When Holidays Aren't Times of Celebration

As I walked into Transitions, there was a palpable air of sadness. I recognized it immediately. In fact, since we have been working at Transitions Homeless Shelter for over a year, I knew what I was walking into. 

I was walking into disappointment, loneliness, and sadness. While most of us spent yesterday celebrating with food and family and fellowship, the members of our transient, ever-changing congregation spent yesterday with the acute reminder of where they weren't. They weren't home. They weren't with their families. They were alone, not where they wanted to be. 

Not to mention that for many, they weren't at work because of the holiday, which meant starting the month already behind, already worried about making ends meeting, while trying to save up for a permanent housing options. 

Holidays aren't a time for celebrating for the homeless community. Holidays aren't a day off. Holidays aren't a time of fun. Holidays are hard. 

Engaging in this reflective process of how we have food, fun, and fellowship while others have hunger, sadness, and loneliness is a difficult process. It is easy to defend one's position and privilege with the explanation "I work hard. I deserve a holiday," but this mindset is what perpetuates the great divide that exists in our society. 

What if instead, we looked inward and said I have enough to share? I have enough food to share. I have enough clothes to share. I have enough money to share. I have enough energy to share. I have enough expertise to share. 

I have enough to share and because it's a holiday I have time to share. 

I saw you working!

As we gathered for our weekly chapel service, I was astounded as more and more people came in. We had to go to the day room in order to get more chairs so that the number of people who were gathered to seek shelter and warmth from the cold rain would have somewhere to sit. We've already been moved from the library to the small conference room to the large conference room because we couldn't fit in the smaller two rooms, and I'm not sure where we would go next as we are currently meeting in the biggest room available. What an awesome puzzle to have to figure out! 

As we were huddled together listening to our pianist play the prelude, one of our regular attendees came through the door. 

"Hey! I saw you working, didn't I?" I asked with a smile on my face. 

"Yes! You did! I got a job! And now I am in line for an apartment," he said proudly. 

"Well, look at you! And how often do you get paid?" I asked. 

"Every day I work!" he said. 

"I got a job too and am in line for an apartment," another one of our regular attendees piped up. 

"You did?" I said with excitement. "Alright, now, y'all are going to make me start crying here before we even get started." 

And my eyes did fill up with tears because I had watched these two over the past eight months. I saw them come in, heads down, faces set, hopeless. I saw them fighting with their own sense of self-worth, and yet still finding the strength to express gratitude that they had a roof over their head and food to eat, still voicing prayers of concern for those who were living on the streets.

Today I saw their transformation. Hope and light exuded from them. We celebrated and clapped and praised during our prayers of the people and I saw the eyes of others who were worshipping with us for the first time look up. There was a question in their faces as if they were asking Is it really possible to create a new life?

This is the power of community, gathered together drawing witness to the hurt and pain and joy and hope that we experience along life's journey. This is the power of testimony shared aloud during prayers of the people. 

When I became a minister, I thought it was my responsibility to plan each aspect of worship, carefully considering the theological experience the people gathered would have. Now, I think as a minister, maybe it's really more about creating a space and place where the people of God feel free to worship sharing heartbreaks and despair right along with sharing the way they have witnessed God working in the world. 

Because goodness knows that if you've been working and working to find a job and then someone greets you with, "I saw you working!" you both end up witnessing a prayed answer in the midst of hopelessness and despair. You both end up up witnessing God whispering in the most unexpected places, "I am with you. You are not alone." 

On Losing Members

Today as we worshipped at Transitions, our numbers were down. After having to pull chairs from other rooms last week, we were able to sit everyone at one table this week and I couldn't be more excited!

4 of our congregants graduated today meaning that they are no longer in need of transitional housing because they have found permanent housing!

5 of our congregants weren't there because they have secured day labor when the weather is nice and the weather was beautiful today!

1 of our congregants is in rehabilitation and in line for an assisted living housing option that will have access to nursing and doctors, which she needs. 

And as we celebrated with our community today, I thought how interesting it was that in so many communities of faith, losing members is cause angst and stress and worry about the future of the church. While over in the heart of Columbia, in a homeless shelter, there is a community of faith who rejoices and praises God every time on its members leaves. 

Perhaps, this is what Jesus meant when he said to his disciples, "Go and make disciples." Perhaps stagnant, fixed congregation and church buildings aren't in fact what Jesus had in mind as he moved from one town to another teaching and healing along the way. 

