available in eternity? Or does thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven?

In Acts 9, Peter enters a room with a similar predicament following the death the beloved disciple Tabitha in Joppa. Her mourners had begged him to come to her. Although the request for Peter’s presence has been made in order to restore her life, the mourners are quick to fill the room with ceremonial grief—showing off the garments and tapestries that Tabitha had made for them.

We are often like these mourners in our efforts to love neighbor and be the church. We enter hopeless situations to feed, to house, to clothe and to care for those who have lost something. Yet, we are quick to accept the suffering with which we have interacted, and show off the tapestries we took from the experience when the story is not ready to be closed.

Tabitha is going to have life either way when Peter enters the room, eternally in heaven or continuing on earth. So why not ask? Why not believe that life and/or heaven might be made available to her on earth, instead?

In bringing Tabitha back to life, Peter shows us how God calls us to be life in the world, to interrupt death, to disturb mourning and to enter into situations that others think are hopeless and to write a new story.

When we bring the holy spirit into every room we are in, sickness and death do not get the last word. And the great God of reversals becomes real and relevant, even today.

Many of our unhoused neighbors cannot see past their own suffering. And the hardest thing for them to overcome is often not what you would expect.

With the network of care our churches have built, accessing food, finding a house, establishing an income, even getting engaged in medical and mental health care are “easy” in comparison to what it used to be. It is something deeper that lingers in that lasting question these days.

It’s that people don’t become homeless when they run out of money; People become homeless when they run out of relationships. 

The blind do not see, the deaf do not hear and the dead do not rise either without a relationship with the holy spirt. And somebody has to open the door and hang out long enough to invite her in.

The post-Easter story is all about resurrecting things. Tabitha comes back from the dead. The murderous Saul transformed into apostle Paul by way of symbolic blindness. The lamb of God led to slaughter becomes the Shepherd, guiding us to a particular kind of life.

As we look ahead toward Pentecost, these resurrections in our Christian story beckon us to be a Peter in the room of death and despair.

How many of God’s stories don’t get the endings God wants because we shut them down?  Because we are too quick to join the mourning, when God desperately wants to dance?

Christ came into our lives, moved all the furniture around and left. But he left behind an example of what it meant to fulfill the ultimate commandments of loving God and loving neighbor.  We love neighbor when we acknowledge God is already working in our neighbors’ lives and join God in that work, even when they cannot see it for themselves.

Many know by now that the question of this moment has compelled our churches to cast a vision for what we are calling a Jeremiah Community—a supportive neighborhood of small homes, where our neighbors might have a chance at hope, healing and life beyond the displacement and disconnection they have experienced.

On June 1 at 6:30pm we are going to gather again at Hurkamp Park to look back on where we have been and dream ahead toward a new vision for loving God and loving neighbor, being the church in Fredericksburg.

This is your invitation to be Peter in the room with Tabitha.

In John 10, Jesus enters a room where people doubt that he is the Messiah. He’s told them who he was, he’s shown them who he is and they are still asking how they can be sure.

“My sheep hear my voice,” he says. “I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

Can we hear our Shepherd’s voice in our own community in the way that Peter did in the room that day with Tabitha?

Sometimes the sheep will die. Sometimes the shepherd will beat back the wolves.

Sometimes the one that has been lost, finds its way back to the flock.

And when it arrives, the Shepherd always calls it by name.

 “Tabitha…..Lonnie…..Fredericksburg…..Get up!”

“Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive.”

~Acts 9: 40-41~