We could hear the music blaring after the first knock.
Someone was rustling around as Rachel and Chris waited patiently with me outside the door.
For several months now, Micah has dispatched the couple to various apartments of neighbors who need a little extra help tending to their living spaces.
I banged on the door a second time with a bit more force. My police-quality knock is pretty great after all these years, if I do say so myself.
After a few more minutes, the door flung open.
Picture the scene.
Covered in paint, our permanent supportive housing tenant squealed and excitedly showed us the craft she had been making out of recycled materials. Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” blasted from the radio as she danced around the room.
Rachel, air mic and all, burst into song alongside her as she sashayed into the apartment, pink and purple hair flinging about and cleaning supplies in tow.
When you call my name, it’s like a little prayer.
I’m down on my knees, I want to take you there.
In the midnight hour, I can feel your power
Just like a prayer, you know I’ll take you…
Rachel stopped mid-lyric realizing what she had just walked into.
Clothes and papers covered the floor so deeply that you could not see the carpet.
Left over food littered the kitchen counter.
Boxes, styrofoam and other “art” supplies filled the corners of the room in case her creative juices happened upon an inspiration.
Rachel had two hours that she was available to clean before she had to pick her son up from school; and this was a big job.
Eyes wide and heart full, she whispered to me, “Maybe we should tackle this tomorrow.”
Knowing her capabilities, I shrugged, “Let’s just get as far as we can before it’s time to go.”
Pulling out the trash bags, Chris jumped to it. “Come on baby girl, we got this,” he said.
The music rocked on as Rachel scooped up the laundry and Chris went after the trash. I salvaged important papers, ID cards and medication from a potentially misplaced bag.
One hour and fifteen minutes later it was an entirely different apartment.
As Rachel and Chris packed up their supplies, our neighbor pulled me aside.
“Do you pay them well,” she inquired. I acknowledged that they do make a little bit for helping us out each week. She paused for a long moment, then walked away.
The next thing I knew, our neighbor had dug five crumpled up dollar bills from her wallet and handed it to Rachel.
“I don’t have much,” she said. “But it really means a lot to me that you came today.”
Rachel tried to tell her to keep it, but our neighbor insisted. “Please, I really want you to have it,” she said, and launched into an enormous bear hug around Rachel’s waist.
“You’re lonely, aren’t you,” Rachel said to her.
“Yes,” said our neighbor. “Please come back.”
“We’ll be back in two weeks,” Chris chimed in, and we left.
Often, the folks who get a visit from Rachel and Chris have mental and physical disabilities that make basic household chores an overwhelming task. Sometimes people have lived on the street so long that learning to live indoors again is as real a challenge as it would be for me to functionally go camping for any length of time. Cleanliness and basic orderliness of a household can go south pretty quickly and getting back to a simple baseline can feel impossible.
Having been homeless themselves, Rachel and Chris can appreciate that showing up at someone’s door with cleaning supplies in hand is as much about getting a job done as it is about inviting the person living there into a new state of existence–beyond survival and into healing.
It wasn’t long after Rachel and Chris started cleaning apartments that they developed a name for their efforts, H.O.P.E. Cleaning Services. HOPE, which stands for healing off people’s energy, has become their ministry. When they go into apartments, people are often drowning in their mess. No one wants to live that way, Rachel says, but sometimes the things going on inside keep people from being their best self on the outside.
“Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” Rachel says. “When I can go in and help them make their environment better, they know they aren’t alone. It gives them something to look forward to and it motivates them to do better. Hope turns into motivation, because you have to have hope to do something.”
Helping others has been a source of hope and healing for Rachel and Chris, as well.
“No one could really pay me as much as these people are making me feel inside,” Rachel says.
In just a few months, Rachel’s mustard seed of a cleaning hobby has inspired her to set up a schedule of people who need her on a regular basis. She lobbied for a logo and “uniforms”–tie-dyed t-shirts–so they could look official when they showed up at someone’s door. She developed a list of supplies she needs on a regular basis and procured bikes and a buggy, so that she and Chris could independently get themselves to and from different jobs. Their business card will be here any day, and they are now working on a signature gift for those they clean for–an air freshening canister with a HOPE Cleaning sticker on it.
With the supplemental income Rachel and Chris have been making on cleaning jobs, the couple has even found less of a need to panhandle to meet their needs.
“I never really wanted to be on the corner panhandling. It is just what I had to do for survival,” Rachel says. “Helping others and earning money this way feels so much better.”
Homelessness, as I have come to understand it, is a lot less about housing and more about a social, emotional and physical state of displacement. I have met people with three houses, who have no real sense of community, identity and place; and I have met people with no house who have deeper relationships, know more about themselves and understand belonging more than some of us will in our entire lives.
What then does it mean to live into the fullness of God, to have eternal life?
In Mark 10:17-31, a rich man asks this very question of Jesus. After a brief discussion of the commandments, particularly those that have to do with loving neighbor, Jesus offers the gut-punch among his long list great reversal statements.
“Sell what you have, give to the poor. Then, come follow me.”
The man goes away grieving because he is unwilling to give up what he has; and this story is often used in theological discussions about the great sacrifices involved in a true life with Christ.
I, however, often wonder what this story might also be telling us about the poor. How too might they, who seemingly own nothing of value, obtain eternal life?
What we continue to learn from our neighbors is that fullness, identity and belonging, were never rooted in belongings. The essence of our creation is the value of who and whose God made us to be and what that means for the eternal “kin-dom” in which we are all connected.
Rachel and Chris give belonging away each time they clean for another neighbor. The healing brought to these houses, even if just for a moment, remind the neighbors who dwell there that they can start a new any time they want. They are not alone in pursuing the gifts God has given them, as well.
In doing this work, Rachel and Chris have also found a hope, an identity and greater sense of belonging for themselves. They are learning that being poor, spending time homeless and many other marks on their past really have no relevance in the eyes of God.
In fact, the time they have spent being last is what has prepared them for a remarkable first.
“But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Hope Cleaning is one of many seeds that have grown out of Micah’s income development ministry called Step Forward. We have learned through this work that many of our neighbors are disabled and often struggle to obtain and maintain employment by traditional means. However, they are often entrepreneurial in spirit and capable, with the right support and guidance, of meaningful work and a dignified income.