Perhaps from those who have been outcast and ostracized because they have no home, we have much to learn about the future of the church. 

"Chick-fil-A is expensive!"

"Oh wait, I know you! You're the lady with the big wine glass," she said. 

I smiled. "Right, yeah, the chalice for communion." 

"Yeah, I remember you." 

More and more I am having interactions with people on the streets and in parking lots who we have encountered in our work at Transitions. Transitions has both clients who live and work in the Transitions community and people who just come for refuge during the day. Because our chapel service is on a weekday morning, we have people who join our congregation who are clients at Transitions and people who are just there for the day looking for rest, warmth, and shelter. 

We believe over the course of the eight months that we have been working at Transitions we have worshipped with over 100 unique individuals. Many of these are individuals who live on the street or have a rotating schedule of places they stay. These are individuals who we encounter outside of Transitions and who are beginning to recognize us. These are individuals who I am trying to understand while also honoring their right to choose their own path. 

This is not dissimilar from the experiences we had as we formed and shaped Emmanuel's Table and when I became known as "The Sandwich Lady." The bonds that form when you continue to show up and ask how you can help are strong revealing your identity doesn't matter as much as your presence. 

As I was talking to one of the families who occasionally shows up for the day at Transitions asking them how they were doing, one commented, "Chick-fil-A is expensive." His account took me by surprise because in our family Chick-fil-A is one of the least expensive meal options. I was overwhelmed yet again by my privilege. 

Perspectives are shaped by our experiences. There is no doubt that there will always be work I need to do in trying to minister and grow alongside this ever-changing congregation. 

"We Knew You'd Come"

I rushed into the large community room flustered. 

"Sorry! I was trying to get some donations to the office,"

"No worries," I heard from some of the people gathered. "We knew you'd come." 

It stopped me in my tracks because this indicated a significant change that had occurred in our relationship. Just four months ago, I had to rally people to our chapel service and was often met with, "I wasn't sure if you were coming." Even though chapel was weekly, I was still new to the community gathered at Transitions Homeless Shelter. The clients weren't sure I was going to stick around. 

This isn't that uncommon. Volunteers often pop in and pop out of their lives, hosting one dinner around Thanksgiving or giving a one time donation to help them fight off the cold. There are very few people in their lives who show up again and again. 

We've been working at Transitions for eight months. We have finally formed a foundation for an ongoing relationship. A relationship not around trying to change them into different people. A relationship not around judgement of them or their life circumstances. Instead a relationship grounded on the desire to come together to worship and celebrate the Lord's Supper. 

Thanks be to God. 

Carrying Christmas

We didn't know that we would be headed to Florence this past Monday to carry Christmas down to a group of first graders who were impacted by Hurricane Matthew, but I drove with Ben sleeping the back, there was no question that this is where we were supposed to be the Monday before Christmas.

The request came the week after Thanksgiving. Did we have any connections to Nichols, the area most impacted by Hurricane Matthew? We were happy to answer yes! We had connections, deep connections, to Nichols/Mullins/Marion. That's where Sam grew up. We knew the devastation that had hit this area because our family was impacted by the flood waters. Even as we tried to get them to evacuate to Columbia, we knew that they were doing important work to help people who didn't have transportation or generators.

To receive this request, this idea to offer Christmas to kids impacted by Hurricane Matthew, was something we just had to make happen. Gathering a community of three small churches: First Christian (DOC) Church, Emmanuel Baptist Fellowship, and New Hope Christian Fellowship, we were able to offer bags of toys and food to these children.

"Their smiles were so big!" We heard back.

"You guys went over and beyond," we heard.

But we knew it wasn't us who had done ignited those children's faces. It was these communities of faith who partnered together to make a huge impact on a community who people have forgotten since the storm has passed on. We were simply the transportation carrying Christmas, carrying hope, love, joy, and peace to a community in need.

When You Don't Know How To Help

When you answer a call to be a disciple, you find yourself opening your eyes to the needs around you. You take to heart the message of Jesus, "For when I was a hungry, you have me something to eat. When I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink. When I was a stranger, you invited me in." 

But when you start to live into this call to the least of these, there are times, when you there is nothing you can do to help. In our work at Transitions, we have hit this point almost every week as we hear a story of someone who is trying to overcome systemic discrimination. 

We can't change housing requirements that don't allow convicted felons who have served their prison sentence to rent an apartment. 

We can't employee more doctors, nurses, and medical professionals at the VA hospital so that Veterans don't have to wait so long for surgery and medical care. 

