While away on a Thanksgiving trip to visit my in-laws one year, the last person I expected to get a call from was a detective tasked with investigating me.
Before leaving town, I had gone to check on one of our neighbors named Cathy McCullough. She had been battling cancer and I wanted to make sure she had what she needed while I was gone for a few days.
After a good 20 minutes of knocking on her door, I got concerned and jimmied the lock with my credit card. Cathy was perfectly fine, but she was quite angry that I had both invaded her space and awoken her from a nap. There wasn’t much talking to her at that point, so I left my number, reminded her I was leaving town and told her to call if she needed anything.
She called, alright. She called the police to report me for breaking and entering!
The good news is that the police were content with my samaritan efforts, and they let me go without much fuss.
Cathy’s struggle with what would become terminal esophageal cancer, however, was only just beginning. Some months later, she would become so ill she had to transition to Micah’s respite house where she could be cared for around the clock by members of the downtown churches and staff.
Her suffering was great. The cancer kept her in constant pain, prevented her from eating on most days and eventually attacked her spinal cord, such that she could no longer hold her head up straight. Yet, Cathy maintained this relentless peace about her, embracing whatever life she had left and finding ways to persevere despite her suffering.
Many of us remember fondly her insistence that she have the opportunity to ride a motorcycle before she died. There was no use trying to convince her that it wasn’t safe or she wasn’t well enough. She needed it to happen. Luckily, one of our long-time volunteers and motorcycle extraordinaire had just the connection–a friend with a bike and a side car who was happy to take her for a ride.
Another thing that Cathy felt strongly about was that we help track down her family. She was one of four siblings, but they lived in different parts of the country and had all lost touch with one another over the last 25 years.
Many in the Micah community are often so estranged from family that they don’t have or think it important to list an emergency contact. When they die, that often means there is no one who can legally claim their body, write an obituary, hold a funeral or bury them. Micah is often the recipient of our neighbors ashes many months later when their cremains have been turned over to the local police department as unclaimed property.
In recent years, we have worked to rectify that pattern with community notice of our neighbors’ passing, funerals and burials in various church cemeteries. That was not always the case in Cathy’s day, and she saw to it to teach us how we could walk them to the grave and go on to remember them quite differently.
After learning that her time was coming to an end, Cathy asked that she be Baptized. The pastors of the downtown churches have often assisted with sacramental blessings for our community.
With Cathy’s help, I put my old reporter skills to work and tracked down both her sister in Minnesota and brother in California. Sister Susie traveled to Virginia and spent time with Cathy in her final days. Howard, the brother, couldn’t come at the time. But they talked regularly on the phone and worked together to find their other brother, Michael, who also happened to be in California not far from where Howard lived.
When Cathy died, we held a memorial for her at the city dock and scattered some of her ashes in a place that was important to her street family, which she affectionately called the "river rats." Cathy spent many years living in the woods near the Rappahannock with this legendary group of unhoused neighbors. They had been a nucleus for others who found themselves on the street, teaching people to survive and caring about them as family. Before there was a collaboration of churches, before there was a Micah, our neighbors were a community to each other. Much of what we now know about loving and coming alongside them, we learned from how that group of "river rats" cared for one another and invited us to be a part of it.
While many in the wider community may have never known Cathy and others who have passed on before and after her, their stories still hold power in the lives of our neighbors. They are the saints, whose time in the darkest corners of our community have informed who the church of Fredericksburg has learned it needed to be.
Cathy and so many others were on my mind this past Sunday as our Street Church community lit 26 candles in honor of the current and formerly homeless who have passed on from this world in the last year. In many a congregation, on All Saints Day, we remember the church mothers and fathers, the saints, who have gone before us. We do so to acknowledge that we stand on the shoulders of those who lived and died, yet contributed to our own greater and evolving place of existence.
Our neighbors have and continue to make those contributions in lives of each other. And their experiences inspire us to imagine and pursue a world that looks a lot more like God’s kingdom.
It was Cathy’s group of "river rats" that often found their way to the Micah churches when no other programs were available to them. They befriended church secretaries and pastors downtown. Learning about their struggles led the churches to feeding ministries, clothing closets and eventually a one-stop hospitality center where more members of the congregation could learn these neighbors names, hear their stories and journey with them as they worked their way to the fullness God imagined for them.
It was the terminal health of a man named Mike Cooper, Cathy’s significant other, that inspired Micah churches to have a respite house. When he was dying, the hospital sought the help of the churches to give him a place to stay. He had no insurance and his own family was homeless, as well. The churches rented an apartment and Cathy stayed with him to care for him until he passed. Some years later, the imprint of that experience piggybacked on many more that would come after. It led to a lasting partnership between the hospital and the Micah churches, now an eight-bed group home for homeless leaving the hospital in need of a place to stay or die with dignity.
The lonely deaths of Tammy Speck and Bond Thompson and David Mould and so many other cornerstones in the Micah community led us to understand how much relationships needed to follow our neighbors into housing and be reimagined beyond surviving together. Where tangible supports like housing, income, health care fell short, Street Church was given life.
Revelation 21:1-6 promises a new heaven and a new earth as the ultimate completion of the creation story. Yet, the end always takes us back to the beginning. Old things pass away, God makes a home among us and creation begins again and again and again. God is both the Alpha and the Omega. God shapes and reshapes all things, giving new life and breath to the spaces in which all hope seems lost.
It is the stories of so many saints in our Micah community that have informed who we have learned God needs us to be. The end of their stories is always just the beginning of a new legend on which the people transformed by relationships with them can build a new future.
After scattering some of her ashes, Cathy had asked that a member of our Micah churches, to whom she was particularly close, hang onto what was left. "You’ll know what to do with them someday," she had said. That was at least nine years ago.
A few weeks ago, Cathy’s brother Howard who lives in California called to say he would be coming through town. He wondered if we still had her ashes, as he wished to pick them up and arrange to bury them on a family plot in New Jersey. Their brother Michael had since died and the whole family would be gathering to scatter his ashes, as well.
Howard, his wife, Cathy’s friend and I sat at the big table in our conference room to pass off the ashes. "You know, she practically raised me," Howard said. "I was the baby and as soon as I could leave home I did. I lived with her for a while, but when I left there I lost track of what happened to her."
We laughed together about Cathy’s love of boiled peanuts and peach tea. We marveled at her street smarts, the things she did for survival and the nerve she had to try and get me arrested!
Then Howard said, "For all her ups and downs, Cathy brought the family back together. None of us would have found each other had it not been for Cathy."
As Howard, a spitting image of Cathy, got up to leave, I walked him to the door. If I didn’t know better, I could almost see the spirit of Cathy quietly looking back at me, pausing as she rounded the corner with glint in her eye and a final peace sign.
The Alpha and the Omega, indeed. The works of God being made complete and new, again and again and again.
With Justice, Kindness and Humility,
Remembering the Saints of 2021
Join the Micah community in lifting up and praying for the saints passed on in 2021.
Christian Maddy, 0
John Fulcher, 38
Muriel Pogue, 47
Stephen Hilleary, 41
Ross MacKenzie, 68
Matthew Allen, 42
David Shupp, 49
Shiferaw Tessima, 57
Wanda Lawson, 61
Wilburn “Wade” Wilkins, 50
Mark Johnson, 58
Tony Melo, 57
Mark Bunting, 40
Nate Ratliff, 46
Brenda Hinz, 60
Kenneth Campbell, 60
Frank Dungan, 40
Dustin Hayes, 32
Antonio "Tony" Hall, 59
David Mould, 63
Mike Defrietas, 59
Ronald Buddington, 58
Frank Smith, 65