I arrived at street church yesterday to find 12 members from Ebenezer United Methodist Church gathered and waiting to join us for worship! They had brought with them an amazing spread of Cracker Barrel plates and boxed lunches to share with our neighbors.
It was such a blessing to look across the yard of the Common Ground Meeting House and see no lines between our current and formerly homeless neighbors and those who worship regularly in a mainline church. When we envisioned street church, these are the kinds of moments we imagined. And to think, we are just getting started.
Our passage yesterday, came from John 3:14-22. This has been a special passage for me as I have journeyed with our street community for the last 15 years. It was a doctor and member of one of Micah’s mainline congregations, Christ Lutheran, who once drew its connection for me between God’s love, that of our neighbor and the love we experience for our own children.
I was pregnant with my first child when I visited his office some years ago with my friend Tammy. Tammy grew up in Fredericksburg and had been a beautiful young woman (Tammy’s high school photo below). But on this day, not only did Tammy have the most horrible case of head lice you have ever seen in your life, she had a mysterious wound in her skull that was leaking fluid. We had tried nearly every over-the-counter and home-made remedy you can imagine to preserve her long 70s style locks. But the little critters had taken up such an occupancy on her head that there was hardly a strand to spare. The doctor carefully inspected the wound, the mess atop her head and motioned for me to look closely at an odd blue object, visible just inside the opening in her head.
Years ago, my friend Tammy sought escape from an abusive partner and jumped from a moving truck. Her coat got caught in the door and she dragged behind for six blocks. Tammy survived, but her mind and body were never the same. A blue plate had been inserted to protect her brain and an infection that crept in had now exposed it through an open wound. Because of her injuries, she walked with a crutch, often forgot where she was and spent most of her nights in a tent wishing she would not wake up in the morning. The street community always looked after Tammy, who they affectionately called “lil bit.” They helped her get to the community dinners and took food back to her when she couldn’t make it. They ran to get help when she got stuck somewhere and couldn’t make it in time to catch the cold weather shelter bus. In return, she often took her turn panhandling so that a group of five or six could hustle up enough money to get a hotel room every now and then.
As much as Tammy wanted to preserve her hair and avoid dealing with some pretty serious complications she was facing, we all knew when I left the doctor’s office that day that I would have to convince her to let me shave her head. But before I left, the doctor pulled me aside and asked me about my child-to-be and what I would name him.
“When you hold that baby in your arms,” he said, “you will understand how much God must have loved the world to give his only son.”
Oh, how much I didn’t know when he said that to me.
The circumstances that led us to the doctor’s office that day, would later mean the plate had to be removed and Tammy would walk around the rest of her life with a moon shaped indent in her head. Her hair never grew back. Following the operation on her head, the hospital noticed a concerning mass on her esophagus. It would turn out to be an aggressive form of throat cancer that would eventually claim her life.
My baby was about seven months old when he would accompany me to a funeral for Tammy at the city docks.
Without question, I have some really great Tammy stories. There was the look on her face when she walked into her apartment on Caroline Street for the first time. Then, there was the day I took her shopping with her first disability check. When we were done, there was nothing purple left in the store. And I would be remiss to skip over the joy she brought me when she’d sing along and dance to “Rolling in the Deep” on our way to and from her radiation appointments.
As strange as it sounds, I never felt like we did enough for Tammy. And I didn’t understand why I felt that way for a long time. When I say “enough” I’m not talking about a problem to be solved or tangible solution. She was housed, had income, plenty of food and people who loved her, albeit most of them were homeless or employed for the purposes of caring for her.
What I lament the most is that Tammy rarely had the opportunity to be part of something, to belong to a true community, to not only have her needs met but support those of others and to have relationships on which her survival did not depend. That is what I have come to believe the gift of God’s only son proclaimed as right and good for all creation. That is what I would want for my own children; and that is what I want for our neighbors.
I learned so much from Tammy’s life and loss; and I think often of how I wish she had lived to experience street church.
“Jesus was a gift God gave to the world, not out of condemnation; but so the world might live,” Pastor Chelsea told our community yesterday.
Our neighbors have spent so much time surviving, that I sometimes wonder if they even remember how to live. But as Moses lifted a staff in the wilderness and the Son of Man was lifted on the cross, offering a meaningful community to our neighbors gives reason to look up from the darkness that plagues them and moves them toward a light that saves them.
“I feel like I’m a part of something,” said Wendy as I drove her back to the hotel Sunday afternoon. Wendy is a small woman whose stature and struggles remind me a lot of Tammy.
It was about a year ago that another homeless man and I carried her up a steep embankment over-looking I-95 because she wasn’t physically able to climb it. The last time I remember doing something like that was when Tammy was on the streets. The two of them were camping out in that area, and that would be the last day that either of them would sleep in the woods. The man has since been housed and Wendy and the Micah team are working diligently on the next steps for her while she remains in a hotel.
Wendy has found a lot of joy coming to street church the last few weeks, and she has talked quite a bit about ways she can be more involved. The first week she sat and cared for a man who wasn’t feeling well that day. Then, she took some extra food back to some of the kids who were staying at the hotel near her. Yesterday, I watched as she fumbled frantically through her bag for change to put in the offering basket.
“It’s ok Wendy,” I said motioning to the smooth white stone she had taken from the offering basket. “Just think of a change you would like to make in your heart and put your rock in the basket to symbolize a new commitment to God.”
Five minutes later, Wendy came staggering over.
“Would it be ok if I keep this [rock], and put this in the basket,” she opened her palm to show about fifteen cents she had dug from the bottom of her bag.
Whether she knew it or not, Wendy claimed the smooth white stone—the symbol we used some weeks ago as a reminder of our baptism—as something important enough to keep and hold close. It replaces the jagged river rock after water washes over, forming it time and again in the image of God. In exchange, Wendy gave back to God every cent she had on her.
Because of this community, Wendy and others not only get to know they are a part of something but that they belong to a high and holy creator who loves them enough to sacrifice something as valuable as a one and only son for their benefit. It is my prayer that we continue to be a community that loves in such deep and abundant ways. This is happening friends because one by one, church by church, influence by influence, you are bringing your own God given gifts and inspiration alongside our neighbors, loving them in the ways you love your own children and as sacrificially as God loves us.
I know I have been long and won’t belabor much more, but I have to share with you one last example of this radical accompaniment wrapping around this community. Laurie Calloway of Christ Lutheran Church has been hearing about Street Church and our desire to do more ministry with our neighbors. She donated a plot in the city Parks and Rec community garden space, and today a team from street church gathered to till up the earth and begin the process of sowing seeds. I can’t wait to tell you more about the fruits (or vegetables, rather) of our labor, and the ways all of our neighbors continue to grow in their understanding of what it means to be a child of God.
Thanks be to God,