We can't change employment policies that prevent those who are fighting addiction and who are in recovery from getting a job. 

We can't change the stereotype that those who are homeless aren't trying hard enough, when we see and know people who get up every morning and go to work one and two jobs and still can't make enough to pay a regular monthly rent. 

Or can we?

Can we possible change the conversation and perception of the homeless by sharing the stories and sharing the ways our privilege has been revealed in our work? Can we possible start a conversation that would lead to housing reform, more veteran medical aid, and a higher minimum wage? 

We'll never know if you we don't keep trying. 

Exciting News!

Wow! What a week it's been at ministrielab! 

We received word that we have been awarded a Missions Partner Grant from CBF SC. This grant will allow us to apply and file our 501(c)3 nonprofit status. With this filing, we will be able to apply for additional grant funding from different organizations. 

We are now officially in the innovative discernment church start process with CBF Global with a team of people who have committed to walking this journey with us!

In addition, we have received new requests to pop up in the midst of need and are excited to be able to respond to this need! Our work at Transitions Homesless shelter continues as we invite new partners to work with us and the community that is developing through our weekly worship experience. 

We can't wait to see what next week holds! 

Feasting on the Word

There's a commentary series entitled Feating on the Word that guides preachers and pastors through the text as it appears in the lectionary. The Revised Common Lectionary challenges preachers and pastors to look at passage they might not have considered as it pulls from the Old Testament, Psalms, New Testament, and the Epistles. It's how so many preachers and pastors ended up preaching on the parable of the Good Samaritan on the Sunday after the tragic deaths we experienced as a country. 

Because ministrieslab pops up in the midst of need, we don't gather for worship on Sunday. We worship together on Wednesday. As we gathered yesterday, I, too, preached on the Good Samaritan after listening to a time of prayer that was deeply moving. Prayers for our country. Prayers for courage. Prayers for unity. 

And in the midst of this prayer time, I became intensely aware I was the only white in the room. There is no way I could utter prayers that would be meaningful in the context of the week we had just experienced as a country, so instead I just listened. 

After we had prayed, we looked at the parable of the Good Samaritan. We talked about how dangerous it is to travel alone in this world. We talked about facing the reality of finding out there are people who should help us in a time of need and experiencing them walking by. We talked as we celebrated communion together. We talked as we said our benediction together. We talked as we sang, "Amen," together. 

And as we were singing I asked if anyone wanted the extra bread from communion. I walked around with the loaf and big chunks were taking out of the bread. I smiled as those big chunks of bread returned to the cup filled with juice and soaked up some of the leftovers of Jesus' blood. And suddenly it dawned on me, this is the Eucharist. 

The Eucharist is not a reverent sacred act, but a coming together of a community of faith who desperately needs the body and blood of Jesus. This is the Eucharist. The word made flesh, broken and torn so that the people of God might come together to commune, to be challenged, and to know they are not alone on this dangerous journey. This is what we needed after the week we experienced. We need each other. We needed the reminder to feed each other whether we find each other on the side of the road or in a pop up church in the middle of a homeless shelter. 

I tore off a piece of the bread and feasted on the Word with my neighbors, 

The Power of Communion

As we worshipped at Transitions Homeless Shelter today, there was something that happened in our community. We had two new people who had come to worship with us, and we had volunteers outside the room who were leading a class on health after us. As we were passing the bread and the cup during communion, one of the people who was attending service for the first time said, "I would like some." 

The lady who was sitting next to him looked at him and said, "She comes around. Everyone gets some." 

His eyes filled with tears as the cup and plate came to him. "This is the body of Christ broken for you and Christ blood shed for you," I said. He closed his eyes as he placed the piece of bread dripping with juice into the cup. 

There's something powerful about fellowship. Something that Jesus himself recognized and asked his disciples to remember and celebrate. It's why we were so excited at ministrieslab to partner with Panera who has offered to donate not only our communion bread for the month of July, but also to share from the leftovers they have from their bakery to add to the food the clients receive on Wednesdays. 

How often do we have worship, insight, a listening ear, and maybe a loaf of bread leftover? When we share that with someone else, we create fellowship. We say as we share, I see you. I see you are a person and have needs just like me. When we see someone and fellowship with that person, we create communion that holy experience where being seen and being heard nourishes not only our physical bodies, but our very souls. 

Thanks be to God for communion around the table at Transitions Homeless Shelter.