For nearly 15 years now, a snow day at Micah has meant hunkering down in one of the church fellowship halls, sometimes for days at a time. With sleeping bags on the floor, food stocked well from the community meal teams and a healthy supply of movies, it has been kind of like a big slumber party for homeless adults. In years past, we have had upwards of 60 to 70 people on the coldest, snowiest nights. But not everyone is always willing to come in. Tent poles don’t do well under the weight of snow, and many of our longest-time homeless are known to stay behind until they no longer have to knock precipitation off their plastic rooftops. Over the years, we’ve had a couple near misses. One guy fell asleep and his snow-covered tent collapsed on top of him. Another group had to abandon camp in the middle of the night when their cell phones died and it became dangerously cold. So we have learned over the years, when it starts snowing, to know who isn’t coming in and to make a plan to go find them if we don’t hear from them. These are some of the pictures I took during the “Snow-pocolypse” of 2010.
I have to admit, Micah’s snowday routine has made me quite sensitive to the weather, especially oncoming storms and the subsequent closing of most public spaces. So much so, that I had a hard time imagining that a shelter space would not be needed under the threat of yesterday’s 5 to 8 inch snowstorm. Gratefully, in this season of Covid-19, the 75 people who would have otherwise needed us to provide shelter had access to hotel rooms. But holding space can look a lot different when you are a community where no one has to sleep outside.
That’s one of the reasons it was so important for street church to meet yesterday. Even if we couldn’t run the bus and the only option for some was connecting online, our community needed to be together and know that we still show up, even in the snow. And we still got seven people in person!
As you may recall, we have been talking at street church about what it means to journey with God in becoming all that we were created to be. Pastor Chelsea had demonstrated last week how rocks in our backpack named doubt, pride, plans, habits, shame, past, excuses, etc. can weigh us down and hold us back from recognizing and accepting God’s call.
Yesterday, Carol Dubois—one of the other pastors that supports this community—talked about filling that backpack with the things that make us capable of going on the trip. Her walking stick, sturdy shoes, etc. are much like the faith, hope and love we need in our hearts in order for God’s purpose and presence to reveal itself as we travel.
It struck me today, as we reflected on Jesus healing the man with the unclean spirit (Mark 1:21-28), that many of the gospel stories focus on getting rid of something, emptying a person of a demon or freeing them from the burden of blindness, paralysis or leprosy. But we never hear much about what happens to those people after they are healed. How do they know what to do with themselves once they are set free from the illness that consumed so much of their lives? Who teaches them and how do they refill their backpack in order to make good on the new life God has given them?
We have journeyed with our neighbors out of homelessness, hunger, joblessness, sickness, etc.; it seems, the more healing they encounter, the more they need us. The calm and quiet of a home is quite frightening when the rush of traffic and blare of street lights is your normal. A new job symbolizes hope and possibility; but when you have been as low as you can go, any opportunity to improve the situation only reminds you of how hard it was to fall. When you’ve been as sick as some of our neighbors have, and for so long, being made well through medication, treatment and higher levels of care can feel like an out-of-body experience.
A backpack is a pretty defining symbol for a person who has lived on the street. It often represents everything they own and are in the world. The longer they live that way, the more comfortable they become with having and being less, even if the contents in their backpack are the very things that continue to keep them in that situation. Our world is a little bit like that, as well, isn’t it? How many things, in the midst of the pandemic, have we wondered, “did it always have to be that way?” I have certainly wondered if sheltering people in a fellowship hall during a snowstorm was always the best we could do. Have we always HAD to be a community where people sleep outside?
Maybe, just maybe, we will all emerge from the pandemic with new eyes for who we can be as a community and what it really means to love our neighbor.
I believe that all things are possible with God. And after this weekend, I am more sure of that than I have ever been that God is working in this community.
You all know Jeremiah, the quiet homeless man who is often a fixture along Caroline St. So much so, that a local artist and member of the Presbyterian Church recently featured him in her painting of the visitor’s center. In sweltering heat, pouring down rain, freezing cold, he is always there and usually with wearing a heavy coat, regardless of the temperature. I have worried about Jeremiah most during the pandemic, as he has been unwilling to accept a hotel room and drastically reduced his visits to Micah’s Hospitality Center.
So many of us have prayed for him and lost sleep worrying about him in some tough weather situations.
Six months ago, in an effort to try everything possible to get him indoors, we rented an apartment from a member at Fredericksburg Baptist Church and started encouraging him to stay there. Every night since, someone from our community has gone looking for him and reminded him that he doesn’t have to stay outside. With the snowstorm moving in this weekend, he finally agreed.
I awoke Sunday morning to a text from Donna, a long-time friend to Jeremiah and member at Fredericksburg Baptist.
“Our sweet friend and neighbor has his coffee. I asked him how he slept and he said, ‘Like a log’ ❤️ Keith is going to make him breakfast. Fried bologna with egg and cheese on toast!!!!”
“Did he take off his coat?,” I asked.
“Yes! He only had his shirt and jeans on,” she replied. “I opened the shade in his bedroom and showed him that it was snowing and he said ‘oh, yes it is’ and I said, ‘Jeremiah this is your house to stay in.’ He smiled and said ‘ok.’ We walked out on the back porch. He likes the house!”
As of yesterday afternoon, he had made his bed, showered and brushed his hair. Unpacking his backpack, perhaps? Let us all pray that he finds the things he needs to fill it back up and remain safe and secure in housing.
While we are rejoicing that Jeremiah has found his way to an earthly home, I am also sad to report that our neighbor Steve Hilleary has entered his heavenly one.
Steve, who many in the community know as “stuttering Steve,” collapsed suddenly on Sunday morning. I ask you to pray for our staff, Steve’s family and friend Chris, who found him.
Whether in life or in death, the journey continues; and Street Church will be there every step of the way. Pray for us, pray for street church and all of our neighbors who are just beginning to understand the amazing things ways God will fill their backpack.