Some years ago, there was a legendary homeless man by the name of Lonnie Coe. Lonnie was the guy you went to when you got out of jail and had no place to stay. He would help find a place to set up your tent. He’d teach you how to sell your food stamps and “fly a sign.” And he’d make sure you knew the secret “whoop, whoop,” that announced you were a safe person entering the campsite.
If you found yourself a few dollars short on a soggy, rainy night, it was Lonnie who’d round up the crew and put the days change together so that everyone could pile into one run-down, hotel room and stay dry for the night. Lonnie didn’t take well to shelters. Vietnam took his mind. Prison made him avoid closed-in spaces. And loss after loss of friends and family left him pretty selective about his people. But if you were one of Lonnie’s people, after his 20 or so years without a home, there wasn’t a thing he wouldn’t do to see to it that you made it through the long, hard nights on the street.
Then, Lonnie got sick. His feet swelled up. His organs started to malfunction. And he was literally crawling out of his camp in the woods, struggling to meet his own needs and in no shape to help anyone else. It was that night that little Peg Phillips—who was homeless herself at the time—helped me carry 250-pound Lonnie Coe into a hotel room. She would stay with him and care for him. And in the coming days we would work together to get a wheelchair for his friends to push him around town.
This is the scene, or at least one of them, in which our downtown churches entered relationship with our homeless community in 2005. It was the deep, deep water of a people forgotten, written off and given up on by every other system of support, including their own families. I was barely 25 at the time and largely unqualified to be shepherding Peg and Lonnie—both 20 years my senior—to anything of significance. But knowing what I know now, that night we carried Lonnie into the hotel room was a pivotal moment in understanding exactly what our churches had been called to do and who was going to teach us how to do it.
Luke 5:1-11 uses a tired group of fisherman who meet Jesus on the banks of Galilee to ask us introduce what being called actually means. It feels so unnecessary and demanding of Jesus to ask the professional fishermen to cast their nets one more time after being out all night and catching nothing. Simon Peter had already emotionally prepared to go home and report to his family that his many hours of labor were fishless. Imagine his whiplash when following Jesus into the deep water yields so many fish that not just Peter’s family, but the whole community could eat for weeks. Not unlike Isaiah’s reaction to his own calls, Simon Peter cowers in unworthiness. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am sinful man,” he says. Jesus will have none of it.
Instead of pushing Peter away, he invites him to come closer, to trade the messiness of fishing for the messiness of getting involved, personally and meaningfully with God’s people. What I know NOW about the night that Peg and I carried Lonnie Coe into that hotel room is that God’s most profound and wonderful call is affirmed through providential tour guides. They show up in the most unnecessary and ordinary. Their presence among us can sometimes be so subtle, unusual or even disruptive that we might even miss them. Yet, if we let them, these are the people who will hold our hand as we wade into the deep waters of our world. The privilege of being in relationship with them is what erodes the landscape of our hearts and forces us to relearn everything we thought we already knew about loving God and loving neighbor.
As it turns out, Peg was exactly what that scared quarter-lifer needed all those years ago to even begin to know how to care for Lonnie Coe. Alcoholism and divorce may have left her on the streets for five years, but even in her homelessness, she was still a graduate of the University Alabama nursing program who ran three critical care units at the peak of her career. In addition to her medical training, Peg was a mother and a homemaker. Her housing status in that season of her life had nothing to do with what she had to offer.
Peg has long since emerged from homelessness. She bought a Habitat House. She restored her nursing license, and she overcame many of barriers that remind her of that difficult time. Best of all, she has grown to be a key leader at Micah, overseeing our housing ministry. She continues to be a providential tour guide for our deep-water endeavors, each and every day.
But there were others, like Lonnie Coe, Mike and Pee Wee Cooper, Cathy McCullough, Cindy Hughes, Michael Hill, whose names reverberate in the hearts of this community long before there ever was a Micah. Their names mean something because our genuine connection with their stories called us to do more, to go deeper.
Chaos is a nice word for the season in which God planted the mustard seed of Micah in the hearts of our churches. At the time, chronically homeless neighbors, like Lonnie and Peg, had been vilified and excluded from other programs in their community for their perceived social struggles. Yet their exclusion quietly inspired the churches of Fredericksburg, one by one, to a radical inclusion.
I thank God we have always had churches willing to wander into the deep water of this community, not just to rescue the people lurking there, but to listen and learn how God might be using them to teach us better ways to fish.
Many a prophet, Amos, Ezekiel and Jeremiah to name a few, have spoken of fishing techniques in their conveyance of God’s desire for humanity. Catching people was never about saving souls or getting more bodies in the pews. It was never about ending homelessness or solving any other social problem. It was always a fundamental pursuit of “shalom.” That making right of relationships with God, self, others and creation is a state of being that cannot be achieved for any of us until the most left out, unqualified, least desirable member of our world experiences it. And we don’t have to know what will come from that deep water, or whether it has fish at all, to enter in it. We just have to cast our net.